By Curtis Cochran • Guest Columnist
As sheriff of Swain County, I would like to take this opportunity to respond to your editorial dated Jan. 28 (“Questions for the high sheriff”) and, in so doing, make reference to your article of Jan. 21 (“Incident heightens tensions between county, sheriff”). Both of these pieces were based in part upon an anonymous letter received by The Smoky Mountain News. The author of this letter is apparently unknown, and your Jan. 21 article quotes the Swain County Manager as saying “it was signed with a false name.” Your article further states that it was received by Swain County Commission Chairman Glenn Jones from its original anonymous source. It was then forwarded by the Swain County Administration Offices to Swain County commissioners and various media outlets.
The letter — and portions of the resulting editorial — made a number of misleading, unfounded and blatantly untrue allegations concerning the conduct of both myself and members of my office with respect to our attempts to apprehend Jody Smallwood, a recent escapee from a Swain County Courthouse holding cell. Smallwood had previously been convicted of at least five felonies. These allegations are not only reckless but unfairly call into question the integrity and professionalism of a dedicated group of Swain County law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line on a daily basis to insure that Swain County residents have a safe place to live. Attempts by anonymous persons to question the professionalism of these selfless individuals, without acquiring a complete understanding of the facts, is patently unfair and places these professionals in an even more dangerous position than they already possess.
With respect to my conduct, let me be clear that I, at all times, acted professionally and in the interests of, and with due caution for, the public, law enforcement personnel, and Mr. Smallwood. In the first paragraph of your editorial, you state that I “fired [my] gun at an escapee....” Thereafter, in the third paragraph, you again imply that I fired at Smallwood.
This is not true. There was never a shot fired at anyone during the Smallwood pursuit. Rather, in an attempt to bring the extremely dangerous situation to a safe conclusion, I fired two shots at the rear tire of the van that Smallwood was using to elude pursuing officers. Indeed, at least one of these shots hit the tire, ultimately disabling the van and playing a part in bringing it to a stop.
This occurred after Smallwood had recklessly traveled down Main Street in Bryson City at a dangerous rate of speed, made a left on Veteran’s Boulevard and, when turning east on to U.S. 74, exceeded the 100 mph mark. Once on U.S. 74, Smallwood continued to travel on rain-soaked roads to the Hyatt Creek Exit, where he exited the freeway, lost control of the van, spun the vehicle in a 360-degree turn, regained control and continued back onto 74 East, again at a high rate of speed.
After re-entering U.S. 74, Smallwood then brought the vehicle to a stop in the road. I exited my vehicle to take him into custody. At that point, he again accelerated and, fearing that he would injure or kill innocent travelers, I fired two shots at the rear tire of the vehicle. I did this while standing on the pavement. At no time did I fire from a moving vehicle, which was alleged in the anonymous letter.
Mr. Smallwood’s conduct placed the lives of Swain County citizens and visitors in jeopardy and was an immediate threat to their health and safety. It was my firm belief, then and now, that capture of him was necessary and that discharge of my weapon in an attempt to safely do so was justified. I based this belief, in part, upon Smallwood’s criminal history, his previous attempts to elude Swain County officers and events which occurred earlier in the day.
For instance, shortly after his escape from the courthouse lockup, Smallwood approached an 81-year-old woman, requesting that she give him a ride. At that time, the lady did not know that Smallwood was an escapee. At his direction, she drove him around Bryson City. Smallwood lied to her, saying he had been in a car wreck and wanted to go to the store. He then directed her to go to the 288 Boat Ramp and, when she refused to do so, he said that he wanted to go to his sister’s house. (His sister lives in another state.)
After driving for some time, they ended up in the Watson Hollow area, where he told this lady that he could not get out the passenger side of the vehicle and asked her to let him exit from her side. She felt that something was wrong and took the keys out of the vehicle before she let him out the driver’s side. Smallwood then went into the woods and left this lady to find her way back home. The Bryson City Church of God is just over the embankment from where Smallwood left the lady. This is where he stole the van.
Significantly, this was not the first time that Smallwood led law enforcement in Swain County on a high-speed pursuit through a downtown area. Two days prior to the Monday pursuit, Smallwood led federal, state, tribal and county officers on a high-speed chase that began in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, went through downtown Cherokee, west along U.S. 74, and ended across from West Elementary School. From there, Smallwood exited the vehicle and eluded arrest for another two hours. It was at this point that he was apprehended, after running through the woods for almost a mile.
On both of these occasions, Mr. Smallwood resisted law enforcement before being taken into custody. Indeed, resisting arrest and escape is consistent with Smallwood’s past. His multi-page criminal history contains numerous felony convictions dating back to 1989. In addition, he was wanted by officials in Georgia.
It goes without saying that Mr. Smallwood’s actions placed the lives and safety of third parties in jeopardy. His actions demonstrate that he had no reservations about driving through congested areas at high rates of speed. As sworn law enforcement officers, we were, at all times, acting with the utmost care and concern for the people of this county. This matter was handled professionally and, as a result of our actions, a dangerous individual is off the streets. My job is to protect and serve the people of Swain County, and that is what I intend to do as long as I am sheriff.
In your editorial, you made reference to my lack of law enforcement experience at the time that I was elected and began serving the people of Swain County. Again, this is misleading. As sheriff, I have graduated from the Sheriff’s Leadership Institute, which was held over several months in Raleigh and at Duke University. I am continually updated on all aspects of the sheriff’s office and, as a working sheriff for over two years, I have received training and experience that can only be acquired by day-to-day, hands-on interaction with the job. In addition, as sheriff, I qualify with my weapon on the same range and schedule as every deputy in this office.
When I ran for sheriff, I presented the citizens of Swain County with my qualifications and vision. After reviewing my background, these same citizens had enough faith in me to elect me Sheriff of Swain County. I appreciate the confidence that the people have placed in me and I will never overlook the fact that I, along with my staff, are at all times public servants.
Finally, in your initial article, you published portions of the anonymous letter. While this is certainly your right, it appears contrary to your own Anonymous Source Policy. That aside, it is very easy for someone to write a letter containing libelous allegations about a public official and then fail to sign it or, worse, use someone else’s name.
As sheriff of Swain County, I have always had an open-door policy. If any member of the public wishes to speak with me concerning the actions of either myself or sheriff’s office personnel, all they have to do is come to the sheriff’s office and ask. We will show them the same high degree of courtesy, professionalism and respect that we would any other resident or visitor of Swain County. The Office of Sheriff of Swain County has always been a position of high honor and integrity. And, with respect to the last paragraph of your Jan. 28 editorial, neither I nor the sheriffs of Swain County who preceded me have ever held ourselves to be above the law which we are sworn to uphold.