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Bell closes the book on 32-year attorney general career

January 19th, 2014 11:29 am by Jeff Bobo

Bell closes the book on 32-year attorney general career

Third Judicial District Attorney General Bereley Bell isn't seeking a fifth term in this year's election, retiring after 32 years in office. (photo by Jeff Bobo)

ROGERSVILLE — Each of Attorney General Berkeley Bell’s first two decades in office had a major defining moment, while his third decade has seen the entire law enforcement climate change due to the prescription painkiller epidemic.

As a Democrat, Bell is a bit of an anomaly in East Tennessee, serving as Third Judicial District Attorney General in the heavily Republican counties of Greene, Hamblen and Hancock and Hawkins since 1982.

Bell, a native of Greeneville, won’t be seeking re-election to a fifth eight-year term this year.

When his term expires at the end of August, Bell plans to join a Greeneville law firm with the same partner he had prior to his election in 1982. He said he may even find himself in the position of trying to keep a defendant out of jail.

For the past 32 years, however, Bell’s focus has been on putting defendants in jail, although he admits that in the early years he was very short on experience and had a lot to learn.

Bell: “I came out of UT law school in 1974 and a friend of mine, John Rogers, came to Greeneville and we started our practice. We were building a good practice, but there was several of us who thought that there needed to be a change in the district attorney’s office for various reasons. With their help we got a campaign started, and were successful.” 

Although he’d done some criminal defense, when Bell was elected in 1982 he had no experience as a prosecutor.

“I was kind of like a leaf in the wind,” he said. “I was trying to get a staff together, and I was very fortunate to recruit Gail Jeffers out of the clerk’s office in Greeneville to come on as my administrative assistant. She worked there for several years and knew the system, which was a tremendous help. I was able to get some lawyers together to be on the staff, and one of them was a gentleman by the name of Jim Prior from Knoxville. He’d been an assistant D.A. for many years in Knox County. If I hadn’t had Jim I don’t know what I would have done. He had years of experience, and he was able to show us how to act as prosecutors.” 

Bell tried 47 jury trials in his first year in office.

“That’s just off the charts — a huge number of trials for any prosecutor,” Bell said. “The defense attorneys saw a rookie coming in and they were just putting us to the test. I don’t know what our batting average was, but we did pretty good. The number of cases we had to try after that decreased steadily year after year.” 

Bell added, “I think we’ve established a level of credibility that allows us to dispose of cases fairly without trial. Credibility of the office is very important. It saves tons and tons of money and time. If we get a fair resolution of the case without having to go to trial, I think the people are better served that way. I haven’t tried a case in over a year.” 

Bell’s first major trial was in October of 1982, less than two months after he took office. Andrew and Pamela Harrison of Rogersville, Hawkins County, were shot to death and their bodies hidden in a dry cistern.

The case had resulted in a hung jury when Bell’s predecessor,  Heiskell Winstead,  tried it the first time. Bell got another hung jury, followed by an acquittal in the third trial.

“I didn’t like the outcome, but we learned from that and moved on,” Bell said

The Scotty Trexler law

The case the defined Bell’s first decade in office stemmed from the 1987 beating death of 21-month-old Scotty Trexler in Hawkins County.

The defendants, Kerry Bowers and the child’s mother Tammy Trexler, were originally charged with first-degree murder.

Tennessee law at that time required “premeditation” for someone to be convicted of first-degree murder. Bowers was found guilty of second-degree murder and Trexler of aggravated assault and failure to report child abuse.

Tammy Trexler completed her sentence, and Bowers was sentenced to 35 years. Parole has regularly been denied for Bowers, but he is scheduled to be released in March of 2015.

Bell said he wanted life without parole for both.

Bell: “We were devastated by that verdict, but it led myself and others — particularly the Kingsport Times-News — to launch a crusade to get the law changed so that what had happened to that child would, in and of itself, be grounds for first-degree murder. I’m sure the jury had trouble seeing whether or not he (Bowers) was intending to kill him. He just brutalized the child. We changed the law so that if you inflict those types of injuries on a child, and a child dies, it’s felony murder. I was pleased that with the help of so many people we were able to get the law changed, but I was never happy with the result of the trial.”

The Lillelid murders

In 1997 six troubled youths from Pikeville, Ky., who were beginning a cross-country crime spree, stopped at a Greene County rest area on Interstate 81. 

That’s where the youths kidnapped the Lillelids, a Knoxville family of four that was on its way home from a Jehovah’s Witness convention in Johnson City.

They took the family to a rural road near the Baileyton exit and shot all four, killing the father, mother and 6-year-old daughter. Only the 2-year-old son survived. They stole the Lillelids’ van, and were arrested four days later in Arizona at the Mexican border.

That case, which was prosecuted by Bell, shocked the world. All six eventually received sentences of life without parole.

“I don’t know how many TV programs I’ve done about this case,” Bell said. “I’ve got a message on my desk (Tuesday) to do a TV program about that case.” 

Bell said he literally worked seven days per week for 11 months on that case.

Bell: “The ultimate satisfactory resolution of that case depended on the outstanding work of law enforcement getting it ready, particularly the TBI and the investigators on my staff. Teddy Collinsworth, Tom Shell, Kenneta Williamson — they were gone for weeks at a time uncovering evidence. We didn’t know what we had, and it took months to go through, but it all came together.” 

Bell said there hasn’t been another case in his 32-year career that was more shocking than the Lillelid murders. The only way to describe that crime is “evil incarnate,” he said.

“If you didn’t believe that evil really exists, and is palpable, and can take human form, before that, then you certainly would after that,” Bell said. “Those people were manifestly evil, and they acted it out.”

The Pill Epidemic

Bell doesn’t have any statistics, but he said there’s no doubt in his mind that over the past 32 years crime has increased at a much higher ratio than the population has increased, particularly in the past decade.

The main reason for that over the past decade is the increase in prescription painkiller addiction.

Bell said the biggest challenge for his successor will be handling the increased caseload that the pill epidemic is causing.

Bell: “Hawkins County is a great example. We have a lot more crime here than we used to. I review every autopsy, and in about 37 to 38 percent of them death is attributable to ‘Oxys’ or ‘Roxys,’ or some type of hydromorphone derivative. How we as a society, and in law enforcement, address this crisis — the epidemic of abuse of these very powerful and dangerous drugs — will be the biggest thing that the next attorney general has to handle.” 

Bell said his successor not only has to worry about the people who are putting painkillers on the streets, but also addicts who commit crimes for pill money.

“We’ve had cases where they know drugs are available in a home,” Bell said. “They come and kick down the door and start shooting the first person they see, and kill or attempt to kill everybody in the house, all over pills.” 

Bell said that from his perspective in law enforcement, the current pill epidemic is “the greatest danger our society faces today.” 

“It’s killing us,” he said. “It’s killing the individuals that take the pills. It’s causing them to kill others. It’s causing them to disrupt the pattern of our society. People are afraid of their own children and grandchildren. They can’t trust them not to rob them. It’s like you invite this terrible monster to come inside you and take over your body — literally take over your mind and your body, and you have no control over what you want to do.”

Summarizing a 32-year career

“It has been an honor to represent the people Greene, Hamblen, Hawkins and Hancock counties in this capacity,” Bell said. “I think people were ready for a change (in 1982), and I was the instrument of that change. Then I was fortunate to have people I worked with — we did a satisfactory enough job that people kept us in office. It all comes down to the people you work with — the assistant district attorneys, administrative assistants, sheriffs, police chiefs — we all worked together. I feel like I leave the office in good condition and whoever takes over after me will have some very valuable resources waiting on him when he gets here.”

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