Charred bodies in the remote Tennessee farm country leave lingering questions about the execution of Steve Henley 

The black blinds are drawn from the window, offering a glimpse of a place kept from the public eye: Tennessee's death chamber. Steve Henley is strapped from chest to ankle to an aluminum gurney. He cranes his neck and looks into the faces of his daughter, son and sister. Their eyes are fixed on him.

He has a broad chest, a blunt, ruddy face, and the round belly of a man who's spent years in a tiny cell. But he looks more like the men you find in the rural bars of Tennessee—the kind who extend friendly hands with axle grease caked beneath short fingernails, buy you a beer, and hope to chat about their days running combines over vast cornfields.

The sight of her father, age 55, held down by restraints with tubes running into both arms, horrifies daughter Leanne.

"Oh my God," she cries, covering her mouth with both hands.

In the viewing room there are three rows of movie theater-style seats, plush and burgundy. Yet the room itself is sterile, white, as drained of color as the faces of Henley's children.

Henley sticks his tongue out and grins, a picture of resolute calm. His children's eyes are red-rimmed. Their noses run and their breathing is labored. Leanne's stomach churns. She asks for the trash can, worried she may get sick. Son Gregg is hunched over, hands cradling his head.

The warden asks if Henley would like to say anything. His voice is a gruff baritone, crackling with feedback from the microphone hanging a few feet above his face. He speaks in a forceful, matter-of-fact tone, eyes fixed on the ceiling above.

"Uh, I'd like to say that I hope this gives Fred and Edna's family some peace. My experience in life is it won't. All my love to my mother and father, my sister and children," he says. "I'm an innocent man."

"Proceed," the warden says. It is 1:19 a.m.

"Bye," Henley grins, blowing a kiss to his children. "Quit that cryin'. See you on the other side."

Gregg, Leanne and Henley's sister Stefanie rise from their seats, huddling around the window.

"Y'all a pitiful bunch," he says, his voice rising now, looking at the ceiling like a man late for an appointment. "Let's go to Pine Lick Creek."

From the time he was a red-headed boy until he was running combines and topping tobacco, Steve Henley spent every minute he could on Pine Lick Creek with his grandparents, particularly his grandfather, a tough old cob named Jack Henley. After school and on the weekends, he was a farm kid peering over the steering wheel on Gramps' lap, guiding tractors through open fields. It was the kind of apprenticeship that takes place on farm after farm in the woods and creek-side bottomlands of northern Tennessee. On Sundays, they fished for rainbow trout in the Roaring River.

"He just liked to be with his granddaddy," grandmother Bertha would later say.

Henley was an average student, earning mostly B's and C's. However, the meanings of words and the composition of sentences eluded him. A psychologist would later say he had dysgraphia, a learning disability that hindered the conveyance of thought in writing. Abstract concepts like math befuddled him. Yet he could fix any truck or tractor.

He dropped out of school in the 10th grade, then married at 18 and worked on Gramps' farm. But for reasons unclear, there was friction between his family and new bride. To put some distance between them, he moved to Maryland for a fresh start, where he worked as an outboard motor mechanic.

In the summer of 1976, Gramps was diagnosed with lung cancer. Steve, now with two children, moved his family into a trailer next to Gramps' house, nearly 80 miles as the crow flies from Nashville. With Gramps too sick to put his crops out, the younger Henley did it for him. But Gramps died before the fall harvest.

Henley took over the 519-acre farm with his father, brother David and childhood buddy Buck Anderson. By the following year, they were expanding over a multi-county sprawl that had them turning soil in Rutherford County, some 50 miles away. Henley was farming corn, soybeans and tobacco on 1,800 acres he either owned or leased.

It was a heyday for agriculture. Lenders were throwing around loans the same way they tossed out subprime mortgages in the mid-2000s. As collateral for his expansion, Henley put up Gramps' farm.

They worked seven days a week, washed and slept in the fields, coming home every two or three days. It was a feverish, self-destructive schedule. Sometimes Steve would work through the night, the lights of massive Internationals burning over rows of soybeans and corn in the dark.

