State Investigator Loses Job Over Lynching Story
by Ben Hall
ALGOOD, Tenn. -- A veteran investigator with the Tennessee Department of Health was forced to resign or face termination last month for his conduct during a racially charged case.
William Sewell was an emergency medical service investigator, assigned to the Upper Cumberland Region, who had been with the state more than 40 years.
Last summer, Sewell began investigating a case involving the Algood Fire Department in Putnam County.
In an interview with the man who filed the complaint, Shun Mullins, Sewell began telling a graphic story about a black man who was lynched near Baxter, Tennessee, many years ago.
The state claimed Sewell's conduct in that interview could be perceived as a "form of intimidation" toward Mullins.
"If he was doing that to me, how many other people has he done that to?" Mullins asked.
Mullins was not alone in the meeting. Sheryl Allen with the NAACP executive board in Nashville and an acquaintance, Judy Mainord, were both in the room as William Sewell spoke.
"His very first question was, 'Mr. Mullins have you ever been to the penitentiary?" Mullins remembered.
Sheryl Allen with the NAACP said, "When he asked that question, Mr Mullins said 'no' and he (Sewell) said 'OK, my source is wrong.'"
"That was more than insulting to me," Mullins said.
It was also just the beginning of the meeting.
Sewell was there to a investigate a complaint filed by Mullins after the death of his mother.
Mullins claimed Algood's deputy fire chief refused to do CPR on his mother because she was black and then falsified medical reports to cover it up.
After asking about prison and hearing about the final moments of Dorothy Mullins life, Sewell ended the meeting in a shocking way.
"Mr. Sewell goes into a story about a hanging, that he had been told, about the hanging of a black man," Mullins said.
Affidavits from all inside the meeting alleged that Sewell went into disturbing details about a lynching -- and the mutilation of a black man's body -- in Sewell's hometown of Baxter many years ago.
"They hung him, and they started carving his skin out of his back. It was like he got excited telling this story," Allen remembered.
Judy Mainord said Sewell continued the story by saying, "They lowered the body, and all the white men standing around took turns removing the skin from the black man's back."
The three say Sewell finished with a shocking detail, that he still owned a "strap" of the lynched man's skin, passed down from his grandfather.
"They made a strap out of his skin, and they used that strap as a knife sharpener," Allen remembered.
"It was like a trophy to him, and that concerns me," Mainord said.
Shun Mullins said, "It was my impression he still had it at his house. The way he enjoyed telling the story, I thought perhaps he was still using it."
An internal Health Department investigation obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates revealed the department believed Sewell told the story to put Mullins on the "defensive" and intimidate him because Sewell had close ties to many officials in Algood and possibly knew the deputy fire chief, who was being investigated.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Mullins, "Were you intimidated?"
Mullins responded, "By all means, I felt threatened."
William Sewell sat down for an interview with NewsChannel 5 Investigates and said he was not trying to intimidate anyone.
"If they chose to conclude that was an intimidating comment, I'm sorry," Sewell said.
"It was a gruesome story. I got caught up in the moment trying to convince these people that I understood, and I just went too far," Sewell continued.
He said that he was trying to show Mr. Mullins that he understood bias in small towns.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "When you left that meeting did you think you had done anything wrong?"
"No, no," Sewell responded.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates questioned, "Even though you asked if he had been in prison and told that story?"
Sewell said, "Yes, yes."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "How could you not think you did anything wrong?"
Sewell said, "We concluded that meeting with handshakes, thank yous and with appreciation for their time."
He said he got that razor strap from his grandfather who was mayor of Baxter.
Sewell said it hung in his grandfather's warehouse for years, and he took it home when the family sold the building.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Where is that strap today?"
Sewell said, "In somebody's landfill."
He explained that he tried to find it recently but could not, "I went downstairs in my storage, I went through entire boxes, but that strap is gone."
Sewell said he was not even sure if the story behind the strap was true.
But a historian in Baxter said there was lynching in 1896, and the victim's body was mutilated.
"It's just above anything I can imagine any person saying, let alone a representative of the state of Tennessee," Judy Mainord said.
The state forced Sewell to resign, which ended his 40-year career with the Department of Health.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Who is the victim in this situation?"
Sewell responded, "I am."
"And why are you the victim?" we asked.
"I am the victim because I made a mistake," Sewell said.
Shun Mullins and the others in that meeting believed Sewell had told that story many other times and said that the state did the right thing.
"To take a man's job away is a serious matter, but Mr. Sewell made that statement to me and he had no concern for how I was feeling," Mullins said.
The Department of Health assigned a new investigator to Mullins' original complaint. That investigation is still not complete.
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