I wrote this a while back and no one wanted it, so I’m posting it here for all y’all. Enjoy.
The Dawson Gang of North Alabama is as much myth as it is gospel.
On July 29, 1985, Willie Dewitt Dawson pleaded guilty to nine charges ranging from counterfeiting to running blow. Both state and federal agents had their eyes on the ornate homestead in the rural town of Leighton, Alabama, but for nearly twenty years the courts couldn’t make a vat of molasses stick to the family’s patriarch. When they finally got him, which they were able to do because of a tax-evading informant that was willing to go into witness protection to reduce his own sentence, Dewitt’s response was so saccharine you couldn’t help but root for him. After pleading guilty, Dewitt told the Times Daily newspaper, “I swear on a stack of Bibles that I didn’t do some of the things they said I did this time.”
William Hill Dawson raised his children in Leighton, a town in Colbert County, Alabama, as a farmer that sometimes dabbled in moonshine. He occasionally brought on trouble with the law for running a moonshine still or bootlegging, but the county law enforcement officials from the 1940s described William’s family with typical fraternal reverence. They were country people, after all, and their troubles were never condemnation worthy. A former Tuscumbia police officer told The Anniston Star, “We would hear the Dawson name then, but only for doing a little moonshining. They hardly ever came to town. They were country boys.” But between the 1940s and the 1970s, the power balance shifted within the family to one of William’s middle children—Willie Dewitt.
Born on November 26th, 1939, Dewitt’s first foray into crime occurred at sixteen years old when he was caught siphoning gas out of a car. Some reports claim that he never finished the third grade while others end his education somewhere around the sixth grade. He had five brothers and sisters, only becoming a professional racketeer with his brothers, Pride and Bobby, and several of his many nieces, nephews, and cousins.
According to people kicking around North Alabama in the 1970s, Dewitt was about as admirable as an outlaw could be. He drove a black Lincoln Continental with “kingpin” for a front license plate. More than the approximate four million dollars his family made robbing banks, Dewitt was, for all intents and purposes, one bad looking dude. He had olive skin, jet black hair, and was built like a well-fed steamroller.
While serving time in Kilby State Prison for receiving and concealing stolen property in 1963, Dewitt met his wife, Minnie Joyce Bevis. Joyce was pretty, with a button nose and brown curly hair, and went to the prison that day with a friend to visit another inmate. Dewitt managed to catch a glimpse of Joyce at the visitor’s table and said to a fellow prisoner, “You see that girl? I’m going to marry her.” The two were married in 1966, shortly after he was granted parole the year before.
While Dewitt served as the face for most of the family’s dealings, his brothers, Pride and Bobby, partook in their own brands of trouble. Bobby had several run-ins with law enforcement over drug trafficking, specifically running cocaine throughout North Alabama. Pride Dawson, on the other hand, was the violent brother. In 1963, Pride went to trial for a car-chase-shoot-out deal, when he cut off a distant relative on the road to his home and shot at his vehicle three times. In May of 1970, Pride was convicted of murdering a man named Bobby Joe Fusher from West Memphis, Arkansas. The Dawson brother operated an establishment called the 157 Motel in Colbert County, a business that was most certainly not a motel, where Bobby Joe showed up one night with a drinking buddy.
After some colorful exchanges, such as yelling, “You dirty dog, where is my money,” Pride shot toward the two in the parking lot with a pistol until Fusher was face down on the ground. The witness claimed Pride came back inside the building with the body slung over his shoulder and told him if he ran his mouth he’d be next. The decision of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals quotes a witness who claims after Pride shot Bobby Joe, he wrapped the body in a quilt, had it loaded into the trunk of a car and dumped in the woods of Tuscumbia. Pride was sentenced to thirty years for second-degree murder, although the body was too decomposed by the time the coroner examined it to determine an actual cause of death. Pride escaped from prison in 1975 while on furlough, despite his status as a convicted murderer, and was captured in Illinois the next year. He was miraculously granted parole four short years later in 1979, serving only nine of his thirty years. When Pride passed away in 2005, his obituary described him as a “Colbert County native and a lifelong farmer.”
