murder in Coweta County
By Natasha Whitling
In 1982, Rev. Lamar Potts Jr. opened the door to a hotel room in Griffin, GA to find the Man in Black. Johnny Cash was getting a pedicure and enjoying a steak dinner with his family. He invited Potts, his family, and sister Harriet Edge and her family to join him and his wife, June Carter Cash.
“He told me he wanted to give me a book of poetry, but first he wanted to read one poem,” Potts said. “So he just sat there on the bed and read The Sandal Maker of Babylon to us.” The book, City Legends , is a collection of poetry by Will Carlton given to Cash by his wife. The inscription in the cover reads “To John – because you love the beautiful and the plain – I love you, June Carter Cash.” Johnny Cash gave Rev. Potts the book as a gesture of thanks for a special gift Potts had given him earlier that day – his father’s pistol.
Murder in Coweta County
The movie recreated the events surrounding the 1948 murder of Wilson Turner in Coweta County, GA. Unfortunately for the murderer, the crime took place in Sheriff Potts’s jurisdiction, and he was relentless in pursuing the person responsible for the violent crime. John Wallace (played by Andy Griffith), a person best described as a Southern thug, presided over Merriwether County in GA, an area known by local people as “The Kingdom.” Rev. Potts referred to Wallace and his family and friends as, “a mean tough crowd of folks. They ruled that area with an iron hand.”
The victim, Wilson Turner, was employed by Wallace as a share cropper and occasional liquor runner. Turner made the mistake of trying to swindle Wallace out of liquor money and as a result was ousted from his sharecropping position. In retaliation, Turner stole one of Wallace’s prized cows and was caught and sent to Merriwether County jail.
Not a man to take such an insult lightly, Wallace arranged for the sheriff (whom he had in his pocket) to release Turner with a bogus excuse of lack of evidence. When Turner was released, Wallace and his associates were waiting.
Turner’s truck was parked in front of the jail, conspicuously missing most of its gasoline. Turner saw Wallace and said “Did you hear Mr. Wallace? The sheriff released me on lack of evidence.” To which Wallace responded, “No he didn’t. You’re escaping.” Realizing what had happened, Turner took off in his truck and was pursued by Wallace and his gang.
The chase ended at the Sunset Tourist Court in Coweta County where several residents witnessed Wallace pistol–whip Turner, shove him into his car, and drive off.
The residents called Sheriff Potts to report the incident, and he arrested Wallace.
It was discovered, through a series of strange events and the visions of a local soothsayer, Mayhayley Lancaster (played by June Carter Cash), that Wallace had dumped Turner’s body down a well. He later brought the body up and with the help of two black farm hands burned it and distributed the ashes in a creek.
The two farm hands, Albert Brooks and Robert Lee Gates, turned state’s evidence, and as a result Wallace was convicted of murder and, subsequently, put to death by electrocution.
“That was the first time a white man was ever convicted based on the testimony of two black men,” Rev. Potts said. Rev. Potts was 14 years old at the time and recalls his father taking him to the jail to visit Wallace before he was executed. “I remember thinking he was so polite, how could he kill anyone?” That was part of Wallace’s charm, a ruthless criminal with a soft spot. He once paid for all new pews in his church.
In 1976, Atlanta author Margaret Anne Barnes published a book based on the famous crime, Murder in Coweta County . According to an article in the February 1983 edition of Atlanta magazine, Cash was fascinated with Sheriff Potts and immediately began plans to buy the screen rights.
“This film is important,” Cash said, “because Potts was a great American hero.” Upon hearing the book would be made into a movie, Rev. Potts, who was minister at Spring Valley Presbyterian Church in Columbia, was skeptical of how his father would be portrayed on the small screen. He wrote a letter to Cash explaining his concerns. In his response, Cash agreed with Potts that his father should be faithfully portrayed, and he welcomed any help Potts could give him.
“I knew things about my daddy that no one else could have known,” Potts said. “Like he always whistled a tune called ‘Maggie’ and chewed on the tip of his thumb. He was very observant. If he saw that someone had a need, he would find a way to help them.”
Cash incorporated the whistling into his portrayal but also brought at bit of what Potts calls his “swagger” to Sheriff Potts. Throughout the movie Cash carried a gun, something the real Sheriff Potts rarely did. His persona was enough to elicit compliance from most of the area folks.
One thing Cash did relay extremely well was Sheriff Potts’s unique driving. “Daddy sure did drive dog gone fast,” Rev. Potts said.
Unfortunately, Sheriff Potts was unable to see his most famous case brought to life on the small screen. He died in 1971 leaving behind a great legacy. When he retired, he left no unsolved felony cases in Coweta County.