A former Tennessee governor’s administration helped pay a murder contract for a 1979 hit on a federal witness who was buddies with union boss Jimmy Hoffa, authorities said.
The white contract killer wore a wig, fake beard and was in blackface when he gunned down Chattanooga businessman Samuel Pettyjohn, a cooperating witness in a corruption scandal that brought down the now-dead governor, Hamilton County prosecutors announced Wednesday.
Pettyjohn had cash and jewelry worth $100,000 on him when was killed on Feb. 1, 1979 inside a Beverage Mart he owned, authorities said in a news release.
“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 District Attorney Neal Pinkston said.
“Here we are some 42 years later.”
Ex-Gov. Ray Blanton was under investigation at the time of the murder for allegedly handing out early parole to prisoners in exchange for cash. He was never indicted, although three members of his administration were.
The DA was asked in a news conference on Wednesday how sure he was that Blanton’s administration helped pay for Pettyjohn’s murder.
“I’m very sure,” he said. “I’m proof positive.”
Still, the case is now closed – with Blanton, the alleged gunman and others involved long dead. But a grand jury heard the new evidence Tuesday and said it would’ve indicted the killer on a first-degree murder charge had he been alive.
“Our Cold Case Unit put in countless hours to solve this unusual case,” Pinkston said in a statement.
“Hopefully, it will bring some closure and peace to Pettyjohn’s surviving family members.”
Pettyjohn was an influential owner of several businesses and nightclubs with ties to the underworld and the Teamsters union, a DA report on the case said.
He helped facilitate the deals in the “cash-for-clemency” scandal and dropped off payments to representatives of the governor’s office, prosecutors claim.
When the FBI looked into the allegations, Pettyjohn gave testimony to a federal grand jury at least once before he started cooperating with the FBI directly, at one point giving a list of names to agent Hank Hillin, the DA report said.
Hillin later wrote a book on the investigation called “FBI Codename TENNPAR.” By the conclusion of the probe, five witnesses were either murdered or committed suicide, prosecutors said.
In 1982, two people were arrested for killing Pettyjohn but the charges were dismissed.
The cold case was reopened in 2015. Using old information and new informants, prosecutors identified bank robber William Edward Alley as Pettyjohn’s executioner. The informants said Alley had netted a contract between $25,000 and $50,000 for the murder-for-hire, prosecutors allege.
Alley died in 2005.
Saadiq Pettyjohn, one of Pettyjohn’s sons, spoke on behalf of his family about the new allegations.
“It is a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that is connected to crime,” he said in a statement.
“When that person dies, you can either go that route, or you can go a different route, and all of us chose to go a better route with education and try to do better in our lives.”
Blanton died in 1996, but he faced trouble even as his time as governor came to a close in 1979.
While still being probed for the scandal, he pardoned and commuted the sentences of more than 50 prisoners shortly before he was out of office, The Associated Press reported. Fellow Democrats and Republicans moved up by three days the inauguration of Blanton’s successor as a result, the AP said.
In 1981, he was convicted for extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license to a friend while in office for $23,000.
With Post wires