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Squabble Between TBI, Local Prosecutor Temporarily Stalls High-Profile Murder Investigation

Dispute appears resolved for now, but raises questions about state and local law enforcement oversight

A dispute between the attorney general of Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District and the head of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation briefly caused the agencies to sever ties. That meant TBI sleuthing was temporarily halted last week across a five-county area in West Tennessee — including their work on the closely watched Holly Bobo case.

Both the TBI and the office of District AG Matt Stowe said in a joint statement Friday that their row had been put to rest. Nevertheless, Stowe has asked that a special prosecutor be appointed to take over the Bobo case.

According to a Dec. 17 TBI press release, the dispute arose from comments made by Stowe during a Dec. 12 meeting that included the TBI and a number of prosecutors from West Tennessee.

Gwyn said Stowe made “allegations of misconduct by TBI and other law enforcement agencies, both local and federal.”

Stowe also “repeatedly stated he wanted our Agency to suspend all activities in his district,” Gwyn added.

Stowe issued a statement the same day saying he “strongly denies” that he “initiated the suspension of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s support.” However, Stowe also sent Gwyn a letter earlier in the week acknowledging that the meeting “became unexpectedly heated and somewhat emotional. ” In that letter he requested that the TBI resume service to his district.

Stowe, elected to his post in August, has been critical of how the Bobo case has been handled by authorities since her disappearance more than three and a half years ago. According to the TBI release, the agency has “devoted thousands of hours of casework and forensic analysis” to the Bobo case.

The 20 year old nursing student went missing in April 2011 from her family home in Darden, Tenn. Her remains were discovered this September in the northern part of Decatur County. Six individuals have been charged in connection with the crime.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, whose office was supplying a prosecutor for the Bobo case, also released a statement acknowledging “a conflict arose as a result of how to proceed with the Holly Bobo case.” She added that the conflict led her to file a motion to remove their lawyer assisting in the case.

Adding to the tension between the TBI and the DA’s office, the judge in the Bobo case criticized the prosecution over how slowly the case was progressing.

During Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget hearings earlier this month, Gwyn told the governor he’s always striving to improve his agent’s training, because to “solve cases like Holly Bobo, you’ve got to have the very best trained agents in the county.”

The TBI is a great asset to the state because the agency can focus all of its energy on investigations, as opposed to a state police force that will have to handle traffic and other situations, Gwyn said at the hearing. He added that the agency will continue to “adhere to our policies and our procedures,” and wouldn’t “deviate” from its mission of investigations. “That’s what we do. And I want us to do it the best in the country,” he said.

The TBI, which has no official oversight body, operates on a sunset cycle and reports to the General Assembly every two to four years, depending on the findings of occasional Comptroller Office audits. The agency also reports to the governor during the state’s annual budget hearings.

Gwyn acknowledged to TNReport in December 2013 that the agency had no dedicated body for oversight of its actions. However, Gwyn asserted that the agency is “very regulated” and “scrutinized every day.”

“Well, I think the 6.4 million citizens, the Legislature, the governor, anybody that wants to oversee and make recommendations can make recommendations,” Gwyn said. He added the agency also goes “through audits all the time.”

State Sen. Mike Bell, an East Tennessee Republican who heads the upper chamber’s Government Operations Committee, told TNReport Friday that he didn’t foresee any changes being made to the oversight process for the state investigative agency. He added that while he’s heard “numerous” complaints about local law enforcement and drug task forces, he couldn’t recall many complaints about misconduct or corruption in the TBI during his time in state government.

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