Investigators have arrested a suspect in the death of Johnny “Mack” Salyer, a drug dealer whose body was found inside a locked steel drum on the Tennessee River in 1981.

A grand jury returned a “true bill” Monday for a first-degree murder charge against 61-year-old William Frank Hawk. Hawk was arrested in his Greene County residence Tuesday morning, District Attorney Neal Pinkston said.


Salyer, Hawk and Debra Bales were co-defendants in a pending cocaine distribution case in 1981. Hawk and Bales married after their arrests. Hawk was the primary suspect in the initial investigation, officials said.

“Hawk was a suspect from the beginning,” said Red Bank Police Chief Larry Sneed, one of the original detectives on the case. “We ran every lead we could at the time. The witnesses would not cooperate with us.”

But the passage of time changed several witnesses’ perspectives, Pinkston said.

“People who were once uncooperative through time become cooperative for various reasons,” he said.

The 34-year-old death is one of 200 unsolved cases Pinkston’s cold case unit is looking into. Chattanooga Sgt. Bill Phillips said many factors can make decades-old investigations solvable. Witnesses recant past statements, relationships change, and new evidence is paired with old.

Criminal investigator Mike Mathis of the cold case unit assembled a team to revisit the case earlier this year. According to a news release, federal, state and retired investigators spent hundreds of hours interviewing dozens of witnesses and moving the investigation toward an indictment.

Criminal Court Judge Don Poole issued a capias for Hawk’s arrest and set bond at $500,000 after the grand jury’s decision. Mathis, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office made the arrest this morning. An initial hearing is expected once he’s booked at the county jail.

Hawk is married, owns a bowling alley in Lebanon, Tennessee, and has no children, the district attorney’s office said. His mother and siblings live in the Chattanooga area but have been estranged from him for more than a decade. His deceased father owned the Holiday Bowl on Brainerd Road.

At the time of his death, Salyer was 27 and had an estranged wife and a 1-year-old daughter living in Indiana. His family last heard from him May 24, 1981.

On June 2, 1981, a 55-gallon drum was first spotted on Chickamauga Lake near a Lakesite, Tennessee, subdivision. Two residents brought it near their dock. As they prodded it, they noticed a “strong, sickening odor” and pieces of cloth floating to the top of the water, according to an investigator’s report.

The black drum washed up at a nearby residence the next day. It had holes cut in the side with a blowtorch and a white metal clamp on top. The victim was only wearing undershorts, according to contemporaneous news reports. Investigators thought the barrel was meant to stay at the bottom of the lake; the gases in his body caused it to lift as the body decomposed.

Pinkston said the decomposed body was initially difficult to identify. A tattoo of the Rolling Stones logo later helped point investigators toward Salyer.

The cause and time of death are still unknown. The district attorney said the drug case and murder are “obviously related.” The three suspects in that case were arrested May 8, 1981.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond commended investigators for their arrest on a case that began when he was chief deputy. Officers often have a handful of unresolved cases that “you constantly have in the back of your mind,” he said.

“This is closure for me,” he said. “I know it’s closure for all these men up here.”

Updated @ 5:44 p.m. on 9/22/15.