HCSO, RPD deny wrongdoing after 16-year-old girl's father files lawsuit

Attorneys for both the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office and the Rogersville Police Department have denied any wrongdoing on the part of their departments with regard to a high-speed chase that ended with a young couple being shot and seriously wounded last November.

Both departments recently submitted an answer to a federal “excessive force” lawsuit filed last month by the father of a 16-year-old girl who was shot along with the 20-year-old male driver at the conclusion of the Nov. 3 chase.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit were the RPD and its Chief Doug Nelson; the HCSO and Sheriff Roger Christian; and RPD Officer Kenneth Ferguson and HCSO Deputy Scott Stewart who reportedly fired on the suspect vehicle.

According to the police version of events, Rogersville police allegedly observed the 20-year-old driver, Joseph Fortenberry, driving in “a reckless and dangerous manner in an apparent attempt to avoid observation by the officer” and attempted to stop the vehicle, at which time Fortenberry fled. It turned out Fortenberry allegedly had pending arrest warrants from Hamblen County and was driving on a suspended license.

Rogersville police were joined in the pursuit by sheriff’s deputies, and they allegedly chased Fortenberry to a dead-end cul-de-sac off of Guntown Road.

Police allege that while blocked in the cul-de-sac officers approached the vehicle on foot, at which time Fortenberry allegedly accelerated toward Ferguson. Police alleged that Ferguson’s life was in danger and that’s what police say prompted Ferguson and Stewart to open fire.

Fortenberry received a gunshot wound to the chest while the 16-year-old girl reportedly was shot on the top of her head and in the shoulder.

The federal lawsuit filed by the girl’s father alleges excessive force was used in the arrest.

The lawsuit claims that as the pursuit was concluding Fortenberry’s vehicle was struck by a patrol car, causing it to spin 180 degrees, at which time another patrol car struck Fortenberry’s vehicle eliminating any direction of travel. The lawsuit also claims the vehicle was “without locomotion” at that time.

“Both the officer approaching from the vehicle directly in front of the Fortenberry vehicle and the officer approaching from the side/rear cruiser immediately exited their respective cars and opened fire without sounding their identity and without commanding the victims to put their hands up and exit the Fortenberry car,” alleges Kingsport attorney Rob Starnes who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit further alleges, “Defendant Ferguson and Defendant Stewart, the shooters, failed to use or exhaust all other reasonable and less restrictive means of seizing the victims. (The girl) avers that both she and her driver where unarmed and with their hands visible and up in the air at the time of the shooting.”

The lawsuit further alleges that “Ferguson and Stewart acted with evil motive in shooting two unarmed teenagers.” No dollar amount was specified in the lawsuit.

The RPD answer filed by the Johnson City law firm of Herron and Booze denies that Fortenberry’s vehicle was “without locomotion”; denies that the two occupants had their hands up; and denies that the officers fired without good reason.

The RPD answer states, “As an affirmative defense these defendants assert the doctrine of comparative fault and negligence as to the plaintiff, and assert that she contributed to the injuries or damages that she claims to have suffered to the extent that she entered a vehicle operated by a person known to her to have an outstanding warrant, and to the extent she failed to exit the vehicle when she had an opportunity.”

As individuals both Nelson and Christian have filed motions to be dismissed from the lawsuit. Last week the plaintiffs asked for a continuance to consider a response to the motions for dismissal.

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