Monday, October 26, 2015

Summer of '65: Murder on the Lake




Historians say America changed in the mid-1960s. It did in the Shoals, but perhaps not for the same reasons it did elsewhere. It was officially less than a week into summer on June 28, 1965. It may have been Monday, but it wasn't unusual for kids out of school to party each night of the week. Many had the money and parents who trusted them--a lethal combination.

It was also a time when there was only one public high school in Florence. Coffee High had five social clubs and an arch enemy across the river in Sheffield, but as anyone would have told you before that night it was all harmless competition.

Robert Stewart Jr., known to his friends as Bobby, had been a big time jock at Sheffield High. A track star, Bobby had graduated in 1960, winning a scholarship to Florida State University. Five years later, Bobby was back in the Shoals and attending what was then Florence State College, but at 23 he still lacked several credits to graduate. If anyone had any concerns about Bobby, it was that most of his friends were younger and still in high school. The youths looked up to Bobby, and he liked it that way.

It became common knowledge that the Nenon Social Club would be having a party that Monday night. Coffee High was home to only the last three grades of public school, so only rising juniors and seniors would be among the girls who had rented a cabin on Lake Wilson. Bobby decided to crash the event, taking along as many as 30 youths from Colbert County.

The Nenon girls had invited boys to the unchaperoned party, but just not any from Colbert County. Once Bobby and his crew reached the cabin on Lauderdale Beach Road, they found themselves unwanted by the Nenons who managed to bar their entrance. It seems if Bobby Stewart and his Colbert County friends couldn't attend the party, he would make sure no one else did.

*****

The car pulled onto the Lauderdale County road leading to the lake house. Inside were four youths, one a May 1965 graduate of Coffee High School and three current students, all football players and all anticipating a summer party. Instead what awaited the boys was a gang of Colbert County youths led by Bobby Stewart.

With the road blocked, the driver attempted to turn around, but was forced into a ditch. Continuing to drive, he made it back onto the road and out onto Highway 72. Heading back toward Florence, the driver realized he was being pursued by Stewart and some of the track star's friends. Speeds reached 65 miles an hour, but the group of Coffee footballers lost Stewart and his gang after turning onto Huntsville Road.

Instead of reporting the incident to authorities, the youths decided to seek the aid of Richard Leland Romine. The Florence butcher was only 40 years old, and many of his son's friends saw him as one of the gang, one who would know how to handle the situation.

Six months before, Romine's son Richard Jr. had been attacked by Bobby Stewart. Friends said the attack was so vicious that Richard Jr.'s own family couldn't recognize him. For whatever reason, the fight was never reported to police, but Richard Sr. had good reason not to like Stewart or his friends.

The boys immediately drove to the Romine home in North Florence and were soon joined by Richard Jr. who had been at a movie that night. The six decided to return to the lake house and confront Stewart. No one suggested calling authorities, but Richard Romine Sr. was going to be prepared for any eventuality. He picked up a gun...

*****

It was shortly before eleven o' clock when Richard Romine Sr, his son, and four friends arrived at the camp on Lauderdale Beach Road. The entrance to the camp driveway was blocked by a car identified as the one that had pursued the four Coffee youths.

The six men exited their vehicle with the intention of walking down to the camp, but were met by another Coffee High School student. The young man sported a bloody lip and informed the group that Bobby Stewart's gang was attacking anyone who tried to get to the lake cabin. It wasn't safe to go any farther.

Romine decided to ignore the young man's warning and began the trek to the cabin, along with his five companions. Before he reached the camp, a group of five young men approached. The oldest one spoke directly to Richard Romine Jr., asking him what he thought he was doing there.

The elder Romine walked forward and asked the man if he was Bobby Stewart. When Stewart replied in the affirmative, Romine extended his hand and identified himself, stating he was concerned about the violence that had been taking place between the Colbert and Lauderdale County boys.

After shaking Romine's hand, Stewart quickly stated he had not attacked anyone, but Romine continued, asking Stewart if he had not instigated most of the violence over the past few months. Romine stated if the violence continued he would have Stewart arrested. Stewart shot back that he could just as easily have Romine arrested.

Whether Richard Romine Sr. was angered or simply tired of the ongoing dispute, he decided to finish it that night in some manner. Pulling the .38 from his pants, he fired into the ground, later telling authorities he simply wanted Stewart to know he was indeed serious.

When Stewart saw the gun, he stepped back. Romine first hit Stewart in the stomach with his fist, then swung at Stewart's head, still holding the loaded gun in his hand. The gun discharged, hitting Stewart just over the left eye. A shocked Romine knelt and held Stewart's head in his lap as others brought a car down to the scene. Romine and some others placed Bobby Stewart in the car and headed toward ECM hospital.

