The mother of two little girls who died in December 2014 in Greeneville entered a guilty plea Friday in Greene County Criminal Court to two counts each of facilitation of aggravated child endangerment and facilitation of aggravated child neglect.
Kendra Lashae Tweed, 26, entered the guilty pleas in connection with the deaths of her daughters, 14-month-old Kynsleigh Easterly and 2-month-old Trinity Brooke Tweed.
Tweed was sentenced by Judge John F. Dugger Jr. to 30 years in prison at 30 percent release eligibility and given credit for time served. She was sentenced to 30 years on each of the four felonies she entered guilty pleas to, with the sentences to run concurrently.
As part of the plea agreement, the state dismissed two counts of first-degree murder against Tweed and amended two charges each of aggravated child endangerment and of aggravated child neglect to the lesser felony facilitation counts.
Two drug-related charges filed against Tweed in the months after the deaths of the children were also dismissed by the state.
Co-defendant Erick Eugene Jones Jr. was convicted at trial in September 2018 of two counts each of facilitation of first-degree felony murder during the perpetration of aggravated child abuse and facilitation of first-degree felony murder during the perpetration of aggravated child neglect.
The jury also found Jones guilty of two counts each of facilitation or knowing aggravated assault and aggravated child neglect. Criminal facilitation generally refers to knowingly assisting another person in the commission of a crime.
Jones, 26, was sentenced in December 2018 by Dugger to 50 years in prison in connection with the deaths of Kynsleigh and Trinity, in addition to six more years for an unrelated offense.
In stating the facts of the case, 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong, lead prosecutor at Jones’ trial and in the Tweed case, told Dugger the state “had no credible, admissible proof” that Tweed harmed either of the children. Tweed was aware of Erick Jones’ history of violent behavior and drug use, but still allowed Jones to look after the children while she was working.
Evidence at trial would have shown that Jones was both using and selling drugs in the North Hardin Street home the night the girls died, Armstrong said.
Jones said in statements to investigators that he found the lifeless body of Kynsleigh on the couch, “freaked out” and did not seek help for the girl because he was too high on drugs. Jones told investigators he was worried about getting arrested for drug possession, trial testimony showed.
Tweed should not have allowed Jones to watch the girls, Armstrong said.
“As her mother, it was her responsibility to protect the children. She failed,” he told Dugger.
The state maintains that Jones is responsible for the deaths of Kynsleigh and Trinity, who both suffered violent trauma-related injuries, including spinal cords severed from the base of their brains.
Kynsleigh and Trinity were found unresponsive the morning of Dec. 17, 2014 in the North Hardin Street house. First responders attempted to revive the girls, who were both pronounced dead after being taken to a Greeneville hospital. Testimony at Jones’ trial indicated they may have been dead for hours by the time 911 was called.
Tweed was a home health care aid who was caring for an elderly woman in Greeneville several miles away on the night of Dec. 16-17, 2014. Jones said in two statements given to investigators that he called Tweed and told her Kynsleigh had a seizure. He said that Tweed returned home during the night, became upset and violently shook both of the little girls.
Testimony at Jones’ trial showed Kynsleigh had no medical history of seizures.
Tweed has maintained her innocence, and entered a “best interest” or Alford plea, meaning that she does not admit guilt to any offense, but agreed with Dugger that she could be convicted by a jury on the facilitation charges given the circumstances of the case.
Tweed was charged with the offenses in connection with a Tennessee statute known as “Haley’s Law,” named after a Campbell County child who suffered serious injuries after enduring severe abuse by her father and stepmother. The law makes it a Class A felony to abuse a child who is under the age of 9 in a manner that causes bodily injury.
The facilitation charges that Tweed pleaded guilty to are Class B felonies with a sentencing range of between 8 and 12 years. Tweed told Dugger she understood she was entering pleas above the maximum range of punishment for the crimes a part of the plea agreement.
Tweed was initially charged in November 2015 with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated child endangerment and two counts of aggravated child neglect in connection with the deaths of Kynsleigh and Trinity.
Tweed has been held in the Greene County Detention Center since being charged. She was arrested following an investigation by the Greeneville Police Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Tweed had a September jury trial scheduled. Dugger recently granted a joint motion by prosecutors and Tweed defense lawyer T. Wood Smith to continue a May trial date.
Kynsleigh and Trinity lived with Tweed, Jones and a 3-year-old daughter of Tweed’s who was staying with a relative that night. The 3-year-old, who is being raised by Tweed’s mother, was not injured.
Testimony at Jones’ jury trial revealed that the girls died of separation of their spinal cords from the bases of their brains. Their bodies were also covered with abrasions, cuts and bruises. Each suffered blunt force trauma injuries, and the cause of death was ruled a homicide, according to trial testimony.
“It was always the state’s theory that (Jones) was the one who killed the children,” 3rd Judicial District Attorney General Dan E. Armstrong, lead prosecutor at Jones’ trial, said after his sentencing.
Jones gave a series of conflicting statements to investigators that directed responsibility at Tweed and others. One claimed that the father of one of the little girls was responsible. Jones alternately suggested that a skillet containing Pine-Sol he heated on the stove may have generated fumes that caused the girls’ deaths.
At least two statements Jones gave to investigators implicated Tweed as the person responsible for the girls’ deaths.
Jones is not the biological father of either victim. Trial testimony showed that Jones was under the influence of drugs when the girls died and made no effort to call for help until after Tweed returned home on the morning of Dec. 17, 2014.
“She failed to protect these children from the person she knew was capable of doing them harm and obviously did,” Armstrong said Friday. “She chose to leave the children in that environment.”
