Policing the Scene 

Vice squad officers wanted to search the Scene's parking lot and offices during the investigation of a newspaper employee

Vice squad officers wanted to search the Scene's parking lot and offices during the investigation of a newspaper employee

After nearly 20 years at the cop shop, Metro Vice Officer Thomas Rollins approaches his job with the conviction and intensity of a wartime general. Throughout the 18-month investigation of Nashville Scene employee Nels Noseworthy for promoting prostitution in connection with a series of adult ads he placed in the paper, Rollins and the vice squad went to great lengths to build their case. They used confidential informants and undercover officers to record phone calls with Scene staff and even enlisted the help of the proprietors of a shady escort service to help hone in on their target.

And yet, those tactics pale in comparison to what the well-regarded cop had envisioned: according to numerous sources close to the investigation of Noseworthy, Rollins drafted a search warrant that would have enabled police officers to canvas the newspaper's offices for incriminating information and even inspect every car in the newspaper's parking lot—employees' and non-employees' alike. The District Attorney's Office, though, already fretting that the protracted Noseworthy investigation was beginning to spin out of control, recommended that the 41-year-old detective narrow the parameters of the warrant. As it originally read, the search warrant would not have restricted police officers from searching through the desks, computers and even Rolodexes of the paper's editorial staff, possibly compromising the identities of confidential sources and raising chilling First Amendment questions.

Citing the pending nature of the Noseworthy case, Metro Police Department spokesman Don Aaron declined to comment on the scope of Rollins' original search warrant, although he did not refute its existence. When asked about Rollins' first draft, District Attorney General Torry Johnson also declined to discuss the case. But a police department source familiar with the investigation says that while Rollins' initial draft would have enabled officers to conduct a thorough search of the Scene, he never intended to carry it out. What's more, the source disputes that the warrant was changed in response to pressure from prosecutors.

"'Rollins drafted a warrant to get the process going, and by no means was it the one that was to be executed," the police source says. "It got passed around, and the final warrant was far more restrained."

But another source close to the investigation says that Rollins pushed hard for the original search warrant and was unhappy that the DA's office recommended against it. A dedicated, conscientious detective, Rollins has no shortage of allies in law enforcement who admire his zeal for pursuing prostitution and gambling crimes. His personnel record is virtually spotless.

But officials in the DA's office felt they had to temper Rollins on the Noseworthy case. So the detective rewrote the warrant to allow officers to search only the Scene employee's workspace, files and automobile. Ultimately, the DA's office vetoed that as well, believing that they could make the case without the spectacle of Metro cops rummaging through a newspaper employee's desk. The police source tells the Scene that the department's top brass, Rollins' bosses, also opposed executing any type of search warrant. (Rollins did not return repeated calls for comment.)

On Dec. 16, 2004, two police officers arrived at the paper's Eighth Avenue offices and led Noseworthy away in handcuffs after a grand jury handed down a six-count indictment on charges of promoting prostitution in connection with a series of adult ads he accepted. He is scheduled to appear in court May 19.

Scene publisher Chris Ferrell seemed surprised to learn that Metro officers wanted to search the newspaper's offices and parking lot. "I respect the good judgment of the District Attorney's office," he responded.

Illustrative of the intensity with which he tackled the Noseworthy case, Rollins also approached a husband-and-wife prostitution team about serving as confidential informants in a sting operation against the Scene employee. In August 2003, Rollins and other vice officers busted James and Landsley Abston after the couple were caught on tape performing a three-way sex act with a paid confidential informant (CI) of the police department. The spectacle of the police department orchestrating a graphic sex act on tape prompted prosecutors to put an end to the controversial practice of paying CIs to have intercourse with prostitutes. Although a vice officer was seen on tape sternly admonishing the young couple after they were practically caught in the act, Rollins later approached their defense attorney Mike Flanagan about aiding the investigation into the Scene. But while Noseworthy has been accused of accepting ads connected to prostitution, he has in no way been charged with engaging in it. Meanwhile, the Abstons were literally caught on tape.

"Officer Rollins wanted to know if my clients would assist them in an investigation of the Nashville Scene," Flanagan says. "The state would offer them assistance in their case in exchange for helping them investigate the Scene."

The defense attorney says that his clients refused, in part because they knew the prosecution's case against them was weakened due to the questionable police tactics used in the sting. Although vice officers told the Abstons that they faced eight years in the penitentiary, the DA's office recently settled the case, allowing the couple to plead guilty only to a Class B misdemeanor. They each will serve six months of unsupervised probation.

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