NC5 Investigates: Couple accuses TBI agents of illegal search

RIDGELY, Tenn. - A West Tennessee couple refused to let two Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents search their house without a warrant.

They say what the agents did next was a crime.

But the TBI director says it's exactly what agents are trained to do.

"We have nothing to hide, we've never had anything to hide," Lake County resident Fred Wortman Jr. said in an exclusive interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

"But, by dad, I'm not going to let them come into my house and do whatever they want to do without a search warrant."

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This latest development comes a year after our NewsChannel 5 investigation first began raising questions about who investigates the state's top law enforcement agency.

The U.S. Constitution says people have a right to feel secure in their homes "against unreasonable searches and seizures."

It's a right that Fred's wife, Marilyn, had always taken for granted until one afternoon three years ago.

That's when the two TBI agents, Mark Reynolds and Jeff Jackson, came to their home, looking for evidence for a case involving an adult son who didn't even live with them.

"It was utter terror," Marilyn Wortman said. "I didn't know whether we were going to be killed, arrested. I could not believe that someone was breaking into our home."

Fred Wortman said he met Reynolds and Jackson at his front door.

"I said 'Can I help you?'" Wortman recalled.

The TBI agents asked if they could come inside.

"I said, 'No, you can't come into my house, but I'll step outside the door and talk to you.'"

Outside on the porch, one of the agents asked Wortman if they could search his house.

The Wortmans' son, who was already in jail for attempting to have his wife killed, had told another inmate that there were some sports collectibles and other valuables inside his parents' house that he might be able to get to pay someone to carry out the plot.

 

 

 

The agents wanted to seize those valuables, even though they knew the parents weren't involved.

Fred Wortman said he asked one of the agents if they had a search warrant.

"He said, 'No, we don't have a search warrant.' I said, 'Well, in that case, I am going to ask you to get off my porch and get off of my property until you go and get a search warrant,'" Wortman said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "You thought it was your constitutional right to say no to a search."

"No," he answered, "I KNEW it was my constitutional right."

Wortman said he went back inside and closed the door.

Suddenly, he heard the sound of someone attempting to crash through the door.

"I mean hitting it," Wortman recounted. "So I pushed up against the door, starting screaming: 'Get off my property.'"

We asked, "What were they trying to do?"

"They were trying to force their way into the house," Wortman said.

The Lake County accountant said he used his body weight against the door to try to keep the agents out.

His wife, Marilyn, came running from the kitchen.

"Fred was screaming numerous times, 'Get out of our house. Marilyn, call 9-1-1.'"

The husband said he "was able to withstand their beating the door for about three pushes, then they knocked me back ... and came in."

In their own investigative report, the TBI agents admitted that, "due to the complexity of the search warrant," they didn't even try to get one.

They acknowledged that Fred Wortman was "telling Agents to get the hell off his property."

And they agreed that he entered his own residence and "tried to shut the door."

But instead of leaving, as the homeowner had asked, the agents claim that they "pushed the door open" out of fear that he might "produce a weapon from inside the home.”

Special Agent Jeff Jackson spoke first.

"The first words out of his mouth, 'I could have shot you. I thought you was going for a gun,'" Fred Wortman recalled.

The homeowner said Reynolds added, "I could have killed you. I was in fear of my life."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Fred Wortman, "You were not going for a gun?"

"No, I wasn't going for a gun," Wortman exclaimed. "I hadn't even thought about going for a gun, hadn't even thought about a gun, period."

The agents also claimed that they needed to "secure potential evidence in the residence that Mr. Wortman was now aware of."

TBI Director David Rausch defended the agents.

"I can tell you from my review of the case that the agents did exactly what they were trained to do," Rausch told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

Reynolds and Jackson went to the house, fully expecting that the Wortmans would willingly give up the property they were wanting to seize, the TBI director said.

When Fred Wortman refused, he added, that's when they needed to take steps to make sure the evidence wasn't destroyed.

"At that point, they did what the law allows -- and that is to hold the scene until a search warrant can be obtained," Rausch said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So you're ok with TBI agent going to a house and asking for consent to search and, if the homeowner says no, you're ok with them bursting into the house?"

"No, sir," Rausch answered. "That's not what I said."

We noted, "That's what happened in this case."

"So again we're getting into specifics that I can't argue on TV," he insisted.

Legal analyst Jim Todd told NewsChannel 5 that the courts have ruled that investigators are not allowed to create an "exigent circumstance" - such as telling homeowners what items they are seeking -- then using that circumstance as justification for barging into someone's home.

Marilyn Wortman said, "We kept asking them for a search warrant. What do you want? Please get out of our home."

Finally, one of the TBI agents put Lake County Sheriff Bryan Avery on the phone, and the sheriff rushed to the Wortmans' home with a number of  deputies.

"I said I want those people out of my house, and they are not to come back without a search warrant," Fred Wortman recalled. "So he did carry them, walked them out to the porch and then they left."

The sheriff's deputies planted themselves in the Wortman's living room until the TBI agents got back five hours later with a search warrant.

Wortman later took out an arrest warrant for the agents for breaking into his home.

But the DA, Phil Bivens, immediately dismissed it.

"He said, 'Fred, I can't do anything to the TBI,'" Wortman recalled.

Bivens, who had to work with those agents, tells NewsChannel 5 Investigates he dismissed that warrant because he didn't think what they had done was a crime.

Finally, earlier this year, in his quest for justice, Wortman took his story to the Lake County Courthouse.

In a nearly unprecedented move, the grand jury indicted the two TBI agents, charging them with aggravated burglary, aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping.

DA Kim Helper from Franklin was brought in after the local DA recused himself.

During our 2011 "Policing for Profit" investigation, Helper displayed a lenient attitude toward officers pressuring drivers to consent to searches.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked at the time, "If I have not committed a crime, is it proper for a police officer to make me think that I have?"

Helper answered, "I believe that officers can use a variety of techniques."

In the Wortmans' case, Helper went before a judge and dismissed the indictment against the two agents.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Fred Wortman, "So did you have the sense they were almost untouchable?"

"Yes," he answered. "Nobody can control them, as far as I can see."

The charges against the TBI agents were expunged.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to Helper, but the prosecutor declined to comment.

"Because the records in this case have been expunged, legally and ethically I cannot discuss any aspect of this case," she said in an email statement.

Marilyn Wortman said that, when she looks around her home, she is still haunted by traumatic memories of that day -- "that my home was invaded, that I was held hostage in my home, that my home was degraded."

Now, the Wortmans are suing the two agents who they say violated their constitutional rights.

But TBI Director Rausch said he's confident about the case.

"I can tell you that they followed what the Supreme Court says is allowable in these situations," he insisted.

The TBI has called the Wortmans' case "retaliation" for an investigation that ultimately sent their son to prison.

"What they did had nothing to do with our son," Fred Wortman responded.

"What they did had something to do with us by breaking into our house without a search warrant and threatening to kill us. That's what happened to us -- not anything to do with our son."

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