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Fentress County Sheriff's Office faces TBI investigations and a lawsuit over strip searches

The lawsuit claims officers, deputies and staff forced four women to remove articles of clothing on the side of public roads.

Agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are looking into allegations of misconduct at the Fentress County Sheriff's Office, a TBI spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday. 

At the request of Eighth District Attorney General Jared Effler, agents are examining the possible misuse of a county fuel card and allegations involving a deputy. They said the deputy's service weapons were missing, a spokesperson said. 

Both investigations are ongoing.

They come in the midst of a lawsuit against the county which alleges deputies, sheriff's office staffers and a Jamestown Police officer forced women to expose themselves on the side of public highways during contraband searches. 

The lawsuit was filed in January and first reported by Knox News. If a settlement is not reached, court records indicate it is scheduled for trial in 2021.

The lawsuit describes two incidents. In the first, from September 2019, 74-year-old Phyllis Tucker said she was visiting family in the area with two others when officers pulled them over in the parking lot of a closed fast food restaurant on Main Street in Jamestown. 

It alleges police officers and sheriff's deputies, including Michael Potter who the suit said serves both departments, summoned the sheriff's female secretary, Michelle Holcombe, to conduct a strip search.

It said that the search began with the secretary asking one of the women, Kira Smith, to pull her shirt up, then "pull her pants to her knees."

In the lawsuit, Tucker said she began to cry as Holcombe asked her to remove her blouse and bra, exposing her breasts.

Tucker admits deputies found two small bags of marijuana — one in the car and another in Smith's underwear. 

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The suit said deputies wrote two citations for the drugs and let them go. 

In another case from June 2019, two women on their way home from Walmart claim they were "stripped completely nude and searched" on the side of a rural highway. 

Shannon Hayes and Tiffany Lewis allege Holcombe and female deputy Taylor Hart made them "take off their clothing one article at a time" and eventually made them bend over and cough as staffers used flashlights to look for contraband. 

When they did not find any, the lawsuit said the deputies Lance Stevens and T.J Miller ticketed the women for having an improper car tag and let them go. 

The lawsuit alleges the searches were illegal and so is a sheriff's office policy which allows deputies to strip search based on "reasonable suspicion" including "an arrestee's appearance and demeanor."

The sheriff did not return calls requesting comment Wednesday or Thursday. In court documents, county lawyers largely acknowledge the circumstances surrounding two 2019 traffic stops, but denies allegations of improper searches.