Captain expects case to go to the grand jury
Officer’s status changed from ‘administrative leave with pay’ to ‘suspended without pay’ as shooting investigation continues

Putnam Pit editor

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (March 5, 2002) -- The off-duty Cookeville cop who allegedly shot a fellow officer early Sunday following a police party has been suspended without pay, relieved of his badge, gun and city-owned squad car while the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation investigates the incident.

In a statement from the department, Capt. Nathan Honeycutt said Sunday:

“At about 2:45 A.M. on Sunday morning (March 3), Officer Shannon Smith was dispatched to the Conoco / Breadbox Market (951 East Tenth Street) to investigate the report of a person being shot. When he arrived, he found that Cookeville Police Officer Brad Sperry, who was off-duty, had been shot in the neck. Officer Sperry told the responding Officer that he had been shot by another off-duty Cookeville Police Officer; he indicated the officer was Zac Birdwell.


“Officer Smith immediately transported Officer Sperry to Cookeville Regional Medical Center. Although very seriously injured, Officer Sperry is expected to recover.


“Circumstances surrounding this incident are extremely unclear at this time. We have asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to conduct the investigation; our role will be to assist them in any way they may request.


“All additional inquiries should be made to the T.B.I. public affairs Office in Nashville.


“Your concern and spiritual support for these Officers and their families, as well as all members of our Department, is greatly appreciated.”


But Honeycutt, Cookeville Police’s public information officer, says the department has also opened an Internal Affairs investigation regarding violations associated with the incident that left Officer Sperry wounded.

Police would not name the other police officers who were at the weekend party, or discuss whether there was alcohol involved, whether officers involved in the shooting had been drinking or whether there had been a fight leading up to the shooting. He did say, however, that Police Chief Bob Terry did not attend the party.

The Herald Citizen reported that, “allegedly, Birdwell pulled a .38 caliber pistol and shot it, and the bullet entered Sperry's neck on one side and exited on the other side.” Honeycutt would not confirm the report.

Honeycutt said it was not unusual for the TBI to come in to investigate a shooting involving a police officer, and suggested that the same scenario occurs when a police cart is involved in an accident.

But neither could he recall an incident where there was a shooting in which the assailant was clearly identified but no arrest was made.

This, despite Honeycutt’s statement that “I’m sure the TBI will take this to the grand jury when they’re finished with the investigation.”

At first, both officers were placed on paid administrative leave, Honeycutt tells The Putnam Pit, but later Birdwell was suspended without pay.

Regardless of his role in the incident, Birdwell faces an inquiry regarding his performance off duty.

For example, taxpayers provide every sworn Cookeville officer with a patrol car to take home every day for, among other reason, use in case of emergency. It would be a violation of department policy for Birdwell to not have used the city police car to either radio for help or transport Sperry to a hospital, if necessary, Honeycutt concedes. But at about 2 a.m. Sunday, Sperry, wounded in the neck, had to run for about a half-mile at 2 a.m. to seek help, according to reports.

Honeycutt said the department has given the TBI a list of all officers who attended the party, but he would not tell The Putnam Pit whether other officers were drinking, drinking while armed, or drinking while armed and driving city vehicles.

While the TBI certainly needs to investigate the potential criminal acts, the city will have to look at how officers socialize after work and reassess the policy to provide them with vehicles if they aren’t being used as imagined.

Honeycutt also tells The Putnam Pit that the department’s policy, found in the general orders manual, “does prohibit possessing a fire arm” when drinking.

Former Police Chief Richard Holt said it is standard procedure to place officers on administrative leave with pay in some circumstances, such as if a shooting was accidental.

"But it doesn’t seem it was accidental if [the victim] has to run to a market, but I only know what I see in the news and the Herald-Citizen,” he tells The Putnam Pit.