The Morgan County Three
May 9th, 2018 Micheal Whelan
Morgan County, Alabama, is a large mass of land which stretches from the area northeast of Bankhead National Forest, all the way up to the Tennessee River, just southwest of the city of Huntsville. It is just shy of being 600 square miles, most of which is made up of woods and small, interconnected towns.
The largest city in Morgan County - where most of this episode will take place - is Decatur. Decatur, also known as "The River City," is coincidentally the county seat of Morgan County. Other towns in the area include Hartselle and Falkville - the latter is another area we'll visit over the span of this story.
Throughout the 1960s, Morgan County was receiving a large influx of people. Decatur was coming into its own as one of the largest port cities along the Tennessee River, and a military base was bringing in scores of military contractors, scientists, and their families.
The military base, named Redstone Arsenal, had originally been created during World War Two. It started out as a missile ordnance storage facility just outside of Huntsville, Alabama - a large just northeast of Morgan County - but evolved as that conflict came to an end. After World War Two, the Army's rocket research and development activities were transferred from Fort Bliss to here, in northern Alabama. This included many German scientists included in Operation Paperclip, which is a very interesting story in its own right.
Throughout the 1950s, Redstone Arsenal continued to expand its mission, especially once the space race officially commenced. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to this emerging cold war by creating the National Aeronautics and Space Administration - also known as NASA. He then transferred all US Army space-related activities at Redstone Arsenal to the civilian-led NASA, and the area began to grow rapidly.
The Army Missile Command launched at Redstone Arsenal in August of 1962, and over the next eight years, the area would see a large influx of families. The population in Morgan County, which had been right around 60,000 at the 1960 census, had jumped nearly thirty percent by 1970, with a population upwards of 77,000.
However, while we associate this time period with the tumultuous news unfolding in the background - the Vietnam War and the Richard Nixon presidency come to mind - much smaller stories were unfolding in the background of this quiet Alabama county. By the time that next census would take place in 1970, three families were forever changed - and three young women would be missing from Morgan County's population.
This is the story of Mary Faye Hunter, Juanita Acker, and Joyce Drake.
Mary Faye Hunter was born on May 2nd, 1933, in the same town where she would live for her entire life: Decatur, Alabama.
In 1951, Mary graduated from Decatur High School, and would continue to live with her family over the next decade-and-a-half. Some have theorized that Mary might have had some kind of mental disability that her family tried to keep quiet, which is why she chose to remain close to home, but I haven't found any definitive evidence of that.
Regardless, throughout her adult life, Mary Faye lived a quiet life. She never married, and didn't seem to have much of a romantic history - at least, nothing that anyone spoke about. She worked as a Secretary at the nearby Marshall Space Flight Center, on the nearby Redstone Arsenal military post, and held down her job for over a decade. She also volunteered as a pianist for the youth choir at Center Methodist Church, a job she took seriously.
Many regarded her as a gentle, quiet soul, which stood in stark contrast with her ominous end in 1967.
In May of 1967, America was undergoing some serious growing pains.
The Vietnam War was raging overseas, and while men were shipping off to fight in the conflict, others were returning to a world that was less-than-welcoming. Protests were raging nationwide, and the month before, April, had seen one of the highest-profile dissension, with Muhammad Ali refusing military service.
Earlier that year, in February, the first Super Bowl had taken place. The Green Bay Packers had defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. That same month, the infectious anthem, "Respect" by Aretha Franklin, had been recorded and had just been released upon the world in April.
On a musical note, The Doors had just released their debut album, and an guitar phenom named Jimi Hendrix was getting ready to drop his debut album, "Are You Experienced?" that summer.
But while these legendary pop culture moments were happening, there was also a seedier side to the world at-large. Albert DeSalvo, named the Boston Strangler, had been convicted in January.
Worldwide protests were threatening international relationships. And the Supreme Court had not yet heard the Loving v. Virginia case, meaning that interracial marriage was still prohibited in states such as Alabama.
