Serial rapist seeks post-conviction relief
Posted: Tuesday, January 11, 2011 10:07 pm
By: Sara Rachels
By SARA RACHELS
Special to The Messenger
An emotional roller coaster.
Words used to describe the feelings of convicted serial rapist Bruce Tuck on Dec. 10, 2009 — the day he sat in a Weakley County courtroom and was informed he would be receiving 60 years in jail for his 19 counts of criminal activity.
For everyone else involved, they could be descriptive words used to sum up a year and a half of wondering and waiting what would lie at the end of the next twist or turn.
What looked to be a smooth ride had another loop thrown in Monday when several testimonies were taken into account to lend support or negate a new wrinkle in the case — a post-conviction writ and Tuck’s stance that he was coerced into taking the deal of 60 years and wished to set aside the guilty plea and go to trial.
Tuck maintains that Weakley County Sheriff’s Department investigator Marty Plunk and former officer David Ricketts coaxed him into agreeing to the 60-year deal through intimidation and bullying, particularly Ricketts.
“Once a conviction is final, the only chance is a post-conviction writ. Was the plea entered knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently after taking advice from counsel?” court-appointed attorney John Miles of Union City asked in his opening statement. “Was it outed through force?”
District Attorney General Tommy Thomas opened by admitting that in his 20 years of serving as district attorney, he’d never been involved in a plea bargain that had as much “detail and care” as in Tuck’s case.
“With all 19 counts, great care and detail was taken,” Thomas said. “Tuck was even asked if he was familiar with post-conviction relief petition process. I asked if he was satisfied with (court-appointed attorney) Colin Johnson. He was. Tuck knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently entered his waiver. He asked the court to consider his law enforcement experience. On the record, he waived his right to a trial. He entered a guilty plea. The defense has no grounds to merit this.”
Miles’ first witness was Weakley County Jail administrator Jim Phelps and he was asked to produce documents as a records custodian. Tuck had raised issues of alleged mistreatment at the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute in Nashville and Phelps produced pictures that depicted Tuck on Sept. 9, his first booking, with no signs of injury and on Nov. 23, after returning from the facility, having a black eye.
There were no records of abuse in Tuck’s file at the Weakley County Sheriff’s Department and Phelps admitted Tuck only complained of abuse once, but his mother called and reported that incident.
Phelps reported one case of attempted suicide on record, but he said Tuck chose to do it when “the timing was bad” and several officers were around to put an end to it. During head count, Tuck wrapped his breathing machine cord around his neck and was going to tie the other end to the television in an attempt to hang himself Sept. 20, 2009.
“The timing was such that he knew officers were coming through the door,” Phelps said during cross-examination by Thomas. “But there were also times when he wouldn’t take his medicine or eat and said he didn’t want to live.”
At this time, former officer Ricketts’ name was brought up and it was noted he’d been fired due to “inappropriate contact with a female.” Phelps couldn’t recall any complaints directed at Ricketts from Tuck.
“The post-conviction relief petition alleges that the conviction was based on a coerced confession. That includes the lettuce diet that’s been brought up before,” Thomas continued.
Phelps produced a record of meals fed to inmates, had it entered as a trial exhibit and noted it showed Tuck having a salad with “lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, ranch dressing and crackers” on Sept. 3 but being allowed a Coke™ on Sept. 5 at 9:30 p.m. In addition to eating “regular meals,” Phelps testified Tuck may have been put on a diet to aid his diabetic way of life and said his blood sugar had to be checked regularly, but there was no “lettuce only” or “salad only” diet enforced.
Tuck’s mother, Marcia, testified she’d executed power of attorney soon after her son was arrested in September 2009 because his bipolar disorder caused him to be out of control and “sometimes manic and sometimes depressed.”
She said when she visited Tuck, sometimes she would find him “so depressed he wouldn’t talk loudly or even look at me” and then the next time, he’d be “loud and fast talking and I’d have to calm him down.”
Mrs. Tuck recalled a time when she’d seen her son at his absolute worst, shouting and having enormously dilated pupils. She was convinced he’d not been given his usual medication, which, at the time, was Lexapro®.
“I don’t think his behavior would have been that way, even though he was in jail, if he had been on his right meds,” she said.
Mrs. Tuck spoke of Tuck’s problem with Ricketts. She said she asked her husband what to do and he expressed his wish to do nothing and leave everything in the hands of the court. She testified that he reminded her, “He’s in jail, not in school. There’s nothing we can do.’”