The Dawson family made The New York Times in September of 1975 after Billy Ray faced trial for bank robbery. According to their story, Billy Ray left high school at fifteen to rob banks professionally. Along with several other racketeers, he “led machine-gun raids planned and executed with military precision” and obtained more than two million dollars over the span of five years. Around the same time, Dewitt faced trial for robbing a bank that most law enforcement officials claimed he didn’t actually rob, but helped plan and prepare. On that front, former Alabama Department of Investigation agent and now Sheriff of Lawrence County, Gene Mitchell, said, “He was hard to catch at doing things because he had so many other people doing the crimes for him.” Dewitt, in his ever-brusque retort, said, “I was no fool.”
When Dewitt went to prison in 1977 for that 1974 Vina, Alabama bank robbery, he handed over controlling stock in his business venture to his brother Bobby. From the sound of things, Bobby didn’t drive the steel as effectively as his brother. With Bobby in charge, over a hundred suspects and public officials ended up subpoenaed, and for the first time, Dewitt’s family came under a decade of federal interference in their affairs. Though Dewitt was in prison in 1963 when he met his wife, faced trial in 1968 for allegedly selling forged checks to his cousin, and in 1974 for tax evasion, the family never faced intervention from the feds until that 1977 trial.
Nonetheless, Dewitt never tried to keep a covert operation. Maybe he didn’t necessarily want to be caught on Highway 20 in June of 1975 while abetting a felon in the backseat, along with multiple cases of bootlegged liquor, only days before his tax evasion trial. But despite his convictions and pleadings, Dewitt seemed to relish in his reputation, often using his position as an outlaw to expose the crimes and corruption of law enforcement officials in the area. His unadulterated pride kept him in a state of relative boasting to anyone about such incidents as the Highway 20 stop.
Even though he didn’t take many measures to hide his activities, he was retentively specific about what he was proud of doing. In the late 70s, Dewitt hired Alabama writer W.R Morris, the author of the Buford Pusser story, to write his own. He joked that he wanted Burt Reynolds to portray him in the film adaptation of his life. That book or movie never happened, but Dewitt had a pamphlet published in 1975 called “The Kingpin: Dewitt Dawson.” The pamphlet was referenced in the 1977 affidavit in Dawson’s court filings, a trial that resulted in a five-year prison term. But I doubt a book or movie deal would have compared to the pride he took from Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, who affectionately deemed him “the worst outlaw in the state.”
In that sometimes-sanctimonious corner of Alabama, people that ran into Dewitt in town surprisingly wouldn’t shy away from asking him for an autograph. Bill Baxley repeatedly claimed Dewitt “would have made a great politician,” and even went so far as to declare he could’ve run for governor after George Wallace if he had chosen a different path. From 1977 forward, the Times Daily newspaper is littered with articles about the family’s dealings, but no one, public official or otherwise, ever goes so far to condemn them.
In May of the same year, The Washington Post reported on an outburst in a prison trade school near Mobile. Two prisoners, along with four abettors, one they call a “member of the Dawson Gang,” stole a laundry truck from the school and crashed it through a chain-link fence, carrying the fence with them as they ran. In the same report, the Post made no attempts to hide Dewitt’s flair. They recall an episode when IRS officials went to Dewitt’s Leighton homestead to arrest him for tax evasion, when the agents arrived to find a note taped to his front door that said, “Internal Revenue Service: I gave at the office.” Following the scene, the escapees were each investigated as potential hired assassins with hits out on political incumbents, Alabama Lieutenant Governor Jere Beasley and Senator George McMillan, who were each provided security. The article states that “money had already changed hands” between the prisoners and an unnamed party, although Dewitt’s involvement is unclear. This plot on the official’s lives was attributed to the senator’s outspoken comments on the state of highly unregulated Alabama prison systems, as well as a promise of prison investigations, delivered the year before the end of George Wallace’s second term as governor.
