Thursday, November 11, 2010
The following was taken from Shoalanda Speaks columns originally published November 6-8, 2010.
In May 1984, the Killen Fire Department of thirty plus volunteers announced that 28 year-old Capt. Lloyd Hollis Hayes was their new chief--for the second time since the previous December. A spokesman for the department would say only that the small group was a victim of internal problems. Now, Hayes was on his way to a successful career that lasted 18 years.
Married to the former Carol Lynn Mason Gresham, Hayes was the father of two young children and by 1989 had joined the Florence Fire Department where he served as captain. In 1994, Hayes ascended in rank to fire marshal, a position he held until he was terminated in 2002.
As part of his role with the Florence department, Hayes regularly participated in childrens' learning activities during National Fire Prevention Week each October. Hayes himself announced that the Florence program involved reaching young children not just in local public schools, but day care facilities as well. At the state level, Hayes helped establish youth groups connected to various fire organizations.
If Lloyd Hollis Hayes was unduly concerned with children, no one seemed to notice until January 2002. It was at that time the City of Florence conducted a routine audit of municipal computers. No one expected to find what appeared on Hayes' computer.
Possess computer images of adults in various states of sexual interaction and, while it may be sickening to some, it's not a crime. Possess photos of children in the same state, and you can go to prison for up to twenty years--in some states, the sentence is life.
For legal purposes, children are defined as being under 18 years of age, but most who are so horribly used, and even raped, for the gratification of those willing to pay for such images, are much younger. Florence Fire Marshal Lloyd Hayes agreed to plead to the charges on which he was indicted, so only those who were part of the legal investigation, prosecution, and defense know exactly what was on both Hayes' home computer and the computer provided him at work by the City of Florence.
From the July 17, 2007, New York Times:
Experts have often wondered what proportion of men who download explicit sexual images of children also molest them. A new government study of convicted Internet offenders suggests that the number may be startlingly high: 85 percent of the offenders said they had committed acts of sexual abuse against minors, from inappropriate touching to rape.
While Hayes may be part of the 15% (3 out of 20) who did not act on his fantasies, he was at least so addicted to child pornography that he risked his job, a very well-paying job, by keeping at least part of his pornographic collection stored on his computer at the Florence Fire Department. When a routine audit on January 11, 2002, discovered the illicit images, police also confiscated his home computer, finding more of the same.
The City of Florence placed the 45 year-old Hayes on paid administrative leave on Tuesday January 15th, a day after the fire marshal was arrested on three counts of possession of child pornography and seven counts of distribution of the same. His bail was 50K, not a difficult amount for someone in Hayes' income bracket to produce.
A short time later, Lloyd Hollis Hayes' status was changed to unpaid administrative leave; and his wife filed for divorce. If Hayes was to salvage anything from his downfall, he was going to need a lot of luck and a great legal defense.
As Lloyd Hollis Hayes sat in the Florence-Lauderdale Detention Center awaiting bond, he called Florence Fire Chief Charlie Cochran to express the love he had for his job, or more to the point, his former job. Employed under the Civil Service Act, Hayes was entitled to a due-process disciplinary hearing over which Cochran would preside. The fire chief stated at the time that friendship with Hayes would not influence him in his decision.
On January 25, 2002, Cochran heard three hours of testimony in Hayes' hearing, after which he recommended the former fire marshal be placed on leave without pay until the charges against him were adjudicated. Hayes was luckier during his hearing in District Court three months later.
District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur dropped the seven charges relating to distribution of child pornography since no money changed hands in the transfer of the images. Now, Hayes faced only three counts of possession of obscene material.
Hayes later agreed to a plea bargain in which two of the three remaining charges were dropped. Judge Mike Jones sentenced the former firefighter to a 30 month sentence. Under the agreement, Hayes wore an ankle monitor for nine months, while spending two years on probation. His defense attorney was quick to point out that the children pictured on Hayes' computers were not local. Well, thank goodness they were only children from third world countries.
