(LifeSiteNews) — A Tennessee pro-lifer filed a petition for judicial review within the local court system in her ongoing efforts to uncover the truth behind a suspicious fire at a Planned Parenthood facility.
Jennifer Hay, a resident of the Knoxville suburb of Farragut, is searching for answers related to an arson investigation. She is questioning the legitimacy of evidence that has led to the naming of suspect Mark Reno, who died last year after being arrested on unrelated charges of being involved with a shooting at a government building.
Hay, who has taken an interest in the case since the fire occurred on December 31, 2021, explained to LifeSiteNews that she is “asking the City of Knoxville to turn over all records related to the fire which destroyed Knoxville’s Planned Parenthood Center.” Most important, the request “includ[es] a video of the alleged arsonist, Mark Reno, which was surreptitiously recorded by an investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department on April 26, 2022.”
On April 25, 2023, Eric Vreeland, deputy director of communications for the City of Knoxville, communicated by email that “all records will be available to the public once the investigation is closed.”
Yet it has been more than 20 months since the fire. After receiving no response whatsoever to a formal request for records sent on July 18, Hay filed a petition for judicial review with the Knox County Chancery Court. “This is a violation of Tennessee law, which requires that officials respond within seven business days, making the records available, justifying denial or asking for more time,” Hay said.
According to a copy of the petition shared with LifeSiteNews, the request was made after Vreeland did not respond to the records request as required under the Tennessee Open Records Act (TORA). At the time of the filing on August 16, Hay had received no response to the request. On September 13, Vreeland informed her that while the City of Knoxville had compiled the requested materials, it is still awaiting clarification about the status of the FBI investigation and will contact her once further details are known, allowing the city to make a final decision about making the records public.
Vreeland also responded to LifeSiteNews’ request for comment by explaining that the city had not been served an Order to Show Cause — which was part of the request in the petition — and therefore was unable to comment on the case of which they have yet to be officially informed. When the order is given to the city, officials will likely be unable to provide comment on the pending litigation, per a long-standing policy.
The Order to Show Cause would require the City of Knoxville to justify its actions for withholding public records to the Knox County chancery court. Hay’s attorney is currently working to ensure that the order is served as it was supposed to be through the petition.
Inconsistent evidence raises questions about arsonist
Hay explained that there have been ongoing inconsistencies throughout the investigation, including confusion about which law enforcement agency is holding which evidence. The Knoxville Fire Department (KFD) “was in charge of certain aspects of the forensic investigation,” such as determining where and how the fire started and if there was an accelerant, while the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) held the reigns “of the criminal investigation.”
“Now, our problem is we actually don’t know who has the records,” Hay told LifeSiteNews in a phone interview. “Ideally, we’d like to have all the records that everybody has, but we are especially interested in one single record … We want the recording of Mark Reno, which was made by an investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department on April 26, 2022.”
Hay said that two FBI agents wrote two different affidavits that “both talk about that single recording, and they talk about it completely differently.” In July 2022, FBI special agent Jessi Mann submitted an affidavit supporting evidence to obtain an arrest warrant for Reno on charges of destruction of government property. Mann refers to the April 26 recording as evidence that Reno talked about “targets” for destruction.
“[Mann] doesn’t mention anything about abortion clinics. It didn’t come up, and she had verbatim quotes in her affidavit,” Hay said.
The second FBI agent, Thomas Calhoon, reiterated in a September 2022 affidavit Mann’s testimony that Reno should be charged with destruction of government property but also claimed that he was responsible for the Planned Parenthood arson.
When citing the April 26, 2022, recording, Calhoon said that “Reno made several statements about the destruction of the [Planned Parenthood] Center and a plan to burn the Center when reconstruction began.” Calhoon further alleged that Reno was also planning to burn another abortion facility in Knoxville, adding at the end of his section on the recording that the suspect had plans to destroy government property.
“I’d like to hear that recording for myself,” Hay told LifeSiteNews. “I think it’s very strange that one FBI agent said Reno talked about burning Knoxville abortion clinics, while the other agent, describing the very same video, didn’t mention abortion clinics at all. I’d like to hear for myself what Reno actually said.”
Hay further explained that she filed a request under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain the record from the FBI, knowing that the federal agency certainly has the recording as it was reviewed by two special agents, and that “they will not turn [it] over.”
Although the FOIA request was filed in April 2023, Hay was informed after 90 days that while the agency does hold the record, she would not be granted access to it “because that would violate Mark Reno’s privacy rights.” Reno died on August 15, 2022, less than three months before the FBI officially declared him the arsonist.
Hay requested the same recording from the City of Knoxville because it “was made by an investigator for the Knoxville Fire Department acting in his official capacity.” Previous stumbling blocks occurred when the department claimed it didn’t have the recording because “we were just assisting with the investigation.” But Hay pointed out that “the citizens of Knoxville paid for that recording,” which was made by a city employee, and that there should at least be a “record of transfer.”
Preparing for denied requests
While she “hope[s] that we’ll be granted access to these materials” through the various records requests, Hay told LifeSiteNews that this is “actually not my expectation” and that “we are preparing for the various reasons … the City of Knoxville might give for not producing the record.”
Citing a conversation with KFD assistant chief Mark Wilbanks, Hay added that “this fire started inside the building,” which is “another reason why I wonder how Mark Reno did this” as the question of how he entered the building, which was under construction at the time, was “dropped” by investigators. Hay said that although Wilbanks provided her some of these details, she still “want[s] to see it on paper” along with all the details of the forensic investigation and the accelerant that authorities previously disclosed as being used.
Last month, LifeSiteNews published an open letter to Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Burchett, requesting his influential assistance to subpoena the recording of Reno from the FBI and unveil the crucial piece of evidence for the public.
Contact for respectful communication:
Rep. Burchett’s office