Amidst all of this - the war, the conflict, the music, the moments that would never be forgotten - Mary Faye Hunter was celebrating her thirty-fourth birthday. Four days later, she would disappear forever.
May 6th, 1967, was described as a "rainy Saturday" in the town of Decatur, Alabama.
Mary Faye Hunter left her family's home, which was on the 800 block of 8th Avenue SE, and headed off on-foot towards the House of Beauty, a hair salon on Grant Street SE. Mary had an appointment there this morning, and didn't want to be late.
She did make it there on-time, and was able to get her hair styled. She then left the salon at around 11:30 AM, and headed up another block towards Decatur.
Multiple witnesses saw her at an A&P grocery store on Johnston Street just before noon. This would put her a little under a mile away from home - a trip that would take no more than twenty or so minutes, walking.
However, when she failed to return home by 1:00 PM, her worried parents reported her missing to police.
Family and friends began searching for her that afternoon, but were unable to find any trace of Mary. Within a day, the search had become a police matter.
The family of Mary Faye contacted Jeanne Dixon, a self-proclaimed psychic. In a response, she told the family that Mary was still alive, but had gotten a little "mixed up."
Five days after her disappearance - on May 11th, 1967 - an article published in the local Alabama Courier displayed a picture of Mary Faye Hunter. The news bulletin underneath stated that there was a $2000 reward for information that led to Mary's safe return home; it also stated that police had been searching for the young woman in the preceding week, searching mainly in abandoned homes and farm buildings in the hopes of uncovering any clues. They also stated that the search had expended north of Morgan County, to the other side of the Tennessee River, in southern Limestone County.
That newspaper article is one of the few mentions I've found of Mary's story getting any attention in the media, although her story would become a touchy subject of local gossip.
That is, until later that year.
On October 14th, 1967, a woman fishing in the area around Flint Creek - an offshoot of the Tennessee River, between Decatur and Hartselle - made a shocking discovery.
In the body of water called Wheeler Lake, she discovered the skeletal remains of Mary Faye Hunter.
Police and the coroner were called to the scene. Alvin Benn, a legendary journalist who would achieve fame while covering the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, lived in the area at the time. In his memoir, called "Reporter," he described the scene surrounding the discovery of Mary Faye Hunter's remains, and how the police were very lackadaisical when it came to roping off the scene from the public. He describes the coroner in scuba gear, fishing out the bones of a young woman from the water, while members of the public were looking over the scene, pointing out spots where more of her remains had been found.
State officials later told a coroner's jury that Hunter had been sexually assaulted before her death, but investigators declined to say how they had come to this conclusion. After all, the remains were deteriorated to the point of being considered skeletal, and this seemed like an impossible bridge to cross when it came to 1960s forensic testing.
To this day, it has been undetermined how investigators reached this conclusion; how the notion of a sexual assault entered the case.
Bob Hancock, a state investigator for the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, lived in the area and served as the primary detective for the case. He had to begrudgingly admit, a short time after the remains of Mary Faye Hunter were found, that:
"We just had nothing to go on in that case."
Investigators were unable to come up with any solid leads or dig up any pieces of evidence in their search to find out what had happened to Mary Faye. By the time her remains were found, and her family found out what her fate had been, her case had already joined the pantheon of Alabama's cold cases.
One theory I have been able to come across came not from a newspaper article, nor a news story. It came from the most unlikely of places: a Facebook group dedicated to Decatur, Alabama. It only has a few hundred members, and some of its most recent posts are from a handful of years ago.
However, in a random post buried on this Facebook page, one person states that the investigation was called off because the primary suspect in this case died shortly after the mysterious death of Mary Faye Hunter.
Obviously, I cannot verify this, and I cannot find any newspaper reports that validate this, but a Reddit comment, made by a websleuth, carries on this theory.