Today Lloyd Hollis Hayes remains on the sex offender list, as he will for the remainder of his life unless current sex offender laws change drastically. It's a dismal ending for a once bright future; however, once he reaches the age of 60, Hayes will begin to draw his state retirement--our tax dollars at work.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The following account was taken from material originally published in Shoalanda Speaks on November 23, 2008.
Law enforcement officials in the tri-county area currently list a backlog of 15 unsolved homicides. The oldest of these is the murder of Tommy Morris, a 35 year-old special education instructor from Lauderdale County.
On the evening of October 17, 1986, Tommy Morris forwarded his phone to a sister's home and left his apartment in the University District of Florence; he was never again seen alive. By the next day, his two sisters became concerned enough to report him missing to the Florence Police, who initially dismissed the family's fears.
Deciding to take matters into their own hands, family members found Morris' car three days later near the intersection of Natchez Trace Parkway and Waterloo Road. The car had been torched, and authorities called to the scene found Morris' body locked in the trunk.
Tommy Morris had taught at Lauderdale County High School before transferring to Wilson a short time before his death. Morris, who was generally considered someone with designer tastes, also worked at Shankey's Men's Wear and Caster-Knott Department Store in Regency Square Mall. The school teacher, known for his elaborate wardrobe and expensive dental work, had friends in both high and low circles--a situation that made the investigation into his personal life that much more difficult. It was even rumored at the time that authorities videotaped Morris' funeral, but all inquiries led to dead ends.
Rich Thigpen, a former Rogersville resident who remembered Morris from Lauderdale County High School, speculated on the teacher's death. Writing in Prism Comics' online magazine, the openly gay Thigpen theorized that Morris' closeted lifestyle had contributed to his death. Whatever the motive, the murder was especially brutal and stood out to the detectives assigned to the case.
By December 1987, there had been little progress in the case when then-Lauderdale District Attorney Steve Graham announced the formation of a Special Investigations Unit consisting of the Lauderdale Sheriff's Department and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Graham emphasized the Morris death would be one of the unit's top priorities.
In January 1993, then-Sheriff Billy Townsend revealed that Morris' autopsy didn't confirm the teacher had been murdered; however, the department was still viewing the case as a homicide. Considering that the body was found locked in the trunk of his burned out car, it would seem less than logical to consider Tommy Morris' death anything less than murder. Many, especially Morris' family, were taken aback by Townsend's statement.
Charles Ford and Charles Perkins, Lauderdale County investigators, have since retired and handed the investigation over to Jr Witt. Since late 2005, Witt has received at least two new leads and still hopes to solve the mystery of Tommy Morris' death.
Next month will mark the 24th anniversary of Tommy Morris' death. Members of Morris' family still live in the area, as well as many of Tommy's former students; they deserve closure. Anyone with information concerning this crime should contact Witt at the Lauderdale County Sheriff's office.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
The pony cars are cruisin' on Woodward Avenue.
Go and try to pass 'em, they'll smoke you if you do.
From The Horizontal Bop by Bob Segar
One doesn't have to be superstitious to realize that the Ides of March was unlucky for Matthew Daniel Williams. It was Saturday, March 15, 1997, when Williams died in a 10:20 p.m. drive-by shooting on Woodward Avenue. Reports indicated that Williams' red Mazda truck displayed symbols associated with the Crips; the other two occupants of his truck were Bradley Williams and his pregnant fiancee' Brandi Lee Campbell. Campbell was known to talk of gang related activities and flash gang signs at random--a strange affectation that may have directly led to Matthew Williams' death.
