Chief Investigative Reporter

Jeremy Finley is the chief investigator for News4 Investigates. His reporting has resulted in criminal convictions, legislative hearings before the U.S. Congress, and the payout of more than a million dollars to scam victims.

Missing boy found dead Cummins Falls

NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) - Plans for a flood warning system to alert people of rising waters at a popular state park was stuck in bureaucratic limbo and ultimately stalled, all while lawmakers thought it was already in place at Cummins Falls State Park, internal emails obtained by News4 Investigates show.

The emails reveal discussions about the system ceased more than a year before two-year-old Steven Pierce of Eddyville, KY, drowned in the park on June 9.

The emails show that top officials with the Department of Environment and Conservation were aware that the warning system was not in place even when the public was allowed into the park on June 9.

Yet lawmakers, and even at one point the new commissioner of the state Department of Environment and Conservation, thought that the warning system was in existence.

“It was my understanding that it was in. That it was operational,” said Rep. Ryan Williams, R-Cookeville, said in a hearing with TDEC on June 19.

Following the drowning of two women during flooding at the falls in July 2017, TDEC officials pledged to create a warning system with water gauges to alert when waters rose to a certain level, enabling park rangers to evacuate people.

The emails between TDEC, professors at Tennessee Tech University and the company Intermountain Environmental show how the communication breakdown occurred.

One month after the women drowned, the professors at Tennessee Tech sent TDEC a memo outlining a detailed plan for the warning system and identified Intermountain Environment as a company that could do the job.

The memo also included a cost breakdown of $37,000 that would be shared between the state and Tennessee Tech.

The emails show that the proposal was debated on and off for a year before a state procurement office began to question if the project should be bid out beyond just one company.

At that point, the emails stopped.

“Somewhere in 2018, the project lost traction and lost vision, for some reason, and did not move forward,” said TDEC Commissioner David Salyers in the June 19 hearing.

Salyers, who became the commissioner in 2019, said he assumed the warning system was in place.

“I visited Cummins Falls and I asked, ‘How is the warning system working?’ and they were like ‘What warning system?’ I was very frustrated at that point,” Salyers told lawmakers.

Emails show that in April 2019 Salyers reignited conversation with Tennessee Tech about the warning system.

Yet through April and May, no firm decision was made, according to the emails.

On June 6, Salyer’s assistant sent an email stating that the commissioner wanted an update on the contract.

Three days later, on Cummins Falls’ Facebook page, the agency warned of heavy potential rains but allowed visitors in.

On June 9, two-year-old Steven Pierce drowned when a rush of floodwaters swept him away from his family.

The emails show that discussion about the warning system picked up the night Pierce drowned.

At 10:15 p.m. on June 9, Chris Padgett, TDEC Middle Tennessee parks area manager, sent an email to Mike Roberston, TDEC Director of Operations, stating only “FYI,” and then included a 2017 email from Ray Cutcher, the Cummins Fall State Park manager.

In that 2017 email, Cutcher wrote about funding for the warning system wasn’t confirmed but Tennessee Tech had pledged $20,000.

The next day, the emails show Robertson emailed another TDEC official the original Tennessee Tech memo from 2017.

In the June 19 hearing, Salyers admitted to lawmakers that the ball was dropped on the project.

“Who had responsibility back in 2018 when the ball was dropped?” asked Rep. Martin Daniel, R-Knoxville.

“I'd like to complete our investigation before I say much more about that,” Salyer said.

A spokesman for TDEC repeatedly denied News4 Investigates’ request for an interview.

“Due to potential litigation, the department cannot fully respond to your findings,” wrote TDEC spokesman Eric Ward.

It is unclear where the potential litigation may come from. is now with you on the go! Get the latest news updates and video, 4WARN weather forecast, weather radar, special investigative reports, sports headlines and much more from News4 Nashville.

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