Stars Rally To Keep Killer Behind Bars

This appeared in The Murfreesboro Post - August 7, 2011

“Whispering” Bill Anderson helped sound the alarm, loud and clear, in July 2011 to keep convicted/confessed murderer John Brown in prison.

Country singer/songwriting legend Anderson proved the third time before the Tennessee Parole Board was “not charm” for Brown, who with an accomplice, brutally shot Dave ‘Stringbean’ Akeman and his beloved wife, Estelle, back in 1973.

Anderson triggered an email campaign leading up to Brown’s latest parole hearing, resulting in more than 450 letters and communiqués against Brown’s release.

Grand Ole Opry vocalist Jan Howard was one of five people who testified personally before the parole board against Brown’s release.

“Stringbean and Estelle were two of the kindest, sweetest I have ever met,” Howard was quoted in the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. “I never want (Brown) to breathe fresh air again.”

Brown’s possible parole was big news on radio, TV and newspapers in and around Music City.

According to law enforcement descriptions, Estelle Akeman was described as begging from her knees for her life, when they shot her, execution style, behind the head while String was already dead, having been shot inside their modest hillside home in the rural Ridgetop community near Nashville.

This was not the first time the country music industry family came out strong against Brown’s early release from the 198-year original prison term handed down by a jury trial of the accused’s Middle Tennessee peers.

But, due to a quirky change in the law back in the 1970s, Brown nearly got paroled in 2008 before the public had a chance to respond to the parole board hearing. That 1970s law has since been changed to allow the public and victims’ families to be aware of future parole board hearings for convicted felons.

Unbeknownst to the public, two parole board votes had already been cast in 2008 to release the man convicted of slaying country music comedic icon Stringbean and his wife on a cold winter’s night back in 1973. The slayings occurred after Estelle had driven the performer home after appearing on the Opry.

Brown’s murdering accomplice was a cousin, Doug Brown, who died in prison.

It was a hot summer’s day in 2008 when Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper reported the possibility, even the probability, that murderer John Brown could be paroled.

Stringbean was gunned down in a fire fight as he entered his home after appearing at the Grand Ole Opry, but Estelle was shot in the back of the head.

Prior to the newspaper’s report July 4, 2008, the public, including most people in the Nashville country music scene, were not aware of Brown having already had an initial hearing before the Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole.

The possibility of Brown’s parole caused emotional distress to many in the Nashville music scene.

“I blew chunks, I heaved, I lost my dinner,” a country music disc jockey described. “I instantly lost my appetite upon reading that John Brown was slated to get out of prison.”

Nashville radio personality ‘King’ David Haley was dining at Sylvan Park Restaurant, a popular Nashville meat-and-three, when reading Brown was likely to be paroled within the next few days.

“It was about 2:30 on a Saturday afternoon when I read in The Tennessean that Brown was about to be paroled, due largely to the influence of a Nashville preacher who said he would hire both Brown and his wife for employment if the Tennessee Parole Board ruled to parole the convicted murderer,” Haley described.

Haley recalls having a strong emotional response.

“I remember saying out loud, ‘that son-of-a-bitch!!’ there at the restaurant, when a man seated next to me, replied: ‘You must have read something you didn’t like!’” Haley noted. “I must have blurted out those words subconsciously, for I didn’t intend for my words to be overheard by other restaurant diners.”

What Haley did the next Monday is what dozens of others in the Country Music Family did.

“I called the parole board on Monday, before they were scheduled to officially parole the convicted murderer,” Haley said. “I also penned a letter. It was short, but emphatically to the point: ‘Don’t parole the man who not only shot and murdered Stringbean, but killed Stringbean’s wife execution style with the lady begging him, on her knees, not to shoot her!”

Haley spoke of the convicts’ spirituality behind prison bars.

“I hope he (Brown) has repented in the most sincere sense and made his peace with God,” Haley responded. “But I think God can live with the repentant Brown remaining behind prison walls.”

Noted Nashville photographer/author Les Leverett echoed Haley’s sentiment.

“I also sent a letter to the Parole Board,” Les confirmed. “I think just about everyone in the Country Music Family did the same.”

In his letter to Tennessee Board of Probation and Parole board members on July 6, 2008, Leverett began his “plea” to keep Brown behind prison walls.

“My plea to this board, sent to you by means of this letter, along with the same wishes of all my family, is that you do not release John Brown from prison,” Leverett penned. “He does not deserve to draw another free breath!”

Leverett, who retired as photographer of the Grand Ole Opry after 32 years, explained to the parole board his adoration for Stringbean and his wife.

Leverett got emotional in his appeal to keep Brown behind prison walls.

“I knew and loved Stringbean and his dear wife, Estelle, for several years ...” Leverett noted. “One of the saddest days in me and my family’s lives was the following day, when we got the sad news that those two lovely, wonderful people had been mercilessly murdered by unconscionable, thieving intruders.”

Leverett also continued in his communiqué to criticize a criminal justice system that failed to notify the public about the possibility of Brown walking out of prison, a free man.

“It seems that the only people that knew of this hearing were the ones that wanted to see him freed,” Leverett added. “I could have gotten up a busload of Opry stars and other friends to come and speak on behalf of String and Estelle.

“Though Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson said his office was notified, he did not know about it until after it happened,” meaning that a parole hearing had already been held without public notification.

“This board has within its hands the power to keep this murderer in prison, where he belongs,” Leverett concluded. “I beg you to do that.”

Stringbean was at the height of his fame in the 1970s due to regular appearances on the Opry and “Hee Haw,” one of America’s highest-rated syndicated TV shows in history.

When one understands String’s on-stage warmth was also the same personality traits he showed friends and fans, it helps to understand the Country Music Family’s love for the man and his wife, and their memory.

Leverett, along with John and Hilda Stuart, was back stage the last two fateful nights String performed on the Opry, sharing some nostalgic last moments of life with String and Estelle.

“I shared Estelle’s popcorn that night (Oct. 10, 1973) as String was performing up on stage,” Leverett said in providing a verbal snapshot back in time.

The Stuarts, parents of international star Marty Stuart, had been at the Opry the previous Saturday night.

String had a practice of “showing off his money” that may have led former Ridge Top, Tennessee neighbor John Brown and accomplices to suspect the performer kept money stashed in their modest small rural suburban house.

John Stuart confirmed the performer’s habit, “The Saturday night of his murder, was the last night I spoke and visited with String, when I warned him not to show his money, but that was part of his being String.”

Hilda Stuart grew emotional in describing her last words with String.

“String always called Marty his ‘Little Man,’” Hilda accounted. “He had known our son since Marty began performing on the Opry at age 12 with Lester Flatt. ...

“His murder, which shattered our Country Music Family’s world, kept String from being able to keep his promise to watch over our son.” Marty’s mother shared.

Stringbean and Estelle are gone, but not forgotten by their Country Music Family.

By Dan Whittle

Return To Articles Return To Home Page