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Driver found guilty in death of Kingsport businessman

Rain Smith • Feb 23, 2016 at 11:23 AM

A Sullivan County jury has found a man guilty for the 2014 DUI, hit-and-run death of prominent Kingsport businessman Michael K. Locke, who was placing campaign signs along Fort Henry Drive when struck by a vehicle.

The verdicts against James Hamm, 46, were entered shortly before 8:30 Monday night in Blountville court. For his convictions of vehicular homicide by intoxication, felony reckless endangerment, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of a collision involving a fatality, and failure to exercise due care, Hamm faces between nine and 14 years in prison. Sentencing is set for May 26.

"The family was very relieved to have closure," said Sullivan County Assistant District Attorney Lesley Tiller, who prosecuted the case with Assistant D.A. Kent Chitwood. "Both the family and the state were appreciative of the jury's close attention and their verdict."

Hamm has been held in the Sullivan County jail since his arrest on June 23, 2014.

Kingsport police previously stated that Hamm had pulled over along the shoulder of John B. Dennis Highway, with a passing motorist sensing something was amiss and stopping. That individual reportedly took possession of Hamm's keys until officers arrived.

At the same time, emergency crews were responding to a nearby bridge on Fort Henry Drive. That's where Locke, 61, had been knocked off the roadway and into a ravine 20 feet below. At the time of the incident, Locke was placing campaign signs for former Kingsport Police Officer Bud Hulsey's campaign for the state 2nd House District. Hulsey later won the seat, a position Locke himself formerly held.

Tiller says that 911 calls and video evidence helped police and prosecutors piece together what had transpired. Shortly before Locke was struck, Hamm had stopped at Colonial Heights Package Store, 4311 Fort Henry Drive.

After making a purchase in the store, Hamm returned to his 2003 GMC Yukon XL. Rather than backing from his space, Hamm allegedly drove forward over the curb, across a sidewalk, and into the exterior wall of an adjacent restaurant in the strip mall, Raffaele's.

Tiller says diners called 911 to report the vehicle fleeing the scene, heading northbound on Fort Henry. Traffic cameras at the Fort Henry intersections with Lebanon Road and Moreland Drive then captured Hamm's route, according to Tiller, coupled with 911 calls of an erratic SUV.

Approximately 25 seconds after Hamm's vehicle passed Moreland, a motorist reported a pedestrian struck at the bridge just north of Sonic Drive-In, 3845 Fort Henry Drive.

Tiller added that in the last video image of Hamm's vehicle, just prior to where Locke was hit, the passenger side mirror was properly extended. But when Hamm and his SUV were soon located by police on John B. Dennis, the mirror was pushed in against the vehicle's body.

There were also spots on the passenger side running board and a tire rim that were wiped clean of dirt, presumably from sideswiping an object. Investigators presented that as the point of impact, where Hamm's SUV struck Locke as he was along the shoulder of the road.

"We had 24 witnesses, and 11 were citizens from the community who called 911, talked to police, told them what happened," said Tiller. "I don't think we would have won this case if people wouldn't have called."

Locke, who briefly served as state 2nd House District representative after the 2002 passing of Rep. Keith Westmoreland, had been involved in Sullivan County Republican politics for 25 years. Locke was founder of the local favorite Hot Dog Hut, a business he had grown from the ground up when he started it 38 years ago. He sold the restaurant in 2009.

He was a veteran and active community volunteer in a number of organizations including the Kingsport Life Saving Crew, Lynn View Community Center Board, Parks and Recreation Board and Friends of Allandale. He was involved in the formation of the Sullivan County Young Republicans and was a past president of the Dobyns-Bennett High School Quarterback Club.

In August of last year — and not far from the spot where Locke was struck — a sign was erected to recognize a section of Fort Henry Drive as the, "Michael K. Locke Memorial Bridge."

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