Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Stringbean's Murderer Granted Parole


Almost 41 years to the day when he murdered a beloved country entertainer, John Brown will leave a Tennessee prison.

Brown, 64, has served 40 years of a 198-year prison sentence for the November 10, 1973 murders of David and Estelle Akeman during a robbery.  He and his cousin (who died in prison in 2003) waited at the Akemans' residence for Dave, best-known as the clawhammer banjo-playing comedian Stringbean, to finish his appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

Akeman, who was a teenager during the Great Depression, was notorious for not trusting banks.  As a result, he always received his Opry pay in cash.  He was known to carry large sums of money, and the assumption (which later proved correct when his house was torn down:  over $20,000 was found in the walls of the fireplace) was that he had plenty of money hidden at his home.

When String, as he was commonly called by his friends, and wife Estelle returned home from the Opry the Brown cousins were waiting.  According to the news reports, Akeman was shot dead when he refused to surrender his Opry pay.  Estelle ran for her life but was quickly caught.  On her knees, pleading for her life, she was shot in the back of the head.  

Louis "Grandpa" Jones, a longtime friend of his fellow Kentuckian, found the bodies the next morning when he arrived to pick Stringbean up for a planned day of fishing.

The graves of Stringbean and Estelle
in Forest Lawn Memorial Gardens,
Goodlettesville, TN
c. 2014 K.F. Raizor
In John Fogerty's song "I Saw It on TV" he stated that, in the aftermath of Kennedy's assassination in 1963, "They buried innocence that year."  What JFK's death did for the world Stringbean's murder did to Nashville.  Prior to the murders Nashville was considered, more or less, a "big small town."  A number of country performers became frightened for their lives after the murders (and the subsequent robbery/murder of one of Hank Snow's band members the same month).  Roy Acuff had a home built on the Opryland USA property.  Grandpa and Ramona Jones moved to Arkansas.  The friendliness of country singers waving to tour buses as they went past a home was replaced with high walls, steel gates, and security systems.

Brown had been up for parole six times and denied each of the six previous times.  When he appeared before the parole board in 2011 he was reported to be ineligible for parole again until 2017.  Apparently that was erroneous. 

The late, great historian Dr. Charles K. Wolfe concluded his chapter on Stringbean in his book Kentucky Country by saying, "When he died, it was as if a long Kentucky summer had ended."  That's more or less how I felt.  I was 13 when this happened, and I was numb from the news as it broke on Monday morning.  I remember standing in the my junior high school yard, in tears as if a friend had died.  In a way, a friend had died -- senselessly murdered by opportunistic robbers.  

Reports state that Brown has found God and has a spotless prison record.  These statements apparently persuaded the parole board more than the pleas from Opry performers such as Jean Shepard and Jan Howard to keep Stringbean's murderer behind bars.  

I cannot help but think of that line from Lyle Lovett song where someone asks for forgiveness and is told, "God will, but I won't."  God forgive me. 

And God help us.

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