After The City Paper revealed in an online story last week that Thomas Larry Watson, spokesman for a group opposing plans to redevelop the Tennessee State Fairgrounds, is a registered sex offender, several readers posted comments denouncing the article.
“It was 15 years ago, he paid the price, and has worked hard to try to make the community better,” wrote one commenter. “He did something stupid and wrong a long time ago,” another wrote, claiming that the article was intended “to affect current events that have not one thing to do with what he did many years ago.”
To be sure, other postings cited reasons why Watson’s 1995 arrest and conviction in a nationwide crackdown on distributors of child pornography ought to be publicly known. It was noted that his group, the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group, is collecting donations from the public, and that he himself sought out the television and print media coverage in which he has featured prominently since last September.
And, commenters noted, the state fair and other fairgrounds events have typically attracted large numbers of children. A registered sex offender’s involvement in any way with the property is surely a matter of public interest — especially, as one commenter asserted, given that “if you are a sexual predator you will always be one, even if you are not currently breaking the law.”
Last week’s story quoted Watson, 62, as saying his background “has nothing to do with the politics” of the fairgrounds debate.
“Yes, I made a mistake 15 years ago,” Watson told The City Paper. “The idea is that you’re supposed to pay your penalty and go and sin no more. You know, try to get back involved with community and citizenship again. Well, that’s what I’ve been doing.”
But newly available information makes clear there is more to Watson’s background than a mere error of judgment long ago that he has paid for and put behind him.
The City Paper has learned that Watson had a convicted child-rapist living with him in 2003. That man, John William Waller of Nashville, had his probation revoked when he was found to be staying with a fellow offender. Waller spent eight months back in prison.
In 2005, when police came to arrest Watson for failing to register as a sex offender, they again found Waller at Watson’s home. He was typing on Watson’s computer keyboard.
Waller’s probation officer later testified that he had been “given repeated verbal instructions that he is not to have access to computers because he has a history involving child pornography on the computer.” Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Randall Wyatt Jr. revoked the probation and sent him back to prison. Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals upheld that decision in 2008.
Watson, now listed in Tennessee’s Sexual Offender Registry, operates RuneVillage.com, a fansite for players of the online fantasy game RuneScape that appears to have more than 40,000 members. Several of the people who have become fans of RuneVillage on Facebook identify themselves as high school students from the U.S. and other countries.
The City Paper tried to reach Watson again last week for comment on the new information, but he did not respond.
Watson first advanced the argument that it would be illegal for the Fair Board to stop putting on the state fair in an email he sent to board members on Oct. 7 of last year. He cited state laws from the 1920s and earlier to make the case that the board is required to hold a state fair every year at the south Nashville site.
Two citizens who say they will be affected by the fairgrounds’ projected closure sued on Feb. 12 in Davidson County Chancery Court, relying on legal arguments much like Watson’s. Attorney Robert W. Rutherford of Rutherford & DeMarco filed the complaint after the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group retained him.
Reached last week, Rutherford noted that Watson is “not officially a part of the lawsuit” and remarked that his criminal record, of which Rutherford had not been aware, “doesn’t affect the validity of the argument.”
Rutherford said: “I’m hoping this boils down to a purely legal argument, and [Watson’s past] really has no effect on that. He’s not one of my clients. He’s a proponent.”
Fair Board Chairman James Weaver, an attorney at Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP, declined to comment when asked last week about the revelation of Watson’s past.
After The City Paper furnished the new information about Watson's past to fairgrounds group member Lisa Leeds, who was the Libertarian Party's 2008 candidate for the State House seat held by Mary Pruitt (D-Nashville), she replied with a one-sentence message just as this story was going to press.
"Thomas Watson is no longer affiliated with the Fairgrounds Heritage Preservation Group," Leeds said.