Murder In Coweta County
No one is going to convict me of killing white trash.” – John Wallace, on his victim William Turner.
The case of Georgia murderer John Wallace, Sheriff Lamar Potts and victim William Turner is now largely forgotten outside of Coweta County (where the crime was committed) and Meriwether County, where Wallace, a wealthy landowner, ruled a vast estate known locally as ‘The Kingdom.’ If reports are to be believed (and there are many of them), Wallace pretty much ran the whole of Meriwether County as well, through his control over County Sheriff Hardy Collier. Wallace was also well known for running his ‘Kingdom’ with an iron fist.
One person who felt that fist in the worst way was a former tenant farmer, William Turner. In 1948 Wallace, in addition to his land holdings and rental incomes, was running a large bootlegging operation making and selling moonshine in the area. Wallace used his tenants to make, store and deliver the shine in return for a cut of the profits (and for not being rendered jobless and homeless if they refused). Some of the money went on buying Wallace a good name with regular charitable donations such as new chair and pews for the local church. The rest Wallace kept for himself.
Unfortunately, the bootlegging was lucrative but also illegal. Wallace’s operation had already attracted the attention of revenue agents and Wallace, who knew Collier had no control over their activities, feared their wrath. The most Collier could do was warn Wallace of their presence and tip him off as to their activities which included staking out local roads to try and catch shine runners. With that in mind, Wallace ordered a temporary closure of the bootlegging and suspension of deliveries. Sharecropper William Turner, however, thought otherwise. Turner had a wife and a sick child and, farming not being the most lucrative occupation, got by as much on delivering shine as he did on working Wallace’s land. He defied Wallace’s order and, in doing so, attracted yet more attention by a run-in with the revenue men on a local road.
Wallace, hearing of the incident through Collier, was livid. Being minor Southern aristocracy, Wallace ruled by decree and never saw defiance as anything other than a personal slight and a threat to his power. He was never one to let defiance or threats go unpunished, either. Wallace promptly fired Turner and threw him, his wife and their child off his land. Turner left, nursing a grudge, and just as promptly returned late one night having decided to take a couple of Wallace’s prize cows as severance pay. In nearby Carrolton County (where he’d stashed the cows until he could sell them) he was arrested by Chief of Police Threadgill for the theft. Things looked bad for William Turner and were about to get infinitely worse.
Granted, the cows were discovered in Carrollton. However, the theft itself had been committed in Meriwether and that meant Turner’s transfer to the custody of Meriwether Sheriff Hardy Collier. Collier being Wallace’s property, Turner now faced the tender mercies of a certain John Wallace. But not for long.
Having been held incommunicado, denied the chance to even tell anybody he was back in Meriwether, Turner was suddenly released without further explanation. He didn’t need any explanation whatsoever when he walked out of the Meriwether County jail and saw Wallace waiting with several of his henchmen. Running to his truck, Turner charged down the road with two cars bearing Wallace and his heavies in hot pursuit. Taylor didn’t know that they’d siphoned off most of the contents of his gas tank. Wallace and his bruisers didn’t realise, until it was too late, that they hadn’t siphoned off quite enough gas. Turner’s truck carried him just over the line into neighbouring Coweta County and out of the jurisdiction of tame Sheriff Hardy Collier.
It later proved disastrous for Wallace’s heavies and fatal for Wallace. Having left Collier’s jurisdiction where Turner’s death could have easily been dressed up as a failed escape attempt, they caught up with Turner inside the jurisdiction of Coweta County Sheriff Lamar Potts. At the Sunset Tourist Camp near Moreland they found Turner’s abandoned truck. Having caught Turner, multiple witnesses later testified that Wallace clubbed him with a shotgun until he went limp and the gang bundled him into a car and disappeared back into Meriwether County. Even though the witnesses would also later testify that at one point Wallace hit Turner so hard that his un-cocked shotgun went off, Wallace still thought he was safe hiding within his Kingdom.
He was actually anything but…
Lamar Potts was something of an oddity by the standards of 1940’s Georgia Sheriffs. He was unusually competent, leaving not a single unsolved felony case during his entire 32-year tenure. He was dedicated, once tracking a murderer as far as Kansas before personally bringing him back for trial. He was also even-handed, well known for not showing racial prejudice. To Potts crooks were crooks regardless of social demographic, they existed to be caught and punished. In a time when many Georgia Sheriffs were also members of the Ku Klux Klan, Potts had no time for race-baiting when reporting a lynching to some Southern lawmen would have meant unwittingly reporting it to the lynch mob’s leader. Potts was also utterly immune to either bribes or threats, so Wallace’s money and power in Meriwether would do him no good at all in Coweta.
