Saturday, October 25, 2014 · 3:00 p.m.

A public display of accusations

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Thomas McConnell has returned to his position as a deacon at St. Jude Catholic Church and has been reinstated as the JROTC leader for Hamilton County schools. A retired United States Army colonel, McConnell had previously been suspended by both the church and the school system after being arrested and charged with the sexual battery of his 5-year-old granddaughter.

The incident in question occurred on March 4 at the ChatO Brasserie Restaurant on Manufacturers Road. McConnell was eating lunch with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and a priest when, at one point in the meal, another diner, Tammye Cagle, filmed what she considered “inappropriate touching” by McConnell of his granddaughter as she sat in his lap. According to those who’ve seen it, the iPhone video shows McConnell rubbing the girl’s leg and, at one point, resting his hand across her upper thigh. Toward the end of the video, he reaches inside the girl’s shirt and rubs her back. Twice during the video, the girl pushes his hand away.

According to a subsequent statement by McConnell’s lawyers, Lee Davis and Steve Jacoway, Cagle and her husband Ed called police to report what they had seen and filmed despite not knowing McConnell’s relation to the girl, nor approaching anyone at McConnell’s table to express their concern. Had they done so, claim Davis and Jacoway, the family could have addressed the Cagles’ misunderstanding. The attorneys also surmise that Ed Cagle’s felony arson convictions and Tammye Cagle’s convictions for bad checks raise questions about their character. Even worse, they say, however, is the fact that Chattanooga Police Department Detective J. Holmes failed to properly investigate the situation before taking McConnell into custody.  

“That is the real crime here,” Davis and Jacoway say. “Had Detective Holmes looked at all the facts, it would have been clear that the Cagles were misguided at best in their suspicion.”

More than a month later, the grand jury declined to indict McConnell. After the decision, Davis told the Times Free Press that pursuing the charges was a “mistake in judgment” and that no evidence existed to suggest that McConnell’s granddaughter was “sexually violated in any way at any time by anybody.”

McConnell may have been exonerated and may have been allowed to return to his positions with the church and the school system, but he will always carry a bit of suspicion with him. Even if he is completely innocent, as he appears to be, there will always be people who aren’t quite so sure he is.

Ed and Tammye Cagle won’t face a similar fate. Their mug shots weren’t splashed all over the news, and they weren’t accused of child abuse. As this story fades from the community’s collective memory, so will their names. If anybody’s name is remembered, it will be Thomas McConnell’s.

I have a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. The thought of something bad happening to either of them is too much to handle, and I shudder to think what I would do if something did. I’d like to think I’m a pretty even-keeled guy who can stay fairly calm in even the most stressful of situations, but there a few things that would likely test my calmness, and my children’s safety being violated is one of them. Seeing it happen in front of me would be too much to handle. Heck, seeing someone’s child being violated would set me off, too.

So, I suppose I can relate to Ed and Tammye Cagle. If I had seen what they thought were seeing, I might have done something about it, too. But it doesn’t appear that they saw what they thought they saw, and now everyone involved is paying a price for their actions.

There are no easy solutions to cases like this. We live in a sick world. We’re taught to expect the worst in people, and technology lets us record and share our “evidence.” It has become easy to be accusatory at arm’s length and more difficult to be understanding up close.

My daughter has sat in my lap in public before. I’ve kissed her and hugged her and tickled her, and I didn’t care who saw it because I love her and she means the world to me.

That’s what parents do. Grandparents, too.

Well, at least we should be able to.

Bill Colrus writes about local news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or reach him at billcolrus@gmail.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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