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.
Tag Archive for Tennessee
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.
Marcellos “Cello” Anderson, a Memphis drug dealer, considered Tony Carruthers to be a close and trustworthy friend. As a result of his misplaced trust, Anderson, his mother, and a friend were buried alive in a city cemetery.
Carruthers was sitting in a Tennessee prison in 1993 serving time for aggravated arson, aggravated assault and battery, and armed robbery when he wrote to friend that when he got out he intended “to make those streets pay me” and pledged that “everything I do from now on will be well organized and extremely violent.”
Shortly before he was paroled, Carruthers was transferred to the Mark Luttrell Reception Center where he was assigned to a work detail digging graves at a local veterans cemetery. One day, after burying a body, he remarked to a fellow inmate, “that would be a good way, you know, to bury somebody if you’re going to kill them. If you ain’t got no body, you don’t have a case.”
Carruthers plotted with a friend and fellow inmate, James Montgomery, an armed robber and violent felon, to take over the streets of his neighborhood as drug-dealer-in-chief. To do so meant getting rid of Marcello Anderson and his main dealer, Andre “Baby Brother” Johnson.
Marcellos Anderson was a good target. He wore a gold-and-diamond ring worth more than $2,000 and was earning significant amounts of money dealing cocaine.
“He was not a choir boy,” State Prosecutor Jerry Harris said. “He had money, he had access to dope, he had a car and he had his badge – a big-time money ring full of diamonds.”
Upon his release from custody, Carruthers, a gangbanger with alleged ties to the Gangster Disciples, made good on his promise to be extremely violent and used his bright idea of burying his victims in a graveyard.
First, shortly after his release in November 1993, he met up with Cello and Baby Brother, who fronted him $200 to tide him over.
A month later, the inmate to whom he shared his plan to dispose of the bodies, was released from prison and alerted Cello and Baby Brother about Carruthers’s plan. They dismissed it, believing that their friend would not double cross them.
James Montgomery was released from prison on January 11, 1994. He immediately looked up Baby Brother and Cello, informing them that he, not them, was in charge of their neighborhood. It was not a pleasant meeting, according to Baby Brother.
“It was my neighborhood before I left, and now I’m back and it’s my neighborhood again,” Montgomery said. “You feeling now like I’m going to blow your motherfucking brains out. You need to get in line around here or we’re going to go to war over this neighborhood.”
Carruthers confirmed Montgomery’s claim, but tried to assure Baby Brother that he was not in danger.
“We already got our man staked out,” he said. “You all right. If it’s any problem, we’ll deal with it later.”
On February 23, 1994, Cello borrowed a white Jeep Cherokee from his cousin. Around 4:30 p.m. February 24, witnesses saw him and 17-year-old Frederick Tucker riding in the Jeep along with James Montgomery and his brother, Jonathan. A half-hour later, the four men showed up at the house of the Montgomery brothers’ cousin. The quartet went into the basement.
A few moments later, James Montgomery came up and told his cousin to leave so he could “take care of some business.” The cousin returned later that evening, found Carruthers had joined the group. The only other person she saw there was James Montgomery. They asked her to leave once more and she did. The Jeep was gone at that time.
When she returned, the woman was told to go upstairs to her bedroom and stay there until James told her he was leaving. When he did so, she went downstairs and saw James Montgomery, Carruthers, Tucker and Cello leave in the Jeep.
Contacted later by police, she told them that Tucker and Cello had their hands tied behind their backs, but on the stand during the trial of Carruthers and James Montgomery, she claimed that statement was false. However, she also told police that Carruthers had threatened her life.
While Carruthers and James Montgomery were with Tucker and Cello, Cello’s mother, Delois Anderson, was at the home she shared with her son. Her niece called about 8 p.m. and someone picked up the phone but said nothing. The niece tried several more times, but received no answer. When the niece showed up around 9 p.m., Delois Anderson was missing. Her dinner was on the table and it was clear she had been interrupted while eating.
Carruthers and James Montgomery took Tucker, Cello and Delois Anderson to the Rose Hill Cemetery in south Memphis where the open grave of an elderly woman was waiting for her funeral the next day. The grave was located near the cousin of the Montgomery brothers.
At the side of the grave, the three victims lay on the ground, their arms bound, and unsuccessfully pleaded for their lives.
Early the next morning, the white Jeep Cherokee was discovered across the state line in Mississippi. It had been destroyed by fire. The owner was contacted by fire officials and from there talked to Delois Anderson’s cousin. She filed a missing persons report with police.
