The man responsible for committing one of Unicoi County’s most infamous crimes more than 40 years ago is once again up for parole, but local officials are as staunch in their opposition to his release as they have ever been.
Convicted killer and Unicoi County native Earl Hill Jr., currently being held at the Northeast Correctional Complex in Johnson County, is scheduled to have a parole hearing late next week.
In late November 1967, 31-year-old Washington, D.C., policeman and Erwin native Lowell Bailey and his wife Beverly, also from Erwin, were in the area visiting from Maryland. According to newspaper reports, the Baileys had returned to pick up their two children, who had been staying with their grandparents for a few days.
According to those accounts, on the evening of Nov. 25, Bailey and his wife went to the Beauty Spot lookout on Unaka Mountain to talk on Citizens Band radio. The location was apparently popular among CB operators, as other operators at greater distances could be reached.
Later that evening, a Volkswagen driven by a “young, slim, short man” pulled up next to the Baileys’ car, according to reports at the time. Reports state that Bailey exited his car to see what the man in the Volkswagen wanted. As he approached the car, Bailey was struck down by a single rifle bullet.
Officers said they established Bailey’s time of death at around midnight on Nov. 26.
The man who shot her husband then forced Mrs. Bailey into his car and drove through the mountains for several miles to a remote area where he repeatedly criminally assaulted her over the course of several hours, according to reports. Later, the man shot Mrs. Bailey in her abdomen and left her for dead.
At around 6:30 a.m. on Nov. 26, Johnson City Press-Chronicle reporter Herman Robinson and photographer Gordon Vest, who were in the area to cover the discovery of her husband’s body, found Mrs. Bailey on the pavement of State Route 107 at Iron Mountain Gap, located near the North Carolina state line. The newsmen drove Mrs. Bailey, who had crawled off the mountain after being shot, to Unicoi County Memorial Hospital. On the way, she expressed concern for her children and recounted events of the prior evening, despite being asked by the newsmen not to speak as she winced in pain each time she spoke.
“I’ve got to,” she was quoted as saying at the time. “If anything happens to me, you’ve got to know what happened.”
While she expressed concern that her husband might be dead, Mrs. Bailey was unaware of his death when picked up by the newsmen, according to reports.
A manhunt for the person responsible for the Baileys’ shootings and the assault of Mrs. Bailey was quickly initiated, with the investigation involving various area law enforcement agencies in Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as the FBI.
Unicoi County Sheriff Lawrence Haun quickly developed Hill, a 26-year-old Limestone Cove resident, as a possible suspect. Hill, who was in the Army, was questioned by officials and said he would be willing to appear in a lineup.
Hill told officials he had to leave the area to return to an Army camp at Ft. Stewart, Ga. Officials let Hill go while they checked out his story and later obtained additional information that increased their suspicion of him.
A murder warrant for Hill was issued after “conclusive evidence” was produced by the FBI laboratory in Washington. Though Haun had declined to say what this evidence was, investigators found several items — including a cigarette package, beer cans and cartridge cases — at the scene of Mrs. Bailey’s shooting.
Hill was arrested by FBI agents at Ft. Stewart on Nov. 28, 1967, on a federal warrant charging him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Eventually, Hill would plead guilty to the murder of Lowell Bailey, as well as the kidnapping, assault and rape of Mrs. Bailey. He was sentenced to serve life in prison.
Current Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris called the incident perhaps the most “notorious” crime to ever occur in Unicoi County. He said that to this day, the case is a source of fear for those who think about it.
“It’s something, as a young person growing up in the county, it’s something you always heard about and it gave a stigma to a beautiful area,” Harris said.
Hill, now 69, was first eligible for parole in 1992, at which time he was denied. He also had a parole hearing in early 2006. At that hearing, members of the state Parole Board heard testimony from Mrs. Bailey, who has remarried since the events of November 1967, Lowell Bailey’s brother and Harris said.
Harris said he will once again oppose Hill’s release at the scheduled Jan. 6 hearing, and he won’t be alone. District Attorney General Tony Clark said a representative from his office will be present at the upcoming hearing. He said his office also intends to submit a letter to the Board of Probation and Parole opposing any type of relief for Hill.
“We are adamantly opposed to any type of early release or parole,” Clark said.
Like Harris, Clark said he recalls people in the area talking about the case when he was younger. And, like Harris, Clark feels Hill should serve out the remainder of his sentence, regardless of how long ago the crime occurred.
“Even though it’s been that long ago, our office has no sympathy for him,” Clark said.