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The Widow Speaks

Kelley Cannon, the wife of slain attorney Jim Cannon, talks about the night of her husband's murder

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Sounding remarkably measured, Kelley Cannon says that she’s so distraught that she simply cannot function since a housekeeper found the limp body of her husband, attorney Jim Cannon. The night before her husband was found dead and stuffed in a closet, she says he called her and said, “I’m afraid.”

Since his death in late June, Jim’s family and friends have looked toward the spindly brunette as an undeniable suspect. Jim’s colleagues at the Franklin-based Medical Reimbursements of America, a successful medical bill collection firm that Jim co-founded, have completely shut Kelley out as well.

It’s really no wonder. A former private school prom queen whose upscale life now lies in ruins, Kelley amassed a slew of police reports and court documents that depict her as a schizophrenic drug addict with an explosive, bizarre pattern of behavior. Police affidavits from the last few years of the Cannon marriage say she pushed Jim around, threatened him with a knife and led police on a short, high-speed chase after snatching her toddler away from her husband.

Little of it is true, she says. In fact, in an exclusive interview with the Scene, Kelley calmly insists that she, the doting mother and devoted wife, was not the problem in the relationship—Jim was. In an hour-and-a-half discussion, Kelley, a one-time deputy press secretary to former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, spoke civilly and at length about her life with Jim—a fact made all the more remarkable given the intimate details of her troubled marriage published in last week’s Scene story (“Who Killed Jim Cannon?” July 3).

Though she says she’s reticent to drag her beloved husband’s name through the muck, she lists a multitude of ways in which Jim had wronged her and their three children. He was the drug addict, she says. He was the one prone to emotional outbursts. He was the one begging her to violate the very orders of protection he took out against her.

The marriage was tumultuous, to be sure. It was a fiery coupling wrought with infidelity and distrust, Kelley says. And it would all end that June night in the family’s nearly $660,000 home, which sits in the same quiet neighborhood as former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist.

Kelley, by her own admission, was there that last night of her husband’s life. And so were all three children, ages 1, 7 and 9. Kelley says she doesn’t know who killed her husband, but she knows he was uncharacteristically rattled the night of his death.

After leaving her apartment for dinner with a friend—Jim had temporary custody of the children as well as an injunction preventing Kelley from staying at the family home—Kelley got a call from her husband. He said he was scared and that he loved her, and then insisted that she come over. Kelley recalls the conversation: “He said, ‘I’m just telling you, things have spun out of control…[things] that I can’t even talk about. I feel threatened, and I’m afraid.’ ” Kelley says that, in the more than decade she’d been married to Jim, she’d never known him to be the fearful type. “He was always, you know, a control freak.”

After she “paced and paced and paced,” sometime after midnight, she drove by their home. She figured that, if she drove up the driveway, she could look inside the windows to see if all was well. But when she pulled into the driveway, Kelley saw that the back door was open.

She has a lucid memory of what she found inside: All of the downstairs lights were on. The furniture was askew—some of it was turned over and much of it was in complete disarray. There were towels strewn about the floor. She called for Jim. He didn’t answer. So she headed upstairs for the children’s rooms.

She says she got her youngest child first and then checked Jim’s office, where she says he usually slept. The family called the room “the cave” because Jim liked to sleep in total darkness. He wasn’t there.

She checked on the boys, who were sleeping in the master bedroom. The boys’ own bedroom was unoccupied, but Kelley says it was obvious that Jim had been sleeping in there because his briefcase and glasses were in the room. “I kept calling for him, and I didn’t hear him,” she says. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to get the kids out of here. Whoever did this has got to be in the house and may be watching the house.’ ”

Although she admits she was afraid and sensed that something was wrong, Kelley says she took the time to pack a bag for her youngest daughter, gathering up the girl’s diapers, bottles and such. But Kelley adds that, when it comes to Jim, she “never saw him at all.”

And Kelley never called the police. “Yes, I was afraid,” she says. “But I’m also a mother that has a baby and two children in the house as well as my husband.” But that fear did not compel her to report what she had seen. Instead, she drove the children to her place, where police found them when they questioned Kelley the morning the housekeeper found Jim’s body, reportedly strangled.

Days later, police arrested Kelley for taking the children that night and violating Jim’s order of protection. She posted $45,000 bond, and the kids have since been placed temporarily with Jim’s sister.

