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50 Years Ago: The Death of W. Haynie Gourley

June 24, 2018

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the murder of W. Haynie Gourley, the owner of Capitol Chevrolet on Murfreesboro Rd. Today, this tragedy remains as one of Nashville's most notorious unsolved crimes.

The year 2018 is a milestone anniversary year for several events:

100 Years Ago:

  • The end of World War I.
  • The founding of the city of Old Hickory, TN, and the opening of the DuPont Munitions Plant.
  • The worst train accident in history at Dutchman's Curve in Belle Meade (the topic of next month's blog post).

50 Years Ago:

  • Dr. King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.
  • The first humans orbit the moon on Apollo 8.
  • And lastly the topic of this blog post, the controversial murder of a local Nashville businessman that is still today, one of Nashville's most notorious unsolved murders. 

As I've discussed in other blog entries such as the murder of Paula Herring in 1964 and the review of Brian Allison's book Murder and Mayhem in NashvilleNashville has a storied past. The murder of W. Haynie Gourley and the following criminal trial is certainly a bulletpoint of that past. During a particularly tumultuous time for race relations in the South with the assassination of Dr. King occurring a month earlier, this murder only added fuel to the fire. If you're unfamiliar with this case, check out the facts below.

The Nashville Banner ran an extra edition on May 24th, for the first time since JFK's assassination. This is the front page from that paper...


Facts of the Case:


The morning of May 24th, 1968. 

Who was involved?

  • The founder of Capitol Chevrolet, W. Haynie Gourley. 
  • VP of the dealership, William Powell.


On Elm Hill Pike, near Spence Lane (not far from the dealership on Murfreesboro Road). 

What happened?

72-year-old Haynie Gourley and his VP, William Powell, at Capitol Chevrolet went out for a drive on the morning of May 24th; Powell had asked Gourley to take a ride with him, presumably to discuss the recent business talks they were in of Powell selling his 25% of the company back. Powell had borrowed the keys to a brand new Chevy, and told his secretary that they'd be back in 15 minutes. Gourley too tracked down his son, notifying him that he and Powell were about to talk business and that he'd let him know what was said when they returned. Well sadly, both of them didn't return. Powell drove out of the car dealership, turning right onto Elm Hill Pike. They stopped at the light at Spence Lane, where Powell initially reported to the police that an African American man of approximately 30 years of age jumped into the backseat. The man allegedly told them to "give me the money", in which they both began reaching for their wallets. The man then told Gourley, "Don't reach for your pistol", but then began shooting. Gourley was shot and killed by 3 gun shots, and Powell was shot once in the leg. 

Powell came back to the dealership after the alleged encounter, where an ambulance was immediately called. Police arrived after Powell was taken to the hospital, studying Powell's car that appeared to be shot to pieces - the right side window completely gone. They took Powell's statement at the hospital; just before the sedative kicked in, Powell said "I'll never forget the eyes of that man."  

The Investigation:

The stakes were high for Metro's Homicide squad, wanting to ensure not only an arrest but possiby a swift one; they didn't want to continue the previous 3 summer's routine of riots in the streets, especially in the wake of Dr. King's death. They weren't sure who to look for going off of Powell's statement - an African American man wearing a mask and dark glasses. And the only evidence they had at the time was Powell's car, and it had been nearly shot to pieces.

With so little to go on, having found no evidence after searching the area off of Elm Hill Pike and no suspects (their initial suspect having an airtight alibi), the police were getting desperate. With the facts they had - how the body was positioned, the lack of money missing from Gourley's wallet, zero suspects to search for - the police began re-examining Powell's suspicious statement. 

In the meantime while police did their best to piece together a case, the story made headlines in both of the city's newspapers for several weeks, urging on the investigation in whatever way the public could. This included rewards for information totaling up to $12,000 from the city of Belle Meade and the Nashville Automobile Trade Association. 

It wouldn't be until the following March when Powell would be indicted on first-degree murder. This after another murder in South Nashville had police wondering if it was a potential serial killer situation; that too turned out to be wrong. 

Other important details: 

The reason why this particular murder made the headlines in Nashville, not only because of the ensuing case, but it's also because Haynie Gourley was a well-known name in the community. As cars were growing very popular in those days, he was one of the "Big Four" of the city's car dealerships. He'd founded the business in 1932, and managed to survive the Great Depression and the war years. He was also friends with the governor as well. All that on top of that accusation that an African American man had murdered him caused an uproar in the city.

As far as I can tell as well, the business had not been in its new location for long, having moved from a smaller space on Broadway. The photo below is from circa 1950's, showing the site of the former Broadway home of Capitol Chevrolet. 

Gourley knew he was approaching retirement age, but wanted to keep the business in the family, which meant having his son, William Haynie “Billy” Gourley, Jr., take over the business. Billy was only a salesman at the time though and still pretty young, with potentially questionable-enough experience to run the business. Whereas, Powell had been working for Gourley since 1965 and owned 25% of the company stock.

In the photo below, the two people coming out of Criminal Court on the right are his son, Billy, and his wife, Josephine.

