Remembering Rutherford: Edwards’ escape comes to a thorny end

Greg Tucker, The Daily News Journal, December 9, 2012

No longer master of his own fate in May 1948, and scheduled to die in the Georgia electric chair on June 4, Rutherford County native Spence Edwards could only sit in his Georgia Penitentiary cell and wait.

Spence was convicted of first-degree murder in a one-day trial barely a month after the shooting death of a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent and a wild car chase and running gun battle.  He and his companions had stirred old fears of lynch mobs and political consequences.  Spence’s wife, the former Marie Brown, his older brother Alfred and his cousin Evelyn Lax were still being held in the Swainsboro, Georgia, county jail awaiting trial and the result of various appeals on Spence’s behalf.

While awaiting his date with the chair, Spence was visited by Rutherford Sheriff Earl McKnight.  Stung by Spence’s “sensational delivery” of Alfred from the Rutherford jail in late February (while the sheriff watched a basketball game), McKnight made the long drive to the Reidsville, Ga., prison perhaps to confirm that his nemesis was no longer an embarrassing threat.  He reported back home that Edwards “did not seem too worried over his predicament.”

A second visitor was Woodrow Medlock, a Baptist minister from Westvue, Spence’s home community west of the railroad in Murfreesboro.  As part of his active prison ministry, Medlock believed that the unreformed Spence was not a hopeless “lost soul.”

Spence was also visited by his oldest brother, Sterling, who took leave from active military duty in California to travel to Georgia.  (Sterling eventually retired from the military and settled in California, avoiding the pattern of crime that plagued his younger brothers.  According to Spence, youngest of the brothers, their father abandoned the family before his birth.  Their mother died in a mental institution while all four of her sons were serving in World War II.)

Spence’s execution was stayed at the last minute pending review by the Georgia Supreme Court.  In October 1948, the high court ruled that Edwards had been tried with “undue haste” which in effect denied him effective use of legal counsel.  When Spence was retried, the question was raised as to who was the actual “trigger man” in the death of the GBI agent.  Again convicted, Spence was sentenced to a life term with the usual parole eligibility.

During Spence’s appeals, Alfred was committed to a Georgia mental institution for observation.  Convicted as an accessory, Alfred eventually gained his freedom and returned to Murfreesboro.  He died in 1994 while hospitalized at the York VA Medical Center in Rutherford County.

Marie and Evelyn were tried in Georgia and received light sentences.  By 1950 they were both back in Murfreesboro, living near the intersection of West Vine and South Walnut in the Mink Slide neighborhood.  Evelyn was employed at the Washarena, 604 West College.

According to city directories, Marie did not use the Spence name after her return to Tennessee.

In 1951, Spence deferred his future parole eligibility by breaking himself out of the Georgia prison.  After two days, he was recaptured near Reidsville.  The media took little note of the incident.

In the meantime, Harry Edwards was released from the Hamilton County jail and returned to Murfreesboro where he worked in the early 1950s as a driver for the 802 Cab Company.  Like Spence and Alfred, Harry had a well-deserved reputation as a petty criminal and hot-headed troublemaker.

Ralph Puckett recalls an encounter with Harry.  “I was working one morning at my brother’s service station on the corner of South Maney and State Street.  Harry’s cab came in with a fare he had picked up on the Manchester Highway,” recalls Puckett.  “The passenger had a blown tire with him. Harry let him off and drove away.  We fixed the tire and I had a boy drive the traveler back to his car and put the tire on for him.  A little later Harry pulled back in and wanted to know what happened to his passenger.  I told him and he started yelling about us stealing his fare.  When he got real threatening, I picked up the pistol my brother kept under the cash register and pointed it at Harry’s face. He hushed up and left.”

In 1958 Harry was in the Rutherford County jail facing charges in the shotgun slaying of his father-in-law, Robert “Buster” Gilley.  On November 25, Rutherford Sheriff Bill Wilson was notified by Georgia authorities that Spence had escaped from a chain gang working near Dalton, Ga., and was heading toward Murfreesboro, “possibly to free his brother Harry.”

Sheriff Wilson advised that “Harry is going to stay in jail until someone makes his bond.”  When told of his brother’s escape, Harry reportedly said: “I hope Spence doesn’t try anything foolish, but if he does I have no intention of being involved in it.”

A Georgia Board of Corrections investigation determined that at the time of Spence’s escape the chain gang was being supervised by a recent parolee while the regular guard left to get tools.  Spence walked off the work site and entered the nearby home of Hubert Turner.  A known bootlegger, Turner had befriended some of the chain gang prisoners by supplying them with liquor.  Two were found drunk at the time of Spence’s escape.  The escapee took a rifle and pistol from Turner, then headed for Tennessee in the bootlegger’s car with Turner as hostage and driver.  They stopped in Chattanooga and bought a suit of clothes.

