Knoxville's Most Wanted
Tracking down Some of the City's Most Controversial Newsmakers of the Last 50 Years
Metro Pulse [Knoxville TN]
November 16, 2006
I made a mess of this town,
now every sidewalk crack
either knocks me down
or breaks somebody's back.
And every face I see
when I look around
says it's time to leave,
you made a mess of this town.
Some folks leave town in a cloud of dust. Others leave in a cloud of controversy so thick they can hardly see the I-40 on-ramp. Their reasons for leaving are various—free-will escape, involuntary banishment, or relief from a scandal that's become too much to bear—but their preferred method of exit is the same. It has to be fast, and it has to be quiet. The most successful getaways appear as though the Knoxvillian in question merely vanished into thin air.
For this issue, Metro Pulse decided to track down five of Knoxville's more controversial newsmakers of the last half-century, desperados who got out just in the nick of time—or maybe a little too late. There's Jake Butcher, whose banking empire crumbled when he was convicted of fraud; Father Anthony O'Connell, a bishop accused of molesting teenage boys; Wade Gilley, a former UT president who resigned amid a maelstrom of accusations; Brad Renfro, Hollywood's favorite real-life bad-boy; and Peter Kami, a '60s-era student protestor who fled the country to escape charges of inciting to riot.
Where are they now? And do they want us to know?
A friend of Metro Pulse tells the story of taking his seat on a commercial airline flight to Washington, D.C., circa 1980, next to a dapper-looking fellow whose bearded visage bore a strangely familiar cast. They made small talk as the plane took off; it turned out that both men had lived in Anderson County, the bearded gentleman in an impressive home off Melton Hill Lake. Our friend was familiar with the house in question, as it had been a prominent landmark on his monthly route to the county dump.
As details continued to emerge, the bearded man finally introduced himself as Jake Butcher, then well-known to Tennesseans first for having lost the hard-fought 1978 gubernatorial election to Republican Lamar Alexander, and lately for his banking endeavors.
"I told him, 'I didn't recognize you at first because you have that beard,'" our friend remembers. "He looked at me and said, 'That's exactly why I have it.'"
Three years later, Jacob Franklin Butcher would need more than just a beard to hide behind when the banking empire he built along with brother Cecil H. Butcher, Jr.—an empire that at its peak is reported to have included more than three dozen variously affiliated banks and savings and loan associations—fell like the House of Usher in the maelstrom of a federal investigation.
When his flagship United American Bank collapsed in February of 1983, it ranked as the fourth largest bank failure in U.S. history, resulting in an estimated $380 million in losses, according to the FDIC. Butcher, who by then had also gained notoriety as a key figure in bringing the 1982 World's Fair to Knoxville, eventually pled guilty to charges of bank fraud, and served seven years of a 20-year sentence.
Though recent pictures indicate that the 70-year-old Butcher is once again clean-shaven, he still insists that he would rather keep a low profile. He was disinclined to grant an interview when contacted by a Metro Pulse reporter: "I've come through all of the things I've come through… I'm just not into that world of looking for publicity now."
But earlier this year, he did allow himself to be interrogated by Business Tennessee magazine, which reported in its July issue that Butcher is currently living in an upscale subdivision in Canton, Ga., just outside Atlanta, and operating a business brokerage firm called The Capital Partner$ Group, with offices in both Atlanta and Chattanooga. The magazine describes Butcher's role as that of "a middleman, a money finder using his vast network of personal connections to bring people together to broker deals."
It also reported that he is still a die-hard Democrat, drives a Lexus SUV with a Harold Ford, Jr. sticker in the rear window, and maintains a very close relationship with his ex-wife Sonya Wilde, an East Tennessee-born former television actress with whom he has three children.
Ex-associates say that since his release from federal prison in 1992, Butcher has also sold both automobiles (Toyota and Lexus) and real estate in addition to his other business. He occasionally finds his way to Knoxville, as two of his children still live in the area. One recent sighting of note was in 2005 at a 23-year reunion of World's Fair backers.
