His voice wavering with emotion, District Attorney General Steve Bebb took the opportunity to reflect on some of the cases he heard both as judge and chief prosecutor as he closed the door on his career this week.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” said Bebb.
“I served as a judge for 23 years, four months and two days, then resigned to run for district attorney,” he added.
While judge for the 10th Judicial District, which covers Bradley, Polk, McMinn and Monroe counties, Bebb heard two death penalty cases adjudicated by a jury.
One case was overturned from the death penalty.
Gussie Vann was charged with “raping and murdering his little daughter,” Bebb explained.
At the time, Jerry Estes was the district attorney general. Bebb said Estes personally prosecuted the case.
“Jerry did a magnificent job prosecuting that case,” he said.
Estes left the office of District Attorney General and is now in private practice in Athens.
Bebb became his successor.
He wasn’t planning on throwing his hat into the ring for the top job, but area lawmen and others provided encouragement and support, leading to his decision to run for the position eight years ago.
“Judges and district attorneys come and go,” Bebb said.
As he enters the twilight of his career and successor Steve Crump takes his place, Bebb will leave a note in his desk — a note of well wishes and the District Attorney General’s Code — the roadmap for his journey.
“I told Steve that all he has to do is his job, and be an honest and decent person,” Bebb said.
In the world of the judicial system, Bebb said “Bad things can happen to good people,” relating that fact to an alleged offender or a victim.
“We are lawyers for the state of Tennessee. That is our job as the district attorney.
“We have to be fair for the families, the defendant and the victims,” he said.
Bebb began his career as a judge in 1982 and was re-elected after serving his first eight-year term.
Reflecting on those years, he thought back to a case in Monroe County in which a man had killed his wife, just after shooting her with their child in her arms.
The man then shot her once again, after he had taken their baby.
“There were 18 witnesses and a conviction was made. The case was a death penalty case, but the charge was reduced.”
The man eventually died in prison for his crime.
John Henretta was one of the most notorious serial killers ever to be tried in Bradley County and the 10th Judicial District.
In 1988, Henretta and Michael Goodhart traveled through the South, robbing, stealing and killing.
In Cleveland, they entered the Salvation Army store on Inman Street, where the Chattanooga Billiards Club now stands.
Frances Rose Crabtree was 32 at the time of her murder.
The case went cold. A break in the case came when Goodhart reportedly provided information prior to his death, leading investigators to Henretta, who was in federal custody at Leavenworth.
Goodhart and Henretta were drifters.
Henretta and Goodhart had been arrested by the FBI in Arkansas, ending their murderous spree.
“The original deal in this was just rob her. That’s what we intended to do. We did not go in with the idea to kill her,” said Henretta to FBI and Cleveland Police Department investigators.
Forensics played a major role in Henretta’s conviction in 2002.
While the jury was out in deliberation, attorneys and others in the courtroom began to disappear. Shortly afterward, Bebb said he smelled the odor of food being prepared.
Henretta was in his holding cell with then Sheriff Dan Gilley and a minister.
Bebb said he found his wife had delivered egg rolls to the Bradley County Courthouse and was serving them to the “lawyers.”
“I opened the door to my chambers and found her cooking egg rolls. She asked to go to Mr. Henretta’s cell and ask if he wanted any. He declined and stated he had just been served a pizza,” Bebb said.
During his sentencing, Henretta was in the cell awaiting his fate.
“He asked me if there was ‘any chance today’ that my wife was going to bring egg rolls. I laughed and told him they were on the way,” Bebb chuckled.
“I had no problem with Mr. Henretta. He had a reputation of acting out in court. He had sent me a message saying he would not be out of line,” Bebb explained.
Henretta respected the court.
“The reason he gave was of all the courts he had been in, I was the only judge who had treated him like a human being. I always treated defendants as human beings, no matter what they were accused of,” Bebb said.
“I took his statement as a compliment,” he added.
Bebb teared up on April 6, 2002, and his voice wavered as he pronounced the death penalty decision to Henretta.
He is Tennessee’s oldest death row inmate.
There are many other cases Bebb either heard or prosecuted during his career.
Natasha Bates, whose children died after being neglected due to drug manufacture; Aaron Lawson’s trial over the shooting deaths of his daughter’s grandparents; and Russell Brown’s conviction for killing and attempting to burn his victim’s body at a local motel were also on Bebb’s mind.
The successful convictions of Bates, Lawson and Brown were the work of his assistant prosecutor, Stephen Hatchett, who lost his bid to Crump during the recent elections.
As he leaves office, the 2009 Valentine’s Day murders case continues unresolved. The torch will be passed to incoming DAG Crump.
“It has been a wonderful experience,” Bebb said of his career.
“I want everyone to know that I have never broken my oath of office, either as a judge or district attorney general,” Bebb concluded.