HUNTSVILLE — Scott County Sheriff Mike Cross died Sunday morning following a short battle with cancer, friends of the family and the Sheriff’s Department confirmed. He was 56.
The first-term sheriff learned only weeks ago that he had a rare form of melanoma, after months of lingering illness.
Word of Sheriff Cross’s death spread quickly through social media Sunday morning and in traditional social circles, resulting in an outpouring of grief from throughout the community. Many remembered him as an honorable man and committed law enforcement leader.
Cross was a career law enforcement officer, with his experience including stints both locally and in Knoxville before he served a 15-year tenure as chief of police in Oneida.
In 2010, Cross sought to replace Anthony Lay in the sheriff’s election. Lay would resign to accept a role with the U.S. Marshal Service months before the election, and Cross wound up winning with 27 percent of the popular vote — out-pacing his nearest competitor, former sheriff Jim Carson, by 332 votes.
After emerging victorious from the crowded and contentious race — four candidates, Cross, Carson, Bobby Ellis and Brad Lay, finished within 577 votes of one another — Cross seemed to quickly unite the fractured Sheriff’s Department and gain public trust.
“Sunday morning Scott County regretfully lost the best sheriff it has seen in decades, if not its entire history,” Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals said.
“From his dedicated fight on drugs to his devotion to family and the Lord, Sheriff Cross put his best efforts to make Scott County a safer place to live and raise a family.
“Scott County has lost one of its most esteemed icons,” Tibbals added. “He will be missed.”
Gerry Garrett, who worked for Cross for years at Oneida Police Department and currently works in law enforcement in Kissimmee, Fla., called Cross a father figure.
“He was hands down the best mentor a person could have,” Garrett said. “He turned a department (in Oneida) that was going downhill into one of the best small town departments in all of Tennessee. It became a department that was highly respected by outside departments. He was making Scott County Sheriff’s Department the same way.”
Cross will perhaps best be remembered for helping to organize a community-wide prayer meeting on the Huntsville Mall in April 2011, where community and church leaders gathered to pray for God’s intervention with Scott County’s drug abuse problem.
The effort sparked national headlines and inspired similar efforts in other communities.
“(County Commissioner) Blue (Day) and I were talking and he said, ‘Sheriff, what are we going to do about this (drug problem)?’ I said, ‘Blue, the only thing I know to do is pray,’” Cross said in a 2011 interview with the Independent Herald.
That conversation between the two friends came amid a flurry of fatal drug overdoses and methamphetamine raids. The Sheriff’s Department had raided 11 meth labs between the time Cross took office on Sept. 1, 2010, and that early April 2011 prayer meeting.
In November 2012, long after that initial prayer meeting on the mall had become a monthly event, Cross said the efforts were paying off.
“With God’s intervention, we’ve already seen an improvement in our drug problem,” he said. “The prayers we’ve had on the mall are bearing fruit. The hospital is about to open. We’re seeing more and more people requesting help for the drugs that they’re on because they want off them.”
“He wasn’t your average sheriff,” Garrett said. “He was a man who wasn’t afraid to express his belief in God and he wasn’t afraid to go public with it.
“His efforts to not only curtail drug activity but to also bring in the faith in God will forever impact this county in a positive way.”
District attorney general Lori Phillips-Jones said that Cross united Scott Countians in the struggle against drug abuse.
“Sheriff Cross leaves a legacy of tremendous service to his fellow man and honor and dignity in law enforcement,” Phillips-Jones said.
Meth would continue to be the biggest issue throughout Cross’s tenure as sheriff. In early 2013, he called property owners the newest victims in the meth war, a reference to the toxic meth lab wastes that were being dumped on private property throughout rural Scott County.
Working with the Oneida Police Department and the 8th Judicial District Drug Task Force, Cross organized several “round-ups” of suspected drug dealers, resulting in more than 100 arrests. The round-ups were the culminations of undercover investigations that were presented to grand juries for indictments.
Sheriff Cross is the first sitting sheriff to die in Scott County since 1925, when Sheriff Richard Ellis was shot and killed.
The sheriff’s death comes only seven months after the community mourned the loss of another much-respected law enforcement officer, Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Brian Boshears, who died following a bout with pneumonia. Cross and Boshears were friends and worked closely together during Cross’s time as sheriff.
With the next sheriff’s election set for August, Scott County Commission will appoint an interim to fulfill the remainder of Cross’s term. That interim is likely to be chief deputy Ronnie Phillips, who followed Cross to the Sheriff’s Department after working under him as a corporal at Oneida Police Department, and who has been handling day-to-day decision-making at the department during times that Cross was unable to work due to his illness.
Check back for further updates to this developing story, and see this week's print edition of the Independent Herald for more details.