Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Murder of Stringbean

In the autumn of 1973, my family was in Nashville. My father was on a four–month sabbatical there.

There was at least one weekend that fall when Dad was out of town for one reason or another. He was probably attending a seminar or something — I don't really remember. What I do remember is that Mom and my brother and I went to Chattanooga that weekend. It was about a two–hour drive from Nashville, I guess. Mom wanted to see the famous Chattanooga Choo–Choo, which was popularized by Glenn Miller. (Yes, there is one.)

We drove to Chattanooga that Friday and returned to Nashville on Sunday. It was only after we got back that we learned what had happened in our absence.

David Akeman, known as "Stringbean," and his wife, Estelle, had been murdered at their rural Tennessee home. Stringbean had performed at the Grand Ole Opry that Saturday night, and they got home late, interrupting a burglary. According to the story that emerged in the investigation and trial, the two were shot and killed shortly after their arrival.

Akeman was an amiable sort, quite popular among Grand Ole Opry patrons and viewers of the cornpone country TV variety show Hee Haw. Even though we lived in Nashville for a few months, we never managed to go to the Grand Ole Opry so my memories of Stringbean are from Hee Haw. Tall and wiry, Akeman made the most of his appearance. As part of his act, he wore an extra–long shirt and a pair of short blue jeans that was belted around his knees, giving the impression of a tall man with short legs.

Stringbean was a young man during the Depression, and, like many of the folks who came of age at that time, he didn't trust banks. This was fairly well known in Nashville. It was also fairly well known — or, at least, it was often said — that Stringbean kept a fortune in the little country cabin in which he and Estelle lived.

Fact was, Stringbean did keep a sizable amount of money in his home, but it wasn't the kind of fortune that drew two men to that cabin on a cold November night. They expected to find much more, but, by entertainment industry standards, even the considerably lower ones of 1973, Stringbean was hardly a wealthy man.

The thieves never found the money that Stringbean kept hidden on his property.

In fact, all they took that night, besides the lives of Stringbean and Estelle, were a chainsaw and some firearms. That proved to be their undoing. Grandpa Jones, Stringbean's friend and hunting/fishing companion as well as Opry partner, testified at the trial and identified a weapon that was in the killers' possession as one he had given to Stringbean as a gift.

Grandpa Jones found the bodies on Sunday morning, Nov. 11, 1973.

My memory of that time is that all of Nashville mourned Stringbean's murder. When I heard what had happened, it was only a few hours after the news had broken, but already there were indications all over the city of the depth of grief it was experiencing. It wasn't a global thing, like when Elvis Presley died a few years later, but it was a big story locally.

My family remained in Nashville for about a month before we returned to Arkansas in December 1973, and developments in the investigation — even when there were no developments — led the newscasts and were on the front pages of the newspaper every day.

Eventually, two cousins were convicted in the case. As I recall, only one was convicted of actually pulling the trigger, but both were held responsible under the felony murder rule, which holds that if a person commits a felony that results in the death of another, that person is guilty of murder as well.

More than 20 years later, Stringbean's cash stash was found. It had been hidden behind a chimney brick and had deteriorated to the point that it was not usable.

The man who pulled the trigger is still in prison. His cousin died in prison — of natural causes — 10 years ago.