Their theory, which is spawned from decades-old Decatur gossip, is that Mary Faye Hunter was having an affair with a married man. When she became pregnant, she was taken to an doctor that performed illegal abortions. During the procedure, she began to hemorrhage, and died shortly thereafter. From there, her body was disposed of near Highway 67, near the backwaters of the Tennessee River. This is also where the primary suspect - the person the original Facebook commenter alleges was involved - committed suicide, as well.
Obviously, I don't know what to make of this theory. On one hand, I guess it's possible, but I do wish that I didn't have to hinge a theory on throwaway Facebook and Reddit comments. However, when it comes to this case, there's really not much else to say: the tragic disappearance and death of Mary Faye Hunter is a story that hasn't gotten any traction in over fifty years. She's been mentioned in a few newspaper articles in that time span, but Mary Faye's story is oft-forgotten, even among the people in this central Alabama city.
Unfortunately, she wouldn't be the only woman to meet a mysterious end in this time period.
Juanita Acker, born Juanita Holland, entered the world on July 15th, 1928. Her family lived near Birmingham, Alabama, in a town named Alexandria, and she would graduate from Alexandria High School in the 1940s.
In 1947, she met a young man named Callis Craton Acker - nicknamed "Cal" - and the two would marry in 1947. Cal, a veteran who had served in the US Navy, had returned from World War Two to finish his BA degree at Tulane University, before marrying Juanita.
The couple would go on to have three children together: a son named William, and two daughters, named Susan and Kathy. However, instead of settling down, they continued to grow as a couple and experience new things together.
Cal earned his certified public accounting rating in 1956, and Juanita followed that up two years later with an accomplishment of her own: joining the United States Women in the Air Force. This had been set up in the latter half of the 1940s to let women participate in the armed forces, and Juanita started by heading off for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
This is what eventually brought the family up to Decatur, Alabama, where Juanita worked at Redstone Arsenal, becoming an employee of the Safeguard Program in Huntsville, Alabama.
Cal established his own accounting firm in Decatur, creating all kinds of business ties with the locals, and integrating this couple into the fabric of Morgan County.
Tragedy struck in the mid-1960s, when Cal was diagnosed with cancer. He would pass away in January of 1966, leaving behind three children and making Juanita a 37-year old widow.
Over the next couple of years, Juanita and her three children would struggle to recover from this tragic loss, and would keep trying to move forward. However, they would suffer through another tragic loss when their family home - on Decatur's Buena Vista Circle - burned down in April of 1969.
The loss of this home meant that Juanita would have to temporarily move into a motel along US Route 31, while she looked for a more permanent living situation.
After the loss of the family home on April 29th, 1969, Juanita and her two daughters - 16-year old Susan and 12-year old Kathy - moved into a motel. Her son, William, went to live with friends for the time being.
On Friday, May 23rd, 1969, both of Juanita's daughters left for the evening. 16-year old Susan went out on a date with her 21-year old fiance, Nathan; while 12-year old Kathy went to go spend the night at a friend's house. Juanita left a motel key beneath the doormat, so that Susan would be able to come back after her date with Nathan. It was essentially a backup key, so that neither of the daughters got locked out.
A motel employee, who started his shift at about 11:00 PM, stated that the phone line from Juanita Acker's room was connected when he clocked in. Again, this was around 11:00 that night, and he later told police that the phone was connected for about seven minutes or so.
A couple of hours later, after 1:00 AM, Juanita's teenage daugher, Susan, returned to the motel room. Her fiance, Nathan, was still with her, and they were planning to slip into the motel room in the early morning hours of May 24th. As they approached, however, they saw that the key, which Juanita usually left under the doormat, was found on-top of the mat.
When they entered the motel room, they found 40-year old Juanita Acker, lying in a blood-soaked bed. Investigators stated that she had been shot twice in the face with a .22-caliber pistol, leaving behind a troubling crime scene.
Police stated that nothing from the room was missing, and there seemed to be no sign of burglary.
Morgan County Sheriff David Sandlin stated:
"I think somebody slipped in while she was sleeping and shot her."
