• Marie Hickman

Jess Sweeten’s Logic Solves the Case

At first glance it probably seemed like an ordinary case of suicide, but as many police officers do, renowned Henderson County Sheriff Jess Sweeten operated on the principle of JDLR – “Just Doesn’t Look Right.” There seemed to be discrepancies in the suicide story.  It began in April, 1938 when Sweeten and his deputies headed to the Modoc Community where a tearful Karl Lambright told officers that his son Walker was dead in their nearby home and Walker’s wife Angie had the story. She related that her husband had removed the shotgun kept in a rack above a door, put it to his chest and pulled the trigger. Yet as officials arrived on the scene, Sweeten noted that the shotgun was back on the rack.  When officials examined the body they noticed that the discoloring around the wound seemed to indicate powder burns. Then after the body been removed and the shotgun preserved for further examining, Sweeten began to question witnesses. It came out that Walker and Angie were known to be poor, had frequent arguments and sometimes Walker beat her. The house was searched and in a closet was discovered an obviously recently worn bright red party dress with grass stains on the back.  Karl Lambright explained that Walker had stayed with their children the night before so Angie could go to a local dance club, so when Sweeten examined the path she would have taken he found something interesting.  In one spot was a large number of tracks as well as a patch of trampled grass. So what had happened? In his 1995 book “A Trail Is Never Cold: The Life and Times of Sheriff Jess Sweeten,” Lawrence Melton related that the officials had different opinions. Some thought it was certainly suicide but Sweeten called it a homicide. One official said: “You saw the powder burns around the wound, didn’t you? I was with you and I didn’t see anything you didn’t see.” “Well, if you think it’s suicide, then you didn’t see everything I saw.” Sweeten responded. According to Angie’s story, she was washing dishes when her husband came in complaining about their poverty. Then he as Melton related her account: he “grabbed the gun, and pointed it at his chest and then pulled the trigger. The gun made an awful roar, and it seemed like he stood there for several seconds. Then his knees bent and he fell over on the floor.”   Well, Sweeten asked, if that was what happened then how did the shotgun get replaced on the rack. Also, they’d found Angie’s fingerprints on it, but she explained that that might have happened when she put it back to keep it away from her kids.  Then the sheriff asked her to show how Walker had shot himself.  “Angie slowly crossed the room and took the gun down by the barrel. She reversed it, then held the muzzle tight against her breast. She fumbled for the trigger, but was unable to reach it.” Now it was time to get the truth and Sweeten spoke gently to the young woman. He explained that he knew she had fired the shot since if Walker had shot himself the wound would be at an angle. Instead, the wound indicated that the shot had gone in straight, and was fired several inches from the body, as indicted because of the powder burns around the wound. Then Sweeten offered his idea of what had happened.   He explained that he thought she had met another man at the dance club, then on the way back they paused to have sex since the trampled grass and her stained dress seemed to indicate that. Afterwards the man left another way and Angie returned to her house. It was likely, he explained that a suspicious Walker retraced her path to find the grass and tracks, and then returned home in anger.  An argument must have followed and the shooting was the result. Then the sheriff showed Angie how Walker could not have shot himself since the gun barrel was too long. Even the tall and rangy sheriff could not reach the trigger when he held the firearm against his chest and certainly the shorter armed Walker could not have fired the gun. Then, according to Melton’s story, Angie confessed to shooting her husband, and added other details. According to Angie, Walker had asked her to go to the dance hall to meet men, and prostitute herself. However, when she only brought home $3 he was angry at the paltry sum. When the next morning he continued to deride her, calling her a “common whore,” she “became all cold inside” and grabbing the gun, shot him as he came into the kitchen.

So with the case solved with a confession, the Henderson County officials were ready to proceed with the case – but there was a hitch. It seemed that the death had actually occurred just over the line in Anderson County and so Sweeten turned his case over to officers in Palestine.  However, as it turned out, eventually Angie was indicted and brought to trial in June, 1938. She was convicted and served several years in prison

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