On December 10, 1997, newspapers across the country ran a syndicated article titled
“A tree grows in North Carolina.”
The article explained how the fragrant fraser fir trees, with their bluish tone and soft, silvery needles, thrive in the climate of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The reporter, Wade Rawlins, interviewed Ron Hudler, of Hudler Carolina Tree Farms. It was the heart of tree selling season and Hudler explained he had a customer wanting to pick up 5,000 trees 10 days ahead of schedule. The reporter asked him to explain why he loved tree farming so much, and he joked, This is a bad time to ask me that question. You should call me when I’m skiing.”
The article went on to explain that at the time, Ron was a 63-year-old former vice president at General Motors Corporation who enjoyed riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his spare time. On a whim, he’d planted 5,000 trees in Michigan in 1981 as an experiment, then a few years later, moved to North Carolina to build another farm in the mountains where his parents grew up. His three sons were all working in the business at the time the article was published. It also noted that in 1997, Hudler Tree Farm was on track to harvest 100,000 trees, or about 200 tractor-trailer loads, making the tree farm one of the state’s largest growers. In 1995, a Hudler tree served as the official White House Christmas Tree, and in 1997, Hudler sent a 19-foot tree to adorn the George Bush Presidential Library. News station WRAL featured the farm in a 2007 documentary called “The Perfect Tree.”
Just a few short months after the documentary aired, tragedy struck the family and the business.
On January 24, 2008, Frederick Hudler, age 45, and 25-year-old John Miller, who both were employed at the farm, were found murdered, along with 75-year-old Ron Hudler, at the Hudler home in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, just north of the North Carolina border. Robbery was suspected as the motive, as a heavy safe located inside the garage was found open with an undisclosed amount of money missing. Ronald Hudler was known to keep large amounts of money in the safe. After the murders, the family offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible for the murders.
Linda Gragg, who served as the executive director of the N.C. Christmas Tree Association, said, “Up in the mountains of North Carolina, we don’t have that kind of city violence as much. She noted Ronald Hudler had served an adviser to the state association and was a board member of the National Christmas Tree Association.
“He was one of those who had foresight as to what our problems would be,” she continued. “He knew we had a lot of competition from artificial trees, and Ron had been fighting hard to make sure the Christmas tree industry stayed strong in North Carolina. He will be truly missed.”
Just a few days later, a man named Frederick Phillip Hammer, age 48, of Crumpler, North Carolina, was arrested in Punta Gorda, Florida, where he had fled after police questioned him in the murders. He had been spotted approaching the scene of the crime around the time the murders occurred.
In August of 2008, prosecutor Doug Vaught presented to a grand jury evidence that Hammer committed the burglary and robberies. He theorized that Hammer went to the farm intending to load the safe into his truck and haul it away. Instead, surprised to find the elder Ron Hudler at home, he shot him in the head. When Fred Hudler and John Miller Jr. stopped by the house in the middle of the workday, he murdered them as well. Here is an overview of the evidence the prosecutor presented from an article Rex Bowman wrote for the Times-Dispatch.
- The Crumpler, North Carolina fire chief Leonard Houck testified that he had passed Frederick Hammer in his truck driving toward Hudler Tree Farm just after 9 a.m. He said that Hammer, who usually wore his brown hair cut short, appeared to be wearing a long, black wig. He said he threw up his hand and waved to Hammer. He thought it was a little strange that the man was wearing a wig, but didn’t think much about it until he heard about the murders.
- Hammer initially told police he was not in Grayson the day of the murders, however, surveillance videos from an Independence Convenience store showed his truck on U.S. 58 before and after the murders.
- Red paint samples taken from Hammer’s pickup appeared to match paint that would have come off when he tried to back the bed of the truck onto the safe to load it.
- Parallel scratches on the side of the safe lined up perfectly with the top and bottom rails of Hammer’s truck.
- Briefcases, one with Ron Hudler’s initials on it, were found at a campground in Cripple Creek in Wythe County, about 700 feet from a cabin Hammer kept there.
