Tommie Adams stood helplessly in the driveway, sobbing as her husband drove away with the couple’s 8-month-old daughter. The distraught mother had called police, hoping they would stop him. But instead they allowed him to take the child—even though he’d been drinking—and allegedly threatened her with arrest if she attempted to intervene.
As the car pulled away on Aug. 6, 2005, she took one last look at the tiny infant in the backseat. There was nothing more she could do, and within a few seconds her baby was gone.
“I pretty much cried myself to sleep that night just worried,” Adams, 28, recalls during a recent interview at her Hendersonville home. Maybe it was a mother’s intuition, or maybe just common sense. Either way, she was right. That fleeting glimpse from the driveway was the last time Adams saw her daughter alive.
It’s been one year since the death of Autumn Leigh Clark, and now her mother wants justice. “She deserves that,” Adams says from her living room, where photographs of a smiling Autumn line bookshelves alongside pictures of her two other children.
Although an investigation didn’t find anyone directly responsible for Autumn’s death, Adams is quick to blame Jeremy Clark, the child’s father, and the police who let him take her away. And now, she’s seeking damages for the death of her youngest child.
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed Friday in Sumner County Circuit Court, Adams claims Autumn died as a result of Clark’s “intentional homicidal behavior,” or at the very least “gross recklessness.” The suit also maintains that “the deliberate indifference of Hendersonville police officers James Garrett and Russell Lara” contributed to Autumn’s death. The City of Hendersonville and the police department also are being sued.
As of the Scene’s publication deadline, none of the defendants named in the lawsuit had formally responded to the complaint. When reached at his home last Friday, Officer Garrett declined to respond to allegations outlined in the suit, saying, “I’m not allowed to comment on anything like that.” Officer Lara, also contacted at home, demanded to know how his private number was obtained (it’s published) before abruptly hanging up the phone. Several messages left at a phone number that Clark previously gave to police were not returned.
Although Clark provided investigators with an account of the night Autumn died, exactly what happened remains a mystery. Clark explained how he took the child to his parents’ Macon County home, where he reportedly slept in the same bed with her in the trailer out back. And when he woke a few hours later, she wasn’t breathing.
The medical examiner ultimately determined the cause of death to be Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which is the typical classification when the death of an infant remains unexplained, even after a thorough investigation.
The lawsuit, however, claims Clark either “intentionally murdered his own biological child out of spite” or, “in an act of deliberate and gross recklessness, while intoxicated or otherwise impaired, he rolled over on the infant, smothering her.”
Attorney Robert Ingrum, whom Clark retained shortly after Autumn’s death, was unaware of any lawsuit as of Monday afternoon. And although Clark had not yet contacted Ingrum about the matter, he is quick to point out that the autopsy report contradicts any claims that Autumn’s death was intentional, or even caused by negligence.
“I do not presently represent Mr. Clark, but I can state that the investigation revealed that the child died of natural causes,” he says, adding that the plaintiff’s lawyers will have a tough time proving otherwise.
But lawyers for Adams say that in Autumn’s case, there was never a thorough investigation. They suggest incomplete police work and a passive attempt at prosecution in Macon County might have led to a grand jury’s failure to indict Clark for his role in Autumn’s death.
Nashville lawyer Richard Tennent, who represents Adams in the lawsuit, says everything about the investigation is troubling—from the failure to take photographs at the death scene to the autopsy results. He notes that Autumn was in perfect health for eight months and that on the one night police allowed the father to take the child, she died.
It’s hard to understand how the cause of death could be reached conclusively given the circumstances, Tennent says, adding, “I would expect in Davidson County it would have been prosecuted as first-degree murder.”
Soon after Autumn was born, Adams says her nearly three-year marriage began to crumble, in part because of Clark’s failure to care for the newborn, and because of what she characterizes as “an alcohol and drug problem.” She considered divorce once before, but dropped the proceedings when she realized a judge was likely to allow Clark to have unsupervised visitation with the child.
The week before Autumn’s death, Clark left home after a fight with Adams and did not return for several days.
Less than 24 hours after returning to his family, Adams says Clark came home from work reeking of beer. A fight erupted, she says, this time with Clark insisting Adams didn’t love him the way he loved her.
Suddenly, Adams says, Clark snatched up the child and began yelling that he was going to leave with her and never return. To avoid a physical altercation, Adams called Hendersonville police, and the dispatcher reassured her she had done the right thing by calling for help.
As she waited for police, Clark put Autumn in the backseat of his car and locked the door. Just as he started to pull away, a patrol car arrived at the house. For the moment, Adams was relieved.
She explained to one of the officers that Clark had been drinking and that he had never had the child alone overnight. “I told him I was worried about her, afraid something bad was going to happen to her if he left with her, just the way he was acting, saying I would never see her again.”
Clark admitted to having had three beers at about 4 p.m., according to a report filed by the officers, who responded to the call at 6:29 p.m. The police asked Clark to submit to two field sobriety tests, which involved touching his finger to his nose and standing on one leg. Officers Garrett and Lara determined he performed both tests well, and then announced they were allowing Clark to leave with the child.
