By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
KNOXVILLE — An Oak Ridge City Council member has taken the city’s police chief to task over comments to Tennessee Watchdog that directly contradict information found in an open records request.
The comments Police Chief James Akagi made in March concern the reported suicide of Oak Ridge resident Alex Heitman in 2011.
In a letter to all of her City Council colleagues, the city manager and three media organizations, Trina Baughn complained Akagi’s police department has not cooperated with the Heitman family in disclosing information.
Baughn said the same police department has not provided enough transparency concerning last year’s death of a woman named Sarah McAdams.
Baughn said she has corresponded with the mothers of the deceased.
“Their stories reveal a disturbing pattern in how leadership disseminates public information and how we treat people in general,” Baughn said in her letter.
Tennessee Watchdog left several messages seeking comment from Akagi on Thursday, having tried his office phone and email address. Akagi answered a call to his cell phone but said he was in a meeting and hung up.
Baughn told Tennessee Watchdog on Thursday that Akagi seems unwilling to hold people accountable.
“I was just very frustrated and ashamed of how we are treating people who have gone through the worst kind of loss imaginable,” Baughn said.
“Anyone who values the freedoms that we enjoy in this country should be concerned when law enforcement isn’t doing its job and treats its citizenry this way,” she added.
But even if Baughn’s colleagues on the council agree, there’s seemingly little they can do.
In Oak Ridge, unlike many other towns and cities, the council has no say over hiring and firing its police chief. That decision is left to City Manager Mark Watson, who is unelected and appointed by the council.
This charter form of government has operated this way for decades, said council member Chuck Hope.
Tennessee Watchdog left several messages via office phone, cell phone and email with Watson and Mayor Tom Beehan, but neither man returned our messages Thursday.
Council member Anne Garcia Garland said she’s curious to see how Watson and Akagi react to Baughn’s letter.
“So far, with those two it’s been mostly defensive posturing on their parts,” Garland said.
“Our police chief came from the DEA, and he has a rigid sense of hierarchy and he jumps to immediately protect his troops from anything.”
“The city manager always seems to want to avoid any controversy. He doesn’t want to talk about anything that makes us look bad, and I always figured it’s better to talk about stuff that’s wrong and talk about what you’re going to do to make it right,” Garland said.
In her letter, Baughn referenced a prior Tennessee Watchdog story in which Akagi said Heitman, an Oak Ridge School District employee, was not involved in his department’s investigation into a check forgery problem.
Several suspects were arrested and later prosecuted on charges of stealing school district money and using it to, among other things, buy methamphetamine.
He died of a reported suicide three months later in Cocke County, but, as previously reported, his parents doubt that finding.
Following up on Tennessee Watchdog’s original story, the British Daily Mail asked Akagi about the inconsistencies. Akagi responded by saying he was not familiar with the case.
“If there is something more to either of these stories, then we should make comments indicating such. If not, then we need to address all further questions openly and honestly and quit compromising our own integrity,” Baughn wrote.
When told about the matter Thursday, council member David Mosby said he plans to question the city manager.
“It’s kind of shocking. It’s an indication that something else is going on that I’m not aware of, and that’s pretty surprising to me,” Mosby said.
As previously reported, the Heitmans said Cocke County officials haven’t provided information about ballistics and fingerprints, a coroner’s report, a medical examiner’s report, crime scene photos and other important documents.
Cocke County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Derrick Woods said the sheriff’s office would not release the guns to Heitman’s family unless a probate court gets involved.
As previously reported, neither the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department nor the Oak Ridge Police Department coordinated with one another on the Heitman case.
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