More than 40 years after a Tennessee father was shot to death in his Chattanooga business, authorities believe they’ve finally solved the case—and announced a link to a corrupt former Tennessee governor’s office.
Earlier this week, a Hamilton County grand jury found that William Edward Alley, a now deceased “notorious bank robber,” would have been indicted for the first-degree premeditated murder of Samuel Pettyjohn—who had been a close personal friend of Jimmy Hoffa—if Alley were still alive today, according to a press conference from Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston that was streamed by WRBC.
“Our cold case unit put in countless hours to solve this unusual case,” Pinkston said. “Hopefully, it will bring some closure and peace to Pettyjohn’s surviving family members.”
Pettyjohn was killed around 1:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, 1979 at his business, the Beverage Center. He was shot twice in the head, once in the chest and once in the neck, killing him instantly, Pinkston said.
The killer, however, left behind cash and jewelry Pettyjohn had on him at the time that was valued at more than $100,000, leading investigators to believe the motive wasn’t a simple robbery, according to a statement from the district attorney’s office.
“It was a contract murder without question,” Pinkston said.
At the time of his death, Pettyjohn had “maintained strong ties with the Teamsters Union,” had been a personal friend of Hoffa’s and was connected to legal and illegal activities within the Chattanooga business community, authorities said.
Pettyjohn had also been a key player in a corrupt scheme by the office of Tennessee’s then-Gov. Ray Blanton.
According to Pinkston, Blanton had been running a pardon and parole scheme, doling out early paroles or commuted sentence for prisoners within the Tennessee Department of Corrections in exchange for cash payments.
“In the simplest terms, if you pony up cash, then you can get a loved one out of prison,” Pinkston explained.
Authorities said Pettyjohn and another associate, William Aubrey Thompson, also known as Bob Rountree, used to visit inmates to let them know that money would get them an early release from prison.
“After such meetings, Rountree and Pettyjohn would secure the monies and pay accordingly to the Governor’s office,” authorities said in the statement.
The activities soon caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation who began a criminal investigation, known as Operation TennPar, into Blanton and his associates.
Before his death, Pettyjohn had testified before a federal grand jury about the scheme. Authorities now believe his cooperation may have cost him his life.
“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with federal authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally as well as the state level and individuals didn’t like that,” Pinkston said of Pettyjohn’s contract killing.
As part of a new look into the case by cold case detectives, investigators were able to find “cooperating individuals” who “indicated that a third party-paid portion” of the money paid to carry out the hit was provided on behalf of Blanton’s administration.
Pettyjohn had been one of five witnesses that cooperated with law enforcement authorities against the Blanton administration “that were either murdered or committed suicide,” Pinkston said.
Investigators believe Alley, who was white, was hired to carry out the hit on Pettyjohn and said they believe he donned a wig, glasses and covered his skin with brown makeup to deceive possible witnesses to the crime.
“Mr. Alley was a notorious bank robber,” Pinkston said, adding that his criminal history began in 1933.
Alley died in federal prison in 2005 while serving time for a series of bank robberies.
Thompson and other members of the Blanton administration were indicted in 1978 for their connection to the pardon and paroles scheme.
Blanton was never indicted in connection with the scheme, but was later indicted for “issues surrounding the issuance of liquor licenses,” according to authorities.
Pinkston said investigators now consider the murder of Pettyjohn closed. His office does not plan to file any charges in connection with the murder because the key players involved have already died.
Pettyjohn’s youngest son, Saadiq Pettyjohn said at the press conference that his slain father’s choice to participate in illegal activities had ultimately cost him his life and urged others not to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“He always used to tell my mom that his lifestyle was either going to lead to jail or death,” he said.
While he acknowledged his father’s role in criminal activities, he said his mother had wanted others to know Pettyjohn was also someone with “heart of gold” who was “very generous.”
More than four decades after Pettyjohn was killed, his son said the crime has had a lasting impact on his family.
“This is a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that’s connected to a crime,” he said. “When that person dies, you can either go that route or you can do a different route and all of us chose to go a better route with education and to try to do better with our lives.”