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Social media, reality TV and murder in rural America

Two true tales of small-town murders

Unfriendly: How a social media feud led to a double homicide

When the bodies of Bill Payne and Billie-Jean Hayworth were discovered in their Mountain City, Tennessee home on January 30 2012, investigators initially assumed it was a drug deal gone awry. However, soon their attention was drawn to a vicious online feud that had been simmering in full view of the entire town of Mountain City for over a year.

What followed was an unbelievable case involving a CIA agent, a secret relationship, and an impressionable local man who had never had a girlfriend. At the center of the chaos was the Potter family: Buddy, Barbara, and their daughter, Jenelle. Could something as simple as unfriending someone on Facebook really lead to a double homicide?

A Bluegrass Tragedy: The “Wife Swap” murders

The Stockdale Family was private and insular, the children homeschooled, their only outlet playing in the family Bluegrass band. The internet and television were banned, movies and radio programs vetted to ensure they adhered to the family’s fundamentalist Christian values.

They kept to themselves on their farm in Ohio, until an unexpected call from the producers of reality TV series Wife Swap upended their world. Was it the scrutiny of a skeptical public that led to the tragic double homicide?

Mountain City, Tennessee and Bolivar, Ohio: just two small towns that harbored dark secrets… and murder

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In the United States, nearly one fifth of the population – around 58 million people – live in rural areas, and most of those live in small towns. Some grew up there and stayed, continuing the lifestyle enjoyed by the generations before them; others made the move to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life, or to provide a safe, wholesome way of living for their children.

Of course, not all small towns in America are the same. Some are known as hippie havens, others are home to wealthy executives. There are mountain towns in the south-east, desert towns in the southwest, communities nestled in dense forests of northern midwest, and thousands more, each with their own specific economic and cultural characteristics.

In the last decade, several small towns in the United States have seen more businesses closing than opening, and the population has declined as a result. Some of the most severely affected are the towns in the so-called Bible Belt. Such towns are often characterized by a high unemployment rate, the lack of activities for young people, and the cultural, political, religious, and economic influence of evangelical Christianity. The Baptist church on the end of the street and the Presbyterian church at the center of town don’t just preach morality and salvation on Sunday. They meet with local politicians to discuss state budgets. They teach Sunday school classes for children and Bible study for adults. In many such communities, there is nothing for young people to do but work hard, play in the local band, and get married right out of high school. Then they have kids and buy a house and never move again.

These are often homogenous communities and some contend that rural America has become a war zone of sectarian and ethnic groups, paranoid of each other, quick to take offense and quicker to take up arms. Many long-term residents don’t like outsiders. People are tense and polite, but unwelcoming and hostile to strangers. But despite the apparently simple facade, many of these small towns are complex and layered places filled with secrets

This book looks at two recent cases where the vagaries of small-town living led to multiple unexpected and shocking murders.

It is not surprising that isolated young people with not much to do turn to social media. But their interactions can become toxic, anything but friendly. When everybody already knows everyone else’s business, online arguments, where the participants might be anonymous, can become enormous. This was the case in the double murder of Bill Payne and Billie Jean Hayworth, which was rumored to have come about because the victims unfriended someone else on Facebook. Investigators soon discovered a feud that had been simmering in full view of the entire town of Mountain City for over a year.

At the other end of the scale, the Stockdale Family was private and insular, the children homeschooled, their only outlet playing in the family Bluegrass band. The internet and television were banned, movies and radio programs vetted to ensure they adhered to the family’s fundamentalist Christian values. They kept to themselves on their farm in Ohio, until an unexpected call from the producers of reality TV series Wife Swap upended their world. Was it the scrutiny of a skeptical public that led to the tragic circumstances some years later?

Mountain City, Tennessee and Bolivar, Ohio: just two small towns that harbored dark secrets.



Note: The spelling and punctuation of some emails and social media posts have been cleaned up for the sake of readability. This does not affect the meaning or intent of the messages. For the sake of transparency, the full, unedited versions of key emails and social media posts are in the appendix. All spelling, grammar and punctuation errors in quoted extracts are those of the authors of those emails and posts.



