Howard Hawk Willis. A jury in Jonesborough
sentenced Howard Hawk Willis to die for the murders of Chickamauga
teenagers, Adam & Samantha Chrismer. The couple had just gotten
married before they were killed in 2002.
Prosecutors presented new photos of their bodies in
a sentencing hearing that made one juror ill. The jurors found that
the killings met all four mitigating circumstances for the death
Willis was sentenced to death on June 21, 2010
Howard Hawk Willis gets death sentence in
slaying of Chickamauga couple
June 21, 2010
A jury in northeastern Tennessee has sentenced
Howard Hawk Willis to death after convicting him of first-degree
murder in the dismemberment killing of a newlywed teenage Georgia
couple eight years ago.
Jurors began deliberating Saturday, took Sunday off
and convicted him early Monday afternoon, then sentenced him less than
two hours later. The trial began last Monday.
The six-man, six-woman jury found Willis guilty in
the killingof 17-year-old Adam Chrismer and 16-year-old Samantha
Leming Chrismer of Chickamauga, Ga. The boy's head was found in Boone
Lake in October 2002 and his severed hands were found nearby. The
bodies of both teens were found in a rented storage unit in Johnson
The state had asked for the death penalty.
Willis Jury Takes Up Death Penalty Option For
Juror Becomes Physically Ill Looking At Autopsy
Photos In Penalty Phase Hearing
By Dennis Norwood - Chattanoogan.com
June 21, 2010
ONESBOROUGH, Tn. – New photographs of the victims, not
previously shown by the prosecution, were introduced during the
sentencing phase of the Howard Hawk Willis trial.
Already found guilty on the three counts of first
degree and felony murder, Willis now faces the death penalty as one
option for his punishment. The autopsy photos were so gruesome that
one juror became physically ill, necessitating Judge Jon Kerry
Blackwood to call for a recess until the jury, as a whole, felt well
enough to continue.
Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks later
apologized for the necessity of having to show the photographs.
District Attorney Tony Clark told the jury that,
“Howard Hawk Willis made a decision about human life, we are now
asking you to make a decision concerning the life of another human
being.” He continued, “Mr. Willis chose death, we are asking you to do
Willis could face the death penalty, life without
parole or life in prison.
ADA Brooks presented the aggravating factors for
the victims. These are required to support the request of the death
penalty. In the case of Adam Chrismer, the state put forth that the
defendant knowingly mutilated the body of the victim after death.
In the case of Samantha Leming Chrismer, the state
assigned the following aggravated factors: (1) the murder was
especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel in that it involved torture or
serious physical abuse beyond that necessary to produce death; (2) the
murder was committed for the purpose of avoiding, interfering with or
preventing the lawful arrest or prosecution of the defendant or
another; (3) The murder was knowingly committed while the defendant
had a substantial role in committing the first-degree murder of Adam
Chrismer; and, (4) The murder was knowingly committed by the defendant
while the defendant was knowingly committing the kidnapping of
Retaining the same impassive demeanor, Willis
continued to show no emotion at all following the jury making its
verdict known. He either stared straight ahead or was in conference
with his “elbow counsel,” Attorney Jim Bowman. When it came time for
him to make his own statement, Willis said, “I waive my statement,
Earlier, the mothers of the two teenagers took the
stand to speak to the jury regarding the state of their lives
following the deaths of their children. Both are under the care of
physicians and on medication to help them deal with the depression and
anxiety they have felt since learning the news that their youngest had
been found murdered. Both had been listed as missing prior to their
bodies being found in Johnson City.
Teresa Chrismer referred to her son Adam as “my
baby,” saying that his death had left her unable to trust anyone or to
hold down a job. She said used to be a wordsmith and write poetry;
however, “I can no longer find the words.”
Samantha’s mother, Patty Leming, went to the stand
clutching a handkerchief as family members could be heard sniffling
loudly in the gallery. She took the witness stand with a somber and
extremely sad expression on her face, as she turned to speak to the
Her sadness was heard in her voice as she described
how family members have had to keep check on her for fear of her
taking her own life. “My life has been changed forever,” she said,
“(Samantha) was my only daughter.”
“She wanted to be a vet or a lawyer, but now we’ll
never know,” she sobbed, breaking into tears. As she left the stand,
more than half of the jurors were openly crying themselves.
After being thoroughly briefed by Judge Blackwood
regarding his right to submit mitigating circumstances in open court,
Willis declined to do so, saying, “I’ll let the record speak for
itself, your Honor.” The now-convicted murderer did, however, submit
several mitigating factors to the jury in writing.
The first was First Judicial Circuit District
Attorney Tony Clark who took immediate exception with, asking the
judge if the prosecution would the opportunity would have the
opportunity to rebut those written circumstances.
The fact that Willis had submitted the written
document caused the court to be held in further recess as the charge
to the jury concerning the death penalty had to be re-written to
include the new information from the defendant.
Willis had submitted that he had no prior criminal
activity in his report to the jury when, in fact, he had been arrested
and served time in the state of New York on a drug-related charge.
