Friends, co-workers mourn loss of murder victim Steven Payne

The arrest made Saturday in the beating death of an Aubrey’s assistant manager left friends and co-workers still struggling to cope with the loss of a man with a reputation of caring for others.

Maryville police arrested Bryan Kevin Thomas, 37, in the death of Steven Payne, who was found bludgeoned to death in his downtown Maryville apartment on Thanksgiving evening. Maryville Police Chief Tony Crisp said the motive was theft, and items stolen from Payne were traded for drugs.

Randy Burleson, owner of Aubrey’s, said losing Payne over a robbery for drugs showed the “worst part of humanity.”

“The reason Steve came to work for Aubrey’s was he wanted to take care of his 80-plus year-old grandmother,” Burleson said. “He wanted to take care of everybody. He was all about family, and he loved his job. The guy was so loved, and to be killed over a stupid television and Blu-ray player, it’s terrible.”

Maryville Police were called to Payne’s apartment on Harper Avenue on Thanksgiving evening after Payne’s family requested they do a welfare check when he did not show for Thanksgiving dinner.

“We went there shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday,” Crisp said. “We had to make a forced entry, and we found, lying on the couch, the deceased victim, Steven Payne. It was obvious from the extent of his injuries that he was the victim of a homicide.”

Crisp said police initiated an in-depth investigation and identified people of interest, leading to Thomas’ arrest on Saturday.

A large screen television and a Blu-ray player were stolen from Payne’s apartment. “These items were taken, and we recovered them at a residence in South Knoxville,” Crisp said. “Mr. Payne was not involved in drugs. The stolen items were traded for drugs.”

“We found (Thomas) at a trailer park off old Knoxville Highway, and he did not resist arrest,” Crisp said. “He did not confess.”

Crisp said an autopsy was done at noon on Friday at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. “The cause of death, which was obvious and apparent, was blunt force trauma to the head,” Crisp said. “He was beaten to death.”

The chief said Payne had known his killer for years and had recently talked with him. “They grew up on the same street in Maryville,” he said. “Steven had picked Kevin Bryan Thomas up, and he (Thomas) was in the company of his girlfriend. He arrived there with a female friend, and she was there the whole time the defendant was there. Our investigation is still on-going. We believe he (Payne) was murdered in the early morning hours of Wednesday, before 5 a.m.”

Crisp said the suspect and his girlfriend went to an area motel after the incident.

The chief said different people were arrested in the course of the investigation on various unrelated charges. “We are going to continue this investigation.”

Crisp praised his officers and detectives for their efforts. “Our detectives worked around the clock, and all members of the Maryville Police Department worked very diligently,” he said.

Thomas was charged with criminal homicide and held at the Blount County Jail on $750,000 bond pending a 9 a.m. Dec. 7 General Sessions Court hearing, Crisp said.

Jody Slimp, general manager at Aubrey’s in Maryville, said it had been a difficult time for the staff as they dealt the death of one of their assistant managers.

“I think anyone who knew Steve well loved him. We extend our thoughts and prayers to his family and thank the people of Blount County who have reached out to us,” Slimp said.

The manager said the staff is experiencing pain, sadness and anger. “It’s hard to understand. We all feel solace in remembering Steve, in how kind and generous he was and what a fine friend he was,” Slimp said. “If we love and support one another in the same way Steve would have, we will work through this and find peace.”

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