2018's top public safety stories

Johnson City Press • Dec 30, 2018 at 12:38 AM

Now at its end, 2018 was a memorable year for area law enforcement and emergency services, with some sad goodbyes, court cases to remember and more than a few tense incidents.

Here are the top law enforcement, court and EMS stories of the year reported by the Johnson City Press.  

Tony Clark dies
In March, 54-year-old 1st Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark died of natural causes in a Nashville hotel while on a trip with his family. After 12 years on the job and 24 years serving the district, Clark’s sudden departure shocked his employees, fellow DAs, attorneys, judges and law enforcement officers in the area.

More than 1,000 people attended his visitation and celebration of life ceremony to pay their respects, and a caravan of vehicles followed his body to McInturff Cemetery in Unicoi for his graveside service.

A week later, Assistant District Attorney General Ken Baldwin was sworn in to fill Clark’s seat, and he was elected to the position in August.

Eric Azotea pleads guilty
A slip-up during witness testimony in February threatened to derail a capital murder trial in Carter County, but a deal reached between prosecutors and defense attorneys sent Eric Azotea to prison for life without the possibility of parole.

When the witness told the courtroom he met Azotea after he was released from prison — he previously served a sentence for bank robbery before the murders — it seemed likely a mistrial would be declared, because juries are barred from knowing and using a defendant’s prior criminal history in their deliberations. But the attorneys in the case hashed out a plea deal that sent Azotea to prison, but kept him from receiving the death penalty, which the state was seeking before the misstatement in the courtroom.

In the deal, Azotea pleaded guilty to killing Amber Terrell and Arthur Gibson and then dismembering and burning their bodies and hiding the remains under his porch in January 2015.

Chad Benfield indicted
A Carter County grand jury indicted Chad Benfield early in the year on charges accusing him of killing an 89-year-old neighbor while attempting to burglarize her home and rape her.

His neighbor was found in July of last year badly injured in her home in the Stoney Creek community by her daughter and granddaughter. She later died at an area hospital.

Police developed Benfield as a suspect after a DNA sample found under the victim’s fingernails was associated with Benfield and his former girlfriend told them she’d found a strange sheet, nightgown and bathrobe in the home they shared shortly after the reported assault.

This year, prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty in the case, saying its circumstances were especially heinous. Benfield’s trial is scheduled to begin in January 2020 after jury selection in November 2019.

Four charged in Stacy McGee murder
More than a year after Stacy McGee was found shot to death in a car outside a housing development in Johnson City, four men accused of hatching a plot to kill her first appeared in court in July.

Police believe Isiaha Milligan, Avios Griffin, Monte Brewer and Eugene Glover conspired to kill McGee, who was seven weeks pregnant, and believed Milligan was the father of the unborn child. 

Christopher Connelly shooting
A Washington County officer testified in a June hearing that the killing of a man found dumped at a Buffalo Mountain hiking trail head may have been over a $150 cocaine debt.

Christopher Scott Connelly’s body was found by a woman walking her dog at the Lone Oak trail. Court documents said he was found shot in the back of the head and partially clothed in the wooded area near the trail.

Attempting to trace the hours preceding his death, investigators said they discovered he had been seen with Aaron Story and another man. An affidavit claims Story told police Connelly was shot while the two men fought after attempting to track down a third man to whom Story gave $150 in exchange for cocaine, but never received the drugs.

Story said Connelly was one of the brokers of the bad deal, and it was he who initiated the altercation in the woods that ended in his death. Charged with first-degree murder, Story’s case is pending in Criminal Court.

DEA raids treatment clinics
In May, federal agents swarmed eight drug addiction recovery centers in the area and the home of its chief operator looking for documents related to Medicaid or Medicare, banking records, medical records and anything related to the distribution of drugs or misbranding of drugs.

Watauga Recovery Center operator Dr. Tom Reach called the DEA’s execution of the search warrants “overzealous” and said the agents’ turning away of patients could cause drug overdose deaths in the region. Reach said the clinics did not take money from Medicaid or Medicare, and said there were no charges, no one was arrested and the clinic’s employees had done nothing illegal, immoral or unethical.

Charges have apparently still not been filed related to the mysterious raid. In August, Nashville-based healthcare attorney Lee Dilworth and healthcare executive David Dempsey signed a definitive agreement to buy Watauga Recovery Centers with plans to rebrand them as VIDA Recovery Centers.

Fatal industrial accidents

In the spring, industrial work site accidents claimed the lives of three men in the area.

First, James Reed, an employee of the QEP Co. on Eddie Williams Road, was killed when sawdust fell on him from the sides of the silo he was cleaning at the wood flooring manufacturer. QEP agreed to pay $30,000 in a settlement with the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration for safety violations related to his death.

Less than a week later, Paul Cash was killed and another man was seriously injured in an explosion at Light Resources Llc., a recycling facility located on Boggs Lane in Johnson City. The facility, owned by a California company, processes bulbs, batteries, mercury waste and automotive waste. TOSHA opened an investigation into the incident shortly after the explosion.

In May, Ben Shew was killed when his clothes were tangled in machinery at Specialty Tires of America in Unicoi when trying to tighten a bolt on a conveyor. TOSHA cited and fined Specialty Tires for safety violations after Shew’s death, and the company entered into a settlement with the government agency to correct the problems.

Sirois retires

In February, Johnson City Police Chief Mark Sirois retired after a 26-year career in law enforcement.

Dozens attended his send-off at the Memorial Park Community Center to wish him well in his newly found leisure time. Shortly after Sirois’ retirement, City Manager Pete Peterson named Maj. Karl Turner to take over the chief’s duties. Turner, with a 27-year tenure in the department, said he would work to maintain the relationships Sirois built within the community, and he planned to initiate a plan to enhance officers’ well-being.