Matthew Williams, a graduate of Muscle Shoals High School, was attending Northwest-Shoals Community College at the time of his death. A member of the choral group "The Singers," he had a perfect 4.0 GPA. Muscle Shoals police were initially mystified as to how the conservative Williams had become involved in a gang related shooting. Their investigation later determined that Bradley Williams, no relation to the victim, had been in a verbal altercation with the shooter earlier in the evening. Was Bradley Williams the intended victim? Were gangs even involved? Had Brandi Campbell sacrificed Matthew Williams to save her fiance'? Did Matthew Daniel Williams take a bullet that was meant for someone else? It's hard to come to any other conclusion after reviewing the various statements concerning the drive-by shooting.
While driving north on Woodward Avenue, Matthew Williams was behind the wheel, while his friend Bradley Williams, an alleged member of the Crips, sat on the passenger side; between them sat Brandi Lee Campbell, often described as a gang-wannabe. Bradley Williams had been involved in a verbal altercation with 16 year-old Charles Eugene Black earlier in the evening. Now, Black was a passenger in a car driven by 18 year-old Jamie Allen Mackey. Three other youths rode in the back seat of Mackey's car, all either members of or closely associated with the Folk Nation.
As Mackey's car maneuvered alongside Matthew Williams' truck, Brandi Campbell saw the glint of a gun as it misfired. Telling her fiance' Bradley Williams to duck, Campbell followed suit, allowing the second shot to strike Matthew Williams in the head. According to Campbell's dramatic testimony, she knew he was dead as soon as she felt him slump against her.
A Colbert County jury took 45 minutes to convict Charles Black of capital murder. Black is serving a sentence of life without possibility of parole at the St. Clair Correctional Facility. Mackey was convicted of felony murder and is currently serving a life sentence at Limestone Correctional Facility; he is eligible for parole.
The third defendant in the case was Ben Edward Burt. A resident of Reedtown, the 37 year-old Burt was supposedly the Northwest Alabama leader of the Folk gang and a close associate of Mark Anthony Hurley, aka the Reedtown rapist. The Franklin County resident admitted to ordering a random hit on a member of the Crip gang and was given a plea deal for his testimony. Burt received a twenty year sentence and is currently incarcerated at Limestone.
According to Danny and Elaine Williams, Matthew's parents, while they accepted the plea deal, they expected Burt to receive much longer than his twenty year sentence. Now Burt's case is to be presented to the Alabama Board of Pardons & Parole on April 13. They are asking that all concerned citizens write the Board in protest of Ben Edward Burt's parole. We don't think it's too much to ask that Burt serve the remaining seven years of his sentence.
Alabama Board of Pardons & Parole
Post Office Box 302405
Montgomery, Alabama 36130-2405
Re: Ben Edward Burt - AIS #197375
Note: The above article originally appeared in Shoalanda Speaks on March 6 & 8, 2010. Ben Burt was denied parole for five years. He will again be eligible for parole consideration in 2015.
Posted by Shoalanda at 1:55 AM
Friday, June 18, 2010
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Originally published in Shoalanda Speaks February 17-19, 2010
Dead Bay...did anyone call the small Northwest Franklin County town Dead Bay before former Mayor L. N. Flippo and his wife Ruth were brutally murdered early that Saturday morning July 11, 1981? The blast that shook Red Bay, Alabama, at approximately 3:00 a.m changed the community forever. No one has ever been held responsible for the slayings, and after 28 years, no one may ever be.
When first awakened by the blast, neighbors assumed a natural gas line had exploded. Investigators who appeared within minutes of the blast quickly ruled out that possibility. Some were quick to mention plastic explosives since no fire was present--a ball of the highly combustible material could easily have been tossed through the picture window of the Flippo home. Others had a more practical idea.
Large amounts of explosives had been stolen from a Colbert County construction site the month before, never to be accounted for. A loose grate under the Flippos' bedroom and pieces of a shovel handle found nearby indicated to investigators that explosive material had been shoveled under the couple's bedroom and then ignited. Did the Flippos have enemies close enough to know in which bedroom they slept, or was it all a horrible coincidence? Red Bay Police, Franklin County officials, and the ABI all chose to issue a gag order on any outgoing information, yet citizens of the small town were bound to talk among themselves.