Police questioned both Juanita's 16-year old daughter, Susan, as well as her older fiance, Nathan Harton. They also asked around the motel, looking for anyone that knew anything about what had happened that evening. This is when they discovered that her phone was in use at some time around 11:00 PM, according to the motel employee that started work around that time. They also discovered that a family friend had come to visit Juanita at around 10:00 PM.
Toxicologists determined that Acker's time of death had been at around 11:30 PM, based on the evidence and the clues pointing in that direction. It comes as a surprise, then, that nobody heard the gunshots - or, at least, nobody reported them.
State investigator Bob Hancock, who had led the investigation into Mary Faye Hunter's suspicious death, also helped out with this one. He remained active in the investigation, and helped coordinate investigative efforts between state and local authorities.
One of the investigators involved in the case, Clarence Harris, was told that Acker was set to remarry in August of that year, to a man named Bill Givens, who lived in the Chicago area. I cannot tell you whether this mysterious fiance was questioned about his whereabouts, or what his romantic history with Juanita was like, but I can only assume that police were able to speak to him.
Juanita Holland Acker was laid to rest at the Roselawn Gardens of Memory in Decatur, right next to her husband, Cal. Together, they have been waiting for answers for almost fifty years.
As the 1960's came to an end in the United States, a dark cloud seemed to emerge over the American zeitgeist.
The 1960's had brought with them hope and change, but as the decade came to an end, many weren't sure whether it was change they wanted. The Vietnam War seemed to have no end-in-sight, and in December of 1969, a draft lottery had taken place to conscript young men for the armed conflict. The Beatles, who had taken America by storm just a few years beforehand, were on the brink of breaking up for good. The murder of Sharon Tate, orchestrated by Charles Manson, had consumed the American media, and many credit that incident for metaphorically representing a new chapter of American history.
In the area of Morgan County, this time period was represented by another series of events: the Apollo missions. Redstone Arsenal, which was the US Missile Command, oversaw a large part of the rocket programs that were worked into the United States' space program, and this was represented in the area's population and demographics, which continued to trend upwards.
But as the 1960s paved the way for the 1970s, another event was unfolding in the background of a quiet area in Morgan County, Alabama...
Thelma Joyce Sanders was born on May 12th, 1949. Growing up, she preferred to go by her middle name, Joyce; in 1967, she graduated from her hometown's Falkville High, just twenty-five or so miles south of Decatur.
While in high school, Joyce had become smitten with a varsity football player named Randy Drake. The two married shortly after Joyce's graduation, and would welcome two children into the world over the next few years: Steven, the oldest son, and Randall, Jr., the secondborn.
Joyce Drake, taking on her husband's surname, became a stay-at-home mom, while Randy supported the family by working at a service station in the nearby town of Cullman.
In her free time, however, Joyce helped out with her parents, who owned and managed a general store in the Cole Springs community of Eva, another small town about ten miles away from Falkville. The store, called R.L. Sanders Grocery, was named after her father, and was located along Eva-Falkville Road.
The two children, two-year old Steven and nine-month old Randall, were at home with their father on the Wednesday morning of January 7th, 1970. Twenty-year old Joyce went to help out her parents at their store, and left early that morning to pitch in.
At around 10:30 AM, Joyce departed from R.L. Sanders Grocery, leaving with roughly $400 in checks, which had been used to pay for groceries and goods. She was heading to the bank to cash the checks and then bring the money back to the store. By all indications, she was alone during this time period.
Some reports indicate that Joyce stopped by her sister-in-law's home, another young woman named Betty Sanders who lived along the way, but there's been no confirmation of that in the years since.
Joyce did make it to the bank a short while later, cashing the checks and putting the cash into a small money bag, which she carried under her arm out of the bank. Nobody in the bank saw her with anybody, but at least three witnesses saw her leave the bank. These witnesses say that there was a man with her, in the cab of her pickup truck, after leaving the bank.
Multiple newspaper reports would state that this man was red-headed, and at least a few would state that witnesses described him as "large." One newspaper not-so-delicately described him as "big built."
