The Signal Mountain Murders

On July 9, 1988 near Chattanooga Tennessee, Richard Mason, his son in law, Ken Griffith and Ken's friend Earl Smock left Richard's house on ATV's for a ride and to go to a local swimming hole known as The Blue Hole.  They had intended to return by dinner but when that did not happen his wife and daughter became worried.  As night fall came they knew something was wrong and went to the police.  A search party was formed that was continued into the next day.  The following day the ATV's were found at a local illegal dumping site.  There was blood and brain matter all over the ATV's so everyone knew something bad had happened.  Their trail to the swimming hole was followed and something else suspicious was found. Around the area that local people called "the Gate" (although a Gate was no longer there as it had been in the past and this path led to The Blue Hole) on property recently bought by Frank Casteel and his wife, Susie, seemed strangely "clean."  It looked as if the dirt and leaves had almost been "swept."  The area around was searched and there were large pools of blood found and off to the side somewhere someone found Richard's pocket knife.  Five days after their disappearance, and 12 miles in the other direction past The Gate, at another illegal dumping site the bodies of the men were found. They had all been shot.  

Frank Casteel immediately came under suspicion.  He had bought his new 116 acre land a few short months prior but he had already had several run ins with locals.  In fact, he knew before buying the land that there would likely be some issues. The Blue Hole had been a local hang out for decades.  It appears although the previous owner probably did not like it he tried very little to stop it and knew there was little chance of that.  Defenders of Frank Casteel would later claim that trespassing was not the issue Frank had with people entering this portion of his land but with the trash they left behind.  Those same people claim that Frank was willing to work with people in making a deal in having them help him clean up that area and still be able to use the swimming hole. Others claim that was not even an option. Once he bought the property he had gone to the local police department asking what he could do about people entering and using his property. They told him to create a log of all those who came on his property. He apparently did this, but I am unsure what he was supposed to do with it after he had their names or what was going to be done.  It does not seem that he would log the names and information and then inform the police because the log was later found after the murders of the three men. I am also unsure what information the police told him to log but he would insist on ID's and apparently take all the information he could from those.  Also, dozens of people claimed that within the few months of Frank Casteel owning the property that when entering the area they soon met Frank, who was armed, angry and would threaten them.  Some claimed that he all but held watch at the end of his property to find trespassers waiting to confront people.  Frank would later deny being armed and threatening trespassers.  The Casteel property and home was searched and while suspicion rose (suspicion that Casteel later claimed as being prejudice against him) there was nothing completely solid that could be used against him or prove that he had in fact been the person who murdered the three men. Ballistic tests were taken on a 12 gauge shot gun Frank owned but it could not be confirmed or denied as to being the gun used.  

When questioned Frank had said that he and his wife were celebrating their anniversary on the evening the men disappeared and that they were in fact using the swimming hole themselves and had camped there overnight. He claimed to have seen two trespassers earlier in the evening as he was headed down to the area and in his words, politely told them they could not use the area since he and Susie were planning to.  These two people did not seem to have made it into the log that day.  However, others had made it into the log, ones to which declared Frank was less than polite.  Absent were Richard and his companions names.  Frank's brother in law and his wife were supposed to join Frank and Susie but claim they never "made it." The area in which Frank claimed to be that evening camping was also searched.  In the area of a seemly freshly used fire pit investigators found the remains of what appeared to be a blue tarp.  This would be an issue in question at some point later.

The Casteel family moved to Georgia not long after the murders.  I was not completely able to confirm that they sold the property.  They sited a lot of animosity from the community was the reasoning and that police harassment and their suspicion had made things unbearable. This could have been very true in the community for a few reasons.  One is that Frank was likely considered to be an outsider since he was new to the area and Richard Mason had lived there many years.  Secondly, he had not made a good impression on the people in the area, especially those who attempted to visit the swimming hole in those few short months of living there considering it had been a community spot for so long.  In the same respect however, while the community may not have given him complete support, there were many that did, or at least gave him the benefit of the doubt without  more information considering there was not a lot of tangible evidence but also because there was a thought that he was defending his property. It became a large question as to how far one is allowed to go in defense of their property.  

