NEWPORT, Tenn. — Almost one year ago, the sheriff of Cocke County touted the early release of an inmate serving time for a triple stabbing.
Under the law, felon Adam L. Edwards was eligible for early release from his six-year prison sentence.
Sheriff Armando Fontes says writing the letter was proper under the circumstances, and Edwards got out of prison.
Now Edwards, 43, is going back to prison for violating terms of the early release. He's also a suspect in a triple homicide that occurred last month.
Edwards, whose criminal history includes drug, theft and aggravated assault charges, was found guilty Tuesday of violating terms of his probation and remanded to prison by the same judge that initially granted his early release in July 2011.
During a hearing in Cocke County Circuit Court, Edwards, shackled and dressed in jail garb, admitted he failed to report to his probation officer in January after being released from prison last summer.
After reviewing paperwork of Edwards' lengthy criminal history that dates to 1986, Judge Ben Hooper ordered Edwards to serve the balance of his six-year sentence - about 5½ years - behind bars.
BODIES FOUND AFTER FIRE
Edwards was arrested on the probation violation charge following a May 29 police pursuit into Haywood County, N.C. He was transported back to Tennessee last week after signing a waiver of extradition. Cocke County Sheriff Armando Fontes has asked 4th Judicial District Attorney General James "Jimmy" Dunn to call a special grand jury, which will be presented with evidence to determine whether to indict Edwards and another suspect, Marsha Gail Shelton, on murder charges.
Edwards, whom Fontes called a high-risk prisoner, will be held in the Washington County Jail until the grand jury convenes.
Sherman Ellison, 34, and Terri Henderson, 39, and their 2-year-old son, Riley, were discovered in the remains of their burned-out mobile home May 26 on Henderson Road in the Grassy Fork community.
Edwards and Shelton were named people of interest in the killings May 29 and arrested the same day on separate and unrelated violation of probation charges after the lengthy police chase in North Carolina. Shelton, 29, was arraigned June 1 before a Sevier County magistrate on probation violation charges stemming from a possession of drug paraphernalia conviction and is being held without bond at the Sevier County Jail.
Court records show Edwards was released from prison in July after serving less than six months of his six-year sentence for theft and aggravated assault. The convictions stemmed from a 2009 incident in which he stabbed three men multiple times.
Court records show Hooper allowed him to serve the remainder of his sentence on supervised probation after Assistant Public Defender Keith Haas filed a motion for early release, stating his client "had been incarcerated for 485 days and had been on trustee status," making him eligible for early release.
FONTES WROTE LETTER
Fontes also wrote a letter of recommendation for Edwards' release. The letter was not in Edwards' court file during a May 29 public records check.
"I am writing in regards to Adam Edwards. Mr. Edwards is one of our trustees," Fontes wrote in the July 11, 2011, letter. "In my time here as sheriff, I have come to see Adam as a very trustworthy man. He is proactive in the tasks he has to perform. He is dependable and honest and always willing to help in any situation. I can daily see a change in the life he is pursuing. It is my honest belief that he would contribute positively to our society."
In court Tuesday, Hooper said that under the law Edwards had earned his time for early release.
Fontes later released a statement to the News Sentinel defending the letter.
"The early release of Adam Edwards was in accordance with sentencing guidelines and could only be authorized by the Circuit Court judge and the District Attorney General's Office," he wrote. "I made a decision based on the information I had at hand and according to his good behavior while in my custody. I did not create this monster or contribute to his criminal behavior. ... I do not have the ability to predict the future."
Fontes pointed fingers at Newport Police Chief Maurice Shults for the release of the letter to the media.
"It is unfortunate that Chief Shults does his best to continually attack me and attempt to discredit me by calling state and federal agencies in an effort to cause me problems and to call the local paper to complain because he is not mentioned in it enough. It is unfortunate that he also requested a copy of my recommendation letter from the Circuit Court and contacted all the media for his own political ambitions."
Shults said he didn't leak anything about the letter to the press, and he said he didn't visit the clerk's office and pull the letter from the file.
"Any Tennessee resident can go up there and ask for a copy of that. I would never use a tragedy for political motivations," said Shults, who said there's "a good possibility" he may run for sheriff in 2014.
Fontes said state prisons and jails across the nation are overcrowded and that early releases are granted daily.
"I stand by my actions, believe in our judicial system and believe Edwards deserves the death penalty," he said.