The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cracked cold case links corrupt ex-governor to the murder of a witness who ‘knew too much,’ officials say

Saadiq Pettyjohn, center, son of Samuel Pettyjohn on Wednesday in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Kimberlee Kruesi/AP)

The details would be at home in a Scorsese film: a contract killing, an FBI investigation, a political corruption scandal, a witness who “knew too much,” and Jimmy Hoffa.

Instead, a group of men in suits recounted the sensational story at a staid news conference this week in Chattanooga, Tenn. — the conclusion of a 42-year-old cold case that investigators just solved, shedding more light on the sordid administration of Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton (D), who was ousted from office in 1979.

The case, an investigation into the murder of Chattanooga businessman Samuel Pettyjohn, was part of the highest-profile political scandal in state history, which authorities said involved the Blanton administration exchanging prison pardons for cash. Pettyjohn, a close friend of Hoffa who was cooperating with agents in the federal probe code-named TennPar, was killed inside his beer store Feb. 1, 1979. He was shot four times in what was described as “an execution-style hit” and was found with a cigar still burning between his fingers.

Authorities in Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga, found that the shooting was a contract killing, funded in part by Blanton’s office to stymie the burgeoning case against the governor.

“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally, as well as at the state level, and individuals didn’t like that,” Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said Wednesday, when he announced the revelations.

“Here we are some 42 years later,” he said.

No new charges will be filed because everyone involved, including Blanton, is dead, Pinkston said, but he added that he hopes the findings can “bring some closure and peace to Pettyjohn’s surviving family members.” William Edward Alley, a bank robber who died in prison in 2005, was paid to kill Pettyjohn, Pinkston said. If he were alive today, a grand jury found he would be charged with first-degree premeditated murder.

Blanton was never indicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal but three of his aides were. Authorities said that by the time TennPar wrapped up, five witnesses had been murdered or died by suicide. However, the cloud over the governor’s conduct triggered his unprecedented removal from office just days before his term was to end.

Shortly before his ouster, Blanton pardoned 52 prisoners, including the son of a political ally and more than 20 people convicted of murder. The move sparked a firestorm of controversy and drew national attention. Word then spread that Blanton was planning more eleventh-hour pardons, potentially including one for James Earl Ray, who was convicted of assassinating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Top state officials, including the attorney general, the speakers of the state House and Senate and the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court, gathered surreptitiously to swear in a new governor, future senator Lamar Alexander (R), three days early. The Tennessean newspaper called it “a somber ritual on a tumultuous day.” The lieutenant governor had a different phrase: “impeachment, Tennessee-style.”

In 1981, Blanton was convicted in an unrelated extortion and conspiracy scheme that involved selling a liquor license to a friend while in office. He served 22 months in federal prison.

At the news conference, Pinkston said Pettyjohn’s knowledge of the pardons plot, as he laid it out in testimony to a federal grand jury before his death, was a “vital link to prove the whole existence” of the scandal.

“Mr. Pettyjohn knew details from the very beginning and how the whole scheme operated,” Pinkston said.

Authorities said Pettyjohn, who was active in local and state Democratic politics, worked with another Blanton ally, William Thompson, to meet with prisoners and broker the exchange of money for an early release. Pettyjohn and Thompson would then hand the cash to the governor’s office.

During the TennPar investigation, Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify about the goings on, and he eventually agreed to cooperate with the FBI. On one occasion, he met secretly with agents in an abandoned building and provided a list of people who made payments to the governor’s office in exchange for early release.

In December 1978, Thompson and members of the Blanton administration were indicted for their roles in the scandal. Shortly after, Alley entered Pettyjohn’s store and shot him in the chest, neck and head, authorities said. At the time, witnesses said they saw a Black man in a trench coat exit the store and fire a gun in the air before fleeing the scene.

But investigators now say that Alley, who was White, wore blackface, a wig and glasses to conceal his identity.

One of Pettyjohn’s sons, Saadiq Pettyjohn, said his mother has described his father as “very generous and a giving person,” someone who “had a heart of gold.” Saadiq Pettyjohn said his father “had a lot struggles,” including his involvement in criminal activity.

“It’s a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that’s connected to crime,” he said. “When that person dies, you can go that route or you can go a different route, and all of us chose to go a better route, with education, and to try to do better in our lives.”

Blanton was a radio commentator after his prison stint. and he died in 1996 of a liver ailment. A Washington Post obituary noted that the pardon scandal inspired the movie “Marie,” a 1985 film starring Sissy Spacek, Jeff Daniels and Morgan Freeman. Blanton, months before his death, insisted he would never stop trying to clear his name.

“I never took a dishonest dollar in my life,” he said. “I was the only governor to ever leave office broke. That should tell you something.”