The jury heard their charge and the explanation of
the sentences in play and exited through the door they had routinely
used all week. This time, however, they were walking through it with a
man’s life in their hands.
Willis trial day 5: Mothers take the stand
June 17, 2010
A mother’s grief is a powerful thing, and two
mothers who took a witness stand in Jonesborough Friday captured a
jury’s attention when they testified against the man accused of
killing their children.
Patty Leming, mother of Samantha Leming Chrismer,
held her composure until Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks
asked if she recognized a photo of several pieces of jewelry her
daughter was wearing when she died.
“Yes, sir. I carry them in my purse. I carry them
everywhere I go,” she said, as her voice quivered and she began to cry.
The only time Leming appeared to square herself to
look Howard Hawk Willis — the man accused of killing Samantha Chrismer
and her husband, Adam Chrismer — was when Brooks asked is she saw the
man the teenagers left with on Oct. 4, 2002.
Leming pointed directly at Willis to identify him.
Willis, 59, is charged with killing Adam and
Samantha Chrismer, a young Georgia couple in October 2002.
Investigators said Willis also cut off Adam’s head
and hands with a chainsaw and stuffed the bodies into the 50-gallon
Rubbermaid totes before storing them in a rented warehouse unit in
downtown Johnson City.
Teresa Chrismer, Adam’s mother, testified that she
had a bad feeling when Bradley County investigators called her in 2002
about the teens being missing. She hadn’t talked to her son in several
days and began calling him on a “secret number” he had given her.
“I just had a terrible, terrible feeling. I thought
he was in trouble or something bad had happened to him,” she testified.
Witnesses Establish Chrismer Couple’s Time Of Death
Prosecution Expected To Rest On Friday
By Dennis Norwood - Chattanoogan.com
June 17, 2010
JONESBOROUGH, TN. – The Knoxville-based jury in the
Howard Hawk Willis capital murder trial was treated to an afternoon of
a day in the life of a fly. As the research becomes more and more
developed, forensic examiners are using flies and their larvae and
pupae as a means to determine the time of death in bodies that are
discovered without a known time of death.
A member of the Johnson City Police Department, Lt.
Steve Sherfey, was also called to introduce a key piece of physical
evidence located on the grounds of the Willis residence at 104
Brentwood Dr., close to an outbuilding, between 104 and the
neighboring residence. The officer spoke with a next door neighbor to
ascertain if it were his weapon.
On cross-examination, the accused murderer went
back to his normal practice of trying to dispute the testimony. His
theories were again fended off with ease. As a means to backup their
evidence, the state also called Larry Hendricks, who offered that he
was the homeowner Lt. Sherfey had spoken with and that the gun was not
his, but had been found in the grass and dirt near the property line
with the Willis residence.
Dr. Erin Watson, a graduate-level assistant
professor at Southeast Louisiana State University, gave the jury in
this capital case a thorough education in the process and analysis of
this method of determining the near-approximate time a person became
deceased. As she testified, she often spoke of flies the way many
would talk about their pet. It was extremely evident she was the
expert as she had been certified.
As part of her testimony, she mentioned upper and
lower thresholds of temperatures that larvae and pupae would develop
metabolically. Other parameters used are time of evidence collection
back to the last time the deceased was seen alive.
Her opinion, and she says it is a conservative one,
concerning the death of Adam Chrismer is that he died somewhere
between Oct. 6 (possibly the 5th) and Oct. 8, 2002. Using the data
available to her, she said she was “very confident.”
As far as Samantha Leming Chrismer, her range is
from Oct. 7 and Oct. 10 of 2002. Again, she said she is very confident
of her data. She testified, that based on her research, there is no
doubt that Adam pre-deceased Samantha, possibly by a day and a half.
With that clarified, the accused asked if this was
the first case she had ever been a part of, she said it was not. His
questions then ran to whether or not she was herself board-certified
or had sought out board certified entomologists to assist her. Her
answer to both was no.
He then began to question her qualifications as an
expert witness without having a board certification. Mr. Clark
objected but was overruled by the judge. Mr. Willis continued to
hammer away at the doctor’s accreditation without her being board
certified. Her answer actually indicated she was just as qualified
without the certification.
Based on the larvae and fly activity inside the
containers, Dr. Watson held fast to her findings in the face of the
defendant’s onslaught of hypothetical questions. The judge instructed
the jury that these were hypothetical questions and the answers should
be disregarded as part of their decision-making process.
Presiding judge Jon Kerry Blackwood allowed the
defendant to recall FBI Agent Reiner Drolshagen back to the stand as
part of his defense. Agent Drolshagen was here from Dallas and rather
than delay his departure back to his home station, the judge agreed to
his being called out of turn.
Again, just as on cross-examination on Wednesday,
the accused attempted to dispute the agent’s testimony without any
The trial is in the fourth day of testimony as the
defendant faces the possibility of a death penalty for his alleged
murders of Adam Chrismer and his wife, Samantha Leming Chrismer back
in October of 2002.