After being met by an ambulance on the way into Florence, Romine helped the group transfer Stewart. He then began to follow the ambulance to the hospital, but abruptly decided to drive to the Florence Police Department instead. Romine entered the Pine Street department and immediately announced he had shot Bobby Stewart, handing his weapon to a surprised police captain.

The call came into the police department that Robert T. Stewart Jr. had died in the emergency department at approximately midnight. Now Richard Leland Romine Sr. was facing a charge of what was then called First Degree Murder.

*****

Richard Leland Romine's trial began on November 29, 1965. Frank Potts and Bryce U. Graham acted as defense attorneys for the North Florence father who had initially faced the charge of First Degree Murder (now known as Capital Murder). A Lauderdale grand jury indicted the 40 year-old Romine on the lesser charge of Second Degree Murder (now known as Felony Murder). Lavern Tate prosecuted for the state.

The trial was unique in that the parents of former high school standout athlete Bobby Stewart didn't feel justice would be done for a Sheffield victim in Lauderdale County. They hired Muscle Shoals attorney Donald Wassner to assist the Lauderdale District Attorney's office in its prosecution of Romine. Their actions may have produced the exact opposite of their intent. Wassner had located in the Shoals in the 1950s. A staunch Republican, he was noted for having been a prisoner of war in WWII, but was also considered an outsider in the then staunchly Democratic area of Northwest Alabama.

The prosecution depicted Romine as leading a group of young Coffee football players, armed with pipes, to confront and attack Stewart. Defense attorney Frank Potts called the defendant to the stand on the fifth day of the trial; Romine related how his son had been bullied and beaten by Stewart at least ten times, perhaps more. He admitted to being at a loss as to the proper way to handle the situation since the Lauderdale County Sheriff's office had not acted. Potts then called a bevy of character witnesses for the defendant, depicting him as a family man with a responsible job. Throughout the trial, Stewart had been presented as a perennial student who socialized with younger boys from Sheffield High who were easily manipulated.

On December 4th, Donald Wassner presented the prosecution's closing arguments while the Lauderdale prosecutors sat silent. The jury took two hours and 23 minutes to acquit Romine.


Editor's Note: It's now been 50 years since the tragic death of Bobby Stewart split the Shoals apart. Both Richard Leland Romine and his son are now deceased, as are the parents of Bobby Stewart. The names of any witnesses, living or dead, have intentionally been omitted from this account.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The Death of Brandon Hydrick: Beer & Guns Don't Mix



Special Report from Crime Writer Nick Ireland

The Berg:

Belle Mina. Now that’s a classy name. Too bad this spot on the Limestone County map doesn’t live up to expectations. Nothing in Belle Mina but a few old houses and the occasional store. Then there’s the stream.

Land that borders on the small stream running through Belle Mina is marketed as water front property. Sure. If it rains enough. Just like my backyard.

Who buys these choice lots? Locals call them Yankees and that about sums it up. Families that work in Huntsville or Madison just love the prices on these backwoods hideaways.

The Murray family was no exception. The daughter, that’s the Babe to us, considered it the ideal spot to entertain her Huntsville friends. That’s just what she did on Friday, September 28, 2012.

The Bash:

It was billed as a Halloween party. No matter that it wasn’t even October. It was cool at night and just right for what passed as a country cookout. Wieners, marshmallows, and beer? Probably plenty of beer judging from the Hydrick family photos on Facebook. What else was served? You can be sure the state’s pathologist knows what was in Brandon Hydrick’s system when he died.

The bash ended around midnight. Guests began to go their separate ways and the Beard (B. Hydrick) took the Babe back to her parents’ front door. The Babe says the date ended with a chaste kiss.

Then the Beard drove off into eternity.






The Bro:

The Beard’s brother Ryan wasn’t even close to him in looks. Doesn’t seem to have had as good a job either. You can bet your pickup truck that he was only invited to the Babe’s bash because he was the Beard’s brother.

The Bro left in his own vehicle when the Beard exited the cookout. What happened between midnight and three o’clock Saturday morning is anyone’s guess. The Bro knows, but he’s not giving out any of the details to the Beard’s adoring fans and mourning friends.









The Beard:

Brandon Hydrick often sported a bushy beard. Yeah, doesn’t sound too kissable, does he? But apparently the Babe was so taken with him that she picked him up at a charity run in Huntsville. The Beard was younger than the Babe and didn’t quite travel in the same social circles, but hey, a good man is hard to find.

Friends thought this relationship would go the distance, but it ended that Saturday morning when the Bumpkin put a bullet through the Beard’s chest.










