Cassard was a notable community in 1938, around 10 miles west of Kingsport, Tennessee. This Scott County region had a number of unique features, including the Pennsylvania Glass plant and a Swedish mission. It was shaken to its foundation on August 3, when the body of 14-year-old Willie Mae Gentry was found.
Willie Mae’s mother, Lula, was the first to suspect something was wrong. Lula walked to the post office to mail a letter just before lunchtime. She then stopped to chat with her neighbor. Nothing was out-of-the-ordinary… until she arrived home. Willie Mae hadn’t returned for lunch, and it was completely unlike her.
Lula immediately notified Frank, her husband, of their daughter’s disappearance. Frank Gentry was a tenant farmer for a landowner named Grimm. Frank then notified their neighbors and a massive search was underway. Even the local youths, such as J.D. Bray, assisted in the massive sweep.
Sadly, Frank Gentry experienced every father’s worst nightmare at 5:30 pm. He found his daughter in the woods. She was covered with rotted wood and leaves. Two old rotted logs had been dragged over her body.
Dr. J.H. McConnell held the preliminary inquest at the scene of the crime. Gentry was killed by a .22 rifle bullet in the left temple. The scene revealed signs of struggle, and her body was covered with bruises and scratches. Still, it was believed the actual crime had been committed over ¼ mile away. Her clothes were partly torn off and yanked up to her shoulders, but McConnell couldn’t find further evidence of molestation.
The authorities eventually believed she had been murdered, and dragged to the area where she was found. The powder marks on her temple suggested death was instantaneous. She was then taken to Kingsport’s community hospital for a formal autopsy and x-rays. The bullet had completely fractured, and pieces were scattered through her brain. McConnell had to dissect her brain matter to retrieve the bullet pieces, and it still wasn’t enough for a comparison.
Dr. W.H. Reed stated she’d clearly been attacked, but not raped. He theorized that her attacker changed his mind because she fought so hard. The doctor also discovered a strange intestinal disorder. They suspected Willie Mae could’ve believed she was pregnant due to the illness.
Frank Gentry was livid. He immediately swore out a warrant for J.D. Bray, even though the boy had been in the search party that combed the woods for three hours. Many locals weren’t convinced he had any part in the crime. Evidence would soon emerge that stated otherwise.
After the autopsy, Willie Mae’s body was returned to the McConnell funeral home in Gate City. She was prepared for burial. Her services were conducted on August 5, 1938. Rev. Louis Hensley officiated. She was interred in the Hensley Cemetery, in Speers Ferry. Survivors in the Gentry family included her parents and four other siblings.
Sheriff J.E. Quillen arrested the young man on August 5. The Virginia High graduate was not the typical criminal. He came from a wealthy, established family that farmed and owned a successful mercantile. The “model youth,” however couldn’t seem to keep his story straight. He first admitted he was out with a .22 rifle, but he was attempting to scare off crows that had been in his father’s corn. He also said he hadn’t been within a mile of the Gentry home. To further distance himself, he then said he’d never even been to the Bray household before.
The story changed with time. He told other people he was out hunting game, although the area he was in was notoriously barren of game. He’d actually walked pass the Gentry house, and eventually, he admitted he’d visited once or twice.
It soon became clear that it was Bray’s word against the whole Gentry family’s word. By August 10th, Bray was out on a $12,000 bond. His arraignment was before Justice Martin B. Compton. Judge Compton bound him over to the October term.
Building a Case
Town Marshall Clifford Davidson found three different types of hair at the scene, but none were enough for a positive identification. By August 23rd, two Richmond homicide detectives joined the investigation. The Bray trial was expected to draw nationwide attention, but several locals were disappointed. The media outside the region showed little interest in the proceedings.
Bray had the best defense money could buy. His representation included former Judge S.H. Bond, Dean of the Scott County Bar Association, along with his son, attorney Hagan Bond. Bray also retained Bristol’s George M. Warren, along with Cecil D. Quillen. The prosecution clearly had a struggle ahead.
