Late last year, the police chief of Athens, Tennessee, went to the district attorney with concerns about two missing Google Nest cameras, suggesting City Manager Seth Sumner had something to do with it.
The cameras reappeared - one in a supply closet, one in a laptop case - and District Attorney Steve Crump told the Times Free Press "there is no evidence that there was any criminal act involved in the disappearance or reappearance of the cameras."
But the incident has reverberated for months in this town of 13,000. The city council has met twice in secret to discuss the matter, and more details may surface at a public meeting of the council to discuss the matter Aug. 10.
Sumner and Mayor Bo Perkinson deferred comment to City Attorney Chris Trew, who said more will be revealed at that meeting.
But, Trew said, "I can also assure you that if the mayor believed any employee of the city of Athens, including the city manager, engaged in any misconduct concerning the cameras, appropriate action would have been taken by the mayor with the involvement of all other members of city council."
The issue of the missing cameras stretches back to November 2020.
According to public records obtained by the Times Free Press, police Chief Clifton Couch learned the cameras were missing when he sought to replace an evidence room surveillance camera thought to be malfunctioning (although that later turned out not to be the case).
The Google Nest cameras were usually kept in a locked sergeant's closet at the police department.
But when Couch sought to use one as a replacement, he was told by Det. Blake Witt that they were unavailable, according to a Dec. 21 letter sent by Chief Couch to the DA's office.
"Detective Witt advised that he didn't have the cameras, as the city manager had come and requested them some time ago," Couch wrote. "I then contacted the city manager and asked for the cameras. I advised detective Witt claimed that he'd turned them over to him. Mr. Sumner said that detective Witt was wrong, and that he did not 'take possession' of the cameras."
According to Couch, he returned to the police department, at the other end of the building, for an explanation.
"Detective Witt said that Mr. Sumner came over and asked about the cameras," Couch's letter said. "He told Mr. Sumner that one of them was in the closet and the other was being used in the lobby. Mr. Sumner told him he would need the cameras, so detective Witt took the lobby camera down and, several days later, gave the box and both cameras to the city manager."
Fellow detective Lt. Fred Schultz told Couch he "distinctly remembered" Witt telling him about giving the city manager the cameras and seeing Witt use a ladder to take down the camera that had been mounted in the lobby, the letter states.
A similar recollection was provided by another officer, as well, according to Couch.
When he discussed the missing city property and how to document the loss with the city's finance director, Couch exited the finance director's office to find Sumner standing outside the office at a vacant clerk's desk with a piece of paper in hand, the chief's letter states. Couch found the city manager's actions suspicious.
Couch said Sumner's actions "led me to believe that he was likely doing so in order to listen to the conversation," the letter states.
The chief informed Crump about what had taken place and told him he was attempting to collect more information on the cameras.
One camera returned
Then the chief bought a trail cam, at his own expense, to set up in the sergeant's closet to see whether anyone tried to return the cameras. He bought it with his own money because "it would be virtually impossible for the police department to purchase new cameras without the city manager knowing about it," Couch wrote.
"I felt that secrecy was prudent to protect the secrecy of the investigation," Couch wrote.
The trail camera - the motion-activated type used by hunters - was placed on a high shelf in the closet next to a cardboard box, Couch wrote.
On Dec. 18, 2020, Couch went into the closet to see if the missing cameras reappeared, and when he looked in a cardboard box on a high shelf he saw a Nest camera box inside containing one of the missing cameras.
After reviewing images from the trail camera, Couch saw that an officer had entered the closet.
"It seems very likely that [the officer] deactivated the camera, put the Nest cam box back into the sergeants closet and then reactivated the camera," Couch wrote.
In a Jan. 13, 2020, letter to Crump, Couch supplied more details on the trail camera's photos and discussed his suspicions that one of his officers was involved in the disappearance and reappearance of one of the cameras.
"I understand that the root issue of this investigation is a set of cameras valued at a mere $300, and half of that set has now been recovered," Couch wrote to Crump Jan. 13. "However, the facts available to us now also indicate issues with integrity. I've always held integrity to be of the greatest importance in governmental operation, and I believe that to be true today more than ever."
On Jan. 26, 2021, Witt told Couch the second Nest camera turned up in his laptop bag, according to documents.
"He had apparently opened a laptop case in his office that is very rarely used," Couch said in an email to Trew. "There is no reason that camera would have normally been placed in that laptop case."
Couch added, "He says he is absolutely positive that he didn't put it there."
Crump said Friday his office was not formally asked to do an investigation nor were any state agencies asked to be involved.
"Our office viewed this as an internal matter for the Athens Police Department until they obtained evidence that a crime may have been committed," Crump said. "This was an issue between the Athens Police Department and the office of the Athens city manager. Our office's involvement was to facilitate the resolution of that issue to the extent we could. This office does not insert itself in the internal policy or procedural matters of a local government."
Crump closed his email to the Times Free Press by saying, "Should anyone have evidence that a crime was committed by anyone related to this matter, they should contact Investigator Calvin Rockholt at (423) 472-2179."
Trew, the city attorney, provided the Times Free Press an email he sent to a resident of the town discussing the matter. In it, he said the city has ongoing efforts to improve the relationship between the city manager and police chief, "which are proving successful."
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.