In 1985, the FBI and other federal officials from the Alabama Alcoholic Beverage Control Board swarmed Colbert County, Alabama, seizing property and dirty money, opening for the first time “one of the largest corruption cases possibly involving public officials in Alabama history.” Franklin County Sheriff Larry Plott sparked his own controversy in the investigation of the family when he worked undercover accepting large payoffs from Bobby Dawson, Dewitt’s brother, for selling beer and whiskey in the county that had been dry as a bone for nearly sixty-five years. Franklin County banker Charles Elliot and former Sheriff of Franklin County, Burns “Buckshot” Saint, saw prison time for their dealings with the family, although both Elliot and Saint were granted parole months into their sentences.
The community of Franklin County regards Plott as one of the least crooked Sheriffs in the county’s long and corrupt history. Still, some residents remain unconvinced that his eighteen-month stint undercover as a corrupt law enforcement official, when he took tens of thousands of dollars of payoff money, might not have been an act. But he managed to incriminate both members of the Dawson family and other public officials while fitted with a wire and tape recorder on his phone, working with various state investigators and FBI agents. After the probe into the family, Plott was admitted into the FBI Academy. Roy Long, an agent out of Florence, claimed, “He was so far undercover that everyone thought he was crooked.” For nearly a year after the story went public, Plott’s family was guarded by Alabama State Troopers, and George Wallace found the time when he wasn’t being racist to send over ten thousand dollars to the Sheriff’s Department to secure Plott’s family’s safety.
The 1985 trial was acutely focused on the family’s business, Big Bear Resort, where nobody in their right mind didn’t know that was where you went to gamble. But gambling is still illegal in Alabama—which is fine, because Tunica, Mississippi has always been a better bet to throw down. The tract on Lagrange Mountain probably laundered money beyond the gambling but was only taken down due to tax evasion. During Dewitt’s stint in 1985, he became familiar enough with the routine to say he hoped “they will let me serve my time in Maxwell in Montgomery. It’s not bad in there.” They did let him go to Maxwell, where he earned his GED while serving his five years, ran card games and ate steak and shrimp while other inmates were given slop. When Dewitt was serving time in Montgomery in 1975, he allegedly was given the weekends “off” of prison. His neighbors, as well as Sheriff Gene Mitchell, claimed they would see him loading and unloading his car in his driveway. Today, if you ask an old boy in Alabama about Willie Dewitt Dawson, you will rarely hear anything but pride in the fact that North Alabama was home to such a talented and proud outlaw.
Though Dewitt has been canonized as a hero in North Alabama for being so bad and perfecting the trade of racketeering, no one would dare say he was a mean guy. Former Attorney General Baxley repeatedly lauded his character in the papers, saying “He was a remarkable person in many ways,” and Sheriff Larry Plott even said, “During the time I was around him I got the feeling that in a strange sort of way he actually respected law enforcement,” despite the fact that the Dawsons put out multiple hits on his life. When interviewing several Alabama boys about Dewitt, I couldn’t help but notice the slight, knowing smile that would creep along their faces at the mention of one of his escapades, though their sentences always ended with something like, but don’t say I said that. Don’t mess with them.
The makeup of the gang became clear after the 1985 trial. Dewitt was in charge of the money, which, in a sense, made him the chief executive officer of all things criminal in North Alabama. Pride, the violent brother, seemed to act as the henchman. Bobby, with multiple charges of drug and bootlegged liquor trafficking, was the executive of the blow syndicate. And Billy Ray, perhaps the most important member of the group for his lasting imprint on law enforcement, revolutionized the form of bank robbery. The FBI came to recognize the Dawsons bank robbery style, which used ski masks and automatic weapons, because of its militant perfection over a span of 30 potential bank robberies. The group targeted small, rural banks around Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina. They would enter with masks and gloves, several automatics and a few rifles—although they tried to keep their numbers smaller to keep the equal share margin high. They typically used a stolen car to make the getaway, then abandoned it not far from the bank. Then they hid in the bushes, waiting for their getaway driver to pick them up in a different car. Sometimes they would leave their weapons and money in the thicket for a later pick up. Nonetheless, Dewitt’s tenure as the gang’s seeming press secretary left him as the legendary, criminal born entrepreneur of North Alabama.
