Former Highway Patrol commander, TBI director Larry Wallace passes away

ATHENS, Tenn. (WTVF) — Larry Wallace, the only person to ever head both the Tennessee Highway Patrol and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, passed away Saturday afternoon at his McMinn County home after a short battle with cancer. He was 77.

The current TBI director, David Rausch, remembered Wallace as a man of integrity who led efforts to professionalize the state’s criminal investigative agency during his 11 years in command.

“He wanted to surround himself with people that understood the importance of being honest and hardworking, and I see that in the Bureau today,” Rausch told NewsChannel 5.

“He wanted to see things continuously improve, get better every day. I think that is one of the great legacies that he has left for the Bureau and the state,” Rausch said.

Wallace, a McMinn County native, began his career in 1964 as an officer with the Athens Police Department, getting hired three years later as a state trooper.

In 1973, he was promoted to special agent with the TBI.

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Larry Wallace during tenure with Tennessee Highway Patrol

In 1976, Wallace took a leave of absence from the TBI to run for sheriff of McMinn County, a post to which he was twice elected. In 1979, the Tennessee Sheriff’s Association named him “Sheriff of the Year.”

Then, in 1980, he returned to the TBI and was later named to head the TBI’s criminal investigation division.

In 1987, Gov. Ned McWherter selected Wallace to be colonel and commanding officer of the Highway Patrol. The next year, he was also named deputy commissioner of the Department of Safety.

In 1992, McWherter appointed Wallace to a six-year term as director of the TBI.

In 1998, then-Gov. Don Sundquist reappointed Wallace for a second six-year term.

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Larry Wallace sworn in for second term as then-Gov. Don Sundquist looks on

During his tenure as TBI director, Wallace oversaw the construction of the TBI’s current headquarters and led the TBI to become just the third state criminal investigative agency to receive international accreditation through the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Wallace also pioneered the development of the highly successful TBI Most Wanted program.

“It was badly needed in that we didn’t have an agency large enough to go after all the fugitives,” Wallace later recalled.

During his tenure, following a NewsChannel 5 investigation, Wallace directed TBI agents to join forces with the FBI in an investigation of no-bid contracts awarded to friends of the governor who had reappointed him to his post.

Sundquist’s friend, John Stamps, and another state official would later go to federal prison.

Wallace and Sundquist would not speak again for about two decades.

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TBI Director Larry Wallace addresses the media

In December 2003, Wallace retired as TBI director, saying he planned to “rediscover the mountains and learn how to trout fish again.”

But, a year later, he joined the faculty at Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens, developing a criminal justice program that he taught. He later was named Vice President for External Affairs, then Vice President for Administration; eventually, Senior Vice President.

Out of law enforcement, Wallace was haunted by the unresolved 2001 death of a 15-month-old Maury County boy, Jeffrey Kelton Skaggs.

While the initial autopsy called the death an accident, medical authorities later concluded it was a homicide.

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Jeffrey Kelton Skaggs

Still, District Attorney General Mike Bottoms refused to reopen the investigation.

Wallace was a key participant in a 2006 NewsChannel 5 investigation of the child’s death. Then, in 2014, Brent Cooper was elected district attorney, and Wallace personally went to see the new DA to ask him to take a fresh look at Skaggs’ death.

Cooper did and, after an extensive follow-up investigation, the DA indicted the mother’s ex-boyfriend on murder charges.

Christopher Lee Goodwin was convicted in 2020 and sentenced to life in prison. (Watch NewsChannel 5’s stories on the case here.)

“Larry Wallace was one of those exceptionally rare people who not only believed in justice, but dedicated their entire life to relentlessly pursuing it,” Cooper said.

“The Skaggs case is the perfect example of this. In that case, Larry patiently waited over 10 years for a new DA to be elected in order to seek justice for little Kelton Skaggs.

“When Larry gets to heaven, I would bet Kelton will be there waiting for him,” Cooper said.

Arrangements are incomplete at this time.

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