It all began when Heather Patton Reyda was a teenager at Bearden High School in the early 1980s. Friends were using and overdosing on crack cocaine. The cocaine epidemic was just beginning and spreading like a wildfire across the United States.
“I saw my friends, girls and boys, and others I knew doing this stuff and I saw what it did to them, the changes in them, and I knew then I wanted to get in there and stop this and make a difference,” Reyda says today. “I know for a fact that some of these friends died of overdoses after high school.”
Well, she’s been making a difference for a few years. At the Knox County Sheriff’s Office today she is known as Lt. Heather Reyda, 50, who joined the major crimes unit as a detective in 2007 and is a four-time honoree as Detective of the Month. In December 2017 she was promoted to lieutenant in the juvenile crimes division and is the sole detective responsible for the investigation and prosecution of overdose deaths.
Assigned to the narcotics division, she was appointed to the Appalachian High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area drug-related death task force in August 2018.
Since joining major crimes 13 years ago, she has worked more than 5,000 cases – approximately 385 a year.
Working with District Attorney Charme Allen and her staff, Reyda was part of the team in 2016 that successfully charged and prosecuted the first-ever overdose case for second-degree murder. It was, she says, “very satisfying and historic. I actually started crying a little bit when I was talking with the victim’s family.”
The victim was a senior at the University of Tennessee, and interestingly, was studying chemistry. She began dating a guy who turned out to be a drug dealer and hooked her on cocaine. “She was snorting coke and they found coke mixed with Xanax in her system,” Reyda remembers.
In addition to the overdose cases, she’s worked and solved crimes involving serial rapists, murders, domestic violence, assault, armed robberies and stalking cases.
Her most unforgettable case was a 2008 murder case at a Halls bar called the “Mad Max” case. Herbert Mike Merritt was found guilty and sentenced to 51 years in prison for murdering Laymon “Tony” Ford inside the Friends Sports Bar & Grill. Merritt shot Ford six times, stabbed him repeatedly and then carved into his chest, tore out a piece of a lung he thought was Ford’s heart and ate part of it. “You never forget a case like that,” she said, shaking her head.
And to this day she still gets phone calls from a man who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and was charged with assault. His case began 10 years ago and he still relies on her for assistance when he is off his medications or needs help. He calls her cell phone and she’s always there to help.
Here are a few other interesting facts about this veteran detective:
- She began at KCSO in 1993 and spent five years working in the jail. “We led sheltered lives in West Knoxville. Working in the jail gave me so much experience in dealing with people down on their luck, people who didn’t want to live that way any more and others who had no intention of stopping criminal activity. The jail helped me grow up and be exposed to things I’d never experienced.”
- Her husband is retired KCSO Officer Mick Reyda. His son Wes is now working at KCSO.
- She’s never fired her weapon in the line of duty and has never been shot at either. “Thank God for that,” she said.
Reyda has loved this career that began at Bearden High almost 35 years ago. “I loved being on patrol and I loved major crimes and now I love doing this drug overdose work. I’ve loved it all,” she says. “I’ve been really lucky.”
So has Knox County!
Tom King writes Our Town Heroes each Monday. Suggest future stories at email@example.com or call him at 865-659-3562.