Johnny Mack Salyer

Johnny Mack Salyer

The body of Johnny Mack Salyer, a Southwest Virginia man, was found enclosed in a locked steel drum about 35 years ago, floating in Chickamauga Lake, a reservoir along the Tennessee River near Chattanooga.

On Wednesday, jurors in Hamilton County, Tennessee, began hearing testimony regarding Salyer’s death, in a first-degree murder trial against Billy Hawk, 62.

The jury was selected Tuesday and opening statements began Wednesday. The trial was scheduled to resume this morning, according to Melydia Clewell, a spokesperson for the Hamilton County District Attorney General’s Office.

The exact date of Salyer’s death is unknown. He had no immediate relatives living in the Chattanooga area at the time of his death. Salyer’s family had last heard from him on May 24, 1981. The steel drum was pulled from the lake June 3 that year.

Salyer and Hawk were listed as co-defendants in a pending cocaine distribution case, according to the DA’s office. Records at the time of the initial investigation revealed Hawk as the leading suspect in the killing.

In 2015, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston opened a new cold case unit in Hamilton County to review the case. Hundreds of hours were spent re-investigating the case.

The body was buried at the Temple Hill Memorial Park in Castlewood, Virginia.

“The prosecutor there in Tennessee contacted and asked me to assist them in getting the body exhumed so they could do a more in-depth autopsy,” Russell County Commonwealth’s Attorney Brian Patton said Wednesday. “The medical examiner now had more advanced technology that could help yield more information about how he died.”

Patton said he agreed it would potentially be beneficial to exhume the body, so he obtained an order from the Russell County Circuit Court. The body was exhumed and re-examined, but the cause of death has not been released.

The case was presented to the Hamilton County grand jury Sept. 21, 2015.

Hawk, who owned a Lebanon, Tennessee, bowling alley and a home in Greeneville, Tennessee, was arrested on a first-degree murder charge. If convicted he faces life in prison.

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