30th Anniversary Of Signal Mountain Murders

  • Monday, July 9, 2018
  • Williams Watts
Kenneth Griffith, Earl Smock and Richard Mason
Kenneth Griffith, Earl Smock and Richard Mason

Thirty years ago, this community was stunned by the senseless disappearance of three men on Signal Mountain. 

On the afternoon of July 9, 1988, Kenneth Griffith and Earl Smock, two members of the same Air Force Squadron, were on weekend leave visiting Mr. Griffith's father-in-law Richard Mason at Mr. Mason's home in Hamilton County. The three men decided to ride four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles ("ATVs") to the "blue-hole," a local swimming area on Signal Mountain. In order to make the trip, Mr. Mason borrowed an ATV from his friend and neighbor, Stanley Nixon. The trio never returned. 

Frank Casteel had recently bought property near the blue hole. On the afternoon of the disappearance, Vince Brown was helping a friend back a moving van out onto a narrow mountain road and had to stop traffic in order to back the truck out of a driveway. He stopped the Casteel driving a muddy Jeep Scrambler; Casteel's wife was also in the jeep. Mr. Brown and the defendant got into a conversation, and Casteel told Mr. Brown that he and his wife were going camping that weekend. Then Casteel left. Later that evening, between 6 and 8 p.m., Mr. Brown heard a rapid succession of gunshots coming from near Casteel's land.

William Wiggins, one of Casteel's neighbors, also heard a series of gunshots coming from the direction of Casteel's property on July 9, 1988. Between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m., Mr. Wiggins heard between five and eight shots, all of which were fired within about ten seconds of each other. Sometime later that night, Mildred Hines saw a jeep near Sawyer Road with one or two ATVs in the back. Also on July 9, 1988, Pam O'Neal was camping on property that was near the Casteel's. That evening she heard ATVs cross her property. Shortly after that, she heard gunshots. Around 2 a.m. the next morning, Ms. O'Neal woke up and decided to go home. As she and her husband were leaving, they saw someone driving a Jeep near Sawyer Road, the area where the ATVs were ultimately found. Jerry and Donna Anderson were in the area where the bodies were ultimately discovered on the night of July 9, 1988 and the early morning of July 10, 1988. They were looking for their son, who was supposedly camping in that area. Some time before 1:30 a.m. July 10, 1988, Jerry and Donna Anderson saw a jeep that was "loaded down" with weight in the back. They also said there was a tarp in the jeep, but when pressed, both Mr. And Mrs. Anderson explained that by "tarp" they meant the canvas top of the jeep. They identified the jeep to the police and identified Casteel's son, Donnie Casteel, as the driver. However, at trial, Donnie Casteel testified that he worked until 11 p.m. on July 9, 1988, and that he went to his grandfather's house after that to go to bed. His grandfather confirmed his story.

Several others also thought a jeep was in the area that night. Janice Hall lived near Sawyer Road, and heard a large-tired vehicle passing her home several times between 3 and 4 a.m. on July 10, 1988. Later that morning at around 6 a.m., she saw a female driving the Casteel's jeep with a dog in the back. Hershell Green, a neighbor of Casteel's, heard what he believed to be Casteel's jeep on Sawyer Road at around 5 a.m. James Walling, who lived on Sawyer Road, saw Casteel's jeep driving in the area at about 6:15 a.m. He remembered Casteel's headlights were off, and daylight was just breaking.

The next day, John Lines observed a woman washing blood out of the back of a jeep at a local car wash. Mr. Lines asked the woman whether it was blood, and the woman replied that she had just taken a pig to the slaughterhouse. Because slaughterhouses are normally closed on Sundays, Mr. Lines found the woman's answer suspicious so he wrote down the license plate number. Later, Mr. Lines saw Casteel driving a jeep, and Mr. Lines checked Casteel's license plate. The number matched that of the license plate he saw at the car wash.

Sunday morning, July 10, 1988 a search party was organized to find the victims. Officer Larry Sneed of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Department responded to a call and found three ATVs dumped in an illegal dumpsite. Two of those ATVs were covered in blood. Bone chips were recovered from one of the ATVs. These were later found to be pieces of a skull that had been hit by a bullet. Police began referring to this area as "Crime Scene I." After finding out that the ATVs had been found, Lee Griffith, one of the victims' brother, was driving home to tell his mother about the news when his vehicle began having trouble. He stopped a jeep, coincidentally driven by Casteel, and asked for a ride. Casteel gave Mr. Griffith a ride, and Mr. Griffith noticed that the jeep was wet in the back. Mr. Griffith thought that the water in the jeep was unusual because it had not rained recently.