The Bumpkin:

Joel Moyers had lived in the same manufactured home since he was in grade school. He was now a rode hard 52 and had lived alone since his mother married the year before and moved to Cullman

The Bumpkin was afraid. The Limestone County sheriff stated there was little crime in the area, but actual reports say something else. Maybe there had to be a death before Mike Blakely considered it real crime He got that death early in the morning of September 29th.

The Bumpkin heard a truck around three o’clock. The Bro was now driving the Beard’s truck and they had returned to the scene of the cookout for reasons unknown. When the duo decided to turn around on the Bumpkin’s desolate corner, they made the mistake of their lives.

An SKS kept the Bumpkin company as he first followed them in his own truck and later marched toward the Beard’s vehicle in full confrontational mode. He flashed a light in the Bro’s face and told him to stop. The Bro hit the accelerator.

As the pickup passed the Bumpkin, Moyers raised the heavy SKS and fired. The question is where the Bumpkin aimed. Heck, maybe the question should be was he even strong enough to aim. His bullet traveled through the back of the truck’s tailgate, entered the cab, and finally juggernauted through the Beard’s chest. The Bro panicked and hit the accelerator again. He met with a tree that refused to get out of his way as he attempted to navigate a corner.  The Bumpkin retired to his home and called the sheriff.

The Babe:

Bronwen Murray was as yuppie as you get in Alabama. She was going places and picked up the Beard to tag along. Good men are hard for those bluestocking babes to find and lasso. Now her man was dead.

The sheriff originally charged the Bumpkin with a manslaughter type crime, but the Babe was having none of it. Where would she ever find a replacement, and her eggs weren’t getting any younger.

Don’t worry. The Babe had a trump card. She worked for the Big Shot. He’d handle it while she made the appropriate mewing noises to play the sympathy card.






The Big Shot:

Parker Griffith was a prominent Huntsville doc and a former U.S. representative. Easy for him to place a few well-chosen words in the ear of the Limestone County D.A. Yeah, the D.A. knew which side his political funding was greased on.

The indictment comes down, and the Bumpkin is charged with Capital Murder. Hey, it’s Alabama. Justice is still scarce and usually a political tool. Yeah, we call it JuJu man justice around this state.

The trial? It’s coming. Let’s grab the beer and popcorn. Okay, no beer. Limestone County is dry. Too bad the Bro and the Beard grabbed their beers; maybe they’d both be alive right now and the Bumpkin tatting a new doily for his mother.




*****

Joel Moyers was convicted of Capital Murder in May 2015.


Sunday, March 22, 2015

Christie Bray Scott's Road to Death Row


It was almost two-thirty on the morning of August 16, 2008, when screams accompanied by loud pounding awakened Jennifer Davidson. She rushed to the front door of her 216 Signore Drive home in Russellville, Alabama, to find her neighbor Christie Scott. Scott, who lived at 180 Signore Drive, held her four-year old son Noah, while screaming hysterically that her house was on fire.

Davidson immediately called 911; the call reached the switchboard at 2:31 a.m. Firetrucks arrived at the burning residence within ten minutes, but it was almost five minutes more before Scott, 31, informed the firefighters that her six year-old son Mason was still trapped inside.

Scott indicated the location of Mason's bedroom, an area that was already totally engulfed in flames. The responders looked at the flames broaching the roof and windows and knew that little could be done to save the child from the inferno, yet they worked swiftly to quell the fire, and by 4:00 a.m. responders were able to enter the dwelling. Franklin County Coroner Elzie Malone pronounced Mason Scott dead at the scene.

Christie Michelle Bray Scott was too upset to answer the investigators' questions coherently, but they did learn that Noah Riley Scott had been sleeping in the bed with her while her older son, a victim of Asperger's Syndrome, slept at the other end of the house. Scott's husband Jeremy, 32, an executive with CB&S Bank, was away on business.

Russellville Fire Marshal Bobby Malone surveyed the charred refuse that had been the Scott's home. It was normal protocol to inform the Alabama Department of Human Resources when a child under the age of 18 died. He also decided to call in the State Fire Marshal; Christie Scott had been involved in five fires within the past eight years.


Three days after the death of Mason Scott, pieces of the puzzle that surrounded his last minutes were already falling into place. Russellville Fire Marshal Bobby Malone had called in the Russellville Police Department, the Alabama Fire Marshal's office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk utilized an accelerant-sniffing dog to determine that the fire was not accidental in nature, but ultimately stated only that the blaze had originated around six-year old Mason's bed. Could the mildly autistic child have been playing with chemicals that some how ignited? Could an arsonist have known that Jeremy Scott was out of town and used that opportunity to settle some real or imaginary score? The third scenario seemed even more bizarre to authorities: Christie Michelle Bray Scott had herself started the blaze that claimed the life of her older son.