Earlier, a researcher from Oak Ridge Laboratories
had established that the time of death of Mr. Chrismer was sometime
between Oct. 4 and Oct. 8 of 2002. Mrs. Chrismer’s time of death was
set somewhere between Oct. 6 and Oct. 8, 2002.
Dr. Arpad Vass, a forensics researcher who
specializes in blood-borne pathogens, weapons of mass destruction,
clandestine grave discovery and time of death determination, told the
jury how he had used the liver and kidney of each victim to make the
determinations. Dr. Vass stated that part of his analysis involved air
and remains temperature, as well as certain visual aspects of
On cross-examination, Mr. Willis attempted to
interject several anomalies into the expert witnesses’ processes and
findings. In each case Dr. Vass declared that either the attempted
variation in location or method would not make a change in his
findings. At one point, Mr. Willis even asked, “If Adam and Samantha
had been seen in North Georgia on Oct. 6, 2002, would that have made a
difference?” Dr. Vass replied, “Certainly, they would have been seen
alive during the projected range of the time they died.”
For the majority of the time, the accused seemed to
be only re-hashing questions already asked by the prosecution.
At 5:15 District Attorney Clark called the state’s
sixth witness, Tommy Remine, a former investigator for the Washington
County Sheriff’s Department. His main role in the case was to document
and photograph evidence. At the time of his first visit to 104
Brentwood (the Willis residence) he stated that he was given
possession of a weapon found by then-Sergeant Sherfey of the Johnson
City Police Department. At the time of receipt he stated that the
sergeant had already unloaded the weapon and discharged the clip.
The automatic pistol was passed amongst the jury
who took great care in looking it over.
“Did you find the gun underneath the storage shed
on the property of Larry Hendricks?” Mr. Willis asked the former
officer. “No, sir, I did not find the gun,” was Mr. Remine’s answer.
Thomas Smith, a Lieutenant with the Carter County
Sheriff’s Department and at the time of the murders assigned to the
First Judicial Circuit’s Drug Task Force was next called to the stand.
He stated that he was called out to 104 Brentwood Dr. to help execute
a search warrant. He identified a box of Winchester .32-caliber
ammunition that he had found in the attached garage at the residence.
Lt. Smith indicated that the ammunition was found
on Oct. 17, 2002.
Mr. Willis had one question for the witness, “Lt.
Smith, are those copper jacketed or lead?” “They appear to be copper
colored,” was his reply.
The next up for the prosecution was Sergeant Bill
Coultree of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. He became involved
when the BCSO was asked to assist in recovering a chainsaw along the
north-bound lane of I-75. “We were brought there by Wilda Willis,” he
answered when asked by DA Clark how they came to be at that location.
Unpacking a tightly bound box, Sgt Coultree,
extracted the chainsaw allegedly used to dismember the body of Adam
The defendant asked if the sergeant could read him
the serial number off the saw and if the saw was exactly as it had
Elizabeth Pope, an employee of the Tennessee
Department of Health, previously a Senior Lt. with the BCSO Crimes
Scene Unit was also called by the prosecution. She testified as to
having assisted in the recovery of the saw, as well as transporting it
back to the evidence locker and booking it, preserving the chain of
Next to be called as the state continued to
establish the presence of physical evidence was Lt. Barry Tharp, also
of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office. As a crime scene investigator
he had been asked to assist in the Chrismer missing person case. He
was the person responsible for transporting the saw to the TBI crime
lab in Nashville.
As part of his testimony, various photos of the saw
were shown to the jury, all showing bits and pieces of the clothing
worn by Mr. Chrismer at the time of his death.
Concluding court for Thursday, Judge Blackwood
announced that he expected the state to rest Friday. Thursday’s
afternoon session was adjourned at 6 p.m. Saturday’s session is
expected to run until approximately 4 p.m.
Sunday will be a social day for the sequestered
jury as they will be given time to visit with its family members on
Father's Day. This event has been planned by the Washington County
Word from the District Attorney’s Office is that
the mothers of both victims will take the stand at some time prior to
the state resting its case. Prosecuting the case is First Judicial
Circuit District Attorney Tony Clark with the assistance of Assistant
District Attorney Dennis Brooks.
‘I blew their brains out’: State plays Willis
tape recordings for jury
June 15, 2010
Howard Hawk Willis’ ex-wife told a jury Tuesday her
former husband admitted killing two Georgia teenagers just days after
their bodies were found, but later pinned the crime on another teen.
State prosecutors introduced several phone calls
between Willis and Wilda Gadd in which he gave her directions to a
chain saw investigators believe he used to cut off Adam Chrismer’s
head and hands. The tool was found along Interstate 75 in Bradley
County — thrown there, according to what Willis told Gadd, by his
Willis, 59, is on trial for two counts of first-degree
murder and two counts of abuse of a corpse for allegedly killing
Chrismer, 17, and his wife, Samantha Chrismer,16.