We know this because, when Joyce failed to return to her parent's store, they became concerned. Likewise, she had not returned home, and family and friends began to look for her. Within hours, police were called, and the search started to find Joyce Drake.
In the late afternoon of Wednesday, January 7th, 1970, townsfolk banded together to begin looking for Joyce and her pickup truck.
Early that evening, after the sun had set, Joyce's truck was found along Union Hill Church Road, a small little two-lane expressway surrounded by woods. There was no trace of Joyce in the truck, nor of a mysterious red-haired man, or any of the money she had gotten from the bank.
They would later find the empty money bag, which had been emptied save for a leftover handwritten check and a single penny, on a rural road near Cole Springs. However, by the time they found the money bag, they had determined what had happened to twenty-year old Joyce.
Throughout the night, a group of three men, including a City Council member, were searching for Joyce in the area east of Falkville, named Oden Ridge.
The weather, which had been snowy for some time, made the search miserable and unbearable, but the men persevered, hopeful that their flashlights would be able to uncover any trace of the young mother.
At a little after 9:00 PM, they stumbled down a snowy road east of Falkville. There, they discovered Joyce Drake... or, at least, what remained of her.
Her body, which had been left in the snow on top of a small trash pile, had been dead for several hours. She was described as being "mutilated" by reporters, with her throat slashed at least four times.
John McBride, the former coroner and sheriff of Morgan County, described the crime as being the most brutal murder in recent Morgan County history. He also stated that Joyce Drake had been the victim of "a vicious, mad killer."
Some reports indicated that Joyce's hands had been left clutching tiny red hairs, and that there was apparent evidence of skin under her fingernails, indicating quite a struggle had taken place.
However, detectives - aided in their hunt once again by state investigator Bob Hancock - stated that there was no sign of a sexual assault, and that the motive for the crime had likely been robbery.
As the investigation tried to narrow in on the man responsible, police began to scour the area for anyone matching the description: a young man with red hair, who might have been larger in size or stature.
A student at nearby Eva High School, named Stanley Hall, came forward and told investigators that on the day in-question - January 7th, 1970 - he had picked up a hitchhiker that matched that description. He stated that this red-haired young man, who looked to be in his late twenties or early thirties, stood around 5'11" and weighed around 160 pounds. Stanley had also apparently picked him up not too far away from where Joyce's truck had been found, along Union Hill Church Road.
Despite this news, however, the investigation would struggle to make any real progress over the coming months.
Within days, the investigation seemed poised to file charges at any moment.
Morgan County Sheriff Van Ward, when asked if they had any leads, stated:
"I believe he's still in the area."
A headline in the local "Decatur Daily" newspaper stated: "Drake Murder Arrest Near." The article itself quoted authorities from Morgan County, who believed that the suspect - a young man who matched the description and was on their radar - was known to the Drake and Sanders family.
The Athens News Courier, another local paper, reiterated this thought in a story they published just six days after the murder, on January 13th:
"... those close to the investigation have agreed that the murder possibly was done by someone who knew the victim, but not as well as he thought."
This became a common theme in almost all of the reporting of the investigation into the murder of Joyce Drake: the belief that her killer had been previously known to her and her family.
A little over two months after her murder, in fact, multiple papers reported that a Morgan County Grand Jury was nearing a decision to indict a man for the crime. This story, published on March 10th, 1970, referred to this young man as the "prime suspect," and made it clear that first-degree murder charges were expected in the pending trial.
These reports stated that this man had been originally held by police for misdemeanor charges, before "jumping bond" and running off to a northeastern state. From there, he was recaptured and detained by police, and then returned to a Madison County jail in Huntsville, Alabama.
All of these newspaper reports also made it clear that he was "known to the family."
This person-of-interest was never publicly named, because those charges and indictments never came. Later statements by investigators seemed to indicate that this suspect passed a polygraph, and had an airtight alibi that investigators couldn't look past.
A year after the murder of Joyce Drake, the Cullman Times ran a front-page article, remembering Joyce Drake and revisiting her case, which remained unsolved.
