Willis Also Suspected In Mysterious Disappearance Of His Wife in 1987

  • Thursday, October 17, 2002
Howard Hawk Willis
Howard Hawk Willis

A man suspected in the death of his stepfather and a young Walker County couple is also a suspect in the death of his wife in 1987.

Nancy Debra "Debbie" Winegar Willis, wife of Howard Hawk Willis, was reported missing out of Catoosa County, Ga., and her body was never found.

Chip Bryant, public information officer with the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, said the revelation about the new cases "strengthens our theory that he killed (Debbie Willis) many years ago and concealed the body.

"When we can bring the current cases to a solution, we will look more closely into this matter."

Catoosa County Sheriff Phil Summers said, "We had been anticipating that he was responsible for her death, but we have no evidence to move forward on. It looks like the people Willis associates with often disappear."

Mr. Bryant said the Willis couple lived in Catoosa County, but was in the process of building a house in Bradley County when the wife disappeared in January 1987. He said they never occupied the Bradley County residence.

Sheriff Summers said Gertrude Lark, an aunt of the missing woman who lives in Virginia, had contacted authorities several times about the disappearance of Debbie Willis. She was last seen by family members at Christmas 1986 in Virginia.

Sheriff Summers said there was a custody dispute involving children and Willis "was on the run" about the time of the disappearance of his wife, who was 27 at the time.

He said Willis told authorities the last time he saw his wife was when he left her off at a bus station in Chattanooga after she decided to leave him.

Mr. Bryant said five Bradley County detectives have been in Washington County in Upper East Tennessee all week working on the cases.

The Willis couple lived south of Ringgold while they were in Catoosa County.

The head of a man found in Boone Lake in Johnson City earlier this week was identified as that of Adam Christmer of Walker County.

Christmer, 17, and his wife, Samantha Leming Christmer, had been missing since Oct. 4.

Authorities believe two hands found in the lake are those of Samantha Leming Christmer, 16.

Officials said the case may be linked to the disappearance of Sam Thomas of Bradley County.

Authorities say Willis, stepson of Sam Thomas, knew the Christmers, and the newly married couple came with him to the Johnson City area. Willis, 51, is in custody, but has not been charged in connection with the missing trio.

Fishermen in Washington County, Tn., last weekend found the head and two hands at separate locations in Boone Lake. The hands are believed to be those of a young woman.

Personal items of the young couple were also found.

Sam Thomas disappeared Sept. 7. He was retired farmer living on Old Lead Mine Valley Road.

Willis was in federal court in Greeneville Tuesday morning on drug charges. It was stated at the hearing he had used the credit card of Sam Thomas.

A fisherman found the head Friday about 9 p.m. floating in Boone Lake near Winged Deer Park. Saturday morning, another fisherman found a severed left hand near the edge of the lake. A search team later found a severed right hand below the DeVault Bridge.

Washington County Sheriff Fred Phillips said there was a gunshot wound to the chin or throat area of the severed head.

Christmer called his mother about a week ago and said he was in Johnson City, a missing persons report says.

U.S. Attorney Neil Smith said late last week federal agents received information that Willis had been using the credit card belonging to his stepfather. Willis was arrested two years ago for transporting 2,600 pounds of cocaine to a warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was out on a $28,000 bond on that case.

Use of the credit card was cited by authorities for seeking revoke of his bond.

Officials said Willis stated he had been in Johnson City to care for his elderly mother.

The Christmers were married in August. They had known Willis about six to eight weeks. They once were students at Ridgeland High School.

They were introduced to Willis by Leming's brother, Daniel Foster, who had rented a room from Willis at one time.

Willis recently lived on Brock Road, about eight miles northwest of LaFayette.

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