Closed cold case murder tied to ousted Tennessee governor

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A former Tennessee governor’s administration helped fund a contract murder of a key federal witness decades ago while embroiled in the state’s largest political scandal, law enforcement officials announced Wednesday.

The new details revealed for the first time Wednesday have elements that ring of a movie: a trusted ally of union boss Jimmy Hoffa gunned down after testifying about a corrupt governor selling prison pardons and a gunman who donned a wig and blackface to throw authorities off the scent.

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Investigators in Hamilton County, which encompasses Chattanooga, have been chipping away at the 42-year-old cold case of Samuel Pettyjohn since they renewed their investigation in 2015. No new charges will be filed because all of the major players involved are now dead, but authorities say closing the case provides closure to one aspect of a complicated piece of Tennessee history.

Pettyjohn, a Chattanooga businessman and close friend of Hoffa, was fatally shot in 1979 in downtown Chattanooga after testifying before a federal grand jury during the early phases of Tennessee’s notorious “cash-for-clemency” scandal.

“Essentially, Mr. Pettyjohn cooperated with authorities and knew too much about what was going on locally, as well as the state level, and individuals didn’t like that and so individuals hired someone to murder him,” Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston said. “Here we are some 42 years later.”

The scandal ultimately led to the ousting of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who was never indicted in the investigation — but three of his aides were.

However, questions have lingered about the extent to which the governor’s administration actively worked to thwart the investigation. Officials say at least five witnesses in the case were murdered or killed themselves.

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Pinkston told reporters that Pettyjohn would meet with inmates to indicate that money would help secure an early release from prison starting in 1976. Pettyjohn was joined by William Thompson, who had been involved in Blanton’s election campaign and would later be convicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal.

According to Pinkston, Pettyjohn and Thompson would drop payments off at the governor’s office in the Capitol.

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