The state of Virginia allows charges to be filed for various elements of the crime. Although the road leading up to the Hudler Carolina Tree Farm began in North Carolina, and the case involved men with primarily Ashe County tie, the murders took place at the Ron Hudler’s home about 200 yards into Virginia.
But while Hammer was awaiting his capital murder trial, he made the mistake of confiding in a fellow inmate who was soon to be released. An article that ran in the Winston-Salem Journal Now in May of 2009 laid out what had happened. Hammer told the inmate there was $10,000 buried in a barn at the private campground in Cripple Creek, Virginia, along with a rifle. If the inmate would go and retrieve the items he could keep $2,000 of it. The inmate wrote a letter to his girlfriend explaining the plan, but he threw it away and discarded it instead of sending. Guards at the jail found the letter and questioned the inmate on the details inside. Investigators headed to Cripple Creek, where they found two cigar boxes filled with rolled coins buried about five feet underground. The coins were consistent with money that had been stolen from the safe at the Ron Hudler’s home. They also found a bag containing moldy stacks of cash, and a .22 rifle with a broken scope. The pieces of the scope matched pieces that were found at the crime scene.
When confronted with this evidence, Hammer confessed to the murders during the course of a robbery. He pleaded guilty to five counts of capital murder and other charges in connection with the deaths and robbery. Hammer was sentenced to five life sentences without the possibility of parole, along with two life terms. He was ordered to pay fines in the amount of $600,000.
“What happened that day should not have happened, and I’m sorry,” Hammer told the victims’ family members in court just before he was sentenced. “I went there with the intention of doing a burglary…. It was going to be in and out.”
But Ron Hudler, Fred Hudler, and John Miller Jr. weren’t the first victims of Frederick Hammer. He had previously served time in prison for killing an off-duty Philadelphia police officer in 1978. He moved to Ashe County in North Carolina after his release to escape his past. But in early 2007, two men with ties to Hammer went missing. One was his nephew by marriage, 41-year-old Jimmy Blevins. Hammer was running his firewood business and Blevins. worked with him. Family members told police Hammer owed Blevins money and they had been arguing about it. Blevins went missing on February 24, 2007, after witnesses saw him get into Hammer’s pickup truck. He left his television on and chicken cooking in a crockpot. Hammer was also suspected of murdering a 30-year-old local man named Timothy Shatley. Shatley was shot with a large caliber firearm at the intersection of N.C. 16 and Old Field Creek Road on November 19, 2005. His van crashed into a concrete barrier on the bridge shortly after. He had been driving home after he left his job at a cook at a North Wilkesboro restaurant. The location was not far from where Blevins lived.
When investigators charged Hammer with the Hudler Tree Farm murders, they questioned him about the disappearance of Jimmy Blevins and murder of Tim Shatley. He denied any involvement in those cases at the time. But in August of 2009, he changed his mind. He said he wanted to be moved to a prison closer to his family. He directed law enforcement to a private property on N.C. 88 where he had once done some work, and there, they found the remains of Jimmy Blevins. He also confessed to murdering Tim Shatley, but investigators aren’t sure whether or not to believe him.
“There are issues with his confession that trouble us,” said Ashe County James Williams at the time. “There are certain things that we always hold back that only the murderer would know, and only we know, so that when we’re talking to somebody we know we’re talking to the one that actually did it.”
But, Hammer also had something else up his sleeve. Not long after he admitted to the murder of Jimmy Blevins, he asked for the $15,000 in reward money the Blevins family was offering for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Jimmy Blevins’ killer. An article that ran in the Ashe Post & Times shared the details.
“As sickening and despicable as that is, we had no choice but to come back and tell the family, ‘he’s confessed to killing your son but he wants the money before he’ll give up where the body is,'” said Ashe County Sherriff Williams. “The Blevins family – they didn’t hesitate much, they said ‘We want our boy.’ His mother wants a grave to go to and know where her son is.”