Their decomposing bodies were found Oct. 11, 2002,
inside plastic totes that were in a rented warehouse storage facility
in Johnson City.
After Willis’ arrest on a federal drug violation
Oct. 10, 2002, Gadd worked with police to get him on tape allegedly
confessing to the murders, and she recorded phone conversations when
Willis called her from jail.
Stephens testified both teenagers died from gunshot
wounds — Adam was shot in the face and Samantha in the back of the
head after her hands were tied behind her back — before being stuffed
into the totes.
Stephens also told the jury Adam’s body and a pair
of shorts he was wearing had evidence of “chain saw activity,” and
appeared as if his head and hands were cut off after he was wrapped in
several layers of bedding type material.
In Willis’ opening statements to the jury on Monday,
he asked them to consider how there was no blood evidence in his
mother’s 104 Brentwood Drive residence if the teens were supposedly
killed and Adam cut up there.
During Stephens’ testimony, jurors again saw the
photograph of Adam’s severed head, found in Boone Lake near Winged
Deer Park about a week before the rest of his body was found.
But after Willis’ objection to prosecutors attempt
to show jurors a photograph of Adam’s headless, handless body in the
tote, Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood said the photo could not be introduced.
Blackwood asked Stephens if the photo showed
anything that would further help the jury understand how Adam died,
and she said it did not.
Stephens testified a jacket in the tote with Adam
was lined in a red plaid material — and a tiny piece similar to it was
found at the garage door at Betty Willis’ house on Brentwood.
Betty Willis, aka Emma Hawk, also was charged in
the case, accused of helping her son dispose of the bodies. She died
Clark and Assistant District Attorney General
Dennis Brooks put Clay on the stand to put Willis and the teenagers at
his mother’s house on and off through the spring and summer of 2002.
Clay said she also saw Willis outside the residence
on Oct. 5 or 6, 2002 and watched him take a black trash bag from his
mother’s red Jeep and throw it on the ground.
Later, she saw the lights on in the garage and
thought it was very unusual.
“I’d never seen the lights on in that garage,” she
Johnson City Police Capt. Debbie Bothello testified
later in the day about locating a pillowcase in a linen drawer at Hawk’s
house that she and Stephens felt was the match to a pillowcase found
in the tote with Samantha.
Bothello said she attended Samantha’s autopsy and
when she saw the pillowcase from the tote, she remembered seeing a
similar one at the house. It was later retrieved and the jury was able
to see both pillowcases Tuesday.
But it may be Gadd’s testimony, and the recorded
conversations, that was the most damning for Willis on Tuesday.
Gadd said in her second jailhouse meeting with
Willis, they were put in an attorney room at the detention center. At
his request, she took a tape recorder with her.
When she asked him if he killed Adam and Samantha,
Gadd said Willis said he did. Jurors heard it themselves when
prosecutors played the recording.
“Yeah. I blew their brains out. (Portion omitted).
I just pulled the trigger right then and there on them,” Willis said.
What jurors did not hear was why Willis said he
killed the teens. In the parts omitted from the recording jurors heard,
Willis told Gadd that Adam said he had robbed and killed Sam Thomas,
Willis’ stepfather, and was laughing about it.
On into the conversation, Willis talked about the
storage “He told me that he had cut Adam’s hands and head off and
threw them in the river,” off DeVault Bridge, Gadd testified.
She said Willis showed no emotion when he told her
He was talking like it didn’t matter to him they
were dead and gone,” she said.
But in later recorded phone conversations, Willis’
account changed, she said.
“He told me his mother killed them, he told me
Daniel (Foster) killed them, he told me the mafia killed them,” she
Gadd said when Willis told her where to find the
chain saw, he also told her to wipe it down with gasoline to remove
any fingerprints and “to get rid of it.”
In that conversation, Willis said Adam and Samantha
came to Johnson City with him to help clean Betty’s house because it
had been vandalized, but he took another trip to Georgia and returned
Oct. 5, 2002.
He said Samantha also arrived at Hawk’s house that
night and the next day Adam showed up. He said he went to the mall,
Beauty Spot and a couple of other places that day and when he returned
to Brentwood Drive, the teens were gone.
Willis didn’t give an account of how the teens died
in that conversation, but said he discovered their bodies at the
storage unit. He didn’t call police because he wanted to find evidence
and after conversations with his mother, he decided he should record
But Willis wouldn’t get the chance for that because
he was arrested him on Oct. 10 on the federal warrant.
“If Bradley County had not falsified a bunch of (expletive)
and had me arrested, it would have been over a long time ago,” Willis
told Gadd in the conversation. “I would have immediately recorded it
and took it to the police.”
Willis is representing himself in the death penalty
case after the former judge ruled he had abused the judicial system
because he didn’t cooperate with several court-appointed attorneys.
