It was May 1998, and Brenda Lindsay-McDaniel was working the late-night shift as a judicial commissioner at the Knox County jail on Hill Avenue.
A detective from the Knox County Sheriff's Department came to her office and asked her to sign a warrant for theft. Judicial commissioners aren't judges, but it's their job to sign warrants and set bail and make sure the right person is arrested and that no one's rights are violated.
The detective was unusually quiet that night.
"Normally, [the deputies] would be excited and tell you what was going on. He was not very forthcoming," Lindsay-McDaniel remembers. "All he said was, 'possession of stolen property.' I said, 'Well, let's put a few more details on the warrant.' He said, 'Just sign the warrant.'"
Lindsay-McDaniel wondered if maybe the detective felt she was questioning his job performance, so she tried to explain that the warrant needed more details—how the information was known, what evidence there was—to stand up in court. But he refused to give any and insisted she sign.
"I said, 'We have a problem here because I'm not signing.'" The detective stormed out of her office. A few minutes later, Keith Lyon, then one of the right-hand men to Sheriff Tim Hutchison, called Lindsay-McDaniel on the phone. "He said, 'Brenda, you need to sign the warrant.' In the background I could hear the sheriff say, 'Tell that bitch to sign the goddamn warrant.'"
Lindsay-McDaniel again explained that it needed more information to stand up in court. Lyon said they'd go to a judge to get it signed. She said, fine, thinking that was the end of it.
Five minutes later, another sheriff's employee—one with whom Lindsay-McDaniel was friendly—showed up at her office. He told her she needed to sign the warrant. He kept prefacing everything he said with, "These are not my words...."
Then he said something that alarmed her: "If the sheriff told me to shoot somebody I would do it."
"What do you say to something like that? I didn't know what to say," Lindsay-McDaniel says. "It was very clearly a threat to me. They weren't his words, but it was really clear it was a threat. I said, 'So are you going to shoot me?' He said, 'That's all I'm going to say.'
"I was feeling kind of unnerved. If the order came down to be shot, I was going to be shot."
She called a detective at the Knoxville Police Department and told him what had happened. He offered to come over, but she said that wasn't necessary. She only had a request: "If something weird happens to me and I end up dead, I want you to go out of county to have it prosecuted."
She made him promise.
Later, the judge whom the sheriff's deputies visited at home to sign the warrant called.
"He said, 'I threw you to the wolves. It's a political thing.' He said, 'I'll dismiss it when it comes up to court.' He said, 'You've got an election coming up, you don't need to be doing this.'"
The warrant that so badly needed to be signed, she says, was a ploy to get the Sheriff's Department on television during an election year (and not even a particularly close election). The bad guys would walk, but they'd help the sheriff with his campaign.
Lindsay-McDaniel's tale is a fantastic one, and like many stories about Tim Hutchison, it's difficult to know what about it is truth, speculation, myth and bombast. The story is all the more alarming because Lindsay-McDaniel certainly has credibility—besides her years as a judicial commissioner, she now works as a child-support referee.
Was that really Tim Hutchison in the background calling her a bitch? Did he really order his men to serve a warrant he knew wouldn't hold up just to get his picture on TV? Are even judges afraid to cross him? And most incredibly, are there men working for him willing to kill at his word?
Sitting in his office four years later, the sheriff scoffs at the implications in Lindsay-McDaniel's story. "No one in this agency is going to pressure anyone else," Hutchison says. "Do you believe one of my officers would [threaten to shoot someone]? How many of our officers have had to quit or have been prosecuted over wrongdoing? Then compare that to the other [police] agencies. I'm proud of the officers here."
Whatever the truth is, the sheriff has made a career out of being an enigma. In Knox County politics, he's a larger-than-life figure, hoisted above the political machinery by a mixture of awe, fear and secrecy.
He is a polarizing figure. His many supporters swear that Hutchison is one of the best sheriffs this county has ever seen—that he's grown his department into a world-class law enforcement agency.
But there are also a large number of people who have aligned themselves against the sheriff: defense attorneys troubled by lack of access given to their clients and treatment of jail prisoners; many journalists exasperated by the sheriff's unwillingness to disclose public information and his sporadic deceptions; and the "12-white-men" Republican oligarchy of Knoxville that has struggled with Hutchison for political power. Others are simply bothered by what they perceive as the sheriff's refusal to be held accountable for his and his department's actions and his apparent love of power and control.
The sheriff and his supporters claim that the criticism is nothing more than political sour grapes. They see the hand of Mayor Victor Ashe, Hutchison's perceived nemesis, behind the ongoing controversies. But Hutchison has done a number of questionable or troubling things in his 12 years in office. Reports by independent auditors and the state comptroller have found that he's improperly used and accounted for drug seizure money. Officers in his department have sworn out warrants on people who didn't exist and lied to the media. Jail guards have been found abusing inmates. Hutchison has had a number of questionable associations, like his close friendship with former Medical Examiner Randy Pedigo.
