Lookout Valley triple homicide survivor tells police what he saw and heard

Lookout Valley triple homicide survivor tells police what he saw and heard

April 11th, 2014 by Beth Burger in Local Regional News

Photo by Laura McNutt/Times Free Press.

SIGNAL TRIPLE SLAYING

Frank Casteel was convicted in 1998 -- and again in 2003 -- in the July 1988 "Blue Hole" shotgun deaths of three men who were riding all-terrain vehicles near Roberts Mill Road on Signal Mountain. The bodies of Richard Mason, Kenneth Griffith and Earl Smock were found in an illegal dump on Suck Creek Mountain.

For a moment they locked eyes.

Two men armed with pistols, their faces covered by ski masks, running full tilt from where three men lay dead and a teenager critically wounded.

And a neighbor who had emerged from his trailer at the sound of multiple gunshots.

"They looked at me and I looked at them," said the neighbor, who did not want to be identified out of fear of retaliation. "And I think they were out of bullets. That's why they didn't put one in me."

Hours later Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested 19-year-old Derek Madison Morse in connection with the shootings. He faces charges of criminal homicide and one count of attempted criminal homicide.

The survivor, 16-year-old Michael Callen, told police there was more than one shooter. And as of Thursday afternoon, deputies were looking for one or two more people.

Callen was found wounded in the doorway of his residence Wednesday evening and directed law enforcement to a nearby motor home at 300 Kellys Ferry Place. There officers found three men dead and numerous cartridge casings littering the road.

The victims were identified as 53-year-old John "Jake" Lang; Caleb Boozer, 29; and 24-year-old Jon E. Morris.

Callen said he was at the motor home when the gunmen opened fire. Callen was wounded but managed to make it to his home amid more gunfire.

He told police he remembered something besides the gunshots, though, something one of the gunmen said:

"Make sure they're all dead."

Before the shooting, the victims had been firing a BB gun. Investigators left it at the scene near the victims' blood.

"I don't think there's been a case with this many deaths at one point since the Frank Casteel homicide where we had three up on Signal Mountain a number of years ago," Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said. "Of course, that taxes law enforcement. It taxes all the resources of the criminal justice system."

It remains unclear what led up to Wednesday's shooting. Hammond said the shooting was not random. He declined to discuss the relationship between the victims and suspects.

Drew Tracy, left, hugs Tommy Lang as he arrives at the scene where Lang's brother John "Jake" Lang was shot and killed Wednesday evening near the 300 block of Kellys Ferry Place in Lookout Valley.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Morse had four counts of aggravated assault, one count of domestic assault, one count of simple assault and one count of willful abuse, neglect, or exploitation of an adult dismissed a week ago by the Hamilton County district attorney, court records show.

In that January case, Morse reportedly opened fire on a carload of people. They had dropped Morse's girlfriend off at his home on McNabb Way, but then the couple began to argue and she went back to the vehicle.

Morse reportedly went for his gun and fired numerous shots at the car. He said, "Do you want to lose your life?" and "I'll end a life," the victims told police.

Neal Pinkston, executive assistant district attorney for Hamilton County, said the victims in the case failed to appear in court to testify on Jan. 13, Jan. 21 and April 4.

"People never showed so [the charges] couldn't go forward and they were dismissed," Pinkston said.

In another arrest last year, police collected 11 firearms -- including handguns, rifles and a shotgun -- as well as more than $1,000 in cash and some illegal drugs from Morse's bedroom. They also confiscated a jacket issued by the Chattanooga Police Department that had badges sewn on each shoulder.

Those who know Morse were surprised to hear about the new charges.

A family friend said Morse's mother died close to a year ago and that his father has never been a part of his life.

"The kid has just been dealt a really bad hand," said the woman, who asked not to be identified. "He really has."

She said she knows Morse to be a person who finds positives in negative situations, a young man who generally owned up to the mistakes he seemed prone to.

"Derek was known for being aggressive, but not totally violent," she said. "This is above and beyond what I would have expected of him."

A manager at the McDonald's on Browns Ferry Road confirmed that Morse had worked at the restaurant but not for some time.

Barely over a mile away from the McDonald's and just around the corner from Lookout Valley High School, Morse lived with his maternal grandfather, a man who neighbors say keeps to himself in a "holler" at the base of Raccoon Mountain. The house is along a gravel trail that juts off from the pavement in a neighborhood beside Browns Ferry Road.

On Thursday night investigators continued their search for others involved.

"I would certainly want to ask they turn themselves in immediately," Hammond said. "It will be easier on them and safer for them to do so."

The neighbor who watched two of the men flee reflected on their escape.

On the steep hill that meets Kellys Ferry Road, dense vegetation covers the landscape.

"The dog can't even go down there. It's so grown over. It's impossible to walk through," he said.

He heard numerous gunshots and then watched as the assailants fired before running downhill. The shots continued as they ran -- possibly coming from a third gunman, he said.

"I lost count. I tried to count," the man said.

Even though the terrain was challenging, the pair ran fast.

"These guys were like track stars," he said. "They could run faster than the deer run through here. I've never seen anybody run so fast in my life."

Staff writer David Cobb contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.