Rhea County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Bruce Owens Shot During a Jail Break February 28, 1982

Rhea County Sheriff’s Deputy Sgt. Bruce Owens Shot During a Jail Break February 28, 1982

Sgt Owens shot; Two Officers Taken Hostage

It was just after midnight at the Rhea County Jail on February 28, 1982, and things were going along normally. Sgt. Bruce Owens was sitting in the dispatcher’s office for a few minutes to relieve the dispatcher on duty, who needed to go to the back cell block area; the dispatcher also served as the jailer.

Dispatcher Jim Lowe entered the cell block area to release an inmate who had been serving time on the weekends for DUI. As Lowe opened the cell door, another inmate later identified as 32 years old James Allen Smith, who was being held in the same cell, stuck a Bic cigarette lighter in Lowe’s back and said it was a gun and marched Lowe to the front of the jail.

Sgt. Owens, who was sitting in the dispatcher’s office at the front of the jail in the hallway leading from the cell block areas, encountered Smith in his escapee attempt. Sgt Owens attempted to subdue Smith and during the scuffle Smith was trying to get ahold of Sgt. Owen’s pistol when the pistol discharged even before it was all the way out of the holster.

During the struggle, Dispatcher Lowe managed to get to the rear parking lot of the jail and call for help on one of the radios in a patrol car. As Smith exited the rear of the jail, he encountered deputy Charles Walling, Dayton Police officers Ed Byron and Charles Suttles who had responded to the call for help.

Officer Suttles managed to retreat behind a patrol car, but Smith was able to take Walling and Byron hostage. Smith took the officers and left the jail heading north in a patrol car driven by Officer Byron, while Smith held a gun on him and Walling.

The captured officers radioed back for all other patrol cars to stay back, or Smith would shoot them. Smith had forced Byron to drive to Jackson Island where he handcuffed Byron and Walling in the back of the car, then shot out the radio and fled the area.

Officers Byron and Walling managed to free themselves and commandeered a vehicle from a nearby fisherman. Soon after, word reached the jail that the two officers taken hostage was freed and safe, however a massive manhunt began to search for Smith.

According to Sheriff Henderson, Smith was spotted a couple of times but managed to elude the police. “He was raised in the area and knows the terrain”, Henderson said.

After combing the hills and farmland of eastern Rhea County for a second day, authorities reduced their search. The district attorney’s office filed new charges against Smith, who already had agreed to a 30-year sentence for the charges he was held on prior to the escape.

Sgt. Owen’s, 47, who was shot in the abdomen remained in critical condition at Erlanger Hospital. The bullet destroyed his kidneys and spine.

The Shreveport Police Department in Louisiana encountered James Allen Smith on Friday afternoon March 5, 1982, after he robbed a drug store. When Officer Donald Norwood confronted Smith, he was shot by Smith once in the leg and in the arm.

Officer Norwood managed to follow Smith to a residence about 10 blocks away. Officers surrounded the home and after about a 45-minute standoff, a single shot was heard from inside the house. When officers entered the home, they found that Smith had shot himself in the head.

Smith’s body was identified after the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation forwarded medical and personal files on Smith to Louisiana.

Smith’s body was returned home, and his family laid him to rest in the Ewing Cemetery in Wolf Creek, Tennessee.

For the next 12 and a half years, Owens battled with the Rhea County Government about financial assistance with his medical bills. The county at the time had no provisions for financial security to any officer, hurt or killed in the line of duty.

Just prior to being shot Sgt. Bruce Owens who is shown in the photo holding a Commendation he was awarded for his actions in single-handedly apprehending two escapees from the Chattanooga Community Services Center, who were holding a Correctional Officer hostage.

Sgt. Owens remained confined to a wheelchair, never walking again. He lived out the remainder of his life at the Rhea County Nursing Home. He passed away on December 30, 1994, and was buried in the Spring City Memorial Gardens Cemetery.

The following video was made 5 years after Sgt. Owens was shot. Hear Sgt. Owens in his own words as he describes the night he was shot and left paralyzed. Hear the county commissioners in their own words as they abandon Sgt. Owens in his financial struggle.


Rhea County Commissioners


The following were duly elected and serving Rhea County Commissioners in 1982 at the time when Deputy Bruce Owens was shot in the line of duty.

Cindy Cary-Chairman

Dan Wade- County Executive

Jimmy Wilkey- County Clerk

Bobby Aikman

Burch Bridgeman

Bobby Burton

James Byerly

Joe Davis

Gene Dunn

William B. Ewing

Austin Hardaway

Buck Hardy

Colonel Harris

Donald Keylon

Howard Nixon

Johnny Roddy

Howard Sims

James E. Tallent

William E. Thedford


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Published byDean

Born and raised in Dayton Tennessee, I have served in various public service positions in the past. I have a great interest in the History of our town. This site is a way for me to share some of the great history of the area.

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