They walked him into the courtroom, and placed him in front of the witness box. He was too feeble to step up into the box, so he sat in a chair while someone turned the microphone toward his mouth.
Dressed in jean overalls and 76 years of exposure to the sun, Robert Stultz discussed the last time he saw Johnny Mack Salyer.
Not long before he turned up in a 55-gallon barrel on Chickamauga Lake, Salyer stopped by his trailer in Trenton, Ga., Stultz said. Salyer seemed nervous, kind of scared, and said he needed money.
"I just told him, 'I don't have any money,'" Stultz said Friday on the third day of testimony in the Billy Hawk murder trial. "I said, 'C.W. has plenty of it.' And I showed him where he lived and that's the last time I seen him."
About one week later, Stultz said, he heard about the barrel on the radio. And before anyone had identified the body, C.W. told him it was Salyer, he said.
"C.W." was C.W. Stephens, a Georgia man connected to local drug cartels that may have possessed a stronger motive to kill a debt-ridden Salyer than Hawk ever did, Hawk's defense attorneys argued Friday. A good portion of the defense's strategy focused on this motive, in asking witnesses whether they had ever heard Hawk admit to the crime — with each responding no.
Since the trial launched this week, prosecutors have argued Hawk was indicted on first-degree murder charges in September for a reason. First, on June 2, 1981, a couple living off Rocky Point Road saw a 55-gallon steel drum floating near their dock on Chickamauga Lake. Alarmed by the smell, they called authorities, who opened the barrel and found Salyer, decomposing and nearly naked, inside.
Although Hawk was one of the main suspects — and was investigated in 1981 and 1982, in the mid- to late 1980s and again in 2000 — authorities never had enough of a case to pin him to the murder until September 2015. Around that time, investigators scored very intimate statements from two of Hawk's former lovers that implicated him in the murder. Both of them testified earlier this week in the trial.
Before resting their case Friday afternoon, prosecutors also called two investigators familiar with the case. One of Hawk's attorneys, Jonathan Turner, focused on whom the state didn't interview during the cross-examination of Larry Sneed, a former detective with the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office.
"So," Turner began, "you've got no evidence that puts the two of them together, you've got no evidence that Hawk purchased a barrel, you've got no evidence that he purchased a torch to put holes in the barrel."
He continued: "You do have evidence that he owed someone thousands of dollars. You do have evidence that Mr. Salyer is heavily involved in drug trafficking. You also have information that one of the people he owed money to was the West Cartel."
Turner asked Sneed if he ever spoke to C.W. Stephens when the name popped up during the investigation.
"I probably did not," Sneed said.
"Even though you knew he (Salyer) owed thousands of dollars to him and his criminal cartel?" Turner asked.
He was never located, Sneed said.
"Still," Turner said, "to this day you never spoke to him, never checked to see if he had a bunch of barrels ready to go never asked him about his motive?"
No, Sneed said.
Judge Don Poole sequestered the jury around 6 p.m. The trial continues today in Hamilton County Criminal Court at 8:30 a.m.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at 423-757-6347 or email@example.com. Follow @zackpeterson918.