Justice Severed? Or Repaired?
November 1932, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" by Bing Crosby was the number one song on the single music charts. The United States presidential election will occur on November 8, 1932. Buncombe County voters will elect Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt for president.
The Monday before the election a panicked call was received at the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office. Deputy Guy Roberts responded to investigate.
The Deputy arriving at a home in the Oakley section of the county found 26 years old Johnnie Hart. He was seriously cut, bloodied, and in pain. Hart was beaten and castrated. Deputy Roberts gathered as much information as he could and called for help. Hart passed out from loss of blood on the way to the hospital.
Before passing out Hart said while he was gathering firewood, he was attacked and mutilated by several men in the woods. Hearing of the assault Hart's neighbors converged on Hart's house to help and find out more. Several of these men spoke to Heart before he passed out.
Leaving Hart at the hospital, Deputy Roberts, and other officers returned to investigate the crime scene. 150 yards from a bloody spot in the woods officers found a handkerchief. It wasn't bloody but dirty, bearing the initial "A". Hart’s testicle was also found on the ground there.
Doctors at the hospital were able to stop the bleeding saving Hart's life. Sheriff Larance Brown took the lead in the investigation. Interviewing Hart at the hospital. Hart said he had been grabbed by the wrist. He was hit over the head then a cloth was thrown over his face. His shirt jerked off and stuffed it in his mouth. Once on the ground, his attackers begun cutting on his body with a pocket knife.
In his statement Hart implicated five men as his assailants. Jack Ammons 45, whom Hart said he recognized as the man that had first grabbed him. His nephew Marion Ammons 29 years old. A Jack Sam, Walter Yarborough and Todd Cordell. Cordell’s name would come up in a murder investigation later this same year.
Witnesses testified they had seen the Ammons men in the vicinity of the assault. When arrested each man had been in possession of a pocket knife. One of which had a dark stain that resembled blood on it. Though nothing unusual for a county man to carry.
It didn’t help the Ammons men that Marion was an escaped convict at the time. He had escaped from the Craggie Mountain prison work camp. He also had a record for arrests in Washington DC and York Pa.
When questioned he admitted being a fugitive. Claiming he spent the entire day of November 7 at his uncle Jack Ammons' house where he had been hiding.
Jack Ammons knowing he was in trouble for hiding his nephew told the same story— both had been at his house all that day.
In 1933 a trial was held at Asheville before Judge P. A. McElroy. There was not enough evidence to charge the other three men only the Ammons men were tried in court. Between witnesses, circumstantial evidence and Hart's testimony the Ammons men were convicted.
Several witness at the trial put the defendants at another location during the time of the assault. There was also the issue that Jack Ammons testified too as did others. This included Deputy Roberts. After news of the assault spread, Jack Ammons like others showed up at Hart's house to see if he could help in any way. Deputy Roberts was there at that same time waiting for help to take Hart to the hospital. Hart told Jack Ammons, several African American and white men assaulted and cut him. This because he interrupted a gambling operation in the woods. It was later he changed his story implicating the Ammons men in the assault and castration.
Convicted, Jack was sentenced to 30 to 40 years, Marion from 20 to 30. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the decision. The men were sent to Raleigh’s Central Prison on August 17, 1933. Given North Carolina prison inmate numbers 28597 and 28598.
This was not the end of the story. In February 1938 Johnnie Hart was the victim of what appeared to be another castration-type assault. This time Hart pointed the finger at four more men for this new assault.
Sheriff Brown was still the elected head of county law enforcement. He had not forgotten the first assault case in 1932. The similarity of the two crimes was suspicious. The Sheriff confronted Hart. He admitted that he had cut himself and was not attacked by anyone.
When asked about the 1932 assault, he confessed to making up that assault story too. Telling Sheriff Brown, the 1932 assault had been self-inflicted that time as well. The Ammons men were innocent.
After released from the Aston Park hospital Hart was charged with public intoxication and held on a perjury charge..
The sheriff notified Raleigh. Jack and Marion Ammons had served Six years of their sentence. The men told and as soon as possible granted a pardon by the Governor.