Mrs. Tuck spoke of one particular instance when Ricketts allegedly had taken Tuck away from the suicide tank he’d been housed in and tried to “agitate him” into getting aggressive. She said while Ricketts attempted to get Tuck “fighting mad,” two officers stood outside the cell with taser guns ready to strike the moment Tuck gave in to the pressure.
She testified that her son came out of the incident with a bloody shirt and refused to bathe or change his clothes until someone saw evidence of what had taken place with Ricketts.
Mrs. Tuck said her son has had “mental issues” his entire life and, at age 15, was taken to Pathways to see a counselor. When he married, he and his wife had problems which would later turn into “shouting matches” and, once, Tuck turned himself in at Lakeside, a mental facility in Memphis, she testified.
She continued by saying her son had become frustrated with his legal representation and particularly upset that assistant public defender Colin Johnson, his attorney at the time, was not coming to see him. She said she, her husband and Tuck’s younger brother had initially gone to see public defender Joe Atnip and had discussed the case with him.
Johnson was given the case and Mrs. Tuck said her son “was never briefed on what would happen.” She said later, at a Sept. 30 hearing, her son looked like a “scared baby rabbit” and she claimed her son was advised to “accept the plea bargain or get worse from Acree” if the case went to trial.
“So, you’re taking the position that he (Tuck) wasn’t competent enough to make decisions?” Thomas said. “I realize you have guilt and we, as parents, can’t control things our kids do at all times, but he was competent enough to sign the power of attorney. You related about the depression and the manic state, but did you ever go to the attorney and tell them that Bruce was not competent?”
Before a break, Mrs. Tuck related her story of allowing Weakley County Sheriff Mike Wilson to search her home and a storage facility in Carroll County.
After the recess, Miles brought back Phelps, who had new documents from Tuck’s inmate file showing the suicide attempt, as well as three to four more complaints involving tantrums and refusing insulin. Handwritten notes and judgments were included among the files and offered as extra trial exhibits.
Phelps admitted to Thomas that he’d gone through Ricketts’ file and found no complaints or allegations of Tuck’s having been beaten by the officer.
Johnson next took the stand and gave a review of Tuck’s case history, including his decision to waive a preliminary hearing and his arraignment on Nov. 5 in Weakley County Circuit Court.
Having been kept updated on the case by Thomas, Johnson was familiarized with Tuck’s first confession, a short 30-minute session recorded on videotape, and was present for his second confession with Plunk, a four-hour conversation.
“The case started in September (2009), he pleaded in December and that was unbelievably fast,” Johnson said. “… The entire time, he wanted things to go fast. He wanted resolve for his victims; he didn’t want his family to have to go through a trial. His focus was getting things resolved.
“We had the 60-year offer prior to the statement. I worried that if Bruce confessed, that would be off the table,” he added. “We sat down. I told him the effect this would have on the future. He said the same thing about bringing closure to the victims and doing the right thing. The attorney general offered the plea, 60 years. We had three options: take 60 years, plead and ask for a hearing, or go to trial. In my 20 years, I’ve never seen a case where the facts were as bad as these were. I held his hand and got this 60-year plea offer.
“Out of all that went on, I had respect for Bruce Tuck because, in his darkest hour, he wanted to do the right thing,” Johnson added.
Tuck himself took the stand and was briefed on the history of his case before being questioned by Miles. Tuck admitted he couldn’t recall a time of mental stability in his entire life and just recently had started a normal way of thinking through taking the drug Prozac. He began treatment in 2006 and sought counseling for depression and alcoholism.
He spoke of his time in Lakeside in 2008 and attempting to commit suicide in the waiting room. He admitted to attempting suicide several times in his life and cited numerous times of alleged intimidation while in custody in Weakley County, including several incidents involving Ricketts and Plunk. He maintained his claim that he was offered “bland salads” until he began talking to Plunk, after which time he was given Coke and chips and “regular diet” food.
Tuck blamed his black eye on having been abused at the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute. He claimed he had been put in a seclusion room and given two syringes of Thorazine® to make him go to sleep. When that proved ineffective, technicians came in, put him in a five-points restraint and began beating him, he claimed.
It was after Tuck’s return to the Weakley County Sheriff’s Department that he was allegedly cornered by Ricketts and coerced into anger. Several other incidents allegedly occurred which Tuck claims were “not documented.”
