A charge facing the son of Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell and two other youths was dismissed by General Sessions Court Judge Ron Durby in a hearing in his office, not in open court, on July 13 - nine days after their arrest.
Then the cases were expunged in record time.
Judge Durby said he was acting on papers brought to him by the district attorney's office, who he said had worked out the dismissal.
He said he handled it behind closed doors in order to give the teens a tongue lashing. He said he sometimes does that.
Judge Durby said he did not consider stepping aside from the case, though he is close friends with Ms. Tidwell and she is his court clerk.
He said the three boys - Lucas Alexander Tidwell, Victor Pierre Serodino and Paul William Stagmaier, who are all 19 - were to do some community service at their churches. However, when a case is dismissed and expunged, the judge loses any jurisdiction over whether or not the service is actually performed.
The trio was charged with criminal impersonation after an encounter with Andrew Wright, an officer for the southern portion of the Cumberland Trail State Park, on the weekend of July 4th.
Meg Lockhart, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Conservation, said Officer Wright stopped the threesome on a trail in the North Chickamauga State Natural Area at Barker Camp, which is posted as foot traffic only. She said they were on two dirt bikes and an ATV.
She said they gave Ranger Wright fake names and told the ranger that their licenses were stored on private property.
She said when Ranger Wright continued to investigate, they admitted to him they had given false names. At this point, they were placed into custody and transported to the Hamilton County Jail by the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department.
She said they were given a courtesy warning about ATV use in the area and their vehicles were returned to them on July 6.
Ms. Lockhart said, "In court, the charges were dropped per the defendants' ability to do 16 hours public work."
Tom Landis, an assistant district attorney assigned to Judge Durby's courtroom, said the officer in the case indicated they would not have faced any charges had they given their correct names.
He said the officer felt they had been punished enough by having to be taken to jail.
However, he said it was first discussed that the case would be passed for a certain time and they would do the two days of community service.
Prosecutor Landis said it was then pointed out that one of the three was due to join the Marines soon, so he then agreed to the dismissal.
He said attorney Jerry Tidwell, father of Lucas Tidwell, was representing all three.
He said attorney Tidwell offered to bring back verification of the community service, but he told him that was not necessary.
Prosecutor Landis said he first was uncomfortable with the matter being handled in the judge's chambers, but he said when he walked in the office "the judge was giving them a real chewing out."
He said it is the first case he has been involved in that was not handled in open court.
Prosecutor Landis said when he was first given the case, he had concerns about whether his office should step aside. He said that action is not often taken because it is a cumbersome process to ask a prosecutor to come from another district.
He said District Attorney Bill Cox was unavailable at the time, so he checked with the top assistant, Neal Pinkston. He said Mr. Pinkston advised him to go ahead and handle the case.
The charges were expunged within minutes of the meeting in the judge's office. Expungements are normally handled by a court employee who comes to work in the late afternoons.
When a case is expunged, there are no longer any records pertaining to it available for public inspection.
Lucas Tidwell and Paul Stagmaier were on Ms. Tidwell's payroll at the time, and they returned to duty after the brief session in the judge's office.
Magistrate Larry Ables said he was on duty, but on a lunch break, when the three were brought into the jail.
He said he agreed to give them OR bonds because of the minor nature of the case.
Magistrate Ables said it was requested by the families that the case be moved up and handled more quickly because the defendants were due to start school soon. He said the mother of Stagmaier also said the family had an upcoming trip planned. He said there was no mention of anyone going into the Marines.
The General Sessions Court judges several years ago set up a system so cases will be assigned to the five judges at random by the computer to avoid "judge shopping."
However, Magistrate Ables said he sometimes overrides that system and asks the clerk on duty at the jail to set the cases.
The way it was set it landed on Judge Durby's docket.
Bart McKinney of county data processing said it is possible for clerks to override the random assignment of cases.
He checked how these three cases were assigned and said he saw nothing out of the ordinary.
When told that the request pertained to Criminal Court Clerk Tidwell's son, he checked again and said, "Everything is hunky dory." He did not specify why he reached that conclusion.
Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell did not return phone calls for comment. Attorney Jerry Tidwell declined comment.