To date, none of those things have mattered all that much to a majority of voters. Whatever his merits or faults as a lawman and person, one thing is certain—Tim Hutchison is a master politician, one who is either capable of pulling lots of strings or making people think that he is. And a lot of people like him.
This August may be his fiercest campaign yet, as Democrat Jim Andrews challenges him by returning to many of the same issues his opponents have attacked him with over the years. There are those who say Hutchison's time is up—people are tired of him. But pundits and prognosticators have predicted Hutchison's fall before. They've always been wrong.
Timothy Ray Hutchison didn't seem like the kind of guy who would become such a force in Knox County politics.
A 1970 graduate of West High School, Hutchison has college credits, but does not have a degree. He operated Hutchison Construction Company from 1972 to 1974. But 1974 was a bad year for the construction business. So Hutchison looked for a way to make some extra money. "It was wet one year, raining a lot. Construction came to a halt," he says. "I never wanted to be a policeman."
But he adds, the job "fits my personality."
He started as a process server but quickly worked his way up to jailer and then deputy. In 1979, he joined the Metro Auto Theft Division, a joint division operated by the Sheriff's Department and Knoxville Police Department.
He rated above average in his work as a deputy, although supervisors noted that he didn't do so well communicating or relating to other officers.
There is one reprimand in his record. In April 1983, there was an altercation between Hutchison, then a lieutenant, and patrolman Mike Dalton. Dalton apparently pushed Hutchison. But then-Sheriff Joe Fowler thought that Hutchison had provoked the patrolman. "I certainly do not condone Officer Dalton's actions," he wrote in his reprimand to Hutchison. "I do, however, want to point out to you that I do not feel you utilized appropriate supervisory skills in this instance.... In the future, when discussing matters of the type brought to the attention of Officer Dalton, you should insure that it is not discussed in the presence of other officers so as to cause embarrassment. Furthermore, demeaning terminology such as referring to a fellow officer as 'boy' is inflammatory and should be avoided."
Hutchison appealed the reprimand, taking his case to the Merit Board. However, records of the hearings have been lost, and today it is uncertain what the outcome was.
There are plenty of commendations in Hutchison's file as well, and letters from citizens and businessmen whom he helped as a patrolman and officer.
A New Sheriff in Town
When Hutchison ran for sheriff in 1990, he was something of a darkhorse. There was nothing particularly controversial about his candidacy, but the conventional wisdom suggested Fowler—a two-term incumbent and former city police chief who enjoyed the support of Mayor Ashe—would easily win re-election.
Hutchison says he ran because he was concerned about the direction the department was heading. "Eighty-five percent of the [population] growth for many years was out in the county, not in the city. At the same time, our department was beginning to shrink," he says. (The 1990 Law Enforcement Plan, a joint report by the KPD and sheriff's office, shows the department was growing, in the size of its budget and the number of officers, although the size of the force was not keeping pace with the population.)
"I ran on a platform that I'd be a progressive sheriff and get back to the job of patrolling neighborhoods," Hutchison adds.
In a deposition earlier this year, Hutchison said that two people were influential in getting him elected that first time: then-Medical Examiner Randall Pedigo and Sherry Smith, whose family once owned the old Knoxville Journal.
Pedigo testified that he helped Hutchison raise around $50,000 for his campaign, money that came mainly from doctor friends. (After Hutchison was elected, County Commission transferred Pedigo's budget from the Health Department to the Sheriff's Department.)
In that first campaign, Hutchison attacked the 63-year-old Fowler as being too old for the job and said he lacked leadership in jail administration.
Both candidates said they supported forming a combined city-county police force, with an outsider appointed to run it. "I like appointed a little better, because you can put some qualifications on it," Hutchison said during one forum. "A lot of sheriffs in East Tennessee are farmers, and that's all they know." Hutchison also wanted 20 to 30 percent of new recruits to be minorities and wanted to increase the size of the force.
One of Hutchison's primary opponents accused him of being a Fowler pawn and predicted Fowler would name Hutchison a captain after the election. But Hutchison easily won the primary and surprised many by beating Fowler by about 5,000 votes in the general election. He showed well in the county's west neighborhoods, which had traditionally been Fowler strongholds. Those neighborhoods, along with every other one outside the city limits, have remained a solid power base for him.
Before Hutchison took office in 1990, the Sheriff's Department was much different than it is today. For some, he's taken the department into the 21st century in terms of staff and technology.
Others see him building a small empire that is uncooperative with other agencies.
Here are some changes the department has seen:
In 1989, there were 398 employees, including 177 who were sworn deputies. Of those sworn employees, 84 were patrol officers and 36 detectives.
Today there are 900 employees, of which 135 are patrol officers. The additional force has been used to beef up patrols—moving from four shifts of 15 men to five shifts with 20 to 25 men on each. As promised during his first campaign, Hutchison opened precincts in Farragut and Halls. The number of detectives has remained at 36. The warrants division has jumped from 17 to about 50 employees, while court officers have remained steady at around 45.
