Eddie Overholt had one simple request at a Greene County board meeting in Tennessee during a discussion on whether an industrial gas company should be allowed to build a pipeline to dump waste into a local river: “Could you please speak up so we could all hear?”
That was enough to land the 76-year-old military veteran in the county jail, charged with disrupting a public meeting and resisting arrest.
He told WND he had attended the meeting because he has a deep concern about protecting the Nolichucky River, which runs near his home in the Briar Thicket community and is one of the last remaining “clean” rivers in Tennessee.
“A lot of the folks around here have a love affair with this river because they fish in it, they swim in it, and they have their family camp-outs along side it,” he said.
The board members were mumbling among themselves, not using their microphones, and that caused residents in the packed meeting hall to start grumbling. Several shouted out requests for the board members to speak up or use their microphones. That’s when Mayor Alan Broyles stood up and warned that any more “outbursts” from the audience would lead to the offenders being removed from the meeting by the police.
Overholt then stood and calmly made his request. Officers from the Greeneville Police Department promptly followed Broyles’ orders to arrest the elderly man.
“OK, I’m arrested,” Overholt can be heard saying in a baritone drawl as he was escorted out of the G. Thomas Love Board Room at the Greeneville Light & Power System, where the county’s Industrial Development Board held its hearing with U.S. Nitrogen.
Things didn’t get any better from there.
Overholt told WND that he was forced to walk to the jail about a block away, rather than be taken in a patrol car. The walk came complements of an officer holding his arm up in a painful position while refusing to let him rest for a minute to get his balance and ease the pain in his chronic bad back.
“He got on his radio and called for a transport, but as we got to the bottom of the steps of the building we was at, he called again and said, ‘Cancel the transport. I’m going to walk him down,’” Overholt said. “I was cuffed with hands behind my back, and he had my arm forced up in a pretty awkward position. As we started walking down that way, I asked him his name, because I knew a lot of the people on the department at one time, so I figured I’d ask him his name. And it was Hixson.”
The city officer did not respond well to the question.
“That seemed to sort of aggravate him, because he started putting more pressure on my arm, and I told him I got a bad back, and I’ll either have to sit down or lean against something for a couple of minutes, because I was hoping to let a little of the pressure off of my right arm, because my left leg is the worst leg I got. It just gives out totally sometimes, and I have to sit down,” Overholt said.
The officer responded with, “‘OK, now you’re going to be charged with resisting arrest,'” Overholt said. “And at that point, I was really having trouble keeping my balance, my leg started giving way and he increased the pressure on my shoulder so I still couldn’t walk any better.”
Overholt said when he was seated in a chair in the jail booking room, the officer there offered him a Band-Aid.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you want a Band-Aid?’ I said no, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to have a Band-Aid because you’re bleeding on my floor.'”
He looked down and saw blood dripping from his elbow.
“Then, I don’t know if it was the other officer that walked in or someone to my rear, said, ‘Well maybe you need some concrete time.’ I didn’t have much to say after that,” Overholt recalls. “I never had been arrested before, but figured that was what it was coming to, so I just kept quiet.”
Greene County Mayor Alan Broyles did not return calls from WND seeking comment Wednesday.
Greeneville City Administrator Todd Smith told the Greeneville Sun that the town could not comment in detail on the case since it was still an “ongoing criminal hearing.”
Smith stated in an email to the Sun: “At the arraignment this morning, the judge decided to continue the hearing against Mr. Overholt until Sept. 22. Mr. Overholt is charged with interfering with a public hearing and resisting arrest. Since this is an ongoing criminal hearing, we have no additional comments at this time.”
Overholt said that once a lieutenant from the Sheriff’s Department walked into the booking room, everyone started acting more professional.
“My back was hurting, my shoulder was hurting, and I’m thinking what the hell is going on here? But when he did walk in, all the atmosphere changed and came back to what I would expect law enforcement to act like,” he said. “Everything changed once that lieutenant was in the room. They took mugshots, fingerprints and said, ‘Well, you’re charged with disrupting a public meeting and resisting arrest, and your bond is $1,000.’”
Overholt said he spent three and a half years in the Air Force but didn’t like the way he was being portrayed as a veteran in the media.
“I don’t feel like leaving an impression to people that I went through a d-mn war or something, but that has nothing to do with it,” he told WND. “This has to do with what they’re trying to do here in Greene County, where we’re trying to keep one clean river for us, for our kids and our grandkids – that was our main concern – and they were trying to keep us from hearing what they were doing at that meeting. So it’s back to court on Sept. 22, I guess.”
Overholt said he will not sign off on any agreement admitting guilt in return for the charges to be dropped.
“I got a pretty good idea that they’re going to try to drop the charges, but I would never sign off on them dropping the charges,” he said. “They were trying to intimidate in that meeting. They had like six cops standing around the wall like this was going to be a darn revolution or something and then unceremoniously threw me out, then threw my neighbor out because they were trying to close the meeting, and he was trying to question why I was thrown out.”
Overholt’s group has a Facebook page called “Save the Nolichucky,” which had 2,537 “likes” as of Wednesday. He said the board members were discussing how to re-word a contract that residents of the area had intense interest in, yet they could not hear what was going on. The proposed deal was to pump 2 million gallons of water out of the river and run it several miles to the U.S. Nitrogen plant where it would be used for industrial cooling purposes. A second pipeline would then return the treated wastewater to the original intake area to be released back into the river. Government grants are involved, Overholt said, as are permits from the state Department of Transportation to run the pipelines along rights of way.
Overholt said he didn’t think his simple question would be considered an “outburst” of the type the mayor had warned against.
“I said, ‘well is it not a public meeting?’ And then they started hustling me out and pulling the cuffs out, and I said, ‘Am I under arrest?’ I was a little bit in shock at that point. I didn’t know what kind of meeting they was having,” he said.
STORY UPDATED 7/24:
Greeneville Police Chief Terry Cannon, reached Thursday by WND, said his officer, Lt. Steve Hixson, acted appropriately and according to departmental procedures.
“Yes sir,” he said. “It was a public meeting but it was not a public hearing in which people are invited to give public comments. Are you supposed to just let people take it over? It was just a public meeting that the bond board was having to approve what the DOT had changed (in a contract). That was the whole thing, and then you have people disrupting it.”
Cannon said Overholt “wanted to be arrested” but then resisted officers.
“The thing about it is, the gentleman didn’t cooperate,” Cannon said. “With the other gentleman who spoke up after that, we took him outside and he shut up and we let him go. He didn’t resist or say ‘put me in jail.'”
“When you’re a police officer, and I’ve been one for a long time, one of the things you learn is, people want you when they went you, when they’re in danger,” he continued. “But when they don’t want you, you’re not supposed to show up.”
Cannon admitted that the acoustics in the meeting hall were very bad and that it was hard to hear what was being said. “I don’t know why they held it there,” he said. “Next time they need to hold it somewhere else.”