CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — While embroiled in the state's largest political scandal, a former Tennessee governor
's administration helped fund a contract murder
of a key federal witness
decades ago, according to law
The new details, revealed for the first time Wednesday, have the makings of a film: a trusted ally of union boss Jimmy Hoffa gunned down after testifying about a corrupt governor selling prison
pardons, and a gunman who disguised himself in a wig and blackface to fool authorities.
Since 2015, investigators in Hamilton
County, which includes Chattanooga, have been chipping away at the 42-year-old cold case of Samuel Pettyjohn
. No new charges will be filed because all of the major players involved are now dead, but authorities say closing the case brings closure to one aspect of a complicated piece of Tennessee history.
Pettyjohn, a Chattanooga businessman and close friend of Hoffa, was killed in downtown Chattanooga in 1979 after testifying before a federal grand jury
during the early stages of Tennessee's infamous "cash-for-clemency" scandal.
“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally and at the state level, and people
didn’t like that, so people hired someone to murder him,” Hamilton County District Attorney
Neal Pinkston said.
The scandal eventually led to the resignation of Democratic
Gov. Ray Blanton
, who was never indicted in the investigation
— but three of his aides were. However, questions have remained about the extent to which the governor's administration actively worked to thwart the investigation. Officials say at least five witnesses in the case were murdered or committed suicide
Pinkston told reporters that Pettyjohn would meet with inmates in 1976 to indicate that money
would help secure an early release, and that Pettyjohn would be joined by William Thompson, who had been involved in Blanton's election
campaign and would later be convicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal.
Pinkston, Pettyjohn, and Thompson, according to Pinkston, would deliver payments to the governor's office in the Capitol
Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify about the ongoing scheme as federal investigators began to investigate whether the governor's office was exchanging cash for parole
. Pettyjohn eventually agreed to cooperate with FBI
agents, even going so far as to provide a list of people who made payments to the governor's office for the early release of certain prisoners.
Shortly after, Pettyjohn was killed in an “execution style hit,” according to authorities. Witnesses reported seeing a Black man in a trench coat exiting Pettyjohn’s store, and Pettyjohn was discovered with his pistol nearby, which had not been fired, and more than $100,000 on him.
According to Pinkston, Ed Alley — a known bank robber who died in federal prison in 2005 — was hired by several sources to kill Pettyjohn, including an undisclosed third party who paid some of the contract money on behalf of the Blanton administration. The total murder price was estimated to be between $25,000 and $50,000.
When asked if he was certain that the Blanton administration helped pay for Pettyjohn's murder, Pinkston replied, "I'm very sure. I'm proof positive."
Alley, who was white, wore a wig, glasses, and heavy brown makeup to fool any witnesses, according to authorities.
According to the findings of a Hamilton County grand jury, “cooperating individuals indicated Alley admitted Pettyjohn was murdered for a variety of reasons, including his role as a source of cooperation for the FBI in investigations of Gov. Ray Blanton.”
If Alley were still alive today, the grand jury concluded that he would be charged with first-degree premeditated murder in the death
Mike Mathis, supervisor of Hamilton County's cold case unit, acknowledged that it was extremely unusual for a prosecutor's office to seek a grand jury when the majority of the involved parties were deceased, but said the county chose to do so for the first time because "it gives you a legal closure."
One of Samuel Pettyjohn's sons, Saadiq Pettyjohn, said his mother often described his father as having a "heart of gold" and being a "very generous, giving person," despite the fact that his father was involved in criminal activity. Authorities say Pettyjohn was part of an organized effort to blow up a building to collect insurance
payouts, but he was never tried due to his untimely death.
“Growing up in a criminal family is both a curse and a blessing,” he continued, “because when that person dies, you can go that route or a different route; all of us chose to try to do better in our lives.”
Blanton, who died in 1996, sparked outrage when, in the final days of his gubernatorial term, he pardoned and commuted prison sentences for more than 50 state inmates. Blanton's fellow Democrats
collaborated with Republicans
in the Legislature to move up the inauguration of his Republican successor, Lamar Alexander, by three days.
Blanton was never charged in the scandal, but he was convicted in 1981 on unrelated extortion and conspiracy
charges for selling a liquor license to a friend for $23,000 while in office.