On Monday, July 11, 1988, the search party began searching the "Helican Road," which was more of a trail that crossed the Casteel's property and led to the blue hole. As the party began to search the Helican Road, they arrived at the "gate,"in actuality an area where a gate used to be. They noticed that the area around the gate had been manicured, or cleaned so much that it looked unusual. There, the search party found spots of blood and what would later be identified as brain tissue. A more thorough search uncovered a pocketknife belonging to one of the victims and, outside the manicured area, large pools of blood. A police dog later found more blood in the area. Police eventually called this area "Crime Scene II."

Following their discoveries, the search party continued searching the area around the gate. Less than a mile from the gate, the party searched Casteel's campsite. In the fire pit and around the campsite, the search party found burnt, blue plastic and a metal grommet. Police collected the substance. At trial, a witness testified that he had seen Casteel with a blue tarp in the back of his jeep the day of the murders.

Portia McDowell lived between 12 and 14 miles away from the blue hole, on Big Fork Road. On Monday, July 11, 1988, Ms. McDowell was taking her customary walk along Big Fork Road. As usual, she passed an illegal dump site on the side of the road. On this walk, however, she noticed something different. The dump site had been cleaned, and a terrible odor emanated from the dump. Ms. McDowell told her husband, Burnie McDowell, about the dump. Mr. McDowell went to look at the dump on Wednesday, July 13, 1988. He noticed a horrible smell and buzzing flies. When Mr. McDowell investigated, he found the victims' bodies. Police were notified, and this area became known as "Crime Scene III."

Dr. Frank King, the Hamilton County medical examiner, performed autopsies on the bodies. He found that the skull fragments that had been discovered at Crime Scene II matched the skull of Kenneth Griffith. Mr. Griffith died from a shotgun blast to the head which left a portion of his head missing. Richard Mason also died from a shotgun blast, but Mr. Mason was shot in the chest. Earl Smock also died from shotgun blasts. Mr. Smock was shot twice, once with "birdshot," or smaller pellets, and once with "buckshot," or larger pellets.

On Monday, July 11, 1988, Detective Sneed asked all property owners in the area to come to the area that the police were searching. Casteel came to the area that afternoon. Detective Sneed asked to see Casteel's vehicle, which was parked at a friend's house. Detectives went with Casteel to see the jeep, and Casteel gave detectives permission to search the jeep. Inside the jeep, detectives found a "logbook" that belonged to Casteel. Inside the book, Casteel had recorded the details of several encounters that he had had with trespassers, including most of the trespassers' names, telephone numbers and license plate numbers. The detective asked Casteel if he could have the book, and Casteel gave his permission. The detectives then asked Casteel whether he owned a shotgun, and Casteel said that he did. Casteel then gave the detectives permission to borrow the gun, and the detectives went to Casteel's house to retrieve it. Ballistics tests performed on the shell fragments and wadding from the scene indicated that the gun may or may not have fired the fatal shots.

Although Casteel remained a suspect, he was not charged until years later. Before Casteel was charged, in August of 1996, Marie Hill, an old friend of Casteel's, began having an affair with him. After the affair began, Ms. Hill received two anonymous letters that accused Casteel of committing the murders. The letters also contained newspaper clippings about the murders. At trial, Suzie Casteel, Casteel's wife, testified that she wrote the letters in an effort to sabotage Casteel's affair, but that Casteel was really innocent. Not long after the affair began, Ms. Hill allowed the police to install listening devices on her phone lines and in her house. On Oct. 12, 1996, Casteel's wife came to Ms. Hill's house and confronted Casteel and Ms. Hill. That confrontation turned into a five-hour conversation between Casteel, his wife and his mistress. During trial, the court played a tape of the entire conversation for the jury.

Police executed a search warrant of Casteel's residence in order to find the anonymous letter that Casteel had taken from Ms. Hill. While searching for the letters, Police seized 44 items, including a shotgun and ammunition. Casteel was finally charged with the murders on April 15, 1997. Casteel filed a motion to change venue due to the amount of publicity in the case, and the court granted the motion. The jury was selected in Loudon County and brought to Hamilton County for the trial. Before the trial, Casteel moved to exclude any evidence of Casteel's prior confrontations with trespassers, but the court denied the motion. At trial, 18 witnesses testified to prior confrontations that they had with Casteel when they came on or near Casteel's property.

Casteel maintained, both before and during trial, that he had nothing to do with the murders. He testified that he was camping on his property near Crime Scene II on the night of July 9, 1988. He testified that he and his wife went to the blue hole that afternoon and that they did not return to the campsite until after 10 p.m. Casteel testified that he and his wife merely went to sleep that night, and that they did not hear anything unusual. Frank Casteel was found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder. A jury convicted Casteel of the killings in 1998, but the Court of Criminal Appeals ordered a new trial, stating that some evidence should not have been admitted. The conviction was upheld in that trial on May 7, 2003.

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