published Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Cook: The falsest report of all

The long arm of the law wants to lock Jimmy Gaines in jail. He'd become a felon, stuck behind bars for three years or longer.

But Gaines doesn't seem like a criminal. He's more like your kid's favorite teacher, or the neighbor who checks on the widow down the street, or the guy who always opens the Bible study in prayer.

Gaines, who looks like a young Jimmy Stewart, doesn't drink or cuss. He had just created an after-school program for inner-city youth. Until recently, the only thing on his record was a speeding ticket ("a 72 in a 55," he said).

"I've never even been to the principal's office," he said.

Yet 12 days ago, Gaines looked up from his job helping cancer patients to see police swarming all around him. They handcuffed him, searched his truck, and took him to jail, where FBI investigators questioned him and Hamilton County officers decided to throw the book at him.

All because of something he said.

"It was a joke," Gaines said.

On Jan. 23, Gaines walked into the enrollment offices at Chattanooga State Community College. It was the last day to enroll for spring classes, and Gaines thought that his three-year quest to get back into college was finally over.

In 2009, Gaines dropped out of Southern Adventist University, several courses shy of a degree. His father had just gotten lymphoma. Gaines, who grew up going to Adventist schools in Nashville, got a job and began saving for the day he could return to school and become the first son his parents had to graduate college.

He became a personal trainer at a local YMCA, and works in a program there that helps cancer patients and survivors rehabilitate. He owed $8,000, and Southern wouldn't release his transcript for him to enroll at Chattanooga State until he'd paid his debt.

So he saved and saved.

"Our crazy Saturday nights are Netflix and candy," said his girlfriend.

Finally, Gaines had saved enough to write his check, but the loan company hadn't yet processed it, which meant Southern hadn't released his transcript, which meant the day he walked into Chattanooga State to enroll, he was told he couldn't.

So, a frustrated Gaines made a joke.

"He said, 'I have done all that I can think to do except put a gun to their head'," director of enrollment services Kisha Caldwell told police.

According to her affidavit, Gaines made that gun-to-the-head comment, then moments later, another: I'll try to pick up my transcript with a bomb on me.

When he leaves, she calls police, who alert Southern, whose campus then goes on lockdown with SWAT teams everywhere.

Yet Gaines remembers it differently. He said that in the joke he told, the imaginary, rhetorical gun was pointed at his head, not anyone else's. And that both jokes -- the gun-to-the-head and the bomb-on-the-back -- came out of his mouth at once, and that he -- not Caldwell -- was the first one to recognize their wrongness and apologize.

"I was the self-corrector," he said.

So innocent was the moment that Gaines left, thinking Caldwell had found a solution for him to enroll. He called his girlfriend to make plans to celebrate.

He stops by Taco Bell, gets to the YMCA, and then wonders why the police are calling his phone, and why all the SUVs are roaring into the parking lot, and why he's suddenly being handcuffed ...

"Who's joking with me?" Gaines first thought.

Police tell him he's just scared a lot of people at Southern. Then, it hits him.

"Search my truck," he told police. "Do whatever you need to do."

At the Collegedale Police Department, Gaines said FBI investigators quickly understood this as a misunderstanding. Yet it was Hamilton County police that came back to Gaines -- who sat in jail for 15 hours, holding back tears as the inmates mocked him -- who then charged Gaines with making a false report.

"Like pulling a fire alarm at a hospital and causing havoc," Gaines said.

It is the most absurd joke of all.

It is the real false report: that Hamilton County authorities are about to ruin this guy's life over 50 words made in jest.

If he was such a threat, why did no one choose to lock down Chattanooga State?

Are our police not able to distinguish a credible threat from a nonsense one?

What happens when an offhand comment is made in the grocery store line? Or at the pharmacy? In this post 9/11, never-leave-a-bag-unattended-world, are we all one step away from being charged as felons?

Yes, Gaines said something he will forever regret. Yes, police must respond to what they see as a clear and present danger.

But Gaines is no terrorist; he's a good man trying to become a great one, and it is both absurd and dictatorial to think that our Hamilton County police are now charging him with a three-year-minimum crime all for something he said.

This Thursday, he makes his first appearance before a Hamilton County judge. He's lost 15 pounds since the arrest. Can't sleep at night. He's close to tears.

