In one epic April weekend, Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson threatened a group of inmates for talking trash about his bail-bondsman wife; embroiled more than a dozen law officers in a multistate manhunt for one of her bail skips; and pulled a gun on a motorist in Georgia, where he has no authority — all with his wife and another bondsman riding along in his official sheriff's vehicle.
The episode lends weight to complaints from the Bradley County bail bonding community of a thumb on the scales in favor of the sheriff's wife, Tenille Watson. It also echoes allegations of wrongdoing by Sheriff Watson forwarded last year to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
That TBI investigation resulted in Watson being indicted on six felony counts of using forged or altered vehicle titles in connection with his sideline business as a used-car dealer. Watson was booked July 21. No court date had been set in that case as of Friday. TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland said Thursday the investigation is ongoing.
Meanwhile, local attorneys asked to review documents and videos related to Watson's Easter weekend activities say he could have opened himself up to liability ranging from civil rights violations to kidnapping and aggravated assault.
The Times Free Press sent Watson a detailed list of questions Thursday morning about his activities that weekend and asked for his comment. He did not respond.
The first incident, threatening jail inmates, is documented in an email sent by corrections Sgt. Jason Brock to jail Lt. Christi Walls at 9 p.m. on April 15. The Times Free Press obtained the email through Tennessee's Open Records Act.
Brock wrote that Watson pulled into the jail's sally port, the secure entry to the jail, shortly after 11 a.m. and had Brock bring out a female inmate. The email said Watson was accompanied by his wife, Tenille; Bernnie King, of Brights Bail Bonding, and King's husband.
"Sheriff Watson began to question [the inmate] regarding a rumor that supposedly started with her about his wife Tenille being arrested for meth," according to the email. The woman said she'd heard the rumor from another inmate and wasn't sure where it started, Brock wrote.
"Sheriff Watson then informed [the inmate] to go back to I pod and let all the ladies know that the rumors regarding him, his family, and his administration needed to stop immediately or he would shut down everything in I pod and place them on lockdown," he wrote.
Watson then ordered Brock to go to the pod himself to tell all the inmates "and also to put it on roll call," which he did, Brock's email states.
The Times Free Press was unable to contact the inmate. But Chattanooga attorney Robin Flores, who handles a lot of civil rights cases, read the email at the newspaper's request and said if it is true, Watson's behavior was "horrific."
"That's extrajudicial punishment [and] retaliation on free speech," Flores said. "Extrajudicial" means outside of regular court proceedings.
"That takes you back to the Jim Crow era and the way Southern sheriffs used to treat people. I don't see how the governor or the attorney general can ignore that," Flores said.
The Times Free Press requested the department's video from the sally port incident but the sheriff's office said it was exempt from the state's open records law under an exception related to building security. In the past, however, the sheriff's office has chosen to publicly release photos taken in the sally port.
The next day, Easter Sunday, Watson's search for one of his wife's bonding clients absorbed seven officers and two dogs from his department for more than five hours, plus two Polk County deputies, two Murray County, Ga., deputies and a Georgia State Patrol trooper.
Tenille Watson wrote a $2,000 bond for Gary Lee Lipps Jr. in February after his arrest on methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia charges. He didn't show up for court in March, which meant her employer, Cumberland Bail Bonds, might have to forfeit the sum.
Tenille Watson's work as a bondsman has been controversial since she was licensed in February 2016 to write bonds in the 10th Judicial District, which includes Bradley, McMinn, Monroe and Polk counties. State law says law officers or their spouses may not work as bondsmen because the public employee is not allowed to benefit from the spouse's private job.
The only way around the rule is for a couple to completely separate their finances, which Eric and Tenille Watson said they did: They had separate bank accounts, Eric Watson paid all the bills, and any money she earned was for her and her children exclusively, the couple said.
However, Tenille Watson signed the deed on their $460,000 house and its $360,000 mortgage in April 2016. And other Bradley County bondsmen told the Times Free Press that Tenille Watson was getting a suspiciously large share of bonds for a rookie.
The newspaper reported last year that in her first three months Tenille Watson wrote more bail bonds by herself than the next-largest bonding agency did with three agents. In March 2016, Eric Watson took her along on a DUI roadblock staged by the sheriff's office, and then lied about how she came to be there.
Records also showed her boss, Cumberland Bail Bonds owner Andy Baggenstoss, increased his share of the Bradley County bonding business from less than a quarter in March-April of 2015 to more than a third by April 2016. Baggenstoss also owns East Tennessee Bail Bonds.
Baggenstoss has contributed to Eric Watson's political campaigns, giving $1,500 in Watson's 2012 Tennessee House race and $1,000 to his 2014 sheriff's campaign, the Times Free Press reported last year.