Forensic Pathologist In Willis Case Delivers Testimony In Graphic
DA Moves Patiently In Building State’s Case
By Dennis Norwood - Chattanoogan.com
June 15, 2010
JONESBOROUGH, TN. - The jurors in the Howard Hawk
Willis capital murder trial being held in the Washington County
Justice Center in Jonesborough, Tn., spent the morning listening to
forensic pathologist, Dr. Mona Stephens tell of her findings as she
investigated the pathology of Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming
At the time, Dr. Stephens was a medical examiner in
Washington County, the site of the homicides. At times gruesome and
horrendous, the evidence always proved to be graphic.
The Chrismers were one-time residents of Rossville,
but had taken up with Mr. Willis whom they had met while traveling as
a homeless couple. Mr. Willis had earlier told the jury that his only
interaction with the couple was as a humanitarian, attempting to help
the teenagers. His defense is that he has been set up in this case.
The jury in Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood’s courtroom
stared intently as each photograph was projected on to the wall behind
the witness box. In comparison, Mr. Willis looked on with literally no
emotion present, almost as if he was not even seeing the photos.
There were those in the audience, however, who
gasped out loud, especially when the nude, bound and gagged body of
16-year-old Samantha Leming Chrismer’s body was displayed.
Dr. Stephens’ testimony was that Ms. Chrismer had
been bound and gagged prior to her death, which was sometime later
than that of her husband, Adam. The victim was wearing multiple pieces
of jewelry and her cause of death was found to be two gunshot wounds
to the back of the head, execution style. Only fragments of one bullet
were found in the body.
First judicial Circuit District Attorney Tony Clark
patiently led the witness through her description of the graphic and
decidedly gruesome evidence. The jury was shown a pillow case found in
the storage bin with Samantha, as well as one taken from 104 Brentwood
Drive, the residence of Betty Willis, the mother of the defendant. Mr.
Willis was also said to have stayed there.
The Knox County jury was also shown the zip-ties
and gag used to bind Ms. Chrismer, along with numerous grotesque
photos of her body.
Speaking of the torso found in the other storage
container, Dr. Stephens confirmed that the markings on the body were
consistent with body parts being removed via a chainsaw. She also said
that bits of bone and clothing in the chainsaw blade were recovered in
It was also testified that Mr. Chrismer’s cause of
death was by a gunshot wound from under the throat towards the top of
Mr. Chrismer’s head and both hands were found by
fishermen and a detail of prisoners in different locations in Boone
Lake, part of the Winged Deer recreation area. A piece of Mr. Chrismer’s
skull had also been found by a young girl on a fishing expedition with
her father on the same lake.
On cross examination, Mr. Willis, who is acting as
his own counsel, questioned the witness about her going to the storage
unit and about whether or not the container holding the bodies had
leaked. She confirmed both questions in the positive, saying that it
was purge fluid found on the sides of the containers. He also asked
about her trip to 104 Brentwood and the evidence she found there,
concentrating on the location of the matching linens she discovered at
the Willis home.
Mrs. Willis has since died prior to the case being
brought to trial.
He asked, “Mrs. Stephens, how many bedrooms did
this house have?” “I really can’t remember at this time,” she replied.
“If I were to say it had two bedrooms, would that sound reasonable?” “Yes.”
“It wasn’t very livable was it?” “Not without being rearranged again,
no,” was her answer.
Mr. Willis then moved to have his own photos of the
interior of the house admitted as evidence. Among these were pictures
of the, now in evidence, pillow case. He asked if other linens were
found and the doctor answered in the affirmative.
His lengthiest questioning was centered on the
pillow case, even presenting another piece of linen from the residence.
She said that this piece could also be considered as to having a
When Mr. Willis asked about the color of Mrs.
Chrismers’ hair, she responded that it was a dark red. “It wasn’t
blonde was it?” he asked. Her reply was, “If it was, it had to have
been a very dark blonde.”
She also testified that she had heard that another
autopsy had been conducted on the bodies. These were allegedly
conducted following her own examination. In regards to other questions
from the defendant, she confirmed that she had collected organ samples
from Samantha Chrismer’s body and froze them. She also collected
larvae samples for Special Agent Reiner Drolshagen, an evidence
collection expert from the FBI.
Other testimony from the doctor included the fact
that fly pupae had been found in the container with Adam Chrismer’s
torso, but not inside the container with his wife’s body. This
indicated that Mr. Chrismer had been deceased for a while longer than
Mrs. Chrismer. Dating the age of flies and larvae has been used in
many cases by forensic pathologists and was developed at the “Body
Farm” at the University of Tennessee.
Mr. Willis continued in his effort to shake the
doctor on her fly testimony without much success.
Judge Blackwood recessed court at 11:55 a.m. for an
hour for lunch.
Of Willis Delivers Bombshell Recording: “I Blew Their Brains Out”
Taped Confessions Could Play Heavily With Jury’s
By Dennis Norwood - Chattanoogan.com
June 15, 2010
Taking the old adage of “beware of ex-wife’s
bearing gifts” to heart, Wilda (Willis) Gadd, of Ft. Oglethorpe,
Howard Hawk Willis’ former wife, dropped more than a few bombshells
with her testimony Tuesday afternoon in his capital murder case.
