She’s being helped: ‘How can anyone live in this?’

Tom KingOur Town Heroes

(This is the second of a two-part story on a case that involves thefts from multiple storage facilities by two people and their abuse of a female family member not involved in their alleged crimes. Today we revisit the woman to see what’s next for her and how social services and the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Property Crimes Unit and others are helping her. – The Editor)

The resident, who is in poor health, lives with her four cats and a dog in a small West Knoxville home described as deplorable, unsanitary, filthy and saturated with repulsive odors.

Melissa Cameron is a caseworker for the East Tennessee Health Resources Agency (ETHRA) and works with the elderly who have suffered abuse in any form. She’s seen a lot in her time. What she saw when she walked into this woman’s home in a nice middle-class neighborhood shocked her.

“I was absolutely taken aback. My first thought as I walked in the front door was ‘How can anyone live in this?’ I had to put a mask on and I wondered how can this woman get out of bed every day and live in this environment,” Cameron said. “I talked with her and explained how we can help her.”

Here is the link to last week’s story.

KCSO Property Crimes Unit that worked at the older woman’s home: Detectives Wayne Doster, Kenny Allen, Tim Acres, Sgt. Brad Cox, Linda Turpin, Capt. Steve Webb, Philip Elkins and Tim Sellers.

Based on a tip, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Property Crimes Unit, led by Capt. Steve Webb, last January began an investigation into what was a two-person team stealing valuable items from five storage unit facilities. And in the process, they were using the aforementioned female relative and her home as a kind of “stash house.” Not drugs, but stolen items of all kinds hidden among the debris and trash.

This investigation was led by Webb and Detectives Wayne Doster and Phillip Elkins. They are the heroes in this sad saga that involved about 17 more detectives and officers. The investigation ended on March 30 with the arrests of Leah Nelson, 42, and Chris Beech, 42, both of Knoxville. They are now awaiting trial in the county’s Roger D. Wilson Detention Center. Both face seven burglary charges, seven charges of theft, one count of vandalism and elder abuse. They are jailed on $91,000 bonds. The Knox County District Attorney General’s Office is also looking into the elder abuse charges.

After being at the house, serving warrants and making the arrests, Webb could not just walk away without doing something. “I knew in my heart we had to do something more than just our law enforcement job.” Webb said. “The next morning (on March 31) I asked my entire Property Crimes Unit for volunteers so we could go out to the home and get to work cleaning the house and making it a little more livable for her. Half of us spent the day working at her home and the other detectives began executing search warrants at storage facilities.”

Fast forward to today. Cameron works for a specific program at ETHRA – the Collaborative Response to Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse program known by its acronym – CREVAA. It provides emergency assistance and coordinates services and supports for older and vulnerable adult victims of crime and abuse.

This woman, who worked in the health-care industry for 30 years, has a number of health issues, can barely get around using a walker and seldom ever steps outside. A wonderful neighbor brings her a cooked dinner most nights. Cameron thinks she would struggle cooking on a new stove in her tiny kitchen. She does have a working microwave.

Cameron says she will be visiting her again after the July 4 break and is now working to get a long-term care plan in place. “I’ll have to get her to agree with the plan and at times that can be hard. Sometimes the elderly resist because they may be overwhelmed by their situation and can have physical and mental problems that make it hard for them to accept and make changes.”

And add to that the issue that no doubt bothers this woman and others – the possibility of losing their independence. “That keeps some of them from asking for help. They’re afraid of what would come next. She’s trying to hold on to what she has left.”

Here’s how she has been helped:

  • CREVAA has gotten food to the home, worked on cleaning the house and her medical needs are up to date.
  • The KCSO SCAN program (Senior Citizens Awareness Network) has visited and taken food. SCAN is a group of nearly 100 volunteers who go once a week to check up on seniors in Knox County.
  • Members of the Property Crimes Unit at KCSO all donated gift cards for her.
  • She now has a stove that works. A staff member at the Christian Academy of Knoxville donated it.
  • Home Depot donated a new fridge that is in her kitchen. They also donated tools and large trash bags so the KCSO team could clean part of her home.
  • Grayson BMW deep-cleaned her car and has it in great shape now.
  • Young-Williams Animal Center donated its care, vaccinations and vets’ services for her cats and dog. They also donated the kennels for transporting her pets. “Right now, those pets are her world,” Capt. Webb said.

“Outside of her relative who is in jail, she has no family here – period,” Capt. Webb said. “Her world is so small. One neighbor friend helps her. She has her pets. She has pride. She kept telling us how ashamed she is of her house and doesn’t understand how she has gotten into this situation. She touched all of us deeply. We had to help her.”

And that help continues!

If you suspect elder abuse is going on in or outside of your family, you have these resources available:

Call the CREVAA program manager Tracy Armstrong at 865-691-2551 (Ext. 4306) or by email at or call 833-427-3822 (toll-free)

Tom King has been the editor of newspapers in Texas and California and also worked in Tennessee and Georgia. If you have someone you think we should consider featuring, please email him at the link with his name.


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