Losing your wallet in Cookeville, Tenn., can get you handcuffed on the side of the highway and your dog shot to death by police – at least, that was the experience of a North Carolina family returning from a vacation in Nashville.
James Smoak apparently left his wallet on the roof of the family station wagon New Year’s Day while getting gas prior to pulling onto Interstate 40, reports the Cookeville Herald-Citizen.
He discovered it was missing after three police cars swarmed his vehicle in what appeared to be a traffic stop.
But this was no ordinary traffic stop.
According to Smoak, a Tennessee Highway Patrol officer broadcast orders over a bullhorn for him to toss the keys out of the car window, get out with his hands up and walk backwards to the rear of the car. Smoak obeyed and was subsequently ordered onto his knees and handcuffed at gunpoint. Officers similarly handcuffed his wife, Pamela, and their 17-year-old son with their guns drawn.
As the troopers were putting the family members inside the patrol car, one of the Smoak family bulldogs came out of the car and headed toward one of the Cookeville officers who were assisting the THP troopers.
“That officer had a flashlight on his shotgun, and the dog was going toward that light, and the officer shot him, just blew his head off,” Pamela Smoak told the Herald-Citizen. “We had begged them to shut the car doors so our dogs wouldn’t get out, [but] they didn’t do that.”
Cookeville Police Officer Eric Hall later defended his actions to the Herald-Citizen.
“A dog, I believe to be a pit-bull, jumped from the suspect vehicle, singled me out from the other officers, and charged toward me growling in an aggressive manner, Hall described.
“I yelled at the dog to ‘get back’ but it attempted to circle me to attack, so I felt that I had no other option but to protect myself. I fired once at the dog, instantly putting him down,” he continued.
Following the slaying of the dog, it was some time before the family learned why they had been stopped. At one point, a state trooper told them they “matched the description” in a robbery that had occurred in Davidson County.
It was a while longer before someone in authority figured out that the officers had stopped and were holding the very family that someone in Davidson County had assumed had been robbed.
“Finally, they asked me my name and I told them my name, date of birth and other information, and they talked by radio to someone in Davidson County and finally realized that a mistake had been made,” James Smoak said.
The 38-year-old said the officers then told them they were released and apologized.
“A lady in Davidson County had seen that wallet fly off our car and had seen money coming out of it and going all over the road, and somehow that became a felony and they made a felony stop, but no robbery or felony had happened,” Pamela Smoak said.
“Here we are just a family on vacation, and we had to suffer this,” James Smoak added.
Beth Womack, a THP spokesperson in Nashville, told the Herald-Citizen an internal affairs investigation is under way and that every effort will be made to “find out exactly what happened and why.”
“As I understand it,” she said, “a report was made in Davidson County to our officers that this car had been seen leaving at a high rate of speed and that a significant amount of money had come out of the car and someone became suspicious,” she said.
An internal investigation is also under way at the Cookeville Police Department.
On Friday, Chief Bob Terry issued a statement stressing the department was called in as back-up by the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the officers’ role was “secondary to what the THP termed as a ‘felony’ stop, a possible car-jacking.”
“Unfortunately, during the THP’s process of gaining control of the situation, a very rare thing occurred,” Terry’s statement continued. “The Smoaks had been traveling with family dogs, and one of them got loose. … it clearly approached one of our officers in a threatening manner. Our officer first tried to call the dog down, but after it kept approaching aggressively and started to circle him, the officer took the only action he could to protect himself and gain control of the situation.”