Mountain City, Johnson County – if you can’t see the mountains from your front porch, then you might not even be in the right town. Nestled in the northeastern corner of Tennessee, it’s one of those towns that people describe as “sleepy” or “slow- paced.” With a cost of living almost 30 percent lower than the national average, taking it easy is a popular pastime in Mountain City. The summers are warm, the winters short, cold and wet, and it’s at least partly cloudy year-round. Most people own a gun. Many own several. There is no public transit, so everybody has a car, and that car is more often than not a pickup truck with a bull bar on the front and, a gun rack on the back and spare magazines in the glove compartment.
To get to Mountain City, you take the scenic route along

Highway 421, which runs alongside Watauga Lake. Often referred to as “The Snake” by motor enthusiasts and cyclists, locals will warn you that the highway’s curves and sharp drop-offs are not for the faint-hearted. On approach, a sign greets visitors:

Welcome to Mountain City

A friendly hometown

The town is home to antique, outlet, and thrift stores, churches, several dining options, a library, a community theater, a hospital, three grocery stores, a fitness center, a vineyard and winery, hiking trails, and beloved fishing and hunting spots. But, although it might have its charms, Mountain City is far from idyllic.

In 2012, a lack of education, high rates of poverty, and rampant drug use characterized Mountain City. Due to the prevalence of low-wage jobs and unemployment, the average citizen of Mountain City earned about half as much as the average Tennessean. Around thirty-five per cent of Mountain City residents lived below the poverty line, and many struggled to find work thanks to a local unemploy- ment rate far higher than the national average. Both the manufacture and use of methamphetamine were prevalent. Politically it was staunchly conservative, a Republican stronghold, with the Democrats rarely garnering fifteen per cent of the vote. Its homogenous population mostly described themselves as Christian, but many acted in decidedly un-Christianlike ways. God, guns and country, but not necessarily in that order. Less charitable observers characterized the town as “redneck” or “hillbilly.”

The scenery was stunning, and the cost of living was cheap. But there was a reason for that. As one person wrote on a local news site: “That’s because the demand for living here ain’t too high … everything from jobs, education, and just life around here needs to catch up.”

Despite all of this, Mountain City’s rate of violent crime —homicides and assaults—was consistently below that of Tennessee’s major cities, Memphis and Nashville, as well as most towns of comparable size, every year.

Every year, that is, except 2012. In 2012, violent crime spiked, shooting above both the state and national average.

With around 2,500 residents spread out over an area of 3.3 square miles, people tended to know one another’s busi- ness and small feuds could easily fester and spread, neigh- bors taking sides depending on friendships, gossip, and for lack of anything better to do. Later, people said they could trace the horror that unfolded in 2012 back to social media, and in particular one incident: someone unfriended someone else on Facebook.

The truth is a little more complicated. Actually, the truth is a LOT more complicated.


At around 6:30 a.m., on the morning of January 31, 2012, Brad Osborne made his usual drive to pick up his friend and co-worker, Bill Clay Payne and take him to work. The two men worked at Parkdale Mills, a textile plant in their hometown of Mountain City, and often carpooled. As well as being work colleagues, they were friends, and Brad sometimes stayed with Bill when having marital issues with his wife, Tara.

Bill lived in his father’s white, single-story clapboard house on James Davis Lane, so close to Highway 67 that a stone stirred up by a speeding truck could land in the front yard. Bill lived there with his partner, Billie Jean Hayworth, their baby son, Tyler, and his father, Billy Ray Payne, who was better known around town as “Paw Bill.” Paw Bill was a laid-back, soft-spoken man, with shaggy blond hair and a matching beard who was devoted to, and proud of, his kids. It surprised nobody that he let his son and his fiancée live with him as they found their feet as a new family. As one friend put it, “If everyone was as easygoing as him, the world would be a much nicer place.” Paw Bill never missed an opportunity to whip out his phone and show his workmates new photos of his kids or grandkids. Many suspected he secretly hoped that Bill, Billie Jean, and their baby wouldn’t ever move out.

When Brad Osborne arrived that morning, Paw Bill had already left about an hour earlier, for his job at the IRC manufacturing plant where he had worked for nearly forty years. The plant was located over the border, in Boone, North Carolina, about thirty-five minutes away. Billie Jean’s car was in the driveway, underneath the double carport as usual, but Bill’s was not. Brad pulled up and left his car idling, as he did every morning. Usually, Bill came right out as soon as Brad arrived. They started work at 7 a.m., but the drive wasn’t far, so there was plenty of time to cover any unexpected minor delays. The sun had yet to rise, so he could clearly see that the light was on in Bill’s bedroom window, though there was no sign of any movement. Brad tooted the horn and waited for his friend to emerge.

