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LCSO investigates Highway 444 death
  • Updated

Loudon County Sheriff’s Office is seeking answers after a young man died Aug. 25 when a vehicle hit him on Highway 444.

Jennifer White, Loudon County E-911 director, said a call came in at 3:16 a.m. that a person was lying in the roadway. A second call was received that a vehicle had hit him.

Loudon County Sheriff’s Office, Tellico Village Volunteer Fire Department, Priority Ambulance and Tennessee Highway Patrol responded.

“The vehicle that hit him was still on scene,” LCSO Sgt. Inv. Jerramie Bowen wrote in a report. “(Tennessee Highway Patrol) was called to work the wreck. The driver of the vehicle told THP that a vehicle had pulled over and there were people outside the vehicle waving their arms and he was watching them. He then hit something in the road.”

EMS confirmed Joseph Medina, 20, of Tellico Plains was dead at the scene.

“The person that hit him is not facing criminal charges,” LCSO Sgt. Matt Fagiana said. “He did not see him in the roadway, and he was actually trying to figure out what was going on. He wasn’t speeding, nothing like that. He had no impairment and was on his way to work. ... We don’t know if the young male was under influence at all. We have sent his body to the forensic center in Knoxville for an autopsy. That report, when it is released to us, will tell us if he had any type of impairment in his system.”

Fagiana said Medina was employed at the Tanasi Golf Course clubhouse restaurant.

According to Bowen’s report, video footage between 10 p.m. and 1:45 a.m. shows six people around the clubhouse property and parking lot.

LCSO Deputy Christian Rogers found Andrea Joy Bishop, 26, Vonore, passed out in a green Xterra with the passenger side door open in the Tanasi parking lot. A man’s belongings were found outside the passenger door, according to the report. Fagiana confirmed Bishop was also employed at Tanasi.

“The vehicle was in drive and the keys were in the ignition but not running,” Rogers wrote in a report. “In plain view were numerous alcoholic beverages, raw marijuana and drug paraphernalia. The driver did not wake up easily and after being asked what was going on she stated, ‘drinks bro.’ ... Ms. Bishop stated she did not remember getting in her car or how it got to the position it was in. Ms. Bishop stated she had a passenger, Joseph Medina, who had been drinking with her, however she did not know where he was.”

Bishop was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and driving under the influence and released on $4,000 bond.

Fagiana said he didn’t know how Bishop was connected to the events leading up to Medina’s death.

“It’s a very broad investigation because we’re trying to determine exactly what led up to the young male finding himself lying in the middle of the roadway,” Fagiana said. “We’re trying to work backward and piece all these steps together. That’s very important for us. We want to be able to tell that family what happened to that young man and why he ended up in the roadway before he was even struck.

“... I’ve done this for 22 years and I tell people ... it gets a lot harder the older I get,” he added. “I don’t know if it’s because we start to appreciate life the older we get, but regardless of the circumstances that led up to this tragedy, it’s senseless and no young 20-year-old male should ever die like this. It’s one of those calls that it makes everyone involved pause for a second and it’s senseless. I hate it for the family and I hate it for the young man who’s missing out on a lot of life that was meant to be lived.”

Investigators are working to identify the remaining individuals in the video footage.

“If anyone has information regarding this case, especially in the events leading up to that young man’s death, they’re urged to call our detectives division and help provide that information,” Fagiana said.

LCSO can be reached at 865-986-4823.

'Battle' raises record donations
  • Updated

After a drop in 2020 during the pandemic, Loudon County and Lenoir City schools had their best year raising food and money for Good Samaritan Center of Loudon County.

The “Battle of the Bridge” food drive held in conjunction with the annual rivalry football game collected the equivalent of more than 200,000 pounds of food.

Results were announced during Friday night’s game between the Loudon High School Redskins and the Lenoir City High School Panthers. Both school systems contributed the equivalent of more than 100,000 pounds of food each, Good Sam said in announcing this year’s winner.

But Loudon County Schools had a slight edge. The county donated the equivalent of 104,838 pounds of food, compared to 102,094 pounds from Lenoir City.

“This was the closest one in a long time,” Cindy Black, Good Sam executive director, said. “They both worked very hard. I’m proud of both of them.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the drive had been taking in the equivalent of about 150,000 pounds of food per year. Last year, with COVID restrictions in place and less time to collect food, that dropped to about 118,000 pounds.

