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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.

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Hawk gets life sentence in 1981 cold-case slaying

Nearly 35 years after Johnny Mack Salyer's body turned up in a barrel, jurors convicted his former cocaine case co-defendant of first-degree murder Monday.

Businessman Billy Hawk, 62, will serve a life sentence and remain in custody in Hamilton County until his lawyers file an appeal.

"We're obviously disappointed in the verdict, but we have to respect the jury's finding," Bill Speek, one of Hawk's attorneys, said of the outcome. "I don't think there's any indication other than they worked very hard. We're preparing for the next phase of the case, which would be an appeal."

Prosecutors said a couple living off Rocky Point Road noticed a 55-gallon steel drum floating near their dock on Chickamauga Lake on June 2, 1981. The next day, alarmed by the smell, they called authorities, who found Salyer's body inside.

At the time, prosecutors said, Salyer and Hawk were co-defendants in a pending cocaine distribution case. Hawk shot and killed Salyer, stuffing him in the barrel because he was afraid Salyer planned to testify against him, said Executive Assistant District Attorney Lance Pope. Alongside District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, they called numerous investigators, family members, and former lovers throughout the six-day trial.

Especially compelling was Wynna Williams, an ex-girlfriend who said Hawk broke into her duplex days before the barrel emerged, held her at gunpoint, and admitted to tricking Salyer into the woods and shooting him.

That was one of Pinkston's points during closing arguments Saturday: In 1981, examiners were unable to conclusively determine the cause of Salyer's death. So how could someone know a shooting was the cause?

"The only one person who would know that information is Mr. Salyer's killer," Pinkston said.

Afterward, he shared the victory: "I'm thankful for the jury's hard work and thankful for the people who investigated this over years and years of work."

Throughout the trial, a trio of defense attorneys — Jim Logan, Jonathan Turner and Speek — countered that Salyer was a known addict and dealer who owed thousands of dollars to area drug cartels. He was never an informant, but ensnared in the same May 8 arrest as Hawk and his then-girlfriend, Debra Bales, they said.

Furthermore, they argued, investigators never produced an eyewitness to the crime, never interviewed cartel members, and never produced receipts of Hawk purchasing a barrel or a blowtorch. Prosecutors instead relied on star witnesses who gave different statements, and two in particular who never shared the full story until fall 2015, when a grand jury indicted Hawk.

"There's their case," Speek said during closing arguments, "Wynna Williams. She's the only one who says that Billy Hawk admitted that he had killed Mack Salyer. Again, it's not about evidence. It's about testimony."

The jury made its announcement around 11 a.m. Monday. Jurors actually began working Saturday, but did not reach a verdict after seven hours. Unable to deliberate Sunday, they remained under close supervision, Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said. Because they were sequestered, jurors stayed at a nearby hotel and had minimal communication with family and friends.

After the guilty verdict was announced, everyone spilled into the hallway. TV stations trailed one of Hawk's family members to the elevator.

Near the window, one of Salyer's relatives praised Pinkston and the cold case unit.

"It would have never been done without him," Katy Cunningham said, adding that one investigator tracked down a witness who chose to run away instead of talk.

The jurors, meanwhile, took an elevator down to the parking lot. They milled around a white van under the hot sun, saying final goodbyes to Salyer's daughter, crawling into the back seat.

"No comment," one said.

"We don't want to talk," said another.

They were tired, a courtroom officer guessed. Now, they were heading home.

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

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