Who or what had made the Flippo family the target of a lethal bombing? Whoever he was (and most bombers are male), he's never been caught.
J. N. Flippo Jr. was born in Hodges, Alabama, not far from the town in which he was murdered. He married his sweetheart Ruth and moved to Red Bay in the 1940s. The family raised three daughters who attended Red Bay Schools, while J. N. worked at a local bank, eventually becoming president.
Seeking to give back to his adopted hometown, J. N. ran for mayor and won the office easily, but decided to leave public service three years into his term. If anyone outside J. N.'s family knew why Flippo had become disenchanted with public office, they kept his secret as their own. Too young for retirement, J. N. opened an insurance office in the small town, and it prospered as had his other business endeavors. Except for the hour each morning J. N. visited with cronies at the local coffee shop, he was never far from the side of Ruth who helped with the insurance agency.
While all three of the Flippo's daughters had done well in school, those who knew the family called them shy. That combined with their relative affluence caused a few to term them snobbish, but those who knew them well said that was far from the truth. By 1981, the older two were married, and the youngest was away at college.
The weekend of Saturday July 11, 1981, one of the Flippos' cars was in the shop. Did someone think the couple was away for the night? A hidden grate behind the house appeared to be undisturbed, while someone had obviously loosened the more visible grate under the couple's bedroom, possibly indicating intimate knowledge of the home's floor plan.
A thundering blast rang through the town at 3:00 a.m. Responders were on the scene within minutes finding the 68 year-old J. N. Flippo, sleeping nearer the wall, already dead. Ruth, also 68, with splinters from the floorboard embedded in the calves of her legs was alive, but died twenty minutes later at Red Bay Hospital.
The entire town of Red Bay was in shock. As word spread that the blast was intentional, neighbors gathered to talk and grieve. Who would have killed the mayor and his family. Almost three decades later, the same town continues to ask the same question.
Four months after the explosion that both emotionally and literally rocked the small Franklin County town of Red Bay, three combined teams of investigators were no closer to finding their bomber than they had been on July 11, 1981. The three Flippo daughters had offered a ten thousand dollar reward for any information, with then-Alabama Gov. Fob James matching the amount. That amount of the reward in today's dollars would be roughly $45,000.00--yet, there were no takers.
After four years of no valid clues, then-Gov. George Wallace added still another ten thousand dollars to the available rewards. Investigators decided to release small amounts of information. An ex-boyfriend of the youngest daughter had been cleared, as had a band of Marion County bootleggers who lived near the home of one of the Flippos' older daughters. While never completely authenticated, investigators by now believed that Flippo, the former president of Red Bay National Bank, left the mayor's office in 1975 because of a temporary health problem. They also believe that Ruth, a retired school teacher, heard the bomber as he placed the explosive under the bedroom, causing her to attempt to stand and resulting in her unusual injuries. Those at the scene said her last words were, "Oh, somebody please help me."
By January 1993, Franklin County Sheriff Larry Plott declared the case at a dead end. Without new information, there was nothing left to investigate. The TimesDaily lists the 1985 murder of Florence teacher Tommy Morris as one of the area's oldest unsolved cases. Perhaps Red Bay sits too closely to Mississippi for many in the Shoals to remember the tragic deaths of J. N. and Ruth Flippo.
Their daughters and friends still remember. There's still a $30.000.00 reward offered for any information leading to the murderer(s). Surely someone knows something...
Friday, April 23, 2010
Sunday, February 14, 2010
This account of father/daughter sexual predators originally appeared in Shoalanda Speaks on December 26, 2009, and February 12-13, 2010.