So while the Casteel's moved away and it was largely suspected that he was responsible (with help obviously) for the murders of the three men the case did not get momentum until 1996.  By this time a woman by the name of Marie Hill was dating Frank Casteel.  Yes, the still very much married Frank Casteel. It seems that around the same time she was receiving anonymous letters informing her not only that he was married but that he had "killed three people" and was going to police, detectives also received an anonymous tip to go talk to Marie. Susie Casteel later admitted to sending the letters to Marie, although I never saw anything that says she admitted to calling the police to have them talk to Marie. I am unaware as to just how much detail the letters gave of the crime but Marie agreed to work with investigators.  She allowed herself and/or her home to be bugged.  Apparently at some point Frank was visiting Marie and Susie showed up to confront them. By the sounds of it, the confrontation last several hours, all of which was taped and Susie brought up the murders several times, although, to be fair, it does not seem that Frank responded to those comments or in any way incriminated himself. 

At this point investigators came up with a theory based on evidence and information they had obtained, or deducted through not just the taped conversations but other witness comments.  It became the belief that the three men had entered the property riding the ATV's and were confronted by Frank Casteel. No-one will ever know what conversation took place between them all but evidence on the ATV's indicated that they were shot while still on them. The blood splatter, as well as tissue on the ATV's point to this.  It is then believed that at the very least the bodies were moved off the immediate road and just into the woods, indicated by the pools of blood found off to the side of the area near "the gate."  Several neighbors had already stated that they had heard gunshots coming from the area of the gate between 7 and 8 pm.  A few also stated that they had heard the engines of ATV's just a few minutes prior to the gun shots. Investigators then believe that at this point Susie, as well as at least one of their sons, Donnie, became involved in the cover up.  Several witnesses claim to have seen Casteel's Jeep on the road in which the ATV's were found the following day and at least one claimed to have seen a red ATV in the back (of the three ATV's, two were red).  There were a few others who claimed to have seen "a jeep" (unsure if identified as Frank's) somewhere between midnight and 1 am on the night of the murders that was "weighed down" near the area where the bodies were later found.  At least one of those witnesses identified Donnie Casteel as the driver of that Jeep.  The day after the men disappeared a man claims that he was at a car wash and later identified a woman he had seen as Susie Casteel washing out the back of a Jeep. He questioned her because it appeared that she was washing out blood.  He says that she stated she had just taken a pig to the slaughterhouse.  The man found this suspicious because he said he knew the slaughterhouse was not open on Sundays so he said he wrote down the license plate number. Police claim that this plate belonged to the Casteel Jeep.  It seems that just after this Kenneth Griffith's brother was driving down the road heading to his mothers to inform her of his brother being missing when his car broke down.  He waived down the next vehicle for a lift and later claimed that although he did not know him, it was apparently Frank Casteel and that the bed of the truck was still wet. A few mentioned seeing a blue tarp in the jeep that night. It was the belief of the investigators that Susie had sent the letters to Marie (and some say letters were received by her neighbors also) because not only was she jealous but she was angry that she had helped Frank and held on to his secret for those eight years and he was re-paying her by having an affair. Authorities also believed obviously that the camping story Frank gave was not true but that he had used the area to possibly dispose of things, including a blue tarp as they claimed to have found fragments in a fire pit in the area.  

It seems that Frank was none too careful about keeping the affair with Marie Hill quiet because they had just started dating in August of 1996.  She had received the letters, had felt harassed and had been working with the police and they felt they had enough to charge him with murder in April of 1997.  At his trial Susie had changed her tune quite a bit and claimed that her claims in the letters to Marie about Frank's involvement was simply to scare her and that he had not been involved with the murders and she claimed to stick with his alibi story of the two of them celebrating their anniversary.  The prosecution used several people that had been confronted by Frank on the property to show prior behavior.  They had Marie Hill testify and used the tapes from her cooperation, including the one in which Susie had come to her house and confronted Frank and Marie and had mentioned the murders several times.  And of course they had the people who said they saw the jeep and/or the Casteels in the area where either the ATV's or the bodies were found on the night of the murders.  The defense of course claimed Frank was not guilty.  They had Donnie Casteel testify to the fact that he had worked that night until either 10 or 11 and his claims of staying at his grandfather's house that night (his grandfather confirmed).  In the end the jury took less than two hours to come back and vote for conviction. Frank received three life sentences.

That is not the end however.  Frank's lawyers appealed the verdict and it was overturned on the basis that the court did not feel that the five hour taped conversation between Frank, Susie and Marie should have been played for the jury.  He was ordered a new trial.  His second trial was much like his first except the defense thought they had something new.  A man by the name of Carl Hickman had a confrontation with Richard Mason a few months prior to the murders.   Hickman also had two sons who were known hell raisers in the area. The defense even had a witness testify in this trial that he had seen Hickman's sons unloading two ATV's at the site in which they were found.  Problem one was that Carl Hickman had a solid alibi and was not in the area at the time. Problem two was that the witness who supposedly saw the Hickman boys unloading ATV's did not report this for over 15 years.  After telling the defense he had failed to report this until that moment because he was scared of the Hickman's he admitted to the prosecutors that although he claimed to had talked to them while they were unloading the said ATV's making it obvious that they knew he had seen them he had not been threatened then or later by them.  In the end jury number two did not believe that story nor does it seem they believed Susie or Donnie Casteel and once again Frank was convicted in May of 2003.  His conviction was upheld by the courts in 2010.

