Hello, 2022!

Scenes from 2021.

We had planned to resume publishing Hard Knox Wire on January 3 after a two-week holiday. Unfortunately, Jenna Stambaugh remains incapacitated due to the injuries she sustained in November, plus some other health issues have cropped up since then. Simply put, we cannot publish on a regular basis until she’s gotten better. We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused to you, our readers, and if you want to cancel your subscription at this time, please let us know.

The good news is that Jenna has been getting first-class medical care through the University of Tennessee Medical Center as well as physical therapy at home. We’re hoping that she’ll be back on her feet after a few more weeks of healing, and we plan on resuming publication at that point.

Feel free to contact us at any time if you’ve got questions or concerns.

In the meantime, here’s a look back at the year 2021, which began with a level of political chaos not seen since the 1960s (maybe even the 1860s) and closed with a series of devastating tornadoes that killed more than 100 people in Kentucky and Tennessee. In between, we had to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, political battles over vaccines and masks, environmental disasters, and rumors of war with both China and Russia.  

Locally, things didn’t seem much better.  Not only did COVID killed nearly a thousand of our neighbors, but our community’s long-running struggle with opiate addiction has continued unabated and Knoxville is trying to come to grips with a record high number of homicides. On the political front, bitter confrontations over COVID policies have driven several issues, and an attempt by the local Republican Party to unilaterally end nonpartisan elections for Knoxville City Council backfired in a dramatic fashion on Election Day.

Those are only some of the major stories that have dominated the local news in 2021. Today, we’re going to take a look back at the ten most important events from the past year in Knoxville/Knox County. We don’t claim this list is in any way complete or authoritative, but we do hope it serves as a reminder of where we’ve been and, in too many cases, fervently hope we’re never going again.

Missing woman found murdered 

Desheena Kyle (Photo provided by KPD)

Desheena Kyle, a 26-year-old aspiring fashion designer and graduate of Central High School, was reported missing from her Wilson Road apartment on June 28.

For the next three months, KPD investigators tried in vain to find the missing woman despite numerous public pleas for help. Suspicion soon fell on her boyfriend, John Bassett, 29, a low-level criminal with an alleged history of domestic violence.

Just over a week after Kyle was reported missing, Bassett was taken into custody on unrelated charges after a very public display of force in the Lonsdale community by KPD. It wasn’t until October, however, that Kyle’s body was found in an abandoned house on Sam Tillery Road and the Medical Examiner’s Office swiftly ruled that she was the victim of homicide.

On October 7, Bassett was indicted on charges of first-degree murder, abuse of a corpse, and tampering with evidence. He is being held in the Knox County jail pending trial.

SRO snafu gets weird 

It began as an innocent enough proposal. 

The Knox County Schools’ longtime security chief, Gus Paidousis, was due to retire in July, and School Board members Daniel Watson and Evetty Satterfield thought it was a good time to review KCS’s memorandum of agreement (MOA) with law enforcement. Their proposal seemed harmless, and under normal circumstances it would likely have been welcomed by nearly everyone. Unfortunately, thanks to circumstances that no one could have foreseen, the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Coming right on the heels of the shooting of Anthony Thompson Jr. (see separate entry in this list), it was inevitable that the two issues would be conflated in the minds of many. Then — with little warning and even less in the way of a cogent explanation — KPD Chief Eve Thomas and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon announced that KPD was cancelling its MOA with the schools, which would have ended its popular Student Resource Officer (SRO) program. 

What followed was a chaotic free-for-all of claims and counter-claims about the role and value of the SRO program and whether the public should have any say-so on the role that police officers play in the public school system. After weeks of increasingly acrimonious (and at times confusing) debate, an agreement was ultimately reached that kept KPD officers in the schools pending the creation of a new MOA.

Major employers come to Knox area

Artist’s conception of Smith & Wesson’s future headquarters in Blount County. Source: Smith & Wesson.

There was some fairly good economic news in 2021 when two major employers announced they would be opening new facilities in the Knoxville area.

First, online retailer Amazon unveiled plans to convert the old Knoxville Center Mall into a delivery station. The facility is expected to open in 2022 and create hundreds of full-time and part-time jobs, paying a minimum of $15 per hour and offering benefits packages from day one.

The nation’s leading gun maker, Smith & Wesson Brands, Inc., announced it would build a new headquarters facility in Blount County. The company, which is relocating from Springfield, Massachusetts, is expected to invest more than $125 million and create 750 new jobs in the region.

Smith & Wesson will join more than 20 small arms and ammunition manufacturers located in Tennessee, which ranks No. 1 in the nation for employment in the small arms and ammunition sector.

Knox County’s growth leads to high property values

There are plenty of reasons why the Knoxville area is considered by many people to be one of the best places in the United States to live. Good schools, relatively low crime rates, and the nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park are just some of the region’s selling points. 

Traditionally, that list has also included unusually low real estate prices, but it seems like those days may be gone forever thanks to the explosive growth seen over the past few years.

