As we begin a new decade we wanted to have a look back at the things that made news – good, bad and inspiring – from 2010-19.
It was a decade with unspeakable tragedy, politicians behaving badly, extreme weather and small towns rallying around their own in a way others cannot.
This is part one of our series and it covers Tipton County’s most shocking crimes. The other parts in this series cover local politics, the good news and the way the community comes together in tragedy.
First, though, is the bad news.
Crime is everywhere, even in small towns in West Tennessee, and this decade showed there was no shortage of stories that rocked Tipton County.
Henning Post Office murders
In October 2010, Covington native Paula Croom Robinson was one of two Henning postal clerks killed on duty after an armed robbery. Among those she left behind were two young children.
There was no arrest made for several months, but that changed on Valentine’s Day in 2011.
After a carjacking near Nashville, 18-year-old Chastain Montgomery Jr. led deputies from Haywood County into the middle of Mason on a Monday morning.
Witnesses said Montgomery Jr. was run off the road by police chief James Paris at the intersection of highways 59 and 70, then began shooting at police with pistols.
A witness on the scene said Montgomery Jr. was firing at police with two pistols and was shot in the chest by a Haywood County deputy.
As his body lie in the center of the intersection, witnesses said another man came into the intersection yelling, “Y’all done killed my son!” and tried to get into the truck driven by Montgomery Jr.
That was Chastain Montgomery Sr., who was found with dye-marked bills and later confessed to killing Robinson and Judy Spray in Henning. After the Henning murders, he and his son robbed banks in the Nashville area.
As the years, and the legal battles, went on, it was discovered Montgomery Sr., had been a correctional officer and previously worked for the Henning Post Office.
He pleaded guilty to a seven-count indictment in federal court in 2014 and was sentenced to life in prison.
At the time of his death, Montgomery Jr. was wanted for an attempted murder in the Nashville area.
The father-son duo stole $63 from the post office.
In July 2019, Congressman David Kustoff introduced legislation to rename it the “Paula Robinson and Judy Spray Memorial Post Office Building.”
The Walker murders
One of the most gruesome murders in Tipton County history was committed in January 2011.
One of Ed and Bertha Walker’s daughters found her parents dead inside their Wylie Drive home in Munford.
The following day, 16-year-old Jacob “Paco” Brown was arrested at a hotel in Millington and charged with the murders. A Ritter installer told a deputy he noticed the high school student outside the home.
A year later, after being tried as an adult, he was convicted of beating the elderly couple to death. Brown left school early that day, walked around town, then sat outside a friend’s home for awhile. He used the restroom at the Walkers’ home, which was directly across the street from his friend’s house, then returned with an aluminum bat.
“I just didn’t stop,” he told investigators.
Brown, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia prior to the murders and testified he was led to kill the Walkers because of the voices in his head, was sentenced to life without parole.
He lost an appeal in 2016 and is incarcerated at the Turney Center Industrial Complex in Hickman County. He is one of 185 people in Tennessee convicted of murder as a juvenile.
The Starr Harris murder
On June 1, 2010, Drummonds mother Starr Harris was raped and murdered, her body left in the dense woods behind her home. Prosecutors used a FedEx drop-off and text message exchanges to determine she was killed in the early afternoon by Rickey Bell, her husband’s employee, who was upset over what he thought was a paycheck shorted by $50.
Bell was the first – and, to date, only – person from Tipton County to be sentenced to death. He remains at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville. His appeal was denied in 2015.
The Investigation Discovery channel highlighted the case in a 2014 episode of “Nightmare Next Door.”
Grandma convicted of killing granddaughters
On April 1, 2016, a fire killed sisters Jaleah Jones, 18 months, and Amaya Jones, six months.
The circumstances seemed suspicious from the beginning and quickly became bizarre.
Their grandmother, Linda Anne Dunavant, set fire to a couch in her Covington Housing Authority duplex to scare her boyfriend, a known meat thief, who thought he’d extinguished the small blaze with a 40-ounce can of beer. The fire smoldered and later killed the two young girls, who were sleeping in a nearby bedroom.
The nearly week-long trial involved one strange twist after another, a timeline that wasn’t quite clear, a bizarre cast of characters with memorable one-liners, seemingly faked emotions from Dunavant and the tragedy that two young girls really never had a chance at a normal life. The girls’ mother, Jessica Cunningham, was absent during the trial as was their father.
