New details revealed for the first time Wednesday about the 1979 murder of a key federal witness in Tennessee have elements that seem like a movie plot.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A former Tennessee governor’s administration helped fund a contract murder of a key federal witness decades ago while embroiled in the state’s largest political scandal, law enforcement officials announced Wednesday.
The new details revealed for the first time Wednesday have elements that ring of a movie: a trusted ally of union boss Jimmy Hoffa gunned down after testifying about a corrupt governor selling prison pardons and a gunman who donned a wig and blackface to throw authorities off the scent.
Investigators in Hamilton County, which encompasses Chattanooga, have been chipping away at the 42-year-old cold case of Samuel Pettyjohn since they renewed their investigation in 2015. No new charges will be filed because all of the major players involved are now dead, but authorities say closing the case provides closure to one aspect of a complicated piece of Tennessee history.
Pettyjohn, a Chattanooga businessman and close friend of Hoffa, was fatally shot in 1979 in downtown Chattanooga after testifying before a federal grand jury during the early phases of Tennessee’s notorious “cash-for-clemency” scandal.
“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally, as well as the state level, and individuals didn’t like that and so individuals hired someone to murder him,” Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said. “Here we are some 42 years later.”
The scandal ultimately led to the ousting of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who was never indicted in the investigation — but three of his aides were. However, questions have lingered 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 killed themselves.
Pinkston told reporters that Pettyjohn would meet with inmates to indicate that money would help secure an early release from prison starting in 1976. Pettyjohn was joined by William Thompson, who had been involved in Blanton’s election campaign and would later be convicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal.
According to Pinkston, Pettyjohn and Thompson would drop payments off at the governor’s office in the Capitol.
As federal investigators began examining whether the governor’s office was exchanging cash for parole, Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify about the ongoing scheme. Pettyjohn eventually agreed to cooperate with FBI agents, even going as far as providing 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 what authorities describe as an “execution style hit.” Witnesses told authorities that they saw a Black man in a trench coat exiting Pettyjohn’s store. Meanwhile, Pettyjohn was found 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 2005 in federal prison — was hired by several sources to kill Pettyjohn. Pinkston said those sources included an undisclosed third party who paid some of the contract money on behalf of the Blanton administration. The estimated total murder price was between $25,000 and $50,000.
“I’m very sure. I’m proof positive,” Pinkston said when asked how certain he was that the Blanton administration’s helped pay for Pettyjohn’s murder.
Officials say Alley, who was white, wore a wig, glasses and covered his skin in heavy brown makeup to deceive any witnesses.
“Cooperating individuals indicated Alley admitted Pettyjohn was murdered for various reasons including he was a source of cooperation for the FBI in investigations of Gov. Ray Blanton,” according to findings from a Hamilton County grand jury.
The grand jury concluded that if Alley were alive today, he would be charged with first-degree premeditated murder of Pettyjohn.
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.”
Saadiq Pettyjohn, one of Samuel Pettyjohn’s sons, said his mother often described his father as someone with a “heart of gold” and “very generous, giving person,” while acknowledging his father was associated with criminal activity. Authorities say Pettyjohn was part of an organized effort to blow up a building to collect insurance payouts, but he was never brought to trial due to his untimely death.
“It’s a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that’s connected to crime,” he added. “When that person dies, you can go that route or you can go a different route; all of us chose to try to do better in our lives.”
Blanton, who died in 1996, had sparked outrage after he pardoned and commuted prison terms for more than 50 state inmates in the waning days of his gubernatorial term. Blanton’s fellow Democrats worked 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 in 1981, he was convicted of unrelated charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license for $23,000 to a friend while in office.