Drug store robbery suspects nabbed after hour-long pursuit

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF

   Two men, apparently desperate for drugs, held up a Piney Flats drug store Monday afternoon, then led police and sheriff's department officers from several jurisdictions on an hour-long chase before being apprehended in Bristol.
   According to Bluff City Police Chief Ken Potter, the incident began around 3 p.m., when two white male subjects entered Piney Flats Drug Center, 5908 Hwy. 11E.
   "They came in and browsed around for about 30 minutes, inquired about a set of crutches, and left the store. They were gone a short while and returned. The pharmacist had actually gone to secure dinner for himself, leaving two female employees in the store. When the perpetrators came in the second time they brandished a small handgun and ordered the two female employees to the rear of the drug store and pointed the gun at them and demanded narcotics," Chief Potter said.
   The clerks were made to get down in a kneeling position while the robbers pointed a gun at them and told them that if they failed to comply with their demands, they would be shot and killed, Potter said.
   "Upon their leaving, they gave the clerks a warning: 'Do not make any phone calls or push any buttons until we clear the store.' "
   The clerks complied and the robbers left with a quantity of drugs, including OxyContin.
   "An alert person who was at the drive-thru window saw them leave and was able to get the car description," Chief Potter said.
   The vehicle left the Piney Flats store, traveling in the direction of Johnson City.
   According to Sgt. Keith Sexton of Washington County Sheriff's Department, an officer who was running radar in the vicinity of Pickens Bridge Road spotted the robbers after 911 put out a BOLO (be on the lookout) on the vehicle. Washington County officers pursued the vehicle and attempted to stop it.
   Chief Potter said the robbers refused to pull over and Sullivan County joined the pursuit, along with several other units.
   "I think I heard the chief of Sullivan County (Chief Deputy Boda Lawson) say there was like 12 vehicles at one time," Potter said.
   The suspects went through Austin Springs Road and touched a portion of Carter County near Watauga, turned and came back out Austin Springs Road and worked their way back to Highway 11E, Potter said.
   "At some point they came out on 11E and Rock Lane Road and Bluff City Police Officer Billy DeGarmo was able to divert them toward Bristol. We didn't want them going back the other way because all of the units were on this end," the police chief said.
   After the suspects headed toward Bristol, Bristol Police set up a roadblock on Volunteer Parkway.
   "In the course of this pursuit, the suspects damaged two Sullivan County units and one Washington County unit. It was a deliberate ramming of the Sullivan County units," Chief Potter said. One was forced into a guardrail.
   The suspect vehicle spun out on Volunteer Parkway and came to a halt. The two men were taken into custody during a felony take-down.
   The driver of the car, Jeffrey W. Owens, 35, Sundance Drive, Bristol; and passenger, Benjamin Hall, 20, 215 Kingston Road, Blountville, were charged by Bluff City Police with aggravated robbery.
   "It doesn't hardly meet the criteria for especially aggravated robbery because there wasn't an injury, but it meets it for aggravated robbery because they displayed a weapon," Chief Potter said. "We will be filing those charges because the robbery occurred in our jurisdiction. There will be a multitude of charges, but they will be filed in the jurisdictions where they occurred."
   Capt. Johnny Murray of Sullivan County Sheriff's Office said Owens was wanted in Washington County on an outstanding warrant for violation of an order of protection.
   "Two patrol units were damaged in the incident but no injuries occurred," Murray said.
   Sullivan County is pursuing charges against the two men, "but based on the different agencies that were involved, we're making sure that we're not overlapping. We'll be pursuing that with Tennessee Highway Patrol, which is working the wrecks where the officers' cars were involved on 11E. Bristol City also is working where the actual apprehension occurred," Capt. Murray said.
   More information will be made available today following arraignment of the suspects.
   Chief Potter said, "I really felt privileged that so many officers got involved and were able to bring it to a halt within that short time frame. Five minutes after they left the store, the car was spotted by the Washington County deputy. The rest of the time, it was never out of sight.
   "All of the agencies that participated did a great job in bringing it to a successful conclusion without any injuries to anyone."
   Potter said the weapon used in the robbery had not been recovered late Monday. "It is believed that the weapon may have been thrown from the vehicle while the pursuit was ongoing."
   Chief Potter also said police "know for a fact" that the controversial painkiller, OxyContin, basically was what the suspects were after.
   "I think we're just seeing what happens when people get desperate for narcotics. They would absolutely stop at nothing," he said. v