Dunavant, 59, is currently housed at the West Tennessee State Penitentiary in Henning. She is serving a life sentence and will not be eligible for parole until 2074.
Pedophile pastor sentenced to 38 years after sexually assaulting teenagers
One of 2019’s most-anticipated trials was that of Ronnie Gorton, a former pastor for The Awakening Church in Munford.
In January 2018, he was accused of sexually assaulting a teenaged boy and other victims began speaking up.
By July 2018, Gorton had been indicted on 91 counts involving those cases.
After rejecting a plea deal in July 2019, his first trial began in late August. His former best friend testified Gorton, now 41, contemplated suicide after the allegations came to light.
The victim testified to daily abuse and said Gorton used the bible to justify his actions.
“I forget the verse, but he said holding each other is just a way to show love,” he told the court. “He said it was normal.”
Gorton maintained his innocence, saying his life has been “a living hell” since the allegations.
“I’ve lost everything, friends, family, I’ve lost it all. All I know to do is turn to God.”
It was the only time he showed any type of emotion.
The jury wasn’t convinced by Gorton and he was found guilty of two counts of exploitation of a minor, two counts of contributing to a minor, two counts of furnishing alcohol to minors, seven counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, 10 counts of statutory rape by an authority figure and the continual abuse of a child.
“He’s a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing,” prosecutor Walt Freeland said. “As the shepherd of a flock he didn’t pray for the flock, he preyed on the flock.”
On Dec. 13 he was sentenced to 38 years in prison.
There are still two more trials scheduled for April and May 2020, however Ballin said Gorton may take a plea deal later this month.
Teacher indicted for sexually assaulting teenaged boys
Cindy Clifton’s case was one which polarized the county.
The Crestview Middle School teacher was charged with 14 counts of statutory rape by an authority figure, 11 counts of aggravated statutory rape, 14 counts of furnishing alcohol to minors and 14 counts of contributing to the delinquency of minors.
Her victims were aged 13-17 at the time.
Many people decried the charges, pleading Clifton’s innocence and the defense that young boys willingly took part in the sexual encounters.
She was suspended at the beginning of the school year and the allegations against her reported by Crestview’s then-principal, James Fields.
It was suggested at the time the 53-count indictment was considered the largest number of charges against a teacher in United States history.
She accepted a plea deal and is out of prison, now living in Henry County.
Bank employee embezzles $1M
In August 2017, Lauren “Melissa” McDivitt, of Covington, pleaded guilty to charges she embezzled $888,470 between 2006 and 2016 while employed as the branch administrator of InSouth Bank’s Atoka location.
According to court documents entered at the time of her plea in federal court, McDivitt was able to cover the crime up for many years by creating false and fraudulent withdrawal tickets to make it appear bank customers with IRA and CD accounts were withdrawing funds. Using a fake email account, McDivitt signed the customers up to receive monthly statements online so they were not able to see the transactions. From there, she prepared and mailed fraudulent monthly statements, which reflected the interest accrued, but omitted the unauthorized withdrawals. She also made some internal transfers between accounts on various customers to cover amounts she had taken from others.
One of the most-discussed stories of the year, news of the arrest shocked many people around Tipton County who were longtime InSouth Bank customers or friends of the family. Many people were also intrigued with how she got away with it for so long.
She began serving a 33-month sentence in 2018 and is set to be released on May 19, 2020.
Brighton woman plots to kidnap local judge, Nebraska sheriff
The next story was not violent but one of the most bizarre crimes the county saw.
In 2017, the FBI raided the compound of Mike and Pat Parsons of Brighton. Mr. Parsons was arrested in Nebraska after fleeing the state instead of showing up for a court date in Tipton County. After being charged in federal court, his wife Pat and another woman, a self-appointed chief justice of the Universal Supreme Court of the T’silhqot’n, to kidnap Judge Walker and Furnas County, Neb. Sheriff Kurt Kapperman.
The women claimed a warrant had been issued for their arrest and were also planning to break Mike out of jail.
Mike Parsons, a colorful character who loves to argue every letter of the law and considers himself sovereign, was convicted of felony failure to appear and a host of federal charges. He is in custody in Memphis and can be released in 2025.
Pat Parsons pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting solicitation to commit kidnapping. She began serving a five-year sentence in federal prison in 2018.
The next three parts in our review of the 2010s will cover politics, good news and the community’s response to tragedy.