Amanda Duboise Watkins' Facebook address is girlinterrupted1. The 38 year-old Watkins was certainly interrupted when she was found having sex with a 15 year-old male in late December 2009. Watkins is, or perhaps more correctly was, a teacher at Sheffield Junior High School; her male companion had been her student the previous year. What would possess an attractive married woman with multiple degrees, not to mention a young daughter, to risk everything for a few moments of sexual passion with someone who's hardly more than a child? While many apparently see humor in this, it is no different than an older man taking advantage of a younger female student. These relationships are taboo for a reason, but are seemingly becoming more and more commonplace. Could anyone have foreseen this kind of deviant behavior from Watkins? Perhaps one needs to look no further than her father, a former educator convicted of solicitation of a student.
Amanda Duboise is a native of Phil Campbell in Franklin County. After graduation from high school, she attended Northwest Shoals Community College before advancing to the University of North Alabama where she met her husband Carter Watkins, a Florence native who graduated from Hibbett Middle and Coffee High Schools. Carter Watkins also majored in journalism and is currently employed as WHNT's Chief Photographer for the Shoals Bureau. Together, Carter and Amanda resided in Forest Hills with their daughter Grace Anne and dog Toto.
Perhaps their marriage looked idyllic only from the outside. Sheffield Superintendent Richard Gardner reported that he had spoken with Watkins over another incident two years ago. Gardner did not specify the exact nature of the problem, but did state that it was not sexual in nature. Now Amanda Duboise Watkins has been released from the Muscle Shoals Jail on $15,000.00 bond, while also having been placed on paid administrative leave at Sheffield Junior High.
Social networking site photos of Watkins show her wearing a cross; she lists her favorite Bible verse as "I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength;" two of her Facebook organizations are I Love Jesus and I'm Proud to be a Christian. Here, in her own words, is the vision Amanda Duboise Watkins had of herself:
Before entering the world of education, I worked as a reporter and freelance writer. My original degree from the University of North Alabama was in journalism. I have always loved reading and writing. I worked as a freelance reporter for the Times Daily, a staff writer for the Franklin County Times and wrote various freelance articles for a few magazines. I even worked at WVNA Radio in Tuscumbia. I decided to go back to obtain my masters after the birth of my daughter. It is a decision that changed my life. I absolutely love what I do. Today's young people are our future. We need to do all we can to make a positive impact on their lives and their educational experience. Every student has his/her own unique talents and abilities. Teaching allows me to help students make those discoveries or further develop ones they have already uncovered for themselves. Helen Keller once said, "Its a terrible thing to see and have no vision."
Now, unless offered a plea, Watkins will be branded a sex offender and never teach school again. She also may be required to serve time in prison. Her family deserved more, and certainly the young man she seduced deserved and expected more, as did his family. Teacher sex is a crime--a crime no less serious because the offender may manage to plead to a lesser offense. If our children aren't safe at school, how can we expect them to be safe anywhere?
Yes, Amanda Watkins has been accused of having sex with a 15 year-old former student. Actually, from early accounts of the arrest, the 38 year-old Mrs. Watkins was literally caught with her knickers down. Now the Sheffield Board of Education is refusing to name the infamous teacher in public reports, and a reporter with the Associated Press in Montgomery is asking why.
Mrs. Watkins' father has been active in North Alabama and State politics since his daughter's birth. In 1972, Delmer Duboise, then a resident of Phil Campbell, ran for delegate to the Democratic National Convention. By 1975, Duboise had been elected to the Franklin County Board of Education. As a member of the Board, Duboise prided himself on his attempts to halt the cash-strapped Board from excess spending. In fact, Duboise was so vocal in his criticism of the Superintendent, few doubted his next move would be an attempt to unseat then Superintendent Jimmy Clements.
By 1977, Duboise had been appointed Franklin County Uni-Serv Director of the Alabama Education Association , becoming friends with Paul Hubbert. In September 1978, Duboise abruptly resigned as Chairman of the Franklin County Democratic Party; the next month saw him ensconced as the administrative assistant to Jim Folsom Jr., then head of the Public Service Commission.
