So, the day came that I had closed the door to my office, as I sometimes did after we’d gotten that day’s editions of the Chattanooga News-Free Press to bed. My door was never closed … I hate that … but it only meant I was writing a column and was a sign to everybody I needed an hour or so of quiet. But, no, soon there was a slight knock on the door and, so help me, through the window stood “Colonel Sanders” of fried chicken fame. As I jumped to let the visitor in, he asked if I was “Roy” and as I realized this wasn’t the Harlan Sanders I had met at the Kentucky Derby, my visitor said, “We really need to talk.”
This guy was the quintessential Southern aristocrat.
His long white hair flowed down the back of his neck. His well-tailored suit was solid white, and a bright blue tie came from above his starched shirt’s collar pin. “I read you all the time,” he said, before sticking out his hand in greeting. “My name is Bobby Lee Cook from down in Summerville.”
My Lord have mercy! This was the same Bobby Lee they patterned the hit TV show ‘Matlock’ after, the same lawyer who “walked” Manuel Noriega, and the same longtime friend who died last Friday, age 94, at his mountain “cabin” down near Cloudland Canyon. Yes, we were friends ever since that initial meeting in the late 80s. Somewhere around here is a picture of the two of us laughing, sharing cigars on a bench outside the Dade County Courthouse, and there is another of us having lunch at his Lookout Mountain hideaway (You ain’t never seen quite the “cabin” it was.
The first day we met we “jawed” a little and then he said, “You’re a friend of Bobby Hoppe’s, aren’t you?”
“Yes sir, I sure am. Once time Shug Jordan, the Auburn coach, told me Bobby Hoppe was the toughest football player that ever was at Auburn.” Bobby Lee nodded and then said, “Bobby Hoppe is going to be indicted for murder in maybe three weeks, and I’m here asking for your help.
“I told him that I was coming to see you so he knows I am here. I’ll keep you out of the spotlight but this time it is going to be hard – after he had gotten back to Auburn after the killing 30 years ago, he allegedly confessed what he’d done to a part-time preacher. Now they are saying the ‘pastor-parishioner exception’ which is very permissible in Tennessee, doesn’t apply … and that preacher wants to exonerate his soul. He wants to testify.”
Oh mercy. I knew the legend of Bobby Hoppe well. By then I’d had years’ worth of conversations about it with people who knew him best, from old Central High coaches and players, plus a bunch of Auburn people, but then I got to know Hoppe pretty well. He was a super guy, quiet and reserved.
Hoppe hardly looked like a superstar, not six feet tall and his playing weight about 175, much less a killer. I also knew Hoppe’s wife, who was the University President of Austin Peay State, and Sherri was the furthest thing from being a dummy in love with a murderer. Further, she and Bobby were a perfect couple.
From the minute Bobby Lee told me to never, ever, call him Mr. Cook, there had been a slowing parade outside my office as editors and writers passed in front of my door. I was dying to introduce them to the famed Bobby Lee Cook but he said no, “Let’s not get interrupted.”
At about the 30-minute mark, my grandfather – Roy McDonald, the newspaper publisher – who never knocked, came into the office, and said,, “Hello Bobby Lee! I heard you were here and wanted you to know how flattered I am.”
“Mr. Roy,, my friend! Forgive me for not asking permission, I should have done that, but I need ‘Little Roy’ to help me … in a couple of weeks they are going to indict Bobby Hoppe. I need ‘Little Roy’ to share his contacts and keep a pulse on the city for me …”
The lawyer told my grandfather that Hoppe had confessed the 30-year old murder to the preacher and that now the preacher wanted to confess what he knew. My grandfather,, as well as the majority of Chattanooga, knew about Bobby Hoppe and, as an ever-proud Central alum, had watched Hoppe in several of his greatest high school games for “The Purple Pounders.”