R.L. Sanders, the father of Joyce, was quoted multiple times in the article:
"I think Joyce knew the person who killed her. I also believe he is still living in the area.
"I believe this because shortly after the murder, I found a blood-stained dollar bill in my cash register which someone had used to buy something. Also, a bill was found at at Hartselle supermarket and another in Falkville."
He also shared a thought that I'm sure any parent could sympathize with, in his shoes:
"I am afraid to say what I would do if I knew for sure who killed Joyce."
Both Joyce's mother and her widower husband, Randy, expressed more reserved emotions when asked about how they would react if they came face-to-face with the killer. Randy, Joyce's young husband, stated:
"Nothing is gained when a person takes the law into his own hands."
Joyce's mother, Mrs. Sanders, seemed to reiterate this line-of-thinking:
"It would be hard to forgive him, but I would definitely want the person punished to the full extent of the law."
In the same newspaper article, investigator Bob Hancock is quoted as saying:
"We are still working on the case. We will never stop investigating the Joyce Drake murder until an arrest is made."
Over the years, the investigation into determining who was responsible for Joyce Drake's murder had many stops and starts.
On the two-year anniversary of the crime, investigators told reporters that they had a list of good suspects, including a local man that had moved out-of-state shortly after the crime.
However, like the first suspect, it was later determined that this man had a rock-solid alibi: he was not in Alabama at the time that Joyce Drake was killed.
Morgan County Sheriff Van Ward told reporters:
"We thought several times that we had him, and then it didn't pan out. I know one time both Harry (investigator Harry Parry) and Bob Hancock came in here and they just knew they had it solved."
Over the next few decades, the investigation to find out who had killed Joyce Drake joined the mysterious death of Mary Faye Hunter and the unsolved shooting of Juanita Acker. All three were young women who died tragically and suspiciously in a four-year period, and all three would experience a significant calamity, when their case files - containing the precious case notes and evidence - went missing.
Morgan County Chief Deputy Mike Corley has gone on-the-record to state that he isn't sure who lost the documents, but it could have happened when they were in the custody of either local, county, or state investigators, all of whom were working on cooperation on the three separate investigations. Because of this, they have become forever linked, as three women of a tragic coincidence who are unlikely to ever find resolution in the afterlife.
What you just heard was a 2009 news report from WHNT-19, a CBS affiliate operated in Huntsville, Alabama.
That news report is the only news coverage I can find of Joyce's murder, and it happens to be a clip from almost a decade ago. However, it seemed to kick off a brief resurgence of the case, which brought forth some new information, at the very least.
Police announced a $25,000 reward for any information that led to some resolution in the Drake murder. They also began to open up and answer questions about the case, as well as the unsolved cases of Mary Faye Hunter and Juanita Acker. They stated that they weren't looking into the three unsolved deaths as being linked, necessarily, but they had always considered the possibility of a link between Hunter and Acker. After all, Hunter's cause and manner of death could never be determined, and both her and Acker had worked at Redstone Arsenal at the time they died.
Mike Corley, the Chief Deputy of Morgan County, was stated about the cases:
"I wouldn't say the cases are cold because (every time) we reach out... we receive some new information."
In 2011, the Decatur Daily published an article about the three women, which quoted state investigator Bob Hancock. Despite retiring from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation in 1988, he had continued to work on the case in his free time, and had carried on by accumulating leads.
Hancock had been the lead investigator in the Mary Faye Hunter disappearance and death in 1967, and assisted the main detectives in both Juanita Acker and Joyce Drake's murders. When the Decatur Daily article was published in 2011, he was the last of these detectives still living, and one of the very few people in the area who had firsthand knowledge of the three cases.
He stated that he had continued to work on the case, and developed new leads, which he had then passed on to Morgan County investigators. He refused to say how many people he suspected were involved in the crimes, but also reiterated the belief that the first two cases - that of Mary Faye Hunter and Juanita Acker - may have been linked.
