The Last Ride is the first book ever written about the murder of prominent Nashville citizen W. Haynie Gourley on May 24, 1968, and the heart-stopping, controversial trial that riveted the city of Nashville, Tennessee, and caused a sensation during the summer of 1969. Set primarily amid the racial turmoil following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, the book traces the circumstances leading up to the killing of the popular, self-made millionaire Chevrolet dealer, the extensive manhunt and police investigation, and the improbable grand jury indictment of a popular former college football star.
The work follows the life of Haynie Gourley, from before an unspeakable tragedy at age eight leads to a lonely, impoverished childhood in Cross Plains, Tennessee, to his 1915 arrival as a teenager in Nashville where he takes a job as an itinerant salesman of men's made-to-order suits, to his months in the trenches of France during WWI, to his prominence in the city's automobile industry, and his rise in the society of wealthy Belle Meade, becoming a member of the exclusive Belle Meade Country Club. The story is told against the backdrop of the founding and growth of Nashville, the nascent Civil Rights movement, the racial climate at Vanderbilt University during the still-segregated 1960s, along with the social history of the charmed Gourley family.
The story centers around the events of the morning of May 24, 1968. Haynie Gourley, owner and founder of a successful automobile dealership, Capitol Chevrolet Company, agrees to go for a ride with his forty-year-old business partner. The two return to the dealership 15 minutes later. Haynie, 72, is dead of three gunshot wounds - one just below the left ear, a second to the neck, and a third to the chest.
The shocking murder of a much-beloved citizen sets off a year of speculation: Where is the mysterious Black killer who vanished after jumping into the back seat of Haynie's car as he rode down Elm Hill Pike with his business partner? The murder occurred just as Haynie was about to realize his dream of having his only son take over and run his lucrative business. The timing of the murder is immediately suspicious, and the ownership of one of the most lucrative car dealerships in the South is in doubt. For the first time ever, the author pieces together the events and evidence that bring into question the outcome of this notorious case.
The two families involved kept silent for 50 years, refusing pleas by journalists and authors hoping to write about the murder and trial. Haunted by memories of sitting through the nail-biting trial where Tennessee's legendary legal giants faced off in a tense courtroom drama, the author spent three years interviewing those involved who still survive and carefully studying the 2,400-page transcript and delving into countless news stories about the crime. This was Nashville's most publicized trial ever, covered obsessively by local broadcast TV stations and the two daily newspapers, the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean. Both papers printed the entire transcript of the trial as it happened. Even today, the story still fascinates. After reading this true-crime story, one is left to wonder whether or not justice was served in the end.
In the summer of 1969, I attended the trial for the murder of my college friend’s father, Haynie Gourley, founder and owner of one of the largest Chevrolet dealerships in the Southeast. Day after day, I sat there during the dramatic testimony, watching as the most famous lawyers in Tennessee built up, then tore down witnesses. Outside the courtroom, reporters and photographers stalked the families and attorneys like paparazzi. Every television station filled their news programs with updates. People lined up at six a.m., hoping for a place in the 64-seat courtroom. The entire city was obsessed. Did the man on trial kill Haynie Gourley in cold blood? After a roller coaster ride in the final few days, a shocking verdict was handed down at 8:43 p.m.on Saturday, August 2, 1969. I was so haunted by the outcome that I could not let go of the story. I told it over and over through the years, to my two daughters, to anyone who would listen.
Other people did not forget this crime either. In 1995, two back-to-back articles were published about the murder and trial in the Nashville Scene tabloid. The stories were well written but contained glaring errors. Having sat through the nail-biting trial, I knew the writer had not had access to primary sources. For instance, the author, assuming that the murder took place on Elm Hill Pike at the intersection with Spence Lane, wrote that “Mr. Gourley was dead before the light turned green.” In 1968, there was not even a stop sign on Elm Hill Pike at Spence Lane, much less a traffic light. The article also stated that Bill Powell, executive vice president and minority owner in Capitol Chevrolet, borrowed a car from the dealership to take Haynie for a ride. Not true. The two men left in Haynie’s 1968 black Caprice, with Powell at the wheel. Other blogs and a 2016 video re-enactment gleaned their information from these two articles. I even found some newspaper articles written at the time of the murder that said Haynie and Bill Powell were on their way to lunch when a Black man jumped into the car. Also untrue. Bill Powell asked Haynie to go for a ride to discuss business. I felt I could not let all this misinformation go unchallenged. Plus, even if you had read the transcript at the time, people just weren’t sure how this tragedy happened. Rumors swirled, but hardly anyone knew for certain. I had to know for myself that what I thought was the truth, actually was.