Because James and Jonathan Montgomery were two of the last people seen with Tucker and Cello, they became the focus of the police investigation. Jonathan proved to be the weakest link. He was brought in for questioning while police ran down other leads. They weren’t hard to find.
One man, who had known the the Montgomerys since junior high school, told authorities that around 8:45 p.m. on February 24, Jonathan Montgomery paged him. Jonathan said, “Man, a nigga got them folks.” When asked, “What folks?” Jonathan replied, “Cello and them” and said something about stealing $200,000. Jonathan arranged to meet his friend in person. Jonathan arrived at the man’s home at about 9:00 p.m. and told him, “Man, we got them folks out at the cemetery on Elvis Presley, and we got $200,000. Man, a nigga had to kill them folks.”
While Jonathan was at his friend’s home, James called him. Jonathan then asked to borrow the man’s car after he refused to drive Jonathan to the cemetery.
When the car was not returned, the man called James Montgomery’s cellphone at around 11 p.m. James told its owner that he did not know where Jonathan was, that Jonathan did not have a driver’s license, and that the car should be returned by 4 a.m.
When it was returned, the car was very muddy. The man drove James Montgomery and Carruthers to Montgomery’s mother’s home and then drove away with Jonathan Montgomery, whom he described later as “paranoid and nervous.”
Jonathan repeatedly told the friend that “they had to kill some people.”
The Montgomery brothers and Carruthers subsequently took the car to a carwash, and James Montgomery paid an unidentified elderly man to clean the interior and the trunk of the car.
After Jonathan Montgomery abruptly left the carwash, Carruthers and James Montgomery asked the car’s owner what Jonathan had told him, but the man replied nothing.
Several days later James Montgomery came to his home and offered him an AK-47 assault rifle because Montgomery said he had heard that the man “was into it with some people on the street.” James Montgomery told him the rifle had “blood on it.” At Montgomery’s trial, the man testified that he interpreted this statement to mean that someone had been shot with the weapon.
The man was correct in suspecting that someone had been shot, but it turns out that the AK was not responsible for killing the Andersons and Tucker.
On March 3, 1994, about one week after a missing person report was filed on Delois and Marcellos Anderson, Jonathan Montgomery directed detectives from the Memphis Police Department to the grave at the Rose Hill Cemetery on Elvis Presley Boulevard.
The casket of the woman who had been buried there was exhumed and the authorities discovered the bodies of the three victims buried beneath the casket under several inches of dirt and a single piece of plywood.
The body of Delois Anderson was lying at the bottom of the grave and the bodies of the two male victims were lying on top of her. The hands of all three victims were bound behind their backs. Frederick Tucker’s feet were also bound and his neck showed signs of bruising caused by a ligature. A red sock was found around Delois Anderson’s neck. Marcellos Anderson was not wearing any jewelry.
The pathologist testified that Delois Anderson died from asphyxia caused by several factors: the position of her head against her body, dirt in her mouth and nose, and trauma from weight on her body. Frederick Tucker had received a gunshot wound to his chest, which would not have been fatal had he received medical care. He had also suffered injuries from blunt trauma to his abdomen and head resulting in broken ribs, a fractured skull, and a ruptured liver.
He testified that Tucker was shot and placed in the grave, where the force of compression from being buried produced the other injuries and, along with the gunshot wound, caused his death.
According to the medical examiner, Marcellos Anderson had been shot three times: a contact wound to his forehead that was not severe and two shots to his neck, one of which was also not serious. However, the gunshot causing the other neck wound had entered Anderson’s windpipe and severed his spinal cord, paralyzing him from the neck down. This wound was not instantaneously fatal. Anderson had also suffered blunt trauma to his abdomen from compression forces.
The ME opined that each victim was alive when buried.
After implicating his brother, Jonathan Montgomery then fled to Milwaukee, where he was captured and returned to Memphis. While awaiting trial, Jonathan hanged himself in jail.
Carruthers and James Montgomery were indicted and went on trial in 1996.
Six court-appointed defense lawyers represented Carruthers prior to his trial, and all six succeeded in being relieved after complaining of noncooperation, harassment and threats from Carruthers. The judge ordered him to act as his own attorney.
“Enough is enough,” Judge Joseph Dailey said.
Both men were convicted and sentenced to death, but Montgomery’s conviction was overturned on appeal when the court ruled that the two cases should have been tried separately.
He subsequently pleaded guilty to three counts of second-degree murder and received parole in 2015. His trip from death row to the streets of Memphis stirred some controversy when the family of the victims complained they had not been notified of any parole hearings.
The county prosecutor responded that it was not his job and the state noted the family had not signed up for notification.
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