The Mysterious Dr. Cusick and a Confused Mrs. Reagan

In a rare victory for Sheffey’s defense team, Judge John J. Blair agreed that the jury should not hear the testimony of Dr. Chad Cusick. With the jury out of the room, the state asked Dr. Cusick to describe his encounter with a strange man on horseback many years earlier. Readers may recall the Cusick had testified in the case against Sheffey for the murder of Dora Davis in Sevier County in 1915. However, by 1925, Cusick’s story had taken a dramatic turn.

Newspaper accounts, naturally, did not always agree in terms of detailed accounts. For that reason, we have attempted to corroborate accounts as much as possible by comparing newspaper reports for each trial. Most of the regional newspapers reported the same basic facts from Dr. Cusick’s testimony in 1915: having been summoned to attend to Dora after she was shot, Dr. Cusick encountered a man on horseback, coming towards him in the darkness. The doctor called out to the man, asking him who he was. “Joe Emery” was the reply, and then the man rode past him, heading in the direction of Sheffey’s house. Then, according to all accounts, Dr. Cusick testified that he’d heard the stranger talking to someone down the road and came to the conclusion that “Joe Emery” was talking to Will Sheffey. Later in that trial, Sheffey and his mother confirmed that Will stood outside their house for a few minutes and spoke with the stranger on the horse. For some reason, the Sevierville newspapers did not include Cusick’s testimony in their report on the trial.

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By 1923, Dr. Cusick and his family had moved to Maryville, just as the Sheffeys had done. By some chance, Sheriff McCampbell encountered Dr. Cusick on Main St. in Maryville (now Broadway) and showed him the J. J. Emery letter. To the Sheriff’s astonishment, Cusick read the letter, saw the names “J. J. Emery” and Dora Davis, and revealed his own involvement in Will Sheffey’s earlier trial.  To the Sheriff, this was simply more confirmation that Sheffey had to be connected to the murders.

In the 1925 trial for the murder of Luther Wells and the shooting of Ada Wells, the prosecution wanted Cusick to testify “for identification purposes only.”  The defense objected and the judge ordered the jury out of the room.  As the Knoxville Journal reported on August 22, 1925, Dr. Cusick took the stand and explained that he had known Will Sheffey for many years, even before the trial in 1915, and he was familiar with Sheffey’s voice and manner. Their families lived within a mile on the same road in Seymour, outside of Sevierville. Dr. Cusick described the night Dora was shot and how he was responding to her family’s call when he encountered the rider in the dark. “Who’s there?” he said he called out and got the reply “Joe.” “Joe who?” he pressed and that’s when he got the full name “Joe Emery.” He was perplexed at the time, he said, because he was sure he recognized the voice but had never met anyone with that name. He hurried on to the Davis home and didn’t give the stranger any more thought until Dora’s father said, “It wasn’t robbers, it was Will Sheffey.” At that moment, Dr. Cusick said, he realized it was Will Sheffey’s voice he heard in the darkness. He went on the say he had “always known” it was Sheffey he spoke to on the road.

It is not at all clear why Cusick changed his story. It is also not clear why the difference between his accounts never came up. After Judge Blair had heard Cusick’s testimony, he agreed with the defense that the identification “had been formed through improper channels” and that it would be struck from the record.

Dr. Cusick’s son, V. Mayford Cusick, had been one of Will Sheffey’s closest friends growing up.  They had gone to high school and Carson-Newman together, until Sheffey’s dismissal. After the war, when the Cusick’s moved to Blount County, Will helped Mayford get a job at the Aluminum Company in Alcoa. Mayford was among those who identified Sheffey’s handwriting with the Emery letter. But, at some point he and Sheffey had a falling out and that seemed to taint his reliability as a witness.

The state called witnesses Martha and Elizabeth Reagan, the sisters-in-law who had identified Sheffey as the man who had entered their home in July 1923. There’s was an unusual caser because Lizzie got an unexpectedly good look at the intruder as he stood at the foot of the bed Martha shared with her husband, Allen.  Lizzie was in the next room, lying awake in the darkness, when she saw a man with a flashlight and a pistol walk towards the bed in the next room. She was afraid it was Allen who was threatening Martha, so she stayed quiet as she leaned forward. That’s when she saw the couple together, petrified, as the stranger pointed the flashlight in their eyes. From her perch to the side, Lizzie saw the light reflected from the polished headboard illuminate the face of the man with the gun. When the man saw that she was looking at him, he turned and ran out. Later, when the private investigator showed her a photo of a group of men, she picked Sheffey out and said he was the man who had pointed a gun at her brother and sister-in-law.

When she took the stand on August 25 1925, to testify, Lizzie described how she had been able to see the intruder. The defense objected that Elizabeth could not have had a clear look at the man who stood at the end of the other couple’s bed. At this, Mrs. Reagan was very confused and said the counsel for the defense, Mr. Kramer, had come to her house to look at the layout and admitted to her that it seemed plausible that she got a look at the man. When, on cross-examination, Kramer asked her again if it was not an impossibility for her to have seen out the door of her room. Loudly, she replied, “You know it’s not. You were there and you said it was possible.” The Knoxville Journal reported that Kramer retreated in a stunned silence.

There was some back-and-forth between the state and the defense over Reagan’s testimony, even as Martha, Allen, and Lizzie’s husband, Sam, corroborated it. However, only Elizabeth had gotten a clear look at the man’s face. The others could only swear to recognizing the stranger’s height and build.  So, Elizabeth spent the longest time on the stand, and the state walked her through photographs of the interior of her home so she could demonstrate the line of sight she’d had on that night.

The state tried to introduce photos of the house’s exterior when Gamble objected that those had not been entered into evidence and the defense had not even seen them yet. Attorney General Peace abruptly said, “You’ll see them,” and then turned away. Gamble addressed the judge to demand he be treated with respect, at which point the Attorney General bowed low in an exaggerated manner towards Gamble. Angrily, Gamble tried to chastise Peace, who told him to sit down. “I will not!,” retorted Gamble. “Then stand up,” said Peace. Gamble said that he would not take orders from Peace, who turned to the Judge and said he didn’t know what to do if Gamble didn’t like his options. The judge ordered them to move on.

Published by Nancy Locklin

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

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