Murder for hire and a corrupt governor: 42-year-old cold case solved in Tennessee

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In the early morning on Feb. 1, 1979, Sam Pettyjohn was in the beer shop he owned in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a cigar tucked between his fingers when a man in a trench coat shot him four times — twice in the head, once in the chest and once in the neck.

It took 42 years to solve his killing.

Pettyjohn, 47, was no stranger to the world of crime. At the time of his death, prosecutors said he was an informant in a federal investigation of then-Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton, who was accused of taking cash bribes in exchange for state prisoners receiving early parole.

On Tuesday, investigators linked Pettyjohn’s killing to the Blanton investigation. District Attorney General Neal Pinkston with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office told reporters during a news conference that Pettyjohn was killed by notorious bank robber William Edward Alley in a murder-for-hire plot paid for in-part by a third party on behalf of Blanton’s administration.

Alley died in federal prison in 2005, Pinkston said. But a grand jury said they would indict him on charges of first-degree premeditated murder if he were alive today.

“No one deserves to be murdered and that story not to be told,” Pinkston said. “It’s important to note that while Mr. Pettyjohn may have been connected to certain things, we’re all human and we all fall short of the glory. That doesn’t mean the case should not be investigated or that the truth shouldn’t come out.”

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Pettyjohn, born in 1931, was one of nine children. He worked as a taxi driver and moved to Chattanooga to look after a sick brother, according to his youngest son, Saadiq Pettyjohn, who spoke at Tuesday’s news conference.

Despite his struggles — Saadiq Pettyjohn said his father could neither read nor write — his wife described him as having “a heart of gold” and being “a very generous and a giving person.”

“He always used to tell my mom that his lifestyle was either going to lead to jail or death,” Saadiq Pettyjohn said.

Death found him first.

Shot execution style

Pettyjohn was in his business, the Beverage Center, on Market Street in Chattanooga around 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1979, when a contract killer shot him “execution style” with a .45 caliber handgun, prosecutors said. He had cash and jewelry valued at more than $100,000 — none of which was taken.

In the hours before, prosecutors said Pettyjohn instructed two police officers to leave the business because he was being surveilled across the street. Some friends also described him as “very anxious and nervous on this day.”

Police found Pettyjohn lying on his back with his own .38 revolver a few inches from his hand and a cigar “still burning between his fingers,” the Chattanooga District Attorney’s Office said.

Two eyewitnesses would later tell investigators they saw a “heavy-set African-American male with a beard and glasses standing over Pettyjohn and shooting him.” The man reportedly fired two more bullets in the air after leaving the Beverage Center.

Though police arrested two individuals and charged them with Pettyjohn’s killing in 1982, their alibis checked out and the charges were eventually dropped.

A life of crime

Pettyjohn was a well-connected businessman in Chattanooga, prosecutors said. He previously owned several nightclubs and had ties to the Teamsters Union, a massive and powerful labor union led by Jimmy Hoffa, who was a personal friend of Pettyjohn’s.

He also had his hands in local and state politics with the Democratic party.

Pettyjohn’s nightclubs exploded in a bomb on Aug. 8, 1974 — five years before his death. Investigators later linked Pettyjohn and other local business owners to the bombing after discovering they received sizable insurance payouts from the blast. He faced charges of murder, arson and insurance fraud but died before the case went to trial, according the Hamilton County Cold Case Unit.

A few years after the explosion but before charges were brought, prosecutors said Pettyjohn got involved with Blanton’s alleged bribery scheme.

Blanton, a Democrat, was a state and U.S. representative before he became governor in 1975. While he was in office, prosecutors said an illegal parole buying scheme started under his administration.

Local businessman Bob Rountree — aided in-part by Pettyjohn — would collect money to be paid to the governor’s office in exchange for the early release of prisoners, the Hamilton County DA’s Office said.

When the FBI caught wind, a criminal investigation into Blanton was launched and Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury. In addition to testifying, prosecutors said he met with FBI agents in an abandoned building and gave them a list of individuals who paid off the governor.

Blanton was never indicted in what became known as the Pardons and Parole scheme, but Rountree and several members of his administration were. Rountree would later agree to cooperate with the authorities as long as the FBI didn’t ask him about Pettyjohn’s killing.

By the end of their investigation, prosecutors said at least five witnesses had been killed or committed suicide.

Blanton was ousted from office a few days before his term ended. He was later charged with extortion and conspiracy in a separate case involving the sale of a liquor license for $23,000 to a friend while he was in office, the Associated Press reported.

He served 22 months in federal prison and died at age 66 in 1996, according to the AP.

Investigators take a second look

The Cold Case Unit in Hamilton County began reviewing Pettyjohn’s case in 2015, including FBI interviews with several cooperating individuals.

Those individuals, who are not named, had ties to Ed Alley, who was charged in a string of bank robberies in the 1990s. In 1993, one individual told an investigator with the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office that Alley had admitted to killing Pettyjohn.

“It is unknown what (the district attorney’s office) did with this information,” prosecutors said Tuesday. “FBI agents shared this information with former CPD Chief Ralph Cothern, who replied ‘be careful who you share your information with.’”

Other individuals told investigators that Alley told them he was paid between $25,000 and $50,000 to kill Pettyjohn. He also admitted to donning a disguise on the day of the murder — including “face paint, a false beard, and glasses,” prosecutors said.

Hamilton County investigator Ben Scott said Tuesday that Alley, who is white, knew he’d never get close enough to take a shot if Pettyjohn recognized him, so he disguised himself to “look like a Black man or a dark Arabian man with glasses and fake hair.” Scott said Alley went so far as to purchase some of the disguise at Disneyland because he couldn’t find what he wanted in Chattanooga.

One of the cooperating individuals also told investigators they acted as the getaway driver for Alley that day, and that Alley had staked out the Beverage Center from an inn across the street a few days earlier.

Alley was paid to kill Pettyjohn by various local sources — including a third party operating on behalf of Blanton’s administration, prosecutors 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,” the Hamilton County DA’s office said.