He, too, had heard the rumors for 30 years. He asked Bobby Lee what was he going to do? “On the day the trial opens, Roy is going to write a story that Hoppe killed Terry Donald Hudson in cold-blooded first-degree murder. And then,” Bobby Lee said with a wink, “I’m going to get Hoppe off scot free.”
Up until then I hadn’t said a word, and, brother, this was going too fast for me. “Wait a minute. I don’t know that be true. I don’t know Bobby did that …” I told both men.
“You do now. Bobby told Leroy Phillips (another great Chattanooga attorney) and me less than a week ago. ‘You damn right, I killed Hudson,’ and I am going to say as much in my opening statement. Roy, you’ll quote me if you must… and then we are going to get Bobby off as a free man who can never be charged again (on double-jeopardy grounds.)
My grandfather shook his head, laughing slightly because Bobby Lee enjoyed over a 90 percent success rate in murder trials, and stood as he said to us, “You boys better get busy. Bobby Lee, you come see us anytime about anything, and if you can’t contact Roy, call me because I can find him. As he opened the door, he looked back and added, “Win this one, Bobby Lee. Good must conquer evil …”
When my grandfather left the room, Bobby Lee asked me to reconstruct the murder as I knew it. Understand that every point I made was based on hear-say – not an ounce admissible in a court of law. Further, the longer the legend had thrived, the greater the chance for personal innuendo, bias, and for people to misspeak, not to mention that most had no idea what they were talking about. Bobby Lee drew out a legal pad and nodded he was well aware of the circumstances:
* * *
WHAT I HAD HEARD ABOUT BOBBY HOPPE’S MURDER CHARGES
When Bobby Lee Cook came to see me in February of 1988, I was just faintly aware of the actual murder that took place in 1957. I didn’t start as a sportswriter until 10 years later, but it was the most sensational story in all of Chattanooga sports, and one of the best overall, period.
In the summer of 1957, Auburn football coach Shug Jordan (pronounced ‘jer-DAN) kept Auburn’s best players on campus because he felt his Tigers were special … and they were, winning the national championship that year. But in Chattanooga, there was a 24-year-old thug – Don Hudson -- who was boasting about his conquests with the Auburn star’s sister, which in itself was candidly suicidal.
Hudson had a police record of flight, physical assaults and even did a short stretch in jail for hauling whiskey. After a night of carousing on July 19, 1957, he ended up at Nikki’s Drive-In drinking through “last call,” and when he headed home about 1 a.m. on what was July 20, he didn’t notice a black Ford coupe trail him toward the Market Street Bridge on Cherokee Avenue.
Hudson stopped for a traffic light and, as the Ford pulled alongside, he had just a second to recognize Hoppe before Bobby one-armed a shotgun lying across the front seat and blasted Hudson in the side of his head. The escaping Hudson made a turn onto Bell Avenue before plowing into a tree, and died minutes after arriving at Erlanger.
Hoppe drove to his mother’s, went to bed,, and got up for breakfast that morning before he drove back to Auburn. Not necessarily a Christian, Hoppe remembered Coach Jordan taking the team to the Baptist Church and, quite distraught over what he had done, sought a pastor that same afternoon so that he might confess his sins. The only person he could find was a student pastor, who he told what had happened, and it was said that in his senior year at Auburn, he was more withdrawn and reserved despite his prowess as a player and the team’s national title.
Shortly after the murder, Bobby was the focal in some type of coroner’s inquest, but nothing could be proven, and it was deemed “a cold case.”
* * *
When I first met Bobby Lee Cook, the case had opened back up. The trial attracted national coverage … many of the nation’s largest news outlets following every hour, and it ended in a hung jury, 10 votes to two, and a retrial effort was squelched. Bobby Hoppe died of natural causes on April 7, 2008, at the age of 73.
His wife Sherri wrote a well-received book, “A Matter of Conscience: The Redemption of Hometown Hero Bobby Hoppe,” that he had given his blessing before he died, and since she has written other books and devotionals.
And, yes, there were many times when Bobby Lee Cook made sure good would win over evil.