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Author BiographyRead more
Amy Welch was the Forensic Training Coordinator for NFSI.
SEVIER COUNTY SHERIFF’S OFFICE, TENNESSEE
Sevier County, Tennessee, sits in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains. Founded in 1794, Sevier County was inhabited for more than fifteen thousand years by the Cherokee. The county was named after Tennessee’s first governor, John Sevier. The county seat is Sevierville, one of the oldest cities in the entire state, though it’s also home to other well-known cities— Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Once dependent solely on farming, Sevier County is now home to major tourist attractions, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Dollywood, that keep the economy (and potential for crime) thriving. The Sevier County Sheriff’s Office has eighty- nine employees. Seven of those are crime scene investigators.
Tucked into the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains lies Sevier County, Tennessee, home to Dolly Parton, black bears, and a whole host of “good ol’ boys” still making and runnin’ shine—for medicinal purposes only, of course. Sevier County, in many ways, is a throwback to another era—a sort of crossroads between the twenty-first century and the antebellum South. It’s not a major metropolitan area by any stretch of the imagination. There is no Watts or Bronx, in terms of dangerous urban neighborhoods, but that does not mean it is without crime or less- than- wholesome areas. Take, for instance, a place referred to as Frog Alley. Up until the late 1980s, cops could not patrol the area without being routinely trapped by local delinquents, armed to the gills with slingshots and buckets of ball bearings, lying in wait high up in the treetops for the cops to drive by. Flaming tires would be hurled at police cars as other tree-dwelling Frog Alleyans flung steel balls through windshields and car doors. Sometimes an officer’s only defense was to jump out of the car with a shotgun and fire buckshot wildly into the treetops, just to be able to leave the area relatively unharmed. God only knows how many Frog Alleyans may have been hurt during those shootouts; in Frog Alley, they take care of their own.
But aside from the Frog Alley days, major disturbances are, for the most part, not a common thing in Sevier County. It is, above all else, a tourist area where people come by the tens of thousands in hopes of clean mountain air, funnel cakes, and sweet sorghum (it’s like molasses— and sold on just about every roadside in the South). They have their fair share of shoot-’em-ups, meth labs, and the occasional “you-stole-my-woman” bar fights, mind you, but all in all, nothing too terribly violent tends to happen in this county. Rarely, if ever, are there any cases involving murderers who plan their kill and then bury the body. As a matter of fact, in the last twenty-five years, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office had never had a case involving a buried body. Then, on April 23, 2005, that streak came to an abrupt end.
Beautiful mountain vistas and clear valley streams surround the area known as English Mountain, Tennessee. English Mountain is an extraordinary sort of place. Back in the early 1970s it was intended to be a mountain getaway, where a wonderful community was being planned by some Ohioans with, as rumor has it, money made from selling cocaine. Trees were uprooted and a few crude roads were cut into the side of the mountain for this soon-to-be rural resort. But it was not to be. Money got tight. Deeds were sold over and over and over again. They switched hands so many times that to this day, people are still in litigation over who actually owns some of the land. Since the 1970s, a few attempts have been made to revive this incredibly scenic (yet backward) place, but none have been successful. The “foreigners”—that is, anyone not born in Sevier County—were all run off by a local cavalcade of heathens known as the “Cosby Raiders.” These boys, decked out in camouflage, waving the rebel flag, and driving their four-wheel-drive pickup trucks, would terrorize anyone who set foot on the mountain. As a result, no real residential settlement has ever developed. All that’s left are approximately sixty mobile homes of varying upkeep spread throughout the mountainside, a small country grocery store, and a makeshift fire department.
The residents of English Mountain keep to themselves, leading fairly simple lives. Children run and play on small parcels of trailer park land, their bare feet smacking on the cold clay where grass used to grow. Adolescents run wild on the muddy mountain bluffs four- wheelin’ in their ATVs, while the adults sit around in the evenings and talk, kicking rocks with the neighbors—a southern tradition.
Yet, as with most neighborhoods, English Mountain has its seedy side. Drugs are prevalent on the mountain, particularly marijuana and prescription pills. One person, known to many of the mountaineers simply as “Mountain Man,” was renowned in the neighborhood as a primary source of these drugs. This Mountain Man, born with the name John Wayne Blair, supplied several of his friends and neighbors with drugs, while they all partied hard together, hanging out in the woods or doing whatever they felt stoned enough or stupid enough to do. Two people in particular were regular subscribers to the Mountain Man’s brand of medicine— Kelly Sellers and Tommy Humphries. The two of them, along with Blair, had a grand old time smoking dope and popping pills until one day, twenty-three-year-old Kelly Sellers went missing. From that day forward, English Mountain would never be the same.
