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DA Resolves Cold Case of Slain Man Who Testified Against Tennessee Governor

A Tennessee prosecutor is shifting responsibility for Sam Pettyjohn's murder to the administration of a 1970s-era governor who purportedly took bribes to grant early parole to inmates.

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — Law enforcement officials pointed a finger Wednesday at the contract killer who gunned down Sam Pettyjohn in 1979.

Pettyjohn, who owned a beverage store in the south side of Chattanooga, died in his store with an unfired .38-caliber revolver nearby, a lit cigar in his hand and diamond rings worth more than $100,000 on his fingers. He was 48 years old.

In a case that has lain cold for more than two decades, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said on Wednesday a county grand jury found a bank robber by the name of William Edward Alley responsible for Pettyjohn’s death.

And the reason for the hit?

Because in part, Pettyjohn testified to a federal grand jury and helped the FBI investigate the scandal-tainted administration of Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton, who served from 1975 to 1979. 

“One of the cooperating individuals we have indicated that a third party paid a portion of the contract on behalf of Governor Ray Blanton’s administration,” Pinkston said. “It was a contract murder without question.”

Among the agency's more notable probes in central and western Tennessee, the FBI's investigations of Blanton did not result in the indictment of the governor himself but studied whether his administration took bribes to release prisoners from state lockup.

Sam Pettyjohn (Credit: Hamilton County DA)

The FBI arrested three state employees as part of the investigations and raided the state’s capitol. The governor who succeeded Blanton — Lamar Alexander who later went on to serve as a U.S. senator — was inaugurated three days early on Jan. 17, 1979, because of concerns over whether Blanton would issue more pardons.

Wednesday's report from the county grand jury says Pettyjohn met with inmates to discuss this method of obtaining early release and helped “secure the monies and pay accordingly to the Governor’s office.”

But after a federal grand jury subpoenaed him, Pettyjohn began helping the FBI, meeting with agents in an abandoned building.

The grand jury said Pettyjohn provided federal agents with a list of who obtained money to pay Blanton’s administration, but that list is missing. Also missing, the grand jury said, is Pettyjohn’s attache case that contained a recording device and a handful of recordings discovered at the crime scene by the Chattanooga Police Department.

Pinkston said Pettyjohn’s case is not the only one: “There were five witnesses that cooperated with law enforcement against the Blanton administration that were either murdered or committed suicide,” he said.

Pettyjohn cut a colorful figure in the Scenic City and beyond. He was a friend of Teamsters Union President Jimmy Hoffa, who stood trial for a jury tampering charge in a federal courtroom in Chattanooga in 1964.

About 10 years later, a bomb destroyed Pettyjohn’s nightclubs in Chattanooga, killing one person. Investigators had been building an arson case against Pettyjohn and an “organized group engaged in interstate and foreign travel” that they suspected of setting off the bomb to collect the insurance money, according to the grand jury’s findings.

On Feb. 1, 1979, two witnesses in the parking lot outside Pettyjohn’s store said they watched as a man wearing a trench coat and glasses stood over Pettyjohn and shot him.

The bullets from a .45-caliber handgun hit Pettyjohn twice in his head, once in his neck and once in his chest, killing him instantly, Pinkston said.

The gunman left Pettyjohn’s wallet, jewelry and the store’s cash register untouched.

Witnesses said that as the man left the building, he fired his handgun once or twice in the air and disappeared. They described the gunman as bearded, heavy set and Black.

William Edward Alley (Credit: Hamilton County DA)

Alley — who was white — wore face paint and a fake beard, according to two people Hamilton County investigators spoke to during their investigation, and he was paid between $25,000 to $50,000 to murder Pettyjohn.

Pinkston said Alley died in 2005 while incarcerated in federal prison after he was convicted for bank robbery, but his bank robbery associates who cooperated with federal investigators helped shed light on Pettyjohn’s murder.

If Alley were still alive today, the grand jury said in its nine pages of findings, it would have returned an indictment charging him for Pettyjohn’s death.

Speaking at the press conference, Pettyjohn’s son Saadiq Pettyjohn said until his mother, an elementary school teacher, taught his father how to read and write, people took advantage of him. The two first met while Sam Pettyjohn drove a cab in Chattanooga.

Growing up in a family “connected to crime,” Saadiq Pettyjohn said, presented him and his siblings with a choice.

"When that person dies, you can either go that route, or you can go a different route, and all of us chose to go a better route with education and try to do better in our lives,” Saadiq Pettyjohn said.

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