And why is the Cocke County Sheriff Office not sharing info with the public that is released promptly after almost every fatal dog attack?
[Updated July 24, 2021.]
NEWPORT, Tennessee––Why was Amber Miller, 29, alone on Jimtown Road near dead-end Carnation Way on the morning of July 12, 2021, five and a half miles from her home and her three children, who were apparently left with her grandparents?
Miller had recently placed an ad on Housekeeper.com “hoping to find a domestic helper position in Newport, Tennessee,” to “take care of kitchen cleaning, dishes, and carpet shampooing,” claiming “multiple years of experience.”
Miller may have been reporting for work, but there was only one house nearby, at 522 Carnation Way.
Why had Tony Ahrens, 52, a homeless man, been alone in the same place on the morning of April 1, 2021?
Why did the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office allegedly fail to respond promptly, effectively, and appropriately, after Charles Owensby, 69, known to keep dogs identified by multiple neighbors as Cane Corsos, and known on Facebook as “Charlie Dogman,” reported finding Ahrens mauled to death near Owensby’s mailbox?
Why was Miller all but dismembered alive by dogs at almost the same spot, reportedly less than 700 feet from Owensby’s home at 522 Carnation Way, 103 days later?
Why did the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office again allegedly fail to respond promptly, effectively, and appropriately, apparently leaving at least three dogs belonging to the Owensby family, suspected throughout the community of nearly 7,000 people, still not impounded?
Where was Sheriff Armando Fontes?
Sheriff Armando Fontes, elected in 2010, was conspicuously absent from the controversy. Various reports contended that Fontes was away receiving some sort of special training, though soon to retire, and/or that he had already accepted another job in another county.
Whatever Fontes was actually doing, Chief Cocke County Deputy CJ Ball, running to succeed Fontes, was left to do most of the not very persuasive public talking.
“Grady Judd needs to come up here,” posted rural Cocke County resident Nicholas Tabachuk to the “Cocke County Sheriff Office discussion page” on Facebook, referring to the crime-busting longtime sheriff of Polk County, Florida.
“Grady Judd needs to come”
Regular readers may recall, and Cocke County residents may appreciate knowing, that the ANIMALS 24-7 news team includes former Polk County animal control officer and Miami Beach mounted police officer Beth Clifton, who worked for Judd, as well as Merritt Clifton, a 52-year veteran of investigative reporting.
Between us, we have over the past 40 years researched the circumstances of more than 10,000 fatal and disfiguring dog attacks, including more than 900 human deaths in the U.S. and Canada, and another several hundred in other nations.
From that perspective, we have a reasonably good idea of how competent law enforcement normally responds to an apparent dog attack fatality.
Warrants & procedures
Securing the scene, among the first steps after any incident to which public safety personnel might respond, includes very promptly obtaining a search-and-seizure warrant; impounding any potentially suspect dogs in the area, ideally before blood and other physical evidence can be washed off of their bodies; holding the dogs for a rabies quarantine of 10 days to two weeks, as allowed by law; if flesh may have been ingested by the dogs, holding the dogs for at least long enough to collect DNA samples from their feces; and also searching the premises for any other relevant evidence, such as bits of clothing, that the dogs may have left on other nearby properties.
Obtaining a search-and-seizure warrant requires showing probable cause for suspicion to a judge. It does not require waiting for a coroner’s autopsy report, as the Cocke County Sheriff Office did, to confirm that what appears to have been a dog attack was in fact a dog attack, committed by a particular dog or dogs, as established by DNA evidence.
The autopsy report and DNA evidence may be necessary to obtain a criminal conviction later, but it is no more necessary to obtaining a search-and-seizure warrant and beginning to protect the community from dogs who may have killed someone, than it is necessary to receive a fire marshall’s report to begin putting out a house fire.
Failed to even announce Ahren’s death
If the dog or dogs who might reasonably be suspected of killing someone cannot be found, warnings to the public that dangerous dogs might be at large near the scene are normally issued immediately, to avoid having anyone else be ambushed before the dogs are located.
What the Cocke County Sheriff Office did instead was to wait 17 days before releasing any information at all pertaining to Ahren’s death.
When information was belatedly released, what was said was simply that, “Cocke County authorities released preliminary details regarding a body found April 1 near the intersection of Jimtown Road and Carnation Way.
“Charles Owensby of Carnation Way told Deputy Sgt. Heath Willis he found the male body near his mailbox at 12:40 a.m. Willis said the body has been identified as Tony Allen Ahrens, 52, Loves Park, Illinois,” the announcement continued.