Black praised the hard work of students and leadership for collecting a record 207,742 pounds.

“It means a lot to this community and those in need,” she said.

Battle of the Bridge is a tradition spanning two decades. Each year both school systems compete for several weeks raising food and money for the local nonprofit.

Food is distributed to clients of Good Sam’s food pantry. Donated money can be used for other services such as utility and rent payments, school supplies and pharmacy and dental services.

“It’s a great fundraiser for Good Samaritan,” Mike Garren, Loudon County director of schools, said. “It’s great for the kids to participate in an activity that gives back to the community, especially to those in need.”

Garren said local Rotary clubs, which helped start the effort, are also involved. “It’s a tradition that helps the community,” he said.

About 90% of the donated food is canned goods like SpaghettiOs and beans, with the rest being boxed and bagged foods, Evelyn Edwards, Good Sam pantry manager, said.

“The winner is the community,” Chip Orr, Lenoir City Schools supervisor of support services, said. “It’s a great fundraiser.”

Volunteers sorted the donated food Monday at Good Sam and checked for food that was out of date, open, damaged or dented.

Edwards said the donated food means the center doesn’t have to buy as much, and the money can then be used for other purposes such as housing, dental services and prescriptions.

“I thank everyone in both Loudon County and Lenoir City for all their work and all their help and doing such a great, great job,” Edwards said. “I think it’s fantastic. We’re able to feed the people here.”

Good Sam is a nonprofit organization and assistance ministry that serves families’ critical needs in Loudon County.

COVID-19 rising in county, schools

Active COVID-19 cases in Loudon County have steadily increased since early July, and several weeks into the new school year the numbers continue to rise.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, from early June to early July, Loudon County reported an average of about one new COVID-19 case per day. The daily case average began to increase around July 10.

By Aug. 25, the seven-day average of new cases per day in Loudon County had climbed to 34.6.

“It is a concern,” Teresa Harrill, Loudon County Health Department director, said. “I would recommend that people continue to take this seriously.”

Active cases in the county as of Monday total 460, according to the state. There have been 7,218 COVID-19 reported cases, 160 hospitalizations and 76 deaths since the pandemic began in March 2020.

The positivity rate, which measures how many people test positive out of those tested each day, remains high. On Friday, the state reported the seven-day average of the positivity rate in Loudon County was 19.5%.

“I think a lot of people have let their guard down,” Harrill said.

As cases have increased in the county, they have also increased in the two school districts.

At the start of the school year, Lenoir City Schools had only four active COVID-19 cases among its roughly 2,500 students in three schools, Chip Orr, city schools supervisor of support services, said.

By last week, the number of active cases had increased to 79. Of the 58 active cases at Lenoir City High School, 54 came from students and four from faculty.

Nineteen active student cases were reported at Lenoir City Intermediate/Middle School, while two were noted at Lenoir City Elementary School.

Orr said there are more positive student cases this year than last year. “I think that’s just a result of the delta variant,” he said.

The new variant is reported to be more transmissible and accounts for most new COVID-19 cases in the United States.

Active cases in Loudon County Schools have also increased, but it’s still less than 1% of the district’s 5,000 students among nine schools, Mike Garren, Loudon County director of schools, said.

“When you have spread in the community, you’re going to have spread in the school system,” Garren said.

He said there were 15 active COVID-19 cases in county schools in the first full week of school. That increased to 26 active cases in the second week and 44 cases last week. Fewer than five of the active cases each week were staff members.

Garren said the number of cases in Loudon County seems to be lower than in surrounding districts, and he speculated that could be because Loudon County has one of the highest vaccination rates in Tennessee.

The county has the third-highest vaccination rate in the state, with 52.21% of Loudon County residents fully vaccinated. The other top counties are Williamson and Meigs at 53.88% and 53.44%, respectively. Statewide the average is 42%.

A larger senior population and the retirement/resort community of Tellico Village helped the county’s vaccination rate, Harrill said. Rates in surrounding counties such as McMinn, Monroe and Roane range 30%-35%.

“That makes a huge difference,” she said. “We had a huge number of seniors vaccinated.”

Harrill said vaccinations are the one thing that can really help against the delta variant.

Principal Scott MacKintosh said teachers at Loudon High School have a high vaccination rate. Staff members were given the opportunity to receive the vaccine last spring, and most teachers took advantage, he said.