But in 1980, the prosperous life began to unravel. Steve was always in the fields, leaving wife Valerie to raise their children. They divorced. Henley granted her full custody; he always believed children should remain with their mother.

Drought struck Tennessee that same year, wiping out their soybean and corn crop. They tried to compensate the next year, planting nearly 700 acres of wheat, hoping to produce 30,000 bushels contracted at the high price of $4.17 a bushel.

It was a big gamble and they lost. Just as they began harvesting, it started to rain. From late June to the end of August, Henley's fields absorbed nearly 40 inches of water, literally sinking his farm.

Henley defaulted on his loans. He lost his equipment and his added land, and eventually saw Gramps' farm slip into the hands of creditors. It was like losing Gramps for a second time, Henley said.

But his downward trajectory had just begun. In 1981, he pleaded guilty to transporting a stolen tractor over state lines, receiving two years of probation. A few years later, he was picked up on a public drunkenness charge. Then he was busted for writing a bad check.

Supporting his two children became a struggle. The last Christmas he spent with his family, there were only a few presents beneath the tree. Gregg asked his father if he'd been bad that year. For an old-fashioned farmer, there could be no greater failure than disappointing his kids on Christmas. But his money troubles were only worsening.

At age 28, Henley married again, this time to 18-year-old Cynthia Brown, who had a 6-month-old of her own. The union was short-lived.

By 1985, he was working odd jobs and hanging out with Terry Flatt, a 30-year-old junkie who lived on Bullet Hole Road. Flatt was unemployed and plagued by a host of medical problems. He'd become addicted to Dilaudid, a potent morphine derivative meant for the terminally ill. And he'd acquired bacterial endocarditis—an infection of the heart's inner lining—from the dirty needles he used to shoot it.

A doctor and a psychologist would later say that Henley was abusing the drug as well, and that his family had a history of depression and alcoholism. For a troubled farmer, the euphoria found in a Dilaudid high provided a soothing respite from the ever-worsening financial storm that would eventually swallow him.

Some time before noon on July 24, 1985, Henley picked Flatt up at his house and headed to Kenny Hill's Auto Sales in Cookeville to buy a transmission. He planned to resell it for a little profit.

The pair spent the afternoon traveling across Jackson County, guzzling Bud tallboys and, according to Flatt, hitting the Dilaudid.

At around 4 p.m., Henley headed for his grandmother's house. He was supposed to take her to the doctor the next day, and he needed to know when to pick her up.

They passed Neil and Patty Pharris, who were cutting tobacco in a patch along the road. A quarter-mile down was the home of Fred and Edna Stafford.

The Staffords had apparently owed Gramps money—for what is unclear. Now, after a day of Bud and Dilaudid, Henley suddenly had a mind to collect.

"He said that [the Staffords] had done his grandma and grandpa dirty all, you know, all their life...," Flatt said.

Henley let Flatt out before they got to Grandma's house. "By that time, Terry was in that kind of shape, you know, that I didn't want to take him in front of my grandmother," Henley would later recount. "Because my grandmother worries...about the kind of people I run with..."

After leaving his grandmother's at around 7:45 p.m., Henley picked up Flatt and headed toward the Stafford house, a quarter-mile down the road. He had a scuffed up .22 Marlin rifle, the bluing scratched off the barrel in places. They drove another 50 to 75 yards before Henley stopped the truck, loaded the rifle and filled a plastic jug with gasoline from an outboard motor canister, according to Flatt.

Edna Stafford was a fastidious homemaker with an open-door generosity common to Pine Lick Hollow, a place so isolated that some sheriff's deputies didn't even know how to get there. "If it's close to lunch, [husband Fred would] want you to come in and eat. Edna was the same way," says her brother-in-law Ray. "Made no difference if it was his brother or anybody else. That's the way they was. They believed in hospitality."

But this was also a place where grudges spanned generations. "You have to be careful who you cross," says District Attorney General Tom Thompson.