It had been less than three years since a fire had destroyed the family's former home at 35 Steel Frame Road in Russellville. There were no injuries in that fire, and Christie had blamed a Glade air-freshener plug-in for the blaze, while investigators had theorized the fire had been intentionally set using cardboard boxes. There had been no physical injuries related to the previous fire, the second within two days; but the home had been insured, and both Christie and her father Don Bray were insurance agents.

The investigation into the previous two fires had been perfunctory at best and intentionally sabotaged at worst. No one wanted to listen to the investigator's theories of arson and pyromania. Christie was a native of nearby Haleyville, the daughter of Don and Kathy Bray, both leading citizens in the small town. Her husband Jeremy S. Scott was an Information Technology specialist for CB&S, a locally owned bank that had been a Russellville institution for over 100 years. Yet the fires on Steel Frame Road had raised suspicions among many in the community--Christie had been involved in two fires at her family home in Haleyville. Now a fifth fire had claimed not only the young couple's new home, but their child.

Mason had started the first grade at Russellville's West Elementary School on August 4. Less than two weeks later he was dead. Many who had observed Christie and Mason together characterized the mother as uncaring. Others in the community were surprised that Scott showed so little emotion during her son's funeral at Russellville's Calvary Baptist Church and in the days that followed.

Christie Scott returned to live with her parents in Haleyville, while her husband Jeremy took their younger son to his parents' home in Russellville. The young father also took out a protection from abuse order against his now estranged wife after Mason's autopsy showed large amounts of sedative in his system, but physicians admitted to prescribing at these dosages in order to calm the hyperactive child. On October 26, Franklin County Judge Terry Dempsey issued a warrant for Scott's arrest after her indictment by a grand jury. Information presented during the hearing indicated that Alfa Insurance agent Christie Scott had taken out an additional life insurance policy in the amount of $100,000.00 on her son the day before his death.


As Christie Scott turned herself in, Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing and Russellville Police Chief Chris Hargett held the obligatory news conference and photo op. The bearded Rushing reiterated the basic facts of the indictment--three alternative accounts of capital murder, after which the often beleaguered Hargett mumbled over the sadness of it all, failing to remember if Mason was in kindergarten or first grade.

In the nearby courtroom, Circuit Court Judge Terry Dempsey refused bond in the case, even though both Scott's father and husband, with whom she was now ostensibly reconciled, testified that the former Alfa representative was no flight risk. Adorned in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs, Scott was returned to the Franklin County Jail where she remained.


Don Bray, a successful Woodmen of the World insurance agent in Winston County and self-proclaimed world's greatest chef, arranged for Huntsville defense attorney Robert Barry Tuten to represent his daughter. Tuten, a
summa cum laude graduate of Jones School of Law, specializes in capital murder cases and has in the past represented such defendants as Natashay Ward, the Huntsville woman accused of starving her three children to death, as well as Andrew Pakhomov, the UAH physics professor tried for the murder of his wife.

Tuten also asked for a change of venue, another request denied by Judge Dempsey. Dempsey stated the jury pool for Scott's trial would be increased by 300, bringing the total to 500 individuals in hopes of selecting a fair and open-minded jury. Tuten announced the jury selection process might take as long as five days.


Franklin County is no stranger to murder cases in which a young child was the victim; however, this was perhaps the first case involving someone of Christie Michelle Bray Scott's socio-economic standing in the community. Her family's money and position bought her the best defense attorney; but it remained to be seen if such factors would influence jurors from provincial Franklin County after they saw the photos of Mason's charred body.


After a trial lasting two weeks, a Franklin County jury convicted Christie Bray Scott of three counts of capital murder. During the trial, the prosecution produced evidence of insurance fraud and an emotional affair with long-time family friend William Markham, a former insurance agent who agreed to hold personal items for Scott the day before the fire.

In his closing statements, Joey Rushing said convicted murderess Christie Michelle Bray Scott should die. Joey Rushing, as usual, said a lot of things. The Franklin County District Attorney was quoted in the TimesDaily as stating:
There's nothing worse than a mother murdering a child for insurance and because they didn't want him.

We're not sure to whom the word "they" refers. Observers said Christie couldn't handle the child. Friends said Jeremy was more interested in work and possessions than he was his own son. William Markam, the man who admitted on tape to being Christie's emotional lover said he didn't care for the child, a child he thought should have been "whooped" more.

