Posted: 1/5/2003 7:58:02 PM EDT
'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.
"A lady in Davidson County had seen that wallet fly off our car and had seen money coming out of it and going all over the road, and somehow that became a felony and they made a felony stop, but no robbery or felony had happened," Pamela Smoak said.
"Apparently, they had listened to some citizen with a cell phone and let her play detective down there," said James Smoak.
"Here we are just a family on vacation, and we had to suffer this."
When the officers did discover the mistake, "they said, 'Okay, we're releasing you and we're sorry,'" Smoak said.
As soon as Brandon was released from the handcuffs, he rushed over to the dead dog and began to cry, Smoak said.
And that's when one of the most infuriating parts of the ordeal happened, according to James Smoak.
"I saw one of the THP officers walk over to the city officer who had shot the dog and grin," he said.
He reported that to the supervising officer, THP Lt. Jerry Andrews, and Andrews "was very nice, very professional," Smoak said.
"He told me the officer was not laughing, but I know he was," said Smoak.
Smoak's parents had come along behind the other car and had seen all the commotion and stopped too, and now all three children were crying over their pet dog, as they were still doing today.
The Smoaks gathered the body of their pet and went to a motel here to spend the night. But they didn't get much rest, and at one point, James Smoak became so upset he had to go to the hospital for medical treatment.
They also worked throughout last night to contact all the authorities they could in order to lodge their complaints about what had happened.
Today, Beth Womack, a THP spokesperson in Nashville, told the H-C that an Internal Affairs investigation is underway and that every effort will be made to "find out exactly what happened and why."
"As I understand it, a report was made in Davidson County to our officers that this car had been seen leaving at a high rate of speed and that a significant amount of money had come out of the car and someone became suspicious," she said.
An internal investigation is also underway at the Cookeville Police Dept., Capt. Nathan Honeycutt told the H-C today.
James Smoak wonders about the logic of "a robber who would be tossing the money out of the car."
He also wonders about police procedure that would "take this insinuation from a citizen" and "turn it into what happened to us."
"Out there after they handcuffed us at gunpoint and put us in the police cars, they did not ask for ID, and later on, they actually released us just on my word about my identity, with only the confirmation by radio from an officer in Davidson County who was looking at my lost wallet and the ID in it down there," he said. "What if I actually had been a robber and not just a family man on vacation?"
His children hope they never come to Tennessee for another vacation.
"Poor Patton," said 13-year-old Jeb Smoak. "When he was killed out there, it was the first time I ever saw my brother, Brandon, cry. Brandon is the toughest person I've ever met, and he cried."
The other dog, a puppy named Cassie, was "trembling all over" after the ordeal, Jeb Smoak said.
"She's being real quiet today. She knows we're all grieving."
James Smoak, though still deeply upset today, said he understands that "the officer will say the dog was coming after him."
But it could all have been prevented, didn't have to happen, he is convinced.
In addition to telling his family's story to Capt. Randy Hoover, who "was very nice and very professional," and to a Cookeville Police official last night and to Mayor Womack today, Smoak also plans to tell his lawyer, he said.
"And I also want to tell it to the Tennessee Department of Tourism," he said.
Published January 02, 2003 11:54 AM CST
This thread is like John Holmes--it keeps coming and coming and coming and never goes down. I shot my wad with it awhile back.
Sounds similar to Ruby Ridge, at least it didn't escalate that far.