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New testament: TWRA witness details raid at snake handling church

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By Beth Braden

UPDATE

Dec. 18, 2013

11 a.m.

JACKSBORO—Andrew Hamblin’s snake-handling disciples packed into Campbell County’s General Sessions Court more than an hour before his preliminary hearing was set to begin on Tuesday afternoon. 

General Sessions Court Judge Joe Ayers bound the case to be heard when the grand jury reconvenes early next year.

Hamblin, with approximately 100 supporters were present for a Tuesday evening session. Supporters were largely dressed in red. Many of them carried Bibles.

Hamblin is the pastor of Tabernacle Church of God, as well as star of the National Geographic Reality TV series, Snake Salvation. Sixteen episodes of Snake Salvation detailing the life of the serpent handling pastor and his congregation aired earlier this fall.

Within two weeks of the show’s end, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency raided Hamblin’s LaFollette church and confiscated 53 venomous snakes. Hamblin pleaded not-guilty during his arraignment on Nov. 15.

Tuesday’s hearing was the state’s chance to establish their case for raiding the church.

The two-hour hearing was largely dominated by Hamblin’s attorney, Mike Hatmaker, as he questioned the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s Sgt. Joe Durnin about the Nov. 7 raid.

Eighth Judicial District Attorney Lori Phillips-Jones was prepared to call five witnesses—four TWRA agents, as well as an employee from the Knoxville Zoo. The zoo was tasked with caring for the 53 poisonous snakes after the raid.

 “Can you tell the court what you did in the course of your employment that day?” Phillips-Jones asked Durnin.

Durnin, a 31-year veteran of TWRA, told the court he met with five other agents in Campbell County that morning. Two of the officers went to the church, Durnin and Sgt. Brent Harrison went to Hamblin’s house. None of the officers were from Campbell County, according to Durnin.

“I inquired as to his [Hamblin’s] possession and whether he was still involved with the venomous snakes, and I asked him if he still possessed any and he said he did,” Durnin told the court.

Durnin testified the district captain, Willard Perryman, sent him to investigate Hamblin’s alleged snake handling.

The church believes that handling serpents is a sign of God’s anointment as described in Mark 16 in the Bible. Hamblin calls his charges a religious freedom issue.

Hatmaker’s questioning leaned heavily on what evidence TWRA presented other than Hamblin’s own admission. At Hatmaker’s request, the court watched a nearly half-hour video Durnin collected during his time at Hamblin’s home.

Hamblin later said he didn’t know the agent was recording the encounter.

“We need to talk to you about the snakes. I assume you’re still practicing,” Durnin is heard saying on the recording.

Hamblin hesitated briefly before confirming that he did practice snake handling at church, according to the the recording.  Durnin asked Hamblin to take him to the church and see the snakes. Hamblin asked if he could first speak to his wife, then went inside. The agents waited outside.

The tape is largely silent for approximately 12 minutes when the agents are again heard knocking at the door.

Durnin is then heard asking Harrison if he brought bolt cutters in case they needed to access the snakes by force. The snakes were housed at the church behind two padlocked doors, according to Hamblin.

“It [bolt cutters] may be necessary. I don’t think it will be, but it might,” Durnin said on the tape.

After the hearing, Hamblin was surprised by the bolt cutter comment.

 “I guess they was prepared to burn the church down,” Andrew Hamblin said.

His wife, Elizabeth Hamblin, was surprised as well.

“Wow, why would they need that? Andrew was really cooperative,” she said.

Hatmaker also focused heavily on the lack of a search warrant and the fact that Hamblin allegedly wasn’t told he had the right to remain silent until he and the TWRA agents arrived at the church.

“Why didn’t you get a warrant?” Hatmaker asked.

“He was being voluntary,” Durnin said.

Hatmaker attempted to introduce a motion to dismiss the charges against Hamblin, because there was no evidence of possession, but Judge Joe Ayers overruled it, saying the state had showed probable cause for its charges.

Proof of possession laid in the fact that Hamblin had access to the church’s snake room, according to Phillips-Jones.

“As far as possession’s concerned, the defendant is the only one that has keys and made statements about being able to get into the room with the snakes,”

“I beg to differ,” Hamaker began.

“You all have a difference of opinion on that issue,” Ayers said.

Following the hearing, Hamblin left the courthouse and disappeared into Hatmaker’s office before reappearing to give a statement from the courthouse steps.

Hamblin said the hearing went well and feels that God is in control.

“I believe he’s got his hand over this,” Hamblin said.

Church members agreed. Linda Spoon said she felt the presence of God in the court room and believed the hearing went well.

Following the statements, Hamblin and his congregation prayed on the courthouse steps, asking God to touch the district attorney, judge and other courthouse staff.

The 2014 grand jury will be seated on Jan. 8 and 9. If it returns an indictment against Hamblin, he will then have to appear before Judge E. Shayne Sexton in criminal court.

 

5 p.m. - The hearing has been under way for approximately one hour. The state expects to call four witnesses, all of whom are from TWRA. There are approximately 60 Hamblin supporters in red in the court room. 

Currently, the court is hearing video evidence taken by TWRA Sgt. Joe Durnin when he first went to Hamblin's house on Nov. 7.

JACKSBORO — Courthouse documents reveal that New York City's Wall Street Journal will be among media entities present at today's preliminary hearing for Pastor Andrew Hamblin.

Hamblin was cited in November after Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officers took more than 50 poisonous serpants from the Tabernacle Church of God in LaFollette. The snakes are handled during religious ceremonies as a sign of the annointing of God.

Today's hearing will give TWRA officials the chance to present their evidence against Hamblin. It is unclear if he will plead guilty and be sentenced or ask for a jury trial. The hearing is set to begin at 4 p.m.

See the LaFollette Press website and this week's edition of the paper for more information as it becomes available.