Given the turbulent nature of the couple’s relationship, it seems that their marriage would have been over long before Jim’s suspicious death. And Kelley’s candid nature about her husband’s alleged misgivings do little to explain why she was was so entirely hellbent on standing by her man, especially a man who she says was working to convince her family and friends that she was a psychotic addict.

According to a divorce claim, which Jim filed on Feb. 29, Kelley would hear voices in the family home. At one point, the document reads, Kelley heard voices over the phone, voices that told her that one of her sons was colluding with them against her.

She says it’s a story that Jim devised to cover up a marital indiscretion. In reality, Kelley says she had taken the boys shopping and called home to find a woman’s voice on the other end of the line, so she confronted Jim about it. “When I got home, I simply asked him, ‘Who was the voice?’ And he kicked our chicken dinner from Zoe’s all across the driveway. And he was just—that was just his typical reaction. When something was not true he would have a disproportional emotional reaction.” It was one of several affairs she says Jim had during their marriage.

In response, Jim’s attorney and longtime friend, John Hollins Jr., characterized him as nothing short of a saint. “I have no reason to believe that Jim was having any affair,” he says sadly.

Talking to Kelley about the people in Jim’s life, especially the ones she depicts as shady, can be a bit like playing a game of Clue. While Jim’s friends and family seem to be pointing the finger at the wife, who does Kelley suspect?

For one, Kelley says it “really perturbs” her that police aren’t looking at Medical Reimbursements of America (MRA) and Jim’s colleagues in more depth. “There is some stuff going on at MRA that was very unsavory as well,” she says. “He had had his partner kicked out within the first two to three years.” And Kelley claims that Jim knew of several affairs that his co-workers were having, and that Jim was permissive of the men’s indiscretions.

And then there is the matter of Jim’s alleged mistress, a woman who Kelley describes as an obsessive lush. “She’s a nut,” Kelley says. “She knew every house that we had bought. She knew every move we had made, every child we had had, where they went to school. Do you understand what I’m saying? And that scared me tremendously.”

Still, Kelley says she turned a blind eye because she loved him. “I loved him with all my life,” she says. “I wouldn’t have married a man and stuck with him through bankruptcy. There’s too many things that show my heart and the truth of my devotion and dedication to him.”

As Kelley talks about her marriage and the ways in which Jim wronged her, a predictable pattern emerges: Jim as the liar, the one who was covering up his own mistakes—his own jealousies, rage and controlling nature—by blaming her instead. So why is she just revealing this information now, after she seemingly has been dragged through the mud by the media? “The reason I haven’t spoken out is because I don’t want to sully his name,” she says. “I loved him—obviously. I didn’t even have an attorney [when he died].”

But Kelley did, indeed, want a separation from Jim at one point. Jim only filed for divorce, she says, because he was angry that she wanted a separation. And Kelley says she only asked for the separation because she found him rifling through her purse for pills. Jim contended that Kelley had been addicted to pain medication prescribed for a back problem she didn’t have. She insists that he watched her take a spill down the stairs in the family home—a fall that broke her back—when the floors were “slick as glass” after an application of polyurethane.

“He had convinced my mother that I was a total drug addict...I had to hide the pain pills from him,”she says. “I had lost so much weight with basically grieving myself sick over his—he never really came back to the marriage after he had the affairs. I asked him to stop drinking, to go to marriage counseling, he wouldn’t do that.... And I was OK with that because we were together and the family was together and I was trying to maintain normalcy the whole entire time for my children, and it had just wiped me out. I was so depressed that I lost weight grieving, you know, heartsick.” As with most of her tales of Jim, Kelley moves through the story quickly, as if she’d told it 100 times before.

But once Jim did file for divorce, a claim that was soon followed by the injunctions to keep his supposedly psychotic wife away, Kelley says he longed to have her back. He even asked her to violate the orders of protection to stay with him and the kids, she says.

In fact, Kelley says Jim wanted out of the divorce, but Hollins, the attorney, was pushing him. She even goes as far as to characterize Hollins as a sociopath who was driving Jim crazy. The night of Jim’s death, when Kelley talked to him on the phone, she says Jim mentioned the attorney. “Jim was calling me saying, ‘I can’t get Hollins under control. This whole thing has spun out of control. I love you,’ ” she recalls. “He couldn’t reel in Hollins, alright.”

