Did Billy Do It?

When Martha Johnson died in the fire that consumed the trailer she was using as a temporary home on her farm near Covington, Tennessee, in July 1999, most everyone assumed it was a tragic accident.
 
Turns out that it wasn’t an accident that killed 62-year-old Martha, described by many as a “shrewd, hard-nosed businesswoman;” it was an antique iron. The fire was just a cover-up set by her confessed killer, a general ne’er-do-well named Danny Winberry.
 
If you believe the federal government and the 12 citizens who sat in judgment on him, it was Martha’s son Billy who hired Winberry to kill his mother with a down payment of $5,000 and promise of $45,000 more. But ask just about anyone else, including his brother, and they’ll tell you that Billy is an innocent man.
 
“Billy had nothing to do with it, nothing. He’s as innocent as I am,” Billy’s brother Jere Edwards testified at his 2009 trial. “I’m as innocent as Jesus Christ, and Billy is, too.”
 
Because Billy used the mail, telephone, and crossed state lines in furtherance of the murder conspiracy, he faced a federal, rather than state, jury. Some speculate that the case was usurped by the feds because state officials were not interested in pursuing an indictment. Ten years after his mother died in that conflagration, Billy was convicted of almost a dozen murder-for-hire related charges related to the tragedy. He was sentenced to life in prison, which in the federal system really means life.
 
Almost everyone who testified for the government had a felony record and a motive to point the finger at Billy to save their own skins Most witnesses for the defense were related to Billy or Martha, or asserted that the government’s motive for the killing – greed – was as full of crap as the cow pastures where Billy and Martha worked side by side.
 
Winberry, 42, a known gambler and burglar who remorsefully confessed to bludgeoning Martha to death with an antique iron he found in her house, cooperated with the government and received a 30-year prison sentence. In response to his help the government, which had an open-and-shut case against the felon, took the death penalty off the table. That was a smart move admitted Assistant U.S. Prosecutor Steve Parker.
 
“There was no case without Danny Winberry. There’s no doubt he provided substantial assistance,” Parker told the judge at Winberry’s sentencing after Bill was convicted.
 
To be fair to the government, there is a very, very strong circumstantial case against Billy, and even though Winberry is a doubtful witness, Parker did also tell the judge that the feds were able to corroborate his statement “nine or 10 different ways.”
 
Billy had much to gain from Martha’s death while the only reasonable motive that Winberry had to kill her without Billy’s financial promise was that she surprised him during a burglary attempt.
 
On the other hand, one has to wonder why a contract killer would go to his victim’s house with the intent to kill her but without a weapon to do it.
 
But then again, there are those two witnesses, farmhands Billy Archer and Jeremy Lawrence, who testified that Billy and his mother argued over the best use of the 520-acre farm, with Billy urging her to sell the property to real estate developers. Lawrence also testified that Billy offered him money in 1998 to kill Martha. Another farmhand, Lee Thomas, told a Tipton County deputy that Billy had twice offered him $10,000 to murder Martha in the fall of that year.
 
Of course Thomas was in jail accused of burglarizing Martha’s trailer at the time he told Deputy Sheriff Ronnie Coleman about the offer, but he did make the assertion two months before the fatal fire. That’s a coincidence that lends credibility to his story.
 
One of Martha’s close friends, Covington Fire Chief Jerry Craig, told the jury that in the weeks before her death, Martha talked to him about disinheriting her kin. She may have even done so: after she died Billy, her executor, told the Probate Court he could not find a legal will. As a result the court ruled she died intestate and divided her estate among her three surviving relatives.
 
There was a big dispute between the government and the defense about the value of the property Martha didn’t want to sell. According to the feds, Billy made a little more $600,000 from the sale of the property, along with a $100,000 life insurance payout. But Billy didn’t sell the land to developers, he sold it to a neighbor who continued to farm it.
 
After he received the windfall from his mother’s estate Billy must have had a good explanation why he told the other two heirs, his brother and a minor nephew, that the property was worthless and that they should sign waivers of claims to the estate.
 
Jere Edwards, Billy’s brother, told Parker on cross-examination that the land was heavily mortgaged and worthless. An attorney retained by the family after Martha’s death determined that she owed more than the land was worth on the market, he said.
 
