published Friday, September 28th, 2012

Bradley County teacher in court to reclaim reputation

  • photo
    The Hopewell Elementary School marquee signs urges a yes vote. Many Cleveland and Bradley County schools have the same advertisement this summer.
    Photo by Randall Higgins /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Gregory A. Gammer Affidavit
Gregory A. Gammer Affidavit

When her accuser admitted he lied and a special prosecutor dismissed assault charges against her last week, Susan Elliott thought she was about to reclaim her children, her job as a Hopewell Elementary School teacher, her reputation.

Think again.

The Bradley County teacher says school administrators are using information from what was supposed to be a confidential investigative file as ammunition to try to fire her.

On Monday, prosecutors in the 10th Judicial District will try in court to stop the court-ordered expungement of her record.

Elliott is afraid the whole thing is being orchestrated as a favor to her ex-husband, Luke Muhonen, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent who works closely with the 10th Judicial District Attorney's office headquarters in Cleveland, Tenn.

His attorney, James F. Logan of Cleveland, calls that accusation "absurd" and an "outrage" and disparages Elliott's credibility.

But Elliott -- suspended from her job and separated from her children since her July arrest -- can't think of another reason to explain what's happened.

"They have ruined my life -- taken away my life, my livelihood, the very core of what I am. I feel like I'm being bullied," Elliott said.

Tenth Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb did not respond to a request for comment on Elliott's allegations, except to say that the motion to stop the expungement will be argued in Bradley County General Sessions Court on Monday.

Starting point

On July 23, Elliott's boyfriend at the time, Greg Grammer, swore to Cleveland police that she had beaten him up while he was drunk and passed out at her home. She was arrested and charged with aggravated domestic assault. Grammer told police she had struck him with a baseball bat and had her toddler son bite him.

She spent the night in jail. Her children -- two with Muhonen, one with her second husband -- were taken away and eventually handed over to their fathers, where they remain.

The next day, Grammer withdrew his statement. On July 30, he signed a document called a "victim's rights statement" saying Elliott was innocent and asking that she not be prosecuted. On Aug. 2, he signed a two-page, notarized affidavit that recanted the allegations point by point.

Grammer said Thursday his attorney advised him not to comment.

Elliott took the victim's rights document to the 10th Judicial DA's office to ask the charges be dropped. According to her, Assistant District Attorney Joseph "Mac" McCoin ripped up the paper and threw it away.

Her attorney, Mitchell Bryant, said a witness has told him "an attorney from the firm that represented Luke [Muhonen] in the custody case, and an investigator from that firm, told Mac that they did not want the case dismissed, and Mac then tore up the form.

"My question is: Why in the hell would they be listening to an attorney who's not involved in the criminal prosecution?" Bryant said.

Elliott said McCoin told her it was payback. She said that after she and Muhonen divorced, she reported an allegation that got him investigated.

Bryant said that's wrong.

"The reason it makes me mad is that 99 times out of a hundred, if you had a guy taking out charges and then recanting, the DA's office would not prosecute. The perception I have is that they are pushing it because of who her ex-husband is. That really bugs me," he said.

Bebb did not respond to a request for comment on whether the refusal to dismiss the case was retaliation.

'Absurd' charges

Logan said he has advised Muhonen not to comment. He said Elliott's "allegations of favoritism are ridiculously absurd and a complete outrage."

"The DA's office did what they were supposed to do" in domestic violence cases, he said. "The process of investigation was followed."

It's silly to accuse Muhonen of interfering in a case he had nothing to do with, Logan said.

"The guy [Grammer] changed his testimony to support this woman he's making love to. Where's the favoritism?"

He attacked Elliott's credibility, quoting from a transcript of an early August custody hearing for her child with second husband Eric Elliott. Under questioning from the ex's attorney, Elliott first said she was afraid of Grammer, but then admitted she still maintained a relationship with him, the transcript states.

Elliott went to court twice in August on the assault charge. On Sept. 4, the DA's office recused itself from the case because of its close ties to Muhonen.

The substitute prosecutor, Taffy Wilson of the 31st Judicial District, dismissed the charge on Sept. 18. Almost immediately, the Cleveland Police Department charged Grammer with making a false statement to police.

And that added a whole new twist to the story.

On the same day that Elliott's charge was dismissed, General Sessions Judge Sheridan Randolph signed an order to expunge her record.

This week, the DA's office asked the court to stay the expungement -- shredding the Elliott file would mean destroying the evidence against Grammer, prosecutors said.

Wilson said she didn't understand that an expungement in Bradley County means shredding the whole file. In Warren County, her home turf, the police report would be kept as a record of the case, she said.

"I'm glad they did think to stop before they shredded it. That's potentially evidence I need in my filing a false-report case ... if the judge deems that's part of my pro tem case," she said.

Job in jeopardy

Meanwhile, Elliott said her Tennessee Education Association attorney had told her that, with the charges dismissed and expunged, she should be able to go back to class and collect back pay.

But Elliott said Bradley County Schools Director Johnny McDaniel called her Thursday to tell her the school system is planning to fire her over the allegations in the file.

She's puzzled as to how he got his hands on a copy. As part of an active criminal case, the file was not subject to open records laws. And the same day the case was closed, the expungement was ordered.

"We want to find out how they got my file, since it's been expunged," she said.

McDaniel did not answer that question when the Times Free Press asked Thursday.

In an emailed statement, he said the school system spoke with "related law enforcement officials and the Bradley County District Attorney's Office" after Elliott's case was closed.

"Because the Board has not yet made a determination as to the Charges, and because Ms. Elliott has obtained counsel to dispute the Charges, I do not feel it would be appropriate to provide any further comment at this time," McDaniel wrote.

He said the school board would take up the proposed termination Thursday and added that there are other grounds for firing against Elliott, including professional shortcomings such as failing to create or use lesson plans or teach in certain subject areas such as social studies; smoking in or around school buildings; shopping online during class time and other misbehavior.

Elliott denied any wrongdoing.

"That is just not true. I've never been disciplined for any of this; no one has ever spoken to me of any of this. I'd like to see their proof," she said. "They gave me the highest evaluation marks."

The TEA said it could not comment on an active legal matter.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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