And the Staffords had apparently crossed Henley years before. They'd been driving toward each other on the narrow gravel road when they collided head on. Henley and Buck Anderson sued the Staffords, but a jury found both parties responsible.

"Well, according to the wreck and the way everything happened, we felt like it was their fault," Anderson said.

But the long-standing feud between the Staffords and Henley's grandparents remains a mystery. Ray Stafford refuses to talk about it. "I wouldn't want to get into that part of it," he says, though he notes that Steve would occasionally take vengeance by driving his tractor through the Staffords' fields.

"He'd just run through it. [Fred] never did say nothing about it. He cared, but he didn't say nothing about it. Fred and Edna wanted to get along with everybody."

Now Henley stopped in front of the Stafford home, leaving his truck sitting in the middle of Pine Lick Road.

"He jumped out and he told them, he said, 'I want your money,' " Flatt would later claim. "He said, 'If you don't give it to me, this man in the truck here, he's going to kill me.' " Henley pointed to Flatt.

Fred Stafford tried to diffuse the situation. "Mr. Stafford...said, 'Steve, if you want money, or something, I got $80, maybe $100. You can have it,'" according to Flatt.

But Henley was adamant. He told the Staffords to "just get on into the damn house."

Flatt was ordered to bring the rifle. As they neared the house, Henley grabbed the gun and told Flatt to retrieve the jug of gas.

As Flatt returned to the home, the gas sloshing at his hip, Henley opened fire.

Fred Stafford fell near the entrance of a bedroom. Edna Stafford was shot once or twice until the rifle jammed. Henley threw it to Flatt, pulled a .380 pistol from his pants, and pumped two more rounds into her.

She was moaning. Fred Stafford was silent.

Henley "told me to pour out some gas, which I poured out just a little bit right there in the hallway," Flatt claimed. "And he said, 'Keep pouring it out.' And I said, 'I can't.' So he took the can of gas from me and finished pouring it out, and then he came back to me and he says, 'Light it.' And I said, 'I can't do that either.' And then he struck the match and up went the flames and he went through the front door running. I took out right behind him."

Up the road at her farm, Patty Pharris was taking a bath.

"I heard a loud noise, maybe an explosion or something real loud. Louder than a gunshot," she said. "And then a minute or two later I saw Steve's truck come back by the house. When you live on a country road there's not much traffic, so you pretty well notice."

Further down Pine Lick Road, Patty's husband Neil Pharris was helping a neighbor who'd run out of gas. As he was about to climb into his pickup, Steve Henley passed. It wasn't long before Pharris saw a column of smoke floating over the tree line and the rows of hybrid corn more than 12 feet tall.

"Ten minutes later, Neil comes in the driveway," Patty said. "He was going to see what Fred was burning. It was awfully late for him to be burning something."

When Neil Pharris drove the quarter-mile to the Stafford place, he saw the drafty old log house engulfed in flames. The fire looked like it was "boiling" beneath the tin roof.

According to Flatt, Henley stopped to toss the guns over a guardrail. As they drove on, they ran into Deputy Carl Grover, who was trying to find the Pine Lick turnoff. The Stafford home was on fire, Grover said. Did Henley know the way?

Grover followed as Henley drove in toward the Staffords', shooting his hand over the pickup cab to point at the turnoff. The deputy kicked up a cloud of dust as he headed toward the flaming home. Though Henley had known the elderly Staffords his entire life—they'd attended the same church and his grandfather's funeral—he didn't bother to follow.

Fred and Edna Stafford's house collapsed, burying their charred bodies in piles of glowing wood. It was beyond rescue; the fire department didn't even try to save it. Neighbor Ray Mercer watched as what was left of Edna's body was dragged out on a piece of the tin roof.

Less than two days later, Henley was arrested—not for murder or arson, but for contempt of court. A lender had won a $1,400 judgment against him, and Henley's Honda motorcycle was supposed to satisfy that debt. But he sold it before the bank could take possession.

