The scene was a nightmare: a young couple shot to death in their rural Tennessee home. Their 6-month-old baby boy, left for dead, was found unharmed in his mother’s arms.
Days after the January 2012 slaying, relatives of victims Billy Jean Hayworth, 23, and her fiancé, Bill Payne, 36, pleaded for help. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Department had no leads.
“I didn’t know a soul that didn’t like them,” Hayworth’s mother, Martha, told a local paper. “If … anybody out there with any information that could lead to … who killed them, please come forward.”
But no one in the sleepy mountain town was prepared for the reported motive behind the murder plot: The victims had “unfriended” a woman on Facebook.
“It’s worse than stupid,” Johnson County Mayor Larry Potter told The Daily Beast. “People ain’t got more sense than to sit on the computer and [live out] a fantasy.”
Potter said the bloodshed was beyond tragic for his 18,000-person county, which shares a border with Virginia and North Carolina and is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“In America, stuff like this just shouldn’t happen,” Potter said. “It would be tragic if those two kids would have gotten into a car accident. But this was a senseless murder.”
A week after the crime, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced the arrest of Marvin “Buddy” Potter (of no relation to the mayor) and his daughter’s then-boyfriend, Jamie Lynn Curd. Both were charged with first-degree murder.
Investigators believe that Potter was convinced to kill by his wife, Barbara, and daughter Jenelle, whom prosecutors say “catfished” her parents and goaded her father into the heinous deed.
Both women are on trial this week and have pleaded not guilty.
Potter, 64, was convicted of first-degree murder in 2013 and is serving two life sentences at a state penitentiary. Curd, 42, is testifying against the mother-daughter duo. His trial hasn’t been scheduled.
The victims lived with Payne’s father, who left for work at 5:30 a.m. on the day of the killings. Sometime after that, Curd and Potter entered the home and shot Payne in the side of the head, police said. Cops found him in the bedroom with his throat slashed. Hayworth was in the baby’s room with a gunshot wound to the face.
A neighbor coming to retrieve mail from Payne’s house discovered the bodies five hours later. “I walked up and touched [Payne’s] arm about right there to shake him and no response,” Roy Stephens testified in 2013. “I backed up and said, ‘No, no, no, no,’ and I realized he was dead.”
Prosecutors say the case is a Hatfield-McCoy rivalry for the digital age, which tipped over into violence when Payne and Hayworth unfriended Jenelle Potter.
“This is going to be the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard. This is going to be the craziest thing you’ve ever heard,” Assistant District Attorney Dennis Brooks told the jury Monday. “There is nothing in your lives or background that has prepared you to understand the Potter family.”
“This is the story of a manufactured conflict born from the mind of a very bored and lonely 30-year-old woman,” Brooks added.
Prosecutors say Jenelle created a collection of online personas, which she used to contact her mother and her then-boyfriend Curd, whom she met through Payne.
The fake profiles, named Tim, Brian, Matt Potter, and Dan White, all originated from the same IP address and are linked to the Potter family’s computer, authorities charge.
Another fabricated alias, Chris, became so close to Barbara Potter, 64, that she referred to him as “son,” local paper the Tomahawk reported.
“Jenelle Potter didn’t get out much. If she went out it was with one or both of her parents. When she had relationships with boys it either involved them or the telephone or the computer,” Brooks said in court, according to the Tomahawk.
Brooks said Curd was forced to purchase two cellphones for Jenelle because her mother was constantly coming between them. Barbara confiscated one phone, and the other is being presented as evidence.
Still, Barbara seemed to be taken by “Chris,” who claimed to be a CIA agent, WJHL-TV in Johnson City reported. “Chris” wrote her emails bashing Hayworth and her pals as “mean girls” who were causing problems for Jenelle.
“They can’t stand it that Jenelle is so pretty and so truthful and just a great person,” “Chris” wrote at one point.
It’s unclear whether Hayworth and Jenelle often crossed paths in real life, but Jenelle told investigators Hayworth and others were hacking into her Facebook and that she took them to court in Johnson County over it.
On Thursday, prosecutors revealed 207 pages of emails they say illustrate the Potters’ and Curd’s intent to kill. Those missives—which mimic the seediest of Southern soap operas—were live-tweeted by several local reporters.
“Billie [Jean] is a satanic mean manipulating liar and she has [Bill] right where she wants him,” Barbara Potter wrote to “Chris.” “Too bad for Bill because he could have had a better life but he chose bad.”
She added, “We’ve had enough and we want peace and no one here wants to kill anyone, but we will.”
In another message, Barbara tells “Chris,” “If they don’t think I’ll shoot their asses when I’m out, they’re wrong. I will do whatever I have to do to save my kid or myself. They will breathe their last breath. Bud [Marvin Potter] is soooo ready.”
Prosecutors also presented one email they say Barbara sent to herself 15 days before the shootings. The message included an article on a Christian website titled, “Can God Forgive a Murder?”
Defense attorneys are trying to shift the blame to Curd. Jenelle Potter’s attorney, Cameron Hyder, said Curd had access to the Potters’ family computer as a tech repairman. Jenelle Potter couldn’t have masterminded the rub-out, Hyder claimed, because she has the intelligence of a 9-year-old.
Authorities have long portrayed the Potters as a feuding family. During Marvin Potter’s trial, they called witness Tara Osborne, who also “de-friended” Jenelle. Afterward, Osborne said she had to file a harassment complaint with the sheriff’s office against Jenelle.
Linda Stephens—the wife of the man who first found the victims—testified that she saw Jenelle and Barbara Potter yelling at Hayworth as she pumped gas one morning. Stevens said she tried to calm Hayworth after the Potters drove away.
“This won’t stop,” Hayworth cried, according to Stevens. “They follow me everywhere and now that I’m a mother, they say I’m unfit. They call me trash. They are constantly threatening me.”
Evidence presented in Marvin’s trial and that of the Potter women includes blood, ammunition, and three bags of shredded emails that authorities say they found in a garbage bag in Marvin’s truck. Once reconstructed, the hate-filled messages included the words “that damn baby” and “kill, kill, kill.”
For Jenelle and Barbara’s case, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation [TBI] has gone a step further by submitting emails obtained from their accounts and Curd’s separate AOL and Yahoo accounts.
Defense attorneys are trying to poke holes in the TBI’s probe, saying a pipe filled with meth and codeine was found in Payne’s bedroom but never DNA tested. The defense says a trove of possible evidence—including baby bottles and ashtrays full of cigarette butts—also weren’t tested.”
Hyder asked TBI Agent Scott Lott, “Nothing was found connecting Jenelle Potter to the crime scene?”
“Physically, no,” Lott replied.
Hyder asked Lott if it was possible the meth found at Payne’s home involved Curd, and what grade he would give his own investigation.
Lott answered with a “B,” and conceded, “I made a lot of mistakes. Hindsight’s 20/20. It’s been as thorough as I could do at the time.”
But an avalanche of phone calls and texts from the Potter family may be hard to discount. There’s also an audio recording of Marvin Potter’s phone call to his wife from jail. “Before you hear it from anybody else, I did it. I was involved,” he said.
Hours before the shooting, Jenelle Potter allegedly texted Curd, “I love you. I would not take your cell with you in the morning.”
Ironically enough, Jenelle claimed to learn of the victims’ deaths on Facebook. When authorities questioned her the day after the killings, she announced Hayworth and Payne “have been harassing the living crap out of me.”
Jenelle wasn’t a suspect at that point, according to reports.
“Even when I’m out with my parents they would kill them to get to me,” Jenelle said on one audio recording. “The only thing I had ever posted is ‘Please leave me alone.’”