A few days before Gourley's murder, Powell had been invited over to the Gourley home to discuss this business - figuring out how to clear a path so that Billy could take over the business. According to all parties present, a.k.a. Gourley's family, the meeting had gone successfully with Powell agreeing to sell his shares and hand over the reins. This was after Powell had asked Billy, "are you afraid of me, physically?" Billy had responded with "no", and then Powell conceded to Gourley's request. I'm not sure the Gourleys were too surprised considering both families were not only business partners, but also good friends. They lived near each other, took business trips together...surely they were going to be able to come to a compromise. 

Bill had been in the automobile business since college, working at Palmer-Hooper dealership and Hippodrome Olds before being lured to Capitol by Gourley. He stood right by Gourley's side as the VP as well, pulling in $83,000/year and would stand to take over the business if anything were to ever happen to Gourley (not that I'm trying to create a motive here or anything). Powell appeared to be a well-liked individual as well, ever since his college days when he was known as "Big Bill" on Vandy's campus. In fact, Powell played center on Vandy's football team, including the successful 1948 season when the 'Dores won 8 games in a row. In the public's eyes after Gourley's murder, Powell was the hero that tried to save his friend. Or was he?


Gourley's wife testified that approximately 10 days after Gourley's death, Powell visited her with Sam Jackson, regional director of Capitol Chevrolet, and a man by the name of William Clark. They urged her to sign a document that would enable Powell to take over the business. She stated that she wasn't in a fit state to discuss business or sign anything. Instead, she set up a meeting with the Capitol Chevrolet Board that she was in fact on, with plans to have Powell fired (something she said her husband wanted). Unfortunately for Josephine, her wishes wouldn't come true as Powell rounded up his own investors and bought out the Gourley stock. These steps taken to transform Powell into the new owner and president of Capitol Chevrolet were not unseen by investigators; they in fact helped along the case that investigators had been building.

After the murder, the car that Gourley and Powell had been riding in was refurbished and placed in the showroom, in front of Billy Gourley's office. 

The State of Tennessee vs. William Powell

The State of Tennessee vs. William Powell didn't take place until the summer of 1969, after Powell's indictment in March. When investigators were unsuccessful in finding neither the gun nor the right suspect, their case became focused on Powell. 

Powell's lawyers were veteran Defense Lawyer, Cecil Branstetter, and Jack Norman, Sr. Attorney General Thomas Shriver represented the State, with John J. Hooker, Sr. as a special prosecutor (who was also the Gourley's family lawyer), with Judge Allen Cornelius presiding. Not only was this case famous just for the figures and details involved, but the case too became legendary with 2 of the most famous lawyers on each side - Norman and Hooker. Both were well-known for their oratory skills. 

Included in the prosecutor's list of 27 witnesses were employees that worked at the dealership, Billy and Josephine Gourley, officers from the Homicide squad, doctors from Vandy, and the president of the Third National Bank, Sam Fleming. The prosecutor's case centered on the ownership dealings at Capitol prior to and after Gourley's death. Without a murder weapon however, their case was going to be that much harder to prove with just circumstantial evidence. What they needed was a witness, which they found in Walter Lee Davis, or so they thought. Davis testified that he had seen the car on Elm Hill Pike that day, and that he saw the car pull over to the side of the road, with 2 white men in it. He said both men got out of the car at one point before returning, with the driver then getting out again to move to the rear right-hand side of the car. He heard 4 shots a few minutes later, before seeing the driver exit the right-hand side of the car and then return to the driver's seat and take off. He did not see anyone else enter or exit the car.

The Defense brought in 15 witnesses with the primary focus of supporting Powell's character. And they were ready for Davis' testimony too, with 3 of his coworkers, all claiming to have heard different stories from him about what he had seen on May 24th. Not only that, but his foreman produced evidence showing that Davis was nowhere near the murder site on that day. 

Another surprise for the prosecution would come in the form of a turned-in .38 Smith and Wesson pistol, found near the 1100 block of Elm Hill Pike. The pistol had been found by a man by the name of Henry A. Lewis in September, 1968. Lewis was a construction worker and resident of Lebanon, who had been collecting soft-drink bottles along Elm Hill Pike when he found the gun and 4 spent shells. Lewis said that he did not bring the weapon in sooner because he didn't want to get involved. Mighty nice of him. 

There was no way to prove that this was the murder weapon anyway, because the barrel was so rusted. And by any case, the weapon was not allowed in court by the judge. The prosecution was allowed to supboena 8 new witnesses however, to try to create a link from the gun to Powell. One of the witnesses subpoenad was a former assistant of Powell's, Bob Frensley. Evidently, Powell had borrowed a pistol (a Smith and Wesson, yes) from Frensley before the murder for defensive purposes, but never returned it. When Frensley asked several times what happened to the gun, he received different answers from Powell each time, with the last answer being that it had been stolen.

Despite the prosecution's efforts (though at points during the testimony about the gun, it looked promising for them), the final decision was that Powell was found Not Guilty. The trial had lasted approximately 3 weeks, with 5 hours of deliberations. As far as I know, to this day, this case remains unsolved.

If you're interested in learning more about this case, or to read some of the testimonies, we have copies of them here in Metro Archives. Also, drawings (like the one you see below) from the trials. Come check them out!



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Sarah is a Program Coordinator with Metro Archives. Her interests and areas of expertise are history, reading books (of any kind), music, travel, Harry Potter, and bingeing a good comedy series. When not in Archives, she is either nose-deep in a book or planning her next trip. Learn more about the fascinating materials found at Metro Archives through their website.