The Torso Murder: 30 years since a disturbing discovery

Oct. 27, 2016: It has been 30 years since "The Torso Murder" that gripped Knox County for weeks.

30 years ago, a disturbing discovery and the ensuing investigation gripped the Knox County community for weeks.

Some of the details are still tough to hear. The violence was so shocking and unprecedented that those involved in the case remember it vividly to this day.

On Oct. 27, 1986, human body parts started showing up throughout Knox County, leading to a week long search for whoever - or whatever - was responsible.

Meads Quarry in South Knoxville is now part of Ijams Nature Center, where people go hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and more. Three decades ago, however, it was an old rock quarry used by many as a place to dump trash.

It was there that a teenager named Dwayne Montgomery made a chilling discovery.

He found a human torso.

"I started looking around down in that garbage there, and there it laid. I thought it was a mannequin at first, and then I got a better look at it and I seen it was a body," Montgomery told WBIR at the time, in 1986. "When I seen that backbone sticking out and all the guts and stuff hanging out, then I knew right then, it wasn't no mannequin."

"Arms have been sawed off clean with a saw," George Hipshire, then a detective with the Knox County Sheriff's Office, told reporters at the scene. "You can tell it is a saw. The head has been sawed off."

Authorities didn't know the victim's identity - or why he died.

"Certain early leads have been checked out and have been discounted," a KCSO official told reporters in WBIR's news coverage at the time.

Dan Stewart was then a detective with the Knox County Sheriff's Office and recalls the case vividly to this day.

With the murder so close to Halloween, he said, some early leads had KCSO looking at this as a possible cult ritual.

"We hadn't seen anything in the sheriff's department quite that gruesome," he said, reflecting on the case. "People had been killed, of course. We'd worked murder cases prior to this, but this was one that was unusual for our area in the level of violence."

He recalls the chaos as trash bags containing body parts started showing up around Knox County, starting on Oct. 27 and stretching on for days.

"It was unreal the number of phone calls that we got," Stewart said. "I remember in my office you couldn't set the phone in its cradle without it ringing again."

A fisherman found the victim's head in a plastic bag, floating in the Holston River.

In North Knoxville, a teenager found a suitcase filled with human intestines.

Body parts - and the tools used to dismember that body - were showing up, scattered throughout Knoxville and Knox County.

"We managed to get the News Sentinel actually to do us a composite," Stewart said. "A pretty good, accurate sketch of the victim."


That sketch of the victim's face helped investigators identify 29-year-old William Robert Johnston.

That, in turn, led officials to Johnston's two roommates, 36-year-old Larry Dennis Loveday and 43-year-old Dorothy Evelyn Fritts. The three of them shared an apartment on Washington Pike in North Knoxville.


Court documents show the three had fought about money, food - even what to watch on TV.

"And the bigger dispute was simply-- it was a love triangle," Stewart said. "There were some affections unreturned, some physical disabilities and some jealousy, and we think sexual jealousy, actually, was the motive for the case."

Loveday's and Fritts' initial court appearance came a week and a half after the torso discovery and two weeks after they had killed Johnston in his sleep.

According to court documents, in the early morning hours of Oct. 22, 1986, Loveday took an ice pick and stuck it into the side of Johnston's head while the victim was asleep. Johnston didn't awake but had not yet died, so Loveday then tied a plastic bag around his head and hit him with a hammer hatchet.

After Johnston stopped breathing, Loveday and Fritts took the victim's car and drove it to various places in Knoxville, "where (Loveday) purchased and gathered up the items necessary for the dissection of the victim's body," court documents show.

Supplies included cinch garbage bags, a saw and plywood, on which the couple laid Johnston's body in the kitchen area. It stayed there for several days before Loveday began the process of dismembering it and hiding those pieces in various places throughout the community.

"It started unraveling quickly," Stewart explained, once the victim was identified. "It took us about nine-and-a-half, 10 days to reach a point where we had enough probable cause to make an arrest and obviously charge two people and later convict those in criminal court."

18 months later, in April of 1988, Fritts took a plea agreement: her testimony against Loveday in exchange for pleading guilty to a second degree murder charge.

Later that spring, Loveday's jury trial began.

U.S. Rep. John "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (R-Tennessee) was a judge at that time, tasked with trying felony criminal cases.

The Torso Murder came before his bench, less than a year before taking office as a U.S. congressman.

"It was a case that caught the public's imagination," Duncan told WBIR, recalling the trial, calling it the most gruesome one that had come before him, at the time.

He said Loveday and Fritts both had physical disabilities - and their roommate Johnston was a large person.

"They didn't have the strength to move this body after they had killed this man, and so then they came up with the idea to saw the body apart," Duncan said.

Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in Loveday's case, and the jury convicted him of first degree murder.

"I think the jury reached the right result and the defendant was given the maximum sentence under the law at that time," Duncan said. "I don't have any regrets about it. I don't have any nightmares from looking at the photos."

Loveday tried appealing his case on several occasions, with no success. The Sept. 1989 decision of the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals, which contains additional details of the case, is available HERE.

Loveday died in state custody in 2000, just shy of his 50th birthday.

Fritts got out of prison on parole in 2002. She died a decade later, at age 69.

(© 2016 WBIR)


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