Knox County detectives step up to end thefts, abuse

Tom KingOur Town Heroes, West Knox County

(This is the first of a two-part story on a case that involves thefts from multiple storage facilities by two people and their apparent abuse of an elderly family member not involved in their alleged crimes. Today we tell how the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Property Crimes Unit went far above and beyond as Our Town Heroes to help this elder abuse victim. – The Editor)

One tip from one citizen was all it took for the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Property Crimes Unit’s detectives to stop a long-running, two-person team that was stealing valuable items from area storage units. And in the process, they were abusing and using an elderly, unsuspecting and disabled female relative.

This investigation began in January 2023. It was led by Det. Captain Steve Webb and Detectives Wayne Doster and Phillip Elkins. They are the heroes in this saga along with about 17 more KCSO detectives and officers. It’s a sad, disheartening story that they turned into a story of help and hope.

A three-month investigation ended on March 30, 2023, with the arrests of Leah Nelson, 42, and Chris Beech, 42, both of Knoxville. They are now held 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 District Attorney General’s Office is also looking into the elder abuse charges.

“This week I’ve had an additional call from someone whose unit was also hit and we may be filing more charges,” Doster said. “We hope that others who are missing items will let us know.”

The four storage companies they hit are:

  • Cedar Bluff Middlebrook Storage
  • iStorage on Middlebrook Pike
  • Mini Storage Depot
  • Volunteer Storage

If you think items have been stolen from your storage unit, please report it to the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Support Services Unit at 865-215-2243.

Nelson is a family member of the elderly woman, a retired health care worker who lives alone in a middle-class subdivision off Middlebrook Pike. Nelson was using the home, unbeknownst to her, for hiding stolen items. She also was using the woman’s car to haul the stolen goods to the home. But Nelson and Beech did not live in the home. The investigation discovered they stayed in various motels and moved often from one to the other.

The first tip came in on January 23 from the owner of one of the storage facilities in West Knoxville. “He said that the locks on 50 units had been cut and people had all kinds of things taken,” Webb said. “They had cameras and we could see the two people.” Both were wearing all black – long coats, pants, hoodies and gloves. “But we didn’t have any real victims yet, just the owner’s report and the video, so it was slow at first and then more victims started calling,” Doster said.

The unit’s investigation discovered that Nelson and Beech were replacing the locks they cut with their locks, making it more difficult for owners and management to access their units. Doster checked with pawn shops and began matching missing items and names at one shop, and in doing so learned that Nelson had been doing this since 2018 and had pocketed more than $30,000 in the process. That was the key leading to their arrests.

They eventually located the pair and on March 30 served a search warrant at the home, which listed Nelson as its owner. That’s when they found the disabled woman living there alone with her four cats and a dog in a house with its three bedrooms filled from floor to ceiling with all matter of old clothes, bags and bags of trash covered in cat and dog urine and feces and, in the piles, they found some of the stolen merchandise. Each room, Webb said, had a small path wide enough for one person to walk through.

The KCSO team had to wear masks to deal with the home’s acrid and overwhelming smell.

Doster said they obtained a search warrant and on March 28 they searched Nelson’s multiple storage units and recovered a large quantity of stolen items.

While searching the home, detectives spotted Nelson at a convenience store on Middlebrook Pike not far from the house. She was taken into custody and brought to the house. While executing the search warrant and waiting for Nelson, Webb said they helped the woman to her front yard and “she sat in a lawn chair with us outside in the fresh air and talked with us. I felt so bad and sorry for her. She kept apologizing and told us over and over how ashamed she was for what her house was like. It was hard listening to this lady who had no idea about any of this.”

Her stove and refrigerators (she had three) did not work. She slept on an old couch with her pets. Fast food sacks and wrappers were scattered everywhere. Mixed in with the bedroom garbage were items they had stolen.

“I knew in my heart we had to do something more than just our law enforcement job.” Webb said. “The next morning, 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.

“We removed what she didn’t want. We had a truck and a 7×14-foot dump trailer and filled it up – the three fridges, the stove and we lost track of how many garbage bags we filled. Clothing, trash, a dilapidated cabinet, expired and spoiled food,” he said.

Webb and his team of heroes used large snow shovels to scrape the kitchen floor of its molded food and other food and animal debris, wearing masks and having to take fresh-air breaks. “It was literally gross,” he said. “How she has been able to stay alive in that environment is shocking to me. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

As you read and learn of this, be mindful that what happened after the arrests, what Webb and his KCSO heroes have done for this woman is not part of their job. They wanted to help her and their plan was blessed by Knox County Sheriff Tom Spangler.

At some point that day Webb had someone contact the East Tennessee Human Resources Agency’s CREVAA program – the Collaborative Response to Elder and Vulnerable Adult Abuse that provides emergency services and coordination of services and supports for older and vulnerable adult victims of crime. This lady needs and has been receiving emergency help and supports for her medical and elder abuse issues.

Next Monday we will share much more about this woman and how she is doing.

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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