ELIZABETHTON — A missing person investigation has become a murder investigation in which a man and woman have been arrested by the Carter County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff Chris Mathes said the the body of a man found on Little Bald Creek Road off Spivey Mountain Road in Unicoi County on Friday morning is believed to the remains of Lonnie Townsend, 78, who has been missing since April 17. Mathes said DNA and other testing is now being conducted to confirm the identification.
The investigation has led to the arrest of Timothy Jason Pate, 43, and Whitney Kristina Harris, 21, both of 214 Rockhouse Road, Lot 37, Johnson City. Pate was charged with first-degree murder, first-degree murder during a felony and tampering with evidence. Harris was charged with accessory after the fact of first-degree murder, accessory after the fact of first-degree murder during a felony and tampering with evidence.
The investigation began as a missing person case by the Johnson City Police Department. Townsend’s family had not been in contact with him since April 17. Townsend’s red 1995 pickup truck also was missing. Interviewers talked to a neighbor who said on April 17 he saw Townsend driving a red pickup truck to the residence of Pate and Harris. The witness said he later saw Pate driving the truck. Shortly after that, Pate and Harris moved out.
A search warrant was obtained for the Pate-Harris residence, which was executed by investigators of the Johnson City Police Department, the Carter County Sheriff’s Department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Investigators found all the carpet in one section of the bedrooms had been removed. It was later learned Pate and Harris had left for Florida.
Investigators learned the couple was back in the region and they were interviewed at the Johnson City Police Department on Friday.
CCDS Investigator Travis Ludlow said that as a result of the interviews and investigation it was learned Townsend was a friend of Pate and Harrison and the couple knew he was in the habit of carrying large amounts of cash with him. Ludlow wrote in his arrest warrant that Harris told him they expected Townsend to visit them on April 17 and at that time Pate was going to kill Townsend and take his money.
While Townsend was sitting on the couch that day, Harris said Pate killed him by hitting him in the head with a claw hammer several times. She said after the attack, Pate moved the body to a rear bedroom, where he cut up the carpet and wrapped the body in it. She said they then left their residence overnight and the next day Pate put the body in Townsend’s truck.
She said the body was taken to Unicoi County and Pate showed her where he had hidden the body. Harris said she then purchased trash bags and bleach and used the items to conceal and destroy evidence of the crime. After that, they left for Florida.
Ludlow reported Harris agreed to show investigators the location of Townsend’s remains. She accompanied investigators to 713 Little Ball Creek Road, Erwin. There investigators found the skeletal remains of a human who had been wrapped in carpet. The carpet was similar in appearance to the carpet that had been removed from the mobile home at 214 Rockingham Road.
Mathes called it a very brutal murder and said the cooperation between his department, the Uncioi County Sheriff’s Department and the Johnson City Police Department was outstanding.