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County businessman arrested for tax evasion and theft

NEWPORT—The Special Investigations Section of the Tennessee Department of Revenue conducted an investigation that led to the indictment and arrest of Melvin James Tucker, former manager of the Hideaway, for tax evasion and theft.

Revenue special agents arrested Tucker, 49, with assistance from the Cocke County Sheriff’s office, on Thursday. Bond was set at $50,000.

On Wednesday, the Cocke County Grand Jury indicted Tucker on nine Class E felony counts of sales tax evasion and one Class D felony count of theft of property over $2,500.

If convicted, Tucker could be sentenced to a maximum of two years in the state penitentiary and fined up to $3,000 for each count of tax evasion. He could be sentenced to a maximum of 12 years in the state penitentiary and fined up to $5,000 for the theft charge.

“The Department of Revenue promotes voluntary taxpayer compliance by educating taxpayers, aggressively pursuing criminal sanctions and demanding accountability when taxpayers engage in fraudulent activity,” Revenue Commissioner David Gerregano said. “This indictment underscores the Department’s ongoing efforts to enforce Tennessee’s tax laws.”

The Department is pursuing this criminal case in cooperation with District Attorney General James Dunn’s office. Citizens who suspect violations of Tennessee’s revenue laws should call the toll-free tax fraud hot line at (800) FRAUDTX (372-8389).

The Department of Revenue is responsible for the administration of state tax laws and motor vehicle title and registration laws, as well as the collection of taxes and fees associated with those laws.

The Department collects about 87 percent of total state revenue. During the 2018 fiscal year, it collected $14.5 billion in state taxes and fees and more than $2.8 billion in taxes and fees for local governments. To learn more about the Department, visit www.tn.gov/revenue.

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‘We’ve weathered worse than this!’

NEWPORT—Some Negative Nellies might have pronounced the 2019 Paint the Town Pink celebrate at the Cocke County Courthouse on Wednesday, Oct. 16, a complete washout. An unexpected squall, with wind gusts of 25 miles per hour or more and blowing rain, did indeed put a damper on the proceedings.

But the dozen or so breast cancer survivors in attendance simply laughed. One summed up the situtation with the observation, “We’ve weathered worse than this!”

Tennova’s Newport Medical Center personnel were joined by representatives of Rural Medical, Lowland Credit Union, Cheveaux, and Celebrate Life, plus several city and county officials, family members and friends for the occasion which pays tribute to October as Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

For a brief time, those in attendance browsed several stations offering giveaways, t-shirts, and information about their services.

This year’s ceremony was very brief, with remarks by Tonia Hale, CNO at Tennova Newport Medical Center, Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes, and Hospital Chaplain Linda Mulford. Newport Mayor Roland Dykes and Cocke County Mayor Crystal Ottinger issued a joint proclamation in honor of the occasion.

Bus driver shortages causing delayed pick ups

NEWPORT—An upset parent from Cosby addressed the county school board Thursday with complaints of her child’s bus being continuously late. The concerned parent also discussed the lack of response from several calls placed to the bus garage and school board office about the issue.

“I left my name at the office twice with no call back, I called the bus barn and no call back from them either. There are other parents complaining of the same thing happening with their bus routes,” said Kimberly Leger.

After not getting her calls returned and the bus situation still ongoing, Leger reached out to the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville and Governor Bill Lee’s office.

Leger said neither office could provide her with any phone numbers for Cocke County school board members, but the TN Department of Education informed her that it is illegal for a child to be on a bus for more than one and a half hours.

The department also stated the bylaws of bussing as a “privilege of providing reasonable and reliable transportation” to students to and from school.

“At the beginning of the year, we as parents have to sign a paper saying that we will get our child to school on time or we could go to jail. My child is not getting to school on time many mornings and we are concerned about this causing her to miss out on her classes. It’s about her education,” said Leger.

Board member John Johnson questioned Assistant Director of Schools Casey Kelley as to why there was never a return call to Ms. Leger.

“We were late in calling her back. I’m sorry, that’s our fault but it has been addressed and corrected,” said Kelley.

Kelley told the board that the bus issues have been a problem for about five years now and the county is about 6 routes short due to lack of drivers.

