ROGERSVILLE — An investigation by Special Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the 3rd District Attorney General’s Office has led to the indictment and arrest of a Mount Carmel man on one count of Theft Over $250,000.
The charges stem from allegations that Christopher Scott “Chris” Jones, 48, who currently serves as the Mayor of Mount Carmel, stole more than $300,000 from his elderly grandmother’s estate in West Virginia prior to her death in 2016.
In August 2019, at the request of District Attorney General Dan Armstrong, TBI Special Agents began investigating the allegations.
During the course of the investigation, agents developed information that between November 2014 and January 2016, Jones allegedly stole the money from his grandmother and her estate by writing checks from her account to himself for false reimbursements.
Last week, a Hawkins Co. Grand Jury returned an indictment charging Jones with one count of Theft Over $250,000.
On Monday, Feb. 10, 2020, he was served with the sealed Grand Jury indictment, arrested and booked into the Hawkins Co. Jail.
A civil suit, stemming from the same charges, that was heard last year in Hawkins Co. Chancery (civil) Court, resulted in the local court upholding a $571,000 judgment against Jones by a West Virginia court.
Those charges will now be heard in Hawkins Co. Criminal Court.
Third District Attorney General Dan Armstrong said in published reports that the charges are not connected to Jones’ position as mayor.
Although the alleged crime happened in West Virginia, Tennessee has jurisdiction because at least some of the money that was taken ended up in a bank in Hawkins County, Armstrong said.
While the charge is only one count, the alleged “ongoing common scheme or planned theft” took place over a period of time, the DA said.
As of Monday evening, Jones remained in the Hawkins Co. Jail on a $300,000 bond pending his arraignment in Criminal Court on April 30.
Theft Over $250,000 is a Class A Felony punishable by 15-25 years in prison if found guilty.
BACKGROUNDThe validity of a $571,000 judgment imposed on Jones by a West Virginia court was upheld last year by a Hawkins County Chancery Court judge, and plaintiffs — Jones’ relatives — at that point were free to proceed with efforts to recover funds they allege he embezzled from his late grandmother’s estate.
On March 12, 2019, Third Judicial District Chancellor Doug Jenkins ruled in favor of a Greeneville attorney’s motion for summary judgment on behalf of his clients, the family of the late Marceline Carpenter from whose estate Jones allegedly took the money.
Legal challenges have caused the matter to bounce back and forth between the two states for more than two years, and in published reports at the time, attorney William Nunnally stated that he was not optimistic that his clients — Jones’ family — will be able to recover much, if anything, from the defendant.
Jones was required to submit a deposition and reveal his assets. He had 30 days in which to file an appeal with the Tenn. Court of Appeals.
The status of that, or any other ongoing civil action, was not known at presstime.
GRANDMOTHER PASSED AWAY IN EARLY 2016As has been previously reported in the Review, Mrs. Carpenter passed away on Jan. 2, 2016 in an assisted care facility in West Virginia.
A lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Randolph County, West Virginia, after her death by family members, alleged that Jones had taken approximately $390,000 from the woman’s estate.
The lawsuit, which presents only one side of the legal argument, claimed that Mrs. Carpenter had developed dementia in her later years and was not competent to grant her power of attorney or to approve financial decisions.
A hearing in the case was held Aug. 14, 2017, but when Jones did not challenge the lawsuit nor attend the hearing in person to offer a defense on his own behalf, Judge David Wilmoth entered a judgment by default, ordering Jones to pay $571,569, which includes compensatory and punitive damages, attorney fees, and pre-judgment interest.
Wilmoth also tacked on seven percent interest annually for any unpaid balances.
Jones, however, contended that the West Virginia judge’s ruling was invalid because a state seal was allegedly missing from the paperwork with which he was served. The West Virginia court, however, found in September, 2018, that Jones’ complaint was essentially moot because Jones did not raise the issue more than a year earlier, prior to the judge’s ruling.
Additionally, Jones claimed that the summons was missing from the paperwork with which he was served. That complaint, too, was addressed as both the Court Clerk’s office and the prosecuting attorney in West Virginia, and the Tennessee process server, reportedly signed affidavits affirming that the summons was present in the paperwork that was served on Jones.
Jones has stated in published reports that it was his grandmother’s wishes, before her death in 2016, that he have the money, and that while she did, in fact have a will, because she had essentially given him certain money prior to her death, that it did not have to be so stated in the will.
Court documents obtained by the Review show that Judge Wilmoth’s order from Aug., 2017, ruled:
• That the defendant (Jones) “intentionally converted and embezzled” the sum of $133,282.45 from a savings account, $111,692.71 from a CD owned by Mrs. Carpenter. The judge ruled that the Plaintiff is entitled to those sums “plus pre, and post, judgment interest”.
• That Plaintiff is entitled to and additional judgment in the amount of $112,607.94 for Jones’ “intentional conversion and embezzlement” of money contained in Mrs. Carpenter’s checking account, “by writing checks to himself and his company”. Additional judgment in the amount of $21,455.87 was granted for Jones’ “intentional conversion and embezzlement” of the remaining funds in the checking account.
• That Jones “converted” Mrs. Carpenter’s 2007 Chevy Colorado, which at the time of its disposal, was worth $14,900.
“All of the above items, namely he savings account, certificate of deposit, checks, remnants of the checking account, and truck total were intentionally defalcated and embezzled by Defendant while he was acting in a fiduciary capacity, in the total amount of $393,938.97,” Judge Wilmoth’s order states.