With 900 employees, the department dwarfs the national average for counties with 250,000 to 500,000 residents—whose sheriffs' departments have an average 377 employees. (Knox County has about 382,000 residents.) In 1999, the Knox
Sheriff's Department was the fourth largest law enforcement agency in the state, after the Memphis Police Department, the Nashville Metro Police, and the Shelby County Sheriff Office.
The annual budget in 1989 was slightly under $10 million. Today, the budget is almost $40 million. Budget comparisons between the years are difficult to make, because the county has changed its budget format. However, the biggest increase by far is in the jail division. In 1989, the county spent $3.4 million maintaining the jail. That year, the state ordered Knox County to address a whole range of problems, including overcrowding, lack of exercise and training facilities, and poor facilities overall. In dealing with this, the county built a 676-bed detention center on Maloneyville Road. As a result of that and other changes, the jail budget has spiraled to more than $22 million. Predictably, the staff at the jail has also grown, from 153 jail employees to about 500. More than half the sworn employees work in the jail.
One of the most publicized areas of growth has been in the special divisions, including the dogs, horses, boats and helicopters. In particular, the fleet of six helicopters has been attacked by Hutchison's critics. Asked why the county needs six helicopters, Hutchison says: "So we will always have one available. The helicopters were free, donated by the Department of Defense.
"Is six too many? Not when they're free. I couldn't justify buying six. But the maintenance contract is the same for one as it is for six."
In an interview, Hutchison claimed the county spent about $60,000 a year of tax money on the helicopters and another $60,000 to $70,000 of drug seizure money. But he's been inconsistent, quoting different amounts in various forums.
The Knox County Sheriff's Office is the least trained of the 11 Tennessee police agencies surveyed by the Justice Department. New recruits were required to have 160 hours of classroom training and 200 in the field—the lowest in the state. By contrast, Knoxville Police Department recruits got 880 hours of classroom training and 640 hours in the field, which is the second highest in the state.
Neither is the staff particularly well paid, by state standards. As of 1997, the entry-level salary at the sheriff's office was $21,072, third lowest in the state. A sergeant's annual salary was the lowest in the state, at $22,097. The KPD entry-level was $23,281, and $29,803 for sergeants. (The entry level salary at the Sheriff's Department has now climbed to $23,649, but the old figures are interesting for comparison.) Hutchison, however, had the highest salary of any chief in the state, at $92,670. But that's not his doing—police chiefs' and sheriffs' salaries are set by the state, using a formula that takes into account population served, department size and years on the job.
Even critics acknowledge that the Sheriff's Department seems exceptionally good at cracking serious crimes quickly. Department investigators arrested the alleged serial killer Thomas "Zoo Man" Huskey, broke up the Gagne crime family, and arrested Tony Vick for murdering his girlfriend and burying her body in the backyard of her West Knoxville home. Less than 24 hours after 66-year-old Eskalene DeBorde was murdered in her West Knoxville condominium, the Sheriff's Department charged Roger Broadway, a door-to-door magazine salesman with the crime (a case Hutchison's supporters have trumpeted in a Willie-Horton-like ad). And last year the Sheriff's Department showed up the Knoxville Police Department by arresting suspects for the murder of a worker at Ramsey's Cafeteria in the heart of Knoxville.
Although these are high-profile cases, it's difficult to quantify just how good the department's investigators are at solving crime. Any law enforcement agency can arrest suspects, but the true test of investigators is whether their detective work leads to a conviction.
These statistics aren't available in Knox County. Part of the problem is that charges are often pleaded down or reduced, with some being dropped. Some law enforcement experts suggest that one reason the Sheriff's Department's may be so good at solving sensational crimes is that it doesn't have as large a case load as the KPD does.
At times, Hutchison's investigators have gotten in trouble for breaking the rules. For instance, in 1999, Sgt. Robert Manges swore out a warrant on a man who didn't exist. The deception caught the attention of the district attorney and called into question Manges' testimony in other cases. The Sheriff's Department claimed the warrant was part of an undercover investigation, but it never alerted anyone in the judiciary about it. The sheriff says that should have happened but didn't. He doesn't explain why.
Nevertheless, the growth of the department during Hutchison's term and his investigators' crime-solving abilities helped Hutchison win Sheriff of the Year from the National Sheriffs' Association in 1998. The organization lauded Hutchison for modernizing the department—adding air and dive teams—and building training facilities.
Views from the Inside
Just as the public often appears polarized on Tim Hutchison, so can the people who have worked for him. Some have changed their minds about him over time.
A lot of Tim Hutchison's co-workers were thrilled when he was first elected. It's not that they thought Joe Fowler was a bad sheriff. But there was a feeling that he wasn't really moving the department forward. And a lot of the older detectives resented Fowler's by-the-book manner, says James Dunn, who was then a lieutenant with the department but was later fired by Hutchison. Fowler instituted a policies and procedures manual and was enfor-cing it, Dunn says.
"It was the first time that department was being run in a professional manner, and a lot of officers who had been there years and years didn't like that, because they were used to doing whatever they wanted," says Dunn, who voted for Hutchison that first time. "When Tim—who was one of them—came up to run against Fowler, he was elected."
