It was a mild and balmy May evening when services ended at Culbertson’s Chapel, in Nickelsville, Virginia. Everson “Red” Collins attended and afterward visited with friends at the home of Kelly “Buster” or “Buck” Vermillion. Collins stated he was going home between 11:10 and 11:15. He left, but he never went home. His body was discovered early the next morning, beside the road, near the church he attended.
Mrs. Joe Culbertson was outside early on May 6, 1940. She went about her typical morning duties, but this morning would be different. Around 8 am, she noticed a body by the road. She summoned Constable C. P. Broadwater. Broadwater examined the scene and the body, and concluded it was likely a suicide. He reported the death to the Scott County police and a cursory investigation ensued.
A .38 pistol lay near the body, a pack of cigarettes was on the body, his shirt was partially opened, but there were no signs of struggle or foul play. The coroner’s jury ruled it a suicide later that same day. Witnesses were interviewed, the details explored, but the information didn’t add up. The original time of death was given an unbelievably broad window, sometime between 11:00 pm Sunday night, and 8:00 am Monday morning.
Collins was supposed to have been married the following Wednesday. None of his friends suspected he was downcast or despondent. The bullet wound on the left side of Collins’s chest also made the suicide theory uncertain. The authorities were left with many questions and no possible answers.
The Investigation Continues
Town Marshal Clifford Davidson wasn’t comfortable with the investigation’s dead end. He sent a request to C. L. Lineback at the Kingsport Police Department in Tennessee. Lineback was an identification expert and Davidson believed he could shed new light on the case.
The authorities continued to go back and forth between ruling the death a suicide or a homicide. On May 9, the authorities reported the incident was a homicide and Sheriff George Williams declared arrests were imminent. On May 10, Deputy L. F. Broadwater declared there was no evidence of murder and the case was closed. Reports stated the county questioned two youths, at that point, but there were no grounds to suspect them of murder.
The gun near his body was that of his brother’s. A single bullet had been fired from the chamber. Two young men, believed to be those questioned by the authorities, stated they saw him with the weapon before church on his last night alive.
The case again made the newspapers on May 12. Charles Jennings and Cecil Easterling prepared for their preliminary hearing. The hearing was scheduled for May 13, but both men were freed on $1,000 bonds. The hearing was before Justice Martin B. Compton.
Lineback concluded his own examination. He performed a paraffin test to see if Collins’s hands bore gunpowder residue. Had he fired the weapon, it would have left traces of gunpowder behind. The test was negative. Collins did not fire the gun.
Broadwater dropped the investigation on Monday evening, after the jury returned the verdict of suicide. The investigation was renewed the next day, with Deputy E. N. Fleenor joining the search. By Wednesday, Collins’s wedding day, Sheriff Williams and Deputy Ervin Starnes were all involved in the case.
The authorities pieced together a picture of what transpired that evening. Collins attended church as he normally did. In attendance with him was Charles Jennings, Cecil Easterling, Lucy Moore, and Zelma Meade. These four individuals walked to Lucy Moore’s home after church.
Buster Vermillion and Clara Culbertson, friends of Collins, also attended the church service. The two eventually married. Collins walked to the Vermillion household with them.
The three socialized for a period and Collins said he was going home. Collins didn’t go home, however. Rather than walking in the direction of his house, he reversed and went back towards Culbertson’s Chapel.
No one saw him alive again. Later on, it was revealed that Collins asked Jennings to walk Lucy Moore to her home. He wanted to dispel suspicions that they would be married Wednesday. The reason for this has been lost to time.
The Mystery Deepens
The case remains a mystery. Witnesses in the area reported seeing a flash of light from the direction of the church later that night, but no sound was heard.
There remains the question of where Collins was going that night. We are left to wonder if someone chased him in that direction, or if he met someone. His shirt was open, but that could be expected of someone walking several miles a warm night, particularly if they wore their “Sunday best.” Rumors went through the community that Collins was actually murdered elsewhere and dropped by the road so there wouldn’t be any trace evidence or signs of fight near the body.
While it didn’t seem to arouse suspicion, it was curious he decided to carry a weapon on the very day he died, and that he didn’t want anyone knowing he was going to marry Moore. We’re left to wonder if he was embroiled in something that could’ve negatively affected those connected to him.
No further proceedings ever came about. Jennings and Easterling were never prosecuted, and their possible criminal involvement with Collins was never established. Collins’s death remains a cold case.