Besides vaccinations, Harrill recommended residents continue to take COVID-19 seriously and practice public health measures talked about when the pandemic started in 2020. Those measures include maintaining a physical distance when possible, hand washing and wearing face masks indoors and in gatherings but also in crowded outdoor spaces.

Face masks are not required in the two school systems.

Garren said they’re recommended but not mandated, which is the same as last year.

“We are letting parents make that choice about wearing masks,” Orr said.

The school systems are sending lists of people who could have been in close contact with those who have tested positive to the county health department, which investigates and determines whether the student or staff member needs to quarantine. Parents are also notified, Garren said.

He said 81 students were identified as potential close contacts in the first week of school and 110 were in the second week. The district didn’t have to close at all last year for COVID spikes, although there was a virtual option. Garren said 90% of the student population attended in person.

Among the measures that he thinks have helped are air purifiers purchased for every classroom in the district, extra cleaning by the janitorial staff and the use of a handheld disinfectant sprayer.

Garren and Orr were unaware of any hospitalizations among students and staff members who have tested positive for COVID-19.

County students who test positive for COVID-19 or are in quarantine can continue to work on school assignments when they are able either by having teachers provide materials or using Zoom. If they are sick, they make up the work when they come back to school, Garren said.

Heading into the winter, Harrill recommends residents get flu shots starting in October and November.

COVID claims local pastor
  • Updated

Loudon County lost a dedicated pastor who had an impact on the community and his congregation at New Providence Baptist Church.

The Rev. Mark Caldwell, 59, died Thursday from complications associated with COVID-19.

“Our pastor, Preacher Mark Caldwell, passed away this evening around 6:30 p.m. from this life to his eternal home in heaven with his family by his side,” according to a Thursday church Facebook post. “The family covets your prayers, loves you and thanks you for everything so far.”

That post reached more than 87,000 people from nine different countries, the Rev. Gary Smith, associate pastor, said.

According to a church Facebook post Aug. 16, Caldwell and his wife, Kim, were admitted to Turkey Creek Medical Center in Farragut with COVID-pneumonia. Caldwell was soon placed in ICU.

Church family pastor Charles Vanvalkenburgh was also admitted to the hospital, and he and Kim were later discharged.

“He was not just for the church community, but he was what we call ‘kingdom-minded,’ which means he reached everywhere,” Smith said. “... His life verse was Colossians 3:23. ‘Whatever you do, do it wholeheartedly as if you were doing it for the king,’ and that’s just kind of how he lived his life. He was always working, like whatever he was doing he was doing it for the Lord. He wasn’t doing it for somebody or anybody, he was doing it for the Lord. We ought to do it at the very best of our ability. That’s just who he was. He loved people, he loved the Lord and he loved preaching more than anything else.”

Caldwell had been pastor of New Providence since 1999.

Smith knew Caldwell for 29 years, longer than their time together at New Providence. Smith said the two actually got into ministry about the same time and eventually became friends.

The day after his passing, Smith pointed to Caldwell’s reach around the world.

“One of his favorite recent ministries was what we called Boxes of Blessings with Venezuela, where we send them about 900 pounds of food every month and the day that we bring that food in is always first Sunday of the month,” Smith said.

The Rev. Eddie Click, Highland Park Baptist Church pastor, emphasized Caldwell’s efforts within the schools.

“They would do meals for the teachers,” Click said. “He would go to schools and read to the students, just go to the schools and visit. He just wanted to have an impact on the schools for Jesus.”

Click knew Caldwell for as long as he had been in Loudon County.

“He had a huge impact on the community,” Click said. “His personality was a personality that just filled the room. As much as he loved Jesus, I mean just everywhere he went he just radiated that love. ... He was just a fine man. He was a Christian and he lived it. He walked the walk and talked the talk.”

The Rev. Shane Maples, Friendship Baptist Church pastor, didn’t know Caldwell as well as others in the community, but he recognized the fellow pastor’s impact. Caldwell was welcoming of Maples when he arrived at Friendship.

“He was one of the hardest workers that I’ve ever seen and dedicated, devoted to what he did for his church and what he did for his God. He never stopped,” Maples said.

Smith said the church will take time to mourn the loss of their longtime pastor, but the congregation is going to continue to do what Caldwell would have wanted and where he led them for more than 20 years.

“He led us to getting out there and doing things,” Smith said. “We can’t sit down. We just go to keep on going. That’s what he’d want us to do.”