A missing-person call came in to the sheriff’s office from Kelly’s frantic mother, who had not heard from her daughter in about twenty-four hours. Calls like this come in to the office all the time. Typically, it’s just rebellious kids who have run off after a fight with their parents and come back in a day or two. Or, as investigators will attest, it is not uncommon for a resident of English Mountain to go on a two- or three-day drunken, dope-riddled orgy, then crawl back home late one evening. Whatever the case might have been, the sheriff’s department dispatched Sergeant Michael Hodges to respond to the call. Sergeant Hodges is a colorful officer who can weave a tapestry of expletives to rival any bawdy comedian. He knew all too well that English Mountain had a whole host of lawbreakers and law skirters whom he and his fellow deputies had to deal with on a regular basis. Because of English Mountain’s history, he didn’t give much thought to this missing girl until he knocked on the door from where the call had originated.
Kelly’s mother was adamant, telling Sergeant Hodges that her daughter always called her to let her know what she was doing, even when what she was doing was not exactly church conversation. She knew her daughter partied, but Kelly always called home. She went on to tell Hodges that Kelly regularly hung out with Tommy Humphries and John Blair, the latter being, as far as she knew, the last person to be with Kelly before she went missing. Regardless of the information Kelly’s mom gave him, Sergeant Hodges still didn’t give the call much thought, but he promised that he would speak to both Humphries and Blair.
John Blair’s residence was at the very end of Honeysuckle, one of the few paved roads on English Mountain. His domicile, a double-wide trailer, was set into the side of the mountain wall, sitting fairly far back off the road. When Sergeant Hodges approached the house, three vehicles were in the driveway, so he figured someone had to be home. As he stepped onto the porch, he noticed a sign taped to the front door that read: I don’t call 911, I aim my M16. Upon reading that nice little warning note, he decided to unbutton his holster, just in case. He knocked, more than once, and even though he could hear someone stirring, no one came to the door. Without any tangible reason to press the issue at Blair’s, he went back to Kelly’s home to talk with her parents again.
This time, Kelly’s mother began to get very accusatory toward Blair, explaining that he had recently become obsessed with Kelly, but her daughter wasn’t interested in him “in that way”— especially considering that twenty-three-year-old Kelly as not only twenty-seven years his junior but a lesbian. Still, her mother told Sergeant Hodges, Blair had continued to proposition Kelly even though she kept turning him down. As the conversation unfolded and Kelly’s mother grew ever more hysterical, another call came in from dispatch alerting Hodges that Blair’s trailer was now reporting a fire. That meant it had caught fire during the brief time it had taken him to drive back to Kelly’s mother, so Hodges rushed back up Honeysuckle to see “what the hell was going on.”
Hodges slid to a halt at Blair’s and jumped out of his cruiser, running toward the trailer. There was no sign of a fire, but out of the corner of his eye he caught a glimpse of a wiry old man with a dirty white beard. Lo and behold, it was John Blair, perched on a bicycle no less. This was notably odd, since English Mountain is not prime real estate for cycling. Old rocky creek beds, mud dunes, and pig trails where wild boars roam are pretty much the sum total of the areas available for cycling.
English Mountain is a long way from the nearest fire department. However, a small volunteer fire department, housed in an old Quonset hut, is located down the road from Blair’s house and just before the old grocery store. In the minutes that had passed since Hodges had first knocked on his door, Blair had ridden down to the store, ignoring the Quonset hut on his way, to telephone the fire department that his house was on fire. Then, inexplicably, he rode his bike back up the mountain to his house and ultimately put the fire out himself with a garden hose— all before Sergeant Hodges or the fire department had even arrived.
“If she’s dead in the trailer, I want to know right fuckin’ now,” Hodges yelled to John Blair, who continued to sit on his bicycle outside his trailer as firefighters entered the house.
“Huh, I didn’t hear you,” Blair replied, unmoved at the events that were unfolding. Again Hodges vehemently asked Blair “if there was anybody in the house,” and evidently hearing him this time, Blair simply replied, “Ain’t nobody in that house, ain’t nobody in there.” Hodges ran through the house to make sure. While he was inside, Hodges noticed that only the bedroom had been burned; the rest of the house was fine. He found it unusual that only one room had caught fire. When he came out of the bedroom, one of the firemen told him, “I think we got some blood [on the floor]. I ain’t sure. I ain’t no expert, I’m a fireman.” Hodges told him to cut a carpet sample, which he did and handed to Hodges, who carefully wrapped the sample in newspaper and put it in his trunk. Then he went back to Blair.
“Where have you been?” Hodges asked Blair. Hodges knew that something was just not right. His cop’s intuition told him John Wayne Blair was up to no good.
“Riding my bike,” Blair said, miffed, “that’s what I’s doin’.”
Hodges proceeded to ask Blair when the last time was that he had seen Kelly Sellers. Blair began by railing about her being “crazy.” “That’s not what I asked you. When was the last time you saw Kelly?” repeated Hodges.
