BY KEN LITTLE
Steven Paul Archer is in the process of waking up from a bad dream.
Archer, 35, of Chuckey, was charged with felony burglary and other offenses in January 2011 after a break-in at the Game Stop video game store, at 3793 E. Andrew Johnson Hwy.
The charge hung over Archer for two years, until a two-day trial held last week in Greene County Criminal Court.
After about three hours of deliberation on Jan. 9, Archer was found not guilty of all charges against him by the jury.
He left the courthouse with his family a free man, but a changed one.
LIFE IN INTERNET AGE
Archer isn't sure if he will ever be able to clear his name after a store video of the Jan. 4, 2011, break-in went viral on the Internet.
He's concerned about finding work to support his family in his chosen profession, home remodeling. He wonders if his reputation in the community will ever be restored.
"It definitely took a lot out of me. It took two years of my life," Archer said this week.
Archer said he lost 39 pounds and has frequently been sick since his arrest, which also included charges of theft of property valued over $1,000 and vandalism with damages over $1,000.
STAKES WERE HIGH
He could have been sentenced to seven years in prison or more if found guilty.
Greeneville police said after Archer's arrest on Jan. 13, 2011, that the perpetrator "forcibly removed the metal back door to an adjacent vacant rental space," then cut a hole in the sheet rock wall to gain access to the video game business, in a strip mall just east of Walmart.
More than $288 in cash and $5,342 worth of merchandise was taken from the store, according to police reports.
Store video surveillance cameras showed a man wearing a ski mask inside the store for a short time after apparently tunneling through a wall.
'HARD TO DEAL WITH'
That video found its way to the Internet, and Archer said people think he is the masked man wearing a Navy-style peacoat shown in it.
"It's going to be hard to deal with. I don't know how hard it is to get rid of this stuff on the Internet," he said. "I'm not the kind of person who tunnels into buildings."
One of the reasons police considered Archer a prime suspect was that the vehicle driven by the person who committed the burglary, a purple GMC Jimmy sport utility vehicle, resembles an SUV he owned.
A similar vehicle was identified on a Walmart parking lot surveillance video.
"They pulled my truck over and said it's the only purple truck around and that's a lie," Archer said.
Donald Spurrell, the Johnson City lawyer whom Archer hired to represent him, said in an email communication with The Greeneville Sun that the jury heard testimony about a man from Wisconsin who was visiting his girlfriend in Jonesborough and living with her stepfather "and that he periodically borrowed Archer's car."
Spurrell said witnesses described the man as a drifter, "gamer" and computer whiz. He was known to wear a long navy-blue wool coat, which matched what the burglar wore in the Game Stop video, Spurrell said.
Video from Walmart, recorded two hours before the burglary, "picked up the images of an individual with the same coat as that worn by the burglar.
Witnesses testified that Archer never owned or wore a coat matching that of the burglar," Spurrell said.
IN HIS OWN DEFENSE
Archer testified in his own defense at the trial.
"I told them on the stand I can't say 100 percent who did it. [In the video] you never see a person," he said.
"They have a mask, and their head was covered. It did look like the [Wisconsin] guy, but I can't say 100 percent it was the guy, and I can't say it was my truck. There are other purple trucks."
Police also claimed to have a DNA sample taken from fresh tobacco spit found "near the burglar's point of entry," Spurrell said.
No sample was collected for DNA analysis, Spurrell said.
"During questioning, Detective [Pat] Hankins informed Archer that a sample had been collected. Archer responded that he wanted to provide a DNA sample to clear himself of suspicion. At trial, Hankins admitted he had lied to Archer as a bluff," Spurrell said.
Police also testified at trial that they were "mistaken" in an affidavit for a search warrant that tools containing sheet rock material were found in Archer's SUV, Spurrell said.
Police said tools similar to the ones left at the crime scene were found in Archer's SUV, but had no sheet rock dust on them.
Spurrell said that Cecil Mills Jr., prosecuting assistant district attorney general, argued that Archer fabricated his whereabouts on Jan. 3 and 4, 2011, and that he recently decided to implicate the Wisconsin man "as a sudden trial strategy."
Mills said this week it's unlikely the case will be pursued further.
"It was disappointing for me," Mills said of the trial verdict.
"That ended the investigation in that case, the Game Stop break-in and all the possible prosecutions involved with it."
Despite the verdict, Mills said the jury did a thorough job.
"It was a very good jury composed of Greene County citizens. They heard the case, listened to the evidence, and rendered a fair and impartial verdict, and we give the verdict a great respect," Mills said.
RECORD EXPUNGED, BUT ...
After the not-guilty verdict, Criminal Court Judge John F. Dugger Jr. told Archer "that he can have the arrest record against him expunged," Spurrell said.
Archer, who lives with his wife, Debra, and three children, remains under "a big load of stress right now."
"I don't know how I'll make a living," Archer said. "My name's all over the place."
Archer said that when he was arrested, he was in the process of finishing a flooring job at a local woman's house.
When he showed up for a final day of work at the house after making bail, the woman "told me to get your tools and get your [obscenity] out of the house."
"It's really embarrassing to walk out of the house and people look at you and think of you as a thief," he said.
Archer indicated that, in his opinion, police "mishandled" the case. He is considering a lawsuit.
Archer said he is grateful to the jury, Spurrell, others who supported him over the last two years, and his family for standing by him.
But the not-guilty verdict is just the beginning of a long process of recovery.
"I'm about to lose everything," Archer said.
"I can't get a job anywhere. My nerves are just shot, and I just want to get back to normal, and I don't know if I can ever do that."