“If you know of anyone wanting to be a driver, we provide training. Send them to us. We are working toward a full fleet of drivers,” Kelley told Leger.

He also encouraged parents to be added to the robo call list that notifies when there is a bus delay.

Board member Johnson apologized to Leger for the lack of response and asked her to stay until the close of the meeting so he could give his direct contact number.

Grant Funds for Math

A special education grant will allow the purchase of supportive math software to hone skills as part of a research based initiative.

Assistant Technology/Homebound Coordinator teacher Trisha Ellison presented the board the package that would consist of monies for student and teacher training and all materials supplied up to a year.

The Special Education Achievement Discretionary Grant covers the initial package costs and leaves an amount to be used in the future.

Ellison said the training kit provides for 120 and if it proves a success this year, they will look into providing the special math training for other years.

Former corrections officer charged with aggravated assault

NEWPORT—Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes released a statement Friday afternoon regarding the arrest of a former corrections officer that assaulted an inmate.

Body camera video recently surfaced showing officer Kelton Townsend throwing a handcuffed inmate to the ground after he was arrested in February of this year.

After viewing the video, Sheriff Fontes immediately turned the video over to the District Attorney’s Office and launched an internal criminal investigation.

The facts of the case were presented to the Cocke County Grand Jury on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2019. Townsend was indicted and taken into custody on Friday at 12:30 p.m. Townsend is being held on a $50,000 bond. He is charged with aggravated assault and official oppression.

Sheriff Fontes stated in the press release that the video does not reflect the values of his department.

“The conduct shown on the video is not in accordance with what the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office stands for. We believe in training, having our officers follow appropriate standards in the use of force, and the protection of all persons,” the release read.

“It is unfortunate that this former employee acted outside the scope of the Sheriff’s Office use of force training and policy. In addition to the pending criminal matter, the victim in the incident has a civil lawsuit pending against Cocke County. For these reasons, this office will have no further comment on this matter. I want to thank Captain Ramsey for conducting this investigation.”

Jerry Miller the victim in the incident is seeking $5 million in damages from the county as a result of the assault.

The lawsuit claims that Miller suffered eight broken ribs and a punctured lung. He claims he was not given proper medical attention after the incident occurred.

Local couple indicted for attempted arson, sales tax fraud

NEWPORT—Geraldine and Gary Ridens, owners of the former Brandywine Creek Steakhouse & Tavern, were arrested Thursday afternoon on attempted arson charges.

In January 2017, at the request of 4th District Attorney General James Dunn, TBI Special Agents joined Tennessee Fire Investigative Services and the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office in investigating an attempted arson that occurred at the restaurant located along West Highway 25/70 in Newport.

During the course of the investigation authorities determined that the couple were the individuals responsible for attempting to start the fire.

On Wednesday, the Cocke County Grand Jury returned indictments charging both Gary and Geraldine Ridens with one count of attempted arson and one count of reckless endangerment.

The Ridens were arrested and booked into the Cocke County Jail on a $100,000 bond. The couple has since bonded out of jail.

The couple were additionally charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit theft over $10,000, theft over $10,000, conspiracy to commit sales tax fraud (three counts), sales tax fraud (three counts), conspiracy to evade sales tax (three counts) and evading sales tax (three counts).

On January 5, 2017, first responders were dispatched to the former restaurant after a motorist notified central dispatch that there was a gas odor coming from the area.

Upon arrival, Jefferson Cocke County Utility District employees David Hall and Larry Masters used a remote methane leak detector and reportedly “shot it” through the window of the restaurant to determine that nearly 80 percent of the air in the building consisted of natural gas.

At the time of the incident the Ridens were allegedly out of town and the building had been locked and closed since December 31, 2016. An employee was called and that individual brought a key to the scene.

At that time, the decision was made to close and evacuate the Tana-See Campground, Exxon gas station and Stinnett Chevrolet dealership.

West Highway 25/70 along with exits 432A and 432B were also closed off until later that night.

Firefighters broke one of the windows in the building to help remove the built up gas. Upon making entry they discovered the gas lines in the restaurant had been left open, and lit candles were found.

Agencies responding to the incident were Newport Utilities, the Newport Police Department, the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, Cocke County’s Emergency Management Agency and the Newport City Fire Department.