D.A. Steve Bebb and the Cannibal Judge
On July 16, 1997, Episcopal priest, the Rev. Charles Martin “Marty” Davis, was brutally murdered in his Brainerd home, severely beaten and shot “six or seven times.” An autopsy found no evidence of drugs, alcohol or sexual assault. Robbery was ruled out as a motive as there was money in the house. To this day the crime remains unsolved.
Fast-forward seven years ...
Sometime in 2004, maybe earlier, 10th Judicial District Circuit Court Judge John Hagler of Cleveland asked his personal secretary, Nona Rogers, to transcribe an audio cassette he had dictated regarding a legal matter he was working on. It was a common enough request and routine in her duties, and when Nona Rogers finished transcribing side A of the tape, she flipped it over to listen to side B. She would later testify in open court that when she heard what was on side B of the tape, “I shook all over. I was just numb.” She described side B as “heinous.”
According to Nona, the voice on the tape was that of her boss of 18 years, Judge John B. Hagler, and as she listened to the “depraved” things her boss was saying, she immediately thought of the brutal killing of Marty Davis back in ’97. She said Judge John Hagler went to church with Marty Davis and even taught a Bible class there. She testified that the young priest would often visit the judge’s office and call him on the phone. In fact, Nona admitted that because of the “male topic” of Hagler’s tape, Marty Davis “was the first person who came to mind.”
When asked if she had discussed her discovery of what was on side B of the tape with Hagler, Nona testified, “I could not discuss it with the person that may have committed the crime.” She took the tape home and hid it. She said her husband didn’t want to listen to Hagler’s tape, so “I just told him that it was evil.” The only person Nona played Hagler’s tape for was a co‑worker, Gladys Floyd. She let Gladys hear a small portion of the recording and then warned her “to never let herself be alone with (Judge Hagler).” Nona is even quoted as saying, “I told my family if anything happened to me, look to Judge Hagler first.”
Business at the judge’s office continued as usual until around November, 2005 when Nona and Hagler had a falling out over her husband’s decision to run for Circuit Court Clerk and Hagler fired her in a fit of pique. The day after she was fired, Nona turned the Hagler tape over to the Chattanooga police department and, in turn, the FBI. Eventually, news of the tape was “leaked” to the media.
The Chattanooga PD testified that Hagler’s tape contained “shocking” dialogue relating to a murder and torture. When asked in court if Hagler’s tape described the Marty Davis murder, CPD Sgt. Alan Franks replied, “Yes it did, in detail.” He went on the say, “(The tape) sounded like someone being tortured. The content was so shocking. I have been a police officer for 24 years ...” No one knows what Sgt. Franks was going to say next, because defense counsel objected before he could finish his statement.
In 2007, Mike Hall, who was head of the 10th Judicial Drug Task Force at the time, told HTC the Hagler tape “contains talk of torture and murder,” and “was like listening to Hannibal Lecter at mealtime.”
But while Hannibal Lector wanted to eat your liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti, if all the people who listened to the tape can be believed, it wasn’t Davis’ liver Hagler wanted to eat. But, being ever mindful of their family audience, the media simply referred to the torture tape as depicting Hagler’s “graphic fantasies.” Hagler himself conceded the media’s euphemism, “graphic fantasies,” was “accurate and sufficient ... and all any decent person would want to hear of it.”
But decent people should want to hear of it. John Hagler was on the bench in 1997 when Marty Davis was murdered. He knew the guy, went to church with him, talked with him on the phone, was in his office and the first thing Nona Davis thought of when she heard Hagler’s torture tape was the murder of Marty Davis. Furthermore, when this story broke in 2007, an eyewitness told HTC that he had seen a “briefcase or satchel” on the floor of Hagler’s office containing “dozens of tapes” similar to the torture tape.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press and other media demanded copies of Hagler’s tape and Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield was ready to order Police Chief Freeman Cooper to release it. Facing the very real possibility that his “graphic fantasies” would go public, Hagler had no choice but to admit that yes, it was him on the tape and yes, the content was indeed as vile and egregious as reported. He described himself as “an evil old man,” and resigned in humiliation.
But just when it looked like Hagler was going to take the fall, District Attorney Steve Bebb stepped in to once again save a bad guy and pervert justice.
Bebb saw to it that Hagler was never censured for his behavior while on the bench and the homo-erotic cannibal murder fantasy tape, or whatever it was, was returned to him. Instead of being the villain, District Attorney Steve Bebb portrayed Hagler as a victim, claiming the real villain was the person who leaked the tape in the first place. Bebb decided that since Hagler had resigned, “there would be no need to forward the tape to the Court of the Judiciary that oversees judges in Tennessee.” He also rallied members of the Bradley County bar association to go public with their support. They passed three resolutions in support of Hagler, expressing “complete confidence,” and requested the U.S. Marshall's Office and the FBI turn their attention away from Hagler and go after the person who leaked the tape in the first place.
Emboldened by Bebb’s actions and the encouragement of his peers, Hagler launched a media offensive, taking out full-page ads in the Cleveland Daily Banner defending himself and attacking Tom Griscom, publisher and executive editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Eventually, in January of 2008, Hamilton County Chancery Court Judge Frank Brown ruled that Hagler’s torture tape would remain the private property of John Hagler and would not be made public. Suddenly, instead of facing disbarment, disgrace and possible criminal charges, John Hagler was gold once again. In fact, according to Cleveland’s St. Luke’s Episcopal Church website, Hagler is still teaching Sunday school there.
As we’ve said before, Steve Bebb has never met a scoundrel he didn’t like.
We mentioned earlier that when this story broke in 2007, an eyewitness described first-hand of having seen a briefcase on the floor of Hagler’s office containing “dozens” of tapes similar in appearance to the torture tape. That eyewitness was none other than District Attorney Steve Bebb himself. He also told us that he had listened to as much of the Hagler tape as he could stomach. “I couldn’t listen to the whole thing,” he said, “cause halfway through I had to go in the bathroom and be sick.” He went on to say, “(Hagler’s tape) would disturb any human being who heard it ... My thought was ‘John's sick.’”
Given his nausea and distress over John Hagler’s bizarre torture-murder fantasies, it is inexcusable that the DA didn’t at least take the case to the Grand Jury. As the top prosecutor in the 10th District, Steve Bebb should have secured the torture tape when he had the chance -- as well as the “dozens” of tapes he reported seeing on the floor of Hagler’s office -- and held them as exculpatory evidence in a murder investigation and for judiciary ethics violations. Instead, he allowed Hagler to keep all the tapes, offered his sympathy and support, and left his office.
But not before the two bonded in a creepy display of judicial man-love. Maybe it was the tortured screams on the tape, maybe it was the musty smell of the law books lining Hagler’s office, maybe it was just the prurient nature of a corrupt judiciary, or maybe there’s simply a little cannibal judge in both of them, we don’t know, but as Steve Bebb himself said, before he left John Hagler’s office, “We hugged there in that room.” Wonder if Hagler felt an urge to nibble on the DA’s ear? Only thing missing were the fava beans and Chianti. And, of course, Marty Davis.