In case you haven’t heard, a convicted murderer is on the loose somewhere in Chattanooga. Or maybe somewhere else. Authorities aren’t quite sure where he is, and the circumstances surrounding his disappearance have raised concerns about Hamilton County’s ability to keep tabs on criminal offenders.
Last Friday, 22-year-old Christopher Padgett was sentenced to life in prison for the 2012 murder and robbery of Millennium Taxi Services driver Nathan Deere. While Padgett’s conviction won’t bring back Deere, it was a measure of justice for the family of the man Padgett robbed and shot in the back of the head. Of course, it would have been better if Padgett had actually been in the courtroom to receive his sentence.
Just days earlier, Padgett cut off his GPS ankle monitor and sneaked out of his mother’s house before the third day of his trial. Padgett’s bondsman initially thought that Padgett might have fled to Clarksville, but a Chattanooga police officer said a conversation with Padgett’s mother led him to believe that Padgett is more likely hiding in Alton Park. During a brief chat Tuesday, a spokesman for the Chattanooga Police Department told me that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is handling the investigation and following all actionable leads. Padgett is now one of the TBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted.
The most frustrating aspect of Padgett’s escape is the fact that he removed his ankle monitor in the middle of the night and was able to flee without anybody knowing about it until hours later.
As the Times Free Press reported Sunday, from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on weekdays, there are no county corrections officials tracking the real-time information that GPS monitors collect on the 24 people currently wearing them. A computer sends updates around the clock, but there is nobody there to receive them. The same gap applies for 109 people currently wearing older monitors that only measure how far they are from boxes plugged into power sockets.
According to Hamilton County Corrections Department officials, if county corrections employees learn that someone has tampered with a monitoring device during normal business hours, they can quickly respond in multiple ways, including attempting to contact the offender and alerting law enforcement. However, if the tampering happens after business hours, it is addressed the following business day. Chris Jackson, director of the Hamilton County Corrections Department, said this gap in monitoring offenders at night, on the weekends and holidays goes back to 2011, when the county cut five monitor positions from its budget.
People wearing GPS monitors are facing misdemeanor charges or are pretrial candidates. Someone accused of murder can be allowed to leave jail and wear a monitor instead if granted permission by a judge-which is exactly what happened with Padgett.
Padgett was arrested in April 2012 and then spent nearly three years in jail before his appointed attorney convinced a judge to transfer to the county’s GPS monitoring system. In June, Padgett violated the conditions of his bond and then sat in jail until his mother bonded him out Sept. 30.
Given the violent nature of the charges against Padgett, Jackson asked the vendor who supplies the monitors to the county to let him know if anything went wrong with Padgett’s monitor. At about 1:40 a.m. last Thursday, Jackson received an automated text alerting him that someone had tampered with the monitor. Jackson was asleep when he received the text, however, and didn’t notice the message until he woke up around 6. By that time, the fleeing Padgett had a several-hours head start on the authorities.
As the TFP pointed out, Padgett isn’t the first violent offender with an ankle monitor that the department has admitted to not tracking after business hours. In 1997, Evay Kelley was on house arrest for gun and drug charges when he gunned down 19-year-old Todd Peterson. Back then, like now, people on house arrest were only monitored on weekdays. When Peterson’s family accused the department of negligence, it took steps to step up its monitoring program. By 2011, however, the county decided that it could afford to cut round-the-clock monitoring from its budget.
The fact that the vast majority of those with ankle monitors are nonviolent offenders lends some credence to the argument that round-the-clock monitoring is unnecessary. But Kelley gunned down a man the last time monitoring was relaxed, and there’s no guarantee that Padgett won’t kill again before he’s recaptured. How many lives are worth the savings the county is getting from slashing the monitoring budget?
If the county isn’t going to place tighter restrictions on which offenders are allowed into the monitoring program, it should seriously consider re-expanding its monitoring hours.
If you know the whereabouts of Padgett, please call the TBI at 1-800-TBI-FIND. A $1,000 reward is being offered for information leading to his arrest.
Former Chattanooga Pulse Editor Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) local news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.