Friday, December 30, 2016
Steve Ray Murphy was 22 years-old when he and his best friend began their partnership in crime in 1977. Perhaps you can't place Murphy? Perhaps his partner's name will refresh your memory: Trent O'Neal Townsend. The two Lauderdale County men were misfits from childhood; they found each other when the younger Townsend needed help escaping from a foster home and formed a synergistic partnership where 1+1=3, a partnership sparking fear in many, even some law enforcement personnel.
The duo's crimes may have reached a peak in April 1983. It was Gregory Edward Ayer's first night on the job at the Red Ace Service Station in Tuscumbia when a customer found his lifeless body. Murphy and Townsend soon became suspects in the robbery turned murder and were later arrested and tried for the capital crime.
In the interim, both Murphy and Townsend were tried for other crimes and sentenced to life in prison under the habitual offender act. For whatever reason, both men were sent to St. Clair Prison where they continued their friendship and hatched an escape plot. Escape was nothing new to Townsend who already had one such charge. The convicts flawlessly executed their plan via a drain pipe and were soon free men. It wasn't to last.
Murphy was later captured in Kansas, but the still-free Townsend helped engineer his escape. Both were soon on their way back to the Shoals where they initiated a crime spree in order to survive.
In 1977, Murphy had worked at the Pepsi Cola Bottling Plant on Highway 43 in Tuscumbia; he knew that a Wells Fargo truck visited the plant daily, and so a plan was hatched. Shortly after ten in the morning on that late July day, a woman drove up to the plant, and two men exited the vehicle. Both men entered the plant and immediately announced they were there to commit armed robbery. Murphy further announced he knew the armored truck would soon arrive since he had previously worked there.
Both men escaped on foot and allegedly ran across the highway to a waiting vehicle. Their freedom was short lived, and after a few days the pair was captured and returned to jail, having added a laundry list of new charges to their resume'. A trial for Ayers' murder now awaited them.
A Colbert County jury convicted Murphy, but couldn't reach a verdict in Townsend's case, and the attorney general's office decided not to pursue the charges since the career criminal was already serving a life sentence. There has never been total justice for Gregory Edward Ayers' family--at least officially.
As his murder trial dragged on, both Townsend's younger bother and maternal grandfather committed suicide. After being returned to prison, Townsend was the victim of a stabbing in 1988 and won a lawsuit against the state; however, the $75,000.00 award in the case was later stolen from Townsend's mother. It was obviously a pyrrhic victory, and the Lauderdale County man remained incarcerated.
Eight years to the day after Ayers' murder, Trent Townsend was found dead in his cell at the West Jefferson Correctional Facility near Birmingham. Authorities claimed Townsend hanged himself using rope from his officially issued laundry bag. His partner in crime Steve Murphy thought otherwise.
After Townsend's alleged suicide, Steve Ray Murphy again denied their involvement in the fatal Red Ace robbery, stating he had nothing to gain by refusing to take responsibility. He also commented that he knew Trent better than anyone, loved Trent better than he loved his own wife, and Townsend would never have killed himself.
Murphy has continued to deny the Red Ace murder for 25 years. Barred from parole and serving a 999 year sentence, the Lauderdale County man is housed in Holman Prison where he's listed as a medium security prisoner. His once luxurious hair has thinned, and he now wears spectacles. He receives few visitors...and he continues to maintain his innocence in the death of Gregory Edward Ayers.