Key among them was a recording of Mr. Willis, made
without his knowledge and while she was wearing a wire for the Bradley
County Sheriff’s Office, making the statement, “I blew their brains
out.” This was in a visit to the Washington County Jail on October 16,
This was in response to Ms. Gadd’s question, “Did
you kill them? Did you kill them?” The defendant is heard replying,
“Adam and Samantha? Yeah, I blew their brains out. I just pulled the
trigger right then and there on them."
Willis will have his opportunity first thing
Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. when Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood reconvenes
Mr. Willis sat motionless, showing no emotion at
all as his voice was heard over the courtroom speaker system. The Knox
County jury sat with their ears tuned to every word uttered, some
taking notes of the defendant’s spoken words.
While there were others that testified during the
afternoon, it was Ms. Gadd’s that was the most riveting as it was the
first time any evidence had tied him directly to the murders of Adam
and Samantha Chrismer. The two newlyweds were only 17 and 16 at the
time of their demise. When his former wife appeared to ask (this
portion of the tape was rather inaudible) why he had done it, he
replied, “I don’t know Wilda, I just don’t know.”
Both murders were committed in the residence at 104
Brentwood Drive in Johnson City. He had been in Chattanooga and Ft.
Oglethorpe just prior to allegedly committing the atrocities.
Later in the set of four recordings presented to
the jury, Mr. Willis appears to try and pin the crime on his own
mother, now deceased Betty Willis. In his first version of what took
place he said in answer to Ms. Gadd’s question about whether Betty
knows or not, “No, not that I’m aware of.”
Ms. Gadd told the defendant that, “You’ll be going
to the electric chair.”
In other taped conversations, over a cell phone
that was equipped with a suction-type device for recording by the
Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, Mr. Willis is heard giving
instructions as to where his ex-wife can find the chainsaw used to
dismember Adam Chrismer’s body, which was found missing the head and
both hands. All three articles plus a scrap of skull tissue were found
in Boone Lake, part of the Winged Deer recreation area.
The body of Samantha Leming Chrismer and the torso
of Mr. Chrismer were found stuffed into 50-gallon storage bins inside
a 24-Hour Storage Facility on Buffalo Drive in Johnson City.
In getting the admissions and other pieces of
information from the defendant, the former Mrs. Willis did an
admirable job in convincing Mr. Willis that she was trying to help him
with his case. She testified that at no point did he ever become
suspicious of her working with law enforcement. Other information
obtained by Mrs. Gadd was dealing with an object supposedly thrown off
the “Ole Johnny Bridge” (Olgiati Bridge), that was never recovered.
Willis also told his former wife that he threw
Chrismer’s body parts in the lake “close to the Devault Bridge.” At
the close of her first session with the defendant, she told him, “This
is life, electric chair.” His response was “Not necessarily. I didn’t
As before, District Attorney Tony Clark and ADA
Dennis Brooks worked hard to deliver their evidence in a slow patient
manner, ensuring that the jury was left with a clear understanding of
what was told them. Mr. Clark is the DA for the First Judicial
District in Tennessee. Washington County is the oldest county in the
state and Jonesborough the oldest county seat.
To lead off the afternoon, the state called Dr.
Mark Koponen, currently an assistant professor of pathology at the
University of North Dakota School of Medicine. At the time of his
involvement in the case he was a Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the
Georgia Bureau of Investigation working out of Atlanta. The GBI, in
order to have a better line of communication and information flow had
asked that the doctor perform a second autopsy of Mrs. Chrismer’s body.
The biggest difference between his examination and
that performed by Dr. Mona Stephens, a forensic pathologist who
performed the first exam, was that through x-rays he was able to
discover an intact bullet in the young woman’s chest. Dr. Koponen’s
testimony was that the bullet had probably fallen into the location
during the first autopsy or initial handling of the corpse. It had
been Dr. Stephen’s testimony that her facility did not possess the
type of x-ray equipment to have shown this finding.
Her answer to the cause of death question was that
it occurred by a gunshot wound to the head. She did recover four
bullet fragments as part of her autopsy.
The projection of the x-rays taken by Dr. Koponen
clearly showed a mass in the chest cavity that was clearly a bullet as
described. His finding of death by a gunshot wound to the chest was
simply one of “That’s where I found the bullet.”
The rest of his findings matched Dr. Stephen’s very
A former neighbor on Brentwood Drive, with
animosity dripping from her lips every time she mentioned the
defendant, gave the most animated testimony of the day. Ms. Wilma Clay
of 106 Brentwood Drive in Johnson City, responded to the defendant on
cross when he asked, “You didn’t get along with Betty Hawk did you?”
“No,” she snapped, “Nobody did. She was low-life evil just like you!”
At this point Judge Blackwood instructed the jury
to disregard the witnesses’ last comment.
Other witnesses for the afternoon session were
James Miller, a private attorney in Johnson City who had had occasion
to visit inside the Hawk/Willis resident just prior to the murders. He
described the interior of the home as, “dirty, with lots of debris on
the floor.” He also pointed out where there had previously been carpet
on the floor, some was now missing.
