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Homeless man's allegation leads to arrest of Hunger First operator

Rain Smith • May 11, 2018 at 9:45 AM

KINGSPORT — A privately pursued theft claim at a nonprofit for the needy and homeless has led to the operator’s arrest for failure to appear, though he thought the matter had been settled six months ago.

Michael Joseph Gillis, 47, of Kingsport, was booked into the Sullivan County jail on Tuesday. Gillis is the executive director for Hunger First, located at the corner of Myrtle Street and East Center Street in downtown Kingsport. The organization provides free food and clothing to individuals with no questions asked.

According to Kingsport Police Department records, last July a homeless man contacted police about an alleged theft. In May, he asked Gillis to store his insulated Carhartt jacket and overalls at Hunger First. But when he returned to retrieve them two months later, Gillis told him they were gone.

Police advised the man to pursue private prosecution in the alleged theft of the clothing. The 48-year-old complainant did so, and Gillis was later served with a criminal summons to appear in court.

“He was doing what he thought was in his best interest,” Gillis told the Times News.

Gillis confirmed that during remodeling at Hunger First, the clothing indeed went missing. However, he told the homeless man that he would replace his winter gear.

On Wednesday at Hunger First, Gillis pulled up photos on his cell phone. They show a smiling man decked head to toe in insulated Carhartt apparel. Gillis said the images were taken of the complainant in November, when he was delivered new clothing purchased by Gillis.

At that point, according to Gillis, the homeless man said he would drop the theft charge. Gillis said he thought no more of it, and has even fed the man several times over the past month.

Then came a crash on Tuesday.

A KPD incident report says that on South Wilcox Drive, traffic slowed for a turning vehicle. Gillis reportedly failed to do so, and his Chevrolet Trailblazer struck the rear of a Ford Escape. He then swerved and hit a Ford Explorer to his left.

Gillis was cited for failure to maintain control, while a check of his information revealed an outstanding warrant: failure to appear on a theft claim.

“I was like, ‘No, you gotta be kidding me,’ ” Gillis told the Times News. “I thought that was dropped.”

Gillis now has a court date set for September. However, he says he holds no ill will toward the homeless man who has spurred the legal wrangling and will continue to try to help those in need.

A check of KPD records shows numerous reports involving the man who made the claim against Gillis. They include three welfare checks over the last 10 months for possible mental instability.

Meanwhile, Gillis says he would like to expand Hunger First to include a day center for the homeless, and maybe even open a second location in Southwest Virginia.

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