His long-running theory was that Acker had some knowledge of Hunter's disappearance and death, and that is why she was killed. I couldn't tell you how he came upon this information, but I can only hope that he had good reason to say so.
He did say in this Decatur Daily article that police never had "a really good" suspect in the 1969 shooting of Juanita Acker, but did say that he spoke to a co-worker of her's in the 1960's, who he was always interested in. This co-worker passed a polygraph in the initial investigation, which seemed to put him to rest as a person-of-interest, but Hancock's suspicion had always been piqued.
Hancock continued to forward on information, hoping that it would lead to some resolution for these three women. As he told investigators in 2011:
"I believe the cases can be solved. I never gave up on solving these cases. We will. The families deserve justice."
If we look back at these crimes as being a part of a single killer, we're likely to be disappointed. The only reason these three women are linked together is due primarily to their geographical location, and the time period in which they went missing. It's possible, if not likely, that these three women were killed by different people with differing motives.
However, if we take a step back and look at them as being part of a larger framework, we can see that these three women were a part of an area experiencing a violent few years.
In 1968, wedged between the death of Mary Faye Hunter and the murder of Juanita Acker, a 68-year old man named Aubrey Boyd was found dead in his home. A window had been broken, and Boyd appeared to have been hit in the head multiple times by an unknown attacker. After he failed to make contact with friends or family for over a week, police were called, and they found his decomposed remains in his home.
Authorities stated that robbery was not a motive, as over $4000 was found in Boyd's home, but Boyd's murder remained unsolved.
Months after the murder of Joyce Drake, in August of 1970, a 29-year old man named Charles Ray Lovett disappeared from his home in Decatur, Alabama. Police initially believed that Lovett's disappearance was linked to an upcoming grand larceny trial he was testifying in, and - despite his body never being found - two men were later convicted of his kidnapping.
Then, a year later, in August of 1971, a young man named David Smart disappeared. Smart was an engineer at Redstone Arsenal, whose body was found a month after he went missing, near Wheeler National Wildlife Reguge. He had been shot-to-death, after being shot once in the head.
In December of 1973, a service station operator named Morris K. Edmonson in Pricevilla, Alabama, was shot-to-death while working. Police later theorized that he was a victim of a multi-state robbery spree, which stretched into Georgia in the following weeks.
In April of 1975, a man named Earl James was stabbed multiple times in his Cedar Lake Road home, in Decatur. This took place just a short distance away from where Mary Faye Hunter's remains had been found, in Wheeler Lake, and where Juanita Acker had been shot-to-death, off of Highway 31.
The Morgan County coroner called the crime scene, at the home of Earl James, one of the most brutal murders he had ever seen. Investigators stated it was a personal killing, believing that the person who perpetrated it wanted him dead, ignoring the money found in James' pocket.
Then, in January of 1976, a man named John Wesley Hudson was shot in the back, north of Courtland, near the Tennessee River. Hudson's body was found by two duck hunters, just fifteen or so feet away from his open car door. It was believed that the person who committed this crime had been chasing Hudson, as he was shot from behind - in his back and his arm - and it appeared he had been running out of his car towards the treeline.
Police claimed they knew who committed this crime, but didn't have enough evidence to officially file any charges.
So... why am I telling you all of this? These are all separate crimes, which appear to have very little in common with the three stories I detailed earlier in the episode.
Well, I have gone through newspaper clippings from the area in the hopes that a smoking gun would emerge. These are all violent crimes from Morgan County or the surrounding area, in which police believed a link may be established to one of the other three unsolved cases.
However, in almost all of these crimes, there was something that set them apart from the others: some were solved, and some remain open. Some may even be featured on a future episode of Unresolved. However, none of them have any link to the three women I am identifying as the Morgan County Three, other than being violent crimes that took place in the surrounding area within the same decade.
There is only one crime that I believe may be linked to the three unsolved cases, and it's a story that hasn't been written about in the years since.