In 1980, Delmer Duboise saw his first political setback when opponents of Folsom presented evidence that the administrative assistant was using a PSC vehicle to travel from Montgomery to his home in Russellville. Duboise's political aspirations hit an even greater snag in 1982 when six black staff members of the PSC accused him of "racially discriminatory action."
By 1984, Duboise was back home in Russellville and seeking to become the first director of the Russellville Industrial Development Board. After not making the final cut, Duboise decided to return to the realm of education. At that time, Northwest Community College, then a separate entity from its sister school in the Shoals, was in need of a Public Relations Director. Sources say Duboise used his influence with Paul Hubbert to secure the position. For the next few years, Delmer Duboise's star was again on the rise.
Delmer's daughter Amanda Ladel Duboise Watkins is no longer an employee of the Sheffield School System if we are to believe local news reports. Yet, the Sheffield Board of Education refuses to verify that fact, referring all inquiries to their attorney. What does their legal representative say? He has yet to return calls to the Associated Press in Montgomery.
Rest assured that Mrs. Watkins is still a member of the Alabama Education Association, a teachers' union headed by Paul Hubbert, a one-time friend and associate of Watkins' father Delmer Duboise. The elder Duboise served as both instructor and Public Relations Director for Northwest Community College for approximately ten years, leaving the small two-year institution in 1996.
According to newspaper accounts from that era, Duboise, then 47, was arrested on May 27, 1995, for criminal solicitation. According to Franklin County authorities, Duboise offered a 20 year-old male student the munificent sum of $25.00 to engage in a sex act. (Feel free to inject any jokes about the Bill and Chelsea Clinton of Northwest Alabama.) In case you think the amount $25.00 was a typo, rest assured it is not. That amount would equal approximately $34.31 in 2010.
Duboise, dubbed by wags as "Delmer Dubious," announced that he had been set up by his political enemies and demanded a trial sans jury. Franklin County was adamant that Duboise should be judged by a jury of his peers--thus producing an extended legal battle in which the AEA provided Duboise assistance. While awaiting trial, Delmer Duboise was assigned to the Institutional Research Department at Northwest Community College.
After a legal battle that finally terminated in the Alabama Supreme Court the next March, Duboise was allowed to be tried without a jury. The Franklin county educator was eventually offered probation for the misdemeanor offense and quietly left academic life. For the past several years, Duboise has been mentioned in various news outlets as a "minister."
Have Delmer Duboise's connections to Paul Hubbert and Jim Folsom Jr. influenced the stance of the Sheffield Board of Education? Their refusal to discuss the incident with the press has not made the sex charges against Amanda Duboise Watkins go away; their refusal has made the Montgomery AP journalist just that more determined to report on the situation.
Amanda Duboise Watkins' first appearance in Colbert County District Court is scheduled for May 2010.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
The following account is taken from columns that originally appeared in Shoalanda Speaks December 19-24, 2009.
It was 1942 when Quality Bakers of America, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, introduced a brand of white bread that it dubbed Sunbeam. In an era before rapid transit, an era that was also shrouded in war time restrictions, Quality Bakers decided to franchise its product. In Alabama, the Flowers Bakery Company produced Sunbeam Bread, a product whose recipe quickly made it a favorite of the American consumer.
Just as in today's tight economy, marketing could make or break a product in the 1940s, and Quality Bakers hired illustrator Ellen Segner to create a brand icon that would distinguish it from other products, most importantly Sunbeam Appliances. Segner, who died in 2001, was noted at the time for her semi-erotic pin ups, but is remembered today for her creations of Dick and Jane, as well as Little Miss Sunbeam.
While sitting in a New York park, Segner saw a young blond girl playing. She immediately took out her sketch pad and created what was to become one of the most recognizable faces of the late 20th century; however, before Segner could approach the child to offer her a formal sitting, the little girl had disappeared. Segner then used other models to finish various portraits that came to represent Sunbeam Bread in advertising across most of the United States.
