Hamilton County DA's brother-in-law acted as investigator on high profile case

Staff photo by Doug Strickland/ Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston speaks during a RICO case call-in in Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Staff photo by Doug Strickland/ Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston speaks during a RICO case call-in in Judge Tom Greenholtz's courtroom on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Daphne Westbrook, now 17, and her two dogs have been missing since October 2019 after the Chattanooga teenager failed to return from a weekend visit with her father, John Oliver Westbrook.

According to Rhona Curtsinger, Daphne's mother, she's been working with District Attorney Neal Pinkston and a criminal investigator for Pinkston named Kerry Clewell.

"They've been amazing," Curtsinger told the Times Free Press Saturday. "I can't thank them enough for what they've done and the hope that they've given us.

"I mean they work all kinds of hours. They're always available if I ever have a question about my daughter or about, you know, anything that's happening."

But Clewell, who is listed as the criminal investigator for the case on an Amber alert published by the state, is not an investigator, at least according to his personnel records with the state of Tennessee.

Clewell is classified as a secretary in an online database of state employees, and his title from the database was confirmed in a telephone call Monday with the state's human resources department.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County District Attorney married employee, hired brother-in-law)

The district attorney's office says that's wrong, that Pinkston hired Clewell as an investigator - and that's what he is.

But the discrepancy in paperwork between Clewell's job title with the state and his function at the DA's office is one of many unanswered questions that have arisen after last week's revelations in the Times Free Press about Pinkston employing relatives in his office.

Clewell was hired in 2020 by Pinkston, who had hired Clewell's sister, Melydia, in 2015 and went on to marry her in 2019, while still her boss. Melydia Clewell is identified as the chief of staff in the office, although the state database lists her as a public information officer.

A spokesperson for Pinkston responded to some of the questions asked by the Times Free Press on Monday, defending Kerry Clewell's position as an investigator.

photo An Amber alert for Daphne Westbrook posted on the Tennessee Bureau of Investigators website lists Kerry Clewell as a Criminal Investigator. / Contributed photo

"It is the district attorney general's prerogative to use the funds and number of positions available to him/her in the manner he/she deems fit," Communications Director Bruce Garner said in an emailed statement.

Under state law, local district attorneys can appoint "suitable individuals" to be criminal investigators, who have comparable authority to sheriff's deputies or municipal law enforcement "at the pleasure" of the DA.

But unlike similar appointees by the state attorney general or other law enforcement officers, local district attorney investigator appointments can be made without any specified state standards, training or certification requirements.

Asked what the qualifications are for the office, and whether Clewell meets them, Garner said Clewell was hired due to "prior law enforcement experience." He offered no details.

Clewell spent about 20 months as an officer at two different police forces in rural Alabama - Summerdale and Prichard - in 2003-2005, according to an online employment profile confirmed by the department Friday. He has no previous law enforcement experience in Tennessee.

The state Department of Commerce and Insurance, which handles certifications, last week told the Times Free Press that Clewell had not received any training or certifications through the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission between January 2020 and May 2021, the timeframe during which he was hired.

In the 15 years after his police stint in another state, Clewell served in army combat and as an athletic trainer, listing no additional law enforcement experience.

By contrast, the two state-funded investigators listed on the DA's website - where Clewell isn't listed as an employee at all - each have undergone hundreds of hours of training and received POST certification.

Ed Duke has earned POST certification, done 420 hours of training, worked at the Chattanooga Police Department for over 25 years and makes over $54,000 annually, according to state records.

Similarly, investigator Tommy Meeks has earned 615 hours of training and his POST certification, and now makes over $54,000 annually.

Also unlike Kerry Clewell, Duke and Meeks both appear as criminal investigators in the state database known as Transparent Tennessee. Clewell is listed in the database as a secretary making $35,000 a year.

Asked again about the contradiction between the state database and Clewell's classification locally as an investigator, Garner said Clewell was never a secretary.

"We are not required to fill an open position with the same title as the previous employee in that position. It would be similar to a reporter leaving and the newspaper using that open position to hire an assistant editor," he said. "Kerry was not and is not a secretary. The open position we had is now being used as an investigator position."

When asked for public records documenting Clewell's title, Garner said that wasn't necessary.

"The DA appointed Mr. Clewell as an investigator. No 'proof' is required," Garner wrote. "It's the sole discretion of the district attorney general to make staff appointments and assignments."

Garner declined to answer questions about Clewell's involvement in the Westbrook case and other cases, saying "Tennessee Supreme Court rules prevent prosecutors from commenting on active cases unless doing so is necessary for public safety reasons."

Asked if Clewell's position had been publicly advertised and about how many other applicants Pinkston considered, Garner said, "Constitutional officers in Tennessee make appointments for all positions," providing no further details.

After the Times Free Press reported last week on Pinkston's marriage to employee Melydia Clewell in 2019, followed by the hiring of Kerry Clewell in 2020, Pinkston released a statement to reporters denying any ethical problems or violation of nepotism laws.

"I have done nothing wrong, and that includes my procedures for hiring or paying employees," he said in a written statement.

"Marriage is a private matter, but as I plan to seek re-election as district attorney, I'm happy to tell you that Melydia and I have committed our lives in marriage," Pinkston said. "We are blessed. Our situation is not unusual."

On Friday, Tennessee Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, told the Times Free Press that he was researching an audit of the district attorney's office in response to a constituent concerned by the story.

Pinkston has not directly responded to numerous in person, phone and email requests for comment from the Times Free Press since questions were raised last week. Kerry Clewell has not responded to a series of phone calls and voicemails since last week.

Melydia Clewell sent an email late Monday saying she had not responded to several requests for comment last week due to personal medical reasons and that she would respond to these requests in the future.

The District Attorneys General Conference, an agency which oversees the state's 31 attorney general districts, has not responded to four separate requests for further information about Melydia and Kerry Clewell's employment.

The Hamilton County DA's Office and county criminal court clerk both denied access to presentment documents with further details of the Westbrook case and investigation due to an open warrant.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.

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