The Casteel's as well as their lawyers continue to maintain his innocence. As for me, while I honestly do not particular think the evidence that they obtained, which includes "eye witnesses" is necessarily solid and completely damning, I do believe the volume of witnesses matter.  Eighteen people testified they had been confronted by Frank on their way to the swimming hole through his property in the two months he owned the property before the murders.  These people were found through the log book that Frank himself had filled out. Their stories all seemed to be fairly close when they described his demeanor and attitude when meeting them at the road.  There also seemed to be a lot of people who saw either the area where the ATV's were found or where the bodies were found that seemed to be consistent with time and other things with each other. Add to this that several neighbors reported hearing shots coming from the area of the Casteel property that evening.  The reports were not exactly the same (which could have indicated that the witnesses had collaborated stories), but close enough to be consistent with each other. There was no indication that any of these witnesses were discredited in any way.  Could they have all been from the area and decided to ban against the "new guy"?  It is possible, but, adding that with other things, like the blood on the property, how things looked and other things it seems improbable.  The only person the defense could come up with that any of the three men had a problem with was completely cleared. While the ATV's were dumped in one locations and the bodies in another, the Casteel property was in between.  

So the saying goes "Hell have no fury like a woman scorned." We could argue that Susie Casteel was simply trying to get even with Frank for having the affair with Marie Hill but it seems unreasonable that she would not only speak of the murders in her letters but also bring them up in front of him several times (in the tape that was the reason for the 1st conviction to be overturned) if in fact he was innocent. Then one could argue that Frank never commented when Susie kept bringing it up?  Why?  If he was innocent why not protest his innocence in front of Marie?  Did he not protest because he was guilty and he knew to argue that with Susie was pointless? Then again though it seems unreasonable that through all his protesting to the investigators and others about his innocence that when Susie is bringing it up in that argument in front of someone else that he did not react in SOME way.  His non-reaction is in fact a reaction to me.  

The fact that Richard Mason's knife was found on the property in a way for me is more telling than the witnesses.  Add to this the pools of blood found near the area of "the gate." DNA was not big yet at the time of the murders and I saw little in my research as far as forensics were concerned.  But, the fact of the matter is that they told people they were going to the swimming hole, Richard's knife was found in the area, the area appeared to have been "cleaned" and the bodies, as well as the ATV's were obviously moved to a location other than where the murders took place.  When you add the witness testimony you have shots fired in the area that apparently everyone seemed to hear but the Casteel's around the time the murders are estimated to take place, and witnesses saying they saw vehicles and/or people related to the Casteel's near the dumping areas. It is all too coincidental to be coincidence.

The question lies with why was this confrontation different than the many others in the previous months?  None of the victims names ended up in the log book Frank Casteel compiled indicating that whatever happened happened long before he could get their names.  The condition of the ATV's indicate that they were shot while still on them and in the one that Richard was riding a gun was still concealed in a compartment indicating he did not get it out.  Until someone who knows truly what happened and admits the truth in the matter it will never be known.

Comments

  1. You are so off base on what you have said here. You should not rely on what you see on tv and read in newspapers,

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  2. I have always believed that Casteel didn't do it and that it was done by a guy I had a run-in with at the Blue Hole many years ago. As a young man I rode my motorcycle there by myself and 2 men were talking about shooting me. One was trying to talk the other guy into it. The one that wanted to shoot me was 100% serious and I believe would have done it if by himself. I remember telling my parents what happened and then the murders happened the next year when I went off to college. I immediately thought about my run-in with this psycho at the Blue Hole.

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  3. Wow scary! This case has always intrigued me from the first time I saw it on unsolved mysteries,would like to know the truth that's for sure.

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  4. I deeply apologize to the person who just sent a comment in for moderation. I was confirming it on my phone to publish and on accident I hit delete and couldn't retrieve. Can you resubmit?

    ReplyDelete
  5. I deeply apologize to the person who just sent a comment in for moderation. I was confirming it on my phone to publish and on accident I hit delete and couldn't retrieve. Can you resubmit?

    ReplyDelete

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