Billy Hawk’s nearly 40-year-long saga came to an end after Hawk pled nolo contendere to a lesser plea of voluntary manslaughter in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Monday morning. This plea will set Hawk free, as he has already served the five-year prison sentence required.
Under terms of the plea, Hawk will be forbidden from speaking to the victim’s family.
District Attorney Neal Pinkston said, "I am very proud of the Cold Case Unit and all prosecutors who worked on this case to obtain a conviction. The pursuit of justice and prosecution of an almost 40 year old case is extremely difficult to say the least, but we have now identified and convicted Johnny Mack Salyer's murderer. His family will no longer wonder."
He said the victim’s family is okay with the plea agreement, and is appreciative of the work done by the office’s Cold Case Unit.
Hawk allegedly murdered Johnny Salyer and stuffed his body in a barrel back in 1981. He was found guilty in a 2016 trial. However, he was granted a retrial in 2019 after issues were found with the prosecution.
“The circumstances of the prosecution have been extraordinary for everyone, and we’re just pleased that we could bring an end to it today, for Mr. Hawk and for everyone,” said his attorney, Melanie Bean.
Judge Don Poole last year had granted a new trial to Hawk, who earlier had been sentenced to life in prison.
The 1981 cold case murder had been reopened in 2015 after almost 35 years of silence. Witness testimony in the trial ranged from expert forensics agents to friends and family of both Hawk and Salyer.
Judge Poole said testimony by Cleveland attorney Jim Logan "that he made mistakes but the other defense lawyers made non-tactical mistakes amounting to ineffective assistance of counsel is troubling."
He said attorney Logan was Hawk's first lawyer and "was clearly upset" when Hawk later chose Chattanooga attorney Bill Speek as his lead counsel.
The judge added, "As long as a lawyer continues to represent a client, however, he should participate fully in decision making and, if certain things are not done or should be done, he should take an active role in making sure those things are done. If he cannot do this, the appropriate course would seem to be to withdraw from the case. It is sincerely hoped that any lawyer who goes to trial does his best to ensure that his client receives a fair trial."
Judge Poole said the main reason he decided to grant a new trial was based on "acts and omissions" relating to witness Terry Slaughter, a former Chattanooga Police detective who later was charged and convicted in Federal Court.
The judge noted that former District Attorney Gary Gerbitz was called as a witness and was critical of Slaughter's credibility, calling him "a crooked cop" and a liar. He said there was a heated exchange between witness Gerbitz and current District Attorney Neal Pinkston, who then asked if he was aware that Slaughter had passed lie detector tests. He said former DA Gerbitz replied, "I don't know that at all." The judge said the questions about the polygraph tests were inappropriate and bolstered Slaughter's credibility.
The state’s narrative claimed Hawk, possibly fearing Salyer would testify against him in court after a drug-related arrest, shot the victim, stuffed him inside a steel barrel, and dropped him in the Tennessee River."
The defense contended that the majority of witness testimony was unreliable due to the number of years that had passed since the slaying.
They also pointed out several pieces of valuable evidence that had been lost or destroyed, including the barrel itself.
Click here for the Poole order, and here for the Poole memorandum.