The $15,000 was paid to Hammer’s attorney Donna Shumate, and within days, the body of Jimmy Blevins was recovered and identified. That didn’t sit well with the investigators on the case. They contacted another local attorney named David Jolly and asked if the reward money could be returned to the Blevins family. Lawyers filed a civil suit against Hammer in order to recover the reward. They also filed a motion to get the money successfully transferred from Donna Shumate’s trust accounts to the Ashe County Clerk of Superior Court.
Jolly said that “there are cases that say you can’t profit from your crime—such as burning down your house or killing your spouse to collect insurance—but never a case where there was reward money. So without an exact case to set precedent, the attorney said he “basically had to argue common sense and common law to the judge.”
The case was heard at the Ashe County Courthouse in Jefferson, North Carolina on May 10, 2010, and it only took a few minutes before Superior Court Judge Edgar B. Gregory ruled in favor of the Blevins Family.
The Lawson Family Murders
There’s another disturbing story out of North Carolina that I’ve heard mentioned a few times, but only while researching this episode did I discover it took place during Christmas Day in 1929. I found the following information in an article that ran in the News and Observer this past summer titled “Murders and Mysteries: North Carolina’s 12 most famous true crime cases.” Brooke Caine and Martha Quillen collaborated on the piece. A few weeks before Christmas, Stokes County tobacco farmer Charles Lawson took his wife and seven children into nearby Winston-Salem to purchase new clothes and had them sit for a family portrait, something that was very out of character for the normally frugal farmer. Then, on Christmas morning, after their oldest daughter Marie baked a cake topped with raisins, and the eldest son Arthur, who was 16, went into town to buy ammunition for an upcoming hunting trip. Inexplicably, Charles murdered and bludgeoned the entire family, including wife Fannie, age 37, daughter Marie, 17, Carrie, 12, Maybell, 7, James, 4, Raymond, 2, and Mary Lou, who was only four months old. He then walked into the nearby woods and shot himself. When his body was found, he had two notes on his person. One read, “Nobody to blame but . . .” and the other said “Trouble will cause . . .”
The entire family was buried in Germanton, wearing the clothes they had worn in that last portrait. To add to the local community’s fascination with the murders, Charles’s brother began charging 25 cents admission to tour the crime scene at the home. The only surviving son, Arthur, died in a car accident in 1945 at the age of 31. People have speculated over the years what could have caused the father and husband to commit such a brutal crime. Reports say he suffered a head injury in the years before the murder, and family members said that had changed his personality. A book published in 1990 titled “White Christmas, Bloody Christmas,” shared a rumor that Charles had gotten his oldest daughter Marie pregnant and murdered the family to cover up the horrifying family secret.
This story sparked the creation of a murder ballad titled “Murder of the Lawson Family,” written by Walter Kid Smith of Virginia. It was recorded by various artists over the years, including The Carolina Buddies and the folk musician Doc Watson from North Carolina.
Murder ballads originated in the Appalachian mountains, and they are narrative songs that often depict homicides, usually against women. Below are the lyrics to the ballad, “Murder of the Lawson Family.”
Was on one Christmas evening
The snow lay on the ground
Near his home in North Carolina
In this murder he was found.
His name was Charlie Lawson and he had a loving wife
So we’ll never know what caused him to take his family’s life
They say he killed his wife at first and the little ones did cry
Please papa won’t you spare our lives for it is so hard to die . . .
But the raging man could not be stopped, he would not heed their calls . . .
Just kept on firing fatal shots until he killed them all.
And when the sad, sad news was heard
It was an awful surprise
He had killed six children and his wife and then he closed their eyes
And now farewell kind friends and home I’ll see you all no more
Into my breast I’ll fire one shot, then my troubles will be o’er
They did not carry him to jail
No lawyers did he pay
But they’ll have his trial in another world
On the final judgment day
Listen to the episode here.
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“Fugitive arrested in Charlotte”
“A Tree Grows in North Carolina”
“50,000 reward in triple slaying”
“Murders and Mysteries: North Carolina’s 12 most famous true-crime cases”
“80 years later, violent act resonates with filmmakers”