MARYVILLE, TN – The Blount County, Tennessee Criminal Court system, which includes General Sessions Court (Small Claims and Misdemeanors) and Circuit Court (Felonies), is always full of surprises when it comes to the Larry Joe Wheelon aggravated animal cruelty against Tennessee Walking Horses case. Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, the Blount County Justice Center is located on Lamar Alexander Parkway.
In earlier sessions, the court scenes included a miscast and overwhelmed Assistant District Attorney Ellen Berez, whose background was domestic abuse cases. She was attempting to handle the rigors of a high profile criminal matter such as the Larry Joe Wheelon case. District Attorney Berez didn’t have anyone from her office sitting second chair with her, and she ended up not keeping up with a key witnesses. The case got thrown out of court when the witness was not allowed to testify because he had been sitting in the courtroom when he should not have.
Then there was a “pie contest winning” General Sessions Judge Robert Headrick who heard the Preliminary Hearing to determine if probable cause existed to justify the issuance of a search warrant and the seizure of evidence. The USDA investigator Julie McMillian didn’t seem to have the case thoroughly prepared in order for it to efficiently move forward at the Preliminary Hearing stage. After taking the matter under advisement, Judge Headrick finally ruled there was probable cause. Then there were charges of obstruction of justice against Agent McMillian, and Assistant D. A. Berez was ready to quit, then decided to move ahead. McMillian survived heated cross examination by Defense attorney Rob White.
There were also questions as to instead of McMillian rushing to arrest Wheelon and seize the horses if the more prudent approach would have been for the District Attorney’s office to take the Larry Joe Wheelon case to a Grand Jury and procure an indictment. That would have made the Preliminary Hearing unnecessary. Instead of the D. A. taking the case to the Grand Jury, McMillian obtained a warrant in April 2013 to arrest Larry Joe Wheelon and search his barn premises, and seize most of the Horses at the barn. The horses were seized and turned over to the HSUS which then transported them to unknown whereabouts to protect them. McMillian having Wheelon arrested triggered the necessity for a Probable Cause Hearing. Add to the complexity, after his arrest, Wheelon was then evicted from the barn premises. The Preliminary Hearing took place in August 2013, and Judge Headrick threw the case out USDA vet Dr.Bart Sutherland was not allowed to testify.
Then there was the drama with the District Attorney Mike Flynn saying the case was over.
The public outrage started and petitions circulated demanding that the Wheelon case be taken to the Grand Jury.
Following the dismissal of the Case, Larry Joe Wheelon became a cause de celebre with the Big Lick crowd. The Trainer BOYZ reinstated his Judge’s license, and he resumed his position in Big Lick society. Wheelon held court at the 2013 Walking Horse Celebration.
After the case was dismissed, the District Attorney then accused Wheelon’s Defense attorneys of unethical conduct. Rather than Judge Headrick hearing the sanctions matter involving the attorneys which centered around the Defense attorneys lying to District Attorney Berez, Judge Headrick just kicked everything and everybody out of his courtroom and ordered the immediate return of the Horses which HSUS had apparently taken out to Texas. Then there was a big argument and lots of drama as to the location the Horses were to be returned. When they were, the Daily Times newspaper reporter Iva Butler, an institution in the City of Maryville, was rudely kicked off the property when she was covering the return of some of the horses.
It took from August, 2013 until December 2013 to finally bring the case before the Grand Jury. Agent McMillian was nowhere in sight, and the case was presented by local persons associated with the Blount County SPCA. Wheelon and three others were indicted on 18 counts including aggravated cruelty to animals and conspiracy charges, and they voluntarily surrendered for booking. They then appeared before Judge Tammy Harrington in December and pled “not guilty” to all charges. That was a status Hearing set for February 2014 which was then continued until this Monday, March 17, 2014.
So with all that has preceded, it came as no real surprise at the Monday Hearing to learn that things were again up in the air as to whether Circuit Judge David R. Duggan or Tammy Harrington would hear the case.
THE REVOLVING DOOR OF JUDGES
- Judge Tammy Harrington started off hearing the case when Larry Joe Wheelon and the other three Defendants were arraigned before her in December 2013, and all pled not guilty.
- Then Judge David R. Duggan was supposed to get the case when a discovery Hearing set for February was continued to March 17, 2014. The Defense attorneys filed Motions in the case, and Judge David R. Duggan was set to rule on the Motions.. Last Friday, Wheelon’s attorneys subpoenaed District Attorney Berez and the subpoena was quashed, but the late move resulted in the District Attorney Kenlan Foster asking that the Monday, March 17, 2014 Hearing be continued. Judge Duggan was not happy, and said he would provide his work and opinion to Judge Harrington.
- Judge Tammy Harrington now gets the case back for a May 12, 2014 Hearing. If nothing else happens, and it probably will, Judge Harrington will hear and rule on the Motions on May 12, 2014, and possibly set a trial date which will possibly be in mid to late Summer or early Fall 2014.
Since there are four Defendants, and all have separate counsel, the speculation is if one of the accused decides to flip and testify against the others for more lenient punishment.
Case against Maryville trainer Larry Wheelon, workers reset to May 12
Photo by Joy Kimbrough | The Daily Times
Blount County horse trainer Larry Wheelon (at rear) leaves the courtroom behind his private investigator Kenny Myers Monday after his trial on livestock cruelty was reset until May 12.
By Iva Butler | email@example.com
Charges of soring Tennessee walking horses against long-time Blount County trainer Larry Joe Wheelon. two stable workers and a farrier was reset to May 12 in court proceedings Monday morning.
Wheelon, 68, Miracle Landing Drive, Maryville, and two stable workers, Brandon Randall Lunsford, 32, Blair Loop Road, Walland and Randall Stacy Gunter, 44, Ratledge Road, Louisville, all face 18 counts of aggravated cruelty to livestock and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to livestock. Of those, 13 are felony charges and five are misdemeanors,
Farrier Blake Tanner Primm, 44, of Sevier County, faces one charge each of aggravated cruelty to livestock and conspiracy to commit aggravated cruelty to livestock.
All four defendants have different attorneys. Wheelon is represented by Rob White, Lunsford by Tyler Weiss, Gunter by public defender George Waters and Primm by Brian Nichols.
Originally Blount County Circuit Court Judge Tammy Harrington was set to handle the case. But Blount County Circuit Court Judge David R. Duggan was set to hear motions Monday and did not learn of the change until Monday morning.
Duggan was obviously upset. “I worked all day Thursday and Friday on this case and this morning I found out it was going back to Judge Harrington’s court,” he said.
Duggan assured the defendants that any research he has done on the case will be turned over to Harrington.
The case will now be heard at 1:30 p.m. Monday, May 12, in front of Harrington.
Defense attorneys have filed motions seeking to have their cases dismissed or remanded to General Sessions Court for a preliminary hearing for various reasons.
White moved to dismiss all charges against Wheelon except for the one involving a horse called She’s a Sweeper, the horse he was originally charged with abusing. That case was dismissed due to a technicality in the preliminary hearing when a witness accidentally sat in on testimony after General Sessions Judge Robert L. Headrick had ordered witnesses to remain outside the courtroom.
The only certainty is there will be lots of drama as this case continues to lurch along in Blount County, Tennessee.