A 69-year-old retired nurse, a master quilter who has never been in trouble with the law before, now faces felony assault charges, and that's not even the worst part.
If anything, Donna Keel is too nice and too trusting for her own good after she did something in memory of her deceased sister. It was an act she made on faith and hope and the belief that all people can be saved.
But the consequences have been crushing.
Her nephew, Jody Jones, is an ex-con. His convictions include cases involving drugs, assault and theft. At one point, he stole so much from his own family they don't want anything to do with him.
But not Aunt Donna.
When Jones got out of prison this time, Keel took him in, based on her love for her deceased sister.
"I knew him ever since the minute after he was born," Keel said. "I had in my heart to do it, to help him out. And if he made it, I wanted to be there when he made good."
But things did not go well. Jones soon brought in his girlfriend, Tiffany Nicholson, and her three kids.
Bills started growing, and Keel didn't have that kind of money to sustain her modest house, where her only luxury was her sewing room and her beautiful quilts.
On Friday, July 6, when Keel asked her nephew for money to help pay the bills, she was in no way prepared for what was next.
"I just asked him if he had some money to help cover the bills at the first of the month. But he moved in front of me and kept saying, 'Get out of my face.' I hadn't even moved one inch. He was the one confronting me, and Tiffany runs out of the bathroom. She has the house phone and starts hitting me with it. I had a concussion," Keel said.
Keel said Jones and his girlfriend disappeared in the back of the house, and the next thing she knew, Jones came out with a slashing stab wound. The couple called police, and when officers arrived they weighed the conflicting stories.
On one side was the 69-year-old retired nurse, and on the other was the 42-year-old former prison bodybuilder with a long record and his girlfriend currently on probation.
In his report, Officer William Hudson decided that Keel was the primary aggressor and went so far as to charge her with felony aggravated assault.
"I almost fell to the ground when they told me to get in the car. I said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' Here I am, my equilibrium is gone because my eye was swollen. I couldn't believe it," Keel said.
Then, while Keel sat in jail, her nephew and his girlfriend visited night court, where they represented themselves as the legal occupants of Keel's home. Of course, that's not true. It's not their home, and they have no lease. But they were not asked to produce any documentation.
Before long, they even got an order of protection.
"To take the word of someone without investigating what went on, and just issue an order of protection from her own home, this is not right. This is America," said attorney Paul Housch.
Keel was legally banned from her own home, so when she got out of jail, she was homeless. And her house guests are untouchable.
"Officer Hudson was not the judge and jury, but he convicted her of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. In fact, the weapon was never produced. There was no weapon. This was a staged crime by two felons to have her arrested and ousted out of her own home," Housch said.
Housch has been attempting to legally undo what has happened. First, he contacted the couple's parole and probation officers to inform them of what is happening. Those officers set up a July 13 meeting with Jones and Nicholson, but neither showed up.
"They should have issued a bench warrant right then on July 13 and had the police pick them up wherever they may have been," Housch said.
And there were things in motion to get Keel back in her house, hearings and orders, that would make everything right.
Except something happened on July 16 that made it all irrelevant.
The house went up in flames, as Jones told police it began as a grease fire.
"He was seen standing in front of the house with his arms folded, watching the fire go through the roof," Housch said.
So, last week in court, Keel got back her now burned down house and Keel had her order of protection lifted. And on Friday, Jones and Nicholson were both arrested for parole and probation violations.
But, of course, it's all too late.
"All of my possessions - my quilts, my sewing room, all of the albums of pictures of us growing up, my mother's stuff. It wasn't an expensive house, but it was home to a lot of people," Keel said.
Police said the felony assault charge was a judgment call based on Jones' stab wound and a statement in which Keel admitted she started the confrontation.
And, by the book, it was completely legal for the night commissioner who issued the order of protection for people who weren't rightfully homeowners. The law does not demand night commissioners to check proof of residency.
But the fire remains under investigation, and Keel remains charged with felony aggravated assault.
UPDATE: After this story first aired, Channel 4 has received many calls and messages from people offering support for Donna Keel.
A fund has been established to help her replace her possessions, including her beloved sewing tools. If you would like to help:
Donna Keel Victim Relief Fund c/o Hilda Lewis, Trustee Pinnacle National Bank 524 South Main St. Ashland City, TN 37015 615-743-8343
Copyright WSMV 2012 (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.
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