As the minutes ticked by, Brad became increasingly concerned about being late for work, even though the plant was only a few minutes drive. Not wanting to leave the warmth of his car, Brad tried calling Bill’s cell phone, but he didn’t answer. After receiving no response to another blast of his horn, Brad decided to brave the cold, wintery morning and hurry his friend along.
Knowing that the rear sliding glass door was rarely locked, Brad made his way down the side of the house and let himself in after knocking once, calling out Bill’s name several times. He could hear the shrill beeping of an alarm clock coming from one bedroom. Brad picked up the landline in the living room and tried calling Bill’s cell phone again, but he didn’t hear it ringing inside the house. He thought he heard the quiet whimper of a baby, but he wasn’t

Small Towns, Dark Secrets 9
sure. Not feeling comfortable entering the bedrooms where Billie Jean and her baby might be sleeping, Brad tried calling out once more before going back out the way he came, the incessant beeping of the alarm fading as he closed the door behind him. Confused, he drove to work on his own. Bill was not at the plant when he arrived and did not turn up as the morning wore on. It was certainly out of character, but Brad assumed there must be a logical explanation.

Later that morning, at around 10:00 a.m., Paw Bill’s former neighbor, Roy Stephens, and his wife Linda pulled into the driveway. Roy and Linda had an on again/off again relationship, and they were there to pick up Roy’s mail, which he was having forwarded to Paw Bill’s place while he and Linda tried to sort through their marital problems. It was easier to have one location to collect it from rather than having it follow him as he moved from place to place. Linda stayed in the car while Roy took the same path Brad Osborne had taken a few hours earlier. Assuming that Billie Jean was home, as her car was in the driveway, Roy knocked on the sliding glass door before letting himself in. Whoever brought in the mail placed it on a shelf in the living room so that Roy could come and get it whenever he wanted.

Roy knew the house well, as Paw Bill sometimes let him stay on the couch when he was fighting with Linda. Taking the mail, Roy hollered out, sure that somebody must be home. Receiving no response, he continued to call out as he ventured down the hallway, toward where he knew the bedrooms were. As he approached the first room, he saw a trail of what looked like blood near the doorway. The moment he looked inside, it was very clear where the blood had come from.

Bill Payne laid motionless on his back on the bed, face bruised and blackened and blood from a bullet wound coagulating around his neck. He was naked, except for his boxer shorts, looking as though the intruder had surprised him while he was getting dressed for work. Roy sprang toward him, grabbed him by the arms, and shook him, hoping to get some sort of response. When he got none, he raced out of the house to the car, yelling for Linda to come to his aid.

Linda, who was trained in CPR, rushed into the house and to the bedroom, hoping her skills could revive their friend. It didn’t take long for her to realize that it was futile. When she tried to find a pulse in Bill’s neck, he was stiff and ice-cold, and she saw he had a gash across his throat, in addition to the bullet wound. Linda used the cordless phone in the living room to dial 911.
As Linda nervously waited for the operator, Roy thought he heard something coming from another part of the house. Not sure what to expect, he made his way down the hallway to a second bedroom, following a trail of bloody dog paw prints that led to Paw Bill’s Jack Russell, Pepper, who appeared unharmed. What greeted Roy in the second bedroom was worse than anything he could have ever imagined.

23-year-old Billie Jean Hayworth lay on the floor of what appeared to be a nursery, looking every bit as deceased as her partner. She was wearing Christmas Grinch pajamas and a pool of blood surrounded her head, with fragments of dark brown hair and skin on the carpet next to her. Roy didn’t need to touch her to know that he would find no pulse.

It was the child in her arms who had made the noise. Seven-month-old Tyler Payne was still being held tightly by his lifeless mother. He had blood on his sleeper suit and on the back of his head. Lying beside the pair was a small Snoopy doll, as though Billie Jean had been holding it to comfort her infant son. Next to them was a Pack-n-Play multi-use playpen, with a full bottle of formula lying inside, out of reach of the hungry baby.

Roy barely dared approach, but he had to know. Relief flooded through him when he realized the baby was breath- ing. Tyler appeared to be physically unharmed, and was merely in a deep sleep, although the red blotches on his face suggested he had recently been crying. All the blood belonged to his mother, who continued to grip the baby tightly, as though still protecting him, even in death. Roy yelled out to his wife to alert her to what he had found, and she rushed into the room to see the baby, now being held safely in Roy’s arms, for herself.

“I need an ambulance, fast!” she gasped into the phone when the 911 operator responded. “There’s no pulse. There’s no pulse on either one of them … there’s a baby involved. The baby’s here … Bill Payne’s not responsive … he’s in one room, she’s in the other, by the playpen. It kind of looks like she was trying to get to her baby.”

“Do you know how long they’ve been there?” asked the operator.

“I don’t know. They’re cold. They’re white.” Linda somehow held it together as she provided as much information as she could to the operator, but her voice disintegrated when she spoke of little Tyler. “The baby, kind of to me … as a parent … looks like maybe it’s been crying for a while, and probably cried ’til he couldn’t cry no more,” she sobbed.



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