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Howard Hawk WILLIS





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Dismemberment
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: October 6, 2002
Date of arrest: 4 days after
Date of birth: March 17, 1951
Victims profile: Adam Chrismer, 17, and Samantha Leming Chrismer, 16 (newlywed teenage Georgia couple)
Method of murder: Shooting
Location: Washington County, Tennessee, USA
Status: Sentenced to death on June 21, 2010
photo gallery 1 photo gallery 2

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 penalty.

Willis was sentenced to death on June 21, 2010


Howard Hawk Willis gets death sentence in slaying of Chickamauga couple

Associated Press

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 City.

The state had asked for the death penalty.


Willis Jury Takes Up Death Penalty Option For Convicted Murderer

Juror Becomes Physically Ill Looking At Autopsy Photos In Penalty Phase Hearing

By Dennis Norwood -

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 the same.”

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 Samantha Chrismer.

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, your Honor.”

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 jurors.

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.


Expert Witnesses Establish Chrismer Couple’s Time Of Death

Prosecution Expected To Rest On Friday

By Dennis Norwood -

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 noticeable success.

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 observation.

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 Chrismer.

The defendant asked if the sergeant could read him the serial number off the saw and if the saw was exactly as it had been found.

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 evidence.

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 Sheriff’s Office.

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 mother.

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 last year.

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 testified.

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 that story.

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 said.

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 them first.

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 Detail

DA Moves Patiently In Building State’s Case

By Dennis Norwood -

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 Chrismer’s bodies.

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 Bradley County.

It was also testified that Mr. Chrismer’s cause of death was by a gunshot wound from under the throat towards the top of the skull.

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 floral pattern.

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.


Ex-Wife Of Willis Delivers Bombshell Recording: “I Blew Their Brains Out”

Taped Confessions Could Play Heavily With Jury’s Decision

By Dennis Norwood -

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, 2002.

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 court.

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 premeditate it.”

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 closely.

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 recovered.

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 Forensic Evidence

Some Evidence Considered “Gruesome;” Other Is Only “Horrendous"

By Dennis Norwood -

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 Center.

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 representing himself.

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’ mother.

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

The Sun-Herald

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 were killed.

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.

Associated Press

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 case.

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 with evidence.

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.



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