Shaunda Efaw, a detective sergeant with the Bradley
County Sheriff’s Office, was one of the first investigators to work
the case out of Bradley County. She conducted several interviews with
the accused, as well as being with Mrs. Gadd when the chainsaw was
Mr. Willis did not have a lot of questions on
cross, and the one’s he asked seemingly had no relevance to what the
witnesses had just told the jury. An example of this was when he
questioned Sgt. Efaw as to whether she recalled him telling her that
he did not keep up with dates very well, that she would have to ask
his ex-wife. He also questioned her about a letter that Mrs. Gadd had
sent her, asking if it was post-marked from Chattanooga. She replied
in the affirmative to both.
The other witness called in the afternoon was
Captain Debbie Vitello. Willis’ line of questions to the Washington
County deputy ran to whether she had spoken with a number of officers
with the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, to which she replied no to
each and every name mentioned.
Court was adjourned for the day just prior to 6
p.m. Judge Blackwood again instructed the jury against looking at any
form of news media. He also told the sequestered group of 18 that this
Sunday the Washington County had arranged family time for their
families to spend time with them here in Jonesborough.
Prosecution Opens Its Case Against Howard Hawk Willis With Lots Of
Some Evidence Considered “Gruesome;” Other Is Only
By Dennis Norwood - Chattanoogan.com
June 14, 2010
Jonesborough, Tn. - Living up to its earlier
promise, the prosecution opened its case with graphic and sometimes
horrendous forensic evidence as it seeks to convict Howard Hawk Willis
in the deaths of 17-year-old Adam Chrismer and his young wife,
Samantha Leming Chrismer, 16, at the time of her death. Judge Jon
Kerry Blackwood is presiding over this capital case, in which Mr.
Willis could, if convicted, find himself facing the death penalty from
the Knox County jury chosen to hear the case.
The murders were said to have taken place in
Johnson City, for which Jonesborough is the county seat. Washington
County, named for President George Washington, is the oldest county in
Tennessee. The trial is being held in Jonesborough in the Justice
District Attorney Tony Clark and Assistant District
Attorney Dennis Brooks are prosecuting the case for the First Judicial
District of Tennessee. Attorney Jim Bowman, the first counsel of the
10 that Willis fired, is acting as the defendant’s “elbow counsel.”
This is required in a Tennessee capital case where the suspect is
The word most are using to describe the carnage
that Mr. Willis is allegedly responsible for is “gruesome.” According
to the prosecution, Willis is the only person the forensics point to
in this case from 2002.
The state called several witnesses during the
afternoon including former captain and head of criminal investigations
for the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office, now patrol officer Bill Burt;
Luther Whitson, the fisherman who discovered Mr. Chrismer’s
decapitated head floating in Boone Lake; Edward Baker, a fisherman who
discovered Mr. Chrismer’s hand in the same lake while competing in a
tournament; Jerry Taylor, a deputy sheriff from Washington County, who
was supervising a jail work detail that found Mr. Chrismer’s other
hand; Isaac Nichols, whose daughter discovered the top of Mr. Chrismer’s
skull while they were on a family fishing trip; Catherine Campbell,
the storage facility manager who rented the storage unit to Willis’
Other witnesses called were Dr. Larry Miller, a
medical examiner who secured the search warrant for the storage unit;
Kenneth Phillips, a former director of the Drug Task Force in the
First Judicial Circuit who was also a former homicide investigator. Mr.
Phillips is the officer who discovered the actual storage unit
containing the bodies of the young teens.
However, it was supervisory special agent Reiner
Drolshagen who spent the majority of the time on the stand Monday
afternoon. Agent Drolshagen currently supervises a violent crime task
force in Dallas, was from 1997-2006 a special agent assigned to
Johnson City. Agent Drolshagen, a specialist in evidence collection,
was called in to help with searching the residence of Mr. Willis’
mother Betty at 104 Brentwood Dr. in Johnson City. He also helped with
the collection of evidence at the 24-hour storage facility.
He led the jury on a walk-through of a DVD shot as
part of the search at the storage unit. Prior to that, however, he
noted the decidedly filthy condition of the Willis residence and
called attention to the comparative cleanliness of the Willis Jeep.
This, he said, made him immediately suspicious and upon processing the
vehicle a foul odor was discovered as well as the carpet being damp –
as if it had just been cleaned.
He described the mother’s house as also having a
foul odor, with flies and larvae present. Photos showed where remnants
of carpet had been ripped up erratically. This, he said, made him
suspicious that a crime had been committed there.
Former Detective Phillips gave a similar accounting
of what led him to the storage unit. He told the jury that law
enforcement had received word that the unit they were looking for,
might indeed be at the location at which they were presently looking.
