Sheriff’s Office, Manchester Funeral Home Face Lawsuit After High-Speed Chase

Video from a high-speed chase of a stolen Escalade that killed 28-year-old Jessica Miranda Campos on South Church is shocking. Not only did the crash claim her life, it caused debilitating injuries to Katrina Sadler, who was driving another car.

The speeding vehicle allegedly driven by Garieon Simmons of Coffee County and being chased by Rutherford County Sheriff’s officers hit Campos’ vehicle as she pulled onto South Church, then slammed into Sadler’s car. When sheriff’s officers arrived at the crash scene, it was several minutes before they heard a crying child in Campos’ car.

Fortunately the baby was OK. Unfortunately, Campos is no longer alive to care for her children.

While Simmons faces vehicular homicide and eight other counts in connection with the case, the more haunting question may be whether law enforcement officers should have been chasing him on crowded I-24 and congested South Church during rush hour, even though he drove in the wrong direction on the interstate and might have tried to hit two deputies.

Lawsuits filed by Campos’ family and Sadler contend Simmons, Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, city of Manchester, Coffee County, Manchester Funeral and Manchester Alderman Tim Kilgore are liable for negligence in the chase.

The Campos family is seeking $13 million while Sadler is asking for $2 million-plus.

Their main contention is that the chase involving law enforcement officers, Simmons and Kilgore, who owns the funeral home but also has been known to take on some police duties, never should have taken place.

If you put yourself in the place of Rutherford County Sheriff’s officers, though, would you sit there and watch as Simmons flies by? Or would you chase him in the midst of 4 p.m. traffic on I-24 and onto South Church, one of the most congested roads in Murfreesboro?

Sgt. Trey Nunley had to make a tough call.

While some of the testimony in a General Sessions hearing on Simmons’ charges focused on whether he tried to run over two sheriff’s officers in the I-24 median as they tried to throw down a spike strip, it also dealt with reasoning for the pursuit.

Nunley testified that sheriff’s office policy allows for high-speed pursuits when a felony situation is involved, in this case a car theft. But when it reaches the point of being a threat to society, it can be called off, he said.

In testimony, Nunley said he was “constantly evaluating” the pursuit and surroundings and decided to keep the chase going.

Campos’ lawsuit, however, points out the Tennessee Highway Patrol never got involved in the chase. And Sadler’s lawsuit takes the argument a step further, claiming Nunley didn’t have his siren turned on, thus preventing Campos and Sadler from knowing a chase was taking place or that emergency traffic was approaching.

Most attorneys wouldn’t want to deal with that in court, and it could work in favor of the plaintiffs.

Of course, most Murfreesboro residents are so accustomed to hearing sirens, whether from fire trucks, ambulances or law officers, they’re almost immune to the sound. A review of the siren policy is probably due for every emergency services department.

One complicating factor is that new Murfreesboro Police Chief Karl Durr was highly critical of the chase after witnessing a portion of it while driving on I-24. Durr’s statements weren’t part of the General Sessions hearing, nor are they alluded to in the lawsuits.

Durr is asking city officials to seek state legislation limiting high-speed pursuits to cases involving violent felonies. In this situation, no violence was involved. Writing to the City Council, he pointed out 329 people are killed each year in police chases, leading many agencies to adopt stricter pursuit rules.

“While our officers are highly trained, a pursuit can push the officer beyond their driving capabilities which can result in deadly crashes,” he wrote. “Police pursuits also create enormous civil liability for police officers and agencies. Equally obvious is the need to protect the public and police from unnecessary risks created by indiscriminate high-speed chases.”

Murfreesboro Police policy restricts chases to cases of violent felonies, and supervisors are called on to decide whether a pursuit is worth the risk.

In the Simmons pursuit, Murfreesboro Police did not get involved, even though the suspect was driving through the middle of the city. Based on the comments by Durr, an MPD officer probably would have been fired if they’d gotten into the chase.

But there’s been little word from the sheriff’s office, other than to say it feels bad about the crash.