Hart was convicted of perjury. He was adjudged insane and placed in a State Hospital.
The Uncle and Nephew Ammons returned to Asheville. They were given information on how to regain their citizenship.
Editorials ran in the papers calling for the state to pay the men for the time they'd spent in prison. Wisconsin, North Dakota, and California—had laws providing for compensation of innocent prisoners. North Carolina did not.
Bills were sent to the legislature seeking payments for the Ammons men and others. The Appropriations Committee was sympathetic. Yet they didn't pass the Bills. A special commission was later established to deal with such cases. Not a surprise. Government change is slow.
The Ammons returned to Buncombe County and attempted to go back to a regular life.
There is another Justice Gone Wrong story linked to the Ammons and Hart incident. We go back again to 1932. Between the hours of 7 and 9 in the evening of September 27.
Someone entered the Asheville Shell service station at Charlotte and Woodfin Streets after closing. They shot Lonnie G. Russell in the back at point-blank range and robbed the business of what money was there. Police estimated it at around $400. With inflation and buying power, this was equal to $7733.64 in 2021 dollars
Witness reported seeing a vehicle near the scene of the robbery with New Jersey tags. A state-wide alert went out looking for any vehicle with New Jersey license plates. Only one vehicle was located in the state. It was found at the coast in Wilmington.
Further, the investigation linked the car to Gus Colon Langley. A world War 1 Veteran. Langley also had ties to the Asheville Community. A resident of Asheville, Willey (Shorty) Johnson was with Langley.
Langley had married a girl from the Asheville area. They moved to New Jersey where he worked as a painter and handyman. A big fight and argument between the two hadLangley decided to go away for a while. An attempt to get emotions calmed down. He made the decision to go and visit his father. The trip financed by one-day odd jobs along the way. Langley's dad and brother lived in Wilmington North Carolina.
Deciding on the way to travel through Asheville, he hooked up with his friend Shorty Johnson. The two started to Wilmington.
Langley's wife still had family in Asheville. She told her brother about the fight and Langley leaving New Jersey. This was the same time Lonnie Russell was killed. There was a $300 reward for information on the killer. The brother-in-law went to the police. He told them he knew the identity of the killer. The brother ended up with a $100 advance on the reward. He provided detectives address and names of the family in Wilmington.
Using this information three days after the murder, Police arrested Langley and Johnson. Charging them with first-degree murder and robbery.
There were witnesses to the murder. G. R. Pace, who saw Russell murdered, and Mrs. Marguerite Edwards, who saw the murderers run to a car with New Jersey license plates.
The lineup was conducted by Sheriff Brown once Gus and Shorty were arrested. Each witness stared at the lineup of men hastily formed in the Buncombe County Jail. Langley, a red-faced, black-haired man, and Shorty, who didn't get his nickname for nothing, stood out like sore thumbs in the row of average individuals.
Pace told investigators "They fill the bill asfar as size is concerned," picking outGus and Shorty. Mrs. Edward told Sheriff Brown, "I'm not sure of the features. So I won't swear they're the men."
Mrs. Edwards and the sheriff left the room. Later, the suspects were brought to the Sheriff who told them. "You have been positively identified as Lonnie Russel’s killers,"
"But that's Impossible!" Shorty screamed. "How could we kill a man in Asheville when we were almost 400 miles away in Wilmington?"
Langley told investigators he had been in Asheville on September 26 a day before the crime. He had left and arrived in Wilmington at 1:30 pm on September 27. He was at the other end of the state when the murder happened. He could not have done the crime. Langley testified to this latter in court as well.
Langley outlined his exact route from Asheville to Wilmington. He could also produce a witness to this. He wrote many letters to individuals whom he said could attest to the fact he was else were at the time of the crime. Langley begged for them to come and testify in court. It was later discovered Buncombe County jailers had not placed the letters in the mail.
T. Cordell who was a cellmate of Langley for several days testified as a surprise witness for the state. He testified Langley told him he fired the pistol that killed Russell and "is getting away with it". He claimed Langley told him he hid the pistol used to kill Russell near Old Fort North Carolina. Also saying he was going to kill Sheriff Laurence Brown when he got out.
