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SEVIER COUNTY “GOOD OLD BOYS” DENY CIVIL, CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS TO OFFICER ATTEMPTING TO PROTECT THE MOST HELPLESS AMONG US
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 21, 2012) — The Post & Email has recently interviewed a former sheriff’s deputy from the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department who, because of misconduct on the part of public officials, was denied his constitutional right to file a warrant against a perpetrator who assaulted him, was then arrested himself and wrongfully convicted of a felony by the “Sevier County Criminal Court,” and is now awaiting sentencing.
Officer Mark Lipton had a ten-year “unblemished” record, has six children and a wife to support, and is currently unemployed while fighting his conviction.
The Post & Email has reported on other instances of criminal conduct in Sevier County involving cronyism and the withholding of information from the grand jury in its review of the shooting injuries sustained by a child by a known perpetrator. Sevier County Sheriff Ron Seals has recently been voted “2012 Tennessee Sheriff of the Year,” which Seals described as a “life long [sic] dream of anybody who has ever been a sheriff.”
Lipton, whose case has been publicized at the National Police Defense Foundation (NPDF), is now considered a convicted felon and has lost his right to vote and carry a firearm. The Foundation is seeking donations on Lipton’s behalf to assist him in filing an appeal, which he said could cost $10,000 or more.
Tennessee courts have been found to be rife with corruption, and laws passed in 1984 directing the criminal courts to reorganize have been completely ignored. Recently The Chattanooga Times Free Press began to expose corruption within the Tenth Judicial District comprising the counties of Monroe, McMinn, Bradley and Polk supportive of The Post & Email’s reporting over the last 2½ years.
Cronyism, violations of citizens’ civil and constitutional rights, prosecutorial misconduct, and deplorable conditions within the jails of some Tennessee sheriffs have been exposed over the last several years by The Post & Email. Grand juries and trial juries often contain members serving contrary to state statute, with some “hand-picked.” Last year, information pertinent to a murder investigation was provided to both the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) and the Knoxville office of the FBI without response, while those named in the citizen’s own investigation have now been called to the trial as witnesses. It is widely believed that a woman held in custody for nearly two years did not commit the crime.
In 2005, the FBI and TBI conducted an investigation which culminated in the arrest of seven members of the Tennessee General Assembly and a former county commissioner on bribery charges. Judges have been demonstrably inebriated or under the influence of drugs on the bench in some instances.
Lipton’s resignation from the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department and subsequent charge arose from an incident which occurred on November 16, 2009 in which a vehicle had been traveling on the wrong side of the road and passed him. On duty at the time, Lipton pursued the vehicle, which he said ultimately “crashed.” Lipton then arrested the operator of the vehicle, Gerald Miller, for suspected DUI.
Later that evening, Sheriff Ron Seals had been at home listening to his police radio and heard about the arrest by the license plate number. Lipton told us, “He got on the place radio and ordered Corporal Wayne Patterson to call me at home. Shortly thereafter, Patterson hollered at me to meet him somewhere. I said, ‘Corporal, I have a prisoner in custody.’ He said, ‘Mark, I need you to stop somewhere and meet me.’ I was trying to get the guy to the medical center to have a blood kit drawn on him.
“I pulled over at a location on Wears Valley Road at an Exxon gas station and I said to my superior officer, ‘What’s going on?’ and he said, ‘The sheriff told me that this is a friend of his, some kind of campaign contributor. We have to let him go; his family is coming to get him, and if we don’t let him go, we’re liable to lose our jobs.'”
Lipton continued with his story:
“The guy’s family came to the location, picked him up, and off he went. While I was standing there, I said to the corporal, ‘I want to ask you something. There are five or six other officers walking this evening. What am I going to do when they start calling my cell phone because everybody knows that the traffic stop took place, and they know I was en route to the medical center with the guy, but now I’m going back in service? They’re going to want to know what happened to the guy.’ He said, ‘Mark, don’t answer your cell phone, and the sheriff took care of it at the office.’ I said, ‘How did he take care of it, because I don’t want to end up sued for having someone in custody or anything like that.’ He said, ‘He took it out of the computer system like the traffic stop never happened.'”
Lipton said he continued to work for the Sheriff’s Department “in silence” for about another 18 months after that incident. However, the day after the traffic stop, the sheriff asked for the paperwork Lipton had completed involving the incident and said, “Lipton, I owe you one.” Lipton said that “The IOU never panned out,” and he never got the promotion for which he had applied. “I just kept my mouth shut for fear of losing my job. I had plans on leaving, they forced me to resign, and out I went,” Lipton said.
