By Samantha Swindler / Managing Editor
On Tuesday, 30-year-old Leland Curtis Stephens was arrested in Huntsville, Tenn. for the brutal Dec. 23, 2005 murder of Kenneth Wilson.
Though Stephens has not been found guilty of any crime, seeing an arrest in a case thought cold is comfort for the Wilson family — particularly Kenneth’s brother, Howard Wilson, who’s led his own crusade to find his brother’s killer for four and a half years.
“We can look at his grave now and know that we found who did that to him,” Howard said. “It was a terrible death. We’ll really feel good when it’s all behind us. It’s still got a long way to go.”
The Richland Fire Department was called out to 56-year-old Kenneth Michael Wilson’s home in Disappointment Hollow near Woollum late the night of Friday, Dec. 23, 2005. Inside the remains of the house, rescue workers found Kenneth’s body — the victim of an apparent robbery-turned-murder.
According to Stephen’s arrest citation, he allegedly struck and killed Kenneth by beating him with a hammer to the back of the head and took “a large sum of cash.” Stephens then allegedly doused Kenneth’s body and surrounding cushions with gasoline and set it on fire.
Stephens has been charged with murder, abuse of a corpse, tampering with physical evidence and second-degree arson. He is being held on a $500,000 cash bond.
Howard, who has long suspected Stephens and another couple of the crime, said his brother had hired the trio to do work repairing his front porch.
“He was really just doing them a favor giving them work because they were down and out on their luck,” Howard said.
The couple originally working on the porch brought in the third man — Stephens — to help.
“The day that Kenneth was killed, the day before that, he loaned that girl $100; she said her mother was bad off in Ohio,” Howard said. “So they took the money and went to the bootlegger and bought dope, beer and whiskey, and Kenneth found out. He went over and talked to the bootlegger, and the bootlegger told him what they’d done, and then Kenneth got on to them and I think he fired them and told them ‘You can’t get no more money from me if you’re going to do that.’ That’s where it all escalated from.”
Howard said his brother had recently been paid cash for selling some cattle, and that the trio working on the porch likely saw the transaction take place.
Estimates are that the robbers took at least $3,000 — after the fire, it’s unclear what else may have been stolen.
Kenneth was a disabled Vietnam veteran — a metal rod inserted after surgery helped identify the body after the fire. Before his injury, he had been an auto dealer like his brother. Howard said his brother was a solitary man who liked the solitude of living in Disappointment Hollow, near the Knox and Clay County line.
“It’s one of them deals where they say it’s too far back, you have to pump the sunshine,” Howard said. “It was way back, but he had a beautiful home... It was just the wild nature of him. He bought a big 100-acre farm back there and he just wanted to be back by himself. It goes with his nature.”
Howard, who runs Wilson’s Used Cars in Gray, has been following his own leads in the case for four and a half years. As recently as a few weeks ago, he posted about 80 hand-written flyers, copied from notebook paper, pleading for anyone with information on the case to call police and offering a $7,000 reward.
Long considering Stephens a suspect, Howard had once driven down to a Tennessee bar after hearing Stephens might be frequenting the place.
But he was always a step behind finding him. The trio reportedly left town shortly after the murder.
Howard also compiled close to 75 pages of his own notes and interviews in the case.
“I shared it with the state police, but it didn’t do any good with them until (Detective) Jason York got on the case, and when he got on the case, like I said, you can’t commend him enough,” Howard said.
Howard said York was put on the case several months ago and immediately starting making progress.
“This Jason York, this young detective, he’s great. He’s a go-getter,” Howard said. “He’s a good detective and a fine person also.”
Kenneth is buried on the family farm on Dowis Chapel Road. He is survived by four grown children, all of whom reside locally.
“I wasn’t going to give up on it,” Howard said. “Every day you’re wondering who murdered your brother that bad, and I wasn’t going to let it go. I had to do something every day. I had to call somebody, or do something because every time I passed his grave, you got to look.... you feel like a failure until you find who murdered him like that.”