Chattanooga Police officers testified Wednesday that a tape made by Judge John Hagler contained "shocking" dialogue relating to a murder and torture.
Asked if release of the tape would be very damaging to the judge and his family, Sgt. Bill Phillips said, "I guarantee you it would."
Sgt. Phillips and Sgt. Alan Franks said they were told when they received the tape that it may relate to the 1997 murder of priest Marty Davis at his home in Brainerd.
Sgt. Franks said Judge Hagler was "an associate" of Mr. Davis.
Police said Judge Hagler is not a suspect in the Davis murder, but they said they want to hang onto the tape in connection with that case.
Deputy Chief Mark Rawlston said, "It would be exculpatory evidence in whoever is charged in the murder of Marty Davis."
On July 16, 1997, the 35-year-old Davis was found dead at his home at 3917 Sunbeam Ave. around 10:20 a.m. He was found by a neighbor who came by to check on him after observing suspicious activity at the house. The victim had been shot several times.
A possible suspect was seen entering and leaving the victim’s house shortly before the murder was discovered. This suspect was also seen walking in the neighborhood around the time the murder occurred.
Sgt. Phillips said Judge Hagler does not match the description "of the person who pulled the trigger."
The testimony came at a hearing before Chancellor Frank Brown in which Judge Hagler is seeking to block the release of the tape.
The Chattanooga Times and five other news organizations are seeking release of the tape.
Judge Hagler resigned as Circuit Judge of the 10th Judicial District after the tape surfaced at the end of November.
Sgt. Phillips said the tape was turned over to the TBI after it was brought to city police in November 2005.
He said the TBI does apparently not have an active probe of the tape, though he said Deputy Chief Rawlston recently drove to Nashville to take a copy of the tape to TBI Executive Director Mark Gwynn.
Sgt. Franks said he got a call from an unnamed Chattanooga physician about the tape.
He said the tape came from former Hagler secretary Nona Rogers.
Roger Jenne, attorney for Judge Hagler, said the judge had fired her the day before she turned the tape over to police. He said the dismissal was related to Ms. Rogers' husband running for Circuit Court Clerk in Bradley County.
Sgt. Franks said when he heard the tape he was "pretty shocked about its content."
He said it "describes a murder in detail."
Asked further about the tape, he said, "I've been a detective for 24 years. . ." Attorney Jenne then entered an objection.
Sgt. Franks said of the tape, "It sounded like someone was being tortured."
Sgt. Phillips said he sent the tape to state and federal agencies to try to determine if there had been a murder as was described on the tape. He said that proved negative.
He said he also sent the tape to an FBI agent in Washington, who is a behaviorial expert.
Sgt. Phillips said he had less and less contact with the TBI about the case, then he said the tape issue was revived when a new director of city police intelligence began reviewing old files. He said it was given to Assistant Chief Bobby Dodd, then to Deputy Chief Rawlston, then to Chief Freeman Cooper.
Sgt. Phillips said he discussed the tape with another officer recently and they felt the matter should be brought to the attention "of a board that oversees judges."
He said, "We felt like the person that put that information on the tape does not need to be sitting on the bench."
Sgt. Phillips said it was decided to turn the tape over to Bradley County Sheriff Tim Gobble. He said, "We didn't want politics to play a part in this. Sheriff Gobble is brand new to politics in Bradley County and probably doesn't know a lot of those people."
But he said he then learned that Judge Hagler was sitting on a case in which Sheriff Gobble sued Bradley County on grounds his office was not adequately funded.
Sgt. Phillips said it was then decided it would not be appropriate to give the tape to Sheriff Gobble, and he said it never was.
He said, "We decided it wasn't a good idea to go to Bradley County (with the tape)."
Attorney Jenne said the tape "miraculously appeared" after Judge Hagler ruled against Sheriff Gobble. He alleged that the leak of information about the tape to the Chattanooga Times was "a retaliatory action against the judiciary."
The attorney said the tape is the personal property of the judge and it was "taken without his knowledge by theft."
He said the tape was "a personal message to himself that was wrongfully taken from him."
Attorney Jenne said it was found that Judge Hagler committed no crime, and he said he went to court to block release of the tape "to try to prevent the exposure of highly personal matters."
The Hagler resignation came after the
newspaper told the judge it had information about the tape.
Sgt. Phillips brought the original microcasette to court along with 11 CD copies. He said most of the copies were made at the request of the mayor's office after news media made requests for the tape.
Witnesses said the tape on Side A had orders from the judge, and the material in question was on Side B.
Sgt. Franks said Mrs. Rogers "stressed that she was not out for retribution."
Sgt. Phillips said Mrs. Rogers "was very upset" on the day she was interviewed by officers about the tape in November 2005.
Attorney Jenne and police said the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office are now looking into aspects of the tape and have been conducting interviews recently.
Attorney Jenne said they were checking possible "retaliation" against the judge for release of information about the tape.
He said the Bradley County Bar Association had asked Judge Hagler to reconsider his decision to resign and also asked for the probe by federal authorities. He said Judge Hagler "is cooperating fully."
Judge Hagler said during a break in the hearing that "I can't comment right now. There are too many irons in the fire right now."
The hearing will resume on Thursday at 1:20 p.m.