Federal agents took Vennie Leroy Keaton into custody shortly after 10:30 a.m. in Cookeville, Tenn., according to Sheriff Ronnie Hitchcock of Sequatchie County, Tenn. Keaton is being taken to a detention center in Tennessee where he faces charges related to the theft of a car belonging to Melissa Leann Hudgins.
Hudgins, 32, of Cedar Bluff was found dead Wednesday morning in a building at Gadsden State Community College’s Centre campus. Hudgins and Keaton were co-workers, employed by Anniston-based V.I.S. Management Services, a cleaning company that worked for the college under a contract, authorities have said.
Keaton surrendered to authorities without incident, according to a release posted today on the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office website. A team of investigators from the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office, Center Police Department and the Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office are in Tennessee assisting with the investigation, the release said.
Keaton is expected to be extradited to Cherokee County, the release said, though it did not specify when.
Centre Mayor Tony Wilkie said that on Tuesday, Keaton arrived at his 7-year-old son’s school in Cherokee County. Keaton checked the boy out, and told school officials that his son was moving to Tennessee, Hitchcock said.
Speaking by phone this morning, Hitchcock, the sheriff in Tennessee, said his office became involved in the investigation even before Hudgins’ homicide was discovered. Her Pontiac Grand Am was found Tuesday about 6 p.m., abandoned on Tennessee Highway 28 about 50 miles east of Cookeville, the city where Keaton was later apprehended, the sheriff said.
Sequatchie sheriff’s deputies traced the vehicle to Hudgins, and learned that she had been reported missing in Alabama. Deputies towed the vehicle and contacted authorities in Alabama, who told the Tennessee officials that foul play was not suspected in Hudgins’ disappearance at that time, according to Hitchcock.
“The next morning they called us and said, ‘Oh, by the way, we found out she’s been murdered,’” Hitchcock said. A security guard at Gadsden State had found her body in a mechanical room in a campus arena at about 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Sequatchie County sheriff’s deputies returned to the location where the car was found and began investigating the scene. There, they found Keaton’s ID near the spot where the car was found, Hitchcock said. Deputies searched a nearby field for evidence and found Hudgins’ credit cards and cell phone, the sheriff said.
On Thursday, authorities named Keaton a “person of interest” in the case, and said he was wanted in Cherokee County and in Tennessee on theft charges related to the case, including the theft of Hudgins’ Grand Am.
Authorities searched for Keaton and his son, working carefully in order to preserve the welfare of the child, Wilkie said. Officials found the boy in Crossville, Tenn., about 35 miles from Cookeville.
Staff writer Laura Johnson: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LJohnson_Star.