When I was only 4 a murder rocked my world and became cemented as my most vivid and earliest childhood memory.
Both my dad and I were born in Coeburn, Va. I was born 2 months before he turned 30.
Growing up, everyone called me "Little Billy" because my dad was "Billy.”
My family was blessed to live next to the nicest neighbors anyone could ever hope to have. Zell and Earnest Bray had three grown children who had moved away but visited frequently, especially to eat Sunday dinner.
Zell paid a much welcomed attention to my sister Susan and me for the 8 years we lived beside them on East Avenue. They celebrated Johnny's return home after serving in the marines. He settled 40 miles away in Abingdon and worked managing a chain of movie theaters spread across multiple counties.
In the early morning hours of September 11, 1955 while I was asleep in my bed...my mother grabbed me and carried me to Zell’s living room. Dad and Susan were away that night.
Zell was hysterical and Mom tried to comfort her. Zell had just received a telephone called shortly after midnight and was informed by police in Marion Virginia, that her son Johnny’s body was found in his car on a rural road just on the outskirts of town. Johnny had been stabbed to death.
So, I sat on the couch and watched people come and go throughout the night.
My family left Coeburn and moved to Roanoke when I was in the third grade. Fast forward a few decades to the summer of 2016. I was visiting my mother in Roanoke when she handed me a faded newspaper tabloid and said, “Look what I found!” Mom had been going through some old boxes of papers and came across a 1956 crime magazine tabloid featuring a story about the murder of Johnny Bray. The reporter had done his homework. The accounts of the murder, the investigation, and the arrest were very detailed. I read with great interest about an event that had happened 60 years ago. The article had been published before the trials were completed. It described how the police were baffled in the search for Johnny’s killer, and how investigation dragged on for months as they chased one dead end after another, until they had exhausted all their theories.
The breakthrough in the case came when a jailhouse snitch said two boys, ages 16 and 15, were acting suspicious after having been arrested that same night in Montgomery County. These two young boys were eventually charged for the murder.
Mom and I reminisced about Johnny and his brother Billy and his sister Jackie. Johnny was a handsome young man who had just come home from serving in the marines. He had a steady girl friend. Mom also recalled that the trial was cut short by a plea deal that was offered mid-way through. Johnny’s parents, Bee and Zell, were just glad the ordeal was over.
Now 60 years later, the newly discovered information made me curious to dig deeper.
First I tracked down Jackie Bray who I found living in a retirement home in Kingsport, TN. She is a very gracious person and we had a nice chat on the phone, which led to a meeting on August 29, 2016. That day I drove from Concord Virginia to Tennessee. En route I stopped by Smyth County courthouse and got a copy of all the court records for the two trials pertaining to the murder. I eventually learned one boy went to prison for 15 years, the other went free, so I sensed there was a lot more to this story.
Jackie and I met and chatted at length. We went through old family pictures from our Coeburn years. After lunch we then traveled together to Coeburn where we visited my Aunt Lucille and drove by our houses on East Ave.
Jackie remembered two "Little Billy" stories her Mom like to tell about me. One story was that I was a comfort to her in the months following Johnny’s death. She said Zell was greatly distressed during the period when no progress was made in the investigation, and that I made her a promise that “I’ll find out who killed Johnny when I grow up.” This promise I did not remember. Neither did I remember the other story about the day I was in Zell’s kitchen looking at some bananas in her fruit bowl when I said, “I would like to eat a banana when I get home… ‘ceptin we don't have any.”
After taking Jackie back to Kingsport, I returned to Concord and the next morning I began an online search to find the two men who would be in their late seventies if still living. I eventually found that both men were deceased. Then on December 21, I contacted the ex-wife of the man who spent 15 years in prison and we spoke for 42 minutes. She told me her ex-husband did not like to talk much about his past but had always professed his innocence. She said she did recall one conversation early in their relationship that he was complaining that his defense lawyer was a public defender who did a terrible job. She said he was upset that his co-defendant got off, which he attributed not only to his family having enough money to hire a decent lawyer, but because they had connections with authorities who were powerful enough to make a murder charge go away. She eventually divorced her husband because he had a drinking problem, and he became homeless and wandered the streets of Alexandria, Va., for the rest of his life. She asked to see the 1956 tabloid article I had found. I mailed her a copy with my contact information but never heard back.
Both men implicated in Johnny Scott Bray's murder grew up in the greater Roanoke area.
Eventually Jackie and I found Johnny's girlfriend. We had a nice conference call and told her all we had learned. Both ladies found it helpful and said it gave them closure.