Three hundred people packed into the courtroom, on October 27, 1938. Over 50 witnesses were sworn in. Judge Ezra T. Carter presided over the trial. The proceedings came to a halt when it seemed no impartial or objective jury could be found. Just when the court found the right panel of peers for the youth, the defense requested another delay. On October 29th, two material witnesses were absent.
When the rocky start calmed, the defense brought witnesses to testify that they had seen Bray near the railroad tracks at the time of the murder. It was impossible for him to be both there, and committing the crime. Bray emphatically denied any real relationship with Willie Mae, and said he never spoke with her outside of her visits to his family’s store. His defense was about to hit a bad patch.
Prosecutor Richmond Hammond began to chip away at the defense’s argument. Why was Bray hunting in an area known for a lack of game? Why did three witnesses testify Willie Mae told them he proposed? Why was he the only individual seen carrying the same weapon that killed Willie Mae?
Frank Gentry testified Bray was indeed outside their home, and on the day of the murder. He’d spoke with him before going to work in the field. Willis Reynolds, Willie Mae’s brother-in-law, was at the Gentry house when Bray visited that morning, at 11:00 am. Reynolds notified the court that Willie Mae had a longtime crush on Bray.
The court was further shocked when Reynolds stated Bray had carried a .22 rifle, but that was a typical weapon for hunting game. He assumed he was hunting, as he’d said. Reynolds said Bray stayed a little while and left. Willie Mae left several minutes later, but he assumed she was going to see friends. She left the house in the opposite direction as Bray had gone. James and Clarence Gentry, Willie Mae’s brothers, were also in the house when Bray visited. Both of them corroborated Reynolds’s version of events, and said Bray had visited previously.
After an extended closing argument, the public waited on the jury’s response. Mack Coleman demanded the jury return verdict of first-degree murder. Unfortunately, justice was to wait. A mistrial was declared because the jury was deadlocked. Judge Carter discharged them from duty, and bound them over until the next term.
The second trial was supposed to start in January of 1939. The defense requested a continuance, and it was scheduled to restart in April. The second trial was finally underway. Ella Bergden was a member of the Cassard community when she testified in court. The native of Sweden ran the Cassard church mission. She’d lived in Scott County for 18 years.
Bergden stated Bray wasn’t capable of such a crime. Although, the defense didn’t plan for the statement that Bray visited her the evening of the crime, and for some reason, acted strangely. He also changed shoes a number of times throughout day of the murder, and no one knew why. This was an odd detail, as Willie Mae’s shoes were removed and hidden under a hollow log where she was buried. The proceedings were again in vain. Judge Carter ruled it another mistrial on April 28th. The next trial was scheduled for October.
Bray almost got into far worse trouble in August. He was jailed alongside Chester Pickett. Pickett devised an escape plan while he was in solitary. Bray was in solitary at the time, as well. Sheriff Quillen stated that the men would’ve been successful in their escape, if they’d had another ten minutes.
Bray was formally acquitted on October 26th. He’d gone through a total of two separate trials, and two continuances. He did not testify in the last two trial proceedings. The defense convinced the jury that any evidence was just circumstantial. The defense said anyone could’ve killed poor Willie Mae. It could’ve been her “feeble-minded” brother James, or even her brother-in-law Willis Reynolds.
The prosecution had a compelling case. T.F. Baughman, of the FBI, said the bullet might’ve been fragmented, but it looked a great deal similar to a bullet from Bray’s weapon. His opinion mattered little in the proceedings. There wasn’t enough evidence to convict, regardless of the circumstances.
This wasn’t the last time Bray’s name would appear in the papers.
- James Gentry was 23 in 1940. Hobart Ward, of Kingsport, swerved to miss young Gentry, but wasn’t fast enough. Gentry stepped in front of the car, and was killed, on April 19, 1940.
- Judge Carter’s youngest son was killed in a hunting accident, shot with a .22, on October 8, 1924.