Saturday, October 18, 2014

In the Criminal Justice System, 198 Equals 41

Double killer to be freed early…
by Robert A. Waters

David “Stringbean” Akeman was an anachronism.  Born in Kentucky, he grew up destitute during the Depression.  He watched the few people who had money lose it when the banks failed, and that made a lasting impression.  Somewhere along the line, he learned to play the claw-hammer banjo.  He gravitated to Nashville and got a gig with Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys.  Nicknamed Stringbean because of his six-foot five-inch height, Akeman played with Monroe for three years.  As his gig with the notoriously hard-to-get-along-with Monroe was ending, he met his future wife Estelle.

While modern banjo players learned the Earl Scruggs three-finger style of picking, Stringbean continued to use the “frailing” method.  On-stage, he sang old-time songs, and told corny jokes.  To accentuate his height, Akeman began wearing a striped shirt that came to his knees—short pants made him look taller than he was.

By the 1970s, country music had gone “pop,” but Stringbean never left his hillbilly roots.  Inexplicably, at least to the Nashville slicks that ran the country music scene, many people liked his simple corn-ball style.  College students, in particular, many of whom had gravitated to folk music, loved the old-time music.  During the folk revival, Stringbean played college campuses all over the country.  He never learned to drive, so Estelle would chauffeur him around in their brand-new Cadillac.

The Caddy was their only extravagance.  Stringbean detested banks, and stashed currency in and around his cabin.  He always kept cash hidden in his clothing.

Soon, Stringbean became a regular on the popular television show, “Hee Haw.”  By then, he’d been playing on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry for years.  While he never had a “hit” record, he recorded seven albums, and earned more money than he ever could have imagined.

Along with his best friend and fellow-musician, Louis Marshall “Grandpa” Jones, Akeman bought a 50-acre spread in Ridgefield, near Nashville.  Stringbean and Grandpa hunted or fished together nearly every day.  But that came to an abrupt end on the night of November 10, 1973.

John A. Brown and his brother, Doug, had heard rumors that Stringbean carried wads of cash wherever he went.  Drug-addled losers, they broke into his cabin while he played the Grand Ole Opry.  Waiting for Stringbean and Estelle to return, they ransacked the residence.  In typical fashion, they failed to find any money at all.


Just before midnight, Akeman and Estelle drove up in their 1973 Cadillac.  Stringbean immediately sensed that something was amiss in the house.  He told Estelle to wait in the car, then drew a pistol from his overalls.  Entering his residence with his gun drawn, Stringbean spotted the intruders and opened fire.

John Brown fired back, and Akeman collapsed in the doorway of his home.

Estelle, hearing the gunshots, got out of the car and began running away, possibly to Grandpa Jones’ farmhouse.  Brown chased her down, and as she begged for her life, executed her.

The two brothers searched the bodies of Stringbean and Estelle for cash, but found only $250.  (They missed nearly $5,000 that each had stashed in their clothing.)

When Grandpa Jones found the bodies early the next morning, Nashville’s music establishment reeled with shock.  If there was any innocence left in Nashville, it evaporated on that cold November day.

It took three months, but the Brown brothers were tracked down and arrested.  Turns out they’d been bragging to their loser “street friends” about killing Stringbean and Estelle.  John and Doug Brown were tried and convicted of the murders.  Each brother received 99 years for killing Stringbean and 99 years for the murder of Estelle, adding up to 198 years in prison for each brother.  Doug eventually died in prison, and most people forgot about John Brown.

But after serving 41 years, a “reformed” John A. Brown received word that he would be paroled.  A model prisoner, he stressed to the parole board that he’d rehabilitated himself.  He apologized profusely for murdering the couple.  Brown claimed to have found religion, and received many glowing references about how he had changed.  In short, he did everything that the book says to do in order to gain sympathy.

Yet many people are mystified at how 198 years suddenly becomes 41 years.  Jan Howard, a Grand Ole Opry regular and a friend of Stringbean and Estelle, said: “This is a miscarriage of justice.  He was tried, convicted and sentenced to 198 years in prison.  Why bother if they're not going to carry it out?”

4 comments:

Paul Schmitt said...

Great writing, as always. These were real people who were slaughtered by blood-thirsty cretins without cause or oconcern.

There is no better place than the electric chair for these cold-blooded killers. I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

Sheila Ingram said...

I did not know that the murderer was paroled. I know that there were two of them, brothers, I think. They were young ruthless and wanting something for nothing. Oh yeah, and probably in need of a fix. I think mostly just mean! I use to live about 15 minutes from where this happened, maybe 30, idk. My first husband was from Ridgetop, TN or rather his mother is. Just a tragedy and unnecessary. I wonder how the man or men who did this can live with themselves. Oh, I'm sure they found religion while in prison. Don't they all? How convenient. Too bad it wasn't found before they murdered this man and his wife.

Robert A. Waters said...

Thanks for the comments. The criminal justice system is a farce.

Faye White said...

I remember when this happened my granddaddy liked "Stringbean" and all his comedy situations. He (my granddaddy) took it hard when he learned of this killing...What a lose to the community and the music world no telling what would he have become if he had been able to live abit longer...Sad that this man was let out of a prison sentence just because he "found religion" many others find it too and they are not let out, and they have done much less than murder...
Makes one wonder...
Mr Waters this is such a great article, too bad my granddaddy isn't here to read it.. guess in light of what happen to the murders maybe its for the better.