Though Butcher claims that at this point in life he is merely "surviving" financially, there's evidence that he's rebounded astonishingly well from having lost a personal fortune estimated at $34 million at the height of his power. BridgeMill, the Canton subdivision that is now his home, is reportedly rife with amenities such as an aquatic center, two golf courses and a restaurant.
According to Sandra Lea, author of Whirlwind: The Butcher Banking Scandal, his apparent success owes to the fact that Butcher's business practices haven't changed all that much. She alleges that Butcher "continues to make bankruptcy a way of life," earning windfalls by borrowing heavily against propped-up business interests that soon go bankrupt. She cites his involvement in Jake's Cowboy Travel Plazas, a fallen regional truck stop chain, as but one example.
Perhaps tellingly, one of Butcher's old colleagues tells us that though he has stayed in touch with his former associate, and that relations are cordial when they see one another, "(he) would never want to work with him again."
Fr. Anthony J. O'Connell
When the Diocese of Knoxville was founded on June 7, 1988, Pope John Paul II named Father Anthony J. O'Connell the first bishop of this newly founded diocese. At the time, O'Connell had been serving as director of vocations for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., a position he began in 1969.
He continued to move up the Catholic hierarchy when, in 1998, the Pope appointed him bishop of a larger diocese in Palm Beach, Fla. The Palm Beach Catholics were quick to voice their approval of the energetic clergyman.
"When he left, he had a glowing send-off, because he was the founding bishop," says Father Vann Johnston, who is a spokesman for the Knoxville diocese. He had done much to get the diocese off on the right foot. He was well loved."
Then, in 2002, the public first started hearing about the sex scandals within the clergy. At first, it seemed to be isolated in Boston. In hopes of reassuring the faithful, many Florida bishops, led by the archbishop of Miami, issued a statement condemning the actions of the priests charged with pedophilia. O'Connell's name was among the signers.
Many Knoxville Catholics couldn't believe that, about a week after the bishops of Florida released their statement, a former priest by the name of Christopher Dixon told a newspaper in Missouri that he had been abused when he was a 15-year-old seminary student. Dixon said he had gone to O'Connell for advice after being molested by two other priests—Dixon went on to say that O'Connell had abused him several times over the next two years, under the guise of spiritual guidance.
In one of his final public statements, O'Connell said, "I am truly deeply sorry for the pain, hurt, anger, and confusion I have caused." His resignation followed his public apology. O'Connell went on to suggest that there might be "one other person of a somewhat similar situation."
"Obviously," he went on, "I will have to confess that in some ways I was very misguided back in those years."
After stepping down as Bishop, the New York Times reported that O'Connell would "retire to a quiet place and rest for a while, pray and wait for [his] superiors to decide what to do."
"He's a man who is thought of differently by different people," Father Vann Johnston continues. "He is a person who is still loved in many circles, but people are realistic that some of his behavior in the past was terribly wrong, and harmful to many people."
Back here in Knoxville, there were rumors that O'Connell was living somewhere in South Carolina. At the chancery building, a bronze bust of O'Connell was still in view. And, at the Catholic High School, a photograph of him decked out in full vestments was on display. The Tennessee chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), led by Susan Vance, campaigned to have O'Connell's images removed.
Today, the bust is no longer on display at the chancery. The photograph of the bishop, however, still hangs at the new Catholic high school off of Cedar Bluff. "Bishop O'Connell's legacy is certainly a conflicted one," Vann Johnston says.
But Vann Johnston tells us that he doesn't want to hazard a guess as to O'Connell's location. Likewise, a spokeswoman for the diocese of Palm Beach says, "We know where he is. We're not allowed to divulge that information."
O'Connell's is a legacy that's clouded by tragedy, but his memory is nevertheless inseparable from the history of the young diocese of Knoxville.
The former bishop seemed to have vanished from the limelight until one of Knoxville's more prominent Catholics sent us an email, which read: "As far as I know, the rumors are correct [O'Connell is in South Carolina]. I do not know his exact location, but he lives in a monastery and by all accounts is very happy with his life there, even though it's a far cry from his days as a bishop."