As the 50th anniversary of Haynie Gourley’s death approached, I realized that no one else was ever going to write this deeply troubling story, that no one would ever connect the dots to figure out what really happened on May 24, 1968.
In April 2018, I summoned the courage to email my Vanderbilt University classmate, Billy Gourley, Haynie’s son, to ask if he would cooperate with me in writing a book. He had never granted an interview to anyone. We had “hung out” the year after we graduated from college in 1967, but after the trial, we went our separate ways. I had only seen him at class reunions, so had no idea what he would say. Much to my surprise, he said yes.
I came to Nashville in June 2018, and he and I drove through Belle Meade and out to Elm Hill Pike and to 600 Murfreesboro Road where Capitol Chevrolet once stood. We went to the archives on the third floor of the downtown library where we held in our hands the 2,400-page trial transcript (typed on parchment paper) and viewed a display case in the entrance hall where photographs of the trial had been assembled. Billy introduced me to Hal Hardin, who was the ADA at the trial and who had memorabilia from the trial decorating the walls of his downtown law office. Billy also contacted his fraternity brother, Jimbo Cook, who had attended the trial every day and knew it by heart. Billy arranged for me to meet John Lentz, who was the attorney for one of the State’s star witnesses. Later that year, my sorority sister, Nashville native Jane Hindman Kyburz, did some sleuthing of her own and managed to locate Sherman Nickens, the head detective on the case, and Larry Brinton, chief crime reporter for the Nashville Banner at the time of the murder and trial. She set up interviews and even drove me to Nashville.
Once I had the interviews, I bought a subscription to Newspapers.com. I was able to access articles dating from the 1920s in both the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean, so I could trace Haynie Gourley’s rise in the auto industry. I found an announcement of his marriage to Josephine Saunders. I could track their social life through the society pages of both the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean. The Nashville Banner was on-line up until 1960, but articles about the murder and trial were easily accessible in The Tennessean through 1969.
I spent days in the downtown library on the second floor where the Banner Collection is kept (the newspaper ceased publication in 1998 after being in business for 122 years). I sifted through microfilm to read Nashville Banner articles to supplement what appeared in The Tennessean. I could see photographs in both papers, even ones of me at the trial. It was unprecedented that the trial transcript was printed in full in both daily newspapers as it occurred, so I didn’t have to buy a copy and sift through 2,400 typed pages. I could see it all on my computer.
I studied these newspapers with the utmost care. I knew I could not make a mistake. If I wrote down information or noted a photograph, I cited the date, the newspaper, the page number, and column number.
My original idea was to start the story as it unfolded during the week of the murder, then work through the investigation, and finally the trial. But when I asked Billy to tell me about his grandparents – Haynie’s mother and father – he said he had never met them. He then told me what happened to Haynie and his four younger siblings when Haynie was eight years old. I made the decision to start in the 19th century and write about Haynie’s parents and even his grandparents. I ordered a book about the history of Cross Plains, Tennessee, where Haynie was born. Then, Billy’s wife Sherry located a letter written by Haynie’s nephew who related details of Haynie’s parents’ elopement and the trip to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Haynie had never shared many details of his early life with Billy. It was too painful, Haynie had said. He only wanted to concentrate on the good things in his life. The letter from Haynie’s brother did contain information about what happened to Haynie and his siblings.
I had consulted with an editor at a major publisher who advised me to make Nashville “a character.” I was flummoxed as to how to do this, so I decided to include the history of the city as it touched or paralleled Haynie’s life. Through Ancestry.com where I could see the 1910, 1920, and 1930 census, I knew where he lived on those dates. I followed him to Nashville as he built his life in the city. Again, through Ancestry.com, I could tell when he joined the Army in WWI and even saw which ship took him across the Atlantic. When he attended his unit’s reunions, the Nashville Banner quoted his experiences in the deadly trenches of northern France.
