Authorities believe skull found in J.C. linked to October slayings

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Investigators from the Washington County Sheriff's Department, working on a tip, discovered a human skull here on Monday they believe to be the partial remains of a missing Bradley County man, step-father of Howard "Hawk" Willis who was charged in the October deaths of a teenage Georgia couple in Johnson City.
   In mid October 2002, the dismembered body of Sam Thomas, step-father of Willis, was discovered in Bradley County in Lookout Mountain, Ga. Thomas had been missing since Sept. 5th. Authorities at that time only found Thomas' torso and legs - his arms, head, and hands were missing.
   "The tip (on the skull) came indirectly through Howard 'Hawk' Willis by his ex-wife Wilda Willis," said Washington County Sheriff's Department Investigator Todd Hull. The skull was found under rocks and debris near an old railroad bed on private property adjacent to Winged Deer Park.
   Hull said investigators were originally told approximately two weeks ago that the remains were on the property near the park, and they searched the area but found nothing. However, the next search was successful.
   "Todd had talked to me on Friday and told me that he was positive that something was out there, so Monday morning we went out there and looked again," said Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal.
   According to District Attorney Joe Crumley, the skull was sent to the forensics laboratory at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville for testing. "The forensic team has determined that the remains are not inconsistent with those of Sam Thomas," Crumley said, adding that testing is still being conducted by referencing dental records. "Finally, the people of Bradley County can get some closure on this and continue their investigation into the murder of Sam Thomas."
   Graybeal said that investigators would continue to search for the hands and arms of Thomas in the same area where the skull was found, "just to be sure", he said.
   Investigators found the skull approximately 200 yards from where the severed head and hands of Adam Chrismer, 17 were found near a dock in the park, according to Graybeal. Chrismer and his wife, 16-year-old Samantha Lemming were murdered and their remains were found in plastic containers located inside a self-storage unit in Johnson City on Oct. 17. Willis was charged with two counts of first degree murder and two counts of abuse to a corpse in connection with the slaying of a teenage couple.
   Willis is currently in federal custody in New York where he is scheduled to be sentenced on a narcotics charge on April 11. He was free on bond awaiting sentencing when federal prosecutors issued a detainer warrant for him in connection with Willis' alleged use of Thomas' credit cards.
   Once Willis' sentencing is complete, he will return to Washington County to face the charges brought against him there in connection with the slaying of the couple.
   According to Crumley, prosecutors in Bradley County have not yet filed charges against Willis in the death of Thomas. In the event that Bradley County does file charges, Willis may appear on those charges before facing those against him in Washington County.
   "The Bradley County murder may have been the premeditation for the murder of Adam Chrismer and his wife," Crumley said, adding that it would make sense to him if Bradley County wished to prosecute first.