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Who Killed Jim Cannon?

Police still have not named a suspect in the murder of a local attorney

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Kelley Cannon, the wife of slain West Nashville attorney James “Jim” Cannon, used to hear voices in her family’s home. Sometimes they spoke to her over the telephone in the seemingly tranquil Bowling Avenue house that she shared with her husband and three children.

And at other times, according to divorce documents filed by her husband, those voices told Kelley that her 7-year-old was colluding with them. She accused the young boy of working with the voices in her head, verbally abusing him until the family’s nanny whisked him off to school. He cried all the way there.

So it’s no surprise that, ever since a housekeeper discovered Jim’s dead body stuffed into an upstairs bedroom closet at his Bowling Avenue home more than a week ago, relatives and friends have begun pointing the finger at Kelley, even though police publicly have not named the woman as a suspect or even a person of interest in the homicide. The cause of Jim’s death has been widely reported as strangulation, though police won’t release the cause of death just yet. Authorities reportedly have only questioned Kelley, adding fuel to a real-life murder mystery that has Jim’s quiet West End neighborhood buzzing.

It was a marriage out of a bad Lifetime movie. A series of police reports coupled with the Cannon’s divorce papers—which have been largely ignored by the press—document claims of psychotic episodes and portray a toxic, unstable relationship marred by volatile arguments and Kelley’s alleged drug abuse. In March, a Davidson County judge awarded Jim temporary custody of the children and issued restraining orders and an injunction that would prevent Kelley from coming into contact with Jim or the children. Since Jim’s death, police arrested her for violating that order. Jim also had an injunction that prevented Kelley from entering the family’s home.

But someone did enter the home to strangle Jim sometime before 10:15 a.m. on June 23, when a housekeeper called 911 after discovering the lifeless man in one of the home’s closets, leaving neighbors and friends to grapple with a sensational “Who done it?” In the center of this media storm stands Kelley, an attractive brunette whom divorce papers and court documents paint as a schizophrenic with a bizarre pattern of behavior.

John Hollins Jr., an attorney who represented Jim in his divorce and who had been a close personal friend with the man for more than 20 years, described the couple’s relationship as chaotic. He characterized Jim as “one of the good guys,” and Kelley, a housewife, as explosive and aggressive. “I’m just trying in my little mind...to understand why this happened,” Hollins says, distraught and still a little stunned after returning from Jim’s memorial service. “He put up with hell for 15 years living with her and tried to make it work and went above and beyond what most husbands would ever do....”

And Kelley seems to have been quite devoted to him, too. In a surprising move, she filed a motion last week to stop the cremation of Jim’ body. His sister, Anna Stallings, who has control of what happens to her brother’s remains, wanted him cremated. An attorney for Kelley argued that she had been excluded from visitation and had not had the opportunity to see her husband’s remains. The judge ruled that Stallings should keep control of her brother’s remains and awarded Kelley an hour-and-a-half to visit his body.

The battle to see Jim’s body was a little odd, but it seems to be on par with how the relationship was all along. An emergency injunction Jim filed against Kelley earlier this year outlines a pattern of strange, psychotic behavior. She was a schizophrenic who refused to take her medication, divorce papers read. She opted instead to begin a pattern of prescription drug abuse—targeting drug stores in Belle Meade and Green Hills to fill multiple prescriptions for Percocet and Oxycontin to squelch pain for back problems Jim said she never had.

Jim and Kelley’s tumultuous 11-year marriage had all the trappings of a suspense novel—one that ends in horrific tragedy. But judging from outward appearances alone, the two also had the makings of a beaming, happy couple. Jim was a well-liked businessman who co-founded the Franklin-based Medical Reimbursements of America, a successful firm that collected delinquent hospital bills. Hollins says that Jim was “just like a little boy” who loved to hunt, fish and have fun. In fact, the man had just returned from a weeklong beach vacation with his three children days before his death. And Kelley, a graduate of Harpeth Hall, was a housewife, the kind of woman who classmates remember as the popular cheerleader, a real looker whose former love interest was, indeed, the high school football star.

