published Saturday, January 25th, 2014

Fired Marion County coaches sentenced in vandalism scandal

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    A vandalized shed near the Marion County field house had not been repainted before their prep football game against South Pittsburg at Marion County High School in Jasper, Tenn., in this Nov. 1, 2013, file photo.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
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JASPER, Tenn. — School system officials hope Friday's court action will put to rest a vandalism scandal surrounding cross-county rivals Marion County High School and South Pittsburg High School.

Two former Marion County High School assistant football coaches charged in a vandalism incident at their own school last November each pleaded guilty Friday to a reduced charge of misdemeanor vandalism under terms of judicial diversion.

In two separate General Sessions Court hearings before Judge Mark Raines on Friday, Joe Dan Gudger and Michael Schmitt, each originally charged with vandalism of $1,000-$10,000, pleaded guilty to vandalism under $500. Gudger also was originally charged with possession of alcohol on school property, but that charge was dismissed as part of the arrangement, according to Assistant District Attorney Dave McGovern.

Raines ordered the two men to perform 48 hours of public service and pay court costs. Restitution will be set later in an agreement between the state and defense attorneys. If either defendant disputes the amount of restitution, a hearing could be held to establish that part of the terms. As long as Gudger and Schmitt complete the terms of the 11-month, 29-day judicial diversion, their records will be cleared of the charges.

Gudger and Schmitt were represented by Dunlap, Tenn., attorneys Steve Greer and Sam Hudson, respectively.

"I think it's a fair resolution of the case," Greer said after Gudger's appearance.

The arrests came amid a vandalism investigation begun in early November on the day of the football game between Marion County High School in Jasper and South Pittsburg High School. The Jasper school hosted the game and lost to South Pittsburg 35-17.

The scandal began with the discovery of vandalism on Nov. 1, 2013, when orange and black spray paint -- South Pittsburg's school colors -- was used to scribble vulgarities on Marion County's field house. The colors were intended to make it look like South Pittsburg Pirates supporters were the culprits.

The vandalism consisted of spray-painted words on the side doors and along the back of the school's field house and a storage building and a concrete parking lot. Trash was scattered around the field house and derogatory names aimed at Marion County coaches and players, as well as a large "P" -- South Pittsburg's logo -- were painted on the buildings.

Schmitt, also a teacher, was arrested Nov. 13, and Gudger was arrested Nov. 19.

In the fallout of the investigation, head football coach Mac McCurry resigned the day after Gudger's arrest and the Marion County school board relieved assistant coach Tim Starkey of his position.

No students or football players at either school were ever implicated in the probe.

Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith called the vandalism the day it was found "extremely embarrassing" and vowed that once the vandals were caught, "we will prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law."

On Friday, Griffith said he and school officials were ready to put the matter to rest.

"From the schools' standpoint, we hope the healing process can begin and we can move on and let everybody put it behind them," he said.

Griffith said he was satisfied with the judicial diversion arrangement if that was what prosecutors and investigators thought proper.

"If they felt like that was adequate with their expertise, then we're OK with it," he said.

Court officials had put off setting restitution until they got word from the school system on damage estimates.

Griffith, who was unaware that the hearings had taken place, said he sent a letter Friday establishing the cost of repairs at $3,200.

The next step for the school system is hiring a football coaching staff, he said.

"We're in the process of hiring a new staff and new coach and hoping to get some closure," he said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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