Mr. Phillips said he had a very strong nose and aversion to the smell
of rotting flesh. This is what initially led him to unit X47. “I was
with several other officers from Washington County and the Bradley
County Sheriff’s Office when I came upon an extremely foul smell
coming from the unit. I told the other officers, ‘This is it.’” At
that time he said he received a phone call from the investigation’s
supervisor telling him that he had the number of the unit, “I told him
I already had it. The number he gave me was the one we were in front
of – X47.” He also said that several small larvae and maggots were
seen coming from under the door.
The defendant did not have a lot of questions on
cross-examination, asking SSA Drolshagen, “What type of equipment did
you have in your vehicle?” The agent gave him a laundry list of the
sorts of equipment a law officer might have to process a crime scene.
Willis even laughed with the witness over his (Willis’) butchering of
the agent’s last name. Willis only asked former-Detective Phillips
about his current business as a landscaper.
Dr. Miller testified that he was a documents
forensics examiner and had definitely identified the storage rental
agreements having been authored by Betty Willis. Willis’ only question
of Dr. Miller was, “Did the state ask you to look at any other
articles of handwriting?” With the DA’s objections, the witness was
released with a possible recall notice from the defense.
Judge Blackwood adjourned court just prior to 5
p.m., instructing the jury to stay away from newscasts and papers,
including on-line sources. Several jurors had indicated a need to do
some shopping and Judge Blackwood advised them, “Don’t spend all your
money up here in Washington County."
Mutilated bodies put in lockup
October 20, 2002
The mutilated bodies of two teenagers were found
rotting in a storage unit hours before an elderly man's headless body
was found 321km away.
Police suspect the dead man's stepson, Howard Hawk
Willis, 51, in both cases.
Willis, who is awaiting sentencing in a cocaine
case, has not been charged over the deaths but his 70-year-old mother
has been charged with helping dispose of the teens' corpses.
Police said yesterday that Willis was involved in a
cocaine-for-sex scheme with the teens.
The pair were believed to be newlyweds Adam Ray
Chrismer, 17, and Samantha Foster Leming, 16, who have been missing
since October 11.
They were last seen travelling with Willis from
Georgia to Tennessee.
"The investigation will probably reveal he had a
sexual relationship with the girl," Washington County Sheriff Fred
Phillips said yesterday.
Authorities believe the teenagers were cocaine
users but not dealers.
Investigators suspect the pair learnt something
about the death of Willis's stepfather, Samuel Thomas, before they
Thomas, 73, has been missing since October 5.
A head and hands, believed to be Chrismer's, were
found in a nearby lake a few days earlier.
More remains were found on Thursday boxed up in a
Johnson City storage unit, along with a hatchet, a pair of large
scissors, a hammer and containers of gasoline and diesel fuel,
prosecutor Joe Crumley said.
Hours later, police in Georgia found a body,
tentatively identified as that of Thomas, in woods about 60km from his
Bradley County home.
The man had been shot and his arms severed at the
elbows. The head has not been found.
Tennessee authorities said an informant helped
police find the bodies.
Willis's mother, Emma Elizabeth Hawk, was arrested
on Thursday in Johnson City and charged with corpse abuse, accessory
to first-degree murder and attempt to tamper with evidence.
Willis's aunt, 74-year-old Marie Hawk Holmes, was
also charged with an attempt to tamper with evidence.
Both remained in jail yesterday.
A special grand jury will meet this week to
consider charging Willis over the teens' deaths, Mr Crumley said.
Willis is also a suspect in the disappearance of
his wife, Deborah Willis, 10 years ago, said Captain Chip Bryant of
the Bradley County Sheriff's department.
Willis pleaded guilty earlier this year to
transporting 1,180kg of cocaine to a warehouse in Brooklyn, New York,
and is awaiting sentencing.
His bond of $US200,000 ($364,630) was revoked when
New York prosecutors said he was using Thomas's credit cards, and he
was arrested in Johnson City last week.
Court records in New York indicated Willis had been
trying to acquire false identification so he could leave the country.
Bodies Found in Washington Co.
October 17, 2002
JOHNSON CITY (AP) -- Washington
County authorities discovered Thursday the bodies they believe are the
two teenagers whose head and hands were found over the weekend.
District Attorney Joe Crumley
says the bodies were found wrapped up in a storage unit in Johnson
City. They will be taken to the medical examiner to be identified.
The head found over the weekend
has been tentatively identified as that of 17-year-old Adam Ray
Chrismer of Walker County, Georgia.
The hands as those of his wife,
16-year-old Samantha Foster Leming.
The missing teens were last seen
with Howard Hawk Willis, of Chickamauga, Georgia. He is in federal
custody in Johnson City on charges stemming from an unrelated drug
The storage unit was rented by
Willis' mother, 70-year-old Emma Elizabeth Hawk. She was arrested and
charged early Thursday morning with two counts of abuse of a corpse,
accessory after the fact to first-degree murder and attempt to tamper
Willis' aunt, 74-year-old Marie
Hawk Holmes, was charged with attempt to tamper with evidence. Both
are being held in the Washington County Jail.
Willis has not been charged but
is considered a suspect in the disappearance.