Thomas O'Neal, founder of Signal Mountain Farm, has pleaded guilty to charges stemming from an incident in which he kicked a woman's door in and threatened to cause her harm. And attorneys for a second woman are seeking to appeal the denial of a temporary order of protection against him.
O'Neal, 39, was first arrested on Aug. 18 after a woman showed police where her door was broken near its bottom hinges, and the wall to which the hinges were connected was "peeled off and broken."
He was charged with aggravated criminal trespass, vandalism and harassment. The trespassing charge was dismissed, though O'Neal pleaded guilty to the remaining charges. He received a suspended sentence of one year on probation and 15 days of community service.
A few weeks after his first arrest, O'Neal was again arrested for reportedly sending harassing text messages to a second woman.
That woman has said she believed the texts were intended to scare her so that she wouldn't speak openly about the abuse he inflicted upon her several years ago after the news of his first arrest, something the woman's attorney argues O'Neal was concerned about due to his reputation as a commercial organic farmer who supplies supermarkets and local restaurants.
O'Neal and his attorney did not return requests for comment.
The first woman applied for and received an order of protection against O'Neal. But Hamilton County Chancellor Jeffrey M. Atherton denied the second woman's petition for a temporary order of protection. No reason for the denial was stated, and Atherton's office declined to comment Tuesday.
The second woman's attorney, Ben McGowan, is now seeking to appeal Atherton's decision.
In Tennessee, temporary orders of protection, if granted, are good for 15 days. In order to extend a temporary order of protection, domestic abuse has to be established "by a preponderance of the evidence," and in order to do that, the person "merely" has to show "fear of physical harm Proof of actual physical abuse is not required," the Tennessee Court of Appeals noted in a 2017 opinion.
While the second woman's temporary order of protection was denied, Atherton did set a hearing date for mid-September. But that hearing has been postponed and likely will continue to be until the criminal case is resolved. That's because a hearing could infringe on O'Neal's constitutional right against self-incrimination in the criminal case.
The same day he pleaded guilty to the charges in the first incident, O'Neal was asked if he would agree to a "stay away/no contact" condition to his bond in the second woman's case, according to the motion seeking appeal. He declined.
In the meantime, the second woman has no court-ordered protection, and the case "will likely remain in legal limbo" until the second criminal case is resolved, McGowan wrote.
In the motion, McGowan notes lawmakers did not specify a time limit for filing orders of protection, meaning that the default statute of limitations of 10 years applies. By doing so, "the legislature made clear its understanding that the dangers of domestic abuse are potentially ongoing, far reaching, and intermittent," he wrote.
"[T]he immediacy and presence of danger to [the woman] did not exist in a vacuum," McGowan noted, "but rather involved a history of severe domestic violence coupled with the abuser's recent reinsertion of himself into [her] life to threaten and dissuade her from disclosing the abuse, despite knowing she is married with children."
"That Mr. O'Neal would suddenly appear and attempt to control [the woman's] behavior with intimidation years after the initial abuse is hardly a sign of diminished danger, but its exact opposite."
Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.
Absentee mail-in votes surge in Hamilton County, at least 7,717 ballots already cast amid COVID-19 concerns