Author Amy Petulla uncovers the curious case that left two men dead and the incredible story still surrounded by controversy, speculation and myth.
In 1982, Tony West and Avery Brock made a visit to notorious Corpsewood Manor under the pretense of a celebration. They brutally murdered their hosts. Dr. Charles Scudder and companion Joey Odom built the "castle in the woods" in the Trion forest after Scudder left his position as professor at Loyola. He brought with him twelve thousand doses of LSD. Rumors of drug use and Satanism swirled around the two men. Scudder even claimed to have summoned a demon to protect the estate. The murders set the stage for a trial vibrant with local lore.
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About the Author
Amy Petulla is familiar with the Corpsewood murder case from both legal and paranormal standpoints. She began practicing law when David "Red" Lomenick hired her as an assistant district attorney. The Tony West murders were a topic of local interest from the time she first arrived. Amy was a trial attorney for twenty years. She is the owner of Chattanooga Ghost Tours, Inc. Amy has a BA in psychology from Emory University and JD from the University of Georgia.
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Lying between the cities of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Rome, Georgia, is the sleepy little town of Trion, Georgia, population around 1,700, located in Chattooga County. While the rest of the country has been growing, expanding and moving on with life, Chattooga County has remained the Land That Time Forgot. Were you to travel in time from the present to 1982, you might well not even realize you had made the trip, other than some wear and tear on the residents. The same probate judge sits on the bench, the court clerk from that time is only now preparing to retire and the same deputies greet you as you come in the courthouse door. Nor is it only the people who have remained unchanged. The scenery on the way there becomes more and more remote, and this tiny rural refuge from progress appears exactly as it did all those years ago. Long stretches of flat, open road with only the trees for a view, a few stores here and there that may have changed names but are otherwise identical to their earlier iterations, the water/sewage treatment plant with its large round vats brewing — all offer the same placid appearance. A "Paradise Garden" marker now points toward the home of nationally known folk artist Howard Finster; years ago, the townspeople were not so anxious to point out the residence of the "loony street preacher." The courthouse still presides over the square, populated in large part by shops that look like they went out of business decades ago. Natural beauty abounds, as do Christian values. The parks and ponds have not been sacrificed to the development gods, and even the old train depot has been preserved, serving as a gathering place for young and old alike. The one surprise when traversing this secluded province is the amount of art. Beauty created by both God and man thrives here.
As you approach Trion, there is a nearly imperceptible rise on the scarcely populated five-lane highway. There are mountains in the far horizon on both sides, but "Devil's Mountain," as it has come to be known in the days and years since 1982, raises its head alone in the near distance, presaged only by a sudden treeline in the otherwise barren landscape. The locals avoid this ancient ridge looming above. An eerie fog often rises in Trion just as you pass the turnoff to the landmark, perhaps occasioned by the water treatment plant, but sudden temperature drops of ten degrees or more in the space of just a few flat miles are not so easily explained.
The townsfolk are outwardly friendly toward strangers, at least those who do not appear to threaten their way of life. Not many black faces color the landscape, and you wonder how such a town could have been home to a couple of "devil-worshipping" Yankee homosexuals from Chicago. But like many small towns, Trion tolerates eccentrics, if they are its eccentrics. This is the area where a local named Zeke used to enjoy handing out his card, which read, "Zeke Woodall, Nudist. I sure do like running naked!" This area was also home to the phenomenon that was Howard Finster. Howard's story goes a long way toward explaining the mindset of this tiny rural region.
Howard Finster is now known nationally for his folk art — his angels, soft drink bottles and Elvis, among other subjects, all covered with writings proclaiming his own particular brand of Christianity. But in Chattooga County, plenty of people will still tell you Howard Finster was the bicycle repairman. The kids called him "Finister." Others called him the local nut, preaching in a church when he could, on the streets or even on the courthouse steps when he couldn't. Odd, yes. But a national figure, a celebrated artist? The townsfolk would have laughed anyone who suggested that out of town.