That Easter morning, Eric Watson radioed dispatch at 9:55 a.m. asking for local warrants on Lipps, according to dispatch reports and audio recordings of radio traffic obtained from Bradley 911. A dispatcher told Watson about the felony warrant for failure to appear on the drug charges, plus one for nonsupport, and one for violating probation in Polk County.
Watson told dispatch he was attempting to serve the warrant. He directed Lt. Dennis Goins and Sgt. Doug Boucher to rally the troops for the hunt around Gap Springs and Easley Ford roads in southeast Bradley County.
Watson doesn't go out on many warrant attempts — Bradley 911 records show around 2,377 warrants were served between June 2016 and May 2017, and Watson was listed as participating in 16.
Of those, eight were related to his wife's or her employer's business: Five were on bonds written by Tenille; two on bonds written by another Cumberland agent; one for East Tennessee. Another was on a bond written by Bernnie King, court records show. Some of those defendants had multiple charges during the year and got bonds from other companies as well.
It's not known whether Watson's wife or other bondsmen rode along on those other occasions, but a police dashcams show Tenille Watson and Bernnie King with the sheriff during the morning part of the April 16 manhunt. A witness to Lipps' arrest later Sunday evening said both were there as well.
Watson was looking for Lipps at his mother's home on Easley Ford Road off Spring Place Road, which becomes Georgia Highway 225 when it crosses the Conasauga River and the state line a short distance south.
Watson saw movement at the house. At 10:26:53 a.m., he radioed urgently, "He's running! He's running, dispatch."
Lipps hit the woods and the hunt was on. Deputy Eduardo Choate and his dog, Joker, found a scent and tracked it while other officers set up watch on the two bridges over the looping, tree-lined Conasauga River.
Over the radio, Watson said Lipps was wanted on "multiple felony warrants" in Bradley and Polk counties. A Bradley dispatcher contacted Murray County, which promised to send a pair of deputies to the scene.
A check with family in the Easley Ford house reassured the searchers that Lipps wasn't known to have any weapons. Then Choate and Joker found Lipps' cellphone, so they knew he couldn't call anyone.
At 11:30, there was a question about whether Lipps might have been seen on Coffey Church Road, well down into Murray County.
At 11:38, dashcam videos from three police agencies show Watson on the bridge on the Tennessee side of the state line, facing south in the northbound lane. Murray County Deputy Hubert "Chip" Stuckey's vehicle was nose to nose with him, facing north, and Georgia State Trooper Ted Kimbrell's vehicle was near Stuckey's, facing north in the southbound lane.
Bradley County Deputy Jared Burnette was on the right shoulder just south of the bridge at the state line, facing south. His dashcam shows a small white pickup round a slight curve well short of the bridge. The driver spotted the massed police vehicles, did a U-turn and headed in the other direction.
Watson radioed: "Trying to catch one [he gave truck's tag number] right across the Georgia line."
His unmarked black Tahoe sped south and its emergency lights came on. Burnette pulled out and rushed to catch up. The white truck turned left on Coffey Church Road and stopped, Watson's Tahoe on its tail.
At 11:39:40, Burnette swung in behind the Tahoe and radioed that he had joined Watson. His dashcam pointed mostly ahead, but showed Watson, in a firing crouch with arms extended, in the right side of the frame. Moments later, Watson dropped his hand to his right side, clearly holding a handgun.
Kimbrell pulled up behind Burnette. His dashcam showed Watson pointing a gun toward the white truck with his right hand and dragging the driver out onto the road with the other. Burnette hurried up and cuffed the driver while Watson kept pointing the gun toward the truck, the view of whose cab is blocked by his own vehicle.
Watson, wearing plaid shorts and a polo shirt with no law enforcement markings, yelled, "Get your hands up! Get them up!" as Kimbrell walked calmly behind the white truck, got the passenger out and handcuffed him. Neither the driver nor the passenger offered any resistance.
Meanwhile, Stuckey pulled in behind Watson. His dashcam showed Bernnie King and Tenille Watson coming around from the front of Watson's Tahoe and getting into its rear seat, and an unidentifiable person getting into the front passenger seat.
Neither of the men in the white truck was Lipps. Watson introduced himself to Kimbrell and said, "I thought one of them might have been the boy we're looking for."
They didn't talk about why a fugitive would catch a ride taking him straight back toward a posse of waiting lawmen.
Watson, with his passengers, and Burnette soon left to rejoin the hunt for Lipps.
The pickup's driver, Timothy Tallent, remains in the Murray County jail and his public defender said he couldn't discuss the case. But multiple attorneys told the Times Free Press that Watson's use of a weapon outside his jurisdiction might leave him liable for criminal charges, including serious felonies such as kidnapping and aggravated assault.