Between 2010 and 2020, Knox County’s population swelled over 10 per cent in the last decade, from 432,226 to 478,971, according to the most recent census figures. The city of Knoxville’s population growth hasn’t been quite as dramatic, but it still grew 178,874 in 2010 to 188,085 in 2020. 

Housing, however, hasn’t grown at anywhere near that rate. According to the most recent report from the Knoxville Area Association of Realtors, the total housing inventory is down 30 percent from a year ago and 46 percent from pre-pandemic levels. The median home price in October of this year was around $285,000.

The immediate consequence is, of course, a shortage of housing — especially the so-called “affordable” variety. Renters may have been hit the hardest, as prices for even modest apartment units have gone through the proverbial roof. According to the Rentcafe website, the average monthly rent for a 973 square foot apartment is $1,319 right now, a price that would have seemed inconceivably high a decade ago. 

The death of Anthony Thompson Jr. 

Anthony Thompson Jr.

On April 12, 17-year old Anthony Thompson Jr. was involved in a domestic dispute with a young lady at Austin-East High School. Three hours later, the Black teenager was lying dead on the floor of a school restroom after an armed confrontation with four Knoxville Police Department officers. 

For years, Knoxville had escaped the kinds of civic unrest that has often erupted in the wake of controversial police shootings in other cities. While the ensuing outcry over Thompson’s death was mild compared to the outbreaks of violence that have rocked other cities, for several weeks Knoxville officials were forced to confront a small but exceedingly vocal group of protesters led by activist Constance Every and the Rev. Calvin Skinner. 

Although the four police officers were swiftly cleared by District Attorney General Charme Allen, questions about the circumstances leading up to the shooting continue to linger. As the year comes to an end, neither KPD nor the Knox County school system have completed internal investigations into the events surrounding Thompson’s death. A friend of Thompson’s has been charged with buying him the pistol he was carrying when he was gunned down by police, and seven protesters (including Every and Skinner) are expected to go on trial in 2022 on charges they disrupted a public meeting. 

Austin-East faces unprecedented heartbreak 

KPD units at the scene of the shooting death of Janaria Muhammad, 15, on Feb. 16.

2021 was especially brutal for the approximately 640 students and 155 employees of Austin-East Magnet High School in East Knoxville.

Six Austin-East students became homicide victims between January and August, marking by far the deadliest year for children in Knox County history.  

Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville. 

Anthony Thompson Jr., 17, was killed during an armed confrontation with four KPD officers in a restroom at Austin-East on April 12 (see separate entry in this list). On August 8, 17-year-old Johnkelian Mathis, an Austin-East football player, was shot to death in a parking lot at the Lonsdale Homes public housing project. Police said that several hundred people had gathered in the area when gunfire erupted around 1 a.m., killing Mathis and wounding two other people.

Never before has any Knox County school suffered like Austin-East did this year. No doubt the violence can be traced back to many causes, such as the crushing poverty faced by many Black Knoxvillians, the allure of criminal street gangs, and the easy availability of firearms. No matter the cause of the violence or the cost of combating it, we can’t allow such a series of tragedies to occur again. 

Republicans lose all City Council races

Knoxville City Council member Seema Singh may have won re-election on Nov. 2, but that didn’t mean she was happy. 

“The Republicans brought some ugliness into city politics that does not belong here. We see each other at the grocery store, we’re friends, we’re neighbors — they were trying to change that,” Singh said after learning that she’d defeated challenger Nicholas Ciparro with 56 percent of the vote. “I’m angry about that.”

Singh continued: “We are all saying that society is getting more difficult. It’s because of things like this. The rest of us, we’re all getting along with each other, disagreeing amicably, right? And then they come in with this agenda. The agenda was to disrupt.”

That agenda, however, failed miserably. Singh was one of five City Council incumbents who handily won re-election in the face of a strong bid by the Republican Party to seize control of City Council. 

Until the 2021 election, both major political parties had respected the longstanding tradition of nonpartisanship in City elections. But the Republican Party — under the direction of Knox County Chairman Daniel Herrera — decided to turn the election into a highly partisan fight, apparently in the belief that Knoxville conservatives could be energized by tapping into outrage over national issues. Instead, each of the incumbents ended up winning more than 55 percent of the vote.

Record number of homicides 

As heartbreaking as Austin-East’s experience was in 2021, it was only part of an even larger horror story that unfolded on Knoxville’s streets. 

As of December 12, Knoxville has had between 41 and 43 slayings, depending on how the numbers are compiled. Either way, it was the highest number of homicides in the city’s recorded history. It was a sickening record to set, especially in a year that also saw two epidemics (opiate addiction and COVID) claim hundreds of additional lives.

