Daughter of man found slain in barrel sues her father's killer for $5 million

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 5/25/16. Billy Hawk appears before Judge Don Poole and the jury on Monday, June 6, 2016. Hawk was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for shooting, killing, and stuffing his co-defendant in a 1981 pending cocaine distribution case, Johnny Mack Salyer, in a 55-gallon steel drum.
photo Defendant Billy Hawk, left, talks with attorney Jim Logan on the 2nd day of Hawk's murder trial in Judge Don Poole's courtroom in Hamilton County Criminal Court on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. A grand jury indicted Hawk, 62, in September for first-degree murder in the 1981 slaying of Johnny Mack Salyer.

Shana Salyer was not quite 2 years old when her father's body was found in a 55-gallon steel drum on Chickamauga Lake in June 1981. Clad in underwear and decomposing, Johnny Mack Salyer went unidentified for days.

For Shana Salyer, though, the mystery of her father's death continued another 34 years.

According to a wrongful death lawsuit filed Monday in Hamilton County Civil Court, Shana Salyer never knew the identity of her father's alleged killer until a meeting with District Attorney General Neal Pinkston on June 14, 2015. Now, she has asked for a jury trial to determine whether William "Billy" Hawk, since convicted, owes her $5 million in damages.

"I think what the judge and the jury will consider is that Johnny Mack Salyer's murder by Billy Hawk is as cruel and barbaric an act ," said her attorney, Darren McBride, before trailing off. "My client lost her father before her second birthday."

Last week, after a five-day trial, Hawk was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. In May 1981, he and Salyer were co-defendants in a pending cocaine distribution case in Hamilton County.

Though authorities investigated Hawk at least three times, prosecution never materialized until September 2015, when a grand jury indicted him on first-degree murder charges. Calling on a number of investigators, family members and former lovers, prosecutors convinced jurors that Hawk murdered Salyer out of fear that Salyer would testify against him.

When he turned up in the barrel, Johnny Mack Salyer was divorced, the lawsuit states. His only child, Shana Salyer, was born nearly two years earlier on Nov. 15, 1979.

Though he could not discuss the specifics of his conversations with her, McBride confirmed Shana Salyer "was not aware of [Billy Hawk's] identity" until her meeting with Pinkston.

The precise date Shana Salyer learned about her father's death is crucial. In Tennessee, you have to file a wrongful death lawsuit within a year of the death, lawyers said. From Shana Salyer's perspective, today - June 14 - marks one year from the day she learned about her father's death.

Pinkston's office declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Bill Speek, one of three attorneys who represented Hawk during the murder trial, said he is not involved in the civil suit. But he and his office are actively searching for a firm that specializes in the criminal appeals process, he said.

In the meantime, Hawk was transferred to the Tennessee Department of Correction on Friday, according to the Hamilton County Jail. Clerks confirmed Monday he had not been served with papers yet in the civil lawsuit.

Still, lawyers said, the civil suit could add a twist to the criminal case because now Hawk can be deposed. During a deposition, a defendant is placed under oath and asked to give truthful statements, sometimes without a judge present.

"Pinkston and his cold case unit did a wonderful, wonderful job," McBride said Monday. "Now imagine what they could have done had they been able to ask questions. Imagine what they could have done if he had taken the stand."

He then pointed to the 5th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which outlines the right against self-incrimination. If Hawk does win a new trial on appeal, he said, "anything he says on the civil side will be able to be used against him."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at 423-757-6347 or zpeterson@timesfree press.com. Follow @zackpeterson918.