Apparently it's still possible to get lost these days. A quick Google search gave us the names of nine monasteries in South Carolina. When we called, all the abbots said is that we "have the wrong number."
Wade Gilley, who was Dr. J. Wade Gilley when he was president of the University of Tennessee from 1999 to 2001, is just plain Wade Gilley again as a partner in a real estate firm and sometime author living in Reston, Va.
When he resigned from the UT post he assumed after several years as president of Marshall University in West Virginia, Gilley cited concerns for his health and his ability to provide "long-term leadership" for the state university system. But he also acknowledged at the time that his relationship with an underling he'd hired was a "difficult" work issue.
The frequent phone calls and emails he was receiving and responding to from Pamela Reed, whom he'd installed as executive director of a new interdisciplinary research center at UT, were under investigation by the university at the time, but she also left the amid charges she'd embellished her resume.
The 400-odd pages of emails the university turned up appeared to link her romantically with the president, as well, an element that Gilley never commented on for public consumption. Reed was an occasional reporter for the weekly Knoxville Journal for a brief time, reporting on the university of all things, and then dropped out of sight. She couldn't be easily located for this story.
Gilley turned to writing a memoir, Before Sister…In Hilltown, published in 2002, and took up fiction writing. He and his wife, Nanna, moved to Reston to join their son in a real estate company known as National Realty.
"We did $100 million in sales over the last four years," Gilley said in a telephone interview at his Reston residence, two blocks from his son's home. "We've been pretty fortunate."
Gilley says his health issues, including diabetes and high blood pressure, have stabilized since he left the University and its stresses. He refers to his recovery as a "comeback in my health." He says he's been exercising and has lost weight—"30 pounds at one time, but I gained about 10 of it back."
Once the nation's youngest college president (Bluefield State College) at age 29, Gilley is now nearing 69 and says he doesn't envy today's college and university presidents one bit. He says the Knoxville experience wasn't altogether pleasant. He points out that his successor, John Shumaker, who also left amid allegations of an extensive relationship with another college president, a woman, lasted only 11 months.
"It [running a university]'s become so politicized and so difficult," he says, pointing to a recent firing of a university president when a couple of paragraphs in a draft of the school's strategic plan were found to have been lifted intact from another source and not properly attributed. "He didn't write the plan, but it was plagiarism and he was responsible for the plan," Gilley says, "and he was fired. That's tough."
Gilley, who'd published a half-dozen books on higher education before he came to UT, authored his first novel, Damn Right It Hurts!: A Virginia Hillbilly becomes a World War II Hero, after his memoir. It came out in 2003. He also penned a children's book, Blackie's Adventures, about the family's black cat and other pets.
Gilley says his third work of fiction, a novella entitled, Who Am I, about a 10-year-old's conversations with his grandmother on her porch in rural Virginia, is due out in a week or two in an online version on Amazon.com, which has taken up web publishing.
He labels his writings "hillbilly work," stemming from his own upbringing at Fries, Va., a Blue Ridge cotton-mill town about 30 miles south of Wytheville that has all but vanished.
"I still get down there to Fries and (nearby) Galax," he says. "There's a bookstore down there that sells about 10 of my books a month."
He says he has another book on higher ed in progress in his computer, but he has no desire to return to the field himself. "I'm happy right here," he says.
In the late '60s and early '70s, UT's burgeoning counterculture coalesced around a surprising young hero named Peter Kami. Though small in stature, the Brazilian student had a certain dash that other students found inspiring. He often found himself at the head of a protest march. Inevitably he became known to campus wags as Peter Commie.
"We all thought we could stop the war, stop racism, and he had such energy," recalls one friend, Barbara Griffith of Knoxville. "He was a charismatic person, who could talk the talk. And he was just a nice guy." He was at one time married to a woman named Anne, and the couple lived in an apartment in quiet Maplehurst, just opposite the Hill.
By some accounts, Kami was no longer a student in January, 1970, when he became a local legend. A generation that was still being raked through by the draft during the Vietnam War was challenging the establishment at every turn, and the fight some UT radicals chose to make a stand on was over that of selection of the replacement for retiring UT president Andy Holt. They insisted there should have been student involvement in the selection process.
