- 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
- 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
- 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,"
- "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
- They also worked throughout last night to contact all
the authorities they could in order to lodge their complaints about what
- 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
- "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
- "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
- 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
- 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
- Police Chief Bob Terry's statement: http://www.herald-citizen.com/NF/omf.wnm/herald/news_story.html?