The Abuser and the Abused
Larry Lawson and his sordid past
By Willy Stern
OCTOBER 25, 1999: A brutal man who likes guns and badges, he was arrested for kidnapping his ex-wife and spent time in a mental hospital. Yet as the owner of a private security firm with contracts all over Nashville--including at the downtown arena--Larry Lawson eventually employed more than 40 off-duty Metro policemen. He never paid a penny of Metro business taxes.
Lawson vanished from public view as the Scene investigated the illegal activities of his company and its rogue security guards over the past six months. But interviews with family members and more than 100 people who have known Lawson paint a portrait of an insecure, sad, and violent man. They say he is prone to profanity, bigotry, sexual promiscuity, and outbreaks of fury.
"He has screwed everybody, lied to everybody, and slept around," says a Lawson family member, who wished to remain anonymous. "He doesn't have a lot of friends left. Larry Lawson would lie to the pope."
Born in 1955 and reared in South Nashville's Antioch--then a backwoods hollow filling up with working-class subdivisions--Lawson was the third of five children. Larry's father, William Lawson, was a mailman with a route in the affluent Green Hills area of Nashville. Larry's mother, Ida Elizabeth, worked odd jobs to bring in a few extra dollars.
Dennis Lawson, who is the youngest of the couple's five children, says their father was a "very physical man" who regularly "beat" his children with a leather belt. Four of the children accepted their lashings quietly. Larry did not.
"Instead of taking it, Larry would go after Dad," explains Dennis. "Larry would scream out, 'I hate you,' and 'Don't ever do that again.' Dad would just get madder and madder and really tear into Larry. So he got it much worse than the rest of us. Larry had a very rough childhood."
None of Larry Lawson's four siblings is on speaking terms with him today, says Dennis, who adds, "I've disowned Larry and want nothing to do with him."
When William Lawson, the father, died in 1997, all the children gathered at a funeral home for the visitation. According to Dennis and other witnesses, Larry became agitated and threw one of his sisters against an outdoor wall of the funeral home. As Larry tried to beat her, family members rushed in and pulled him off.
Today, at 44, this stocky fireplug of a man has been married five times and has four children. In 1978, he was charged with kidnapping and assault with intent to commit murder for breaking into a private home and abducting one of his ex-wives at gunpoint.
The woman was not injured, and charges were dropped after Lawson claimed he had a "mental disease," according to court papers. Instead, he was committed to Parthenon Pavilion, a psychiatric center at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville. According to Dennis, his brother has made "several" unsuccessful suicide attempts.
Lawson has a long history of problems accepting authority in any form, friends and former colleagues say.
After leaving high school in 1972, he did a short stint in the Navy, then worked as a booking clerk for Metro police from 1973 to 1977, taking fingerprints and "mug shots."
In late 1978, he found another opportunity to work in law enforcement, when he joined the Tennessee Department of Revenue's Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division. According to letters in his state personnel file, Lawson was suspended in May 1980 for failing to follow rules concerning "submission of money." The following year, yet another "irregularity involving the remittance of state funds" was documented in his personnel file. This time, he was suspended without pay and soon left his state job.
In the early 1980s, Lawson worked as a night security guard. In 1985, he completed a training program for prison guards and landed a job at the main Tennessee State Penitentiary. He worked less than a month, quitting abruptly.
Personnel records at the Metro Department of Human Resources indicate Lawson was hired by the Davidson County Sheriff's Department in 1986. He quit that job on the second day.
In 1988-90, Lawson was safety director of R.E. West, Inc., a Nashville trucking company. Recalls Bob West, who runs the company today: "Larry Lawson tried to act like the police, jumping across the medians on the interstates, and that caused real problems for us. His behavior was consistently that of a police officer who acts in bad faith."
In mid-1989, Lawson and his then-wife, Jann Marie Plummer, filed for bankruptcy. Then he landed a part-time job testing truck drivers to see if they had the skills to receive a commercial driver's license. When there were complaints about his work, the state audited his records. The audit concluded that Lawson is "either not actually testing these people or doing so in a slipshod manner." Shortly thereafter, he resigned.
In 1994, Lawson set up his own private security firm, Larry Lawson & Associates, and installed himself as president. In 1995, the company was declared bankrupt.
Undeterred, Lawson set up yet another security company, Detection Services, on April 19, 1996. From that date forward, the company, which was last located at 4536 Nolensville Rd., displayed a pattern of money problems and sloppy paperwork in its public filings.
All for-profit security firms are required to pay a business tax to Metro. But Lawson obtained no business license and paid no taxes to Metro on behalf of Detection Services, according to the county clerk's office.
Metro's business tax director, Tami Lane, sent a letter to Lawson dated June 12, 1999, indicating that the county clerk would be auditing Detection Services' financial records. County Clerk Bill Covington said Lawson has not responded to this letter.
How much back-taxes might be owed to Metro? That's not clear, since the private firm's revenues remain secret. However, in the six months ending March 31, 1999, Detection Services was paid just under $115,000 for its work at events at the downtown arena alone, according to an analysis of arena records by the Scene.
Numerous ex-employees say Lawson owes them money. One, Kenneth Pitts, filed personal bankruptcy and agreed to have $187 a week garnished from his Detection Services wages and sent to U.S. Bankruptcy Court to pay his creditors. Pitts says Lawson deducted the money but never sent it to the court.
"I lost my car, and now I'm getting sued by my creditors. Yeah, Larry Lawson cheated me. He's a low-life," Pitts says.
Detection Services also had insurance trouble. A letter from Southern Insurance Managers to state regulators indicated that Detection Services' insurance policy was canceled for non-payment in September 1998.
Shortly after the insurance was canceled, some of Lawson's guards--including his son, Mike--were patrolling an apartment complex in Nashville. A disturbance broke out, and the guards pulled their guns. "Don't shoot," Mike Lawson reportedly shouted to a colleague. "Daddy hasn't paid his insurance." Mike Lawson declined comment.
In mid-June, Lawson folded his business as the Scene investigated his company's activities. Then, in an apparent attempt to stifle the Scene investigation, Lawson filed a slander lawsuit against James Buford Toon, a former Metro police officer who provided training courses for security guards.
The lawsuit, filed in Davidson County Chancery Court, alleged that Toon "maliciously" claimed to this reporter that Lawson had allowed "his employees to engage in 'shakedowns' of tenants of properties with which he had private security contracts." The lawsuit also alleges that Toon falsely claimed Lawson "engaged in a systematic pattern of rape, robbery, extortion, and intimidation of individuals of Hispanic origin."
Lawson also sent a letter of complaint against the Scene to the Tennessee Department of Commerce and Insurance. He asked state regulators to check whether this reporter was operating as a private investigator without a license.
Donna Hancock, administrative director for the state's private investigation commission, said she phoned Lawson and explained that reporters do not need licenses to research their stories.
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