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March 13, 2014

Putnam deputy released; April trial set

Magistrate orders Smith not to talk about case

TERRE HAUTE — A Putnam County Sheriff’s deputy accused in federal criminal cases of excessive force against suspects in four arrests has been released to pre-trial supervision.

Terry Joe “T.J.” Smith, 37, was released from federal custody Thursday after Magistrate Judge Craig McKee heard arguments in a detention hearing in U.S. District Court at Terre Haute.

As a condition of his release, McKee ordered Smith not to talk about the case with any of the witnesses, alleged victims or his co-workers; not to possess firearms anywhere, including in his home or on the job; and to not use alcohol excessively during his release.

“I understand it all,” Smith responded when asked by McKee if he understood the conditions of his release.

Smith, who also is a member of the Greencastle City Council, was ordered to follow the terms of his release. His trial is set for April 28.

Smith has been placed on administrative leave from his duties by Putnam County Sheriff Steve Fenwick.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Brad Blackington presented what he called a history of violence that began with a domestic violence incident in 1998 when Smith was 21. The case was originally charged as a felony, but was reduced to a misdemeanor conviction of battery in 1999. The victim in the case was the 3-year-old child of Smith’s wife at the time. The child was bleeding and injured from being intentionally struck on the left hip, Blackington told the court. Smith was accused of assaulting his wife in the same incident by grabbing her arm and throwing her backward into a chair.

Smith was also suspended in December 2000 from his job as a correctional officer at the Indiana Boys School at Plainfield. Blackington said that Smith was found in violation of the facility’s use of force policy and dereliction of duty, and he was terminated from that job in April 2001. No criminal charges were filed in the case.

The investigation by the FBI into Smith’s background, Blackington said, also revealed accusations of ghost employment.

Blackington said Smith was employed as a correctional officer at the Putnam County Jail at the same time that he was employed as a truck driver for Lone Star Industries, a cement plant south of Greencastle. Blackington said that Smith was fired from both jobs because of the ghost employment issue, and he signed an agreement with county officials not to seek employment again with the county. He was not prosecuted criminally for ghost employment.

However, under the next sheriff’s administration, Smith was hired as a deputy, Blackington said, and less than a year after that, the first of the four alleged cases of excessive use of force occurred.

“I think the record makes it clear he is a risk to society,” Blackington said of Smith. “He was also fired from two jobs in 2008, which reflects on his veracity. Will he be honest with the court when he couldn’t be honest with his employers?”

Blackington said there was also a concern that firearms exist in the Smith household, as three guns were seen in the house by FBI agents who arrested Smith on Monday morning.

Defense attorney John L. Tompkins of Indianapolis, countered that Smith is not a threat to the public. He said that the guns seen by the FBI in the home were the duty weapons of Smith and of his wife, who is a jail officer at the Putnam County Jail.

Tompkins also noted that the domestic violence incident occurred 15 years ago, and that Smith complied with the no-contact order issued in that case, meaning that he has a history of complying with court orders.

As to the incident at the Indiana Boys School, Tompkins said that a riot among the inmates was occurring when Smith admitted to violating a policy. No criminal charges were filed in that case. And the defense attorney also noted in the case of ghost employment, the prosecutor at the time chose not to file criminal charges, and the sheriff in office at that time was later indicted by a federal grand jury for dishonesty.

Tompkins also pointed out that in each of the four arrests in question, all of the suspects were combative to police officers.

“My point is, these are not cases of ‘why was any force used?’” Tompkins said. “These are cases asking where the line was crossed, if the line was crossed. While they involve violence, they are not crimes of violence.”

Tompkins also told McKee that not having Smith available to testify in criminal cases where he made an arrest could allow a suspect to go free, endangering the community. He also posited that the Putnam County community has fleshed out Smith’s prior accusations of domestic violence and has come to grips with it because Smith was elected to the Greencastle City Council.

The defense attorney also noted that Smith has been placed on administrative leave by the sheriff and will not be returning to duty while the case is pending.

McKee said that though Smith has a record of domestic violence, that incident occurred 15 years ago. And though Smith may have a propensity for dishonesty, as alleged through the ghost employment issue, that does not mean he is a danger to the community. The judge also discounted the public acceptance of Smith because of his election to public office, noting that voters everywhere have often elected unsuitable candidates in the past.

McKee also said that the Boys School incident could not be explained as a case of incidental contact, because of the administrative action taken against Smith.

But, McKee said, those issues were not a question for the detention hearing, which was to look at whether Smith was likely to flee the court’s jurisdiction or a danger to the community.

“I read into it a temper problem,” McKee said of Smith’s history. “There’s plenty of evidence that there’s a temper problem. But I’m not sure there’s evidence of a propensity of violence.”

The judge did say that to use a taser on someone who has been handcuffed, as is alleged in the indictment, or to get physical with someone restrained by handcuffs, may be crossing the line.

“All four incidents seem to be an officer who cannot control his temper and may have reacted in a way that violates federal law,” McKee said, announcing his decision to release Smith to pre-trial supervision through the federal probation department.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or  lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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