Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said investigators suspect Howard Hawk Willis for Thomas’ murder, as well as the murders of Walker teens Adam Chrismer and Samantha Leming. Adam Chrismer’s severed hands and head were recovered in October from Boone Lake in Washington County, Tenn. The teens’ other remains were found shortly after that in a Johnson City, Tenn. storage unit.
Thomas was Willis’ father-in-law, Wilson said.
Investigators in October discovered Thomas’ body inches from the Dade County line with the head and hands removed, Wilson said. Investigators matched DNA samples from the body with a used toothbrush from Thomas’ house.
Wilson said investigators are still searching for the rest of Thomas’ remains.
Walker County coroner DeWayne Wilson said removing the head and hands increased the difficulty of making a positive identification, thwarting attempts to match fingerprints and dental records.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, or TBI, public information officer T.J. Jordan was unable to comment Monday about the identification.
Willis is being held in New York on drug trafficking charges, officials said. A hearing was scheduled for Feb. 14, but was postponed until later this month.
Wilson, on Friday, said TBI and GBI officials have verbally confirmed Thomas’ identification, but the sheriff has not read a report confirming the identification.
The coroner said Willis’ description of the body’s location circumstantially proves it is Thomas’ body, but he is still waiting to see the DNA results.
GBI medical examiners examining Leming’s body found a bullet TBI investigators apparently missed in their autopsy, Walker Sheriff’s Department detective Tom Trotter said. Investigators say Tennessee examiners may not perform a comprehensive autopsy on Leming for about a year.
“TBI evidently called the (Thomas) family and Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta and told them they had a positive ID (identification) on DNA,” the coroner said. “We’re waiting to get that DNA back and make sure they’re right. The reason I’m saying that is the same people who did this DNA are the same people who left the bullet in the Leming girl and sent her down here to Georgia.”
“The bullet was lodged in her spinal cord,” he said. “They did an autopsy on her and left it in there. They just overlooked it.”
“TBI doesn’t have their own medical examiners like GBI does,” Trotter said. “It’s a doctor who I believe teaches at Eastern Tennessee State University in Johnson City. They said because she does (autopsies) for free, they really can’t rush her on anything. She’s got about a 14-month turnaround.”
Although Thomas’ body was found in Walker County, it is linked to a crime scene in Bradley County, Tenn., Trotter said