Former Rhea County, Tennessee, executive dies in federal prison; lawyer investigating possible assault

  photo  Staff photo / Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, right, appears with Rhea County Executive George Thacker in January 2019 to announce the arrival of a manufacturing business in Dayton, Tenn.

Federal prison officials confirmed Tuesday that former Rhea County Executive George Thacker died in custody Monday at a federal prison in South Carolina, where he had been incarcerated less than three weeks.

"For safety, security and privacy reasons, this office does not share specifics regarding the cause of death of any inmate. The official cause of death is determined by the medical examiner and not the Bureau of Prisons," Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Emery Nelson said Tuesday in an email.

The Edgefield County Coroner's Office is performing an examination, Nelson said. A call Tuesday seeking details of Thacker's death from Coroner David Burnett was not immediately returned.

Thacker's lawyer, Chattanooga attorney Lee Davis, said he is investigating the death and looking into allegations of a possible assault at Federal Correctional Institution Edgefield, which is situated near the state line about halfway between Columbia, South Carolina, and Augusta, Georgia.

"It has been reported to me that Mr. George Thacker died yesterday at FCI Edgefield South Carolina," Davis said by email. "I am investigating the cause and manner of death. Family reports that it was the result of injuries sustained where he was the victim of an assault. I am inquiring as to the facts and circumstances concerning these tragic events."

(READ MORE: Rhea County executive pleads guilty, resigns post in federal wire fraud case)

Federal inmate records for Thacker show him deceased on Dec. 26 but a time of day was not given.

Edgefield is a medium security prison with an adjacent minimum security satellite camp, according to the federal prison's website. According to federal court records, Thacker had been incarcerated at Edgefield 17 days since reporting to begin serving his sentence Dec. 9, court records show.

Thacker, 59, formerly of Spring City, Tennessee, was serving a 33-month sentence as part of an Oct. 6 plea agreement in which he agreed to plead guilty to one count of wire fraud in relation to COVID-19 relief funds, according to a news release. Thacker was ordered to pay $665,600 in restitution and a $15,000 fine, and he had been ordered to remain on supervised release for three years following his release from prison.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act is a federal law designed to provide emergency financial assistance to the millions of Americans suffering the economic effects brought about by the pandemic.

Among other things, the act authorized billions of dollars in forgivable loans to small businesses through programs referred to as the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program, federal officials said in a news release on Thacker's plea. The funds from those programs were intended to ensure small businesses facing negative effects related to the pandemic could continue to operate and pay expenses, including their employees' wages, officials said.

Thacker pleaded guilty in April to obtaining two Paycheck Protection Program loans through the Small Business Administration and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan, together totaling $665,600, according to court records.

(READ MORE: Former utility accountant pleads guilty to theft over $250,000)

According to court filings, Thacker falsely certified he would use the funds to pay employees and for other operating expenses. Instead of using the money for its intended purpose, Thacker used the funds to line his own pockets by, among other things, purchasing cryptocurrency and funding his personal investment accounts, according to court documents.

The investigation was led by the U.S. Secret Service and Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle J. Wilson.

The current Rhea County executive, Jim Vincent, describes himself and Thacker as close friends and said many residents in the county are in mourning.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County Sheriff's Office investigating Silverdale inmate death)

"I've known him since he was a young man. It was a terrible shock to hear and very sad. It's a hard blow for us," Vincent said by phone. "There's a lot of people who loved him. He had a big heart and did a lot of good in Rhea County for years."

Friends and loved ones want to know what led to Thacker's death, he said.

When Thacker was charged and he stepped down from his post as executive, Vincent, as County Commission chairman, assumed Thacker's seat as interim county executive and in August won the seat in seven-way race.

The case against Thacker was not associated with his elected office but he was the owner of locally based Thacker Corp., which included auto service shops and retail properties in Rhea County, according to court records.

Thacker was Rhea County's longest-serving county executive, first elected to the post in 2010, according to county election officials.

Contact Ben Benton at or 423-757-6569.

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