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1979 Murder Tied to Former Tennessee Governor Finally Solved

During the early morning hours of 1 February 1979, a Chattanooga, Tennessee, businessman was fatally shot four times in the Beverage Center, a store he owned. Despite witnesses who later reported to the authorities seeing a Black man in a trenchcoat leaving the store after the shooting, the case eventually went cold. 

But in 2015, Hamilton County’s cold case unit reopened the case. After all, the victim, Samuel Pettyjohn, was not only found with more than $100,000 and an unfired pistol, but he was also a key witness in a federal case concerning corruption within the then-governor’s administration. 

On 9 June 2021, county law enforcement revealed that Pettyjohn’s death was a contract killing, partially paid by a third party on behalf of former Tennessee governor Ray Blanton’s administration. 

The man seen leaving the Beverage Center, located at 2001 ½ Market St, was William Edward Alley—a white man who disguised himself using a wig and blackface. According to the investigators, Alley was hired to kill Pettyjohn by several parties and for multiple reasons—not only for participating with the FBI in its investigation into the corrupt administration. According to the Associated Press, the estimated total for killing Pettyjohn was between $25,000 and $50,000. 

Although the findings from the Hamilton County Grand Jury might bring the community and Pettyjohn’s family and friends closure, authorities will not file new charges, according to The Chattanoogan 

“Mike Mathis, supervisor of Hamilton County’s cold case unit, acknowledged that it was highly unusual for a prosecutor’s office to pursue a grand jury when most of the involved parties were dead but said the county chose to do so for the first time it because ‘it gives you a legal closing,’” the Associated Press reported 

Alley died in federal prison in 2005 while still serving his sentence for multiple bank robberies. 

Shortly before his death, Pettyjohn testified in front of a grand jury about an investigation into Blanton’s administration granting pardons for prisoners who bribed state officials. The “clemency for cash” scheme was one of Tennessee’s largest political scandals. 

After he was subpoenaed, Pettyjohn supplied the FBI with information about the scheme, since his involvement since 1976 in the scandal included meeting with inmates to inform them that they could buy an early release, as well as working with at least one other person to drop off payments at the governor’s office in Nashville. Pettyjohn, who was also an ally of union boss Jimmy Hoffa, provided the FBI with the names of the people who paid for the inmates’ early releases.  

In December 1978, the FBI raided the governor’s offices, arresting Blanton’s legal advisor and two other members of his administration. Blanton also testified before a federal grand jury and denied any culpability.

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Nevertheless, questions remain about to what degree the administration obstructed the investigation. “Officials say at least five witnesses in the case were murdered or killed themselves,” the AP said.  

In the aftermath of the raid, less than one month before Pettyjohn’s death and during the last days of his term, Blanton signed off on pardons for 52 state prisoners, claiming the actions followed a court order to reduce Tennessee’s prison population. One of the men he was granting clemency to was Roger Humphreys, a political supporter's son who killed his ex-wife and her lover, shooting them 18 times. Humphreys only served two months of a 20- to 40-year sentence. 

With the FBI and members of both the Democratic and Republican parties in the state worried that he planned to parole more inmates before leaving office—especially after they were tipped off by a friend of Blanton, U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin—Blanton was pushed out of office early. State legislators found a way to swear in incoming governor Lamar Alexander three days before the traditional inauguration date.  

Blanton was never charged in the clemency scandal, although he was later convicted of unrelated extortion, mail fraud, and conspiracy charges in 1981. He served 22 months in federal prison, although most of the charges were eventually thrown out in an appeal in 1988.  

Blanton, who tried to clear his name and return to a political career after his release from prison in 1986, died in 1996. 

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