Tuck later testified Ricketts threatened him, often while dressed in off-duty street clothes, allegedly telling him, “You don’t want to come back to this jail without having pled.”
“I thought I had two options: either to plead guilty or go to trial,” Tuck said. “I was never aware that I had the opportunity to plead guilty and have the judge sentence me. If I’d been aware, I would have done that. Johnson and Ricketts convinced me that if I took the plea deal I might be up for parole and I could get out and see my son again. Later, I found out that parole was not possible on this.
“I didn’t clearly understand the guilty plea and I was in fear for my life at the jail. I asked my mom to contact Mr. Johnson to see if I could be moved to Obion County, but I was told that wasn’t possible. After I entered the plea, I never saw Johnson again,” he said.
After being transported to Shelby County in May 2010, Tuck went to work on his post-conviction writ because he had access to legal aids. He later admitted to not knowing everything that went on during his hearing Dec. 10, 2009.
“It felt weird. There were constant ups, downs, highs, lows and one extreme to the other. It was an emotional roller coaster,” he said.
After a short recess, Thomas cross-examined Tuck and didn’t mince words.
“Officials from MTMHI told Sheriff Wilson that you got a black eye from a fight you initiated there. You’ve told several lies,” Thomas remarked. “I don’t see one word about Ricketts in your writ. Did you just think of this information about him recently?”
“You called Weakley County Press editor Sabrina Bates three times on Nov. 24. Do you deny calling her?” Thomas continued.
“Ricketts said to call the newspaper and make things right with the sheriff’s department,” Tuck responded.
“In this article in the Nov. 26, 2009, issue of The Weakley County Press, you were very complimentary of the local system. You said you were treated well and safety was always a priority,” Thomas said.
Tuck replied that he’d been coached into saying those things and a transcript of niceties had been written for him to feed to the newspaper.
Press news editor Sabrina Bates took the stand and testified Tuck had called the office three times on Nov. 24 — once to have a short conversation, the second time to inquire if a newspaper could be sent to his family and the third time to talk about his being treated professionally by the local law enforcement.
Weakley County Sheriff Mike Wilson testified in detail about searching the Tuck home and finding items in Tuck’s room that matched the descriptions of items mentioned by Tuck’s victims, including dark pants, a shirt and a pair of tennis shoes.
After finding the shirt, Wilson was told by Tuck to stop searching, he testified.
Plunk testified about his lengthy interview with Tuck that produced the second confession referenced earlier. He likened his previous conversations with Tuck to “fishing expeditions” in which nothing constructive or useful ever arose. The confession lasted “over two hours” and Tuck allegedly gave a full, non-hesitant admission. Plunk said he knew of Tuck’s diabetes and asked him if he wanted anything to eat. He wanted a Coke, so Plunk complied.
Investigator Sammy Lyles gave details of each of the three Martin rapes Tuck committed. He wound up the cases with the final excavation of condoms and extraction of DNA. He also testified to recovering items from the storage shed in Carroll County having to do with the first and third rapes Tuck committed. Included was a fanny pack containing condoms, surgical gloves, pieces of mail and a copy of a victim’s driver’s license and a firefighter’s mask.
Also included in the storage unit were “scores” of envelopes with female names and addresses on them — possible other victims, he testified. Three were from Martin and the rest from Shelby County.
In closing, Miles said it “strikes me as strange that he’d have a black eye” and said Tuck pleaded guilty from “fear and intimidation” and much evidence exists to prove it.
“It’s not a question of guilt or innocence. It’s a question if the plea was entered after competent counseling,” Miles concluded.
“I don’t know how 60 years could have been made more clear in the court system,” Thomas countered. “Tuck testified truthfully when he told the court his name and that he would have gotten more time if he’d chosen to go to trial. Nothing else was the truth. He lied about Plunk, Johnson, Wilson and Ricketts — the root of all evil. He didn’t even mention Ricketts until today. Johnson has been in this court for a long time and his word has been proven time and again. His word is to be believed. Not Tuck.”
With testimonies complete, Circuit Judge William Acree will now take the information into consideration and will come back with a decision within the next few days — a decision that will stop the roller coaster and put life back on track.
Editor’s note: Sara Rachels is a staff writer with The Weakley County Press in Martin.
Published in The Messenger 1.11.11