Surely, these others in Mason Scott's life deserve some of the blame for his death. No, they didn't murder him, but they apparently made no attempt to intervene in what was obviously a pathological situation, a textbook dysfunctional family.
Joey Rushing requested that Judge Terry Dempsey sentence Christie Scott to death by lethal injection, an Old Testament eye for a eye. Surely spending the rest of her natural life in the hell hole that is Tutwiler Prison would have been enough punishment for this sick, sick woman. Despite the jury's recommendation of life in prison without the possibility of parole, on August 5, 2009, Judge Dempsey sentenced Scott to die by lethal injection.

Louise Harris from Montgomery, Tierra Gobble from Houston, Shonda Johnson from Walker, and Patricia Blackman from Houston--all prisoners at Tutwiler with a "Z" before their Alabama Inmate System Number, all women who expect to die in prison, all females sentenced to death for heinous crimes. Now, Christie Michelle Bray Scott of Franklin County will join them.

In less than 30 days, the State of Alabama will forward paperwork to the Franklin County Jail ordering deputies to transport Scott south to Elmore County, home of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. In all probability, Scott's journey will take place at night. Unannounced, a female jailer will enter her cell, command her to dress, shackle her, and escort her to a waiting transport. Marked police vehicles are allowed to speed down the state's roadways, and Scott should reach Tutwiler shortly after dawn.

Most transfers are shuttled into a holding pen outside the prison, but a prisoner with a death sentence should be given special escort into the building. There Scott will be told to disrobe and shower. Prison workers will delouse Scott, a barber will cut her hair to collar length, and she will be handed a unisex white uniform along with a minimum of toiletries. Now Scott is ready to be taken to her new home--a small cell measuring approximately 10' x 10'.

There are only four death row cells at Tutwiler, currently all full. It's likely Scott will be placed in one of the adjacent segregation cells. It's also likely prison personnel will make it clear to Scott that she is a burden to them, since she is only adding to their time-consuming death row routine.

Now, Christie Scott is alone, alone with four books, a television if any of her family should desire to provide her one, and possibly a small animal. Yes, Scott will have the luxury of a bird or a cat, as long as her family provides its upkeep. She will also get to shower every other day and walk for one hour each day in a small private garden. Even her meals will be delivered to the small cell that will become her home.

For 30 days, Scott will be allowed no visitors. After that period, immediate family may make arrangements to visit during approved hours. Then Christie Scott will be alone again, alone in a cell where all lights are turned off at ten o'clock at night, alone with her thoughts and her guilt.

This is the life for which Christie Michelle Bray Scott traded her son Mason. Let us all pray for her family.


*****

Update: Flash forward to 2011 and the plot steams up. There was a great deal of he said/she said. There were also a lot of alleged threats from prison officials. It's anyone's guess what the truth may be, but we will attempt to present the alleged affair as the State of Alabama did in it's case against a Department of Corrections employee.

Picture Christie alone most of the day in a 6' x 9' cell. She has a television set, a microwave, and an ice bucket. She probably had some books also, but these aren't mentioned in trial accounts. Someone like Christie must have been sorely in need of someone to care...or someone to manipulate. Enter the night shift supervisor Matthew Hall.

Christie Scott & Matthew Hall
Hall was 31 and in an unhappy second marriage when he delivered Jeremy's divorce petition to Christie in March 2011. She broke down; he consoled. Fill in the blanks.

Christie claims that encounter produced their first kiss. Over the course of the next weeks, more kisses brought the two unhappy individuals together. Christie states they never had sex, but mainly discussed Hall's unhappy marriage in which his wife "made" him strip for her friends. Hall also made the routine pat downs interesting enough that Christie was brought to new heights in friendship and the sergeant openly spoke of buying her a home when she eventually won her release.


How long this relationship would have gone on is open to speculation, but apparently another death row prisoner became aware of the interaction. Did Christie just have to brag or were the pat downs that scream-inspiring? No matter how she knew, the inmate sent word to the warden, a warden who was not above threatening Christie to confess, at least according to her.

She may have loved Hall, but she obviously valued the ice bucket, microwave, and television more. Christie made a full confession. So did Hall. The confessions (Scott's was 11 pages long) were reported to match; however, at his trial in June 2014, Hall recanted and stated he had been coerced. The warden who had initiated the probe had retired, and the prosecution stated the jury apparently had issues with Scott's credibility. The jury took half an hour to find Hall not guilty, and his wife stood by him.


The preceding account was taken from Shoalanda Speaks columns published between June 6 and August 5, 2009. On August 7, 2009, Christie Michelle Bray Scott was transported to Julia Tutwiler Prison where she remains waiting an appeal. Update originally published March 20, 2015.