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Local murder revisited from six decades ago

     holbertmurderWell

J. H. Dilbeck-Atlanta Journal / Photo
In this 1949 photograph, Pickens County Sheriff Howard Cagle (right) stands with H.V. Shelton (left) and H.V. Brinkman by the well at Blaine where Earl Holbert’s body was recovered.

 

     Just 23 years old at his death, Grady Earl Holbert stood five feet, nine inches tall and weighed about 145 pounds. His eyes were blue, his hair brown. A veteran, Holbert served as  a tank soldier in the European theater of World War II. He was just a teenager then. Four years later, Holbert drove a taxi, his own, based from Jasper under the sign, Veteran Taxi. He went missing the night of Tuesday, February 22, 1949.

 

     According to accounts in the Pickens County Progress from that time, Holbert left Jasper around 6 p.m. that night, driving a passenger. At around 7 o'clock, he bought gasoline at the front of Low's Store in Talking Rock, a building that still stands on the corner of Talonah Street and State Highway 136.

Witnesses reported that around 8 o'clock, Holbert and a passenger entered Hub's Place, apparently a roadhouse. It was thought Holbert drove away from there headed south. He never made it home that night, something unusual for him.

      Holbert's father, John, alerted authorities the next day, and a search began that Wednesday. A break came in the case the following Friday, when Bryan Tatum, age 21 of Blaine, and Ernest Silvers, of Atlanta, brought Holbert's car onto an Atlanta car lot to try to sell it.

They arrived in Holbert's 1947 Chevrolet (light gray body, blue top) at Mark Robinson's used car lot on Baker Street. Tatum and Silvers happened to arrive at about the time WSB radio was broadcasting its noon news. The broadcast included details of the search for Holbert and a description of his automobile.

Someone at the car lot became suspicious when the two men offered to trade the '47 Chevrolet for a '37 model and $400. That person phoned the GBI, and a few minutes later, Tatum and Silvers were arrested.

     Pickens County Sheriff Howard Cagle, local lawman Fred Stancil and representatives of the Georgia State Patrol immediately traveled to Atlanta, where, under questioning, Tatum confessed to a part in Holbert's killing. He also told peace officers where they could find Holbert's body.

     Initially Tatum implicated seven other people he said were involved in Holbert's death. Some were from outside Pickens County. One was a woman. Two he could not identify by name. It was believed Tatum was involved in the illegal whisky trade. His motive for killing Holbert was thought to have been that Holbert somehow had knowledge of Tatum's illegal operation, and that Tatum feared Holbert would alert authorities.

     As the case progressed, all but two suspects were released from arrest. Silvers, the man with Tatum when Tatum attempted to sell Holbert's car in Atlanta, was found to have no part in the killing. A Pickens County grand jury indicted only Bryan Tatum and Weldon Sullivan, both of Blaine, for Holbert's murder.

Following information Tatum provided, lawmen proceeded to a home fronting Highway 136 near Blaine and to a dug well behind the house. A prisoner from the county convict camp, Pop Bennett, went down the well and tied a rope round Holbert's body so it could be brought to the surface. In daylight, a wristwatch on Holbert's arm revealed the watch had stopped at 7:58.

     Authorities transported the body to the Poole Funeral Home in Jasper, where Dr. Herman Jones of Atlanta and Jasper physician, Dr. C. J. Roper, made an autopsy.They found Holbert's skull fractured by some blunt instrument. They also found two pistol bullets in his body. One entered at the center of the back of the head, the second at the top of a shoulder, ranging downward into Holbert's body, an indication Holbert was shot after being put down the well.

     "There being no blood signs in the routes the bullets traveled, it was believed he died before being shot," the Progress reported. The same newspaper account says Holbert was killed with claw hammers. Investigators found a hammer and maul at the well bottom. Another hammer turned up on the side of the road near Antioch Church, not far from where the taxi sign off of the top of Holbert's car was also found.

