A county of bad ol' boys

Times Staff Writer

HOW bad is Cocke County's lawless reputation?

So bad that its tourism and economic development chief, Donald Hurst, likes to kick off out-of-town business meetings with a self-deprecating joke. All of the visiting Cocke County officials, he tells his audience, are right here in the building -- so "rest assured, your home is safe."

To many Tennesseans, Cocke County is the place their parents warned them about, the butt of hillbilly jokes, the last redoubt of an old, untamed Appalachia. For decades this poor and dramatically beautiful area, north of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was a haven for moonshiners and bootleggers who evaded federal tax agents by hiding in its rugged hills and hollows.

It was also known for its brothels and chop shops, its illegal bars and gambling, its shakedowns and drugs and stadium-sized cockfight pits -- and its rampant public corruption. There was a time when people called it "Little Chicago."

And though other mountain communities have seen their wild days lapse into the innocuous category of "colorful past," Cocke County seems doomed to repeat the sins that have long defined it.

In recent months, a state and federal corruption probe has been making familiar headlines here, flushing out the latest round of dirty cops, brothel owners and incorrigible outlaws whom locals call "tush hogs" -- a name they also use for wild boar.

County Mayor Iliff McMahan Jr., first elected in 2002 on a promise to attract tourists and new business, hopes this investigation is the final chapter of a long, troubled history.

After all, the Little Chicago nickname has long faded, and moonshining, a victim of increasingly lax Southern liquor laws, has been reduced to the status of a hobby.

And yet the trouble continues, competing with the good news McMahan and Hurst are spreading about their inexpensive, underdeveloped and untrammeled county -- the place their tourism campaign extols as the "real" Smoky Mountains.

"People think we're all barefooted and have three teeth and are playing banjo music," McMahan said. "We do have a tarnished reputation when it

comes to public service ...

[but] there are a lot of good, Christian people who live here. We are a law-abiding, God-

fearing community."

Jeramy Hux, the owner of a local mountaineering shop, said he hoped the probe would finally break what he called the "good-old-boy web" that had given the county such a bad name.

"It's about time," he said.

But there is also a notable lack of enthusiasm for the investigation, even among some law-abiding residents. Once again, they say, it seems like the federal government is picking on little Cocke County.

Robert Dameron, 64, a retired truck driver, said the FBI should find better things to do. "I don't think [the corruption] is as bad as they think," he said. "They've got that everywhere."

The mayor -- who counts a few illicit whiskey makers among his forebears -- said a wariness of federal power was deeply ingrained here. In the old days, McMahan said, moonshiners were rarely considered criminals -- just people trying to feed their families. When they were busted by federal "revenuers," those families often went hungry.

In the 1920s and '30s, state bureaucrats assembling land for the national park created more bad blood when they pressured hundreds of families to leave their mountain homes. During World War II, the Tennessee Valley Authority moved others off some of the county's best farmland to create Douglas Lake, part of the authority's vast hydropower system.

"We here in Cocke County have always felt the federal government has taken every effort to kick our butt that they possibly could," McMahan said.

ON a pretty day, the Cocke County countryside feels more like heaven than a notorious den of iniquity. Mountains roll to the horizon, clad in green swaths of hemlock and pine. Three rivers -- the Pigeon, the French Broad and the Nolichucky -- rush through lush, oak-strewn bottomlands. Small farmers grow tomatoes, grass for hay, and a little tobacco.

According to the 2000 census, 22.5% of Cocke County's 34,000 residents live in poverty. The county seat, Newport, is home to 7,000, with a quaint if dowdy downtown and a few suburban amenities: a Ruby Tuesday restaurant, a Lowe's home improvement store.

This is, supporters say, a typical rural county, no better or worse than any other. To some extent, statistics bear them out: In 2005, Cocke County logged about 77 crimes per 1,000 residents. The rate was higher than those reported by nearby Jefferson and Grainger counties, but lower than that of adjacent Sevier County, where tourists flock to miniature golf courses in Gatlinburg, and Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge.

The federal government launched its investigation in 2001, naming it Operation Rose Thorn. Since then, seven officers from the Newport police and county sheriff's departments have been convicted of crimes that include conspiracy to distribute cocaine, attempted money laundering, perjury, witness tampering, and stealing money from illegal immigrants.

At least 10 other Cocke County residents have been prosecuted on charges including cocaine sales and interstate theft. Brothels and suspected chop shops have been raided without much input from local authorities -- presumably because state and federal agencies didn't trust them.

Former Chief Sheriff's Deputy Patrick Taylor, second-in-command at the department, pleaded guilty to conspiring to traffic in stolen goods. He bought what he thought was $9,000 in stolen NASCAR-themed tank tops, hats and other clothing from undercover agents, and planned to sell the merchandise at country fairs out of a deep-fried-onion stand, according to federal prosecutors. He is expected to be sentenced in November.

In court documents, prosecutors accused Taylor of other crimes for which he was not charged. They said he had extorted money from bars, coercing them to buy liquor from the package store he ran with his wife. And they said he had protected a business that supplied bar owners with illegal video poker machines.

Sheriff D.C. Ramsey -- Taylor's uncle -- resigned in January after 2005 court filings showed he was under investigation on suspicion of receiving payoffs from gambling interests. He has not been charged.

Then there was the Del Rio Cockfight Pit, with enough bleachers to accommodate 500 fans.