Since Henley had been seen near the Stafford fire, Sheriff Wayne Mahaney, a fireplug of a man with tobacco in his lip and a revolver in his hip pocket, drove Flatt and Henley to Nashville to take polygraph and voice-stress analysis tests.

Mahaney was new to police work, having worked as a mechanic prior to his election as sheriff less than a year before. The coming investigation would reflect that inexperience. But he believed Flatt would quickly roll. And he was right.

At first Flatt was resistant, offering nothing to arson investigator Ishmael Wood. "I ain't takin' the rap for nobody else, period," Flatt said. "I never done nothin', wasn't in on nothin' but drink beer. I was drunk myself."

But before taking the polygraph, he had a change of heart, spilling everything.

Flatt told the sheriff where to find the rifle. It was discovered near the guardrail that same day.

Investigators and volunteers sifted through the home's ashes for shell casings. Nine .22 casings were pulled from the ashes. But only one appeared to have been fired from the recovered rifle.

These were primitive days for Tennessee law enforcement. Volunteers routinely aided investigations in sparse counties like Jackson. And Wood had no formal training, save for a few weeks of an apprenticeship under his belt.

The collection of evidence naturally took a beginner's path. Wood failed to keep detailed notes on where the shells were found or who had discovered them.

Two days later, a .380 pistol was found wrapped in a towel only a few feet from where the rifle was found. But not a single .380 casing was recovered in the ruins. Nor were any tests conducted to see if gasoline was used to start the fire.

But police did have a damning report from the medical examiner, who found a bullet hole through Fred Stafford's heart. No gunshot wounds were ever found in Edna. Yet the fire had so damaged her body it was hard to tell. Much of her hips, arms and legs were missing.

Either way, she hadn't died by gun. Her lungs were saturated in carbon monoxide, the medical examiner ruled, meaning she'd suffocated and burned to death. Fred was already gone when the fire consumed him.

Inside the Jackson County lockup, Steve Henley's stomach churned and his chest tightened. There were times he thought he would lose his mind, he wrote in a letter to Dr. Gregory Byrne, a family physician.

Byrne came to befriend the inmate, listening to first-hand accounts of an act he couldn't comprehend. But as Henley spoke of the day of the murders, Byrne's curiosity seemed to turn to pity. After a time, he stopped questioning Henley about it at all.

"...I just wanted to hear his story. And once I became convinced that he seemed not to have his story together at all, I just handled the medical end of it."

Henley was wracked with anxiety. He begged for Valium, but Byrne refused to prescribe it. On a handful of occasions, Henley was rushed to the emergency room with a smorgasbord of phantom ailments. The one request on his lips: Valium.

"I felt that Steve had a tendency toward chemical dependence," Byrne said. "He confided in me that he had such a high tolerance."

In letters written to Byrne, it's clear that Henley became close to the doctor, and that Byrne pitied him enough to prescribe narcotics he may not have needed.

He was on a cocktail of codeine and Xanax when his trial began on Feb. 19, 1986. The defense immediately launched an attack on the largely circumstantial evidence against Henley, as well as the shoddy investigative work.

Flatt had given police a play by play, noting exactly where the gasoline was poured. Yet Wood never took a single sample. He never checked the wiring to determine if an electrical cause could be ruled out. On the stand, he even admitted that he didn't know how to do it.

Henley's attorney, Jimmy Reneau, also eviscerated Wood over the collection of evidence. The investigator couldn't say who found what shells—some of which appeared to have been through a fire, while the one linked to Henley's rifle was relatively shiny.

"So you're not trying to tell the jury that the single shell you've got there, from your investigation, was in the fire at the time of the fire?" Reneau probed.

"I don't know that," Wood answered. "I just know they recovered it out of the fire scene."

Wood further admitted there was no crime scene control, other than a rope encircling the house. And the .380 pistol was never sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab, nor did anyone run the serial number to determine its ownership.

In short: Nearly every piece of physical evidence was tainted.

