Skull found in Washington County identified as that of murdered Bradley County man

By Abby Morris

Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   A human skull found on March 20 in Washington County has been positively identified as that of 70-year-old Samuel Thomas, step-father of Howard 'Hawk' Willis, the man charged with the October murders of a teenage Georgia couple.
   "With the positive identification of these last remains our case has been greatly strengthened as this bizarre investigation unfolds," said Bradley County Sheriff Daniel Gilley. According to Gilley, Dr. J Randall Pearce, a Forensic Odontologist, positively identified the remains as being those of Thomas by using dental records.
   Thomas's body was discovered in mid-October 2002 in Lookout Mountain, Ga. Thomas had been missing since Sept. 5 of that year. When his body was found, it had been shot and was missing the arms from the elbow down as well as the head. Investigators theorize that Thomas was murdered in his Bradley County home and his body was taken to the location in Georgia in order to conceal the crime.
   Charges have not yet been filed against Howard 'Hawk' Willis, who is the suspect in the slaying of Thomas. "I am asking our criminal investigators to hasten these findings to a Bradley County Grand Jury," Gilley said.
   According to Bradley County Sheriff's Department Capt. Chip Bryant, warrants will not be issued for Willis. "We will not be taking warrants out for him," Bryant said. "Instead, we will be presenting that information to the Grand Jury and seeking indictments in the case." Bryant stated that no date has been set for the Grand Jury inquiry.
   Investigators, working on a tip, found the skull last month on private property adjacent to Winged Deer Park in Johnson City, under rocks and debris near an old railroad bed. "The tip came indirectly through Howard 'Hawk' Willis by his ex-wife Wilda Willis," Washington County Sheriff's Department Investigator Todd Hull said at the time the skull was discovered.
   Willis has been charged with two counts of first degree murder and two counts of abuse to a corpse in connection with the slaying of Adam Chrismer, 17, and his 16-year-old wife Samantha Lemming whose remains were found in Boone Lake and downtown Johnson City in October of 2002.
   Willis is currently in federal custody in New York where he is scheduled to appear for sentencing on April 11 on a conviction of narcotics charges in that state. 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 his sentencing is complete, Willis will return to Washington County to face the charges brought against him there in connection with the slaying of the couple.
   At the time the skull was discovered in Washington County, District Attorney Joe Crumley stated that if Bradley County files charges against Willis in the incident, Willis may appear on those charges before facing the ones 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.