Annie Dee Dearman, born Annie Dee Wilkerson, lived in a town named Moulton, Alabama, roughly twenty miles away from Decatur, in southwestern Morgan County.
Local legend states that Annie had been married once in her youth, to a man with the last name Moody, but after his return from World War Two as a changed man, she divorced him. She quickly remarried to a man from Decatur named Virgil Dearman, taking on his surname. She had two children with each of her husbands.
On the evening of October 6th, 1967 - a little over a week before the remains of Mary Faye Hunter would be found in an offshoot of the Tennessee River - Annie Dearman would be shot multiple times in the front yard of her home in Moulton, Alabama. I cannot find any newspaper articles or news coverage of this incident, but local legend states that Annie was shot five times in total with a .38 pistol. Ghost stories allege that Annie had been standing between two cars at the time of the shooting, and - after being shot - crawled up to her front porch, where she died before she could get any help.
Annie's Dearman's murder remains unsolved, but police believe that they found their suspect early on in the investigation. Annie's nephew, a young man named Dwight Hyndle Shelton, was charged with the murder in December of 1967, before being acquitted in the first half of 1968. Nobody else was ever charged or accused of her murder, and ghost stories have alleged that Annie Dee continues to haunt the area, popping up at the time of her murder, around midnight.
Of all the violent crimes to plague the area in this time period, the shooting death of Annie Dee Wilkerson Dearman is the only one I believe could be related. And even that, in my opinion, is a bit of a stretch, as the weapons used in her murder and the shooting of Juanita Acker - a .38 and a .22, respectively - differ.
Annie Dearman's murder has become a ghost story, but that doesn't change the fact that her murder remains unsolved.
There are a countless number of theories or tall tales I could dive into when it comes to these three unsolved murders, but that is a debate best left for the message boards.
If you visit any of the sites set up to discuss these murders - just a warning, there aren't many - you'll see that the locals who have lived in the area for their entire lives have their own idea on who committed the crimes. Some believe all three are linked, while others believe that someone they know is responsible for at least one.
Mary Faye Hunter, a 34-year old Decatur resident who worked as a Secretary at Redstone Arsenal and played the piano at her Methodist Church, was single at the time of her disappearance in 1967. When her remains were found in October of that year, police failed to identify any suspects or file any charges.
Juanita Acker, formerly Juanita Holland, was almost 41-years old, and lived in a Decatur motel at the time of her 1969 shooting death. She was survived by three children, and despite her shooting death sparking concern throughout the area, no suspects or leads were ever developed.
Joyce Drake, formerly Thelma Joyce Sanders, was a 20-year old mother of two, who had gone missing in the early afternoon of January 7th, 1970. Her remains were found later that evening, and police identified their suspect as a large-built, red-headed man in his late twenties. People in the area have long suspected relatives of Joyce, including a distant cousin who lived in the vicinity with red hair, but nobody has been officially charged or indicted in her murder.
Anyone with information should contact either the Decatur Police Department, at (256) 341-4635, or the Morgan County Sheriff's Department, at (256) 301-1174.
As of this episode's recording, the stories of Mary Faye Hunter, Juanita Acker, and Joyce Drake remain unresolved.
Sources and further reading
- The Decatur Daily - "Who killed these women?"
- The Anniston Star (August 7th, 1958) - page 9
- The Alabama Courier (May 11th, 1967) - page 1
- The Cullman Times (January 9th, 1970) - page 1
- The Athens News Courier (January 13th, 1970) - page 2
- The Athens News Courier (January 13th, 1970) - page 3
- The Cullman Times (January 25th, 1970) - page 1
- The Athens News Courier (March 10th, 1970) - page 1
- The Cullman Times (January 7th, 1971) - page 1
- The Cullman Times (January 7th, 1971) - page 11
- The Decatur Daily (April 10th, 1977) - page 15
- The Decatur Daily (April 10th, 1977) - page 17
- The Athens News Courier (August 19th, 1979) - page 2
- The Athens News Courier (August 19th, 1979) - page 9