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Family of woman who drowned while cuffed in back of Tenn. deputy’s cruiser files suit

Deputy R.J. Leonard drove into the Tennessee River with Tabitha Smith in the back seat, causing both to drown; Smith’s family alleges Leonard was not properly trained in suspect transport and was not familiar with his patrol area

By Olivia Lloyd
The Charlotte Observer

MEIGS COUNTY, Tenn. — Tabitha Smith died in “unimaginable terror” as she sat handcuffed in the back of a Tennessee patrol car that a deputy drove into a river on Valentine’s Day, her family said.

In the wake of her death, her son is seeking $10 million.

Deputy R.J. Leonard had been with the Meigs County Sheriff’s Office for two months when he made his first arrest: the 35-year-old Smith, officials said.

He texted his wife about his arrest and began driving Smith to the jail the evening of Feb. 14, McClatchy News reported.

But in the dark, he drove off an old boat ramp into the Tennessee River, officials said. He sent out one last garbled radio call, but all dispatch heard was “water.”

Rescuers scrambled to find the patrol car, and they found it the next day submerged, upside down in the river. Smith’s body was in the car, and Leonard’s body was found in the water, officials said.

The mom of four “suffered the indignity and humiliation of the loss of her life and bodily integrity as she drowned while cuffed and locked in the back seat of a patrol car,” her family wrote in the lawsuit filed March 4 in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

The lawsuit referenced wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, loss of consortium and violation of Smith’s 14th Amendment rights.

“Leonard was not properly trained by the county to know his assigned area of patrol and know the nature of the incident location,” her son said in the lawsuit.

Others had also driven off roads in the area, and those in the county knew it was an issue, officials said. Her family added the county failed to ensure the deputy didn’t text and drive and didn’t train him how to safely transport arrestees.

“The failures and deprivations here inflicted unimaginable terror upon the Plaintiff in that she knew what she was about (to) suffer,” her family wrote in the lawsuit.

Her son said Leonard was responsible for Smith’s safety when he arrested her, handcuffed her and placed her in the back of his patrol car. Her family accuses law enforcement of failing to protect her, culminating in a “grisly death.”

Her son is suing Leonard’s estate and Meigs County for Smith’s “gruesome death.” McClatchy News reached out to the county for comment on March 5 but did not receive an immediate response.

In her obituary, Smith’s family remembers her as someone who loved music, cooking and people, especially her kids.

“She’s one of those freebirds that you meet like once in a lifetime,” a friend said in an interview with WTVC.

Meigs County officials declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, but the investigation is ongoing, 9th District Attorney General Russell Johnson told McClatchy News in an email.

Investigators are awaiting autopsy results and trying to determine other factors from that night such as weather conditions on the rural, back roads and if Leonard may have been using his phone to navigate, Johnson said.

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