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55 years later, the shooting that rocked downtown Johnson City

Zach Vance • Apr 16, 2017 at 10:42 PM

What is now a popular eatery in downtown Johnson City was once the location of one of the region’s most notorious shootings.

The date was May 10, 1962.

The town’s largest Chevrolet dealer, Roy Faircloth, was hosting a “raucous automobile sales jamboree” at his two-story dealership at 71 Wilson Ave., now home of Wild Wing Cafe. 

Police later estimated 500 people were in attendance that day, all socializing and absorbing a performance from country music superstar Roy Acuff and his Open House Gang. 

Minutes after Acuff left the stage, gunfire rang out and spectators scattered as chaos erupted.

Faircloth was shot twice as he fell to the ground. He was later pronounced dead at Memorial Hospital. 

According to 17 witnesses interviewed by police, Hack Smithdeal, a former friend of Faircloth, had arrived to the warehouse during the climax of festivities and parked his vehicle so that it blocked the main entrance. 

Apparently irate over Smithdeal’s parking, Faircloth ordered his former friend to move his car.

Smithdeal refused, and the 200-pound car dealer responded by throwing punches, knocking Smithdeal to the ground near the doorway. 

C.L. Wilhoit, a truck driver for the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Transportation Co., witnessed the scuffle. 

According to Wilhoit’s account, published in Patty Smithdeal Fulton’s “Let the Record Show,” Faircloth hit Smithdeal on the right side of the face. Smithdeal then stumbled back seven or eight feet, attempting to balance himself with his hands. 

“As he regained his balance, I saw him move his hand. ... I couldn’t see anything in his right hand ... then the first shot went off,” Wilhoit was quoted as saying in Fulton’s book. 

“As the second shot went off, the gun seemed to be out of Smithdeal’s control. Faircloth began to fall onto the sidewalk.” 

Wilhoit and his father-in-law reportedly grabbed Smithdeal after the shooting until police arrived. 

Wilhoit was quoted as saying, “When Smithdeal was grabbed, he said, ‘You don’t have to hold me. I won’t hurt anybody.’ ” 

Acquaintances of Smithdeal and Faircloth told United Press International the two became enemies following a trip to the Kentucky Derby three or four years prior to the shooting. 

What later transpired is described by locals as the “Trial of the Century.” 

Smithdeal was initially charged with public intoxication, but it was later changed to first-degree murder. 

To thicken the plot, a week following the incident, Johnson City Police Chief Clifford E. Mullenix was indicted by a Washington County grand jury for malfeasance in connection to Faircloth’s death. 

Smithdeal’s defense team believed Attorney General Lodge Evans had made the recommendation to the grand jury to further strengthen his case against Smithdeal. 

The five charges against Mullenix included failing to charge Smithdeal with murder at the time of arrest, falsifying police records to show Smithdeal had been charged at the time of his arrest, failing to question Smithdeal before he was released on bond, failing to notify the district attorney of the homicide and for taking “preferential” action toward Smithdeal.

Mullenix was later found not guilty of all charges. 

Smithdeal’s trial was scheduled to begin on May 31, 1962, but on that day, the judge granted a continuance due to Smithdeal needing “major surgery” to remove an abscess.

The judge had previously denied all continuance requests, forcing Smithdeal to have surgery May 30, but necessary follow-up surgery compelled the judge to grant the motion, stating “Smithdeal is physically unable to stand trial at this time.” 

Smithdeal’s first-degree murder trial finally began on September 17, 1962, as hundreds of curious people and media members filled the hallways of the old Jonesborough Courthouse. 

Acuff had returned to the Tri-Cities that fall to testify as a defense witness. 

According to his testimony, Faircloth showed Acuff a hawkbill knife 15 minutes before the shooting and had put the knife in his right coat pocket.

Acuff reportedly said, “You could use (the knife) for cutting corn or cutting a pumpkin. When (Faircloth) showed it to me, I told him, ‘The only thing you could do (to a man) with that knife is cut his throat.’” 

Faircloth’s brother, J.C. Faircloth Jr., had also testified that two knives belonging to his brother were handed to him after he authorized an autopsy. 

Although he never denied shooting Faircloth, a jury acquitted Smithdeal of first-degree murder on Sept. 21, 1962, after determining he shot his former friend as a means of self-defense. 

To learn more about the shooting, read Patty Smithdeal Fulton’s account of her father in “Let the Record Show.” 

Email Zach Vance at zvance@johnsoncitypress.com. Follow Zach Vance on Twitter at @ZachVanceJCP. Like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/ZachVanceJCP.

 

 

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