Smith has said that conflicting versions of events Jones gave to investigators undermined any credibility he may have had.
Armstrong thanked lead case Detective Kenni Carter and other members of the Greeneville Police Department, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, investigators from his office and others who assisted the prosecution.
Armstrong said those who worked with the prosecution agreed Tweed’s sentence was appropriate.
“I think this plea is the right thing to given the verdict in Mr. Jones’ case,” he said.
Tweed chose not to make a statement before sentencing when asked by Dugger if she wanted to say anything. Smith said Tweed declined to speak on his advice, so her words would not be “misconstrued” or taken out of context.
Tweed showed no outward emotion during the sentencing hearing. She still grieves for her girls, Smith said.
Had the state chosen to prosecute Tweed on one of the drug possession charges filed before she was charged in connection with the girls’ deaths, it may have resulted in a lengthier sentence, Smith said.
“I feel like it was a fair result,” Smith said of the plea.
The plea agreement allows Tweed “to have a reasonable chance to get out on parole while she is still relatively young,” Smith said.
Tweed did not admit guilt for leaving the children in Jones’ care because she or Tweed’s family “had no reason to believe the children were in danger,” Smith added.
“Events proved her wrong but there was no sign this was coming,” Smith said.
Some of Tweed’s family members were at the plea hearing, including sister Ashley Musgrove.
The death of the girls and Tweed’s incarceration have been difficult for the family, Musgrove said after sentencing.
“It is a very hard thing,” she said.
Naomi Hackmann once looked out at the clouds while traveling on an airline and wondered what it would be like to touch one.
The 88-year-old great grandmother recently got her chance.
She went skydiving for the first time with JumpTN at the Greeneville Municipal Airport.
“It was absolutely marvelous,” Hackmann said after her jump early May 26.
Asked if she had a chance to grab a cloud, she replied with a huge smile, “I did. I just couldn’t get it to come down with me.”
The jump was an early birthday present from friends. Hackmann will be 89 in September.
Skydiving is something she has wanted to do for years, inspired by her airplane trips and footage of skydivers on television.
“I have wanted to sky dive for a long time,” she said. “I saw a group on television who were skydiving. They were grasping hands and jumping from cloud to cloud. They were having a ball. I thought, ‘I would like to do that.’”
Airline flights also were an inspiration for Hackmann’s desire to sky dive. “When you are on airline, you look out the window and see the clouds,” she said. “They are so beautiful. I have wanted to reach out and grab one.”
After arriving at JumpTN, Hackmann’s first order was watching a safety video that also explained the tandem jumping method for first-time jumpers to learn the sport. After watching the video, Hackmann was not hesitant about following through on her decision to skydive.
“I am ready to go now,” she said as the video ended.
As friends asked if she was ready as she waited for her group’s time to skydive, Hackmann’s wide smile always accompanied her affirmative reply. “I am like a child with a new toy,” she said.
There was a bit more to do before the jump: She was given some instructions about the tandem technique, and she demonstrated she could physically do the maneuvers needed in the jump and the landing. Angie Alley, co-owner of JumpTN, was the tandem jumper with Hackmann.
After getting into the jumpsuit and harness connecting her to Alley, she posed for photos with family and friends who gathered to watch her high-flying adventure.
The skydive itself was peaceful, Hackman said. “You could just see the whole world,” she said. “I tried to pick out places, but I wasn’t able to.”
Skydiving is not Hackmann’s only adventurous endeavor. Her daughter in Oregon took her to ride a zip line when she was 83. “It was amazing,” she said. “It is kind of up in the air too.”
Hackmann arrived in Greeneville from New Jersey with her now-late husband after they retired.
One of their daughters, JoAnn, attended Tusculum University and met her future husband there, Bill Lorch, also from New Jersey. Both got local jobs as teachers and settled in Greene County, and their parents followed many years afterwards.
Hackmann said that one of her daughters was encouraging of her jump while the other was not in favor of the idea.
That daughter may be in for some more anxiety: Talking with friends after her jump, Hackmann said she would not mind doing it again.
Planned improvements to Asheville Highway qualify for more than $600,000 in funding from the state’s Highway Safety Improvement Program.
Two projects are being funded — improvements at the intersections with Debusk Road and West Allens Bridge Road and signage and other improvements along the stretch of the highway from its intersection with West Main Street to the Nolichucky River bridge.
The estimated cost for upgrades to the two intersections is $410,000. The upgraded signage and pavement markings are estimated to cost $210,000, according to Mark Nagi, Tennessee Department of Transportation community relations officer for Region 1, East Tennessee.
Asheville Highway qualifies for the Highway Safety Improvement Program because the severe crash rate for the roadway is higher than the statewide average, Nagi said.
A local match is not required for the state funding, and right of way acquisition is not expected to be needed in making the improvements, he said.
“These improvements will be let to contract, but a timeframe for that will be determined at a later date,” Nagi continued.
The improvements and funding stem from a safety audit study conducted by the state that was requested by the Town of Greeneville, he said.
Greeneville Town Engineer and Public Works Director Brad Peters and other officials requested the study following an accident at the Debusk Road intersection that led to the death of 5-year-old Holden Thomas in January 2018.
At that intersection, the state now plans a turn lane as well as to rework the intersection to straighten it and make marking and signage improvements. A turn lane is also planned at the intersection of West Allens Bridge Road.
The state Department of Transportation has taken some measures to improve safety along Asheville Highway, Nagi said. Last September, TDOT lowered the speed limit to 45 miles per hour along the state route from Hackberry Lane to Allens Bridge Road. The speed limit was previously 55 miles per hour.
TDOT also installed new signage to alert drivers to upcoming intersections.