The scandal ultimately led to the ousting of Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton, who was never indicted in the investigation — but three of his aides were. However, questions have lingered about the extent to which the governor's administration actively worked to thwart the investigation. Officials say at least five witnesses in the case were murdered or killed themselves.
Pinkston told reporters that Pettyjohn would meet with inmates to indicate that money would help secure an early release from prison starting in 1976. Pettyjohn was joined by William Thompson, who had been involved in Blanton's election campaign and would later be convicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal.
According to Pinkston, Pettyjohn and Thompson would drop payments off at the governor's office in the Capitol.
As federal investigators began examining whether the governor's office was exchanging cash for parole, Pettyjohn was subpoenaed to testify about the ongoing scheme. Pettyjohn eventually agreed to cooperate with FBI agents, even going as far as providing a list of people who made payments to the governor's office for the early release of certain prisoners.
Shortly after, Pettyjohn was killed in what authorities describe as an “execution style hit.” Witnesses told authorities that they saw a Black man in a trench coat exiting Pettyjohn's store. Meanwhile, Pettyjohn was found with his pistol nearby, which had not been fired, and more than $100,000 on him.
According to Pinkston, Ed Alley — a known bank robber who died in 2005 in federal prison — was hired by several sources to kill Pettyjohn. Pinkston said those sources included an undisclosed third party who paid some of the contract money on behalf of the Blanton administration. The estimated total murder price was between $25,000 and $50,000.
“I’m very sure. I’m proof positive,” Pinkston said when asked how certain he was that the Blanton administration helped pay for Pettyjohn's murder.
Officials say Alley, who was white, wore a wig, glasses and covered his skin in heavy brown makeup to deceive any witnesses.
“Cooperating individuals indicated Alley admitted Pettyjohn was murdered for various reasons including he was a source of cooperation for the FBI in investigations of Gov. Ray Blanton,” according to findings from a Hamilton County grand jury.
The grand jury concluded that if Alley were alive today, he would be charged with first-degree premeditated murder of Pettyjohn.
Mike Mathis, supervisor of Hamilton County's cold case unit, acknowledged that it was highly unusual for a prosecutor's office to pursue a grand jury when most of the involved parties were dead but said the county chose to do so for the first time it because “it gives you a legal closing.”
Saadiq Pettyjohn, one of Samuel Pettyjohn's sons, said his mother often described his father as someone with a “heart of gold” and “very generous, giving person,” while acknowledging his father was associated with criminal activity. Authorities say Pettyjohn was part of an organized effort to blow up a building to collect insurance payouts, but he was never brought to trial due to his untimely death.
“It's a curse and a blessing to grow up in a family that's connected to crime,” he added. "When that person dies, you can go that route or you can go a different route; all of us chose to try to do better in our lives."
Blanton, who died in 1996, had sparked outrage after he pardoned and commuted prison terms for more than 50 state inmates in the waning days of his gubernatorial term. Blanton’s fellow Democrats worked with Republicans in the Legislature to move up the inauguration of his Republican successor, Lamar Alexander, by three days.
Blanton was never charged in the scandal, but in 1981, he was convicted of unrelated charges of extortion and conspiracy for selling a liquor license for $23,000 to a friend while in office.
FILE - In this Jan. 11, 1979, file photo, Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton appears before a joint session to give his final State of the State message in Nashville before leaving office on Jan. 20. Law enforcement officials announced Wednesday, June 9, 20201, the closing a 42-year-old cold case of Samuel Pettyjohn, a Chattanooga businessman who was shot and killed in 1979 in a contract killing that former Gov. Ray Blanton's administration helped pay for. (AP Photo/File)
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston, center, speaks at a news conference, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Law enforcement officials announced the closing a 42-year-old cold case of Samuel Pettyjohn, a Chattanooga businessman who was shot and killed in 1979 in a contract killing that former Gov. Ray Blanton's administration helped pay for. (AP Photo/Kimberlee Kruesi)
Credit: Kimberlee Kruesi
Credit: Kimberlee Kruesi