'Felony stop' leaves family traumatized
Mary Jo Denton
It was the most traumatic experience the Smoak family of North Carolina has ever had, and it happened yesterday afternoon as they traveled through Cookeville on their way home from a vacation in Nashville.
Before their ordeal was over, three members of the family had been yanked out of their car and handcuffed on the side of Interstate 40 in downtown Cookeville, and their beloved dog, Patton, had been shot to death by a police officer as they watched.
What was their crime?
There was no crime.
But a passerby with a cell phone apparently assumed a crime had occurred when a wallet flew from a car on Interstate 40 near Nashville.
That citizen called police and inadvertently set in motion what would make it the most horrible vacation the James Smoak family of Saluda, North Carolina, has ever had.
Today, the Smoak children and their parents were still weeping over what happened to them in Cookeville.
By today, they had also filed complaints with two police agencies, prompting internal investigations, they had met with Tennessee Highway Patrol Capt. Randy Hoover, and they were on their way to talk to Cookeville Mayor Charles Womack.
Because official internal investigations are underway at the Tennessee Highway Patrol and at the Cookeville Police Dept., the Herald-Citizen was unable to get details of those two agencies' accounts of the incident.
But the Smoak family willingly told their story to anyone who would listen; they hope by doing so that something might be done to prevent it from happening to another family.
James Smoak, 38, who was traveling in the family station wagon with his wife, Pamela, their 17-year-old son, Brandon, and the family's two pet bulldogs, Patton and Cassie, had lost his wallet after stopping for gas as they left Davidson County on Wednesday afternoon.
But he didn't know he lost it. Apparently, he had placed it on top of the car while pumping gas, and it flew off somewhere on the highway a short time later.
Not knowing his wallet was lost, he and his family traveled on, heading east on their way home to North Carolina.
A few cars behind James and Pamela's station wagon, his parents and the two younger Smoak children were traveling in the elder Smoak's car.
Just a few miles east of Cookeville, James Smoak began to notice that a THP squad car was following him, though the officer was not pulling him over, just staying behind him, changing lanes any time Smoak did, moving in and out of traffic each time Smoak did.
"It was obvious he was looking at me, not at other vehicles, and I'm thinking I must have done something (in my driving), but I don't know what," Smoak said today.
When Smoak reached the 287 exit area in Cookeville, three other police cars suddenly appeared, and the trooper then turned on blue lights and pulled the Smoak car over.
"I immediately pulled to the side, and expecting him to come to the window, I started reaching for my wallet to get my license and it was not there," Smoak said.
About that time, he heard the officer broadcast orders over a bullhorn, telling him to toss the keys out the car window and get out with his hands up and walk backwards to the rear of the car.
Still not knowing what he was being stopped for, Smoak obeyed, and when he reached the back of the car, with a gun pointed at Smoak, the trooper ordered him to get on his knees, face the back of the car and put his head down.
When he did that, the officer handcuffed him and placed him in the patrol car. Then the same orders were blared over the bullhorn to "passenger" and Pamela Smoak got out with her hands up, was ordered to the ground, held at gunpoint, and handcuffed. Next, Brandon was ordered out and handcuffed in the same way.
Terrified at what was happening to them for no reason they knew, the family was also immediately concerned about their two pet dogs being left in the car there on the highway with the car doors open.
"We kept asking the officers -- there were several officers by now -- to close the car doors because of our dogs, but they didn't do it," said Pamela Smoak.
And as the officers worked in the late evening darkness, their weapons drawn as the Smoaks were being handcuffed, the dog Patton came out of the car and headed toward one of the Cookeville Police officers who was assisting the THP.
"That officer had a flashlight on his shotgun, and the dog was going toward that light and the officer shot him, just blew his head off," said Pamela Smoak.
"We had begged them to shut the car doors so our dogs wouldn't get out, and they didn't do that."
As the dog was heading out of the car toward the officer, "we had yelled, begging them to let us get him, but the officer shot him," she said.
Grieving for their dog and in shock over their apparent arrest for some unknown crime, the family could only wait. At one point, one state trooper did tell them they "matched the description" in a robbery that had occurred in Davidson County, Pamela Smoak said.
The ordeal went on for a time after that, the family terrified and in grief over the dog.
Finally, after a time, someone in authority figured out that the officers here had stopped and were holding the very family that someone in Davidson County had assumed had been robbed, though how that assumption grew to the authorization for a felony stop, James Smoak cannot understand, he said today.
"Finally, they asked me my name and I told them my name, date of birth, and other information, and they talked by radio to someone in Davidson County and finally realized that a mistake had been made," he said.