KNOXVILLE -- The way Crawford County’s coroner and its newest former deputy coroner figure it, each was doing his job properly on Saturday -- and the other violated a solemn duty.
Coroner Allen O’Neal fired one of his two deputies, Kent Winslett, for what he says was insubordination. Winslett said he was trying to uphold his oath of office and do a job the coroner refused to do. That refusal, Winslett said, was a violation of O’Neal’s oath of office.
The oath of office is believed to be at the center of a GBI criminal investigation. O’Neal didn’t mention it in a two-minute talk before Crawford County commissioners Tuesday night, except an oblique reference to District Attorney David Cooke, whom O’Neal said threatened to have him arrested if he didn’t do certain things.
O’Neal was on the commission’s agenda to request office space. He didn’t mention office space at the meeting, but he told commissioners he still needed a car and a county-supplied phone. All of those demands were in a lawsuit O’Neal filed against commissioners. A judge ruled Monday he’s not entitled to those and said commissioners had already offered him what he’d been seeking.
The judge also noted that O’Neal said in a deposition he didn’t need an office or some of the other equipment, but he proceeded with the lawsuit against the county anyway.
O’Neal, wearing a dark polo shirt identifying himself as the coroner, spoke to commissioners as J.T. Ricketson, GBI special agent in charge of the Perry office, looked on from the back of the room. O’Neal told commissioners he’s no longer going to drive his son’s truck to calls because he doesn’t know if it will be insured.
“We’re going to have a bad problem one of these days, ‘cause I’ll get a call and I’m not going to be able to get there,” he said. “I’m down one man, so ...”
Commission Chairman Paul Chapman offered the only response from the commission: “We do appreciate it.” Commissioners soon went into a closed-door legal discussion with Duke Groover, their attorney handling O’Neal’s lawsuit.
Winslett told The Telegraph that O’Neal’s orders could have left the county without an acting coroner if he could not be reached or would not allow his deputies to respond to calls. Winslett said O’Neal previously ordered him and the other deputy coroner not to respond to calls unless O’Neal authorized them.
Winslett said that on Saturday morning, O’Neal ordered him and the other deputy coroner not to go to a death that O’Neal also was not going to go to unless the county provided him a ride.
Winslett said he put on a collared shirt and told his wife he would go.
“I said ‘I feel it’s the right thing to do. I took a sworn oath to fulfill the oath of the coroner of Crawford County in his absence, and if he’s not going, I am,’” Winslett told The Telegraph.
Winslett said O’Neal called him as the hearse was leaving and said, “I thought I could trust you,” and threatened to take out an arrest warrant if Winslett signed the death certificate. Winslett said the coroner’s office doesn’t need to respond to calls at nursing homes or hospices but would have needed to respond to the death Saturday.
O’Neal told The Telegraph on Monday that no one had to respond to the death Saturday because the deceased man had recently been in the hospital for three weeks with heart problems. O’Neal said he’d already been handling the case and was in touch with the funeral home.
O’Neal said he fired Winslett for going to the scene and using his own car against his orders.
“Yep, that’s right, because I’m the boss,” he said Monday. “If I tell you not to do something and you do it, that’s insubordination.”
O’Neal said he asked the sheriff to begin an investigation into what happened Saturday.
Winslett said he told his wife that night, “I can go to sleep tonight because I felt like I did the right thing.”
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.