Police, courts see busy year in 2015
Published 9:29 am Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Law enforcement officers and the courts were busy during 2015 as a number of high profile crimes and cases occurred in Carter County.
One of the cases that garnered a lot of attention was the arrest of Eric James Azotea, 44, in connection with the murder of a young Sullivan County couple at his home in the Pinecrest area of Carter County.
In April, police arrested Azotea and charged him with two counts of first degree murder, two counts of abuse of a corpse and one count of tampering with or fabricating evidence.
In January, relatives of Arthur Gibson Jr., and his girlfriend, Amber Terrell, both of Kingsport, reported the couple missing. The couple was last seen on Jan. 7, and family members told police the couple had gone to visit someone in Carter County.
The couple’s car, a 1999 Ford Escort, was found abandoned off Big Springs Road in Carter County on Jan. 12.
During the investigation, officers learned Gibson and Terrell had been at Azotea’s home on Woodland Drive in the Pinecrest Community. Following his arrest, investigators said they believe the murders were the result of a dispute over drugs and money.
In interviews following his arrest, Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said Azotea confessed to killing the couple and then dismembering their bodies and attempting to burn the remains.
Following his arrest, Azotea was arraigned in General Sessions Court and was subsequently bound over to Criminal Court. A grand jury handed down an indictment against Azotea in July and in August the District Attorney’s office announced it would seek the death penalty against Azotea.
The attorneys representing Azotea — Steve Finney and Gene Scott — have filed numerous motions in the case, including requests for a new preliminary hearing, requests for discovery and requests to sequester jurors and potential jurors. Finney and Scott have also filed a motion to seek dismissal of the death penalty from the case and a motion seeking the dismissal of the case “due to the unconstitutionality” of Tennessee’s death penalty.
The case is set to return to Criminal Court on Jan. 29 for a hearing on motions filed in the case.
Another case that captured a lot of attention happened just this month when Kelly Lee Pitts, 36, of 433 Dry Hollow Road, Elizabethton, was charged with seven counts of attempted first degree murder following a shootout with police that left two women, including a deputy, injured.
On Dec. 16, officers of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department responded to a report of an intoxicated man brandishing a gun on Dry Hollow Road. When officers arrived on the scene, Pitts allegedly opened fired on the 4 officers and three civilians.
CCSD Deputy Jenna Markland suffered two gunshot wounds to her face and a civilian, Brandy Hyder, was shot in the hand. Both women were taken to local hospitals for treatment and were later released.
Pitts was arraigned in Carter County General Sessions Court on Dec. 18, where his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Jim Lonon, requested a mental health evaluation be completed on his client. Pitts is scheduled to return to court for a preliminary hearing on Feb. 19, but if the results of the mental health evaluation are not completed, that hearing could be postponed.
While some defendants found themselves facing new charges, one Carter County woman saw a murder case against her dismissed in 2015.
On Oct. 11, 2012, 4-year-old Joshua Holston was struck by a dump truck in a crosswalk at the intersection of Broad Street and Lynn Avenue and died as a result of his injures. One month later, his mother, Tiffani Marie Holston, 30, of Elizabethton, was indicted on charges of aggravated child neglect and first degree murder. Under state law, a person can be charged with first degree murder if someone died while they were committing a felony crime. In this case, the state used the felony charge of aggravated child neglect as the basis for the first degree murder charge.
Nearly three years to the day of the death of her son, the charges against Holston were dismissed on Oct. 8 of this year. The dismissal came following a motion by Holston’s attorney, Don Spurrell, who challenged the indictment against his client.
Spurrell’s challenge was successful and the charges against Holston were dismissed.
Other notable crimes and court cases in 2015 were:
• The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the March 2014 conviction of Micah Cates, of Carter County, who had been found guilty of vehicular homicide in the death of his friend Tanner Lee Perkins. The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the Carter County Criminal Court erred when it allowed the results of alcohol testing on a blood sample taken without a search warrant to be entered as evidence.
• A jury convicted former Carter County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Matthew Ainsworth of two counts of aggravated assault against his former girlfriend and one of her neighbors. During two days of testimony, jurors heard how Ainsworth, who was off duty at the time, forced his way into his ex-girlfriend’s home and assaulted her. After she escaped from him, the woman ran to a neighbor’s home for help and Ainsworth then assaulted the man who came to the woman’s aid. The court sentenced Ainsworth to serve 30 days in jail and 3 years on probation.
• An investigation by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office led to an employee of the Watauga River Regional Water Authority and North Elizabethton Water Co-op being charged with embezzling more than $10,000 from the agency. In March a grand jury indicted, Lisa Cipy, 48, of Hampton, with one count of theft over $10,000. State officials said Cipy stole “at least $11,325 in utility cash collections” between March 2014 and September 2014 while she was employed as a clerk with the Watauga River Regional Water Authority/North Elizabethton Water Co-op. Cipy pled guilty to the charge against her in October and is scheduled for a sentencing hearing on Jan. 14 in Criminal Court.
• In another appeals case, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals overturned a lower court’s decision to deny diversion to a woman convicted in the death of a pedestrian in 2013. In its reversal of the lower court’s decision, the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals issued an opinion on August 12 citing an “abuse of discretion” along with what it called a “tainted” decision making process used by former Judge Robert Cupp in his decision to deny diversion to Chyanne Elizabeth Gobble, 22, of Elizabethton. Gobble pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, a Class E felony under state law, in July 2014. Gobble was indicted in May 2014 in connection with a 2013 motor vehicle accident on the Elizabethton Highway in the area of Taylortown Road, in which police said she struck a pedestrian and left the scene. The pedestrian, Christopher Dale Hughes, 39, later died as a result of his injuries.
• A Hampton woman entered a guilty plea in Criminal Court in August to charges she sexually abused her three young daughters. Crystal Renee Dawn Poore, 34, of Hampton, entered a guilty plea to one count of aggravated rape of a child, two counts of rape of a child and three counts of incest and received an effective sentence of 40 years to be served at 100 percent, which means she would not be eligible for parole. While those sentences will run concurrently with each other, Poore will not begin serving time of those convictions until after she completes her federal sentence of 27 years after pleading guilty in federal court last year to three counts of production of child pornography.
Federal prison sentences are not eligible for parole, so Poore must serve the full 27 years in federal custody before returning to Tennessee to begin serving her 40 years. With an effective sentence of 67 years on all cases, Poore will be about 100 years old when her time is complete at 100 percent served.