Following a joint investigation, a Cocke County Grand Jury has indicted a prominent Newport couple in the attempted arson of the Brandywine Creek Steakhouse and Tavern and other charges.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says in January 2017, at the request of Fourth Judicial District Attorney General James Dunn, TBI special agents joined Tennessee Fire Investigative Services and the Cocke County Sheriff’s Office in investigating the attempted arson of the restaurant on West Highway 25/70, west of Newport. During the course of the investigation, authorities determined that Gary Ridens, 62, and Geraldine Ridens, 62, Maple Ridge Way, Newport, the owners of the restaurant, were the individuals responsible for attempting to start the fire.
TBI Agent Justin Ramsey investigated the case and the Cocke County Grand Jury returned indictments charging both Gary and Geraldine Ridens with one count of attempted arson and one count of reckless endangerment. On Thursday, both were arrested and booked into the Cocke County Jail. Both now have been released on $100,000 bonds each.
Additionally, the Ridens were investigated by Agent Phil Carney of the Tennessee Department of Revenue and have been indicted on conspiracy to commit money laundering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit theft over $10,000, theft over $10,000, three counts of conspiracy to commit sales tax fraud, three counts of sales tax fraud, three counts of conspiracy to evade sales tax, and three counts of evading sales tax which occurred during the time frame of April 5, 2014 thru March 5, 2017.
Dunn said the cases were presented to the Cocke County Grand Jury, which returned the sealed presentments charging the defendants.
“I want to compliment the Investigators with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Tennessee Department of Revenue, Tennessee State Bomb and Arson, Newport City Fire Department and various associated agencies for the investigation resulting in the arrest of Gary and Geraldine Ridens,” Dunn said.
The presentments say that from Jan. 3 through Jan. 5, 2017, the couple attempted to damage the structure known as the Midnight Rodeo, but doing business as Brandywine Creek Steakhouse and Tavern, by means of fire or explosion with the intent to destroy or damage the structure to collect insurance. The business has been closed for some time.
As a part of the conspiracy, the Ridens allegedly unlawfully and recklessly engaged in conduct that placed or may have placed another person or persons, in imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury.
A passerby at the structure the evening of Jan. 5, 2017, detected a strong natural gas odor in the vicinity of the Brandywine Steakhouse and Tavern. Emergency personnel determined the odor was coming from the restaurant which was closed and locked.
General Manager Tommy Bible, of the Jefferson-Cocke County Gas Utility District at the time, said, “There’s a build-up of natural gas inside this building. There is a threshold of 10 to 14 percent, and there could be an explosion when it gets that high. We think it is higher than 14 percent right now. We have the power turned off and we need to let the building air out.”
Work to air out the building was delayed because the Ridens were out of town. Once the key was obtained, a rear window was broken out by Newport firefighters under the direction of Battalion Chief Mike Ottinger, and then a door was opened and a fan was used to force air through the building.
The entire area around the restaurant was evacuated including the nearby Tana-See Campground, Comfort Inn, along with homes and businesses within several thousand feet of the large brick building. Vehicles were diverted off West Highway 25/70, and traffic from I-40 was not allowed to exit onto West Highway 25/70.
When emergency personnel entered the building they reportedly discovered that the natural gas vents had been opened and lighted candles were located throughout the building.
The Department of Revenue alleges the Ridens under-reported the amount of sales at the business from April 2014 until March 2017 by nearly $670,000, and illegally did not remit $59,247 of owed sales tax, in an attempt to defraud the state.
Thursday afternoon Mrs. Ridens contacted the Citizen Tribune asking that the indictment and arrest of she and her husband not be reported. She was then given an opportunity to comment on the charges.
“Well, it was unforeseen and we made it through the day. We are trying to find out what it was all about, and we can’t do that till tomorrow. But we are innocent till proven guilty, is all I want to say.”