SULLIVAN COUNTY, TN (WJHL) - Editor's Note: After our original report aired at 6:00 pm, a TDOC spokesperson contacted us to alert us that the data the agency originally provided weeks ago included errors. Robert Reburn said TDOC made that discovery late Monday. Mainly, he said, those errors included names of people who don't actually have active warrants. TDOC has since apologized publicly and to News Channel for its error. We've since adjusted the numbers and story accordingly. The new list still includes people convicted of murder, rape, kidnapping and burglary.
More than 3,700 convicted criminals under the community supervision of the Tennessee Department of Correction are now at large, according to state records. TDOC confirmed all of those people are in "warrant status" for violating the terms of their probation or parole.
Boones Creek murders
Derrick Sells, charged with the December 2017 murders of Boones Creek newlyweds Kyanna and Robert Vaughn and their unborn child, violated his probation by failing to report to his probation officer in November 2016, according to TDOC.
Before a judge issued a gag order in the case, First Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark shared his frustration that Sells escaped arrest on that violation in the year leading up to the murders.
"It was a violation for reckless aggravated assault, felony evading arrest," Clark said in December. "This guy was running around. Why he hadn't been picked up? I don't know."
While a TDOC spokesperson said it's not entirely accurate to say these people disappeared, the agency does not dispute many of them likely failed to report, failed a drug test, consistently violated curfew, left the county without permission or committed new crimes and remain at large.
One of thousands
Clark could ask the same question about the hundreds of others from our region alone with active warrants for violating probation or parole in addition to thousands more across Tennessee. Updated records provided to us after our original report aired show more than 3,700 people with active warrants.
Sen. Jon Lundberg (R), District 4, called our discovery disconcerting. The Senate Judiciary Committee vice chair criticized TDOC just years ago for changing its supervision standards, which resulted in less direct supervision for some criminals. TDOC previously cited research, which showed the public is safer when resources are shifted from low-risk to high-risk offenders, as the reason for the change.
"That's a huge number," Sen. Lundberg said. "That creates a public safety issue. The bar was very low and good Lord, if we can't monitor folks with frankly as lax as it is, we've got a real problem."
"The term 'disappear' is not entirely accurate nor fair," Robert Reburn said. "An unserved warrant simply means the warrant has not been served."
"I think the public has a right to know where are these people and who is watching them?" Sen. Lundberg said. "And where are those warrants?"
More than 900 unserved warrants are organized by zone in a filing cabinet at the Sullivan County Sheriff's Office. Lt. Steven Whetsell said deputies only serve those warrants when they get time to step away from their normal job duties to go door-to-door.
"It's a manpower issue," he said. "You can go out and pull a 12-hour day and not even get somebody to the door."
The lieutenant said the time-consuming task is made more challenging by the fact there's no way to predict which violation needs their attention first.
"There's no way to prioritize what that person's next move is," Lt. Whetsell said. "There's no way to prioritize actually between a dirty drug screen and somebody committing a small crime, like a theft of cigarettes or theft of a DVD."
Second Judicial District Attorney General Barry Staubus said the system, which gives many offenders multiple chances, is really the problem.
"I don't in any way blame the sheriff's department or the local probation office for those warrants. They're doing their job," he said. "People are being placed on parole that never should've been placed on parole to begin with."
If anything, Staubus said with as much leeway the state now gives people on probation and parole, he's surprised the numbers aren't even higher.
"Now, there's this system, which I think one of the consequences of it means less people will be arrested and less violations," Staubus said.
A break for parolees
Our investigation found the current system also gives convicts on parole one more break. Even though there are more than 400 active violation warrants for parolees, as "a general rule," a TDOC spokesperson said the days, months and years that go by while they await arrest do not affect their time since it's technically part of their original prison sentence.
"As a general rule, a warrant does not affect a Parolee's time," Reburn said. "...Parole may be revoked by the Board of Parole, resulting in the offender being re-incarcerated on the same sentence. However, the BOP may also take street time from the offender, which would add that time back to the offender's original sentence time to be served."
Staubus called the general rule outrageous.
"It's just an incentive to run," he said. "I mean it's outrageous. Why should people convicted of a crime that get the privilege of parole and then abscond, don't follow the rules and are out and about in society and have criminal records, get time for serving their sentence when they're out on the lam? It's just wrongheaded and it's outrageous."
Sen. Lundberg agreed.
"That's wrong," he said. "We should be able to change that so it counts against you, not counts for you."
Sen. Lundberg pledged to push for that change in Nashville.
"That's a legislative issue and a problem that we need to fix and address," he said. "I'm glad you brought this up."
TDOC refused to address the thousands of people with pending warrants on-camera, despite our multiple requests for an interview.
"We've just got a lot going on," Reburn said.
In a statement, Reburn reminded the public TDOC does not serve warrants.
"Our officers work hard to ensure offenders under TDOC supervision are compliant and held accountable whenever they deviate from their supervision guidelines and standards," he said. "...TDOC works closely with its local law enforcement partners and provides whatever assistance possible; that assistance can come in the form of gathering and sharing intel or accompanying officers during attempts to serve warrants. It is through these partnerships we feel we are best serving Tennesseans and accomplishing our mission of enhancing public safety in Tennessee."
We asked TDOC the last time the agency encouraged a law enforcement agency to do more to serve a violation warrant. The agency has yet to identify a specific instance.
"As mentioned in previous correspondence, TDOC works as closely as possible with its law enforcement partners to ensure offenders are held accountable and Tennessee's communities are safe," Reburn said.
State records show Northeast Tennessee has some of the highest numbers of unserved violation warrants in the state with more than 480. You can find an updated list of all parolees and probationers with active warrants HERE. You can find an alphabetical list HERE.
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