Cockfighting had been a felony in Tennessee until 1990, when it was downgraded to a misdemeanor by Cocke County's state representative at the time, Ronnie Davis. (Davis was imprisoned for taking part in a fake-passport scheme in 2004.)

Around the same time, Dist. Atty. Gen. Al Schmutzer raided the pit, but it soon resumed business. Last year, Schmutzer returned with a contingent of heavily armed state and federal agents and issued citations to more than 140 spectators and participants.

Witnesses cooperating with the FBI said as much as $30,000 in wagers would change hands over a single fight -- and pits like the Del Rio held dozens of fights in one day. Breeders and fans came from surrounding states and filled up hotels and restaurants, generating thousands of dollars for a historically depressed economy.

They were also upholding what many here see as a proud symbol of their Appalachian heritage. But Schmutzer said the raid was about more than stamping out an old country pastime. "You can't have something going on that's illegal and notorious in your community and expect people to respect the law," he said.

After the raid, Schmutzer was surprised when some locals complained that the young people wouldn't have much to do now.

"You'd a thought we'd raided the Boys & Girls Club," he said.

HURST, the head of an economic development group called the Cocke County Partnership, smiled wearily when discussing the investigation. At one point, he compared the county's recurring issues to the movie "Groundhog Day."

Jimmie Frank Hill, 76, a regular at Newport's downtown barbershop, remembers the 1930s: riding as a child in a van, sitting on a blanket covering his father's cases of illegal whiskey. He talks about the brothel his father built and ran, and the gangsters from Chicago and Detroit who would sometimes hide out there.

In the mountain community of Del Rio, a man who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation recalled his experiences in the 1960s, when truckers passing through town were considered easy bait. While the truckers were occupied at the brothels, a few men would offer boys $5 to puncture their tires -- a boon for the tire distributor.

Schmutzer, who recently retired, said that when he was first elected in 1974, "Cocke County was pretty well wide-open."

It was easy to find a drink of hard liquor in bars despite the fact that it was banned. Prostitution was out of control. Back then, the women were supplied by an organized crime gang from St. Louis. Many of the brothels billed themselves as truck stops, and the prostitutes cooed over CB radios in code, enticing men with $50 "cups of coffee." A few of the places did not bother to install diesel pumps.

Schmutzer eventually drummed the more organized criminal elements out of Cocke County's prostitution business. The brothels crept back into service, although some of them have been shuttered again in the recent probe.

The most extensive chronicle of the county's troubles, focusing largely on the last four decades, was compiled last year by J.J. Stambaugh, a reporter at the Knoxville News Sentinel. Titled Cocke County Confidential, published online at www.knoxnews.comunder the header news, it runs to more than 50 pages when printed out.

Stambaugh offers a few plausible explanations for Cocke County's troubles. First came Prohibition, which showed moonshiners there was serious money to be made outside the law. Later, World War II brought an influx of GIs to east Tennessee -- and entrepreneurs willing to slake their thirst for booze and sex.

The timeline shows that two Cocke County sheriffs have faced felony indictments since 1970. It describes dumped bodies, moonshiners-turned-pot growers, and mysterious and questionable shootings involving police. And it limns a tangled, multi-generational web of local characters -- some of whom are the focus of the current probe.

MAYOR McMahan may understand why some residents are annoyed by the federal investigation. But he doesn't agree with them. Public corruption, he said, is a very real problem in Cocke County.

"It's a culture," he said. "And how do you change it? It's like eating an elephant. You do it one bite at a time."

McMahan, 55, was born in Cocke County -- a place, he will remind you, that was named after an Independence-era politician, not a fighting rooster. But he spent much of his life in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a professional stage actor and business executive. He returned home to care for his ailing father in 1995, his accent half-citified, his Cocke County alliances few.

During his first bid for election, McMahan said, he received death threats. These days, he keeps a pistol strapped to his ankle -- "because you never know," he said.

After taking office, McMahan saw controversy visit even the most ordinary totems of small-town life. In 2004, the local United Way was kicked out of the national organization, the United Way of America, over questionable bookkeeping. Last year, the county's Fraternal Order of Eagles chapter was decertified by its international parent organization because it had never given any money to charity. Its membership list included many of the targets of Rose Thorn.

Yet in his successful reelection campaign this year, McMahan did not make corruption an issue. Realistically, he said, there was little he could do about it, because the sheriff is an independently elected office.

It also seemed like bad politics: Too many voters, he figured, were kin to someone caught up in it all.

James R. "Russ" Dedrick, the U.S. attorney for Tennessee's Eastern District, declined to speak at length about Operation Rose Thorn. He said he would be more forthcoming when the case wrapped up, in about a month.

He did say, however, that new leadership -- including a newly elected sheriff -- seemed intent on putting the old ways behind them.

Sgt. Jonathan Morgan said the culture of his department was changing under Sheriff Claude Strange, a former state trooper.

In the last few years, Morgan, 29, has given the FBI evidence about three of the deputies prosecuted in Rose Thorn. His reward under then-Sheriff Ramsey was a transfer from drug investigations to night patrol -- in effect, a trip to the doghouse.

Morgan never heard anyone in the department call it retaliation. And he can't say that he blames the ex-sheriff for all of the trouble.

"I don't know if 'blame' is the word," Morgan said. "It's just tradition."

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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