Commission taken hostage?


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  Armed gunmen took two Carter County Sheriff Department deputies and the Carter County Commission hostage Monday shortly after 7 p.m. Audience members watched in disbelief as three armed men and one armed woman threatened everyone in the Carter County Courthouse with guns and a bomb that was allegedly placed in the building to deter anyone from escaping.
  The four armed people, along with a few other unarmed citizens, frightened everyone who was not made aware that the mock situation was a drill, conducted by the Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency.
  The assailants made their presence known right after the meeting was called in session and County Court Clerk Mary Gouge had taken attendance. One man jumped the wooden gate between the audience and the commissioners and brandished what appeared to be a timer for the alleged bomb while standing over County Finance Director Jason Cody.
  The assailants pretended to be Carter County residents angry over the County Commission's agenda that included discussion to increase the property tax rate from $2.22 per $100 of assessed value to $2.52 and to impose a $25 wheel tax for registering a vehicle in Carter County.
  One perpetrator demanded, "No more wheel tax! I am in control today! No more wheel tax!"
  A man and a woman held guns to the backs of deputies stationed at the rear and side entrances of the courtroom. Another gunman waived a pistol while preventing people from exiting the back door. Fearful commissioners watched in disbelief while waiting for an official to take control of the situation.
  The commission and audience members braced for the worst possible scenario while the gunmen screamed about not raising property taxes, chanting, "No wheel tax! No wheel tax!"
  Commissioner Robert Davis challenged the man, saying this was an "authorized governmental meeting" and "Where is the sheriff?" Davis stormed past one of the gunmen saying, "Don't touch me. Do not touch me."
  A shot was fired from the gunman at the rear door warning people to sit still and to stop moving as commissioners scurried into locked jury rooms only accessible to the people sitting behind the wooden gate.
  Audience members were unaware of the secretly planned drill, and some fought back tears while Emergency Management Director Earnest Jackson walked calmly to the podium and informed County Mayor Dale Fair, commissioners and other officials that the hostage situation was only a drill.
  "We conducted a scenario. We are required to have two drills per year and this exercise is what we tried to do this evening. This is something that could occur. Whether we like it or not this scenario is very real," Jackson said. He also rationalized the drill by saying "We are faced with terrorism every day. I was trying to do my job."
  Jim Lynch, an audience member, yelled in response, "There is enough real terrorism going on without this bull crap!" He later said, "We know this could happen. How can something like this help us? This was stupid."
  Samantha Coleman, also an audience member, said the drill was good practice. "In the society we're living in today, any time, any moment, in your local church, commission meeting, this type of thing could happen. Whether we like it or not it is a very real scenario."
  Jackson and other members of the Elizabethton/Carter County Emergency Management Agency attempted to inform all audience members of a drill that would be occurring to ease fears. Jackson said he was not able to reach every audience member and was sorry for the unintended fear the drill caused. The plan called for several irate citizens to hold the commission hostage until taxes were lowered.
  Jackson said he was trying to test emergency response teams and planned for the drill to last no longer than 30-40 minutes and to include reaction from response teams in the county. The drill only lasted a few short minutes but managed to warrant an investigation into the procedure and planning of the drill.
  "This is a very real scenario. People have shorter and shorter fuses. This could happen with zoning, taxes, and we need to be ready for this type of situation," Jackson said. He plans to look into a state level course to train local officials for this type of situation.
  Fair and other commissioners were intentionally uninformed to ensure the drill's reality. He said, "As chair, I was unaware of this. We will have an investigation of this action."
  Another audience member said, "Face it; we live in a world where this could happen," while others agreed.
  Some commissioners left in anger as Jackson explained the importance of the mock hostage situation. Sheriff John Henson, who was notified of a drill only minutes before the meeting, was obviously shaken and said if the situation was real, "I would have dropped him where he stood." Henson was seated behind commissioners with a direct line of fire to the lead perpetrator waving the "bomb" timer.
  Fair addressed what remained of the audience and commissioners by postponing the meeting to set a property tax rate until an undecided date.
  He said, "As chair I was unaware of the drill. There are proper procedures of this coming about. I know drills are serious ... and this caused our meeting to be canceled." He also described the situation as "not the proper procedure for a drill" and added the chairman and the county attorney should have been notified. "I took it very seriously," Fair said.
  After calling in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Henson said, "I knew about five minutes before it happened. This should have never happened. In a place like this and at a time like this it is wrong. I have called the TBI in. It should have never happened here tonight. I am not sure of charges being placed, but there will be an investigation."
  He went on about the dangers of the drill. "I would have probably shot the guy right here. Someone in the crowd could have had a heart attack," he said.
  Jackson's response to an investigation of the drill was, "I am carrying out a job I was hired to do."