The year 1976 changed the sixty-year-old evangelist's life. He had begun his first "garden" museum in Trion in the late 1940s. His plan was to display one example of every single thing ever invented. As one might expect, he eventually ran out of space and expanded in the 1960s to a swampy piece of land in a nearby neighborhood known as Pennville. His focus changed from manmade creations to those of God, but he continued with his bike repair work to bring in some income. One day in the fateful year of 1976, he was doing a patch job on a bike tire when a smudge of white paint on the tip of his finger warped into a face, and the face began talking to him. Its voice echoed in his head, "Paint sacred art. Paint sacred art." Howard responded that he was not a professional artist. The persistent voice simply answered, over and over, "How do you know?" Worn down, Howard took a dollar bill from his pocket, stuck it to a piece of wood and made a painting of George Washington as his first piece of "sacred art." And that was the beginning of Howard Finster's artistic career.
Howard claimed he started having visions at three years old. After the sacred art command, God originally told him to create five thousand paintings, so somewhere on each one of Howard's paintings, you will find its number in the count. Apparently, God amended that figure at some point, as the artist reached the original goal at the end of 1985 but kept frantically creating art right up until the day he died in an effort to, as he put it, "see the last piece put on" the job God had sent him to do. Most estimates put the final tally upward of forty-six thousand. However you calculate it, Howard Finster's body of work was prodigious.
Painting was not his only artistic directive, however. Howard continued to add eclectic (many would say bizarre) elements to his garden. He was literally building Paradise from garbage. You will find on display at Paradise Garden art created from trash, dust-coated old cars covered with portraits of his heroes, a sarcophagus that at one time had a glass window to display the two-hundred-year-old body of a seventeen-year-old girl that had been donated to him after being dug up on a local doctor's property and Howard's own coffin, in which he wanted his ashes buried, along with one million letters deposited into the coffin by visiting fans. Despite his wishes, Howard's body is buried in Alabama, but his coffin remains.
The crown jewel of the garden, however, is the World's Folk Art Church. God had given Howard another urgent directive in 1982, the same year as the Corpsewood murders, and Howard complied by buying an abandoned church building and turning it into a sanctuary for his work against evil. With only a sixth-grade education and no construction training, he rebuilt the one-story structure into a four-story wonder with a circular staircase and sixteen sides, from plans he received in this vision from God. It has been repeatedly compared to a wedding cake. One of the first people to call it that was his neighbor, Ethel Olene Dennis, who lived in a short tan house across the street. After completing the chapel, he asked her what she thought about it. She responded, "Well, Howard, I think it looks like a wedding cake," to which he responded, "Well, I think your house looks like a peanut butter sandwich!"
The artist's fame exploded when he did album covers for both the Talking Heads and REM in the 1980s. He did not, however, let fame change him and continued to chat with anyone and everyone who came to visit, often inviting them to camp out in his yard. To Howard, the rich, famous and powerful were no different than the folks who lived down the street. When Time magazine wanted to commission him to paint a cover, he told it that its magazine was small, but he would do it to help it out because "I am here to do for others." He appreciated the fame for the sole fact that it helped spread his message to repent. As Howard put it in an interview with Kristine Mckenna in the LA Times on October 23, 1988: "Talking Heads offered me $3,000 to make a picture for 'em and I put 26 wholesome verses that the world needs to hear in that cover. And that rock 'n' roll bunch took my 26 verses and in 21/2 months they'd covered the world with 'em. They reached more people for me than 40 years of pastoring churches!" He spent the money on more art supplies and the garden to further share his Bible verses, as well as sharing very generously with his neighbors. Having come of age during the Depression, he had a parsimonious attitude toward money. He certainly didn't spend it on himself and his wife, Pauline, who, according to neighbor and local attorney Jon Dennis, had been heard to complain that her husband was so cheap, he wouldn't let her buy a clean pair of drawers. He was, however, always willing to share his wealth and life with those who needed it. Howard Finster at last completed his God-given mission on October 22, 2001, when he left this world behind for greater things. But while the townspeople are proud to have given birth to such a phenomenon, like Jesus, he is still thought of in his hometown as "the bicycle repairman made good" rather than the prodigy seen by the rest of the world.