So, right in front of the old Administration Building on the Hill, Kami appeared with some friends and a megaphone, and challenged incoming UT president Ed Boling to "hand-to-hand combat." What Kami had in mind was, by varying accounts, an arm-wrestling match, a water-gun duel, or a lemon-pie fight. It all seemed particularly humorous, his friends thought, considering that Kami was such a slight fellow, perhaps not more than 120 pounds.
As the president and others, fearing a riot, locked themselves in and called the authorities, a large crowd of perhaps 2,000, mostly students, massed outside, some just to watch the electric Kami. When police in riot gear arrived, Kami and 21 others were arrested for inciting a riot, a group that, by the radical parlance of the day, became known as the Knoxville 22.
With charges pending, Kami rejoined the front lines as one of the leaders of the more-famous demonstrations against the visit of President Richard Nixon to Neyland Stadium during a Billy Graham crusade in the dramatic month of May, 1970. That demonstration resulted in more than 40 arrests, including, again, Kami's own.
Kami finally did go to jail, facing more serious charges than most of his allies. No one alleged he was one of the violent miscreants on campus that year that saw fire-bombings of the ROTC and other buildings, but word was that the government wanted to make an example. To "nip it in the bud," as one local law-enforcement official said, and the bud just happened to be Peter Kami.
He was rumored to be a rich kid, the son of a Xerox executive, but he didn't have $1,000 to bail himself out of jail. Social Work Professor Gideon Fryer was the one who paid it.
Kami was finally convicted of inciting to riot. When a state Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, carrying a felony sentence of two years in the penitentiary, in March, 1972, Kami fled. His lawyer, the famous Boone Dougherty, was appealing the matter to the state Supreme Court, but Kami jumped bond. He left Knoxville, and Tennessee, and America.
With the help of a friend, he got an airline ticket to London. Most of his old acquaintances assume he's been living in exile ever since. Depending on whom you talk to, Kami is in Canada, Brazil, Holland, Sweden, or Great Britain. To a generation, Peter Kami is still out there somewhere, uncompromised by middle age, like the Little Prince.
Fryer says Kami paid him back for advancing him the bond that the government kept, in installments. With the first repayment, Kami included a brief synopsis about what he'd been doing, something about working with international students in Europe.
"He was in Oslo, I believe, when I got the last installment," Fryer says. He thinks that was around 1973. That time, Kami only sent a check, without a letter attached.
As we reported in another story, another old Knoxville friend, Zoe Hoyle, ran into Kami on a London subway in 1975. That year, he also contacted a local attorney general, expressing some interest in returning to Knoxville, but was told that he would still face charges. The answer was quick, and affirmative.
Professor Charles Reynolds told MP six years ago that he'd been in touch with Kami around 1990, when the exile was in Britain, doing charity work. From local sources, the trail goes cold after that. Several of Kami's old Knoxville friends are now dead; those we talked to haven't been in touch with him in many years.
He hasn't become more famous for anything else than that eccentric stand on the Hill, 36 years ago, at least not under his original name. When you Google Kami's unusual name today, there aren't many references, and the first that comes up is a May, 2000, Metro Pulse story about UT in the hippie era. The public library's reference desk turned up several articles written by a Peter Kami in 1999 for a Brazilian-based news agency on trade issues.
A Peter Kami was associated with a 1999 academic publication called "Pentecostalism and Black Identity in Brazil." Also, a Peter Kami, perhaps the same one, wrote an article for a January, 2002, issue of the British publication Petroleum Economist. The subject of the article, called "Successes and Messes," was the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, during its troubled tenure under Henri Philippe Reichstul, the oil tycoon whom Kami apparently interviewed. Because that article, and no others, pops up under Kami's name, his foray into journalism may have been brief.
There's also a "Schiessl Peter Kami" whose name is on a print-publishing and engineering office in Munich. If that first name is a proper name, it's not Peter's; his middle name was Howard.
There's a Peter Kami listed as a Super Master Man in the Torquay Danger 1000 Ocean Swim in early 2006.