Following his resignation, Lipton filed a complaint against the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), which said after an “investigation” that his complaint was “unfounded.” The TBI had allegedly questioned Sheriff Seals and Corporal Patterson, both of whom denied any knowledge of the traffic stop. The sheriff was “cleared,” and Lipton informed us that Patterson has been promoted to the rank of Sergeant. “The TBI found that the traffic stop was unfounded, and I looked like a jerk in the eyes of the attorney general in my county,” he said.
Also in 2009, Lipton also went through a divorce and hired an attorney, Felicia White, to represent him in the matter. He and his attorney went to court before Judge Ben Hooper, who Lipton described as “a pretty complacent guy.” However, Lipton said that unexpectedly, the judge raised his voice and conducted himself unprofessionally during the proceedings, surprising both Lipton and Attorney White. “I’ve never seen him act like that before,” White told her client. “Somebody has gotten to him,” to which Lipton said, “What do you mean someone’s ‘gotten to him?'” She said, “Mark, this is over your traffic stop; I guarantee it. I’ve never seen him treat a human being like that before. Some of the things he did border on unethical, but I don’t even know what to do right now. I have to go home and confide with my mom and my brother, who are also attorneys.”
“That was the end of that,” Lipton said. “You know with lawyers that everything is financial. But it was obvious that it was retaliatory. He had never acted like that, and he treated me terribly,” he told us.
Lipton eventually remarried and obtained a new job as a deputy with the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Office. One day, he and his wife were bringing in groceries from their car parked in the driveway. Lipton described the following scene:
I saw a four-wheeler go down the road at a high rate of speed driven by my neighbor’s grandson, who was probably 13 years of age at the time. On that four-wheeler with the boy was a two-or-three-year-old baby straddling the gas tank. So out of concern for the safety of that child, I went down to the end of the road; I stopped the boy, and I said, “Listen, you can’t be doing this; it’s dangerous with the baby on it; take it home.” The boy gave me no resistance; he went home. As I was walking down my driveway, which is 50-75 yards long, I heard another four-wheeler come out of the hollow, and I turned around, and it was this kid’s grandfather on a four-wheeler. He burned rubber across my driveway and took off into the hollow. I went out to the end of the road just to stop and tell him what had transpired between his grandson and me. He then came at me with the four-wheeler. His grandson might have gone home and said something that wasn’t true to him to get him roused up, because he came at me with the four-wheeler and I had to grab it to keep from getting run over. Then he punched me in the face. I turned to my wife, who was within shouting and visual distance of me and said, “Call the police department; tell them I’ve been assaulted.” She got on the phone with the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department. There are 911 tapes of this which I’ll get you. You can hear my wife screaming for my safety. I’m being assaulted in the background, and she’s screaming for my safety. [Editor’s Note: The audio of the 911 calls is embedded in an article here (at bottom).]
The police arrived on the scene, and I ended up being taken to the ground by the man’s family members; there were three or four people there. I’m taken to the ground, and when I’m on the ground, they push the four-wheeler over the top of me. Now I’ve got a four-wheeler on top of me. I’ve also got pictures of all of this.
“At the time of my assault, this guy’s daughter and his wife were both on probation for dealing drugs to an undercover agent in my county. The guy’s daughter walked up to the police officer who was facing me and dealing with me, and I said, ‘Tell her to get back, because I don’t want her to see me hand you this weapon; I don’t want them to say that it was used in the commission of a crime. He took the gun from me, stuck it in his waistband, turned around, and guess what she saw? So the daughter went over to the grandfather and said, ‘Papaw, say he used that weapon on you.’ From that moment on, that family and everyone started swearing up and down that they had a gun pulled on them and they were threatened with their lives.