Others thought Hutchison would bring a youthful vitality to the job. Sgt. Jacqueline Fish wasn't friends with Hutchison, but she liked him. "I really thought Tim would maybe give us a fresh outlook, maybe give the young guys a chance to come up through the ranks," she says.
At the time, Fish was one of the most educated officers in the department. With a master's in criminal justice, she ran the crime scene department, photo lab and fingerprinting room. When she was promoted to lieutenant in 1992, she was the highest-ranking female officer in the department. There was one other noticeable thing about Fish, how-ever—she was married to Paul Fish, who worked for the Knoxville Police Department.
Soon after Hutchison promoted Jacqueline Fish to lieutenant, something strange started happening to her. "As soon as I took that promotion, he started transferring me around. I'd come in on Monday morning and there was a letter on my desk saying I'm transferred to night shift in a different location, with no opportunity to talk to anybody about it or make any child care arrangements."
Although her pay was never cut, she kept losing authority and prominence with each transfer. The transfers got worse as 1994 neared and it became clear that Hutchison would be in a heated race with the KPD's Rudy Bradley, whose campaign Fish's husband worked for. In all, she was transferred six times between April 1992 and January 1995. She went from supervising 80 people down to one.
The bottom was working the night shift at the Detox Center at Lakeshore. "Anybody at the Sheriff's Department who was married to a city policeman or had a family tie was targeted and moved," she says. "At one time he put five of us at night shift at the Detox Center...When it ran with one person prior to any election, suddenly it took five people, and two of us were married to city police officers."
With 10 years' experience in crime lab work, more education than most of her coworkers and a nearly flawless record (she says she was suspended once in her career for oversleeping), it was pretty evident she wasn't wanted at the department.
"I personally felt my career was at an end," she said during a 1997 hearing for another employee before the Merit Board, the county board that handles grievances for sheriff's employees. "I had three degrees in law enforcement and criminal justice, 20 to 30 specialized schools, hundreds of hours of training and lots of county money invested in me, and basically I was out of control of my career, and I sat there at night and read books to have something to do."
Others in the department told her if her husband stopped supporting Bradley, the sheriff would lay off of her. She refused and eventually worked for Bradley's campaign herself. She finally left the department and now works for the University of Tennessee's Institute for Public Service.
She's not the only one who reports being punished by the sheriff for their associations, political activities or views. Dunn, who was a lieutenant in the training division at the time, was transferred several times, until he eventually ended up working a graveyard shift at the penal farm. Dunn says he believes he was transferred because of his political associations and because he knew about Hutchison's involvement with some unsavory characters.
When Dunn lost his department-provided car and mobile phone, he decided to work openly for Rudy Bradley's campaign.
The day after the elections, Dunn says he was called into personnel for not reporting to work one day. When it turned out he hadn't reported because he was assisting the KPD with a hostage situation, he was then fired for taking time off for jury duty, but not actually being on a jury. (Dunn says he was told by a supervisor to take off until the jury duty had passed. But when he realized he was only on call for jury duty—and not on an actual jury—he went back to work after eight days. His supervisors later claimed he was playing hooky from work. He appealed the decision to the Merit Board but lost. He's now awaiting a court appeal.)
Brenda Lindsay-McDaniel, the former judicial commissioner, says she is friends with many officers in both the KPD and sheriff's office. She says many of them are terrified to be seen talking with certain people. "His officers swear [Hutchison] hears everything they say. He never demotes in pay, only rank. That puts them in a real quandary," she says. "He punishes quickly."
Dunn says the paranoia that grips the department is fueled by officers wanting to get ahead. "You have to understand the mindset that exists within the Knox County Sheriff's Office. The young officers are of the opinion that the way to get promotions is to be a snitch for the sheriff. That's how promotions are given—not by ability or experience."
Typical of Hutchison's Jekyll-and-Hyde public image, others disagree. David Hunter, a former employee at the sheriff's office and now a novelist and columnist for the News-Sentinel, says the sheriff is as fair as they come. A loyal Democrat, Hunter didn't vote for Hutchison the first time around. He's since been won over.
"I was there for three sheriffs and I saw plenty of political punishment in my day. But [Hutchison] had some bitter enemies when he became sheriff. They are still there if they did their job. I didn't see vindictiveness when I left the department [in 1993]. There were some people who left, but anybody who wanted to stay is there.
"The sheriff and I had some disagreements when he became sheriff. As far as I can see, the sheriff has taken care of his employees and given them the benefit of the doubt. I've never seen him sacrifice employees to make himself look better."
Hutchison insists he's fair in the way he treats employees. "You can see people who I promoted who opposed me in past elections," he says. "All I ask is they work hard for me. I don't care if they don't support me in the elections, and I'm not going to make them contribute to my campaign, as I had to in the past for other sheriffs."
Tim Hutchison doesn't give many interviews these days. (His interview for this story came only after months of unreturned phone calls and ignored requests for information.) But he gave one this spring to CityView's Nathan Sparks. Titled "The High Sheriff," the article includes several pictures of Hutchison (shot by fashion photographer Jean-Philippe) standing next to his helicopters. The article gushes about the job Hutchison's done, and the magazine endorses him in the same issue.
