Robbery was immediately assumed to be behind the double murder. Jacob Lutes had moved to the Chandler Mountain area after the Civil War and eventually became one of the area's most prosperous citizens. A cotton farmer, he also owned and operated a grist mill next to his home on Little Canoe Creek. In an effort to bring more settlers to the remote area, he provided loans to neighbors and potential neighbors, and it was common knowledge that he kept a sizeable amount of cash in his home. It also was well known in the sparsely populated and tightly knit communities of the hills that Lutes had received pay-offs on several significant loans in the days preceding the murders. And it was no secret that Jacob kept his cash in a "money box," which was nowhere to be found at the crime scene.
The Luteses' murder had all the earmarks of a classic "locked room" murder. All the doors and windows of the cabin were locked from the inside. Shortly after the murders, Jacob Lutes's children hired Steve Wiggins, a high-profile private detective from Birmingham. Wiggins's charges were considered exorbitant at the time—twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses—but that did not deter the Lutes family, who apparently had little faith in local law enforcement. Wiggins hired a local youth to serve as his guide and intermediary as he traversed the lonely roads near the Lutes home site on a bend in Little Canoe Creek, which separated Etowah and St. Clair counties. After about six weeks of knocking on doors and building relationships with local residents, Wiggins got his first break in the case. His evidence indicated that McLemore and Knight knew derails of the crime, but they were not the killers. Three local residents soon would emerge as the prime suspects in the case; brothers Will and Cleve Campbell and a relative, D. S. "Bud" McClain.
In court testimony, Wiggins recounted his version of events leading to the double murder. According to the detective, the Campbells, McClain, McLemore, and Knight all colluded on a plan to rob Lutes. When the possibility of killing the couple was discussed, Knight and McLemore backed out of the plan. It was McLemore that would "confess" to the planned robbery and the details of the murder.
When the three trials began in the Ashville courthouse in the spring of 1913, McLemore was one of the state's star witnesses. McLemore told the court of meeting Will Campbell in Attalla a few weeks after the murders. "Did you know Cleve and Bud and me are being accused of killing old man Lutes?" Campbell allegedly asked him after a few drinks. "A detective is down at the depot now. They'll convict us as sure as h—. The first s— of b— that accuses me, I'll kill him. I've got a good rifle at home." Other witnesses swore to seeing Will Campbell on a stolen horse riding from the Lutes home the night of the murder. The Campbells were also overheard bragging about having money to burn after the crime.
"A detective is down at the depot now. They'll convict us sure as h—. The first s— of b— that accuses me, I'll kill him. I've got a good rifle at home."
In October 1931 McLemore died, and word of his "deathbed" confession swept through Etowah and St. Clair counties. By that time, Cleve Campbell, who had been in his early twenties at the time of his conviction, was out of prison. Bud McClain received a full pardon after McLemore's confession. Will Campbell escaped from prison: in 1916 and remained a fugitive until 1930. During his years of freedom, he volunteered for service in World War I and saw action in France and spent time in Mexico. He received parole in 1932.
Jacob and Marcella Lutes's daughter, Cella Washburn, remained convinced that the Campbell brothers and McClain murdered her parents. However, Washburn recalled in a 1932 Birmingham News-Age-Herald article that, shortly before the murders, McLemore told her it was dangerous for her parents to live alone and keep large sums of money in their home. Steve Wiggins never wavered from his belief that the crime he solved all those years earlier had been committed by the trio tried and convicted by a jury of their peers. For others around Chandler Mountain, though, the jury was still out.
This feature was previously published in Issue 87, Winter 2008.
About the Author
Pamela Jones is a freelance writer and researcher based in Birmingham. Her particular areas of interest in Alabama history are true crime and the state between the two world wars. She is a history instructor at a Birmingham college and writes corporate histories.