(Editor’s Note: This story was previously published on Knox TN Today in November 2021.)
Shaun Sakovich minces no words about work.
“It’s hard and it would be disingenuous to say otherwise. I see a lot of things no one else wants to see or even know about. I am helping the most vulnerable victims we have in society and I don’t enjoy some of the things I see and hear,” this 44-year-old veteran of the Knoxville Police Department (KPD) says.
He’s talking about child abuse, mostly child sexual abuse. “These are the absolute most violent and evil acts that can be done to another human being without killing them. To me child sexual abuse is the most violent crime other than homicides,” Sakovich added.
After joining KPD in 2008 and working patrol for six years, he’s now one of seven investigators (detectives) in the Special Crimes Unit. The unit’s offices are in the Knoxville Family Justice Center. Sakovich and his fellow investigators work cases of child abuse (sexual, physical, emotional and mental), domestic violence, elder abuse, missing persons and human trafficking. His caseload, which numbers between 150 to 175 cases annually, he says, tilts more toward child sexual abuse and domestic abuse.
It’s an emotional workload for sure. How does he deal with it? His answers are so down to earth.
“I do sometimes dwell on the horrible and evil things I’ve seen done to people. There have been many nights I have lost sleep because I could not get a case out of my mind. I’ve sulked, felt depressed, and lost my temper more than once.
“The things I do to cope? I exercise regularly and eat well. I try to keep my body and mind healthy. I see a therapist. I take advantage of the city’s Employee Assistance Program and talk with a professional about how I am feeling. I do my very best to separate my work life from my home life. I try hard not to take the evil home with me. I take comfort in the victories we (a lot of people make this happen) achieve when we put an abuser in prison. I try to never take for granted that I have a loving, healthy home environment that many others do not.”
Sakovich was born in a small Michigan village – Paw Paw – in southwestern Michigan’s wine country, population about 6,800 now, maybe 3,000 when he lived there. But his family moved around and that, plus “wanderlust,” he says, resulted in him living in Montana, Washington state, back to Montana, Florida, New York and Tennessee.
During his college years at Montana State, he became buddies with a young man from, of all places, Oak Ridge. “In the summers I’d come here to visit them and this part of Tennessee got into my blood and I fell in love with it,” he says. His college buddy today is a police officer in Pigeon Forge.
When he lived in New York, he was a flight attendant for seven years with American Airlines. He met his wife of 17 years in New York and her intent was to earn a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee. “I was OK with that having spent so much time here so we moved down and here we’ll stay,” he says. His wife teaches English as a second language (ESL) in Oak Ridge.
Sakovich has an uncle who is a retired Miami police officer. They talked in 2007 and his uncle planted the law enforcement bug in his ear. “For some reason, my uncle saw something in me and he told me that he thought I’d make a good cop. That had never occurred to me,” he says.
Flight attendant work works well for singles, not so much for married couples, he said, so he ended his days of flying and decided to apply to the KPD in January 2008. He was not hired until August ‘08 and began his 26 weeks in the police academy.
Perhaps his most well-known case is that of Robert Vernon Gouge, 47, who was recently convicted of three counts of rape of a child, one count of attempted rape of a child and one count of aggravated sexual battery and sentenced to 99 years in prison. This abuse began when the victim was 9 and went on for three more years. The Department of Children’s Services (DCS) finally learned of the abuse in April 2019 when the victim was 15. Sakovich was the investigator and testified in court.
That it took three years for the DCS to find out about this case is a big part of the problem, he explains. “The mother and others in this family knew this was going on and said not one word to anyone. How are people, relatives even, capable of doing that or condoning it and letting it happen to a sweet, innocent little girl? They have first-hand knowledge, but they don’t want to get involved in stopping it. And they’re scared.”
Sakovich says that his youngest child sex abuse case was a little girl who was 5.
He sees, knows and works with women who for years and years were victims of domestic abuse. “It takes so much courage for these women to reach out for help. They’re so scared of their abusers.” Their ages, he says, usually fall between 18 and 45. “It skewers younger. It covers the socio-economic scale – from people just scraping by to people who live in places like Sequoyah Hills. Domestic violence is like a virus – it does not care who it attacks.”
If there are kids in the home, and that’s the case in many situations, he says the little boys learn that it’s OK to hit girls and the girls think it’s OK for them to be hit, like their mothers. “It’s sad, but that is the truth,” he says.
“In these cases with the kids and the women and many others, I hear all the details and that’s the part I really don’t like. I hear more of it than anyone in the public wants to know about. It would break peoples’ hearts to know how many victims there are here,” he said. “The world is a good place, and most people here are good, but we have a lot of really bad people here too.”
There is, he explained, a big upside to his work. “People ask themselves how many times they’ve made a difference in someone’s life. I’m going to be able to look back on my career and know that I made a significant difference in the lives of a lot of people and left this place a little better than I found it.”
Knoxville and the KPD are lucky to have this hero in our lives!
Tom King has served at newspapers in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and California and was the editor of two newspapers. Suggest future stories at firstname.lastname@example.org call him at 865-659-3562.