Once a hero: Former Dade sheriff, praised in 2011, is under scrutiny by GBI

Once a hero: Former Dade sheriff, praised in 2011, is under scrutiny by GBI

December 7th, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

In this April 2011 photo, then-Dade County Sheriff Patrick Cannon stands amid the rubble that was his home on Sand Mountain.

In this April 2011 photo, then-Dade County Sheriff...

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

TRENTON, Ga. - With three pints of Jack Daniels in the bed of his pickup truck, 250 rounds of ammunition in a basket and a loaded handgun on the floorboard, investigators say, Hillard Allen Stevens stared toward the Dade County sheriff.

Patrick Cannon expected this showdown. He said Stevens' brother had called the night before, told him about the rumors that Stevens bought a gun and vowed to kill him.

Cannon ordered one of his deputies to grab Stevens, but he sped away from the sheriff's office. He drove down Georgia Route 136 toward his home on Sand Mountain, ripping through the small town at 80 mph, past a red light and up a hill. Cannon pursued him.

The August 2011 chase ended with a crash, with Stevens lying handcuffed on the ground, Cannon grabbing his throat and yelling at him. Stevens went to jail, stayed for a year and pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. He didn't serve any more time behind bars, but he had to get treatment at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Doctors had diagnosed Stevens with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, court records show. When asked about the incident, Cannon tells people Stevens plotted his death for no reason.

"He had a mental issue," he says. "That's it."

At the time, neither Cannon nor Stevens knew that members of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation had been looking into criminal allegations against Cannon for seven months. Members of his own department accused Cannon of breaking several laws, ranging from misusing taxpayer money to defrauding state officials.

They also accused the sheriff of stealing from Stevens.

As the GBI investigated privately, Cannon received praise publicly for how he responded to the devastation left by three tornadoes that blew through Dade County in April 2011. Even though the storms destroyed his own home, Cannon worked around the clock, making sure others in town got the relief supplies they needed.

The Georgia Sheriff's Association asked people to donate to Cannon and help him rebuild his home. He was a hero.

But those same storms may have hindered the GBI's investigation into Cannon. His home was gone, and so was potential evidence.

Nothing came of the criminal allegations. In May 2013, six months after Cannon lost a re-election bid, Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin closed the case, saying the GBI did not find enough evidence.

But today, Cannon could still face criminal charges. Officials with the GBI and Franklin have confirmed that a second investigation into the former sheriff is still active. They would not discuss the potential charges.

Cannon said he did not know about either investigation until last month, when a Times Free Press reporter asked him about it. He denies any wrongdoing and believes community leaders who support current Sheriff Ray Cross have asked for a fraudulent investigation so he won't be able to run for sheriff again in 2016.

"This is politically motivated," Cannon said. "Me and my family are definitely tired of this harassment. They need to move on. They need to go elsewhere. I'm not going to tolerate it anymore."

The GBI launched its first investigation into Cannon after an incident in January 2011, seven months before Stevens allegedly stalked Cannon. Members of the sheriff's office showed up at Stevens' double-wide trailer, according to an arrest report, because local residents told Cannon that Stevens had livestock on his property.

He was not allowed to own animals after stabbing multiple dogs to death two years earlier. He said that a voice in his head commanded him to do it.

That event was just one more bullet point on a long, violent rap sheet. Court records show that Stevens had been accused of stalking his sister, trying to run over his brother, shooting at his father and setting fire to the home of his grandfather. He's been convicted of several crimes, but other charges have been dropped.

"Threatened to kill our uncle," his brother, Kenny Stevens, wrote in one court file. "Threatened to kill (our) cousin. Threatened to kill my dogs."

When the deputies arrived this time, they found a calf, several chickens, five guinea fowl and 12 goats in Stevens' yard. They also found a slew of dead animals and a row of cages, caked in manure.

"The smell was overwhelming," Detective Brittany Geddie wrote at the time.

