Pre-trial Debates

In the weeks leading up to Sheffey’s trial, factions developed in the community. Newspapers presented wildly different characterizations of the suspect, depending on who their sources and audience were. The Maryville papers tried to maintain a neutral stance because the community was so divided. Out-of-town papers seemed to run with whatever headline would be most eye-catching. The Evening Journal of Wilmington, DE, screamed “Suspect Man of 32 Crimes in Six Years!” The Indiana Gazette of Indiana, PA, exclaimed “Race Riot Case to Be Reopened” in reference to the fact that the anonymous author of the Emery letter claimed responsibility for the murder of Bertie Lindsey. Papers in distant cities focused on the sheer volume of attacks Sheffey might have committed.

The Chattanooga News highlighted some of the strange behavior ascribed to Sheffey by coworkers and neighbors. He was sometimes extremely withdrawn and at other times manically friendly. He often left late at night and returned in the wee hours of the morning with no explanation. And he was said to be wild about firearms. Most everyone in East Tennessee, especially in the 1920s, owned at least one gun. Sheffey was known to keep at least three handy—a revolver in his bedroom, another near the front door, and one “near his place of work.” He also owned an automatic .38 caliber Remington seven-shot magazine. A few days before his arrest, he was seen driving around Maryville with a high-powered rifle and got out on Main Street (now Broadway) to load it. He also kept “an exceedingly effective” flashlight in his car.

There were rumors in early April that the investigators had gathered a lot of evidence against Sheffey and were preparing to arrest him. One night before Sheffey’s arrest, there was an incident at ex-Sheriff John McCampbell’s home. McCampbell’s family remembers several threats, all allegedly from Sheffey, throughout this time period. During the incident in question, someone shone a flashlight into a window in the former Sheriff’s home, attracting interest, so someone in the house carefully approached the window and peered out. Someone was out there, lurking in the shadows, perhaps hoping to lure McCampbell out of the house. Everyone stayed put, waiting to see what would happen. Suddenly, a car approached at a high speed very near the house, paused as if to let someone in, and then sped off. This, naturally, suggests the help of an accomplice. There were similar incidents reported on two other occasions.

The investigative team, the officers who escorted Sheffey to and from the Loudon jail, and anyone who had witnessed the Davis trial in Sevierville agreed on one thing—Will Sheffey was cool, calm, and unshakeable. His friends and supporters took that as a clear sign of his innocence and clear conscience, while those who suspected him saw it as an indication that he was coldly capable of anything.

Thanks to the Aluminum Company of America, which covered all of Hinrichsen’s expenses and greatly supported the prosecution as they built the expense, the humble victims of the Night Marauder had a chance of convicting the suspect. The Marauder always targeted very small homes without electricity, meaning almost all of his victims were poor or at least living close to poverty. The Sheffeys, though not wealthy, were well respected and had connections to some of the most established and elite families of the area.

Will Sheffey had secured Russell R. Kramer and Thomas C. Drinnen as his defense team. They would be joined in court by Judge Moses H. Gamble. Judge Gamble was among the people John McCampbell had showed the Emery letter when he got it and had apparently begged Gamble to take the case as a Judge or prosecutor. Gamble had refused, and now served the defense team. That would lead to some heated arguments in court as the presiding judge considered what evidence he would allow from the bickering lawyers. But there were several other personality conflicts at play in this divisive case.

During the few days that both Wright Saffle and Will Sheffey were in custody for the attack on the Poes, the Sheriff and ex-Sheriff squared off. Political rivals through and through, Pate and McCampbell stood in opposite camps when it came to the latest crime.  Pate believed Saffle had attacked Clyde and Lora and that it was a single crime born out of jealousy. McCampbell was convinced that Sheffey was the Marauder, responsible for up to forty-four break-ins. Sheffey’s defense team would attempt to argue that their client was caught in the crossfire of political enmity between the men.

Among the oddities revealed in the steps leading up to Sheffey’s trial was that J. W. Poe, father of Clyde, testified that he had been offered $1000 to not press the case against Wright Saffle after the Poes were attacked. He said the man who offered him the money was named John Strickland and that he had no idea what Strickland’s connection to the Saffles might have been. Nevertheless, he refused the offer and pressed charges. Defense attorneys for Sheffey introduced this evidence in order to revive suspicion against Saffle and create doubt around the charges Sheffey faced.  Other supporters told the media that Mrs. Poe had first suspected Wright Saffle therefore he had to be the guilty party. Saffle, however, had a solid alibi for the night of the attack and the grand jury dismissed the charges.

Reports at the end of April were all over the place. Apparently, Hinrichsen and the prosecution were even out in the county looking for a cave near Louisville at “Sheep’s Pen Bluff” and rumored to be a hiding place for guns used in illicit acts. The defense, in the meantime, refused to make any other statement but that “some of the best citizens of the county” were prepared to give the suspect the perfect alibi for the night of one of the murders. In the meantime, Sheffey’s siblings made time to visit him in Loudon as often as they could.

The cave at Sheep Pen Bluff, Louisville. Part of the W. O. Garner Photograph Collection, UTK Library

On April 23, it was reported that Mrs. Poe, Mrs. Wells, and Mrs. Reagan were brought to the Loudon jail to take an opportunity to pick Sheffey out of a line-up. Understand, this “line-up” was not at all the sort of thing one would expect to take place today. Law enforcement did not yet have one-way mirrors to protect victims as they looked upon the suspects. Instead, the suspect and several other men were brought to a clinic where the prisoners were told they were being checked for some kind of fabricated illness. The women were positioned outside a clinic room as each prisoner was asked to speak at varying levels of volume. Then, the women were seated in the lobby to watch as the men were led out of the hospital. All three women identified Sheffey by his voice and also by his appearance. But, of course, the defense would have a field day at trial with the irregularities in this identification set-up.

At long last, a trial date was announced. Will D. Sheffey would be tried for murder and assault in the upcoming Circuit Court session in August, 1925. Both sides prepared for battle.

Published by Nancy Locklin

I am a professor of history at Maryville College in east Tennessee.

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