After 105 days of paid administrative leave, Paul Blackwell resigned Monday, April 22, as Tullahoma's chief of police after entering a plea to the Class C felony of tampering with evidence.
Blackwell entered a plea of no contest in Coffee County Circuit Court Judge Craig Johnson’s courtroom Monday morning, according to Terry Frizzell, who represented the former police chief in court this week. By entering a no contest plea, Blackwell did not admit any guilt, however he did not dispute the charge.
Blackwell will serve a four-year suspended sentence with deferred judgement, meaning he will see no jail time provided he abides by the terms of his probation.
“So long as he does not violate probation – no jail time,” Coffee County District Attorney General Craig Northcott said.
Northcott added the plea agreement came “by information,” which means Blackwell avoided the case being presented to a grand jury by entering the plea.
Additionally, Northcott and Frizzell both said Blackwell may petition to have his conviction expunged from his record after completing his probation.
As part of the plea entered this week, Northcott said Blackwell also voluntarily “gave up” his Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Office (POST) certification, meaning he is no longer a certified police officer in the State of Tennessee, and thereby forfeited his position as chief of police.
According to Northcott, by surrendering that certification, Blackwell will no longer be eligible to serve as a certified police officer in the state.
When asked to elaborate on the details of what actions Blackwell took to merit a charge of tampering with evidence, Northcott referred those questions to Pro Tem Prosecutor Jennings Jones, who serves the 16th judicial district of Rutherford and Cannon counties and handled the prosecution of this case after Northcott recused himself in January citing his “close professional relationship” with the Tullahoma Police Department.
Jones declined to comment on the specifics but did confirm the felony charge is the most serious charge Blackwell was facing.
Jones said Blackwell’s decision to enter the plea to the tampering with evidence does not mean the former police chief accepted a lesser charge than he may have otherwise faced.
“It was a plea agreement, but [he] did not avoid more serious charges,” Jones told.
Northcott added that George Marsh, the former police captain who resigned in February, also gave up his POST certification in the state and will not face any criminal charges related to the investigation.
Like Blackwell, Marsh was placed on paid administrative leave by the city on Jan. 7. He had served as a member of the Tullahoma Police Department since 2004. He was promoted to captain in 2015 and served as acting chief from May through September of last year, while Blackwell served as interim city administrator.
Blackwell served as Tullahoma’s police chief from June 2007 to April 2019. Blackwell served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1974 to 1976 and retired from the U.S. Army reserves in 2009 after a total of 25 years of service.
He is a 2004 graduate of the U.S. Army Sergeant Major Academy and retired at the rank of sergeant major in the Military Police field. Blackwell is also a 2010 graduate of the 243rd session of the FBI National Academy.
In the news
The Tullahoma News has been following this developing story since late 2018. In December, District Attorney General Craig Northcott requested an investigation against Blackwell after receiving a complaining of official misconduct. At Northcott’s request, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) led the investigation.
The complaint stems from the police department’s handling of the investigation of a motor vehicle crash involving the chief’s son, Jonathan Paul Blackwell, in November.
In January 2019, both Blackwell and Tullahoma Police Department Captain George Marsh were placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the internal investigation. The investigation was handled by the City of Tullahoma, while TBI handled the investigation of misconduct.
TBI completed their investigation in January and turned over its findings to Northcott. In January, it was unknown as to why Tullahoma City was looking into the department as well.
At this time, Lieutenant Jason Ferrell, a 30-year employee of the Tullahoma Police Department, was named acting police chief.
As of March 29, Blackwell had been on paid administrative leave for 82 days and Tullahoma city officials were not releasing any information.