Kelley has retained two attorneys: criminal attorney Peter Strianse and Andrew Cate, who will represent her in custody matters and in hearings regarding Jim’s will, among other matters.

Both Strianse and Cate categorize Jim’s divorce filings as one-sided. In fact, Cate says Kelley did not file a response to the claim because it was always her intention to reunite with Jim. Cate says Jim called Kelley almost on a daily basis because the two were discussing their future and a possible reconciliation. Kelley was even named as the executrix of Jim’s will, Cate says. Her mother was the alternate executrix. “If you look at that divorce file, it’s a totally one-sided file—basically what you have is what’s created by Mr. Cannon and Mr. Hollins without any response,” Strianse says. “There’s always two sides to the story, but a lot of those allegations are unfounded.”

Cate says the way Kelley has been portrayed in the media since Jim’s death is a shame. Cate says she’s been dubbed “a mad woman” who is guilty of killing Jim, but he quickly explains that it’s simply not the case.

“Basically, her history is that she was part of this town and she was a hard worker,” Cate says. “She worked her way through college and on into post-graduate work, some pretty high-profile things.” He says Kelley worked as deputy press secretary for former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, for NASA at the Marshall Space Center in Huntsville, Ala., and for a time as a nanny to three children in France. Kelley even worked in the local medical examiner’s office as she was taking pre-med courses at Lipscomb University.

Kelley started dating Jim while she was in med school, Cate says, though the two had met back in high school when Kelley befriended Jim’s sister while attending Harpeth Hall. “They married and her focus turned from the medical school to children, and that was her life.”

“Kelley is a person,” Cate says. “She’s a hard worker but the most important thing is she’s a mom. It seems like everybody’s trying to paint a different picture.... The people I’ve spoken with say that her children adored her and tell me stories of how they followed her around like little puppies and how they would pile in her bed and watch movies—things that mothers who love their children do.”

The attorneys now say that Kelley intends to fight for full custody of the children. “She’s obviously devastated to be separated from her children and to have lost her husband under these bizarre circumstances, but she’s trying to put one foot in front of the other and take care of these matters,” Strianse says.

Jim’s filing to keep Kelley out of the family home shows that Kelley was in and out of drug rehab facilities and psychiatric hospitals for years. The document details one stint at Vanderbilt Medical Center following an alleged suicide attempt and an emergency room visit where she received IV fluids because of her drug-induced weight loss. He even claims that she used drugs in front of their children, two boys and one girl who range in age from 1 to 9. At one time, according to police reports, after screaming and becoming combative with the Metro police officers and paramedics enlisted to haul her off to treatment, Kelley had to be restrained by police and put in physical lockdown for days on end at a local drug treatment center.

The turbulent nature of the Cannon marriage was not lost on Jim’s family and friends. Stallings has fought Kelley in court to ensure that Jim’s side of the family keeps temporary custody of the couple’s children. And it seems that the court battle now has literally spilled onto the front lawn of what was once the Cannon family home.

According to a police spokesman, last Saturday, one of Jim’s relatives called police to the Bowling Avenue home because Kelley’s attorney was supervising a locksmith who was changing the locks to the family home. Officers arrived on the scene to ensure that the verbal argument between members of Jim’s family and representatives for Kelley did not get out of hand. Police then instructed both sides to allow attorneys to solve the dispute, or if necessary, to take the civil matter to court.

Cate says that the home has been in Kelley’s name since 2005, and that he advised his client to change the locks to prevent Jim’s family from removing items from the home. He says the man’s family entered the property some time last week and took Jim’s Mercedes and other contents from the home.

Back when Kelley lived in that home, Jim claimed that she was physically, verbally and emotionally abusive to him and their children. In fact, police arrested Kelley twice in the last few years for an aggravated assault against her husband in 2005 and for reckless endangerment, domestic violence and evading arrest this May.