When my congressman John Lewis died in July 2020, I watched his funeral on television in Atlanta. An elderly Civils Rights leader named James Lawson spoke of his time in Nashville with John Lewis. I researched Lawson’s story to find that he had led the integration of lunch counters in downtown Nashville in 1959-60 and was expelled from Vanderbilt Divinity School for his activities. Since a Black man was said to have been Haynie’s killer, I thought the racial climate in Nashville in the 1960s was important to the story.
It was easy tracing the comings and goings of the Gourley family when they moved to Belle Meade in 1948, and even before. They were in the society pages practically every week. There were descriptions of the interior of their home, details about their travels, parties they hosted, Haynie’s golf scores, and countless stories of Josephine’s chic wardrobe. Even Billy and his sister JoAnn’s social life was chronicled in the pages. I was able to follow their charmed life as they enjoyed the wealth Haynie had created through the long hours he put into the Chevrolet dealership he founded.
Skipping ahead: When I got to the trial, the going was rough. There was the voir dire to delve into, and then when the trial started, there were pages and pages of arguments when the jury was out and when the attorneys cited long court cases to use as precedent. It was hard to let go of a lot of the testimony. I was so lucky that John Lentz, who was a major character’s lawyer and who represents country music stars (he even edited their books - Tom T. Hall, Tammy Wynette, Minnie Pearl, to name three), decided to have a go at mine. He helped me realize I had to paraphrase testimony instead of writing it verbatim. He was so right because even I would fall asleep trying to read my own copy. I ended up keeping the questions and answers to a minimum, using only what moved the story along. I had to be careful, too, to refrain from changing the meaning when I was turning verbatim testimony into narrative. It was a real slog. I remember once when Hal Hardin called to check on my progress, I told him I was on a certain witness. He exclaimed, “You were on that same witness last month!” That’s how long it took.
The editor at the big publishing company read my first draft and said he was overwhelmed by the research, which he felt got in the way of the story and the characters. It was like “reportage,” he said. He felt no connection to the people involved. After his critique, which I admit devastated me, I sat down in the summer of 2021, after having written for two years, and rewrote the entire book. I grilled Billy for more information about how he felt on the night his father died. It was painful for him, but he revealed details I had not previously known. My daughter, who is high up in a major publishing company, told me to think about what I witnessed at the Gourley home the day after the murder and to recall the sights and sounds of the trial. I certainly knew the suspenseful moments. I did miss one clue as I sat in the courtroom. I had not remembered any mention of Mr. Gourley’s broken cufflink. This was a piece of circumstantial evidence that in this day and time would count more heavily than it did in 1969. I only came across the headline as I was going through the transcript in the Nashville Banner microfilm. It should have played a major part in the State’s case but was barely mentioned.
A very lucky occurrence enabled me to write the very last chapter of the book. Hal Hardin mentioned that William Koch, president of the Nashville School of Law, had made a DVD of a 2016 Nashville Bar Association-sponsored re-enactment of the news coverage of the murder and trial. At the end of the presentation, there was a panel consisting of Sherman Nickens, Dewey Branstetter, son of Bill Powell’s defense attorney Cecil Branstetter, Hal Hardin, the ADA at the trial, and a young man I did not recognize.
When Ken Whitehouse got up to speak, he said, “I know you’re wondering why I’m here, because I wasn’t even born when any of this happened.” Then he told the story of being with his mother in the living room of Bill Powell’s former mother-in-law’s home. What he said was beyond shocking. I followed up by calling Ken to hear the story again and verify that it was true. I also wanted his permission to retell it. I talked to him several times to make sure I had all the facts right. We even went on Google street maps to view his own childhood home across the street from Powell’s mother-in-law’s house.
I practically wore out my computer’s thesaurus searching for just the right word to fit in a sentence. Sometimes it took days to get a paragraph just right. I also agonized about cutting out witnesses and testimony. I knew from the beginning that people would be hurt by this book; that kept me up at night, but my dogged pursuit of the truth kept me going.
In the end, I was able to rest easy, knowing that, even though this book would be controversial, I had followed the facts. I hope I have put to rest the mystery and uncertainty surrounding Haynie’s slaying. I think I accomplished that goal. Sad to say, though, in this case, I feel that Clarence Darrow’s cynical words quoted in a 1936 Chicago newspaper ring true: “There is no such thing as justice, in or out of court.”