Defensive, Blair told Hodges that he had dropped her off at her parents’ house “yesterday evening, around four or five.” He went on to tell Hodges, “She’s a dopehead; she eats pills.”
“Well,” Hodges started, “right now you’re the last person that’s seen her, and that’s confirmed by her parents and you with the time frame you’re giving me.” But Blair stuck to his story, saying that they had just been talking and hanging out. While Hodges and Blair were conversing, Hodges noticed a fanny pack sitting on one of the cars near where they were standing. He asked Blair, for safety reasons, if he could see what was in the pack. Blair obligingly unzipped it and showed Hodges a roll of duct tape, condoms, a protein bar, and a knit cap. At that point, Hodges got into his car to make a note of the contents because “things weren’t looking too good.” But in all honesty, the evidence at that point was all circumstantial. There was still no substantive reason to think that anything had happened to Kelly, so Hodges left to find Tommy Humphries, the other individual who often hung out with Kelly Sellers and John Blair.
Humphries also lived on English Mountain, at the bottom of the hill, around the corner from the grocery store. Hodges had passed his house already and had noted that there were no vehicles in the driveway. But now, on his way back down from Blair’s, he saw a truck in Humphries’s yard and so he pulled in, hoping to have a conversation with Tommy. And, in fact, the moment Hodges’s cruiser hit the driveway, Tommy hurriedly came out to talk, meeting him almost before Hodges was out of his car. Hodges asked what was going on. “You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t know,” Humphries replied nervously. Hodges assured him that he did not, but he wanted to hear everything that Tommy knew. Humphries began to twitch, looking all around him as if something was bothering him. “I think somebody’s got something aimed at me,” he told Hodges uneasily. “Blair— he’ll know I’m talking to you. He’s probably got a scope on me right now!” Before Humphries went on with his story, he told Hodges that he had a gun in his back pocket.
“Do not move! Do not fuckin’ move!” Hodges bellowed as he put his knee between Humphries’s legs and removed the weapon from the man’s back pocket. After clearing the weapon and putting it in his car, he told Humphries, “Okay, now we can talk.”
“What I’ve got to say, you won’t believe,” Tommy went on to tell Hodges, “but I ain’t telling you here.” Humphries was worried about his children. “My babies are up the street at a friend’s house. You get ’em off the mountain and then you and I can have a conversation.” Hodges asked him if the conversation would end up in his having to call a mortuary. Humphries replied, “I guarantee it.”
Hodges was now confronted with two people who intimately knew Kelly: one acting very suspicious and the other willing to spill his guts about what was starting to look more and more like a murder. Frankly, he didn’t trust either of them, but he had to play the hand he was dealt. So Hodges assured Humphries that he would make sure his kids were safe and that he would ride with him back to the sheriff’s office, where they would talk. After Hodges accompanied Humphries to the friend’s house to check on the children, they left for the sheriff’s office. Once they were far enough off the mountain for cell phone reception, Sergeant Hodges immediately phoned Detective Matt Cubberley in what was now the middle of the night.
Cubberley recalls, “I knew it was no lark when Hodges called and woke me up; when I arrived, Humphries and Hodges were both already back at the office.” Cubberley is a big fellow (they call him “Box Head”) who never shies away from the limelight. This case would turn out to be the biggest of his career. According to Cubberley, Humphries paced anxiously, not saying a word to anyone, traditionally the motions of a guilty man. He was awaiting news that his children had made it to their destination and were safely off the mountain. Once that call finally came in, Humphries spilled his guts, as if he had been holding back a flood.
“Party. That’s what we do,” he began. “Party, smoke dope, and ride four-wheelers.” According to Humphries, the Friday before Kelly disappeared was supposed to be another day of the same— dope smoking and four-wheeling along with Blair. But Blair never called Humphries to make those plans. After waiting several hours, Tommy finally called John to see what was up. “I’m too tired to party,” Blair told him over the phone. A very strange comment from a guy who was never too tired to party. Humphries said that Kelly was supposed to be there too, and he just assumed that Blair was “getting some” from her. So like any good partier, he simply went somewhere else on the mountain to smoke some dope.
The next day, Humphries and Blair had lunch at the local market and then drove back to John’s trailer to hang out. As they stood in the driveway getting ready to go inside, Blair asked Humphries if he could keep a secret— a really big secret. And that’s when he dropped the bomb. “I had to pop her.” Before he could even ask why, Humphries claimed John said that “Kelly came to his house wanting pills and raising mortal hell, threatening to turn the whole fuckin’ mountain in for selling dope if he did not give her some pills.” Blair went on to give some details, saying that he had killed Kelly in his double-wide trailer and had buried her up on the mountain, right where a tree had fallen, using the upturned roots as the cover for her body. Humphries finished his story by telling the investigators he had noticed that Blair’s house had smelled very strongly of bleach that morning.