According to a 2005 affidavit, Kelley called police after an argument with Jim. During the call, the operator heard Jim tell Kelley to “put the knife down.” Though Jim didn’t want to prosecute, he later admitted that Kelley cornered him with a knife.

According to another affidavit, Kelley’s May arrest also stemmed from an argument with Jim, who smelled alcohol on her breath when they were fighting. Kelley had taken the couple’s youngest child, a female toddler, placed her in an SUV and rammed her husband’s car to push it out of her way. She then exited her car and tried to force past Jim to get to the other children, ripping his shirt and pinching his right bicep to the point of bruising.

As Kelley pulled out of the driveway with her youngest daughter in tow, a police officer approached, made eye contact with her and activated his lights and sirens. Still, Kelley sped off, reaching speeds of well over 70 mph in a 30-mph zone before the officer stopped pursuing her.

Hollins says it wouldn’t be far-fetched to call Jim a victim of spousal abuse. “We had every possible court order we could possibly get against her to keep her away from him and the children and the house—and she violated every one of them,” Hollins says.

Claims made by Kelley’s family and friends on online blogs speculate that Jim was no saint himself. Others have said that the couple were patching things up. But Hollins says Jim was considering nothing of the like and that he didn’t know Jim to have any serious personal issues, other than his troubled marriage.

In fact, when he spoke to Jim on the Friday before his death, Hollins says Jim was ready to reconstruct a life that had been chaotic for so long. “Jim had comes to terms with the fact that the divorce was going to go forward, and he was at peace with that,” he said. “He had struggled—he didn’t want a divorce.... But she simply wouldn’t stay straight. He decided that was the best thing for the children.”

Hollins says Jim was rebuilding relationships and reconnecting with old friends. He didn’t want to be a single dad, but in that final conversation, Hollins says Jim asked about the quickest way to get his divorce resolved before his children started school again in the fall.

Kelley wasn’t coping with the divorce quite as well, Hollins says. “From what I could tell from talking to him, she was very angry at Jim because we obtained court orders keeping her away from the children and from the house.”

Still, the thought of Kelley as a potential suspect is a little hard for some to swallow. After all, according to an injunction, earlier this year Kelley weighed a measly 90 pounds because of her alcohol and drug use. Friends wonder if a woman of her stature could overpower any man—even Jim, who at about 5 feet 7 inches and 180 pounds was not exactly large.

Police are releasing little information about the crime scene. Was there any sign of forced entry? Was Jim drugged or beaten? The medical examiner won’t release his full report for a few more weeks. And police will only say there were no visible signs of what might have killed him.

Then there is the matter of the children. Police say the children were spotted with Jim the night of his death. As far as Hollins and other friends and family can tell, the three children were at the family’s Bowling Avenue home when he was killed. Yet the morning after Jim’s death, when police went to the apartment Jim paid for Kelley to live in, the kids were with their mother.

Such contact was strictly prohibited. Days later, police arrested Kelley on charges that she violated the order of protection. She has since been released after posting $45,000 bond.

Of course, Kelley had violated that order and others again and again since the very beginning. And Hollins says that, as far as he knows, Jim never slipped or caved and allowed Kelley to take the children after he obtained the court orders.

Court hearings aside, friends and family are left to grapple with more questions than answers.

In court documents, Jim said he feared for his safety and the safety of his children. “He never told me he was afraid that she would try to kill him,” Hollins says.

“I’ve gone over in my mind a million times since Monday: What could I have done or what could we have done differently to prevent this?” Hollins says. “And I don’t know of anything we could have done. We obtained every possible court order we could through the legal system to protect him and the children from her. And if you have somebody who’s going to commit a homicide, a court order is just not going to stop them. There’s nothing by law you can do if someone is going to harm somebody.”

Avidly defending his client, Strianse seems surprised that Hollins, among many others, has tagged Kelley as a killer. “I think it’s a little irresponsible for my friend to form those kinds of judgments and conclusions,” Strianse says. “The police will conduct an investigation and go where the facts lead them....”

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