Howard saw the world differently from most people. He believed, in a way some have described as child-like, that this world was populated by evil and was very clear that he had encountered that evil himself in his life in Chattooga County. Perhaps he did, in a form more tangible than most people can imagine.
For Chattooga County, Georgia, and its surrounds, a tiny remote area of the state, in a very short time span would host four of the most horrific crimes this country had ever seen, crimes that were even more appalling because they were planned and executed by the young or seemingly vulnerable. In the fall of 1982, teenager Judith Neelley and her Trionborn husband, Alvin, who had up until then been run-of-the-mill thugs and thieves, would kidnap thirteen-year-old Lisa Ann Millican from a mall in nearby Rome, Georgia; rape her for days; inject her with Drano; shoot her; and push her off a cliff. Thereafter in Chattooga County, they would rape and brutally murder intellectually challenged Janice Chatman and attempt to murder her boyfriend, John Hancock, and leave him for dead. Later, Judith would manage to kill someone miles away while in prison via a "suicide pact" where only the other woman died. She would become the youngest woman ever sentenced to death in the United States after it was established that she was the driving force behind the murderous pair. This area would also see the hellish landscape at Tri-State Crematory, where young Ray Brent Marsh would eventually be charged with 787 criminal counts for abandoning more than three hundred bodies among the grounds to putrefy and rot rather than cremating them. And around the same time, 400-pound schizophrenic Hayward Bissell, who despite his mental illness had never before been charged with a violent crime, would shock the world when, in a Trion convenience store parking lot, he brutally butchered his 105-pound girlfriend, Patricia Booher, cutting off her left hand and right leg and tossing them in the car floor, pushing her eyes so far into their sockets that they were originally believed to have been gouged out and then cutting out her heart. Following that, he calmly buttoned her shirt back up, reattached her seat belt and drove on to Alabama to continue his crime spree. When being interviewed by the police, he casually pulled her esophagus out of his pocket and started chewing on it. What concoction bubbled up in this rustic province all those years ago that brought multiple horrific murders in its wake? What conflict left behind such ghastly fallout? The most astonishing and notorious crimes in this provincial community, however, executed by seventeen-year-old Kenneth Avery Brock and his cohort, Tony West, were the Corpsewood Manor murders in North Georgia.
The story starts in 1976. That year, Dr. Charles Scudder, a Wisconsin-born pharmacology professor who had lived for decades with his cook, housekeeper and companion Joseph Odom in a Chicago mansion, sloughed off the bonds of society and relocated with Joey to a remote mountain section of Trion known as Taylor's Ridge, where they were free to indulge in the hedonistic lifestyle dictated by Scudder's recently adopted Church of Satan (CoS) ideology.CHAPTER 2
Like the enigmatic Dr. Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker, thousands of people who never had the opportunity to meet him have vastly different opinions of Dr. Charles Scudder. Was he the slightly eccentric neighbor next door? The beloved, affable uncle handing out psychedelic treats? Or was he in actuality a much more sinister persona, one battling powerful demons of his own creation? The conflict between conception and reality has led to a hotly contested debate — who was this well-spoken middle-aged man really, and how did he develop into this mysterious amalgamation?
Those who met him almost universally agree: Charles was cultured, brilliant, polished, soft-spoken but confident, with impeccable manners — in a word, urbane. Few photographs of the man during his life exist, but in his death photos, he bore a striking resemblance to the actor who played the father of a certain sparkly vampire clan: blond, well built, good looking, appearing much younger than his fifty-six years. Charles had an easy smile and charming manner, and while very powerful according to his own letters, he was slight in form, only five feet, six inches. He was not the stereotypical "devil worshipper" as conjured up by the imagination.
Charles Lee Scudder came into this world in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, on October 6, 1926, the day Babe Ruth hit his historic record-breaking three home runs in a World Series game against the Cardinals. He was born to Captain Charles Morrison Scudder, a hydraulic and mechanical engineer, and his wife, Eleanor Lee Scudder. He had an older sister, Janet. Both parents had been to college, which was highly unusual back then, and their neighbors on Seventieth Street were likewise highly educated. Charles Morrison Scudder had the highest income on the street.
