Still latest find in Buck Mountain operation

By John Thompson
Elizabethton Bureau Chief

ELIZABETHTON — A 50-gallon moonshine still is the latest discovery made by the Carter County Sheriff’s Department during a crackdown on illegal activity in the mountainous area north of U.S. Highway 19E in Roan Mountain.

The discovery of the still was made during a search warrant executed Wednesday morning at the residence of Rex Whitehead, 203 Tower Road, Roan Mountain. Whitehead’s property adjoins the Cherokee National Forest and the still was found in a densely wooded section of the forest not far from Whitehead’s residence.

CCSD Lt. Patrick Johnson discovered the still. Johnson said he walked all of the trails in the immediate area of Whitehead’s house and that led him to the still.

Arrested during the search on Wednesday was Rex Whitehead and Jeff Whitehead of Tower Road. Melissa Cutshaw, 162 Swimming Pool Road, Hampton, also was at the scene and was arrested on charges of simple possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Sheriff Chris Mathes said Rex Whitehead is the father-in-law of Benjamin Clawson, one of four men arrested Saturday morning on federal charges during an execution of a search warrant on a 68-acre section of Buck Mountain.

Arrested at the same time as Clawson on Saturday were three brothers, Rhudy Oaks, 1037 Buck Mountain Road, Roger Oaks, 1020 Buck Mountain Road, and Terry Oaks, 967 Buck Mountain Road. They were each charged with distribution and possession of cocaine and intent to distribute cocaine.

The four appeared in U.S. District Court in Greeneville for a two-hour bond hearing before Magistrate Judge Dennis Inman on Wednesday. Inman set bond at $50,000 each. Rhudy Oaks was represented by attorneys Mark Slagle and Steve Finney, Roger Oaks was represented by Tim Moore, Terry Oaks by James Bowman and Stacy Street and Clawson by Louis Ricker.

Mathes said 75 officers took part in Saturday’s raid, including participants from the Carter County Sheriff’s Department, Avery County, N.C. Sheriff’s Department, Elizabethton Police Department, Washington County Sheriff’s Office Special Weapons and Tactics Team, Tennessee Highway Patrol Special Weapons and Tactics Team, Governor’s Highway Safety Task Force, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Mathes said he is not yet able to discuss the evidence seized in the weekend raid because there is still an open federal grand jury looking into the case. He said it included “drugs, guns, a tremendous amount of evidence in large volume over a long time.”

In a news conference held Wednesday morning, Mathes was able to discuss the moonshine still seized earlier in the morning and the criminal activity and legends that go back as far as 60 years ago.

Mathes was joined in the news conference by Avery County Sheriff Kevin Frye. The two men worked together to bring about last weekend’s raid by working together over the past three years. The border between Tennessee and North Carolina crosses Buck Mountain, adding to the difficulty of a single sheriff’s department attempting to combat drug activity on the mountain.

With its location, Mathes said drug traffickers on Buck Mountain were responsible for supplying about half of all the illegal drugs in Avery County and an even greater percentage in Roan Mountain.

“Avery County is very small and very rural,” Frye said. He said for the last six months his county’s small drug force has been committed to an undercover operation with the Carter County Sheriff’s Department.

Mathes said his department has been looking into drug activity on Buck Mountain for the past three years.

Mathes said the investigation reached a new level when his department responded to a domestic disturbance at a residence in Stoney Creek, where officers discovered $37,000 in cash and a small amount of marijuana in a vehicle parked at the residence. The car was operated by Jackie Redd, a convicted felon who was known to the officers.

Redd was arrested and agreed to cooperate. He was interviewed by local and federal agents. Redd identified Rhudy Oaks as an individual with whom he had sold a large amount of marijuana, including one sale for 20 pounds.

Mathes said for most of the investigation over the past three years, he used only his own department’s assets. He said he did borrow $10,000 from the 1st Judicial District Drug Task Force at one point to make transactions but for the most part the funds came from the sheriff’s department’s own drug fund.

The sheriff said the Buck Mountain community is very guarded and suspicious of outsiders, but one of his deputies was able to secure the confidence of several dealers.

“It was the kind of undercover operation you don’t see anymore, kind of like Johnny Brasco. He was way out there on his own,” Mathes said.

Many of the drug purchases are outlined in a criminal complaint filed by U.S. Forest Service Special Agent James L. Starkey.

Those undercover drug purchases began on Feb. 9 with the purchase of an eighth of an ounce of cocaine from Roger Oaks for $250. The purchases continued through February, March and April. The largest purchase was on April 8 when Roger Oaks introduced the undercover agents to Clawson, where a deal was made to purchase four ounces of cocaine for $5,200.

The filed complaint continues transcribed conversations with some of the Oaks brothers.

In one of the conversations, Rhudy Oaks told the undercover agent “I’m too old, I can’t pull time, not coke time, it’s federal time.”

In his comments about the success of the weekend raids, Frye said he and Mathes were similar in the way they work narcotics cases. He said they both prefer not to knock down the doors of a residence at the first hint of drug dealing. He said they want to take time to get an extensive amount of evidence in order to make a better case.

Mathes said the evidence may point to more than drug activity. He said there is evidence of political corruption, with the Oaks brothers attempting to influence county politics so they would be protected from law enforcement.

Tennessee bust

Sheriff Chris Mathes, Lt. Tom Smith and Investigator Harmon Duncan posed with the still before it was taken away. / Johnson City Press)