If you recall, Cordell was one of the five men in the attack and attempted castration on John Hart. We know how that turned out. This testimony came years before Hart admitted to making up the story of his attack. Cordell at the time was doing anything he could to help his position when he thought he was going to court. His testimony was part of the reason he did not go to court with the Ammons men.
Cordell went on to say Langley admitted to painting his car since the shooting. The murder why he left Asheville going to his father's house In Wilmington.
Whiteness for the Defense were positive on the date that they had seen Langley in or near Wilmington. The State Solicitor a Mr. Nettles tried to shake their testimony but they stuck to their stories.
On Dec. 23, 1932, Langley was convicted in Buncombe Superior Court. He had a terrible early Christmas present: death by electrocution. His execution was scheduled for Feb. 10, 1933.
Langley was sent to Central Prison in Raleigh to await his execution. While he waited the state gave further insult. While in custody on Death Row, Langley was assigned to paint the death house during his two-year stay. Now you got to admit that's cold.
Langley still had some luck left though. Appeals pushed the date of execution back several times. This gave time to further study evidence that could overturn the conviction. Langley tried anything he could think of to overturn his conviction. He wrote several letters to the Governor and other politicians. He even appealed to Al Capone, the kingpin gangster, for any help he could give. Big Al at the time serving time in the federal penitentiary at Atlanta Georgia. Capone had his own problems and issues to deal with and could not help. Desperate people do desperate things. Jailers in Raleigh taking letters to the post office for prisoners was apparently more reliable than in Buncombe County. It seems all Gus’s letters from Raleigh were delivered.
Gus’s family retained Attorney Robert Freeman, from Asheville to help Gus in his fight. Soon the date of his death was set with definite finality. Langley gave up hope. Langley was reprieved hours before scheduled to be in the electric chair three times. Once having his head shaved for the electrodes when a temporary stay came in.
The last time in the eleventh hour the execution-only minutes away. The Governor received a call from Wilmington. An attorney had discovered new evidence. It could prove the condemned man could not have been in Asheville at the time of the murder. The Governor listened and gave another stay.
Part of the evidence had come from Fort Bragg. It would establish that Gus and Shorty Johnson had not been in Asheville when the murder occurred. Gus had picked up two soldiers en route to Ft. Bragg and carried them to their base. The Gate guard had logged the tag and names of everyone in the car with a time stamp. This standard procedure for entry onto a military reservation.
It was still needed to be proven it was not possible to make the drive from Asheville to the Fort Brag Gate to get the time stamp logged and commit the homicide. .After contacted by the Governor, North Carolina Parole Commissioner Edwin C Gill drove that night to Wilmington.
Commissioner Gill using a state police car attempted to duplicate the trip. Using the shortest route possible with a state police escort to clear the way, he made a dash across the State. From Fort Bragg to the gas station in Asheville where the crime occurred.
Gill, later the NC state treasurer showed Langley could not go from the crime scene to clocked in at the base. Langley was released and some months later received an unconditional pardon.
Langley’s experience of living on death row stayed with him until he died. For two years of his life lost the state paid Langley $927.80. This under a new 1947 law that gave restitution of $500 a year for improper imprisonment after proving innocence.
Langley put the money from the State to good use. He invested it in a private business. Unfortunately, he did have some trouble later with his new business.
In December 1950, Gus Colon Langley found himself in court again. Once more sentenced to prison by a Greensboro court which gave him a year and a day in federal prison. This time for liquor law violations.
Again Langley testified in his own defense. On the stand, he admitted to having started his illegal whiskey business with the $927 paid him by the state. He added that he thought the state owed him far more than it paid.
Langley after his release went back to painting and paper hanging. He worked until his retirement. He died of a heart attack at his home near Asheboro North Carolina in 1971 at the age of 70. Langley's death completed just one chapter of the book on the murder of Lonnie G. Russell. Today no one seems to be working on that final chapter, and most likely never will be.
The original murder has never been solved.