“Partially devoured by an animal”
“The body appeared to have been partially devoured by an animal, and Chief Cocke County Deputy CJ Ball said an autopsy is being conducted to determine the cause of death as well as to determine the type of animal that was involved.
“Newport Patrol Officer Jessy Burgess recognized the victim as Ahrens, and investigators say they located an individual who had talked to the victim at 9:30 p.m., prior to the body being found.”
A sheriff’s report obtained by media more than three months later included the observation that, “The male had lacerations across his entire body and flesh missing from his left arm.”
Given that many residents along Jimtown Road say they had reported previous incidents involving menacing behavior by the same three Cane Corsos, and that Cocke County Sheriff Office deputies had themselves experienced such behavior by dogs at 522 Carnation Way, recognizing the reasonable possibility that the Cane Corsos might have inflicted the injuries should not have required the responding deputies to possess advanced degrees in forensic science.
Victim known to community
Tony Allen Ahrens, incidentally, though said to have been camping under an abandoned 19th century railway bridge that spans the Pigeon River and the foot of Jimtown Road at the time of his death, and though originally from Rockford, Illinois, was scarcely unknown to the community.
Ahrens had been employed at Brock’s Market & Deli in Newport for some time, according to friends.
Ahren’s daughter Diamond, mother of Ahrens’ three grandchildren, as of 2020 was a server at the Arby’s restaurant in Newport, according to Facebook postings, and was recently married.
“Both arms barely attached to her body”
The Cocke County Sheriff Office did little better after passer-by Steve Randall Mayes, 70, and an unidentified passenger in his pickup truck on July 12, 2021 “found Miller trying to climb a tree following the attack and described taking her to the hospital,” summarized David Sikes for WVLT-TV of Knoxville.
Three dogs were reportedly gathered around Miller, licking her wounds as she cried that she did not want to die.
Miller’s longtime friend Brittany Reese explained to WVLT that the bites Miller suffered, “weren’t just minor bites. She got sepsis. Her arm got took off. We figured she might lose an arm, but not her life. The next day,” July 18, 2021, “her life had been taken.”
Added WVLT, medical staff mentioned that Miller’s calf was “ripped off” and that both of her arms were “barely attached to her body.”
More wounds than could be counted
“They worked on her six to eight hours every day,” at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, “and they said she had so many wounds that they could not even count them,” said Miller’s great aunt, Regina Jozefek, to WATE-TV of Knoxville.
Furious Cocke County residents, dozens more than actually knew either Ahrens or Miller and their families in person, lit up social media during the week after Miller was attacked, and even more intensively after her death, asking all of the obvious questions and sharing what they knew.
“Just listen to law enforcement”
Instead of offering any useful information, including whether the widely suspected Cane Corsos were impounded or still at large, the Cocke County Sheriff Office on July 19, 2021 posted, “Considering the amount of false and misleading information of the animal attacks,” without specifying at all what might have been either “false” or “misleading,” that “we ask that the public just listen to what law enforcement releases to the public.
“Individuals are making assumptions and non facts of this investigation and will not provide accurate information,” Cocke County Sheriff’s Office chief deputy CJ Ball complained.
“These families need closure and respect,” the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office said, disregarding that the most vigorous demands for information were coming from Amber Miller’s closest living adult relatives, who turned to media, appealing for help, when the Cocke County Sheriff Office failed to answer even the most elementary questions.
Just because it stinks doesn’t make it strong
“The investigation on both attacks is under a strong investigation,” Ball claimed, despite every indication that little or nothing had been done in response to Ahren’s death until after Miller died too, “and long hours are worked each day. The more we put out to the public could devastate the case.”
What case, against whom? To that point, the Cocke County Sheriff Office had not even acknowledged investigating a “case,” just two deaths.
The only visible hint of a vigorous law enforcement response was that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had reportedly been asked for help, and that passers-by said they saw yellow crime scene tape around the Owensby home, indicating that a search warrant might finally have been served.
There was no mention of either animals or humans being taken into custody, nor were all-points bulletins describing persons or animals of interest shared with media and the public.
“Use caution” on the Jimtown Road
“We will release as much as we can when feasible but we will not release anything that could jeopardize this case,” Ball continued.
“The first case is not closed and was under an investigation and still ongoing. Autopsy results are not complete and can only be released to next of kin. Once the case is resolved and completed, then we will release all facts of the investigation to the public,” Ball finished.
