Movie producer part of ‘Murder in Coweta’ panel
by W. Winston Skinner
Dick Atkins, who came to Georgia as producer of the 1983 film “Murder in Coweta County,” was back in Newnan this week.
Atkins was part of a panel discussing the film, the book on which it was based and the 1948 trial which inspired both. The panel discussion was sponsored by the Coweta County Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Newnan Carnegie Library and was held Wednesday in the upper floor courtroom of the 1904 Coweta County Courthouse where the case actually was tried.
Atkins also talked about the making of the movie prior to a screening of the film in the second floor meeting space at the Carnegie on Thursday evening.
“I appreciate being invited back here,” Atkins said during his remarks on Wednesday.
He talked about the dramatic elements of the story and about working with Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash and Andy Griffith who were the stars in the made-for-television production which was filmed in Zebulon. “We were so thrilled to get involved with the movie,” Atkins said.
Others on the panel were Earlene Scott, who remembers the trial era and whose parents knew the murderer, Meriwether County landowner John Wallace; Joe Crain Sr., who has collected memorabilia related to the case; Reba Crisp, a friend of Dorothy Dunlap, whose family and Wallace were neighbors; Lamar “Bubba” Potts Jr., the son of Coweta Sheriff Lamar Potts; and Norma Haynes, a Newnan resident who was an extra in the film.
Turning to Haynes, Atkins quipped, “If we had allowed you to say more, we would have had to pay you more.” At times during Atkins’ remarks, his wife, Joanne Pang Atkins, showed enlarged photographs from the filming.
Tray Baggarly, head of the CVB, welcomed the capacity crowd and promised “some riveting stories.” The panel delivered.
Scott recalled the Spanish mission style county jail on East Broad Street, around the corner from the meat market her parents, Earl and Sarah Strickland, ran.
Wallace “was a big sized man,” Scott said. “He would sit in the window looking out at the courthouse.” He would get a deputy to call the market to order Coke or chips.
Scott has a receipt for items he ordered including a pound of bacon for 49 cents and 20 cents in fruit. “Coke was a nickel,” she said, and two candy bars could be purchased for a dime.
“If he didn’t like the food at the jail, he would would order something,” Scott said, sometimes getting meals from a lunch counter at a downtown drugstore.
Scott said her parents spoke well of Wallace. Before he left Newnan, he purchased gifts from Kersey’s, a store located in the current Panoply building on Greenville Street at Spring, for the Stricklands. “I’ve got the card he put in the gifts,” she said.
She also recalled a family trip to Pine Mountain where Earl Strickland was checking on Josephine Wallace, John Wallace’s wife, for Wallace. Mrs. Wallace was artistic, and she gave Scott and her brother, Joe Strickland, a picture. Their father threw it out the window on the way back – something Scott regrets.
“I would love to have had that in my collection,” she said.
Crain grew up in the rural Welcome community and was 12 years old when the case was tried. He said “the Saturday heroes” were cowboys — Roy Rogers, Johnny Mack Brown — who “always got their man.”
Coweta County had “a real hero in Sheriff Lamar Potts,” Crain said. “He was already a hero to those of us who liked baseball.” Potts was business manager for the Newnan Browns, a semi-pro team, and about the time of the trial he was housing the players “here in the courthouse,” Crain remembered.
Crain made connections with several people who played a role in the story. He got to know Steve Smith who ran the cafe at Sunset in Moreland where Wallace is believed to have killed William Turner, a Wallace farmhand who Wallace accused of stealing cows.
“Mr. Steve Smith was a nice fellow and a really good friend of my father-in-law,” Crain said. He said Smith’s son, Raiford, gave him some memorabilia.
When the jail was torn down in 1986, Crain determined which cell had been Wallace’s and persuaded the man doing the demolition “to work around that cell.” He had to pay the man $450, but he still has the cell at his oil distributorship.
Crain also got to know lawman J.C. Otwell, who played a critical role in the Wallace case. “He was a customer of mine for many years after the trial,” Crain said. “He was the state patrolman assigned to Sheriff Lamar Potts throughout the trial.”
In retirement Otwell lived in Madras and had the grappling hooks used to look for Turner’s body incorporated into his mailbox. Crain said he tried to buy the grappling hooks or to trade them for diesel fuel.
After Otwell died, his daughters came to Crain’s office and gave him the metal pieces. Crain said he also has “five of the original jury chairs” used in Wallace’s trial.
Bubba Potts said his father was “always a few steps ahead of me” when he was growing up. “I could never fool him,” he said.
He also recalled meeting Johnny Cash and talking with him about Potts’ doctoral thesis on theological themes in country music.
Potts gave Cash, a gun enthusiast, his father’s pistol. Potts said it was as snub-nosed .38 with a one-inch barrel that his father had “kept under his belt all the time.” With a smile, Potts recalled Cash used “a big pistol” in the movie.
Cash gave Potts a book. Potts remembered the Cash family was gathered around and Johnny Cash was getting a pedicure at the time.
Potts also recalled getting a “very interesting” poem from Josephine Wallace one year. “You could tell she was an artist,” he said. Haynes remembered being an extra in the courtroom scenes which were filmed in the Pike County Courthouse in Zebulon. “It was such a great experience,” she said.
Sheriff Potts’ grandson, Arthur “Skin” Edge, was also among the extras. Haynes said she went to the women’s makeup trailer, came out and saw a tall man she did not immediately recognize as Edge.
“He looked like Elvis Presley. They had put Dippity Do all in his hair,” Haynes said.
She also remembered a courtroom scene with Griffith playing Wallace. “One of the attorneys said to him, ‘Now, you tell me exactly where this all took place.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you. It all took place in Mayberry County,’” Haynes aid.
“The director started saying, ‘Cut, cut, cut,’” she remembered.
Haynes and Scott recalled Newnan during the days of the Wallace trial.
“There were a lot of people downtown. Teenage boys were saving seats in the courthouse for different people,” Scott said. “They were paid to hold the seats.”
Crain remembered the excitement over the release of the book “Murder in Coweta County” by Margaret Anne Barnes in 1976 and the television film airing a few years later.
“Newnan and Coweta County came out of the investigation, the trial, the book and the movie” looking good, Crain said. Crisp also talked about Barnes’ tome. “She wrote a fantastic book. When you started reading, you couldn’t lay it down,” she said. “Margaret Anne Barnes made all of us proud in Coweta County,” Crain said. “I didn’t know Margaret Anne, but a lot of people here did.”
The film portrayed Coweta as a law abiding place. “Coweta County got a lot of good recognition,” Crain said. “People enjoyed the book and the movie so much.”
“All this attention is fantastic,” Potts said. “Daddy would be thoroughly embarrassed.”