JUSTICE STORY: Brothers shot to death and dismembered were victims of a woman scorned
For three weeks, they were known only as Mr. X and Mr. Y.
A man picking blackberries on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in June 1959 spotted Mr. X sprawled next to a dilapidated farmhouse near Gadsden, in northeast Alabama.
The following day, a woman checking on a vacant house she owned discovered Mr. Y on her property, about 10 miles from where Mr. X was found.
They both looked the same. Their arms and legs had been sliced off at the shoulders and hips. Their heads were still attached, but shotgun blasts had ripped away their faces, rendering them unrecognizable.
“In my opinion, it was either bootleggers, racketeers, or a maniac,” a county chief deputy told The Birmingham News. There was general agreement that the murders were likely the work of one man, or group of men.
No one gave much thought to the possibility that the killer was a woman.
Weeks passed with no clues. Then a company in Anniston reported that a welder, Lee Harper, 55, failed to show up for work.
At the same time, the Birmingham News ran an artist’s reconstruction of their faces. A resident of White Plains, a tiny town 15 miles from Anniston, thought the sketches resembled two brothers from the area. Again, the name Lee Harper came up. The second sketch looked like Lee’s brother, Emmett.
Police located another sibling, Robert Harper, a farmer who lived about 200 miles away, and showed him the gruesome photos of the mystery men. He tentatively identified them as his brothers. Both were World War II veterans; one had survived the brutal Bataan death march.
For about three years, Lee and Emmett had lived in a trailer in a community known as Rabbittown. Their home was tucked behind a one-story house on 40 acres belonging to Martin Hyatt, 75. Hyatt lived there with his second wife, Jessie, 67, and his only child, Viola Virginia Hyatt, 30, a daughter from a previous marriage.
Newspapers described Viola, a high-school dropout, as “sturdy, stocky,” and “plain.” She appeared well suited to work on her father’s farm, the only job she ever had.
Viola told police that the men had gone to visit family in Andalusia. But relatives there said that they had not seen them for months.
When confronted with this, she offered a second account, pinning the crime on a former boyfriend.
Six hours of questioning passed, then, in the very early morning, she said, “I have something to show you.” She launched into a confession, offering all the disgusting details of how she shot the Harper brothers, cut them up, and tossed their body parts along the Alabama back roads.
“They done me wrong,” she told police when they asked why.
Viola had an “understanding” that she and Lee were to be married. The night of the murders, she said that her sweetheart forced her to commit an “unnatural sex act” while Emmett held a knife on her, the Birmingham News reported.
Outraged, she ran home, grabbed her daddy’s 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun, returned to the trailer, and blew their faces away. She had to hack off their arms and legs so she could haul her bloody cargo into a wooden wheelbarrow to transport them to Lee’s car.
Then she drove along a back route, known locally as the “whiskey road,” tossing out the arms and legs and finally dumping the torsos.
In the morning, she led investigators on a tour of her trail of carnage. At one spot on an isolated road, she pointed out two legs. About 10 miles away, they found a pair of arms.
Viola said she flung the other legs off a bridge into the Tallapoosa River and dumped the other arms at a roadside rest stop. A fisherman thought he spotted one leg floating down the river. None of the other limbs were ever found.
“I feel better after telling my story,” she was quoted as saying.
Some neighbors told reporters that Viola was quiet but generally friendly. “A little different, but nice as can be,” one acquaintance told the Alabama Journal.
Others said she had a nasty temper and recalled that she was an “excellent shot.”
No one had much to say about the Harper brothers, except that they were heavy drinkers.
It took more than five months for the lunacy commission to find Viola competent to stand trial. Still, her attorneys entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity when her trial started in March 1960. Alabama braced for a lengthy court battle full of dueling shrinks and stomach-churning details.
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It was all over by noon the first day. On March 14, Viola pleaded guilty and got a life sentence with the possibility of parole after a decade.
By 1961, her good conduct had earned her trusty status. She spent her spare time crocheting, embroidering, and caring for the prison dog and cats.
By 1970, she was out on parole. For the rest of her life, she caused no trouble and granted no interviews.
A few months after her death on June 12, 2000, at 71, The Anniston Star published a lengthy feature on her four decades of freedom, describing her as witty, fearless and God-fearing, a woman who was often seen reading the Bible on her porch. Neighbors mourned her passing, protected her reputation, and refused to talk about the crime.
“It would suit me just fine if the [bad] stories about her would just fade away,” one acquaintance said.
In the article, the names of her victims appear just once.
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