MARSHALL, N.C. (AP) — Madison County resident William D. Auman worked 30 years of trial practice, including 10 death penalty cases and roughly 70 murder cases, but maybe no case was as memorable as the Gahagan homicides.
Auman found the details surrounding the 1983 homicides — for which three Greene County, Tennessee, men were charged with robbery and double murder in 2001 — so compelling that he wrote a novel about it.
The book, “If Trees Could Testify,” was published in June and details the highly publicized case of the double homicides of Big Laurel community residents — elderly brother and sister, William Grady Gahagan, 83, and Bonnie Mae Gahagan, 78.
The historical mystery novel is the second book from Auman. His first, “Pioneer Paddling Colonial Carolina” details the historical significance of the spots Auman visited on kayak trips.
“There’s a lot of North Carolina history in that book,” he said. “It was more like doing homework, but experiencing what I wrote about was wonderful.”
Auman’s experience with “If Trees Could Testify” was the complete opposite.
“This time around, this was created because I changed all the names — I needed to,” he said. “It is based on the case, but names have changed and some events are modified. This was so much more fun to write, but I wouldn’t say it was as much fun to live.”
According to Auman, who served as the principal defense attorney in the case, he stayed mostly faithful to the events in his retelling of the story.
“The case is tracked pretty much as how it happened,” he said. “There are things that I couldn’t write about because they weren’t public record. A lot of the stuff that’s in the book that does track the case is public record. Some of it beyond that is theorized on my part.”
Conley Cutshall and his sons, Randy and Harold, then-residents of Greene County, Tennessee, had been charged with two counts each of murder, one count of robbery with a dangerous weapon and one count of first-degree burglary.
Auman, who represented Conley Cutshall, said there were a number of interesting elements to the case that made it so fascinating for the public to follow.
“There was an (organized crime) operation running out of Newport, Tennessee, that was known for not only drug-dealing, but selling stolen property — argument being that various items from the Gahagan home (were to be sold later),” Auman said.
”(The Gahagans) were people of money. They were a founding family in this area. They had been in this part of the country for a long time, and they had accumulated a fair amount of antiques that went missing from the home and showed up in various places. It’s a case that captivated a community for a long time. I think people still wonder about it. I still wonder about it.”
Additionally, word spread around town about a biker gang being spotted in the area on the night of the crime, which only generated more intrigue and speculation, according to the author.
“I couldn’t tell you if there was substance to that, or if there wasn’t,” Auman said. “There was a lot of innuendo. When you go to trial as a defense attorney, you want to put on evidence that somebody else may have done it. You have to point to a specific person, and that evidence has to be more than just speculation or conjecture. It has to have some degree of substance.”
Legendary Madison County figure E.Y. Ponder served as sheriff of the case when it occurred in 1983.
“People say, ‘Whoever really did this, only E.Y Ponder knows,’” Auman said. “That’s what I’ve heard many people say. And he can’t tell us, so, the trees know. The trees were there.”
“If Trees Could Testify” is available through the book’s publisher, BookLocker, on Amazon and locally at Pendland & Son’s Department Store in Marshall.
Auman will appear for a signing at Pendland & Son’s Aug. 21 at 3 p.m.
Auman, who opened a private practice, Auman Law Offices, is now semiretired. He has also worked as an adjunct professor at Mars Hill University and UNC Asheville.