Deputies arrested Stevens for violating the terms of his probation. They also called the Georgia Department of Agriculture to see if any employees could take the living animals. Nobody could at the time, so Cannon ordered members of his department to bring them to his house, along with Stevens' seven corral panels and two sheets of hog wire.

Stevens signed a property receipt, according to the GBI's investigative file, giving the sheriff's office permission to sell the animals as long as they gave Stevens the profit. But some witnesses told Franklin that is not what happened.

"According to the information I received," Franklin wrote in a letter to the GBI, "Sheriff Cannon personally took custody of several goats, sold the goats and kept the proceeds."

Cannon told the Times Free Press he needed the money to cover the cost of feeding those animals.

GBI Special Agent James Harris began to look into the situation, meeting with two members of the Dade County Sheriff's Office: Lt. Danny Ellis and Maj. Jackie Womack. The men told Harris that their boss kept Stevens' gates, even after selling his animals. They also said Cannon paid for his family's cellphone plans and a canopy for their house with county money, offering various checks and receipts to bolster their claims.

In April 2010, Cannon received tickets in Chattanooga for parking incorrectly and driving over the speed limit.

"I was speeding due to the fact I got a call regarding a homicide in my county and was responding to the scene," Cannon wrote in a letter to City Judge Russell Bean at the time.

But Womack told the GBI that 911 records indicate nobody reported a killing in Dade County that day. Harris then found a pair of checks showing that Cannon paid the tickets with county money.

Womack also told Harris that Cannon sold a Chevrolet Blazer that the Georgia Emergency Management Agency had loaned the sheriff's office. After someone crashed the truck, the department left it at a junkyard and used it for parts.

In 2009, Cannon wrote a letter to GEMA, saying the truck had been destroyed. Womack and Ellis didn't believe this, so they went to the junkyard, where an employee told them that a local tow truck driver picked up the vehicle, claiming Cannon sold it to him.

The tow truck driver at first confirmed this, Womack told the GBI. But 10 minutes later, the tow truck driver called back, saying Cannon actually gave him the state-owned vehicle after he did some work for the sheriff.

Today, Cannon denies all of these allegations.

"I never, ever spent a dime of county money," he said. "It's crap."

Harris did not return multiple calls seeking comment. For the 20 months of the active investigation, Rome Judicial Circuit District Attorney Leigh Patterson was the prosecutor on the case. That eliminated a potential conflict of interest for Franklin, who worked closely with the sheriff on criminal cases.

But after Cannon lost his re-election campaign, Franklin handled the case again. He declined to talk about that investigation, except to say it was heavy on witness statements and light on physical evidence. One reason was out of investigators' hands: the 2011 tornadoes.

About three months after members of the sheriff's office say Cannon stole Stevens' gates, the storm demolished Cannon's property.

"All that got blown away," Franklin said. "Literally."

Stevens, who now lives at the VA nursing home in Murfreesboro, said he never planned to kill Cannon. He said he was driving near the sheriff's office when a deputy tried to pull him over, and he sped away because he was scared of Cannon.

He said the sheriff wanted him in jail to keep him away from the rest of the community, so people wouldn't know that Cannon stole Stevens' property earlier that year. Stevens said he didn't know the GBI investigated those claims until last month.

He isn't surprised Franklin didn't try to indict the sheriff.

Cannon, who underwent multiple back surgeries and is now on disability, said the GBI's second, ongoing investigation into him is baseless -- whatever the allegations are. He said this is coming from Cross, the sheriff who replaced him. He said Cross wants to prevent a potential rematch in the next election, something Cross denies.

"I have no quarrels with ex-Sheriff Cannon," Cross said, "and I have no reason to investigate him."

Franklin declined to comment on why Cannon is under investigation again. He wouldn't say if or when he might be ready to bring the case to a grand jury, only that, "We hope to indict him at some point."

Cannon's response? Bring it on.

"I'm going to embarrass (Franklin), and I'm going to put him on national news," he said. "I'm going to show him that just because you're a district attorney don't make it right to harass people."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.