Tag Archive for arson

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 cooperation 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 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 I’m sure Billy 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 (I’m not sure if there’s a relationship to Billy or Martha there) 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.

The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands

Rev. John David Terry

There’s an old joke in the mental health business that the patient is getting better when he stops thinking about suicide and starts thinking about homicide. Unfortunately, it’s not a laughing matter when the patient decides to take it seriously.
The Rev. John David Terry had a dream many people share. Faced with an overwhelming sense of having failed in his life, Rev. Terry wanted to assume a new identity, run away and begin life all over again.
Unlike most of us, Terry’s dream consumed him, and with each setback he was dealt in life, he moved closer to making his dream reality.
Terry was the Associate Bishop Overseer of the Emmanuel Churches of Christ, and was the pastor of the Emmanuel Church of Christ Oneness Pentecostal in Nashville.
His plot, which would result in murder, mutilation of a corpse, and arson, began to take shape in 1983 when Terry entered a depressive state after his mother passed away. He started looking himself and his accomplishments, and would later say that he “became overwhelmed by the sense that he had failed in life.” Suicide was one option, Terry said, but he rejected that idea.
A change of careers, from part-time minister to part-time aluminum siding salesman, didn’t alter his mood, but one day, while perusing Soldier of Fortune magazine, Terry said an ad jumped out at him.
“How to get lost … How to disappear,” Terry testified at his sentencing hearing. “It was something that began to feed a person looking for an escape.”
Answering the ad, Terry obtained a book about how to establish a new identity. He first tried to create a new identity using a dead childhood friend, but when he couldn’t get new documents, he turned to old newspapers looking for someone who had died prematurely, and whose identity he could steal.
He found 7-year-old Jerry Milom, who drowned in 1951, and was able to obtain a copy of his birth certificate and then get a driver’s license and Social Security card in that name by forging a baptismal certificate.
To further his plan, Terry began skimming money from the church in 1984.
By 1987, Terry was ready to put his plan into action. His discontentment with his own life was underscored when he learned that he would not be named Bishop Overseer of the Emmanuel Churches of Christ.
But it wasn’t enough for him simply to disappear. He decided that he needed to be a hero or martyr for his congregants.
At first, he said, it was his plan to have 32-year-old James Matheney, whose wife was a parishioner at Terry’s church, help him with the plot by staging “”some kind of a hoax or some kind of robbery and have . . . him be the one that would come in and . . . find blood or find some kind of robbery attempt.”
Accordingly, Terry befriended Matheney, who was down-and-out, by counseling him, bringing him on the church staff as a handyman, and paying Matheney’s rent.
Matheney “really loved (Terry),” the victim’s ex-wife testified. “He really wanted that friendship he was offering . . . I guess maybe it was kind of like a father image because his father died when he was at a young age.”
Meanwhile, Terry embezzled $15,000 from his church, and using his Milom identity, purchased and titled a Suzuki motorcycle. He kept $10,000 in cash.
On June 15, 1987, Terry and Matheney were preparing to go on a fishing trip for several days. Terry told the handyman to gas up the car, and gave him his credit card and keys to the vehicle. According to the murderous minister, the plan at that time was still to have Matheney participate in the scam, although Terry’s claims don’t quite ring true.
About a half-hour after sending Matheney to get gas, Terry said he was making some phone calls when he heard a noise in the church. He testified that he went to investigate and found the ladder to the church’s attic unfolded and the trap door open.
Several weeks before, Terry had secreted a duffel bag with a gun and some clothes in the attic. Afraid that his plan was going to be discovered, Terry climbed the stairs, retrieved the gun and shot Matheney in the back of the head with a .38 caliber pistol.
The prosecution argued at trial that Terry had encouraged Matheney to go up to the attic to perform some maintenance work, which Terry denied. His explanation was that he was afraid Matheney would reveal his escape plot.
Regardless, the bell could not be unrung, and Terry was forced to put his plot into motion.
The preacher first set about staging a crime scene to make it appear that he was the victim of a crime. Although Terry and Matheney were of similar body size and type, no one would mistake one for the other. Terry stripped the handyman’s body down to his underwear and placed his belt around Matheney’s waist.
Next, with a hacksaw and knife, he severed Matheney’s head and right forearm, which would (pardon the pun) come in handy later. He placed Matheney’s head and arm in one bag and the victim’s clothes and the tools he used to dismember the body in another. He hid the clothing bag in a storage garage where his motorcycle was hidden and then, after picking up two cans of gasoline, returned to the church to drop off the fuel that he intended to use as an accelerant.
Terry then drove to the area of Matheney’s boarding house, leaving his car a few blocks away. In the car he left a few “clues” for police: a beer bottle and his own credit cards with Matheney’s fingerprints (which is why he needed the severed arm), a towel smeared with his own blood, and some credit cards and Matheney’s fishing tackle.
Taking a cab back to the storage shed, he drove his motorcycle to Lake Barkley, near Dover, Tennessee, where he rented a boat and used it to dispose of the weighted bag of body parts.
After dark, he returned to the church where the remains of Matheney’s body were left and with a knife, removed two tattoos from the victim’s shoulders by cutting away the flesh and flushing it down a toilet.
Terry wrapped the body in carpet, doused it in gasoline, set the fire and fled to Memphis where he checked into a hotel and went to a minor league baseball game.
Prior to leaving town Terry placed $100 bills in his three sons’ wallets and gave his wife instructions that she should pay some bills that normally he was responsible for. His wife was the beneficiary of a $50,000 life insurance policy.
His children had also been named as beneficiaries of a $100,000 life insurance policy he had taken out on himself.
Although the fire destroyed parts of the church and damaged Matheney’s body, firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it fully consumed the corpse, and the medical examiner was able to establish that the body was not Terry’s.
Two days after the murder, Terry contacted a criminal defense attorney in his hometown and turned himself in to authorities.
He was tried for capital murder and convicted in 1988, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The sentence was overturned on appeal when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that improper instructions were given to the jury during the sentencing phase, and he was given a new hearing.
However, a second jury also returned a recommendation of death, despite an impassioned plea by the minister that he be spared.
In 2003, just before his appellate attorneys were scheduled to argue for a new trial, Terry hanged himself in a bathroom at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, where he was working as a data-entry clerk while his appeals were pending.
The Rev. Terry was 58 years old. He left a wife and three sons. Matheney had a 4-year-old son at the time of his death.