After the war, Sunbeam Bread continued to grow in popularity, and one franchiser hit upon the idea of selecting a real-life Little Miss Sunbeam to represent their area. The first Miss Sunbeam, Patty Michaels, was chosen in the New York area in 1955, but finding public appearances too tiring, left the Sunbeam company after only two years. Michaels went on to appear in The Sound of Music and enjoy a moderately successful recording career.
With the success of this live mascot in one geographic area, other franchisers followed suit. Flowers Bakery held its contest for a Miss Sunbeam in the late 1950s, and thus Marie Burns of the Central community in western Lauderdale County became the Southeast's Little Miss Sunbeam, enjoying the title's fame well into her adulthood when, in the mid-1980s, she was killed by impaired driver Wilburn May Jr.
Those who knew Wilburn May Jr. universally called him "Junior." They also called him other names that colorfully described his usual state of inebriation. It wasn't unusual to hear customers of the Central Heights Pharmacy tell each other to watch out on the way home--Junior May was on the road.
In the early 1980s, May was involved in a drunken crash that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Apparently no charges were filed in that crash, and Junior May continued to drive a modified vehicle--still drinking and now under the influence of narcotic pain killers.
It came as no surprise when a a few years later a drunken May hit another car head on; it was a shock to the community that the dead passenger in the car was Marie Burns, a former Little Miss Sunbeam and the mother of four children. It was also a shock when May was again allowed to plead to a lesser charge than manslaughter and was given only a slap on the wrist in Marie Burns' death.
Divorced, May still had family who attempted to help him recover from his addictions, but to no avail. Now, May was not only an addict himself, but had also taken on the mantle of local drug dealer. In 1998, his drug dealings caught up with him when a family member of one of his customers reported him. Junior May yet again cheated justice--this time due to his condition. Apparently the state had no wish to house a paraplegic whose body was ravaged by a lifetime of alcohol and other drug abuse. Wilburn May Jr. was given probation and allowed to return to the Central community where he again set up shop selling drugs and some said fencing stolen merchandise.
For the next three years, May operated out of a hospital bed set up in the living room of his small house on County Road 15. This is where family members found the body of Wilburn May Jr. lying in his hospital bed on the morning of February 26, 2001; a single gunshot wound to the chest was circled in dried blood. May, 45 years old and a known drug dealer, had many enemies--some of them due to his role in the death of the former Little Miss Sunbeam Marie Burns, but after a four month investigation, the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department had found every lead to be a dead end. By the end of June 2001, the reward in the case totalled $16,000.00; but the first real break came from a Madison County law enforcement officer.
Donald Wayne Darling II was seventeen years old and lived less than a mile from Wilburn May Jr. on County Road 15 in the Central community. Now Darling was an inmate at Three Springs School, a Madison alternative correctional facility for juveniles where he had been held since May 1. According to authorities, Darling told a roommate he had killed May. When Lauderdale Investigator Jr. Witt visited with Darling at the school in mid-July, the teenager denied the charges, but admitted he had bought drugs from May twice in the past. Witt was convinced that Donald Wayne Darling had killed Junior May and secured a search warrant for his Central Heights home. Investigators were secretive concerning their finds, but immediately requested a warrant for Darling's arrest.
Taking Darling into custody the next day, Lauderdale County assigned Doug Evans to prosecute the teenager. The Assistant District Attorney immediately requested an upgrade in Darling's charges--now Donald Wayne Darling was accused of capital murder in the killing of Wilburn May Jr. Evans based the new charges on accusations that Darling had also stolen drugs at the time of the killing, a killing the prosecution believed to be the result of a gang initiation. Darling defense attorneys offered a different scenario, but District Judge Deborah Bell Paseur now ordered Donald Wayne Darling held without bail.