     The well that hid Holbert's body lay within a mile of Bryan Tatum's home, the dairy farm of his father, Carter Tatum. The dairy barn and farmhouse from that era still stand beside the Highway 136 Connector just south of the traffic Y at Blaine.

     The second suspect in the case, Weldon Sullivan, was 18 years old when the killing took place. His employer suspected Sullivan had a part in the crime and brought the young man into Jasper to speak with law officers.

     "He confessed to the part of being promised $100 to help do away with Holbert, but that he lost his nerve and did not actually do the killing," the Progress reported. "He also informed the officers where the body was."

     In a modern interview, Weldon Sullivan's younger brother Vernon said he believes his brother was heavily intoxicated when Holbert was killed.

As the case unfolded, it came out that on the night of Holbert's murder, Tatum and Sullivan drove the taxi driver's car into Atlanta by way of Cartersville. They stored the vehicle in an Atlanta parking lot and returned to Jasper that Wednesday morning by bus. Between then and the Friday he was caught, Tatum produced a fake bill of sale he meant to use when he went to sell the car.

     On the night drive to Atlanta, Tatum ditched his bloody clothes along a side road leading from Cartersville to Allatoona. When he later showed lawmen to the place, the clothes were gone.

     "Some passer by had seen them and notified the Bartow County Sheriff, who had taken charge of them," the Progress explained.

Carter Tatum sought to have his son and Sullivan tried together and defended by the same counsel. Knowing Sullivan needed a good defense lawyer and concerned they could not afford one, the Sullivan family agreed to cooperate with Carter Tatum. Weldon Sullivan's younger brother, Vernon, recalled this information in a telephone interview Tuesday, March 27, 2012.

     The Wood & Tallant law firm of Canton defended Bryan Tatum and Weldon Sullivan at trial the first week of April 1949.

"The case began Wednesday morning [April 6]," the Progress reported, "and when they went through the 105 jurors already summoned and secured only eleven, counsel for both sides agreed to try the case before an eleven man jury rather than summon more."

     The verdict came shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday, April 7. Tatum and Sullivan were found guilty of murder and sentenced to die in the electric chair on May 21.

Their counsel immediately appealed for a new trial, but at the local level, that appeal was denied. An appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court followed. That court granted Tatum and Sullivan a new trial, because some members of the jury that convicted the pair were found to have relatives who had contributed to a fund that was to pay for extra legal help to assist the prosecutor.

      The second trial happened in April 1950. A fresh jury again convicted Tatum and Sullivan, but the jury's call for mercy in the case granted each a life sentence instead of the death penalty.

     Weldon Sullivan served seven years in prison before his release on parole, his brother Vernon recounted. Bryan Tatum probably served more prison time than that, Vernon Sullivan indicated.

     Tatum was eventually freed from prison and was listed as a Jasper resident at his death on October 31, 1990, though he died in the hospital at Bremen, Georgia. Tatum never married. Lifelong his profession was listed as a dairy farm worker.

     After he was paroled, Weldon Sullivan lived in Gilmer County, where, on April 23, 1958, he married Shelby Black.

"He worked in Ellijay for a while," Sullivan's brother recalled. "He finally went to South Carolina. That's where his wife was from. They went up there to take care of her mother."

"He raised three children, one killed at 21 in an automobile accident," Vernon Sullivan said.

     "He died in 2001," Sullivan said. "He worked 25 years for a man up there. When he had a stroke, he was working at Rome, [Georgia]." Weldon Sullivan worked in pipeline construction and was often away from home a week at a time while working at a job site, his brother explained.

"He had a stroke when he was 66 years old. He was 71 when he died. I was just about 15 when that trouble happened. He was 17 or 18," Vernon Sullivan said.

"Holbert and Tatum went to [high] school together," Vernon Sullivan noted. "My brother didn't go to high school in Jasper up here. He went through grammar school at Talking Rock."