The statement appeared to reassure and comfort almost no one, especially after the Cocke County Sheriff Office two days later issued an advisory that people should “Use caution” when traveling on the Jimtown Road near where Ahrens and Miller were fatally mauled.
“I do not understand why they have not picked up those dogs a long time ago,” Regina Jozefek told WBIR-TV of Knoxville. “That’s the worst part about it — when you know it could’ve been prevented.”
“Nothing but total disrespect”
Jozefek recalled, WBIR-TV summarized, that Miller “grew up a pageant girl who loved her parents and frilly dresses,” but eventually “got off on the wrong foot like they all sometimes do. I did love her, though,” Jozefek emphasized. “She was a beautiful girl and she’s going to be missed.”
As to the Cocke County Sheriff Office, Jozefek said, “I have had nothing but total disrespect from our detectives when I tried to get updates,” having been told––among other things––that she “was not even related” to Miller.
Added Pamela Dills, describing herself on social media as an out-of-town family member, “Asking that the family be updated is in no way interfering with an investigation; it’s getting facts instead of rumors. Further, being told you are not family when you are in fact listed as an emergency contact shows much disrespect to that family member.”
Victim’s father was deputy killed on duty
The attack victim Amber Miller was reportedly raised by her grandparents after her father, Robert Scott Miller, 26, a five-year Cocke County deputy sheriff, was on October 11, 1994 shot dead while helping the FBI to apprehend two fugitives.
Explained retired U.S. Air Force officer Charles Tritt of Newport, “Scott and a fellow deputy were shot as they entered a Newport home in search for two inmates who had escaped from a West Tennessee prison.
“Inside the home, Deputy Scott Miller was shot and killed, and Deputy Richard Caldwell was injured by a bullet to his hand. After tear gas was fired into the residence, the home caught fire and both escapees died in the blaze.
“Amber was only three years old when her father died,” Tritt recalled, “and Cindy Miller, Amber’s mother, became a widow in her early twenties.”
Other witnesses to the death of Robert Scott Miller briefly confirmed the details.
Cindy Miller, 49, hospitalized with pneumonia after Amber Miller’s death, appears to have struggled ever since losing her husband. On separate occasions in 2014 Cindy Miller was charged with shoplifting and criminal trespass at the Newport Wal-Mart, and with possession of drug paraphernalia.
Those alleged offenses, however, were small matters compared to Charles Owensby’s rap sheet, and the rap sheets of some of his family, also listed as residents of 522 Carnation Way, Newport.
Owensby, detailed Paige Hill for WVLT, “was previously accused of ordering his dogs to attack a man, prompting an aggravated assault and an evading police charge.
“In November of 2014,” Hill wrote, “a Newport Police Department report stated that Charles Owensby hit Charles Olden,” 16 years younger, “in the face with a gun and said, ‘We’re gonna end this today.’ According to the report, Owensby then told his dog to attack Olden and tried running over Olden with his car.
“Dog got aggressive with Newport police”
“Records from 2014 showed that when officers arrived at Owensby’s house along Jimtown Road to serve a warrant, Owensby’s dog got aggressive with Newport police.”
“Over the years,” continued Hill, “Owensby has accumulated several charges, ranging from aggravated domestic assault to aggravated assault with a weapon, but most have been dismissed. One aggravated domestic assault charge is pending from a 2018 case.
“According to a Newport Police Department report, Owensby served time for a felony conviction of concealing stolen property.”
Elaborated Grace King of WBIR, “In 2014, court affidavits show [Owensby’s] ‘dog was on the front porch and became aggressive with [Newport] police.’ The documents said Owensby ran out the back door after police identified themselves.
“At the time, they were serving a warrant for possession of a weapon by a convicted felon, reckless endangerment with a weapon, aggravated assault, and violating an order of protection.
“The charges stemmed from a 2014 gas station brawl.”
Earlier, on September 27, 2014, Owensby was “stabbed in the back with a knife at Shovelhead’s Bar in Newport,” according to Newport Plain Talk staff reporter Nelson Morais, but whether that incident was connected with those Hill and King described was unclear.
Mentioned Hill, “There are numerous other assault and battery charges listed on Owensby’s record, including from Georgia and Florida.
Most recently, Owensby was in June 2018 indicted by the Cocke County Grand Jury for aggravated domestic assault. Hill reported that this charge is still pending.
At least two persons commenting online with apparent direct knowledge of cases alleged that Owensby has been a police informant, both of them before Hill and King revealed that most of the charges filed against Owensby over the years have been dropped.