The Torquay Danger 1000 is a popular annual one-kilometer swimming competition that typically draws more than 1,000 competitors. Some say the Danger part is exaggerated (the Super Master Man might be exaggerated, too: It's a pretty long list).
Torquay is a town on the southwestern coast of England known for water sports; it hosted the water sports in the 1948 London Olympic Games. Boxhill is listed by Kami's name, as if it's his home. Torquay is not far from Bristol, one of Kami's rumored homes.
Knoxville-bred actor Brad Renfro doesn't have difficulty keeping his name in the headlines—which may explain why his manager at the William Morris Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif., hasn't bothered to return our phone calls over the past year or so that MP has been trying to finagle an interview. Perhaps he figures that Renfro already has more publicity than he needs.
Much of that publicity, of course, is of the less-than-desirable variety. Since Renfro's youth at Fountain City Elementary, he's been cultivating a rogue reputation unmatched by pretty much anyone else in Hollywood. While it hasn't managed to punch a hole in his acting career, which includes substantial roles in The Client, Tom and Huck, Ghost World, Deuces Wild, and The Jacket, among others, Renfro's criminal record has garnered him negative attention in his hometown and beyond.
Now age 24, he's got a string of arrests under his belt ranging from cocaine and marijuana charges to public intoxication, underage drinking to drunk driving. And, lest we forget, there was the grand theft charge, when Renfro and a companion attempted to steal a 45-foot yacht in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but neglected to first untie the boat from its dock. His latest arrest was just short of a year ago, two days before Christmas, 2005, when he along with 14 other suspects were caught in an undercover drug sting operation in downtown Los Angeles' skid row. According to police reports, Renfro was trying to buy heroin.
But stepmother Kim Renfro, who lives here in Knoxville, says Brad is turning over a new leaf. After the drug sting, she says Brad voluntarily entered rehab and moved to a sober living apartment complex in Los Angeles. He's been doing lots of auditions, and calls home every weekend or so to let his family know how he's doing. "He is clean and sober and has been that way for months, and we're absolutely thrilled about it," she says. "Brad has such a kind heart. He's trying so hard right now, and he's doing a good job."
Kim dispels rumors circulating online that Brad is engaged or married—"to my knowledge, he is not"—and gushes about her stepson's latest movie, 10th and Wolf, a rather graphic true story filmed in Pittsburgh and released earlier this year in select U.S. cities. Knoxville wasn't one of them, but Kim notes that the video is available at Blockbuster. "I don't think Knoxville really realizes how many films he's done, because a lot of them don't make it to the screens here," she says.
Brad returns home every now and again and has a few longtime friends here. He's also a talented musician and, when in town, enjoys the company of songwriter R.B. Morris, who's shared the stage with Brad in the past. As a 14-year-old, Brad told the News Sentinel, "Everybody thinks I'm, like, a bad boy. I've had my day, but I just sit at home and play the blues, mostly."
Kim explains that Knoxville has been somewhat less that willing to forgive Brad's sins. "I feel like everybody makes mistakes, but Knoxville really has been rough on him," she says. "An addiction is an addiction: It's not the greatest thing in the world, but he's trying and he's doing really well with it. We're just really proud of him."
Others outside Knoxville haven't been so quick to give up on him. Nadine is a longtime fan of Renfro's who lives in Australia. She maintains a Brad Renfro MySpace page with Renfro news and updates and expects to have a new website, www.bradrenfro.org, up and running by December. She says she often receives emails from Renfro's out-of-touch friends, ex-band members and musicians he's worked with, and people who haven't heard from him in months. "None of these people seem to have any idea where he is, and they seem to want to catch up with him," she says. "Although I've made it clear this is a fan page, they all seem to think I'm him or can pass on messages."
While she's never met or exchanged words with Renfro personally, she says she's devoted to the actor—flaws and all. "I've been a fan of Brad's for at least eight years or so and have followed his career and ups and downs. It amazes me how he gets up, admits his mistakes, and moves on—so rare to see in a celebrity!" she says. "He's so real, and most fans I speak to have said that's why they love him so much. And, of course, he's gorgeous."
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