According to the late Florida journalist and author Bill Cornwell, who actually spent time interviewing the Kingpin in his Colbert County residence, Dewitt was as close to being born a criminal as one could be. Though he never received a formal education, Dewitt managed to tell Cornwell a brilliant plan for quickly scrubbing money clean after a good heist—off-record, of course. After comedian Dave Gardner, who went by the stage name Brother Dave, fell five-grand deep into a hole at Dawson’s gambling table, Dewitt allegedly told him, “Don’t they call you fellas ‘stand-up’ comedians? How you gonna stand up on that stage and tell your jokes with both your kneecaps broke in two?”
Dewitt’s most famous criminal escapade that never hit the newsroom floor was his potential involvement in the death of McNairy County, Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser. In 1973, they made one fine movie about the famed club-carrying Pusser’s life, starring Joe Don Sweet-Lips Baker as the venerable sheriff in Walking Tall. The film alluded to the State Line Mob that plagued North Mississippi and Tennessee, mostly laying blame for Buford’s injuries, his wife’s murder, and his exploded house to outlaw Towhead White. Though this is just hearsay, Dewitt might’ve told fellow inmates that Pauline was not supposed to be with Buford when she was shot, and Towhead White was a close associate of the Colbert County faction. Local McNairy County lore is that Buford’s Corvette might’ve had the steering mechanism and tie rods tampered with when he hit the embankment that killed him.
In total, Dewitt spent sixteen years in prison. His family’s dealings in Tennessee and Mississippi were never even alleged publically to be part of Buford Pusser’s hitting an embankment at over a hundred and twenty miles per hour, or his wife being shot and his house getting blown up. In Dewitt’s Anniston Star obituary, the reporter simply claimed, “His exploits include a long-running feud with legendary McNairy County, Tenn., Sheriff Buford Pusser.” The Drive-By Truckers might’ve drawn on the family in my personal anthem, “The Boys From Alabama,” but those that believe Dewitt took part in the demise of Pusser are those who love telling a good outlaw story—or just know too much and need to keep their mouths shut.
The Adamic myth and fall of man are attractive for a reason. We want to know that something outside ourselves made us what we are, and it’s the outside influence that keeps us from living right. It’s a comfort for those that believe in Jesus since he still loves the sinner, but it’s just a shameful truth that only sinning scratches the itch of being human. I think we celebrate the racketeering outlaw in the tightly Bible-Belted South because of this relationship with sin, as being the voyeur of other people’s folly is a piece of the definition of being a Southerner from a small community, Jesus or God or not. We will pass judgment, and we will elect their souls to hell.
Then, later, after we’ve been drinking, we’ll tell elegiac stories about our iniquitous heroes.
Dewitt was a preacher for a few weeks in a rural church in Alabama before heading back to prison in 1985. Upon their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in 1991, Dewitt recalled telling his wife she could leave him after that sentencing, but, he said, “She was in it until one of us died.” Everyone that knew him said he’d give you the shirt off his back. He may not have lived right, but don’t tell me for a second he wasn’t living.
In 1997, Dewitt fell over dead in his yard in Leighton from a heart attack at 58 years old, which kind of broke my heart. I always wanted to think about Dewitt as an old man telling his thirty-something nieces, nephews, and grandkids what kind of line of blood they come from. But I always did feel sympathetic for Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, the widely popular character from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” who finds no pleasure in life but meanness, which tells you more about me than it does him:
“I found out the crime don’t matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you’re going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it.”
All sources come from The Times Daily, The Anniston Star, The Tennessean, and The Montgomery Advertiser. The Washington Post and The New York Times also helped chronicle the history of the family. The rest comes from obituaries, public court proceedings, property tax records, and the articles of the late Florida writer, Bill Cornwell.