In the article, Hutchison complains that the local media—particularly The Knoxville News-Sentinel and WBIR TV—unfairly attack him.
The relationship between the News-Sentinel and Hutchison has been particularly contentious. The Sentinel didn't endorse Hutchison in his first race, but there didn't seem to be any grounds for animosity. But in the summer of 1991, things took a bad turn.
It happened after the Sheriff's Department held a press conference to announce a big drug bust. The officers claimed they'd nabbed 200 pounds of marijuana and arrested four suspects. However, it turned out that the marijuana was actually supplied by the Sheriff's Department and that one of the four suspects was an informant. The paper felt betrayed, and aggressively reported the deception. "It was done for TV," says one person who worked at the Sentinel at the time. "It wasn't really done to bust anyone. That pissed off [Editor] Harry [Moskos] and [News Editor] Tom [Chester], so they went after the sheriff." The sheriff countered that the paper had jeopardized the life of an informant with its reporting.
Because of the newspaper's friendly relationship with Mayor Ashe, Hutchison and his supporters also thought the Sentinel was taking the city's side in the old city vs. county power struggle.
Relations hit rock bottom before the 1994 election, when Hutchison was in a fierce race with Rudy Bradley of the KPD. It was a sensationalistic, mud-slinging campaign.
Bad press seemed to erupt around Hutchison that year. His good friend and supporter Medical Examiner Randall Pedigo was under scrutiny for writing questionable narcotics prescriptions. As a physician, Pedigo treated Hutchison and several law officers, and Bradley supporters started whispering that the sheriff might be on drugs. (Bradley publicly challenged him to a drug test, which both passed). Then in June, Pedigo was wounded in a shootout with TBI agents. The agents had evidence that Pedigo was drugging young men and photographing them naked.
Finally, a week before the election, someone leaked photos to the Sentinel about "angel cuffing"—a practice where inmates were cuffed spread-eagle to jail-cell bars.
Although the timing was clearly political on the part of whoever tipped off the Sentinel, the paper's editors decided the story was too big to sit on until after the election. "There was always this assumption that the News-Sentinel had saved the angel-cuffing story for the week before the election. That was not true," the former Sentinel employee says. "We were aware it was saved [by the source], but that kind of information is hard for a reporter to ignore."
But as a political ploy, the angel-cuffing story didn't work. It might have actually helped Hutchison win—his supporters probably weren't that sympathetic to jail inmates, and it gave the sheriff an air of being tough on crime. Hutchison carried every precinct outside the city except one, and he carried several inside the city. He won the election by more than 6,000 votes. On election night, he told the Sentinel he felt he had waged two campaigns—one against Bradley and one against the newspaper.
After the election, Hutchison's supporters waged a phone-call campaign to the Cincinnati headquarters of E.W. Scripps—the Sentinel's parent company—threatening to pull advertising from the paper, the source says. "Nobody said 'leave the sheriff alone.' I just think it made Harry a little gun shy," he says.
But, bad feelings between the sheriff's office and local media linger. Hutchison told CityView, "I know that people at Channel 10 and the Sentinel meet and strategize on how they're going to attack me during the election."
Jack McElroy, the new editor of the Sentinel, says he doesn't know the history of Hutchison's ill will toward the paper. The paper collaborates with Channel 10 on many news projects, and they've examined documents obtained by lawyer Herb Moncier and County Commissioner Wanda Moody in their lawsuits against Hutchison (the Sentinel hasn't decided whether to write about them). But McElroy denies there is any conspiracy to get the sheriff. "I can categorically say we've never met with Channel 10 to talk about how we're going to attack the sheriff. In fact, we endorsed the sheriff [in the primary election]."
The conspiracies claimed by the sheriff and his supporters usually get traced back to Mayor Ashe. In the CityView article, Hutchison calls Moody a "Victor-ite" and notes that she's Ashe's aunt by marriage.
The conspiracy also apparently includes Metro Pulse. Martha Dooley, the sheriff's spokeswoman, delayed in returning phone calls for this story for months, and said Hutchison wouldn't grant an interview because Metro Pulse senior editor Barry Henderson editorialized against the sheriff in the primary. Dooley suggested it had something to do with the fact that Henderson's wife, Leslie Henderson, works for Ashe. (It's worth noting that Metro Pulse has written several critical articles and editorials about Leslie Henderson, the mayor's development director, and many more criticizing the mayor.)
There are times when Hutchison also comes off nervous and defensive. During a 45-minute interview, his answers are perfunctory. He often seems distracted, shuffling through papers and abruptly making phone calls without a word to the reporter.
The media attack him so often because of politics, he says. "It's a political process. My job is political. That's what democracy is all about. You can pick a side. [The media has] that right."
Despite his obvious mistrust of journalists, Hutchison clearly knows how to use the media, especially local TV news.
