The body of a woman was found floating in Boone Lake, on February 9, 1975. A fisherman found her at the mouth of Muddy Creek, near the Tri-City boat dock, at around 10:45 am. The authorities stated she was strangled, and it was an obvious robbery and murder. They beseeched the public for assistance.
She was eventually identified as Margaret Jesse Bray, wife of J.D. Bray. At this point, Bray was a successful retiree. Margaret Bray was a woman of means, herself. Bray eventually contacted police, himself. He wanted to know about the lady in the lake. His wife had gone to visit relatives in Radford, Virginia, the previous Saturday, and he hadn’t heard from her.
Just days later, J.D. Bray was again on the wrong side of the law. He was arraigned for first-degree murder on Valentine’s Day. The state already had a wealth of evidence against him. The retired Kingsport businessman had a fine house on Catawba Street, but his affluence wouldn’t help him this time.
Bray told the authorities again, including TBI agent Jim Keesling, his wife left on Saturday to visit relatives in Radford, Virginia. That he was worried about her, and contacted police as soon as he heard about the body of a woman being found.
A Sweetwater farmer found the family’s 1974 Mercedes Benz abandoned in Monroe County, Tennessee. Sullivan County authorities went to retrieve the vehicle, but couldn’t. No one had the keys, and the authorities were afraid of destroying potential evidence. They returned to get the keys. They were successful on the second visit to the vehicle, but many elements didn’t add up. Someone had placed license plates, stolen from a car in Abingdon, Virginia, on the vehicle.
They were further surprised when they opened the trunk. What they believed was a robbery gone wrong turned out to be something much more sinister. Margaret’s purse and valuables were still in the trunk. It clearly wasn’t a robbery.
There were problems, however, even with the discovery. The car didn’t offer any evidence. Police couldn’t locate any blood or fingerprints in the vehicle. Likewise, due to the remoteness of the location, no witnesses actually saw who abandoned the vehicle there.
Friends came to Bray’s rescue, or tried to. Mr. Glenn White wrote letters to the newspapers testifying of Bray’s innocence. White wholeheartedly believed Bray was framed. He reasoned they were both wealthy, so there was no motive for such a brutal act.
The Other Woman
As with many such situations, there was a third party involved. The authorities received an anonymous tip regarding a third party, and that person was Hazel Eldridge. Police interrogated Eldridge before the end of February, and received many crucial details. She was involved with Bray. The couple had engaged in their affair for nearly two years.
She claimed Bray said there was a struggle that night over a divorce. That Margaret pulled a gun on him and they fought over the weapon. He previously told Eldridge he couldn’t divorce his wife because she had the couple’s money invested for tax purposes. He was also angry when he found all of her respective wealth was already bequeathed to her sons.
Bray claimed the couple fought and Margaret fell. She hit her head falling down the steps and it killed her. He couldn’t find the number for the ambulance, and they police station’s line was busy every time he attempted to call.
She then went further to say they met at the Kingsport Mall parking lot the next day. Bray drove the Benz to Sweetwater, while she followed in the Bray family’s Buick. How Bray got two vehicles to the mall parking lot was never answered.
Eldridge’s admission had far-reaching consequences. The case was to go before Sullivan County Criminal Court Justice John K. Byers. The judge had to recuse himself because it became known that Eldridge, star witness, was his sister-in-law.
It Begins. Again.
Bray was indicted for first-degree murder on March 1, 1975. Margaret’s autopsy was concluded, and it stated a great deal more than Eldridge or Bray had. Margaret died due to mechanical strangulation. Someone had murdered her. She did have superficial abrasions to her neck and abdomen, and there was a slight scalp injury. There was no fatal fall or head injury. There was no indication her death was accidental or unintended.
A witness came forward and testified they watched Bray steal the license plate from the Abingdon car. A Sullivan County Deputy came forward and said Bray had reached for a gun upon his arrest. Captain J.C. Fletcher said when they arrived at the Bray house, J.D. asked to make a telephone call. He went into the dining room and reached for a glove that held his .38 pistol. Fortunately, Bray’s son Jimmy had grabbed it before his father could. Jimmy then gave the weapon to the officers.
The defense also tried to have the charges lessened, as no one could plan a physical confrontation, as Bray finally admitted. In such a struggle, he would’ve simply been defending his life. The tactic was moot. Bray had gone to a tremendous effort to hide the event from the authorities. He had stolen plates from another car, and driven the vehicle a considerable distance to hide it. He moved the body and disposed of it in a waterway. All of his efforts after Margaret’s passing were indicative of pre-meditated murder.
There were many other questions about the case that didn’t seem easily answered. No one could figure out where Bray put Margaret’s body in the water. Friends and relatives had stated, since they found her body, that Margaret never went on long trips alone.
Bray got out on a $40,000 bond on March 14. He’d been in jail a month. The court proceedings were scheduled to begin on June 16th. Bray had retained the services of two attorneys. Things turned again around a month later. One of Bray’s sons went to visit him on April 23, at 5:45 pm. There was no answer in the home. He went around the house to check the garage.
The garage was sealed tight, but he saw his father through the window. He laid in the backseat of the infamous Buick. His son tried to break into the shed, but couldn’t. First responders couldn’t get any closer. The authorities had to destroy the garage door to get inside.
A garden hose ran from the tailpipe to the window. The crack in the window was sealed with tape. It was estimated that Bray had been dead three hours. The car had ran for so long it was out of gas. Bray didn’t leave any note or notice for his family. It appeared he was responsible for taking yet another life. His own.