Man shot at same address
Cecelia Owensby, Charles Owensby’s wife, in 1994 shot a 34-year-old man named Everett Woody (1960-2016) at the 522 Carnation Way address.
The nonfatal shooting was ruled accidental.
The Owensby’s homeowner’s insurance policy paid Woody $35,000, but was subsequently cancelled after their original house on the site was hit by lightning and burned.
The Owensbys lost a lawsuit over the cancellation that they took unsuccessfully to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in 2010.
Joshua Everett Owensby/Cole
Owensby son Joshua Everett Owensby, alias Joshua Everett Cole, 41, also listed as residing at 522 Carnation Way, describes himself on Facebook as a self-employed certified dog trainer.
Owensby/Cole was in July 24, 2010 charged with aggravated burglary in Newport, and in August 2010 was charged with a similar offense in Duval County, Florida, for which he apparently served jail time.
It was Owensby/Cole’s background as a dog trainer, rather than his criminal record, that made him a leading suspect to at least ten people familiar with him, the Cane Corsos, and the Jimtown Road/Carnation Way neighborhood who offered information online.
“Most licentious place in Tennessee”
Wrote Henry Ker, identified by Wikipedia as “a traveler who visited New Port,” as it was then called, in 1816: “It is the most licentious place in the State of Tennessee, containing about twenty houses of sloth, indolence and dissipation.”
New Port was the part of the community located between the French Broad River to the north and the Pigeon River, to the south. The village on the south side of the Pigeon River, annexed in 1884 and now the main part of town, was until 1884 called Clifton, but with no known connection to the Cliftons who produce ANIMALS 24-7.
Jimtown, just to the east, was the historically Afro-American neighborhood.
“From the 1920s through the 1960s,” recalls Wikipedia, “Cocke County became notorious throughout the Southeast as a moonshine hot spot. To complicate matters, large numbers of servicemen passing through Newport en route to Knoxville or Asheville during World War II drew large numbers of prostitutes to the area. In 1969, the Knoxville News Sentinel published a series of reports regarding organized crime in the county, and Governor Buford Ellington launched an investigation that led to the arrest of Constable D.C. Ramsey, Cocke County Sheriff Tom O’Dell, and several state troopers stationed in within the county on charges of extortion and bribery.
Moonshining, gambling, cockfighting
“In the following decade, a new district attorney, Al Schmutzer, launched a crackdown on the various moonshining, gambling, and cockfighting rings within the county, with some success.”
However, Wikipedia continues, “Cocke County continued to struggle with organized crime. In 1982, 40,000 marijuana plants were found growing just off Asheville Highway. The following year, Cocke County Sheriff Bobby Stinson was indicted along with 43 others on cocaine conspiracy charges. In 1987, 30 people from Cocke and Sevier County were arrested on charges relating to a car theft ring.
“Corruption probes and federal indictments relating to Cocke County law enforcement continued into the 21st century,” recounts the Wikipedia entry.
“In 2009, the FBI indicted and successfully prosecuted a 23-person car theft and drug ring. Six persons entered guilty pleas by 2010, including a retired Newport police captain and his family.”
Chop-shops & cattle rustling
The investigation branched from an FBI probe of “Cocke County Sheriff officers’ corruption, resulting in an earlier 170 arrests on federal and state charges,” Wikipedia summarizes.
One of the people involved appears to have been Drew Allen Gregg Jr., who shared a step-grandmother with Charles Owensby.
Gregg Jr., 43, recalled longtime Morristown Tribune staff writer Robert Moore, who covered a parole revocation hearing for Gregg Jr. on January 3, 2021, is “an alleged chop-shop operator who has served more than 18 years in federal prison for drug and firearm offenses.”
Gregg Jr. was also charged in Alabama in August 2001 with cattle rustling in five states, along with drug and firearm offenses.
Moore, 60, died on January 12, 2021, after many years of detailing the ongoing failings of the Cocke County Sheriff Office and Newport City Police Department to maintain public confidence.
Patrol captain busted for allegedly robbing church
Meanwhile, just 24 hours after Chief Cocke County Deputy CJ Ball urged the public to “just listen to what law enforcement releases to the public,” Newport City Police Department patrol captain Stephen Andrew Higginbotham, 38, was on July 21, 2021 arrested in Greene County and charged with theft of property over $10,000 from the O&S Chapel United Methodist Church, a class C felony.
An announcement that the dogs suspected of killing Tony Ahrens and Amber Miller are in quarantine custody might not go far toward restoring public confidence in local law enforcement, but would at least be a start.
At this writing, the dogs’ whereabouts remain unknown.