Not to second-guess Nunley or any of the other sheriff’s personnel involved in the chase, because they were in a difficult situation. But the reality is the sheriff’s office’s record for lawsuits isn’t too good in the last two years. And more than likely, the county will wind up paying large sums. Maybe not $13 million, but it won’t be cheap, because someone died.

Thumbing of Nose

In what has become a cottage industry—news coverage of the sheriff’s office—Robert Arnold and his buddy Joe Russell appear to be giving the middle finger to the rest of Rutherford County.

Indicted on federal charges in connection with an unapproved deal to sell e-cigarettes to county jail inmates, they seem to think this thing is a joke.

Even though his federal bond condition limits his travel to Middle Tennessee, Arnold went to Gatlinburg for a Tennessee Sheriffs’ Association conference, then to Washington, D.C., for some sort of lovefest with President Obama’s community policing people, then to a week-long affair in Orlando, Fla., to learn about communications. Arnold isn’t a threat to flee, but it makes you wonder whether the $2,500 non-secured bond is worth the time of day.

Ironically, Bob Woodward of Watergate and Washington Post fame—most people have heard of the investigative reports by Woodward and Bernstein that brought President Nixon to his knees—was one of the main speakers in Orlando. No doubt, he would have been excited to know one of the attendees was an elected official indicted for allegedly profiting from his position of power.

Anyway, many Rutherford County people are getting just a tad tired of Arnold jet-setting across the country at taxpayers’ expense. Some elected officials say he should be at home running the office and the jail. Others aren’t so certain that’s a good thing either.

Furthermore, some elected officials are just simply worn out with Arnold’s hijinks. Who could blame them?

While his actions are good for the news business and for some local attorneys—one of whom has made a fortune on suing the sheriff for ill-advised personnel moves—others complain he’s an embarrassment to Rutherford County.

For that, we can thank the local Republican Party, which put him up for election in 2010, then elected him twice.

Since that group put him in office, they should pay his legal fees for the Nashville attorney representing him in federal court. There’s no telling how much those attorneys are charging to represent him, Russell and Arnold’s uncle, John Vanderveer.

Meanwhile, Russell is fighting like hell to keep his financial information secret, including his $72,000 sheriff’s office salary, which is pretty good coin for playing shell games, in addition to monthly earnings from his company JailCigs and $30,000 from his father-in-law, a loan that might not have to be repaid.

He should have considered this: If he didn’t want everyone to know how much money he’s got he shouldn’t have asked for a court-appointed attorney funded by taxpayers.

On the first day in court when he and Arnold were arrested, federal attorneys told him they were going to challenge his request for a court-appointed lawyer. Since he’d just gotten out of shackles and cuffs, maybe he was already thinking about a jailbreak and just didn’t hear them.

Or, maybe he thinks he can get away with putting his defense costs on the backs of taxpayers. With the number of motions his attorney has filed to keep financial information sealed, the legal fees are piling up.

And considering it’s going to be Feb. 7 before they go to trial, there’s no telling how many motions and requests the attorneys are going to make.

But while some folks think the trial will be delayed even further, let me remind them of this: The judge wanted the trial to be held this fall and, despite mountains of information involved, he questioned whether this is a very “complex” case. He also told the attorneys not to get pregnant or sick because it’s going to trial in February.

As stated earlier, covering the sheriff’s shenanigans is a cottage industry. But it’s getting to the point of being downright ridiculous, not funny.

On a High Note

While one of my favorite hangouts—Rooster’s—closed a couple years ago and moved out of town, it’s been replaced by The Alley, a restaurant drawing sizeable crowds at lunch and dinner, probably because the food is really good. And if there’s one thing Murfreesboro people like to do, it’s eat out.

It’s a miracle Sprouts even opened, considering nobody cooks at home anymore.

In addition, a place called The Gavel opened where Maple Street Grill was located on the Public Square. And Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant is getting ready to open on the east side of the Square in January when renovations are finished.

If you’re on the Square, if nothing else, you can find a meal or an attorney, though they say those attorneys don’t work cheap. A man’s got to make a semi-honest living somehow.

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Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com

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