Young trooper talks Gatlinburg fires, Chapman Highway

Tom KingNortheast Knox, Our Town Heroes

He’s 30 – only 12 years removed from Gibbs High School, and several times a night his Ford Explorer SUV may hit 120 mph. He’s calm in times of stress, dependable and loaded with integrity and maturity well beyond his years.

One moment he may be arresting a felon or a drunken driver, and a few hours later he’s home with wife Sadie and changing 9-month-old son Silas’ diaper.

Trooper John Capps

This quiet professional is Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) Trooper John Capps, a member of A Troop in the Knoxville District. When he’s working, he’s patrolling all of Knox and Union counties. This month he’s been working the overnight shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., or thereabouts, depending on what’s going on out on the road.

While in high school, Capps joined the Tennessee National Guard, the 278th Infantry unit in Oneida. That led to a post-high-school-graduation deployment in 2010 to Kuwait and Iraq. Once back in town, he enrolled at Pellissippi State Community College. “I thought I wanted to be a history teacher, but that didn’t work out after a semester, and my dad said, ‘Why not be a state trooper?’”

So, in 2012 he took Dad’s advice and applied, along with about 3,000 other applicants. From that process of tests and interviews, the THP whittled the crowd down to 100 and hired 60. He was one of the 60. “I got the job, and frankly I was surprised,” Capps says. “I’m really happy I did because I didn’t have a plan B. I had to succeed.”

Succeed he is doing. And he loves his job.

THP Capt. Michael Melhorn commands the 11-county, District 1 headquarters – which includes Knoxville and Troop A – and has this to say about Capps: “I have found Trooper Capps to be a professional with a great work ethic who displays a sense of compassion for others. He has the ability to stay calm in stressful situations, which in turn makes others around him calm. This is a great trait to have, especially when dealing with individuals who have been arrested.”

Capt. Melhorn and others have noticed Capps’ work, as evidenced by these awards he has received:

  • Several awards from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) for the DUI arrests he has made throughout the years.
  • Multiple awards for leading District 1 for DUI arrests for a quarter during the year (12 to 14 times).
  • One year honored for being in the Top 10 in moving violations, writing between an estimated 800 to 900 hazardous moving violations.
  • Tennessee Highway Patrol’s Lifesaver Award for work during the November-December 2016 fires in Gatlinburg.

That last award – the Lifesaver Award – began when he was working an evening shift in Knoxville. He was aware of the Gatlinburg fires but did not know the city was being evacuated. While he was responding to a crash near the Cedar Bluff Road exit on I-40, dispatch notified him to head to Gatlinburg to assist with the evacuation.

He picks up the narrative there: “I met with other Strike Team members on Chapman Highway, and we traveled south together. While on the Spur, with both sides going north into Pigeon Forge, we came upon an ambulance near the Welcome Center. The medics were performing CPR on a man and traffic was stopped. A medic approached my vehicle and asked for an escort. I complied and we started through the traffic. We came upon a downed tree that had fallen on some vehicles and blocked the road. I assisted some other drivers in removing the tree by hand from the roadway. I escorted the ambulance the rest of the way and then turned back south.

“I met up with two other troopers and followed them to the staging area near the park at the far end of Gatlinburg. Later that night we were dispatched to Baskins Creek Road to help some residents who were trapped. We traveled and came to a point that we could no longer drive due to fallen trees, downed power lines and other debris. We left our vehicles and continued on foot. At one point we crossed a downed power line. We saw at least two vehicles trying to pull a tree from the road. We made contact with the people and escorted them back to our vehicles. I carried a baby. A fellow trooper carried a burned woman. We took the people back out of that area. We spent several weeks in the area performing various tasks. But because of that single event we were awarded the Lifesaver Award.”

He carried the baby some 200 yards to safety, as did the trooper with the burned woman. “It was hot and fire creates its own wind and embers were flying everywhere around us,” he says. “I’m just glad we all made it out.”

He was one of about seven on the team presented with the award.

And speaking of Chapman Highway, this young trooper is like many of us when it comes to the place he least prefers to patrol or drive. “Chapman Highway, hands down. I hate it. It’s a highway I don’t like to work. Just about every hill is blind, there’s no center turn lane and no shoulders. This is a U.S. highway (441) to the Smokies and I always wondered, ‘Who came up with the plan to design this highway like this?’ It has to be fixed.”

This banner with logo and motto hangs in the THP offices.

His approach to the job is interesting. “I think if you’re good and capable at something then you should do it. I like it when I get it right out there. Sometimes the toughest thing is balancing issues, not getting jaded and staying safe. I’m really good at reading people in situations. To do it right, it matters how you present yourself.”

Trooper Capps’s favorite part of the job is his role as an FTO – Field Training Officer. When a new trooper gets his or her first car, they have to go through 10 weeks of training – three weeks with Capps and three weeks with two other troopers and then a final week – with Trooper Capps. Daily observation reports have to be filed to track the new recruits’ progress or lack thereof. “I guess it’s a span of influence. I enjoy being a model for them and having them watch what I do and how I do it,” Capps says. “They’ve got be ready to handle it all when they’re in the car alone.”

And about those high speeds? The top speed he’s hit was during a chase on the interstate – 134 mph – at night. “Did you get him,” he is asked. “10-4.” The high speeds come on specific calls – chases, major accidents with injuries, any school bus accidents, suspected DUIs or suspected felons on the run.

He’s the son of a minister, the Rev. Gary Capps, and his wife, Teresa, who was a teaching assistant at Gibbs Elementary. Capps credits what he was taught at home by loving parents as why he’s good at his job. “My upbringing has a lot to do with how I do my job and how I relate to and treat people,” he says. “I respect people and try to help them maintain their dignity even when they’re in a tough situation. Always be fair. I work hard at what I do, and that work ethic goes back to Mom and Dad.”

The man who commands Troop A and Capps is Lt. Johnny McDonald. He minces no words in his praise for him.

“He’s very dependable, and his integrity is very high. John is a good Christian man and that impacts his work,” he says. “John’s a family man. He’s never quick to act and thinks things through and a lot of that goes back to his training. He sets a tone for the young guys – and some of the older ones who join us. He affects people in a positive way, everyone – his co-workers and those he deals with on the road. He’s all about dignity and respect.”

Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.


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