Put away the Chains
For now at least, Market Square looks toward business as usual
Why are local officials keeping Johnia Berry’s murder case to themselves?
Put away the Chains
But downtown boosters—as well as friends of the Wests—can take some heart in the fact none of the West-owned operations look to close down anytime soon. Says the Wests’ attorney Don Bosch, “There is no immediate threat of the government being able to close these businesses. And they are absolutely going forward with keeping the businesses open. There are no plans to change that.”
Federal authorities have already filed initial forfeiture pleadings to seize the Wests’ property. According to Russ Dedrick, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Tennessee, forfeiture pleas are used to prevent the accused from either selling or diminishing the value of property that might be seized. Proceedings for the actual seizure, however, don’t begin until the criminal case is resolved.
“Up to that point, whatever happens (with the properties) is up to the owner of the business,” Dedrick says.
When the criminal trial will be resolved is anybody’s guess, but it probably won’t be soon. Scott West was arraigned on Monday, with a trial date set for Sept. 21. But Bosch says he will file a motion this week to have the case certified as “complex,” a legal designation that means it would no longer be subject to the federal Speedy Trial Act, which mandates a trial date within 70 days of arraignment. Bosch says federal prosecutors told him they would not oppose his motion.
“It’s highly unlikely that (the Sept. 21 court date) will hold,” says Bosch. “This is a process that will take months, if not years.”
Should the prosecutors obtain a conviction in the case, a second legal fight will begin to determine which, if any, of the Wests’ properties are subject to forfeiture. To establish grounds for forfeiture, Dedrick says prosecutors must prove that either (a) the property in question was used in furtherance of the crime, or (b) funds obtained from the criminal activity were used to purchase the property.
Court documents allege that the Wests’ case would likely be an instance of the former, rather than the latter circumstance, as prosecutors claim they used their businesses to launder money from sales of marijuana. Authorities have also identified Scott West’s brother, James Michael West, and a handful of other alleged co-conspirators as culpable in an ongoing operation to transport and sell marijuana, and launder the resulting profits through legitimate business interests.
“Forfeiture is basically a trial within a trial,” offers Greg Isaacs, a well-known local defense attorney with considerable experience in seizure cases. “It could go on for months or even a year. The forfeiture part is more of an accounting battle than it is a legal battle.”
Editor’s note: Cardinal Enterprises, owned by Metro Pulse Publisher Brian Conley, has a second mortgage on two of the Wests’ Market Square properties, including the WesTrent Building and 36 Market Square, in the amount of $101,000.
Hutchison must grant permission before such a show could be produced, but has not agreed to do so at this time. And the Berry family is critical of both Hutchison and Nichols for their unwillingness to call in additional assistance from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), with the exception of the DNA testing it is already conducting.
Despite the office’s 92-percent solvability rate since 1996 and its assertion that it has “spent more time and resources on this case than any other in the history of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office,” the Berry family is unsatisfied with the investigation’s progress. “It’s been 19 months since Johnia was murdered, and there have been no arrests, no suspects,” Johnia’s mother Joan says. “I think it’s about time they asked for help.”
According to Joan, the Sheriff’s Office’s response that TBI is actively investigating the case is misleading: TBI has only been handling the DNA testing, as is procedure. Around 100 samples of DNA have already been processed, with a backlog of 73 samples still to be tested.
Joan says the officials want to wait until all the evidence has been processed before turning to outside resources such as national television media. “But it’s a slow process,” Joan says, “and statistics show that the longer a case goes unsolved, the colder it gets, and the less likely it is that the case will ever be solved.”
The officials have cited other reasons for withholding their permission as well. “They say having Johnia on America’s Most Wanted would tie up their detectives,” Joan explains. “It would bring in lots of calls and then they would have to go follow them up. But if you don’t get calls and leads about my daughter, how are you going to find out who murdered her?”
An official statement released by the Sheriff’s office responds: “We have never said ‘no’ to America’s Most Wanted , but at this time the focus is local. Our investigators as well as the FBI believe the perpetrator is local, and that’s where our investigation is targeted.” The office says it has assigned a full-time detective to the case and is currently fighting a local treatment center to subpoena possible suspects’ names.
Meanwhile, the Berry family has been working overtime to keep Johnia’s case in the public eye. They maintain a web blog, www.johniaberry.org , with updates on her case and an outlet for confidential leads; keep contact with both local and national media; and have purchased billboard space to raise awareness of Johnia’s murder (Lamar Advertising now donates the space). And last Friday night, July 14, the Berry family held a walk in downtown Knoxville in an effort to urge Nichols to grant TBI permission to investigate the case. About 50 persons were in attendance.
“We’ve been doing as much as possible to keep this in the media, to get some results, so it’s frustrating that the sheriff has been so uncooperative,” Burke says. “You never get a chance to heal and move on because it’s such a constant struggle, first the loss of my sister and now this. You want to believe they’re doing the best they can, but….”
The Sheriff’s Office argues that, in fact, it is: “We are working hard on the case, but we can’t please everyone all the time. Regardless of any criticism, we will continue to investigate this case vigorously.”
Joan sounds less confident in their efforts. “This shouldn’t be about politics, but I’m concerned that’s what this has turned into,” she says. “I don’t understand why they’re refusing the help of people who specialize in this. The most important thing here is finding the person who did this and getting him off the street before he hurts someone else.”
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