Lawsuit against Sullivan sheriff's officials over destroyed home proceeding toward federal court

J. H. Osborne • Nov 22, 2012 at 10:47 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — An attempt at mediation has failed, meaning a likely court date will be set soon in a $1.5 million lawsuit against Sullivan County and the Sullivan County Sheriff’s Department over the burning of a home.

Margaret Spradlin and her daughter, Shirley Brewer, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville on April 16 naming Sullivan County Sheriff Wayne Anderson, 14 of his deputies, Sullivan County and the sheriff’s department as defendants. Spradlin and Brewer are seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and $500,000 in punitive damages.

The lawsuit stems from an incident that took place at their trailer on April 27, 2011, when law enforcement officials converged on their home looking for Junior Spradlin — Margaret Spradlin’s son — who was wanted for murder in Virginia.

Efforts to resolve the lawsuit through mediation were not successful, Sullivan County Attorney Dan Street said Wednesday, and representatives of both sides will meet in court in Blountville in mid-December for a scheduling hearing.

“The end of mediation does not rule out the possibility of a settlement,” Street said. “But it has started the process of moving toward a trial.”

If the lawsuit does make it to trial, the case will be heard in federal court in Greeneville.

According to the lawsuit, law enforcement officials had located, attempted to arrest and eventually chased Junior Spradlin to the Ellis Road trailer. Authorities surrounded the home and used a Hazardous Device Unit’s robot to broadcast commands to the women in the trailer.

Margaret Spradlin and Brewer claim when they exited the trailer, both were thrust to the ground and eventually arrested and put into a deputy’s cruiser and held for approximately eight hours.

The lawsuit states Junior Spradlin ran across the Ellis Road property but did not enter the home, and when Margaret Spradlin and her daughter told law enforcement as much — even going so far as to offer to escort authorities into the home — the officer refused, the lawsuit states.

During the standoff, the two women claim 15 cans of tear gas were thrown into their trailer under the orders of Anderson with the belief that Junior Spradlin was inside.

However, some of the canisters used were intended for outside use only — due to being highly flammable — and after other law enforcement officials advised the sheriff’s department of this fact, the canisters were still used, the lawsuit claims.

The Spradlin trailer caught fire and burned. The two woman claim they were left with demolition and cleanup costs of at least $5,500.

“(They) lost their home and all their belongings, except for the clothes on their back,” the lawsuit states.

Junior Spradlin was not located at the residence, but days later he turned himself in to police in Abingdon. Junior Spradlin, charged with second-degree murder after allegedly punching Ronald Wade Roberts, 49, of Nathalie, Va., resulting in Roberts’ death, has since been found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Margaret Spradlin and Brewer claim the actions taken by the defendants violated their constitutional rights of due process, freedom from an unreasonable search and seizure, and illegal arrest. The two women make further claims in the lawsuit, including false arrest, false imprisonment, destruction of property and outrageous conduct.

Knoxville attorney Ursula Bailey, who represents Margaret Spradlin and Brewer, sent a letter to Sullivan County in July 2011 offering to settle the matter for $350,000 to cover the cost of the trailer, its possessions, and to compensate the women for cleanup, emotional distress and compensation for false arrest and false imprisonment.

The letter indicates the county’s insurance adjuster at some point cited the home’s value at $6,300 — while an appraisal Margaret Spradlin had performed in August 2008 placed the value of the home at $42,500.

Times-News staff writer Matthew Lane contributed to this report.

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