But if police botched their end of the case, Henley's tale was evaporating as well.

He claimed he had no beef with the Staffords and they owed him no money. But Buck Anderson testified that he and Henley were still angry over the car accident.

Henley claimed he never took drugs or even drank that much. But Flatt testified they both took Dilaudid and pounded more than a case of beer on the day of the fire. And Anderson said Henley would sometimes get drunk at the Branding Iron, where Anderson worked as a bouncer. Henley's grandmother even admitted that Steve grew a few marijuana plants behind her smokehouse.

It didn't help that Henley's mother wouldn't come to his defense. When called to the witness stand, Dorothy Henley asked to confer with Reneau privately, then changed her mind about testifying. She later claimed she was unprepared and simply didn't know what to do. But to the jury, it no doubt looked as if a mother was refusing to get behind her son.

Moreover, Henley couldn't account for critical hours before the fire took place. And while Neil Pharris had seen him on Pine Lick Road at the time, Henley claimed to have never seen a fire, though smoke was billowing over the tree line just moments later.

Henley even said he was unaware of the fire till the next day, a claim quickly riddled by Deputy Carl Grover, whom Henley provided with directions to the blaze.

The jury was left to decide between painfully amateur police work and a defendant whose story seemed wracked with lies. After 24 hours of deliberation, it found him guilty of first-degree murder and arson. He'd been convicted on little more than circumstantial evidence and the testimony of his dope-addled accomplice.

Henley maintained his innocence. "I think each and every one of you has made a mistake, and it's a mistake you all will have to live with," he told the court. "And one day and time, when we're all, wherever we go, we'll all have to face that."

In exchange for his help, Flatt was sentenced to 25 years in prison, with a parole hearing after seven-and-a-half. He was out in five.

Henley would fight his conviction over the next two decades. He would win minor victories along the way, but the Tennessee Supreme Court had the final say. And its ruling was definitive: The death sentence would stand.

A week before his death, Steve Henley sat on the prisoner side of the plexiglass inside Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. He was a large man, broad-shouldered, with the kind of outsized hands you see on those who farm, ranch or work construction—big fingers, knobby joints.

He stood for most of the interview, speaking quickly, telling stories about how he was framed so that law enforcement, cantankerous neighbors and agribusiness schemers could take his farm, though he provided no evidence.

He held out hope for a stay. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was studying the constitutionality of Tennessee's three-drug method of lethal injection. But the court refused a reprieve.

On a freezing February night after two decades of delays, his sentence would be carried out inside a square concrete building surrounded by hills crowned with Tennessee pine.

They're screaming at the glass. They want to make sure he hears their words. They tell him they know he's innocent, that they love him.

"I feel it coming," Henley calls out. For the first time, his voice shakes, though it doesn't sound like fear. It's as if there's something else he wants to say, yet the barbiturate is swallowing his words.

He releases a prodigious sigh, as though all the weight of a life is expiring through his open mouth. As he inhales, a great snoring sound rattles inside his nasal cavity. A gurgling issues from somewhere inside his throat.

"Oh my God. No! No!" Leanne cries.

Henley's eyes loll back in their sockets, and his head shifts and strains almost imperceptibly on his neck. His chest does not rise again. The drugs are suffocating him, attacking his heart.

His spiritual advisor Stacy Rector leads the Lord's Prayer.

"Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven."

Henley's once-pink face turns blue, then a purple as dark as the bags beneath his daughter's eyes. Veins protrude from his forehead.

"Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation..."

The voices rise in the tiny room, up and up and up in crescendo. They're gripping each other's hands, screaming the final verse into the glass. The air in the room vibrates with hysteria.

"...but deliver us from evil."

Leanne vomits into a trash can.

Before the black blinds slide back down, Henley's children sniffle and clutch each other. Gregg cradles his head in his hands, doubled over as he weeps, staring into the face of his father, who will never return his gaze.

The warden calls it—1:33 a.m.

Email bhargrove@nashvillescene.com, or call 615-844-9403.

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