"He is a good PR person," says Lindsay-McDaniel. "When there are escaped convicts, if they were apprehended when Hutchison is out of town, he'd tell his people not to tell anyone they were caught and wait until he gets back into town to make an announcement."
Bill Lyons, UT political science professor and a local pollster, says Hutchison knows how to put the public at ease. "He does a good job of communicating and putting a public face on crime solving. He's good at communicating that," he says, pointing to how the sheriff is very much in the spotlight when a major crime has happened or a suspect is nabbed.
The sheriff says he's visible at crime scenes because he wants to support his officers and deputies. "When I was out on the street, the sheriff never showed up at the scene. I made sure I'd be out there supporting my officers."
Hutchison also has a knack for knowing when it's time to lay low. A perfect example was when the Justice Center project was put on hold in early 2000—something that was seen as a clear defeat of the sheriff's agenda. After that, he pretty much disappeared from the headlines for more than a year.
"He's got good political instincts," Lyons says. "If he is becoming a little too hot—in quotation marks—like on the Justice Center, he knows when to recede and be out of the spotlight for a while."
The Sentinel feud isn't the only notable one Hutchison has waged in his 12 years in office. Although he worked on the Metro Auto Theft Division with the Knoxville Police Department, the cooperative spirit ended soon after he took office.
One of the first things Hutchison did after becoming sheriff was to form a county narcotics unit separate from the Metro Narcotics Unit, which was operated jointly by the KPD and Sheriff's Department. Hutchison argued that the Metro Unit wasn't spending enough time investigating crimes outside the city. The sheriff also said that Police Chief Phil Keith refused to share control of the unit and the money seized in raids with the sheriff's office. In 1996, however, Hutchison complained to Keith about KPD officers investigating crimes outside the city.
The sheriff's office continued to participate in the Metro Unit until the city grudgingly disbanded it in 1997. All the while, both agencies pointed fingers, arguing about which one was contributing more and which was reaping the benefits.
Keith and other high-ranking KPD officers wouldn't comment on the relationship. "The sheriff's involved in a heated race. This probably wouldn't be the best time to talk about it," KPD spokesman Darryl DeBusk says.
But the KPD—which has had its own image problems over the past decade—has certainly made itself a political enemy of the sheriff. Rudy Bradley of the KPD ran with the support of many city officers and administrators against Hutchison in the bitter campaign of '94. Similarly, Hutchison's primary opponent last month, J.J. Jones, was a former Hutchison deputy who now works for the KPD.
The relationship remains contentious. In 1998, a volunteer group called Working Together formed to try to improve the relationship between the agencies. The group compiled a list of problems and concerns to address, which it then narrowed to 18 specific issues.
An interagency agreement addressing those problems was drawn up in 2000. Lawyers from the city and county were to meet to finalize the agreement, but they have yet to do so. Last October, Woody Troy, chairman of the committee, met informally with Hutchison. He asked the sheriff if he'd help facilitate a meeting between the lawyers, and asked about possibly bringing in a professional negotiator. Although Hutchison was cordial, Troy says the sheriff would not agree to use a negotiator.
Troy says his concern is not with the people involved, since they will eventually change. But, he's worried about how the bad relationship could affect law enforcement and safety. He points to an incident in Georgia, where two deputies were accidentally killed because two agencies were feuding.
Although unwilling to point fingers, Troy says that the KPD has been more cooperative. "The Knoxville Police Department is very cooperative. At the beginning, the Sheriff's Department was very cooperative, then it sort of fizzled out," Troy says. "Why it's fizzled I can't really tell you."
Hutchison says he did cooperate with Working Together. He says there were concerns that the Sheriff's Department was being asked to give up powers it is constitutionally required to have.
"We sent [proposed revisions] to [the city's] law director, and we never would hear from them, and then they turn around and blame it on us," Hutchison says.
Hutchison says more has been made out of the feud with the KPD than there really is. "For the most part, we do get along. We assist them in any way we can—at no cost. We're different governments, and different governments differ at times."
But when it comes to fighting crime, the two agencies often act more like rivals than allies. One example was the Ramsey's Cafeteria murder case last July. Sheriff's investigators found evidence during a search of the Tennessee River that led to the arrest of two suspects. KPD investigators who were investigating the crime said they had no idea the Sheriff's Department was also working on it.
Asked whether his department shares information with the KPD about investigations, Hutchison says sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. "We solve their crimes and sometimes they don't like it," he says. "If we're investigating one of their employees, we don't tell them about it."
What does Hutchison think of the KPD's investigative skills? "No comment."
Lawyers, Drugs, and Money
Asked what he thinks his greatest accomplishments are as sheriff, Hutchison immediately points to the facilities he's built for the department. Before he was sheriff, the department had to use other agencies' training grounds and firing ranges. "We were at everyone else's mercy. It made it really hard to train," he says.
Cadets were sent to the state's training facility in Donelson. "We could only get about four slots at a time," he says. "Now we have our own facilities paid for out of the drug funds."
