Grisly ‘59 murders had interesting local ties

Published 1:36 am Saturday, September 19, 2015

One of the things I most love about my job is that there is almost always an interesting story on the other end of the phone line. Such was the case yesterday when I returned a phone call to Don Brown, formerly an editor of The Tuscaloosa News, and The Times-Daily.

What I didn’t know when I returned the call was that he also was once a Birmingham News reporter, and that a book he’s penning, inspired by a 1959 story he covered there, has unbelievable Covington County ties.

It was in June of that year when the dismembered bodies of two men were found spread over at least three counties. With mere shreds of evidence, and the identity of the victims unknown, state and Calhoun County authorities asked then-Birmingham News cartoonist Charles Brooks to sketch what the victims might have looked like.

Brooks, a native Andalusian, couldn’t have known the men whose faces he imagined were from Covington County.

Days after those sketches were printed in The News, somebody who thought one of the faces was familiar tipped authorities. Authorities went to the Calhoun County farm where that man lived, and from there solved the mystery.

The men were brothers Lee A. Harper, 55, and Emmett Harper, 48. Both World War II veterans, they lived in a trailer on a farm near Anniston. Lee Harper worked at the Anniston Army Depot; Emmett Harper did construction work.

A thirty-something-year-old woman, the daughter of the farmer on whose property they lived, was charged with first degree murder. Described by Ed Dannelley in The Star-News as a “plump, black-haired woman,” Viola Hyatt was alleged to be in a relationship with one of the brothers.

Mr. Brown called because he was seeking help to determine one thing: Where were the men buried? Their bodies were interred in a pauper’s grave in Calhoun County before they were identified, but he couldn’t find the graves. Might there be someone here – even a surviving relative – who could help him with those answers?

Ever curious, I promised to be in touch over the weekend with names of those who might help. Hours, stories, and a small office flood later, I pulled the bound volume with 1959 editions of The Star-News. Within moments, I was looking at a side-by-side comparison of Charles Brooks’ drawings and photographs of the brothers.

I also learned that the brothers were laid to rest at Oak Grove Baptist Church near Gantt with graveside services that attracted hundreds.

The brothers owned a home at Clearview, and had three brothers living in the area at the time of their deaths – Bob, Fred and Joe.

No doubt, Mr. Brown will be happy to get the information. But he’d also like to hear from any living family members who might also provide him insight.

If you want to read more, stop by the office. The book is open to the appropriate page and the coffee is almost always fresh.


Michele Gerlach is the publisher of The Star-News. She can be reached at or 222-2402.