The unprecedented rise in the homicide rate actually began when the number of killings shot up from 22 in 2019 to 37 in 2020. According to KPD’s official statistics — which don’t include officer-involved shootings — the number of homicides in 2021 was 41. Hard Knox Wire, however, includes officer-involved shootings and, under that criteria, Knoxville saw 43 homicides in 2021. There were also at least eight homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office. 

A similar increase in killings has been experienced by many other mid-sized American cities. Experts across the country have weighed in on the possible causes of the sudden rise in homicides, which reversed nearly two decades of relatively low violent crime rates following the drug-fueled gang wars of the 1990s. Prior to the last two years, for instance, Knoxville’s bloodiest year came in 1998, when 35 people were killed. 

Homicides have been on the rise across the nation since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and authorities have blamed the spike in violent crime partially on the widespread societal disruption the coronavirus has caused. The pandemic has also been accompanied by a surge in alcohol and drug abuse, which seems to have fueled a rise in both the number of fatal overdoses and the kind of gang warfare that accompanies drug trafficking. 

Opiate epidemic continues to worsen 

A photo from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration showing heroin and fentanyl.

As of December 31, the number of people believed to have died in Knox County from drug overdoses (primarily caused by opiates) in 2021 stood at 455, according to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office. The previous record had been in 2020, when 383 people fatally overdosed. 

As horrible as this year’s record-setting number of homicides in Knoxville has been, the simple fact is that the death toll from overdoses is worse by an order of magnitude. It’s even more shocking to look at the statistics over the past few years and realize that at least 1,660 men, women, and children have died of overdoses since 2017.

That means that more Knox County lives have been lost due to the opiate epidemic than to COVID, the Spanish Flu, or both world wars. 

The vast majority of deaths have been caused by the illicit opiate painkillers heroin and fentanyl, which replaced legal opiates like morphine and oxycodone on the black market when the government cracked down on how narcotics could be prescribed. While the current opiate epidemic has raged for almost a full generation, local officials involved in treating addicts believe that significant progress was being made until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.

“We’re still trying to dig our way out from under the pandemic,” said Karen Pershing, executive director for the Metro Drug Coalition. “That’s speculation, but addiction is a disease of isolation and that’s what we had to do — isolate ourselves.”

According to Pershing, the number of overdose deaths had been dropping through the first three months of 2020, and there’s every reason to believe they would have continued to fall had the pandemic not happened. “I tell people that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s community,” Pershing said.

Experts on drug policy have been clear about what needs to happen if our society wants to stop seeing our parents, siblings, children, spouses, and friends suffer miserable deaths. Continuing to treat addiction as a crime rather than as a public health problem has led us to this dark place, and our only way out is to rethink our whole catastrophic approach. 

Unfortunately, it seems that virtually no one in power is listening.

Pandemic continues, as does partisan divide 

Anti-mandate protesters set up shop at the intersection of North Peters Road and Kingston Pike. Photo submitted.

Unfortunately, there was really no question what the biggest story of 2021 was going to be. 

For the second year in a row, the COVID-19 pandemic raged around the world. Not since the end of the Cold War has there been so much change in so short a time, and it may take decades for our global society to recover from the economic, cultural and medical consequences of the disease. 

On a local level, the pandemic has claimed the lives of 1,000 people in Knox County and caused 2,277 hospitalizations since it began in early 2020. An estimated 85,095 Knox County residents have contracted the virus, which caused only mild to moderate illness in most cases.

In comparison, the Spanish Flu killed 209 people in Knoxville and another 16 in unincorporated areas of Knox County in late 1918. It’s impossible to know exactly how many residents got sick overall, but based on what authorities said at the time it was probably about 10,000 people out of a combined city/county population of approximately 110,000. 

Politically, the pandemic has divided the nation along partisan lines. Democrats and Republicans have battled over almost every issue that’s stemmed from the pandemic, with liberals generally favoring strong public health measures while conservatives have fought against allowing the government to take coercive steps to control the spread of the coronavirus. 

At the local level, the conflicts revolved mainly around the Knox County Board of Health and a “mask mandate” imposed on the Knox County school system by a federal judge. The Board of Health was ultimately dissolved in March by County Commissioners who wanted more control over COVID-related policies such as masks and curfews, but the legal fight over the “mask mandate” seems guaranteed to continue into the coming year.

The legal maneuvering began with a federal lawsuit filed in September by the parents of four disabled Knox County Schools students who argued their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had been violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. 

U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a preliminary injunction requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved. He also blocked Governor Bill Lee’s controversial Executive Order 84, which allows parents to exempt their children from covering their faces, from applying to Knox County during the litigation. 

Greer’s ruling triggered both praise and derision, with hundreds of parents and students opposed to the mandate taking part in numerous protests and acts of civil disobedience that include picketing, refusing to don masks in class, or even withdrawing from the public schools entirely. After filing a series of motions that were rejected by Greer, the school system’s attorneys filed an unsuccessful appeal with the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio. As of the opening days of 2022, it appears that the mask mandate will remain in effect indefinitely.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on January 2, 2022.