John Wallace had just met the crusading knight who would lay waste his Kingdom…
Potts set to work with a vengeance. Aided by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (particularly their crime lab) he toured Meriwether County looking for answers regarding where William Turner might be. Initially he met with a wall of silence, locals were either too loyal to Wallace (or too afraid of him) to come forward. Eventually, however, an anonymous informant gave him two names; Albert Brooks and Robert Lee Gates.
Potts, well aware of Wallace’s iron-fisted rule over Meriwether and Sheriff Hardy Collier, met secretly with them. After some persuasion they spilled the beans. Turner was dead. Wallace had forced them to take his body and dump him in an abandoned well somewhere within the Kingdom. Fearing that Turner might be discovered, he then forced them to remove Turner’s body and burn it. Brooks and Gates took Potts and others searchers to the well and the remains of the burn site. In the well they discovered brain matter that the crime lab proved to be human. At the burn site and in a nearby creek they found ash and bone chips. The crime lab proved the bone chips were also human. Both the well and the burn site were located within the Kingdom. Wallace and several of his henchmen were arrested.
The trial was widely publicised. Wallace hired eminent and expensive lawyers to defend him, not surprising considering he faced a possible death sentence. The problem with Wallace’s defence was Wallace himself. Long used to simply inventing stories that people fearful of him were obliged to pretend they believed, Wallace insisted on testifying in his own defence. In doing so he ruined the efforts of his lawyers to attack the scientific evidence, claim that while the bone and brain might have been human they were not specifically those of William Turner and try to confuse the jury as to whether Turner (if the remains were indeed his) had died in Coweta or Meriwether County. If Turner had died in Meriwether, they argued, then Potts had no jurisdiction to investigate anything.
Brooks and Gates turned State’s evidence in return for immunity. They proved very convincing, but it was considered less than likely that a wealthy white defendant would be convicted, never mind executed, on the word of poor black witnesses. The witnesses from the Sunset Tourist Camp also proved very credible. The scientific evidence swayed the jury significantly, as did Wallace’s bone-headed insistence on playing to the jury when he didn’t have to and certainly shouldn’t have. All Wallace accomplished was to make himself look even more guilty to the jury and then insult their intelligence with his half-baked story about how Turner was still conscious after arriving in Meriwether and how Wallace had shot him in a tragic accident.
The jury, not surprisingly, chose to believe the scientific evidence, witness evidence and the word of Potts (a hugely-respected lawman) over that of Wallace, a man known to run his domain with an iron fist, who had already served two years for bootlegging and whose violent and vindictive tendencies were well known in the area. Outside his Kingdom, stripped of his heavies, tame Sheriff Hardy Collier and faced with an investigator who was skilled, relentless, even-handed and immune to being bought or bullied, Wallace’s empire simply fell apart. The jury lost little time before they rendered their verdict;
Guilty as charged, with a mandatory sentence of death.
After sentencing Wallace was shipped to the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville in Tattnall County. Never before had Georgia’s Death Row welcomed so wealthy a resident. Never before in Georgia history had a white defendant, a wealthy, white defendant at that, been convicted on the evidence of black witnesses. But, Wallace stood convicted of murder and condemned to a seat in ‘Old Sparky’ unless his expensive lawyers could do better on appeal than they had at trial.
They couldn’t. Convicted in 1949, Wallace managed to stay the executioner’s hand until November 3, 1950. At 11am that morning he was escorted, head shaved and bowed in prayer, on his last mile. As he reached the chair Wallace is said to have knelt before it offering a final (if rather equivocal) prayer:
“Oh God, if there is one, save my soul, if I have one.”
His prayer completed, he sat in the grim white chair, impassive as the straps and electrodes were adjusted. At precisely 11am the switch was thrown. Minutes later John Wallace was dead.
After his funeral at Pine Mountain Cemetery, where he was buried some distance from other members of the Wallace clan, his name and legacy lingered on. The book ‘Murder in Coweta County’ revived divisive and, for some, bitter memories of Wallace and his Kingdom. The TV movie of the same name starring Andy Griffith as Wallace and Johnny Cash as Sheriff Potts, also raised the story again. That said, rural Georgia is a place where memories and tales often far outlast the people involved in them. Even today there is debate and doubt about Wallace’s guilt, about whether gasoline and wood can sustain sufficient heat for long enough to entirely consume a human body, about whether the human remains were even those of William Turner at all.
Oddly, Meriwether County now has a road leading off Highway 18 named ‘Wallace Road’ in his memory. Not to be outdone, Coweta County has a road named after Lamar Potts.
Perhaps, in all the stories, legends, memories and myths about Lamar Potts and John Wallace, people might care to remember William Turner.
And his widow and orphaned daughter.