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Law enforcement, media in east Tennessee must demand facts in Heitman case

By   /   May 26, 2014  /   No Comments

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Law enforcement officers aren’t obligated to speak to journalists — but unlike politicians, law enforcement generally goes out of its way to accommodate the media, even when and if both sides have a complicated relationship.

Law enforcement authorities have a better sense that perception often matters more than truth, and this is crucial considering they play the primary role in maintaining public safety.

An entire region’s economy and psychological well-being might depend on how well people perceive matters of public safety.

Then there’s the case of Oak Ridge resident Alex Heitman, who worked for the local school district and reported that people were stealing taxpayer money, and at least one person used it to buy methamphetamine. 

MYSTERY: The death of Alex Heitman in Tennessee was quickly ruled a suicide.

A few months later, in the summer of 2011, Heitman died, reportedly of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Cocke County, 70 miles away, in east Tennessee.

The Oak Ridge Police Department and the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department said they never coordinated with one another to connect any possible dots on these two events.

Heitman’s grieving family has questions.

I have questions.

Law enforcement authorities in Oak Ridge and Cocke County don’t seem as responsive as any of the other law enforcement agencies I’ve dealt with over 10-plus years reporting, in four states.

I can’t accuse them of ducking my calls and emails outright.

They did communicate with me when I started looking into this story very briefly last fall and again in March when I resumed my interest.

Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi said in an email Heitman wasn’t involved in any way in the check forgery case — but police records reveal Alex was the sole complainant.

Then I reported that Cocke County officials to this day still haven’t released two guns belonging to Heitman that were found at the scene of his death.

The flow of information then stopped.

My messages to Akagi, whether by phone, email and even text, remain unanswered.

Cocke County officials have little to tell me anymore, it seems.

Heitman’s parents have extreme doubts as to whether he died by his own hand. While it may seem natural for any parent to express doubts in this situation, the Heitman parents make a compelling case to back up their beliefs posted on their website.

Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi

Despite my past stories on the matter, despite the compelling facts of this case and despite others’ direct requests for local media coverage, no Tennessee newspapers or television stations seem interested.

Thus far, only one outlet, the British Daily Mail, has picked up my work.

A television producer in New York City with one national news program, one I promise you’ve heard of, has contacted me and expressed interest, but hasn’t committed.

Many members of a Facebook page that caters to more than 1,000 Oak Ridge residents also want to know more.

Through this page Oak Ridge residents are posing questions and expressing their own doubts about the official story on Alex’s death. The page is titled “What’s Happening Now in Oak Ridge Council & School Leadership.”

As previously reported, State Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, contacted the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about the matter, but the TBI can’t investigate unless the area’s district attorney general requests it.

Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn has addressed the matter with her colleagues in a recent letter.

Questions about transparency with the ORPD aren’t limited to the Heitman case.

There’s also the case of Sarah McAdams, found floating face down last summer in the Oak Ridge Civic Center fountain.

McAdams’ mother, Lori Holt, told me she still doesn’t know nearly enough about how her daughter died, as she says the ORPD hasn’t released records to which she’s legally entitled.

Sarah McAdams

To this day, Akagi, City Manager Mark Watson and Mayor Tom Beehan haven’t returned my requests for comment on the matter.

Perhaps circumstances would change if other local media got involved and began posing their own questions.

A television reporter in another state contacted me about the Heitman case. He was astonished that local newspapers and television stations remain uninterested.

The media, to say nothing of the law enforcement agencies involved, have a responsibility to get the facts. Whether they are living up to those responsibilities is a matter of your own perspective, but two deaths without clear-cut answers are not trivial matters, especially not to grieving families.

To provide anything less than an aggressive pursuit of the truth and facts is to fall far short of one’s duties as a public servant.

Perceptions matter. Law enforcement should never give the public a reason to perceive they aren’t trustworthy.

Perceptions about the media matter, too.

Perceptions, when not corrected with facts, give people leverage to expand their imaginations in all kinds of unhealthy ways — and matters of public safety demand facts.

Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected]. or follow him and submit story ideas on his official Facebook page.

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Chris formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.