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Firing Blanks?

Rifle-toting boy on school playground raises alarms.

By Rebekah Gleaves

The tight-knit, blue-collar neighborhood surrounding Elliston Baptist Church gets busy about 3:15 p.m. That's when the church's school, Elliston Baptist Academy, starts letting out students. So it's no surprise that residents noticed when a young boy began firing a .22 rifle on the playground last Thursday at about the same time classes were ending.

"My little girl was on the playground so I went out to get her," says Elliston's school secretary, Sherry Harris. "I yelled for the little boy to stop shooting and to go home. I personally saw him fire the gun twice before he left the playground."

"Bubba," a kid several church employees recognized from the neighborhood and described as being between 9 and 11 years old, was firing the gun. School employees who witnessed the incident insist that Bubba wasn't aiming at anyone. Harris says she called for her daughter and yelled for someone to call the police.

Four 911 calls and about 30 minutes later, Elliston employees say two officers finally arrived. Elliston's church secretary, Janet Hedges, says that when she called she was told that officers were busy with another call and would "get there when they got there."

"Our school gets out at 3:15, so it was 3:20 when I called 911," says playground manager Lela Broessel, who says that about 50 children were around when the boy was firing. Broessel was the first to call 911 and says she called again when time had passed with no response.

Memphis Police Department spokesman LaTanya Able says that according to the event log the call was received at 3:25. Police dispatchers broadcast the call at 3:32, a car responded at 3:41, and officers arrived on the scene at 3:52. That, however, is all the information the police department has -- no paperwork was ever filed.

By the time the officers arrived, school employees say the boy left the playground and ran to a house a block away. School employees directed the officers there. One Elliston employee says she saw the officers talking to the boy and another says she saw officers standing on the front porch holding a rifle.

"Police went to the boy's house," says Pastor Simmons. "But I haven't heard anything further. I understand that they took his gun, but I'm not positive of that."

"No one was shot, so it wasn't a 'shooting.' Shots were fired. We get those calls all the time," says Able, who confirmed that she could not find any police record of the incident.

In fact, police records show only one recent occurrence at Elliston to which officers responded, a vandalism complaint in early January. Major Brad Ewing at the Southeast Precinct says that the call went to the East Precinct but Lieutenant Freeman of that precinct insisted repeatedly that he had no information before hanging up.

Able speculates that perhaps there was no record of the event because the boy was shooting an air gun or a pellet gun, not a real rifle. But this is a theory Broessel is quick to dismiss.

"I'm not stupid when it comes to guns," she says. "It wasn't a BB gun."

Dialogue Delayed

Conference request means confusion for school board.

By Mary Cashiola

Memphis City Schools commissioner Wanda Halbert just wanted to set up a board staff conference. Instead she started a small, but curious, dialogue.

In the guise of asking for a staff conference Monday night at the city school system's board meeting, Halbert said she wanted the staff to address some "concerns" she had about the transportation department. She did not specify what those were.

But Commissioner Sara Lewis said she had done some checking on those same concerns and that a board staff conference was not the appropriate place to deal with the "serious allegations of impropriety." She instead suggested turning the information over to the district attorney.

"This is a serious possible violation of policy and code," Lewis said.

Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson seemed stymied by the turn of events.

"Any board member that has any information about the transportation department, please release it to the superintendent. If you don't want to give the superintendent that courtesy, release it to the media," said Watson. "This must come to a stop."

Watson later asked the board's attorney, Percy Harvey, if because Halbert is an elected official, the public -- and thus the superintendent -- have a right to any information she might have on the subject.

"And what's a reasonable time line for me to see that?" asked Watson.

Harvey could not think of a legal requirement that would make it public.

"Just because she has a document in her home or office, it's not necessarily a public document," said Harvey. "It's not property of the school system because one commissioner has it."

The board also voted to delay action on a proposal by the legal-representation committee to establish an in-house legal-services division. That proposal was the offspring of a quandary during the KIPP debate on whether the district's outside counsel was serving the interest of the superintendent or the school board.

Railroaded, Part 2

MATA leaves Madison businesses unsatisfied.

By Chris Davis

"Why are we stopping the rail extension at Cleveland?" Will Hudson asks rhetorically. "Because that's where we ran out of money." The Memphis Area Transit Authority president and general manager claps his hands and cracks himself up. He's the only one in the room who thinks the joke is funny.

