Willis will return to face murder charges in deaths of teens; aunt pleads guilty in court

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- Howard "Hawk" Willis, who was charged in the October 2001 death of two Georgia teens after their dismembered bodies were found here, should return to Tennessee by the end of the week to stand trial, according to District Attorney General Joe Crumley.
   Willis, 51, of Walker County, Ga., was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Adam Ray Chrismer, 17, and his wife, Samantha Leming, 16, both of Walker County, Ga.
   Willis was also charged with two counts of abuse of a corpse because of the method he used to mutilate the teens' bodies. The head and hands of Chrismer's body that Willis allegedly cut off were found in Boone Lake on Oct. 11 and Oct. 12. The rest of the couple's remains were located in a self-storage unit on Buffalo Street on Oct. 17.
   "This is probably the most brutal murder I've ever been involved with," District Attorney General Joe Crumley said at the time of Willis' indictment. "In all likelihood, we will file that we'll be seeking the death penalty."
   Willis was arrested on a federal detainer warrant after he was allegedly found to be using credit cards belonging to his stepfather, Samuel Thomas, who was missing. He was free on a $200,000 bond awaiting a sentencing hearing in a narcotics case in New York.
   According to reports, federal prosecutors had sought a sentence of more than 20 years for Willis in a conspiracy to smuggle 659 kilograms of cocaine by arguing that he was a "trusted confederate." Willis was sentenced to eight years in prison by a U.S. District Judge on Monday.
   The sentencing of Willis, which now clears the way for him to return to Tennessee to face the murder charges against him, was both a relief and a disappointment, according to Crumley. "I was expecting 20 (years) to life," he said. "Here we have individuals who have been caught with substantially less and have been given life sentences. That amounted to about a year per 100 kilos.
   "With a street value of approximately $30,000 per kilo, you do the math and find out how much cocaine that was."
   Crumley stated that when Willis is returned to Tennessee, the state will continue the court proceedings against him, but he estimates the trial will take some time to come to fruition. "I'm not going to estimate a time because most high profile murders don't go in the first year," he said. "Once we get him back we will see what the first available court date is. He will have to have counsel appointed." Discovery in the trial will also take some time, according to Crumley, due to the amount of information and evidence surrounding the case.
   Willis' mother and aunt were also charged in connection with the death of the teenage couple.
   Emma Elizabeth Hawk, a.k.a. Betty Willis, 71, 104 Brentwood, Johnson City, Willis' mother, was charged with being an accessory after the fact of first-degree murder, attempting to tamper with evidence and two counts of abuse of a corpse, according to court documents. Court documents stated that Howard "Hawk" Willis placed the mutilated bodies of the slain teenagers in a rented storage unit and that Hawk, his mother, knew about it.
   Hawk's sister, Marie Holmes, 74, 1324 Lowell St., was charged with attempting to tamper with evidence. "Marie Holmes pled guilty today (Tuesday) without an agreement to solicitation to tamper with evidence," Crumley said. "Her sentencing hearing has been set for August 5."
   At the time of their arrest, then Washington County Sheriff Fred Phillips stated that the charges stemmed from the investigation as well as evidence recovered while searching the homes of Holmes and Hawk.
   Willis is also the main suspect in the disappearance and death of his stepfather, 73-year-old Samuel Thomas, of Bradley County, Tenn. Thomas' body, from which the head and hands had been severed, was discovered on Oct. 20 on Lookout Mountain in Walker County, Ga. Following a tip, investigators discovered a skull near the boat ramp at Winged Deer Park on March 17, which was later identified as that of Thomas.