District Attorney Neal Pinkston announced Wednesday that his Cold Case Unit has solved a murder going back 42 years in a case that he said has ties to the corrupt Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton administration.
The Hamilton County Grand Jury ruled in nine pages of findings that it would have indicted Chattanooga crime figure Ed Alley for the first-degree premeditated murder of liquor store operator and alleged mob associate Samuel Pettyjohn – except for the fact that Alley died in 2005.
District Attorney Pinkston, along with CCU supervisor Mike Mathis and Investigator Ben Scott, presented their new findings before the grand jury on Tuesday.
DA Pinkston said the confirmation by the grand jury of the investigative findings means the cold case murder of Pettyjohn is officially closed.
“Our Cold Case Unit put in countless hours to solve this unusual case,” said DA Pinkston. “Hopefully, it will bring some closure and peace to Pettyjohn’s surviving family members.”
One of Pettyjohn's sons, Saadiq, was present for the news conference with his wife, sister and two daughters, and speaking on behalf of his 92-year-old mother and the entire family, thanked DA Pinkston and everyone involved in solving his father's murder. "It is a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that is connected to crime," said Saadiq Pettyjohn. "When that person dies, you can either go that route, or you can go a different route, and all of us chose to go a better route with education and try to do better in our lives."
On Feb. 1, 1979, Samuel Pettyjohn was discovered at the Beverage Center at 2001 ½ Market St. deceased from multiple gunshot wounds. Pettyjohn was the proprietor of the Beverage Center.
The case was first investigated by the Chattanooga Police Department, then it was taken up by the Cold Case Unit in 2015.
At the Beverage Center crime scene, investigators located seven .45 caliber shell casings. A .38 caliber pistol was found near the body of Pettyjohn. That pistol had not been fired.
The DA said Pettyjohn was carrying cash and jewelry worth over $100,000 at the time, but those items were not taken and the cash register was not disturbed.
Police located an attache case owned by Pettyjohn that contained a recording device with some 4-5 recordings inside. The attache case, the recording device and the recordings were removed from the crime scene and have never been located. DA Pinkston said some witnesses have indicated there were at least 40-50 total recordings.
The police department located eyewitnesses to the homicide, who described the suspect as a heavy-set black male with a beard and glasses standing over Pettyjohn and shooting him. After the murder, the suspect, who was wearing a trench coat, exited the Beverage Center and fired 1-2 shots in the air.
The suspect traveled out of sight and disappeared.
DA Pinkston said Pettyjohn had previously owned a number of nightclubs and stores on 9th Street (MLK Boulevard). He said Pettyjohn had strong ties with the Teamsters Union and was a personal friend of Jimmy Hoffa.
He said, “Pettyjohn was also active with a number of prominent Chattanooga business owners who engaged in both legal and illegal activities. He also assisted individuals in the local and state Democratic Party."
The DA said Pettyjohn's nightclubs on 9th Street were insured by Lloyds of London. On Aug. 8, 1974, a bomb exploded in the 300 block of 9th Street, destroying all of Pettyjohn’s businesses and other buildings. One person was killed.
DA Pinkston said around 1976 “illegal activities began between citizens of the state of Tennessee and then governor of Tennessee Ray Blanton. The illegal activities constituted citizens paying Governor Blanton or his designees amounts of cash money in exchange for prisoners in the Tennessee Department of Corrections to receive an early parole.”
He also said, “A Chattanooga businessman known as William Aubrey Thompson engaged in various gambling ventures as well and was a local county Democratic boss for the Blanton campaign.” He said Thompson was also known as Bob Rountree. He said beginning in 1976, Thompson raised cash and paid the money to Blanton’s office in exchange for the early release of Tommy Prater, Larkin Bibbs, William Cole and others.
He said Pettyjohn helped Thompson secure the early release of Bibbs.
The DA said records showed that Thompson and Pettyjohn would visit inmates ”ostensibly for the purposes of indicating that money would secure their early release from TDOC.” He said after these meetings, Thompson and Pettyjohn would secure the money and pay them to the Blanton office.
He said the FBI began an investigation known as Operation TennPar that was headed by Agent Hank Hillin, who later wrote a book about it.
During that investigation, Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, and on at least one occasion he did testify before a grand jury. He said Pettyjohn later met with Agent Hillin and agreed to cooperate in the probe.
The DA said Pettyjohn's meeting with Hillin and other agents was in an abandoned building near downtown Chattanooga. He said Pettyjohn provided a list of names of individuals who secured money to pay the governor’s office for the early release of prisoners. The list was maintained as an exhibit in the FBI investigative file. The DA said the Cold Case Unit was not able to secure a copy of the list despite filing open records requests.