Darling spent almost two years in the Lauderdale County Detention Center awaiting trial, while defense attorneys Jenny Behel and Chris Connolly filed various motions and maintained that Jr. Witt had illegally questioned Darling, setting the stage for what was to become a lengthy battle of words--not the least of which were prosecutorial misconduct. In the mean time, was the real killer still out there?
The State's case against Donald Wayne Darling II hit roadblocks from the beginning. Darling himself claimed he had bragged of murdering Wilburn May Jr. in order to impress gang members with whom he was incarcerated in Madison. The day before Jr Witt had traveled to Madison to interview Darling, the teenager had attempted to hang himself and was under the influence of powerful anti psychotic drugs during questioning. Of the items taken from Darling's home by Witt, some proved to belong to Darling's father. Prosecutors in the case failed to allow the Darling defense to inspect the items, a fact that drew the ire of Judge Mike Suttle who had been assigned to hear the capital murder case.
As the trial began, the case against Darling began to unravel even further. The defense proved May's front door was kicked down by an individual with a larger foot than the teenager's and none of the defendant's shoes matched the sole pattern as the prosecution initially claimed. The defense also produced witnesses that several individuals, including May's ex-wife, had recently threatened the murdered drug dealer.
As the trial progressed, Chris Connolly asked for a mistrial based on the possibility of prosecution witness Torry Harrison being released early for his testimony. The witness had testified previously in several other trials in return for special considerations. Also, a main point of contention in the Darling trial was the witness being allowed to wear street clothes to the proceedings (We will inject here that even those who are incarcerated should be allowed some dignity--as long as the jury was advised that the witness was currently serving time in the Colbert County Jail, his clothing should have made little difference). Further, Junior May's heavily peroxided blond daughter Nancy Stevenson testified that she believed her father had also been beaten and that his axe had been turned over to Lauderdale deputies, but was not introduced into evidence. If May had been beaten, as his daughter claimed, this was another element that clashed with Darling's initial and supposedly drug-induced confession.
After two days of deliberation, the jury announced it was deadlocked, and Judge Mike Suttle declared a mistrial. Darling was returned to the Detention Center to await a second trial, but his defense attorneys had other plans--they immediately filed charges of prosecutorial misconduct by the Lauderdale County District Attorney's office.
Judge Mike Suttle took the charges of prosecutorial misconduct in the Donald Darling murder trial so seriously that he ordered a jury trial in the matter; however, the Lauderdale District Attorney's office appealed the ruling and won. Now, Darling was to face a second trial for the murder of Wilburn May Jr.
By May 2004, Darling had been released on bond, and Lauderdale District Attorney Steve Graham had resigned. Graham's successor, then Republican Billy Jackson, knew the Darling family socially and recused his office from the second trial. Even Judge Suttle's role was questioned due to his announced support of Darling's defense attorney Chris Connolly, Jackson's Democratic opponent in the upcoming election. Suttle refused to step down and presided over Darling's second trial, now moved to Decatur.
During the trial, the defense team introduced evidence that included an alibi for Darling and accusations against one of May's ex-wives as well as a known drug associate who had not been seen since May's murder. On July 23, 2004, a Morgan County jury found Donald Wayne Darling II not guilty of the murder of Junior May. Suttle then authorized protection for the Darling family as they left the courthouse due to alleged threats from the May family. Darling himself spoke of his relief to have an unencumbered future.
What did Donald Darling do with his freedom? Less than four months later, the now 20 year-old Darling was accused of attempting to break into a condom vending machine at a Central Heights mini-mart. He pleaded innocent to the misdemeanor charge. Two years later, Darling was arrested for breaking into a convenience store to steal cigarettes; a short time later an intoxicated Darling was arrested by an observant off-duty deputy immediately after breaking into a truck in the Central community.
Do Darling's post acquittal criminal actions indicate he was in reality guilty of killing Junior May? They certainly indicate Donald Wayne Darling II placed little value on his freedom. As for who did murder Little Miss Sunbeam's killer, one of the strangest cases in Shoals crime history is still officially open.