Former FBI agent recalls Cocke County corruption

Cocke County is no stranger to corruption, once criticized as "Little Chicago" given the rash of crime and public corruption. We are taking a look back at one of that county's most infamous cases-- Operation Rose Thorn.

(WBIR) Two Newport police captains charged with multiple counts of money laundering have been suspended without pay. Cocke County is no stranger to corruption, once criticized as "Little Chicago" given the rash of crime and public corruption.

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This recent investigation is bringing back old memories for a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent who led one of the county's most infamous cases.

Operation Rose Thorn started in 2001 and ended in 2008. It led to 48 arrests on federal charges, including the arrests of eight local lawmen with the Newport Police Department or Cocke County Sheriff's Department. Charges ranged from money laundering, theft, conspiracy to distribute cocaine and trafficking stolen goods.

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Another 170 people faced charges for cockfighting, gambling and illegal liquor.

Retired FBI Agent Thomas Farrow led the investigation. When Farrow transferred from the FBI Miami division to the Knoxville division, the FBI asked him to find a case in East Tennessee worth a federal investigation.

"We would talk to the state prosecutors and they all just kept steering us back to look at Cocke County, look at Cocke County. Because in their mind, it was such a bed of corruption that the tentacles went throughout the county and throughout the sheriff's department," Farrow said.

Farrow's digging, along with the help of several other agencies, led to a four-year undercover investigation.

"The scariest being meeting potential informants, police officers, in cemeteries at midnight knowing that when they show up to talk to you they're going to have a gun. Of course they have a gun, they're in uniform," Farrow told 10News at his Johnson City home.

He went on to say, "And not knowing if they are going to be good guys or bad guys and whether they are going to cooperate with us and help us with the investigation or try to put us in one of those graves."

Many people associate Operation Rose Thorn with the county's cockfighting ring. An investigator once mentioned it may have been the oldest and largest in the nation. While it received a lot of attention, Farrow said Operation Rose Thorn is first and foremost about police corruption.

"You talk to some of the Cocke County deputies we talked to and we asked them, and they said, 'You know, you start off so good and then you're told, 'Hey stay away from the chicken fights, those are the sheriff's. Stay away from the poker machines, those are the chief deputy's.' Where do you go? And where does this honest police officer turn?" Farrow asked.

Rose Thorn closed shortly after Farrow retired.

Several law enforcement officers spent time in jail for a variety of charges from cocaine distribution, to selling stolen Nascar apparel, and money laundering.

Sheriff D.C. Ramsey was serving during the investigation. He resigned for health reasons in 2006. Two years later, the FBI said it had records showing Ramsey was accused of receiving thousands of dollars to protect illegal gambling and cockfighting, but federal investigators never charged him.

Farrow said despite recent news, he believes Cocke County is not as corrupt and lawless as it used to be.


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