In December 1978, certain individuals were indicted in the pardons and parole case. Blanton was not charged in that scheme, but he was later federally indicted for issues related to the issuance of liquor licenses.
DA Pinkston said William Aubrey Thompson was later convicted in the Pardons and Parole scheme. He said Thompson agreed to cooperate with agents and said he would answer any questions except about the Pettyjohn murder.
The DA said at the close of the TennPar investigation five witnesses had either been murdered or committed suicide.
ATF in July 2014 re-opened the investigation into the 9th Street bombing due to new leads “showing an organized group engaged in interstate and foreign travel set the explosion to collect insurance money on the buildings that were destroyed or damaged. The organized group has threatened or intimidated witnesses who could testify against them in court making it difficult for investigators to obtain statements from witnesses."
After the bombing, Pettyjohn and other Chattanooga business owners received Insurance payouts from Lloyd's of London. Due to his untimely death, Pettyjohn was never brought to trial on the arson case, the DA said.
He noted, "After his cooperation with federal authorities in the Operation TennPar case, Pettyjohn was killed in an execution-style hit inside the Beverage Center on Market Street. Hours before his execution, Pettyjohn told various individuals he needed to discuss important business with them after the Beverage Center closed."
He also said two city police officers who came by the Beverage Center that day were told by Pettyjohn to leave because "they were across the street" watching him.
The DA said close friends of Pettyjohn said he seemed very anxious and nervous that day.
No suspect was ever arrested by the Chattanooga Police Department until 1982 when William "Butch" Smith and William "Billy" Cameron were charged.
The arrests were mainly based on statements given by Smith and another witness. Smith gave his statement while he was being held at Brushy Mountain State Prison. Soon afterward, he was transferred to a jail in Chattanooga, where he gave another statement. The two statements were virtually identical and implicated both himself and Cameron.
After being charged with murder, Smith and Cameron were each given legal counsel. Smith then recanted his statement and said he only implicated himself so he could be transported back to jail in Chattanooga. Authorities administered a polygraph to Cameron and concluded he was being truthful when he said he was in the Metro Detroit area when Pettyjohn was murdered. There was a notice of alibi filed for each defendant. The charges were dismissed when the state could not refute either alibi.
DA Pinkston said the Cold Case unit was able to interview a cooperating witness on two occasions and that witness indicated City Police told him what to say in the statement given to police in the 1982 investigation.
He said in 1987 City Police renewed the investigation into Pettyjohn's homicide, but it yielded negative results.
The district attorney said for many years the Pettyjohn case remained unsolved and no efforts were made to find the identity of the murderer. The Cold Case unit began looking into the case, reviewing all known previous investigations and investigative reports as well as new information developed based on old statements, old interviews and more current interviews of close associates of Alley.
He said during the 1990s Alley and his close associates committed a number of bank robberies all across the Southeast. Alley and several others were finally arrested. Several of those individuals began cooperating with the FBI.
DA Pinkston said in 1993, an investigator with the District Attorney's Office interviewed one witness who indicated that Alley admitted to the Pettyjohn murder. He said FBI agents shared this information with Chattanooga Police Chief Ralph Cothran and he replied, "Be careful who you share this information with."
He said Alley admitted to several cooperating witnesses that he was hired by various individuals to murder Pettyjohn. He said the murder contract price was between $25,000 and $50,000.
The DA said Alley admitted to the cooperating witnesses that he entered the Beverage Center on Feb. 1, 1979, while disguised with face paint, a false beard and glasses. He shot Pettyjohn twice in the head, once in the neck and once in the chest with a .45 caliber gun, it was stated. After he was outside he fired at least one random shot in the air to intimidate two people he saw in the Beverage Center parking lot.
DA Pinkston said several individuals said they were approached by Alley to participate in the Pettyjohn killing, but they declined. One witness assisted Alley with his disguise, it was stated.
The prosecutor said for days prior to the murder, Alley was holed up at the Admiral Benbow Inn - across the street from the Beverage Center - to surveil Pettyjohn.
DA Pinkston said, "Cooperating individuals indicated Alley admitted Pettyjohn was murdered for various reasons including he was a source of cooperation for the FBI in investigations of Governor Ray Blanton.
"Cooperating individuals said Alley was paid for the contract murder from various Chattanooga sources and one cooperating individual indicated an undisclosed third party may have paid some of the contract money on behalf of Governor Blanton's administration."
He said, "Pettyjohn knew too much about illegal activities and his cooperation with federal authorities placed other individuals' freedom, including that of Governor Ray Blanton, at severe risk."