It's hard for Theresa Lynch to remember much about that fall day eight years ago when she got the call that broke her.
She had been waiting by the phone, needing some good news. When it finally did ring, she recalls running to answer. On the other end of the line she heard the edge in her grandmother's voice, frantic and terrified.
"They found hands or a head in the lake," her grandmother said.
Her own hands went weak and she couldn't hold the receiver. It slipped, hitting the floor.
The day before, Mrs. Lynch had filed a missing persons report on her 17-year-old son, Adam Chrismer, at the Walker County Sheriff's Office.
She last had heard from him about six days before, when he called from Johnson City, Tenn.
He and his young wife, Samantha Leming, 16, lived in Chickamauga, Ga., but they were traveling with a man they knew from around town. Mr. Chrismer had called his mother to tell her he wanted to come home.
Now Mrs. Lynch is preparing to watch the trial of the man with whom he was traveling, Howard Hawk Willis, who is charged with killing and dismembering her son and his bride in his own mother's home in Johnson City.
Mr. Willis' trial on two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of abuse of a corpse in the 2002 killings begins June 14 in Johnson City.
Because he fired more than a half dozen appointed lawyers, delaying the trial for years, Mr. Willis will represent himself. A jury chosen from Knoxville last week will decide if he is guilty.
The teenage couple were reported missing in North Georgia in October 2002. A fisherman found what was later identified as Mr. Chrismer's head and hands in Boone Lake near Johnson City. Days later, the couple's bodies were found in pieces in a Johnson City self-storage unit.
On the same day, the body of Mr. Willis' stepfather, Sam Thomas, was found on Lookout Mountain on the Dade-Walker county line. The Bradley County resident, last seen in September, had been shot and his head, lower arms and hands were missing.
Mr. Willis was indicted in October in the teens' deaths. At the time, Joe Crumley, the prosecutor from Washington County, Tenn., said he also planned to charge Mr. Willis with Mr. Thomas' death, but no charges ever were filed.
Because all the investigators on the witness list for the upcoming trial are under a gag order in Washington County, no one in the Bradley County district attorney's office could say why Mr. Willis was not charged in Mr. Thomas' death.
Oct. 11, 2002: Adam Chrismer and Samantha Foster Leming are reported missing.
Oct. 17, 2002: The teenagers' bodies are found in a Johnson City self-storage unit and the headless body of Sam Thomas is found in Lookout Mountain, Ga.
Oct. 23, 2002: Howard Hawk Willis, stepson of Sam Thomas, is indicted by a Washington County, Tenn., grand jury in the deaths of Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming.
July 2003: Mr. Willis receives an eight-year prison sentence on drug charges in New York.
April 11: Hamilton County Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood refuses to delay Mr. Willis' trial, which is set for June 14.
June 9: A jury is chosen in Knoxville to hear the case.
In the cabinet of a midsize farmhouse on the outskirts of Chickamauga, Mr. Thomas' family has all the taped newscasts about Mr. Willis, said Danny Thomas, nephew of Sam Thomas. Everyone in the family would watch the news, and Danny Thomas said he anticipated hearing that Mr. Willis was
charged with killing the man who raised him. But that day didn't come.
"Who's going to be charged with Sam's death?" he said.
Standing on the porch of her home in Walker County at the Alabama state line, Mrs. Lynch said she has held on all these years, waiting for her son to receive justice.
"Maybe I'll be able to exhale," she said. "I've been holding my breath for over seven years, playing the waiting game."
Although officers have reported that Mr. Willis was involved in a cocaine-for-sex relationship with Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming, Mrs. Lynch said she doesn't believe that's true. She said she hopes her son's name is cleared during the trial.
And, while things never can get back to normal for her, Mrs. Lynch, her three other children and her husband just want the trial to be over so they can take back her son's body -- still being held for evidence -- and bury him.
"I don't know what to do but start over again, and get him a coffin," she said.