Taking the old adage of “beware of ex-wives bearing gifts” to heart, Wilda (Willis) Gadd, of Ft. Oglethorpe, Howard Hawk Willis’ former wife, dropped more than a few bombshells with her testimony Tuesday afternoon in his capital murder case.
Key among them was a recording of Mr. Willis, made without his knowledge and while she was wearing a wire for the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, making the statement, “I blew their brains out.” This was in a visit to the Washington County Jail on October 16, 2002.
This was in response to Ms.
Gadd’s question, “Did you kill them? Did you kill them?” The defendant is heard replying, “Adam and Samantha? Yeah, I blew their brains out. I just pulled the trigger right then and there on them.”
Willis will have his opportunity first thing Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. when Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood reconvenes court.
Mr. Willis sat motionless, showing no emotion at all as his voice was heard over the courtroom speaker system. The Knox County jury sat with their ears tuned to every word uttered, some taking notes of the defendant’s spoken words.
While there were others that testified during the afternoon, it was Ms. Gadd’s that was the most riveting as it was the first time any evidence had tied him directly to the murders of Adam and Samantha Chrismer. The two newlyweds were only 17 and 16 at the time of their demise. When his former wife appeared to ask (this portion of the tape was rather inaudible) why he had done it, he replied, “I don’t know Wilda, I just don’t know.”
Both murders were committed in the residence at 104 Brentwood Drive in Johnson City. He had been in Chattanooga and Ft. Oglethorpe just prior to allegedly committing the atrocities.
Later in the set of four recordings presented to the jury, Mr. Willis appears to try and pin the crime on his own mother, now deceased Betty Willis. In his first version of what took place he said in answer to Ms. Gadd’s question about whether Betty knows or not, “No, not that I’m aware of.”
Ms. Gadd told the defendant that, “You’ll be going to the electric chair.”
In other taped conversations, over a cell phone that was equipped with a suction-type device for recording by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, Mr. Willis is heard giving instructions as to where his ex-wife can find the chainsaw used to dismember Adam Chrismer’s body, which was found missing the head and both hands. All three articles plus a scrap of skull tissue were found in Boone Lake, part of the Winged Deer recreation area.
The body of Samantha Leming Chrismer and the torso of Mr. Chrismer were found stuffed into 50-gallon storage bins inside a 24-hour storage facility on Buffalo Drive in Johnson City.
In getting the admissions and other pieces of information from the defendant, the former Mrs. Willis did an admirable job in convincing Mr. Willis that she was trying to help him with his case. She testified that at no point did he ever become suspicious of her working with law enforcement. Other information obtained by Mrs. Gadd was dealing with an object supposedly thrown off the “Ole Johnny Bridge” (Olgiati Bridge), that was never recovered.
Willis also told his former wife that he threw Chrismer’s body parts in the lake “close to the Devault Bridge.” At the close of her first session with the defendant, she told him, “This is life, electric chair.” His response was “Not necessarily. I didn’t premeditate it.”
As before, District Attorney Tony Clark and ADA Dennis Brooks worked hard to deliver their evidence in a slow patient manner, ensuring that the jury was left with a clear understanding of what was told them. Mr. Clark is the DA for the First Judicial District in Tennessee. Washington County is the oldest county in the state and Jonesborough the oldest county seat.
To lead off the afternoon, the state called Dr. Mark Koponen, currently an assistant professor of pathology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine. At the time of his involvement in the case he was a Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation working out of Atlanta. The GBI, in order to have a better line of communication and information flow had asked that the doctor perform a second autopsy of Mrs. Chrismer’s body.
The biggest difference between his examination and that performed by Dr. Mona Stephens, a forensic pathologist who performed the first exam, was that through x-rays he was able to discover an intact bullet in the young woman’s chest. Dr. Koponen’s testimony was that the bullet had probably fallen into the location during the first autopsy or initial handling of the corpse. It had been Dr. Stephen’s testimony that her facility did not possess the type of x-ray equipment to have shown this finding.
Her answer to the cause of death question was that it occurred by a gunshot wound to the head. She did recover four bullet fragments as part of her autopsy.
The projection of the x-rays taken by Dr. Koponen clearly showed a mass in the chest cavity that was clearly a bullet as described. His finding of death by a gunshot wound to the chest was simply one of “That’s where I found the bullet.”
The rest of his findings matched Dr. Stephen’s very closely.
A former neighbor on Brentwood Drive, with animosity dripping from her lips every time she mentioned the defendant, gave the most animated testimony of the day. Ms. Wilma Clay of 106 Brentwood Drive in Johnson City, responded to the defendant on cross when he asked, “You didn’t get along with Betty Hawk did you?” “No,” she snapped, “Nobody did. She was low-life evil just like you!”
At this point Judge Blackwood instructed the jury to disregard the witnesses’ last comment.
Other witnesses for the afternoon session were James Miller, a private attorney in Johnson City who had had occasion to visit inside the Hawk/Willis resident just prior to the murders. He described the interior of the home as, “dirty, with lots of debris on the floor.” He also pointed out where there had previously been carpet on the floor, some was now missing.
Shaunda Efaw, a detective sergeant with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, was one of the first investigators to work the case out of Bradley County. She conducted several interviews with the accused, as well as being with Mrs. Gadd when the chainsaw was recovered.
Mr. Willis did not have a lot of questions on cross, and the one’s he asked seemingly had no relevance to what the witnesses had just told the jury. An example of this was when he questioned Sgt. Efaw as to whether she recalled him telling her that he did not keep up with dates very well, that she would have to ask his ex-wife. He also questioned her about a letter that Mrs. Gadd had sent her, asking if it was post-marked from Chattanooga. She replied in the affirmative to both.
The other witness called in the afternoon was Captain Debbie Vitello. Willis’ line of questions to the Washington County deputy ran to whether she had spoken with a number of officers with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, to which she replied no to each and every name mentioned.
Court was adjourned for the day just prior to 6 p.m. Judge Blackwood again instructed the jury against looking at any form of news media. He also told the sequestered group of 18 that this Sunday the Washington County had arranged family time for their families to spend time with them here in Jonesborough.
(Email Dennis Norwood at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at DennisENorwood. Listen for live reports on WGOW Talk Radio 102.3 with Jeff Styles and Kevin West.)