According to his résumé, Charles studied zoology and languages at the University of Wisconsin. At the age of nineteen, shortly after his father's death, he met and married Helen Kilbourne Hayslette, a twenty-one-yearold co-ed at Oberlin College. Hayslette was not afraid to speak her mind. While a student at Stanford in 1947, she wrote a letter to Time magazine disagreeing with the magazine's assertion that no place in the United States had worse public transportation than Chicago by pointing out that San Francisco was in the United States. The marriage did not last long and produced no children. Charles got his master's in 1949 and married Bourtai Bunting, daughter of internationally acclaimed British poet Basil Bunting. Bourtai was an activist back then and remains so to the present day, speaking out and engaging in acts of civil disobedience throughout her life, including actively protesting against the death penalty, regardless of her former employment as an assistant attorney general in the state of Washington. (Although Scudder reportedly told Trion locals that she had died and implied the same in his article for Mother Earth News, as of this writing, she is still alive and quite active. She remarried in 1968.) On his résumé, Scudder lists his occupation from 1950 to 1959 as "Independent Farming" in Wisconsin, where he and Bourtai had four children: Saul, Fenris Sorrow, Gideon and Ahab. Ahab died young, according to most reports at the age of seventeen while in his senior year at Carson High School in California. The yearbook contains no memorial page, however, to give a clue about what tragedy befell the youth. Saul and Fenris went on to professional occupations. Gideon, imbued with unnatural luck, won the scratch-off lottery big — twice.
The marriage soured, and in the late 1950s, Charles moved to Chicago. He had an art piece called Mechanoid II in a Chicago Artists Exhibition sponsored by the Chicago Arts Institute in 1957, and in 1959, he began teaching biology at the University of Illinois. He enrolled in graduate school at the Stritch Medical School of Loyola University in 1961. Contrary to what many people believe, Scudder was not a medical doctor, but he did acquire his PhD in pharmacology in 1964. This degree allowed him employment much more suited to his burgeoning identity of societal rebel. An associate professorship of pharmacology at the medical school's Department of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics followed, along with the assistant directorship of Stritch's Institute for the Study of Mind, Drugs and Behavior. In that position, the unorthodox professor did government-funded experiments with psychoactive drugs, believed to include the hallucinogenic LSD.
Shortly after moving to Chicago, Charles met Joey Odom. Born Joseph David Terrence Odom on March 27, 1938, in Cook County, Illinois, Joey's life had had far less privilege than Charles's. His father, Connie, born in Georgia, had only a second-grade education and listed his occupation as "hotel linen boy." Working a fifty-two-week year earned him only $853, less than a quarter of what Charles's father made. His mother, Mary, had a fourth-grade education and did housework for others when she could get work, but that did not bring in much. The family had moved shortly before Joey's birth from the Deep South to Chicago, where it was easier to raise the children Catholic. Besides his parents and sisters, his unemployed uncle Peter Condella also lived with them for a lengthy period. Living conditions were cramped. Joey dropped out of school in the fifth grade. Lacking an education and substantial skills, it is not surprising that he got into trouble with the law at some point and was incarcerated. It has been said that he learned to cook while in jail. Not a lot is known about Joey Odom, but one thing everyone agrees on is that the man could cook. As Charles put it in his March–April 1981 Mother Earth News article, Joey had "a talent for whipping up meals fit for a king!" His preference was to cook the old-fashioned way, with iron skillets and platters. He eschewed modern-day conveniences and admitted that, if it were up to him, he would simply cook on a wood stove without any electricity. Joey's simplicity was one of the things Scudder loved best about him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Corpsewood Manor Murders in North Georgia"
Copyright © 2016 Amy Petulla.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Town,
2. The Victims,
3. The Manor,
4. The Church of Satan,
5. Life in Trion,
6. The Killers,
7. The Crimes,
8. The Discovery,
9. The Sheriff,
10. The Prosecution,
11. The Judge,
12. The Trial,
13. The Appeal and Plea,
14. The Property Case,
15. The Haunting or Curse of Corpsewood,
16. The Bodies,
17. Rest in Peace,
About the Author,