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Monday, January 10, 2005

Driver says: 'I was flat extorted'

Man at center of drug-fund controversy wants arresting officers taken off force

January 10, 2005

SODDY-DAISY, Tenn. - Eddie Witt wishes he had never driven through Loudon County.

And probably, so do two Loudon County Sheriff's Department officers, Chief Deputy Tony Aikens and Deputy Paul Curtis.

Witt, a disabled Vietnam veteran, says that Aikens coerced him into giving $19,649.25 to the Loudon County Drug Fund after he was charged with three misdemeanor offenses following a traffic stop by Curtis on June 20, 2002.

"I was totally honest with them, but they treated me like a dog," said Witt, who gave his account of the events in an interview with the News Sentinel in his Hamilton County home.

Witt's nightmare gradually became even worse for the two officers.

First, Witt sued, and got all of his money back plus legal fees.

And last month, after hearing Witt's story, a Loudon County grand jury indicted both officers for extortion, a felony. They are accused of threatening to seize Witt's car and all of the $19,649.25 in a bank bag in his car if he did not make a "donation" to the county's drug fund.

The officers are not accused of taking the money for themselves. It is undisputed that the money was promptly deposited in the drug fund, which is used to help fund law enforcement antidrug operations.

Witt said he hopes to see Aikens and Curtis convicted and removed from law enforcement, but does not want to see either man go to prison.

"I don't want to see them in jail, but they don't deserve to be left in positions of service and trust," he said. "Police are supposed to protect and serve. Well, if you can't trust the police on the road, who can you trust?"

Witt said he was returning home from Kentucky, where he had spent 62 days with his dying father.

To avoid probate, Witt said, his father had given away many of his assets. That, he said, is why he was carrying $19,649.25 in cash in a bank bag and driving a 1986 Lincoln Town Car with Kentucky plates.

Witt said that when he was pulled over he was told his vehicle had been weaving. A check of his driver's license showed it had been suspended in connection with a child support payment issue from a previous relationship. Witt also admits he had a .25 caliber pistol and no handgun carry permit.

He said when he was placed in a transport vehicle to be taken to jail, he asked the driver to tell the other officers that there was a money bag containing more than $19,000 in the trunk that needed to be secured.

"They never even knew about that bank bag until I told them about it," he said.

After Witt made $6,000 bond, he and his wife, Martha, returned to the sheriff's office to see about getting his property back. He said they went into an office with Aikens. No one else was there, Witt said.

"He had $10,000 laid out on the table," Witt said. "He told me that I was going to 'donate' the rest of the money to their drug fund, and he would give me a receipt for that. He said that a drug dog had hit on the car, and he told me that they could take all of the money and the car, if they was so minded, on grounds of suspicion of drugs."

Witt said Aikens also told him, falsely, that in Tennessee, it is illegal to carry more than $10,000 in cash.

No drugs were found in Witt's vehicle. But state law allows money or property suspected of being tied to the drug trade, even if no drug charges are filed, to be seized and held, pending a State Department of Safety hearing. Such a seizure may be avoided by settlement, which must also be reported to the state.

The intent of the law is for police agencies to be able to use drug trade assets to help pay for investigating and prosecuting drug crimes. Critics say the law makes it too easy to seize property from citizens with very little evidence of a crime.

State officials have told the News Sentinel they have no record of the incident involving Witt.

In a News Sentinel story shortly after Witt's civil lawsuit was settled, Aikens said Witt had approached the Loudon County Sheriff's Department and offered to avoid seizure by keeping his car and $10,000 and donating the rest of the money to the drug fund.

"I never made any kind of offer, and I didn't donate anything." Witt said. "I was flat extorted. Aikens already had the deal made up in his mind. It was take the car and $10,000, or take nothing."

"I wouldn't have taken it this far if they hadn't tried to screw me in the first place," Witt said.

The Witts said they hope publicity about the case will make the public more aware of state seizure laws and possibly lead to reform.

"People need to know what (law enforcement officers) can do if they want to," Martha Witt said. "You've got to wonder how many others this has been done to."

"And they make you think you can't do anything about it," Eddie Witt added.

Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315

Copyright 2005, KnoxNews. All Rights Reserved.


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