The Times Free Press asked McCracken Poston, a Ringgold criminal defense attorney who also practices in Tennessee, to look at the video from the Georgia event. He said the stop stinks.
"Nothing justified pulling the gun on the guy and yanking him out of the car for this," he said. Tallent had pulled over for the blue lights and there was no reason Watson couldn't sit and wait for the Georgia officers to catch up.
"This seems very bad in terms of the legality of the stop, though it may take an appellate court to say that because there's a lot of camaraderie across the brotherhood of the badge," Poston said.
And, he said, it's "glaringly obvious" Watson was using Bradley County equipment and officers to help his wife recover her bail-jumper.
"This looks bad and it smells bad and there probably is something bad about this stop," Poston said.
It turned out Tallent was a habitual violator, driving on a suspended license. The Georgia officers could arrest him for the illegal U-turn, though both said they weren't eyewitnesses.
"I didn't see it — I looked in my rearview mirror and he was going the other way with the sheriff of Bradley County behind him," Stuckey tells Kimbrell in the dashcam video.
To his own dispatcher, the trooper said, "[Tallent] flopped around in the road and he stopped for the sheriff of Bradley County."
They agreed Stuckey would take Tallent to jail and Kimbrell would write the report — after waiting for someone to come drive away the truck. The passenger, Tallent's brother, was released but didn't have a license.
Walking back to his vehicle, Kimbrell interjected, "And Easter! What kind of crap is that!"
North of the state line, the hunt was still on. Around 12:30 p.m., Watson asked for a check on a car tag that came back to Lipps' ex-wife. A few minutes later, he checked a home on Gap Springs Road where he radioed that a door was open. "I'll be going in with another civilian here," Watson says.
Lipps proved elusive, and the search was called off about 1:15 p.m.
When it restarted later that afternoon, Watson knew where to look.
Lipps' ex-wife, who asked her family's names not be used for fear of harassment, said she had picked up her and Lipps' children, along with his current girlfriend, at his mother's house earlier. When Watson radioed for that license check, he had her pulled over on the side of the road and was asking where Lipps was, she said.
She said she didn't know, adding, "I'm not married to him anymore."
Lipps showed up at her house around 2 p.m., she said. He was exchanging messages on Facebook with Watson, telling him he wanted to say good-bye to his kids and then he'd turn himself in, according to the ex-wife.
"He and Eric were texting; Eric texted, 'You turn yourself in and I'll call my dogs off,'" the ex-wife said, adding that she saw the message.
Meanwhile, she was on the phone to Lipps' sister, who also was asking about his whereabouts. The ex-wife said she didn't know it, but the sister had looped Tenille Watson in on the call.
The dispatch report shows the Bradley officers — the same seven from the morning manhunt — showed up about 6:30 p.m. The woman said they blocked the driveway and "swarmed" her husband, who was outside.
"They had the dog. When I went outside they asked me, 'Is he here?' [I said] 'Yes, he's in the house,' they went in after him and I heard him screaming, then there goes the dog. They done had him. They treated him like a murderer."
She said Tenille Watson, Bernnie King and a man she didn't know were there, too, but didn't go in the house.
She said their two children, ages 12 and 13, went in the house and saw Eric Watson in the room and the dog biting their father on the thigh.
The kids said Lipps was handcuffed, according to the ex-wife. But Lipps' father, Gary Lipps Sr., said his son told him he had his hands in the air but wasn't cuffed.
His son insisted he wasn't fighting and the law officers sicced the dog on him for no reason. The elder Lipps said he saw the scar of "a pretty big tear" on his son's leg about three weeks ago at the Polk County Jail. He said Lipps Jr. held his leg up to the camera during video visitation.
"It was a wicked bite," he said.
The ex-wife said the scene was "unreal."
"In my opinion they was mad, they was aggravated, they'd been made a fool of and they were going to make it rough on anybody they could make it rough on," she said.
The ex-wife said the deputies searched her house without a warrant. She, her husband and Lipps' girlfriend were charged with being accessories after the fact and spent the night in jail, but the charges were dropped at their arraignment May 4, court records show.
"I believe the reason it went down like it did is because his wife is a bondsman," she said.
Her description of the arrest could not be verified from dashcam videos. Watson said there were none — even though the same officers' dashcams from the morning manhunt were handed over, and the cameras should have been running under sheriff's office policy. Watson refused to explain the discrepancy.
Lipps went by ambulance to Tennova hospital in Cleveland, arriving around 7:20 p.m. Burnette followed the ambulance and stayed at Tennova until almost 9:30.
Then he left. The man who'd been hunted by more than a dozen law officers for half the day apparently was left alone at the hospital until a deputy arrived at almost 11:30 to take him to the Bradley County Jail.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6416.
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