Dade County History: June Nisbet Murder Part 2 -- The Suspects and The Trial



The Suspects

Law enforcement officials believed that June Nisbet had been tortured to get him to reveal where he had hidden his money. The acting sheriff was Mrs. J.W. Lynch. According to local newspaper accounts several people were considered suspects: 45-year-old convict Milt Lee and his son Jimmy Lee, convicted felon Paul Crane and his brother Clyde Crane, Lee Scruggs, and ne’er-do-well Curt Hawkins (yes, a distant relative of mine).

Curt Hawkins was arrested in Chattanooga when found drunk lying in a front yard, but released when officials discovered that he was in jail in Chattanooga at the time the crime was committed. Milt Lee and his son Jimmy were arrested the evening of the attack. In the March 1952 term of court, Milt Lee, Jimmy Lee, Paul Crane and Lee Scruggs were all indicted. Scruggs was released on bond, Paul Crane had not been arrested and Milt Lee had escaped from jail. In September’s term of court, Scruggs’s case was continued, but Milt Lee and Paul Crane were still at large In early October 1952, Milt Lee was arrested in Buffalo, New York, and Dade County Sheriff F.C. Graham traveled to Buffalo to return Lee to Dade County.

The Trial of Milt Lee

Three women, Kathleen Morgan, Zola Williams and Savannah Hawkins (my aunt), testified that they saw Lee’s truck near the Nisbet house the morning of the attack and that Jimmy Lee was in the truck. Neighbor Dan Tatum had taken breakfast to Nisbet at about 8:30 and then saw four men approaching Nisbet’s house around 11 a.m. Dan Tatum’s wife, Ruby, testified that when she took lunch to Mr. Nisbet about 1:45, he did not come to the door and the door was locked. She looked in a window and saw him in the floor, propped up against the bed and bleeding. She called another neighbor, Mrs. Ida Hawkins, and they climbed in a window. Mrs. Hawkins’s husband, Will Hawkins, testified that he joined the two ladies there a short time later and that he saw evidence of some papers being burned there.

Another witness for the state who was very convincing was A.J. Clark. He had employed Milt Lee during the summer of 1951 and said Lee had mentioned to him and others that he believed Nisbet had some money at his place and that he would like to get his hands on it. Clark tried to discourage this talk and told him the money would be well hidden. Lee said “he had a way of finding it.”

Dan Tatum, Ruby Tatum, a GBI agent and one of Nisbet’s nurses, Mildred Pody, who happened to be the sister of Dan Tatum, all testified that they were told by June Nisbet that his attackers were Milt Lee and Paul Crane. A major point in Milt Lee’s defense was that this evidence was hearsay and should not be admissible in court. However, during Dan Tatum’s testimony, Judge McClure finally ruled that this evidence was admissible as a “dying declaration.” A dying declaration is recognized by law as an exception to the rule that no hearsay is admissible in a court of law. Tatum testified that Nesbit said, “They ganged me, beat me and burned me and tried to make me tell where my money was.” Mrs. Pody said she never heard him mention Jimmy Lee or Clyde Crane.

Milt Lee took the stand to say that on the day of the attack, he was “in the woods all day making whiskey.” This conflicted with an earlier statement when he told authorities he had been in Chattanooga all day looking at tires. Lee told the court that he made that statement because he feared prosecution for making whiskey. The jury retired at 4:30 and by 5:30 they were back with a verdict of guilty read by jury foreman Roy DeVries.

The Trial of Paul Crane

Paul (aka Blackie) Crane was described in a local paper as “one of the most colorful figures ever brought to trial in Dade County, with a record of several escapes.” FBI records showed that Crane had escaped from the Dade County Jail in 1946 while charged with the slaying of Jim Stonner in May of 1946. In 1947, Crane was sentenced to 5 to 15 years for manslaughter, but escaped in 1950 from a Milledgeville hospital where he had been sent for mental treatment. He was returned to prison on the manslaughter count late in 1953 and had finished his sentence only last July 29, 1955.

Crane’s case was scheduled to be tried in the October term of court in 1955, but had been struck from the docket because 12 qualified jurors could not be found among the pool of 70 jurors. A sanity trial was also held in 1955, and Crane was found to be competent to stand trial (The Dade County Times, Nov. 3, 1955). The paper also reported that Paul Crane and his brother Clyde Crane, who were being held in the Rome jail for safekeeping while awaiting trial, escaped along with two other prisoners. As the Cranes had relatives in the Byrd’s Chapel and Rising Fawn areas, there were many rumors that he might return there, but he was not seen. The Nov. 10 issue of the local paper reported that Clyde Crane had been arrested in Chattanooga following a tip to the police by two young boys. Ohio police captured Paul Crane in Columbus, Ohio, following a police chase after observing him driving in a “suspicious manner.” He was in a stolen car. Crane attempted another escape in February of 1956.