And the one thing he really wants you to know? The one thing he wants to say?

"I have no ill feelings toward anyone," he said. "I just want folks to know we're looking for God to make this into something good."

That's what Jimmy Gaines said.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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conservative said...

Mr. Cook provides a lot of background about the man in an obvious attempt to gain sympathy and support for him.

The man made a threat, the police acted on the threat.

Is everyone suppose to know the man's background and that he meant the statement as a joke?

Mr. Cook is desperate for comments, so I thought I would help him out.

February 4, 2014 at 7:10 a.m.
soakya said...

this is the world you progressives have created Mr. Cook so whats your point?

February 4, 2014 at 9:02 a.m.
schizka said...

Now you can see what keeps minority America in a cycle of poverty, uncertainty and mass incarceration. It all started out with that one minor traffic violation, false or overblown charge. Then everything, every move, every gesture, or just leaving your front door to visit a friend, neighbor two doors down can lead to an arrest. The ground seemingly rising to meet your face. These are the problems and issues that's been plaguing inner city minority communities and its people for decades, and why their communities have declined; economically, socially and spiritually. For many that first traffic violation, false or overblown arrest creates a revoling door many find themselves forever trapped.

February 4, 2014 at 9:43 a.m.
babeard said...

I for one do know Jimmy personally and I can validate what Mr. Cook says is true (as far as character reference).

I for one am fed up with the run of the mill media slanting Jimmy in order to make a sensationalist story. Do you not know that media, in general, will twist certain stories to boost their ratings and/or agendas? It is practically common knowledge! So do let me know how you feel when a story breaks on one of your friends in a negative, sensationalist manner. Wouldn't you want the truth portrayed instead?

So thank you Mr. Cook for giving Jimmy a chance to defend himself of the slander.

February 4, 2014 at 10:05 p.m.
aae1049 said...

Now wait a minute, this one does sound like BS to me. As a graduate of UTC, who chronically held transcript hostage for their fee grabbing, parking ticket, fee for this, fee for that. I could see frustration over the transcript hostage situation that colleges set up. But I dare not say anything, so I will just sing a song on this one.

February 4, 2014 at 10:58 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Soakya, can't you let go of your "liberals bad, conservatives good" agenda, even for a minute? This is the frightening reality of the post 9/11 world we live in and if you want to blame someone, you can criticize both sides equally. The Patriot Act and the whole "war on terror" started with Bush, and both Dems and Repubs voted resoundingly in favor of restricting our freedoms (even our freedom of speech) in order to nab the next "terrorist" before he had a chance to strike. Now Obama has perpetuated this "war on terror" by renewing the Patriot Act and sanctioning the snooping of the NSA, and again both Dems and Repubs have fully supported him. Granted, Obama has taken things to even further extremes than Bush, and I for one hate that, but I think there's little doubt that if Bush were still in office, he would not have lightened up in the least and we would still be living in this state of hyper-suspicion and paranoia, with our every word and action being weighed in the balance.

The truth is that, even with all our droning, troops abroad, NSA snooping, and tightened security at airports, we have already lost the war on terror. We have reduced our country to its own terrorist state, afraid of our own shadows.

February 5, 2014 at 12:34 p.m.
hotdiggity said...

We can always count on our resident self styled christian to show empathy for what was obviously not a credible threat and for which the accused apologized for immediately.

Conservative, please tell us what is wrong with Mr. Cook pointing out that the man attended a christian school, "a personal trainer at a local YMCA, and works in a program there that helps cancer patients and survivors rehabilitate", whose only brush with the law was a parking ticket, and attempted to apologize for what he said? Surely you know that these are things that will be considered when he goes to trial?

Perhaps if he was an NRA member you would have more sympathy and would be bemoaning the oppressiveness of the police department.

February 5, 2014 at 8:43 p.m.
RockDaHouse85 said...

Rickaroo: Nail. Head. Bam. The war on terror is a joke because we're trying to counter terror with paranoia; in other words, we're fighting fear with fear. The only thing we're doing is making even more fear. Jimmy Gaines appears to be an unfortunate casualty, not just of his own poor word choices, but of a system afraid of its own shadow. Common sense has gone the way of our civil liberties: right down the toilet.

February 5, 2014 at 10:28 p.m.
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