But it's the use of those drug funds that has caused the most controversy for Hutchison. In 1995 and 1996, he used more than $100,000 in drug seizure money to build a firing range and training facility in East Knox County, without informing County Commission or local residents. When residents complained about noise and safety, several commissioners grilled the sheriff about it.
The county's auditor found the use of the money was improper and recommended it be paid back to the drug fund out of the general fund, and the state's comptroller agreed. However, the sheriff refused to do so, insisting he followed the law.
In 1997, partly in response to the concerns about Hutchison, the state Legislature amended its drug-fund procedures in a number of ways. While drug money was previously maintained by the Sheriff's Department, now it was required to be put in a special-revenue fund in the county finance or treasury office. County Commission is required to approve a budget for the use of the funds each year. But confidential payments for drug buys aren't specified and can be withdrawn at any time by the Sheriff's Department.
Currently, the Sheriff's Department has more than $166,000 in this drug fund. The county's finance director, Kathy Hamilton, says that there may be more money still kept at the Sheriff's Department, left over from before the law change. She doesn't know how much might be there.
The law also more clearly defined how the money can be used. It expanded the use to allow for short-term contracts and one-time capital expenditures. However, Hamilton says expenses over $50,000 (excepting those made for confidential investigations) still require approval of County Commission and must be made by competitive bid. And any non-confidential purchases are supposed to go through the county's purchasing department.
For the past several years, there's been a running dispute between the Sheriff's Department and the county's auditors over whether the money is being handled properly. Auditors have also noted that capital expenditures were being made out of the old drug fund money, which is now only supposed to be used for confidential investigations.
The sheriff insists that "all the money has been accounted for."
Bank records obtained by Commissioner Wanda Moody in a lawsuit against the sheriff (prompted by his role in the now-shelved Justice Center project), show that money has been spent from confidential drug funds on a number of non-confidential expenditures. These accounts show that between June 1997 and December 2001, the department paid out around $879,000 for what appear to be mainly expenditures related to the department's helicopters and other contracts.
Of the more than $1.7 million spent out of these funds, $656,000 went to cash (for drug investigations, according to the Sheriff's Department), $298,000 was spent on helicopters, $163,000 on phones and pagers, $156,000 on unknown, $140,000 on contract services, $121,000 on miscellaneous, $82,000 on dogs, $45,000 on travel, $44,000 on training, and $4,000 on labor, among many other smaller categories.
Under helicopter maintenance and expenses, some $142,000 was paid to Manuel Hermosillo for helicopter maintenance between July 1997 and December 2001. But since these transactions didn't go through the county's finance department, it's unclear whether the sheriff made appropriate IRS deductions for the labor.
County Commissioner Mike Arms says that although the use of these funds has made for some controversial stories, he doesn't think it matters much to voters.
"I know sometimes Tim has been controversial," Arms says. "At times he's even pushed the envelope. But I've got to rely on my district, the 5th. What they really want to see in law enforcement is patrol cars in neighborhoods and keeping the crime rate down. And when you have violent crime, solving it.
"I really think the firing range is probably 40 miles from these people; it just doesn't get on the radar with them."
In the world of politics, there's not much difference between power and perception. If you can make people think you have power, you will have it.
Sheriff Hutchison is generally believed to be one of the two most powerful politicians in Knox County (with Ashe as the other). His foes paint Hutchison as a control freak who manipulates people with a combination of carrots, sticks and stubbornness. In turn, he paints those foes in exactly the same shades, all the while denying that he has much influence over other office-holders.
Asked about his influence on other election campaigns and with the County Commission, Hutchison acts surprised. "I've never in a Republican primary supported one or the other candidate. The only thing I've ever lobbied the Commission for is for the good of the department."
Although his support may not be overt, he's generally acknowledged to have had a big impact on county politics—both helping getting several candidates elected and influencing County Commission in his favor.
In his current race, he enjoys the support of County Executive-elect Mike Ragsdale, who has long been close to Hutchison. (Ragsdale works for the architectural firm Barber & McMurry, which worked closely with the sheriff in drawing up the Justice Center plans.) Perhaps Hutchison's biggest strength, at least until the past few years, was the impression that he could not be beaten.
The sheriff won a string of big political victories in the mid- to late-'90s, which all added to a growing aura of invincibility. After the fiercely fought 1994 election, he helped defeat the city-county unification referendum in 1996. Two years later, he threw his support behind Cathy Quist, who beat Lillian Bean's "Bean Machine" to become Circuit Court clerk.
That Hutchison so often ends up opposing Mayor Ashe has as much to do with geography and political power bases as it does with personalities. Hutchison is seen as speaking for the suburban and rural communities outside the city, whose interests have often been at odds with the urban Republican power structure.
Mary Lou Horner, a county commissioner and Hutchison ally, says the scandals that have plagued Hutchison's career are the work of those trying to discredit him.
"It's obvious the mayor has a problem with the sheriff, so of course the problem would roll over to the chief of police who serves at the pleasure of the mayor," Horner says. "The chief of police is doing exactly what the mayor wants him to do. But that's just Victor. Victor just likes to be in charge of everything."