MATA officials met with Madison Avenue business owners on Thursday, January 31st, to discuss concerns that construction of the new trolley line is having a negative impact on their businesses. Some, especially new business owners, fear bankruptcy. For them, running out of money is no laughing matter.

Officials were clear about two things. One: They want to help the beleaguered businesses. Two: The aid they are offering will probably not be financial. No part of the $75 million allocated for the rail extension was budgeted toward assisting businesses blocked by construction.

Questions from business owners concerning tax relief, a utility freeze, or even low-interest loans arranged through the Center City Commission were met with noncommittal shrugs and a repeated reminder that everyone was given a week's notice before street closings.

One MATA official suggested that snack stands and sidewalk sales might encourage pedestrian traffic. Shortly thereafter a representative from Hill Brothers' construction explained that recent environmental restrictions prohibit his company from cleaning the site. That's why nothing has been done about the mud and dust caking the sidewalks.

MATA did agree to place sandwich-board signs at closed street corners announcing that businesses are still open. There was also some talk of freeing up part of MATA's marketing budget to advertise businesses along Madison. Advertising on MATA trolleys and buses, however, would not be provided.

MATA officials confessed that at no time during the planning of the rail extension did anyone investigate the economic impact of necessary street closings on existing Madison Avenue businesses.

"We thought about it," said MATA project manager Tom Fox.

The MATA panel also admitted they were aware that construction of the original Main Street trolley had contributed to the closings of several businesses along the mall.

"Some of us have to sacrifice to get things done," said Vanessa Young, MATA's construction manager.

New Twists To Trial

New judge sought in Carruthers murder case.

By Tony Jones

In his January 11th hearing to determine if he will receive a new trial, convicted murderer Tony Carruthers accused Division 8 judge Chris Craft of conspiring with prosecutor Jerry Harris to grant a lenient sentence to a man Carruthers claims raped his 10-year-old stepdaughter.

It was the latest bizarre twist in a case that has taken one strange turn after another. Carruthers said to Craft: "You and Jerry Harris let a child-rapist go! How could you do that? I want to state this for the record because you and Jerry Harris know that you violated my constitutional rights!"

Carruthers was referring to Charles Ray Smith, who was convicted on November 7, 2000, for sexual battery in a case involving Carruthers' stepdaughter. Smith was sentenced to two years in prison.

Craft denied any knowledge of details of a deal for Smith, stating that he'd just been appointed to the bench in Division 8 by then-Governor Ned McWherter and that such decisions are a rudimentary part of the job. At the hearing, Craft ordered that a new judge must be assigned to the case, since Craft was working in the prosecutor's office at the time of the original trial.

Carruthers was convicted in 1996 of the abduction and murder of Marcellos Anderson, Marcellos' mother Delois Anderson, and Fredrick Turner. Carruthers and alleged accomplice James Montgomery were sentenced to death for the murders.

A third suspect, Jonathan Montgomery, led police to the bodies, which were found under a plank beneath a freshly interred coffin at Rose Hill Cemetery. Shortly after his confession, in which he named his brother James and Carruthers as fellow perpetrators, Montgomery was found dead in his jail cell at 201 Poplar, a shoestring tied around his neck and attached to a hook in the cell's wall, his feet still on the floor. His death was ruled a suicide.

In his original trial Carruthers dismissed three attorney teams. Judge Joseph Dailey then ordered Carruthers to defend himself.

Carruthers' co-defendant James Montgomery has since been given a new trial. Noting Carruthers' defense of himself, the Court of Appeals ruled that the two cases should be tried separately.

Before his January hearing, Carruthers came within 48 hours of being taken to the state's death house to await his execution. His eleventh-hour reprieve was gained through the efforts of Reverend David Bridges, a member of Tennessee Citizens Against State Killings, and private investigator John Billings, who served as Carruthers' investigator in the original trial. Both are convinced of Carruthers' innocence and say they are trying to find an attorney with capital trial experience to represent Carruthers.

Don Dawson, an attorney with the state's post-conviction appeals office, filed the stay, though Carruthers had resisted his prior efforts. "I had to do it because I believe he's innocent," Dawson said. "We had sent two attorneys to talk to him but he wouldn't sign the case over to them. After he turned our attorneys down, we sent him a letter explaining the deadlines that he had to meet to get a stay. He's very paranoid, and probably for good reason, I feel, after researching his case. He hasn't been represented well at all."

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