“At that point I approached the car where my daughter was and asked the officer about getting her out and just taking her into the house,” Adams recalls, saying she was desperate to do something. “He [Officer Garrett] told me if I touched her that he would arrest me and take me to jail.”
So Adams watched them drive away. And then she waited.
Clark called two hours later, and she begged him to bring Autumn home, reminding him she was due to eat dinner hours ago and that he didn’t take any formula to feed her. That’s when she says he hung up the phone.
Hours later, a ringing phone pierced the silence and jarred her awake. “It was 5:30 in the morning when I got the phone call from him. I answered the phone and all I heard him yelling was, ‘Tommie, Tommie, Autumn’s dead. She’s dead.’ Then he hung up on me.”
Frantic, Adams called the Hendersonville police and explained the situation. The dispatcher contacted Macon County and learned an ambulance was on the way to the hospital with a baby, but the condition was unknown. She then called Clark’s sister, who allegedly told her “she believed Jeremy had one of his dreams and may have killed Autumn.” According to Adams, Clark often had nightmares that caused him to violently punch and kick in his sleep.
Already on her way to Macon County, Adams finally received a call from her husband, who told her Autumn was dead. Adams was in denial, screaming that it wasn’t true. Finally, a nurse got on the line and confirmed the news.
Upon seeing Clark at the hospital, Adams was hysterical and demanded an explanation. “All he said was he woke up and he found her laying there and a pillow was over her face,” says Adams, who broke down and began wailing in the hallway.
It wasn’t until the following day that she says Clark hinted this was more than a terrible accident. According to the lawsuit, Clark called Adams the next day and admitted his involvement in “the murder of his own daughter.”
“He started telling me that God made him do it,” Adams claims. “He said our marriage was falling apart and that this should be bringing us closer together. That God knew that this was going to happen and that it was meant to be. That she’s in heaven now and that if I wanted to go to heaven to see her I had to forgive him for what he’s done.”
Adams relayed the incriminating statements to police and prosecutors in Macon County, but to no avail. Weeks went by and she heard nothing about the investigation. Ultimately, the case was presented to a grand jury, but there was no indictment. It was a devastating blow to Adams.
“We’re not sure what happened down there,” says Tennent, whose partner, Patrick Frogge, echoes similar concerns about the handling of the case.
“The tone of the investigation was hesitant from the beginning,” says Frogge, who is serving as co-counsel in the suit. “I would certainly like it investigated more.”
The prosecutor who handled the case in Macon County did not return a call seeking comment.
Soon after Autumn’s death, Adams filed for a divorce, which was finalized in May. Despite specific orders outlined in the divorce papers prohibiting Clark from contacting her, Adams says, Clark has continued to call and send text messages to her cell phone. He tries to pass messages along to her other children, even though he is not their biological father. At times, she says she fears for her own safety. “I go to visit her grave a few times a week and I’m always looking over my shoulder, wondering if he’s ever going to pop up while I’m there.”
But that hasn’t stopped her from making the trip, which never seems to get any easier.
Monday marked the one-year anniversary of Autumn’s death, and Adams says it still feels like yesterday that she last held her child.
She says her 6-year-old daughter mentions Autumn almost every day, often saying how she wishes her sister were still alive so they could play together. Meanwhile, her 12-year-old son refuses to look at pictures of Autumn or talk about what happened.
“She was just happy. Just so sweet and always in a good mood,” she says of Autumn, struggling to hold back tears. “She had just recently learned how to give kisses and she was crawling real well and had just learned how to pull up on stuff to stand up. I just miss her.”
Then she talks of her only regret from that day, which was calling the Hendersonville police. Had she not made that call, and instead taken the law into her own hands by putting up a physical fight for the baby, Adams believes she could have stopped Clark and saved Autumn.
Just hours after Autumn’s death, Adams filed a complaint with the Hendersonville Police Department regarding the actions of Officers Garrett and Lara, but she says as far as she knows the department never took any action. Eventually, police personnel stopped responding to her inquiries about the matter.
In recent years, Hendersonville police have been criticized for a number of incidents. An officer who shot and killed a dog that was on a leash and in custody of animal control in 2004 garnered national headlines. In 2003, a high-speed chase involving Hendersonville officers turned deadly when the woman being pursued crashed into an innocent man’s vehicle. The victim’s family sued Hendersonville and two other local police departments. The year before, an officer resigned following accusations that he acted as a lookout while two assailants beat up another man.
As for the two officers who responded to Adams’ call last year, Hendersonville Police Capt. Terry Frizzell acknowledges that both still work for the department. In fact, the department’s website reveals Garrett was named officer of the month in June. When asked about the lawsuit, or whether the officers’ actions ever were investigated, Frizzell says, “I can’t comment until I have a chance to familiarize myself with the complaint.”
And while Adams wants all those responsible for Autumn’s death held accountable, it’s her ex-husband whom she says bears the brunt of the blame. “My heart is just breaking knowing that he is running around living his life like nothing happened, knowing that he’s ruined mine.”