Wilmoth also awarded $6,200 in attorney fees to the Plaintiffs.
The order went on to list various West Virginia statutes that govern the setting of interest on such awards. As of the date of that order, $40,117.03 in pre-judgment interest was determined.
In addition, Wilmoth ordered the payment of punitive damages equal to one-third the amount of the compensatory damages.
“The Court finds Defendant’s conduct reprehensible,” Judge Wilmoth wrote. Defendant continued in his actions of conversion and embezzlement from his grandmother for a period of approximately one year, draining nearly all of her assets over that time. Defendant must have been aware that his actions were causing, or were likely to cause, harm. It does not appear that Defendant attempted to conceal or cover up his actions or the harm caused by them.”
Wilmoth did note that, “The Court is unaware of Defendant engaging in similar conduct in the past”.
The judge also noted that there is no indication that Jones attempted to make “reasonable efforts to make amends by offering a fair and prompt settlement for the actual harm caused once his liability became clear to him”.
“The Court is mindful that the Defendant profited from his wrongful conduct, the punitive damages should remove the profit and should be in excess of the profit, so that the award discourages future bad acts by the Defendant,” Judge Wilmoth’s order continues. “The court believes the award herein will discourage future bad acts by the Defendant.”
He also noted that while the financial position of Jones, “is relevant, however Defendant has not appeared in this action, and therefore the Court is without evidence relevant as to this portion of the punitive damage determination.”
Wilmoth said in awarding the $131,312.99 punitive damages, that the Court considered the costs of litigation, and the fact that it was unaware of any criminal or civil sanctions levied against Jones “based on the same conduct”.
The total monetary amount awarded — including compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees and pre-judgment interest — came to $571,568.99.
Jones filed a motion in which he asked Hawkins Co. Third Judicial District Chancellor Jenkins to dismiss a “domestication action” filed against him in by the Estate of Marceline Carpenter.
In an Aug. 1, 2018, order, Jenkins temporarily approved a “stay”, noting that Jones sought to have the action dismissed because the summons issued by a West Virginia court clerk did not bear an official seal as required by West Virginia state law. The chancellor noted, however, that the office in Randolph County, West Virginia, has not, for the past 30 years, added official seals to summons and other court documents.
As a result, the chancellor said he believed that action on the case in Hawkins County should be delayed until the West Virginia court rules on Jones’ contention that the summons issued to him was invalid.
Jenkins let stand, however, an injunction that encumbered, or prohibited, Jones from selling several items — including a pickup, camper trailer, fishing boat and trailer, Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a large enclosed trailer, a large open trailer, construction tools and a Nissan auto, with a combined estimated value of about $100,000 — for a specific period of time, pending the resolution of the matter.
A Kingsport, Tenn., attorney who was, at that time, representing Jones, told the Review in a January, 2018, telephone interview, that his client denies any wrongdoing, was not properly served in connection with the case, and that he believes a default judgment of $571,568.99 will be set aside.
David Darnell said that a default judgment was rendered against his client in what is referred to as a foreign lawsuit — litigation that is filed in one state against a person residing in a different state.
“Mr. Jones didn’t respond to the lawsuit because it was an out-of-state lawsuit,” Darnell said. “It is our position that he did not get properly served with the lawsuit, it wasn’t properly initiated. As a matter of fact, I just filed a brief yesterday (Jan. 18, 2018) on the issues. I think it will get set aside, but that’s me, and give him an opportunity to get his fair chance in court.”
Darnell said his personal belief is that the lawsuit should have been filed in Federal court.
“As far as the facts and allegations, my client denies any type of wrongdoing in any way with his grandmother,” Darnell said. “He took care of her, he was her power of attorney. He paid for her in an assisted living facility up there in West Virginia, he drove back and forth how many times to take care of her and to do things for her up there, so its not just as simple as allegations in a complaint.”
An allegation has to be met with some type of response, Darnell said.
“And he’s never had his day in court,” the attorney commented. “It is our position that Mr. Jones didn’t get proper notice in the lawsuit. After the initial papers were filed he doesn’t remember getting anything in the mail until he got this judgment here. It’s not like we haven’t seen this in the past. People get judgments out-of-state and bring them here and try to register them, but it isn’t necessarily that easy, you got to prove that you’ve got a legitimate judgment.”
Darnell said, as of the January, 2018, phone interview, that he believed the matter would be resolved within 60 days or less.
However, when the Review brought it to his attention at that time, Darnell was unaware of a new lawsuit which was filed in West Virginia by the Carpenter estate some two weeks prior to that interview — on Jan. 2, 2018 — demanding a trial by jury.
“I know nothing about any other type of lawsuit being filed,” Darnell said. “Makes me wonder if they filed a new lawsuit because they were worried about their own statute of limitations running out on the first lawsuit they filed.”
That latter complaint — filed two years to the day after Mrs. Carpenter’s death — in the Circuit Court of Randolph County, West Virginia, again alleges numerous counts against Jones contained in the original complaint, including breech of fiduciary duty, conversion, violation of that state’s Uniform Power of Attorney Act, negligence, embezzlement, fraud and “tort of outrage”.
It was unknown at presstime if Darnell is still Jones’ attorney.
Jones, a former Alderman in Mount Carmel, was elected to a four-year term as Mayor in 2016.
The lawsuit and all legal actions to-date are against Jones, personally, and are not connected to his former or current positions with the municipality of Mt. Carmel.