“Later that evening, more officers arrived on the scene. A detective showed up and investigated everything and said, ‘We’re not pressing charges. There’s nothing here for us. It’s up to you-all to take out warrants against each other.’ Later that evening, my wife and I went down to the magistrate’s office to get a warrant. The magistrate on duty said, ‘I will absolutely issue you a warrant.’ He said, ‘Let’s see if the police report is ready.’ He called over to the sheriff’s department – this was November 16, 2009 – the young rookie officer hadn’t completed his report yet, and I was directed to come back the following day. The following day, November 17, 2009, at 9:30 in the morning, my wife and I went over to the sheriff’s department. I tape-recorded a portion of the conversation, because I had worked there and I didn’t trust them. The captain of detectives, Jeff McCarter, is big trouble. He’s a dirty cop and a lot of people don’t like him. He came up to the counter, and I said, ‘Jeff, are you charging me with anything?’ and he said, ‘No, not that I’m aware of.’ So I said, ‘I’d like my weapon back.’ ‘I don’t have a problem with that,’ he said, ‘Let me get with the detective, and we’ll get your gun back.’ So I said, ‘I have to ask you a question. Why didn’t you-all confiscate that four-wheeler that was used in the commission of a crime against me?’ And he said, ‘Lipton, you get your stuff and you go on…’ He started yelling at me. My wife and I got the police report and walked out the door and approximately 100 yards across the parking lot to where the magistrate was. A new magistrate was on duty. We opened the door, and he was standing just inside. He said, ‘Mr. Lipton, we won’t be issuing any warrant to you today; you’re under criminal investigation.’
“That magistrate’s name was Craig McCarter. Jeff McCarter called over there in the time it took for us to walk across the parking lot, and he said, ‘Don’t issue him any warrants.’ I felt my civil rights were violated from obtaining a lawful warrant, because it’s the magistrate’s duty to determine if there’s probable cause to issue a warrant. He didn’t know why I was there; for all he knew, I could have had to use the bathroom.
[Editor’s Note: Magistrate Craig McCarter was described as having been very rude to Catherine Gebhardt, the mother of the child shot in the face and leg several years ago, refusing to perform his job when she requested assistance and insulting her. Ms. Gebhardt is still pursuing justice for the crime in Sevier County.]
“I was angry, and I told my wife, ‘This is ridiculous.’ I said, ‘We’re going to go across the way and walk over to Jimmy Dunn’s office.’ Jimmy Dunn is the attorney general. We went over there; he wasn’t there. I left a message with his secretary, Stephanie. I said, ‘Stephanie, I’ve worked with him; I’m a former police officer here in the county; I’m working for the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department now. I said, ‘I need Mr. Dunn to call me; I was just turned away from obtaining a lawful warrant.’ She told me, ‘Either Mr. Dunn or Steve Hawkins (who is now retired) will call you back.’ Neither one of those men ever called me back. I have made three phone calls, and they never called me back.
“We went home, and I had some of my friends supporting me, and I got a phone call, and it was the rookie police officer. He said, ‘Mark, where are you at?’ and I said, ‘I’m home.’ I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘I’ve got a property receipt for your weapon I want to bring to you.’ I said, ‘OK.’ Right when I hung up the phone, I turned to my friends, and I said, ‘Watch this; this is a setup. I’m going to be arrested; I can guarantee it.’ One of my friends who was there was a retired federal agent with the TBI; he was there to witness this.
“I hung up the phone, the kid got there, he handed me the property receipt and said, ‘I’m sorry; I don’t want anything to do with this.’ He drove off just out of sight. About two minutes later, the posse came consisting of three police officers on scene, and they said, ‘We have a warrant for your arrest.’ I said, ‘What for?’ and they said, ‘Aggravated assault.’ This was between 5:00 and 6:00 in the evening. They held me at bay so this guy could slip me when he got off of work, and they allowed him to take a warrant out against me. My accuser’s name is Henry Sutton. His daughter is actually married to someone in the sheriff’s family.
“All of the people who were there were highly upset; they were encouraging me not to go to jail that day, but I went along with the program. One of the officers who took me into custody was somebody I had worked with over the years whose name was Robert Stoffle. Robert said, ‘Mark, I want you to ride with me. I have to tell you something.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You know I’m first cousins with the sheriff, right?’ and I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I’m just going to tell you: if I could quit and go somewhere else tomorrow, I would. this is wrong as the day is long. You’re smart; get out of it.’ I said, ‘I’m going to do what I can; you need to do your job.’
“So they took me in. While I was in jail, the sheriff kept calling down to the front desk. I was in a cell where I could hear the phone ring and see what was going on. The sheriff kept calling to find out who was in the lobby in support of me, and they wanted to know what I was doing. There were a couple of people there who were highly upset that I was arrested. They had let me be a police officer for almost ten years. I even had to post a $7,500 bond, 10% of which is $750. People were upset with that; they thought I should have been ROR (released on recognizance), because I’m not a flight risk.”
Editor’s Note: Please watch for the second part of our report on Mark Lipton’s trial, conviction for assault and current situation.