“There was no way you could save that piece of property,” he told Parker.
 
A forensic auditor testified for the government that the value of the estate was more than $1.1 million, while Martha had debts of more than $500,000.
 
In the end it all boils down to Billy’s claim that he didn’t kill his mother because he loved her and had no reason to want her dead, and Winberry’s story that is backed up by several witnesses, albeit not the type of people you would trust with your debit card.
 
According to Winberry, Billy first approached him at the JJ Lounge, which Billy operated with his mother. Over time the two men continued to talk about the plan and over the phone firmed up the agreement. They agreed on the $50,000 price with a 10 percent down payment.
 
Winberry said they met in a Wal Mart parking lot where Billy patted him down for a wire, and assured that Winberry was clean, gave him $5,000 cash.
 
Shortly thereafter, both Winberry and his then-girlfriend Rebecca Haynes Johnson (Whether there is a relationship to Billy or Martha there is unknown, but this is rural Tennessee) testified that he showed her the large wad of bills.
 
On July 19, 1999, Billy called Winberry from a payphone and told him that he was leaving with family and friends for a vacation in Hot Springs, Ark., that weekend, giving him an alibi. Billy reportedly suggested that would be a good time to commit the murder.
 
Winberry and Haynes Johnson each said that he asked her to provide him with an alibi for a robbery. She agreed. Then Winberry pressed her.
 
Haynes Johnson told the court that Winberry asked her, “What if I had to kill somebody?”
 
“That would be different,” she replied. Later it was revealed that Haynes Johnson meant it would be different because covering for a murder meant she wanted some “hush money.”
 
On July 22, Martha and some hands were mowing hay when the mower broke and needed welding. As a result they left the field early, dropped off the part and stopped for groceries. The witnesses said they last saw Martha at her trailer around 5:15.
 
Late that night Winberry entered the house – he said he had a key from Billy – and bludgeoned Martha to death with an antique iron he found there. In an effort to cover up the crime he placed a kerosene lamp on top of a lit stove, hoping that the heat would break the lamp and ignite the kerosene.
 
He then returned home, changed his clothes and told Haynes Johnson that they should go out “to be seen.”
 
Haynes Johnson testified that in the early hours of July 23, Winberry borrowed a rag and lighter and returned to the trailer, which had not burned. He dumped some kind of accelerant in the bedroom and torched the place.
 
When Billy was contacted in Hot Springs about his mother’s death, “he started choking up. Tears were coming down his face,” said brother-in-law Joseph Reeder, adding “he worshipped the ground she walked on.”
 
The two ate breakfast together every morning and, according to Billy, didn’t need business contracts to run their 275-head cow farm together.
 
“She took my word and I took her word,” Johnson told Parker from the stand when the prosecutor asked why there was no paperwork showing a legal partnership.
 
“Where’s the proof,” Parker asked.
 
“I have a hurt back showing all the work I put in on it,” Johnson said. Parker then asked Johnson why his name wasn’t on any of the deeds that showed property ownership. “My name was in her heart and that was good enough for me,” Johnson said.
 
At first the incident was considered a tragic accident, but like things do when you’re dealing with skells like Winberry and his pals, people started to talk. When there was enough talk and a belated autopsy showed that Martha was dead before the fire started, a criminal investigation began.
 
At first there was nothing solid against Billy, but over time when the trail led to Winberry — who never received or even asked for the $45,000 after Billy received his windfall — and the law started leaning on him, the burglar/arsonist/murderer had a change of heart and confessed to killing Martha.
 
Then he pointed the finger at Billy and the pieces started coming together.
 
Winberry was indicted in 2004 for his role in the murder-for-hire plot and the investigators started to build their case against Billy. Up until Winberry was indicted, Billy and his family had been cooperating with authorities in the probe, but that stopped once Parker told Billy’s wife, Vicki, that her husband had become a suspect.
 
“I told him he was wrong, that Billy was being very truthful,” Vicki said in court.
 
Billy’s appeals were all in vain and he sits today in a federal prison in Louisiana. His family continues to insist on his innocence.