The kidnapping of Turner and the interstate flight invoked federal jurisdiction and the Federal Bureau of Investigation immediately put Spence on its “most wanted” list, cautioning that he was “armed and dangerous.”

With no word or clue as to Spence’s whereabouts, authorities prevailed upon Harry to make “a brotherly appeal” for a peaceful surrender.  The recorded radio appeal was first broadcast locally by WGNS, and was then fed to all Tennessee stations, to all 540 Mutual Network stations nationally, and to NBC’s international Monitor broadcast.

About 24 hours after the broadcast, the kidnapped bootlegger contacted authorities and led rescuers to State Trooper Tom Moore who was handcuffed to a tree near Watertown in Wilson County.  Former trooper and retired police commissioner Bill Jones remembers the incident.  “Moore made a traffic stop, apparently unaware of who was involved.  He made the mistake of letting Spence open the glove box purporting to get his registration  papers.”  To Moore’s regret, Spence pulled a pistol from the box and the trooper was in trouble.

Spence took Moore’s gun, used the trooper’s handcuffs to secure his new hostage, released Turner, and headed into Rutherford driving a state patrol car.  Jones recalls being detailed to watch the home of a Murfreesboro family that was related to the fugitive.  “It was thought that Edwards might seek help, but we saw no activity,” remembers Jones.

Jere Warner, who had known Spence both in school and in the military, vividly remembers being “called in for questioning.”  “They gave me the third degree…bright light in my face, FBI types in suits.  They asked me a lot of questions and said they knew I had been in touch with Spence.  I asked how they knew that and they told me that they were asking the questions…not me,” recounts Warner.  “I later figured that while Spence was in custody they had found the note and home address I gave him while we were in Japan.”

On the Shelbyville Highway near Deason, Spence stopped three Bedford County teens, Simon Warner, Carter Throneberry and Enos Carter.  Abandoning the state vehicle, Spence forced the three young men to drive him to Birmingham in Throneberry’s car.  During the trip, Spence bought food for himself and his involuntary companions. He also counseled the young men on attending church and avoiding trouble, citing himself as the bad example.

In Birmingham, Spence sent the young men home giving them $22 for expenses.  He was last seen hitchhiking south.  The three did not report on their encounter with one of the “most wanted” until they were back home. Spence had once again vanished without a trace.

On November 30, 1958, the FBI announced that they were distributing 100,000 wanted posters describing Spence Edwards as “extremely dangerous.”  Meanwhile, the Georgia State Board of Corrections ordered Warden Fred Goble and others “to show cause why disciplinary action should not be taken for various violations that allegedly figured in Edwards’ escape.”

On December 3, Texas Highway Patrolman Allen Kempf stopped Spence in a routine “driver’s license check” in West Texas.  When the suspicious trooper asked Spence to open the car’s trunk, Spence instead opened fire.  As the patrolman returned fire, Spence sped away toward Carrizo Springs and the Mexican border.  One of the patrolman’s shots went through the steering wheel and out the front window while Spence drove lying across the front seat.

At the outskirts of Carrizo Springs, Spence abandoned the damaged car and stole another.  Six miles later he again changed vehicles and continued his flight in a pick-up truck.  Successfully evading his pursuers in an eight-hour chase, he turned down a dark pasture road and into a dry creek bed.  Trying to drive out of the creek bed, he wrecked the truck and started walking across the dark desert.

Border patrol planes with searchlights repeatedly forced him to duck under brush and cacti in the Texas desert.  Finally, he was spotted by two ranchers in a jeep and meekly surrendered.  According to Texas Sheriff Tom Brady, Spence “stumbled out of the wild mesquite country … his hands and clothes torn from thorns, his eyes wild with fear and hunger.”  Spence told his captors: “I know you got me closed in … I’m hungry, I’m scared, and I’m lost.”

“He don’t understand our prickly pears,” observed Sheriff Brady.

Spence was eventually returned to the Georgia Sate Prison to continue his life sentence.  For the next seven years, little was heard of the inmate once characterized as an “extremely dangerous … desperado” from Rutherford County.  The Rev. Medlock reported that Spence had “changed” and was regularly sending money and handmade crafts for children at the Good Shepherd Children’s Home near Murfreesboro.  Others heard that Spence was assisting with the prison chaplain’s duties.  A parole hearing was scheduled for early 1966.

On October 5, 1965, Spence Edwards was stabbed to death in a cell block with 50 other prisoners.  No assailant was ever identified…

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