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Questions about death re-emerge after reports of contaminated crime scene

By   /   December 16, 2014  /   News  /   No Comments

By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog

NASHVILLE — Cocke County authorities have reportedly forced out their official coroner, Terry Jarnigan, after he was accused of tampering with a dead body at a crime scene.

Cocke County is where former Oak Ridge School System employee Alex Heitman died, reportedly of a suicide in 2011.

Oak Ridge is about 80 miles west of Cocke County.

Heitman’s family and friends, as well as a growing number of people in Oak Ridge, including a City Council member, said they strongly doubt the official conclusion and believe foul play was possible, as expressed on a website about Alex’s case.

The family now wants Cocke County to re-open the investigation.

A few months before his death, Heitman reported the theft of school money, some of which was used to buy methamphetamine.

Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi said earlier this year Heitman was in no way involved in that case, although a public records request later revealed he was the only person to file a complaint.

Photo by Chris Butler

TRANQUILITY RIDGE: Tennessee blogger Kristy Herron (left) comforts Annette Heitman at the reported scene of her son’s death.

The Oak Ridge Police Department and the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department said they never worked with one other to connect the possible dots in the case.

Heitman’s family has long said Cocke County authorities have done a poor job backing up their official conclusion of a suicide, citing the lack of  coroner and medical examiner reports.

Recent news about Jarnigan only serves to reinforce suspicions about how he handled Heitman’s body three years ago, said Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn, adding Jarnigan was at the scene of his death for five hours.

“His role in this has been highly questionable. It’s unfathomable that someone like that could be a coroner,” Baughn said.

“We think Mr. Jarnigan was responsible for everything that went wrong from beginning to end when it comes to the paperwork. And now to read that he was handling a body in front of two detectives the way that he did is just very disturbing.”

Specifically, Baughn is referring to a report in the Newport Plain Talk that reported Jarnigan allegedly interfered with a death scene investigation last month.

Jarnigan, according to the paper, “inserted his finger (or fingers) into the wounds of a deceased victim, thereby completely contaminating any investigation for crime-related DNA, not to mention the effect such activity has on the victim’s family.”

Photo courtesy of Annette Heitman

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

Jarnigan has since resigned his position, and county officials have banned him from crime scenes.

Jarnigan’s contact information, whether by phone, email or social media was unavailable Monday, and a spokeswoman for the Cocke County government said she had no further information on how to reach him.

The Heitman family, who live in Wisconsin, still has other business in Cocke County, according to a statement the family released this month.

The release says the family has retained Knoxville attorney Hugh B. Ward Jr. to represent them.

When reached for comment, Ward had little to say.

“I really can only tell you that the family has concerns and we’re going to look into this,” Ward said.

“That’s all I have at this point.”

As previously reported, the Heitmans want Alex’s two shotguns found at the scene of his death, which Cocke County officials have still refused to turn over. The Heitmans have long said Alex willed those two shotguns to his father. 

A hearing on that matter is scheduled Jan. 8, although Baughn and Annette Heitman said that date is subject to change.

Photo courtesy Oak Ridge Police Department's official website

Oak Ridge Police Chief James Akagi

No one at the Cocke County Sheriff’s Department has returned Tennessee Watchdog’s requests for comment.

The Heitmans said they are also resuming their efforts to obtain more public documents from the Oak Ridge School System.

As reported, Oak Ridge School System officials recently released an audit saying Alex Heitman took school money, less than $10,000, and used it on his graduate school expenses.

Oak Ridge School System officials kept the audit secret for three years and have tried to charge the Heitmans more than $2,000 for additional records that might back up the audit report.

Officials at the Oak Ridge School System did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.

Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected] 

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Chris formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.