by Robert A. Waters
It was Saturday, March 31, 1951 when a call came in to Knox County Sheriff Clarence Walter “Buddy” Jones. A neighbor of Fred and Mary Hankins called to say that Mary was lying in a pool of blood and needed help. The Hankins’ lived in Fountain City, just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee.
Sheriff’s investigators quickly arrived, as did an ambulance. Mrs. Hankins was taken to St. Mary’s Hospital where she was pronounced dead from a single gunshot wound to the back of her head.
As the investigation began, Buddy Jones foolishly told local reporters: “I’m not going to bed until we crack this case.” Since the murder was never solved, the sheriff was forever called “Sleepless Jones” by local residents.
Fred Hankins was vice president of Construction Services, Inc. On the day his wife was killed, he’d arranged with Hensley’s Garage to have his car serviced. He took the car to the garage at about one o’clock that afternoon and was driven back home by an employee. At about three, the same employee picked Fred up and transported him back to the garage to get his car. The employee later told investigators that he saw Mrs. Hankins standing at the window.
Fred informed detectives that after picking up his car he’d stopped at his father’s furniture store and visited for a while.
At about five o’clock, he arrived home and found his wife lying on the floor of the hallway leading to the basement. She was bleeding from a head wound. He ran to his next-door-neighbor’s house and asked C. L. Holt to call for help. Then Fred ran back to the house, followed by the neighbors.
By the time investigators arrived, numerous friends and relatives had been notified. More than a dozen people were in the house when deputies arrived. Detectives later stated that they were unable to find any clues because of the chaos. In fact, they didn’t even bother to dust the scene for fingerprints.
Mrs. Hankins was known as a cautious woman who would not willingly let a stranger into her home. Since there seemed to be no forcible point of entry and no sign of a struggle, investigators assumed that she knew her killer. An autopsy revealed that she’d been shot once in the back of head with a .32-caliber slug. She had not been sexually assaulted.
Detectives determined that robbery was not the motive.
Fred Hankins was interrogated but denied any involvement in the murder. He also denied owning a gun.
A neighbor, Mrs. Jess Schumacher, who lived directly across the street, said that she had seen a stranger drive up in a 1951 black Ford. He was dressed in a blue suit and wore a brown hat. She guessed the time to be around three o’clock. The man walked “casually” up to the door and was let in by Mrs. Hankins. He stayed approximately thirty minutes and left. He seemed to be in no hurry as he got in his car and drove away.
Mrs. Hankins’ personal life was spotless. She and Fred had been high school sweethearts and had married young. They had no children. There were no other men in her life, and she kept a beautiful home. The couple liked to work in their garden. They attended a local church every Sunday. Mrs. Hankins had recently received $6,000 from her deceased father’s estate and had placed it in a savings account.
According to newspaper accounts, Sheriff Jones and his men eventually began to believe that Mrs. Hankins was murdered by a random stranger. They searched diligently for the man in the blue suit but never found him.
They also interviewed relatives of Mrs. Hankins.
In the end, the case was never solved.
Sleepless Jones was sheriff for only two years. He had once been a warden at Brushy Mountain State Prison and before that had served in World War II as an Army Air Corps officer and gunnery instructor. A firearms expert, he was an exhibition shooter who worked for Remington Firearms Company. Even with his many accomplishments, townspeople would sometimes snicker when he walked by.
Neither Jones nor later sheriffs were able to solve the murder of Mary Hankins. After nearly sixty years, it’s obvious that someone got away with murder. Was it a stranger? Or was it someone much closer to her?