Suspect captured as sheriff is at slain deputy’s visitation

Published 2:25 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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By Buzz Trexler
Star Correspondent
On Sunday, Blount County Sheriff James L. Berrong sat in front of a video camera, giving a Facebook update on the search for the suspected killer of one of his deputies.

Law enforcement officers had been searching since the previous Thursday night for Kenneth Wayne DeHart, 42, after Deputy Greg McCowan, 43, was shot following a traffic stop. Deputy Shelby Eggers, 22, who was with McCowan on patrol, suffered a gunshot to the leg and returned fire.

“I want closure soon,” said Berrong, looking tired, but focused. “I want to go to that funeral Wednesday and not want to have to think about this animal on the street that killed one of my deputies in cold blood. I want him in custody when I go to that funeral. Whether that happens or not, God will let us know about it. He’ll put him in the right place for us to apprehend him.”

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McCowan’s funeral included the receiving of friends on Tuesday at Sevier Heights Baptist Church in Knoxville, followed by funeral services on Wednesday, with a procession that traveled nearly 14 miles to Grandview Cemetery in Maryville.

The sheriff reiterated that desire when he and deputies met with the family at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday at the church. Berrong told the McCowans that if there was any way possible, DeHart would be in jail when he came back Wednesday for the funeral.

Unbeknownst to the sheriff, as he was giving comfort and assurance to the family, state, local, and federal law enforcement agents were at an empty house about 10 miles away on Linden Avenue in Knoxville after having arrested DeHart minutes before.

Details of the apprehension of DeHart were provided by law enforcement officials during a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

U.S. Marshal for the Eastern District of Tennessee David G. Jolley said law enforcement had tracked DeHart for five days and there is some possibility he may have momentarily crossed the state line.

The sheriff referred to the tracking of DeHart as “chasing a rabbit for a while.”

“We know that during this investigation he’s moved around a lot, a lot of duck-and-hide and moving from one location to the next location, to the next location,” Jolley said. “So, he may have been in and out of that location a few times during the five days and then reappeared back there today. We’re not totally sure how long he was there today when this happened. We actually do not think that he was probably at that house that long today.”

‘He Just Walked Out’

DeHart was arrested in the backyard of the house at 3:22 p.m., the marshal said. “I think it was just happenstance that he just walked out, which gave us the opportunity to identify.” Once law enforcement officials descended on the house, things happened “pretty quickly,” he said.

“When we moved to Knoxville this afternoon on this investigation, the focus narrowed down to this particular house,” Jolley said. “We weren’t at that location very long and all, really, before we were able to identify Mr. DeHart when he walked out the back door of the house and the arrest teams moved in on him at that time.”

Berrong and the marshal said the suspect did not put up much resistance, but officers could not take DeHart back through the house because it had not yet been cleared. “So, we had to go over a fence, then cuffed him” with the slain deputy’s handcuffs. A flash-bang device was deployed in the process of DeHart’s arrest, but it was partly to scare a large pit bulldog that was in the yard.

When word that the manhunt had come to an end, there was this post on the BCSO Facebook page:

“IN CUSTODY!!!! Kenneth Wayne DeHart was taken into custody a short time ago in Knoxville! Now the judicial process will take place in the court system. Thanks to all of our law enforcement partners and our community — Sheriff James Lee Berrong”

Not only were law enforcement agencies throughout the region on the lookout for DeHart, but a $100,000 reward had been offered for tips leading to his arrest. Around noon Tuesday, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation posted a photo of a digital billboard Lamar Advertising had helped secure throughout the Southeast. DeHart was arrested just hours later at the Knoxville house.

Still, no single tip pointed to the house, the sheriff said, and it does not appear that anyone will receive the reward.

DeHart’s First Hearing

DeHart appeared Thursday in Blount County General Sessions Court before Judge William R. Brewer Jr., who appointed the Office of Public Defender to represent him. He is scheduled to return to court at 9 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 20.

At the Tuesday press conference, Berrong was asked what sort of punishment he thought DeHart should receive, to which he replied, “I want the death penalty,” but added it will be Blount County District Attorney General Ryan Desmond’s decision.

Desmond said he would speak with the family and explain the legal process before making such a decision.

Two other people were charged in connection with the deputy’s slaying: Carrie Mathews, 32, Sevierville, identified in an affidavit as DeHart’s girlfriend, is charged with accessory after the fact, and DeHart’s brother, Marcus Erving DeHart, 41, is charged with accessory after the fact, and aiding after the commission of a homicide. Mathews has been released on $350,000 bond and Marcus DeHart is scheduled to be in court at 1:30 p.m. Thursday, March 25.

Berrong said the investigation is continuing and anyone discovered to have been helping DeHart or harboring him will also be arrested and charged.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued a Blue Alert on Friday for Kenneth DeHart on warrants charging him with first-degree murder, attempted first-degree murder, and felon in possession of a weapon. DeHart was added to the TBI Most Wanted List and was considered armed and dangerous and digital billboards seeking information were posted throughout the Southeast.

According to a TBI release, the deputies initiated a traffic stop Thursday night, Feb. 8, on an SUV in the 4900 block of Sevierville Road in Maryville. The driver, identified as Kenneth DeHart, would not cooperate with deputies and refused to get out of the vehicle. A taser was deployed with no effect, the release said, and at some point DeHart produced a gun and fired shots, striking both deputies. DeHart then drove away from the scene.

McCowan was transported to Blount Memorial Hospital, where he later died. Eggers was also transported with serious but non-life-threatening injuries and the Sheriff’s Office has said she is recovering at home.