There are many who see the same character flaw in Hutchison, but Horner denies that he's abusive with his power.
"The sheriff has never picked up the telephone and asked me to vote for something, nor has he asked me in person," Horner says. "What he does is bring it to us either in committee or at the full Commission. If there are any questions, he presents whatever he needs. I can't speak for the other commissioners. But I don't think he goes and lobbies the commissioners."
Of course, Hutchison hasn't gone unchallenged on Commission. His biggest nemesis there, Commissioner Wanda Moody, has four lawsuits pending against him.
One suit challenges the sheriff's authority to be in charge of the Justice Center. The second challenges his ability to use drug funds for construction projects. Two other lawsuits involve access to Sheriff's Department records.
Moody says her lawsuits are not political tactics, but an attempt to have accountability over public money, property and resources. "I just believe we need proper accountability. And I think we need to have fairness," she says. "[Commission] will give [Hutchison] special treatment and won't give schools the same treatment. And I don't think that's right."
Most observers agree that in 1999, Hutchison over-extended his influence in county politics and was forced to retreat.
County Commission was unhappy with the way the Public Building Authority was handling the Justice Center project. So it transferred control of the project to Hutchison, who promoted himself as a cost-cutter and experienced general contractor.
But the $90 million project had many critics—most notably, District Attorney General Randy Nichols—who questioned its necessity, cost, location, management and lack of public input. Others questioned the legality of letting the sheriff manage a public building project—which was dubbed the "Taj Mah Tim" for its perceived extravagance (including a helicopter pad). With public opinion turning on him, Hutchison resigned from the project and retreated from the spotlight.
Today, the sheriff is defensive about the perception that the Justice Center was his building, noting that several courts and other offices would have been included. He maintains that a new jail is badly needed, but he's nonchalant about the Commission's decision to wait.
"I never once recommended a Justice Center or a location. I said I don't care if it's on a barge on the river, we just need a place to lock 'em up. We've been overcrowded this year. "When we get overcrowded, they just dump 'em out on the streets.
"The number of people arrested has gone up in the past two years. Something's going to have to be done. They can't keep letting them out on the streets. I keep [Commission] notified of problems we have. It's up to them to do something about it."
But monthly reports from the Tennessee Department of Corrections show that only one of the county's three jail facilities runs close to capacity. The downtown jail—which has 215 beds—was almost always at 90 percent capacity or more in the past year. The county Detention Center, which has 676 beds, has been about 70 to 80 percent full in the past year, and the Knox County Penal Farm, with 188 beds, ranges from 20 to 30 percent full each month. In fact, of the seven counties in Tennessee with more than one jail facility, Knox generally runs at the lowest percent of total capacity.
In the past couple of years, except when a bad guy has been nabbed, Hutchison has shied away from any publicity. How much the Justice Center project drained Hutchison's power won't be known until August.
Who Is He?
It's election year, and once again some people are speculating that Hutchison's moment may be nearing an end. Hutchison can be beat this year, his critics gleefully predict.
The primary election last month against J.J. Jones wasn't very close, but it showed signs of Hutchison's potential vulnerability. "It was a comfortable win, but it certainly wasn't a landslide," says UT political science professor Bill Lyons. "It showed a substantial constituency who was questioning the way the sheriff's office has been run."
Jim Andrews, the Democrat who will face Hutchison in the August general election, saw a bigger sign for hope. If you add up Andrews' primary votes with those of Jones, you get 16,925—a narrow victory over Hutchison's 16,311. Jones has since endorsed Andrews.
"I think over half the votes cast for sheriff were for someone other than Hutchison for sheriff," Andrews says. "Those Jimmy Jones votes I don't think are available to Hutchison in August."
Lyons isn't so sure. He says it's only natural for Hutchison to have accumulated some "negatives" in his 12 years in office. "When you've been in office as long as he has, there begin to be points of criticism," Lyons says. "You're going to build up some negatives. The strongest thing he has going for him is there hasn't been any criticism of delivery of law enforcement and crime solving."
"I would not underestimate Tim's power out there," he adds.
One of Hutchison's critics, James Dunn, sits in his West Knoxville apartment and dreams of Hutchison's fall. He predicts that the sheriff will one day get his just desserts. Dunn also believes he'll get his own redemption, as he presses his lawsuit with the Sheriff's Department to get his job back.
"If [Hutchison] is not defeated, he will probably remain in the Sheriff's Department until he goes to federal prison," Dunn says. "Tim Hutchison is of the mindset that he cannot be touched and that he can do anything to anybody without any repercussions. And that, ultimately, will be his downfall."
Most likely, Hutchison will remain elusive and mysterious. When voters step into the polling booths this August, who they vote for will depend on what they see in that face that so often speaks to us on the evening news, assuring us that the bad men of the world have been caught or will be soon.
Do you see a shifty-eyed megalomaniac who punishes any who would challenge him and uses his power for his own gain? Or do you see a charming, confident hometown boy, fighting to keep Knox County safe despite the dirty politicians who malign him?
Who he actually is may not even matter—at least, not as much as who people think he is.