When jurors were called in September of 1956, Judge Davis drew an additional 100 jurors, several of them women, for the Paul Crane Case which was scheduled for criminal court beginning Oct. 1. The case has been denied a change of venue by the Superior Court whose decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals. (Dade County Times, Sept. 20, 1956) By this time, Milt Lee is serving a life sentence for the Nisbet murder, Jimmy Lee has been acquitted, and charges against Clyde Crane had been dropped. I found no further mention of the charges against Lee Scruggs, so evidently they were dropped at some point as well.

It took four hours to impanel a jury and the judge went through 10 panels of 21 jurors each before getting the necessary 12. The trial lasted three days and some of the testimony was recorded in the Oct. 4, 1956, edition of The Dade County Times: GBI Agent J.P. Hillan testified to the fact that on his first visit to Mr. Nesbit in a Chattanooga hospital, which was on the day following the attack victim’s admittance to the hospital, Mr. Nesbit was rational and stated that two of his attackers were Paul Crane and Milt Lee. The other two he did not recognize. “I’ll never make it,” Mr. Nesbit told the agent, “I’ll never get out of this hospital.” He died later from combined causes, including brain and liver damage, pneumonia and bruises, all resulting from the attack.

One of the state’s outstanding witnesses was Jimmy Lee, who stated that Paul Crane told him he got Mr. Nesbit’s money. Upon cross-examination, the defense attempted to prove that Lee was trying to “make things easier” for this father, Milt Lee. The elder Lee, now serving a life term for the crime, was brought to the Trenton jail for the trial but was not called to the stand. Witnesses for the defense attempted to establish that Paul Crane was not well-known in Dade County and suggested that Mr. Nesbit did not have the opportunity of knowing Paul Crane.

The case went to the jury around 4 p.m. and at midnight Judge Davis cleared the courtroom and had mattresses sent up for the jury. Evidently, the jury didn’t want to spend the night, because they reached a decision about 2 a.m. After a deliberation lasting about nine hours, the jury found Paul Crane guilty of the murder of June Nisbet. He was sentenced to life at hard labor by a jury comprised of 12men: J.B. Geddie, Jr., J.C. Wallen, R.H. Dabbs, Grady Wisenant, John T. Shelton, J.S. Parsons, William P. Burr, Claud E. Smith, Estell Robinson, Roy Higdon, L.L. Bridgeman and Bennie Ira Cole. The verdict came five years after the attack on Mr. Nisbet.

Observations

In newspaper accounts, the victim’s name was spelled Nisbet, Nesbit, and Nesbitt. Although Nesbit is how it sounds, I used Nisbet because that’s how the name is spelled by James Cooper Nisbet in his book Four Years on the Firing Line. In that book, James Cooper Nisbet recounts that one of the first men he ran into on returning to Cloverdale after the War was James Hawkins, whom he called a “home-grown Yankee,” because Hawkins was one of many in the area who actually joined the Union Army. But although Nisbet disapproved, he did not hold it against James Hawkins and gave him a job working on his stock farm. The account of their meeting can also be read on the historical marker at the end of Cloverdale Road. James Hawkins was my great-great-grandfather’s brother. James Hawkins’s son, Will Hawkins, and his wife, Ida, were some of the first to come to the aid of the brutally beaten Junius Nisbet. Will Hawkins was a pallbearer at the victim’s funeral, as was my grandfather, Grady Hawkins. My brother remembers Milt Lee coming to visit our grandfather when he was released from prison. I found it interesting that my grandfather was a pallbearer for the victim, but that the convicted murderer would come to visit him.

Although I have not searched for documentation for this, I believe Paul Crane continued to be a flight risk. My father said that when he was AWOL from the military, he was hidden by a family who lived in what we called the Welch house, which was on my grandfather Grady Hawkins’s farm in Cloverdale. This house was still standing, but empty, when I was growing up, and my brother Ronnie and I explored it with the aim to find where Paul Crane was hidden. We found a space behind a chimney in the attic that we were sure was the hidey-hole, but Daddy told us that he was hidden in a chest of drawers that they had cut the drawers out of.

My mother said that when we moved into the house she now lives in, here in Cloverdale, in the summer of 1957, Paul Crane had once again been “on the lam.” My daddy was working night shift and she was alone at home at night with two babies. Our house was just a walk through the woods from the Welch house where he had once hidden. I really don’t know how many more times he escaped, but some of my friends and I who attended Rising Fawn School in the sixties remember hearing scary stories of Paul Crane escaping and being at large in the area. He was sort of a local Boogie Man. Hence, my interest in this case, along with the fact that it happened so close to home and involved members of my family.


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