(Hollins declined to respond to Kelley’s characterization of him.)

Kelley says Jim wanted a reconciliation all along, a statement contested vigorously by his attorney. “From the day he obtained the order of protection, he never mentioned to me one time that he intended to reconcile,” Hollins says.

But even when she gave into his pleas to come back home, she said Jim still held all the power. “If I cut my eyes wrong, if I crossed my leg, if there’s a pea on his plate wrong, [he would say], ‘I’m going to eject you from the house...,’ ” she says. “I was walking the line.”

One particular incident stands out in Kelley’s mind. According to a police affidavit dated May 21, Kelley had been arguing with Jim, who smelled alcohol on her breath. She then took the couple’s youngest child, put her in an SUV and rammed the car into her husband’s car. Then, in an attempt to get her two sons, she made an unsuccessful attempt to push past Jim, pinching and bruising his arm in the process.

Kelley tells a different story: Jim was angry at her after she made a call to his psychiatrist, calling him on the carpet for his drug use. The psychiatrist told Jim to find another therapist, she says, forcing Jim to find a new doctor to prescribe the sedatives she says he was addicted to. “He was furious about that,” she says. “He chewed me out all the way home from work. And, bottom line, he shoved me and [my daugher] in the kitchen....”

Fearing for herself and the safety of her children, she said she bumped his car and tried to flee. “He said, ‘I’ll do everything and anything I can to put you in jail and keep you away from the children,’ ” she says. “He was using the children as emotional leverage, and they were walking on eggshells.... The house was chaos. The children were scared that daddy was going to take mommy away again.”

But in this instance, like in many others, Kelley offers the improbable story that she and Jim agreed that she would take the fall with police to prevent him from losing his law license.

Kelley may paint Jim as an addict who drank “big bottles of Woodbridge” wine, but she doesn’t deny that she entered drug rehab. Once Jim tricked her. Kelley says he told her that if she went, he would go to rehab himself once she got home. Another time, she passed out during a stint outside of the home while she was staying at the Loews Vanderbilt. Though her husband reported that Kelley whittled away to a mere 90 pounds because of her drug use, she says it was pneumonia and the emotional stress of being away from her children and coping with her husband’s affairs that did it. She says she was “heartsick.”

She says she collapsed in her room for a number of hours following a bout where she couldn’t keep any foods or liquids down. After she called an ambulance for help, she says a counselor convinced her to go to Cumberland Heights to “get her sea legs.” Kelley says she embellished her problems a bit to be admitted because she wanted a bed and a comfortable place to stay.

Focusing on a seemingly irrelevant slight, given her current situation, Kelley seems quite hung up on the fact that Jim skipped out on the Cumberland Heights family day. She often paints him as callous and uncaring—as an absentee husband and father. Kelley talks of Jim’s sister, the one who is now caring for the couple’s children, much in the same way she talks of Jim: in a gossipy manner, like she’s got an ax to grind.

If the story of her marriage were just as she tells it, it’s hard to imagine why Kelley would’ve stuck around. But to her, it was simple: She loved him. But like many of her Jim anecdotes, her explanation of that undying love touches on another one of Jim’s faults. “We weren’t social because he didn’t want to be social…to the point where he would rip the phone cord out of the wall if you talked past 10:30 or something,” she says. “He was a very jealous-hearted kind of person. But I was willing to do anything to stay with him and preserve my family. And most of all, I want my children to have a father—I don’t care what kind of father it was.”

And, when it comes to Kelley’s long-winded description of a marriage gone bad, it’s striking that, through all of the drama, she doesn’t seem to quite grasp how she possibly could be looked at as Jim’s potential killer. In her eyes, she took a broken Jim—a divorced man on the brink of bankruptcy—and despite his flaws, his threats to take away her children, his philandering ways and his attempts to characterize her as a schizophrenic addict, she helped him rise to glory. But in the flippant, stomp-your-foot style of a petulant teen, Kelley rattles off this summation of her life with Jim: “I was the MBA prom queen. I grew up here. I married this guy when he had just gone through a divorce and went bankrupt my first year and supported him. I took him back after the affairs and without a due—there was no separation, there was nothing..... And that was OK. I didn’t care—whatever.”

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