Too Pretty to Live: The Catfishing Murders of East Tennessee
A Book Review
Brooks, D. (2016). Too Pretty to Live; The Catfishing Murders of East Tennessee. New York: Diversion Publishing.
The term “Catfish” has become well known in the last few years with the rise of the MTV series of the same name, so much so that in 2014 it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary (Highfill, 2014). Defined as a person who utilizes false social networking accounts for deceptive purposes, Jenelle Potter upped the ante from deception to double murder (Highfill, 2014; Brooks, 2016).
The case began with the senseless murders of couple Billy Payne, age 36 and Billie Jean Hayworth, age 26 on January 31, 2012. The couple was found shot to death in their home with Billie Jean still clutching her surviving child Tyler. What started as a senseless murder quickly became an unbelievingly tangled mess of fact and fiction woven together by the sociopathic mind of Jenelle Potter.
Due to previous feuding between the Potters and the victims it was not long before they came under the radar of the Mountain City Police Department. The bitter yet one sided relationship between the parties was clearly laid out on Facebook and Topix, two social media sites utilized with fever by the isolated and impoverished community members of Mountain City. There were also multiple police reports and court records where Jenelle was reporting harassment and a couple where the friends of the victims and the victim tried filing restraining orders. While Jenelle Potter is reported to have an auditory disorder that prevented her from communicating with her peers, she had no trouble communicating her feelings online.
The case first appeared to be one of Marvin (Buddy) Potter and Jamie Curd killing the victims to protect Jenelle. Further investigation revealed the presence of several catfish accounts. The primary character, Chris, who was purported to be a member of the CIA was reported to be “family” of the Potter family and someone who looked out for Jenelle. Through the use of these multiple catfished accounts Jenelle convinced her family and Jamie Curd of two things; that she was in serious danger from Bill Payne and Billy Jean Hayworth and that any action taken by the family would be supported by the CIA. While most people would dismiss something as the CIA getting involved in a girl fight, it is important to note that all of this took place in Mountain City, Tennessee. Mountain City is strongly lacking in education, income, and socialization. The median income for residents of Mountain City is $35,000 with only 75% graduating high school and less than 8% of residents obtaining their bachelor’s degree. Drug use is high. While the community may be close nit as reported by Brooks, they are also very uninformed and socially backwards due to little interaction with those outside of their community.
While Brooks felt from the beginning that Jenelle and her mother were somehow involved in the murders through going through their email messages and phone calls, he had no experience in how to prove that they were criminally responsible. He reports that he began scouring the internet for something that might help him prove that Jenelle was actually Chris and the other Topix and Facebook posters. He happened up forensic linguistics and Dr. Robert Leonard.
Dr. Robert Leonard, a world renowned linguistic specialist was brought in to prove that the CIA agent Chris was actually Jenelle Potter. Jenelle Potter had created the Chris profile to help make her family think that she was in danger. Realistically Jenelle was simply jealous of Billie Jean Hayworth and her friends. Jenelle was reported to have had a crush on Bill Payne and became enraged when Billie Jean became pregnant. It was shortly after the pregnancy announcement that Jamie Curd and Barbara Potter began receiving messages from Chris. Interestingly enough, Chris was an actual person in Jenelle’s past, a former classmate, but was not a CIA agent and had no real connection to her.
Dr. Leonard was able to use typed harassment complaints by Jenelle and her mother Barbara compared with the messages from Chris and other catfish accounts to find the linguistic markers distinct to Jenelle’s writing. Not only was Jenelle’s grammar terrible, she often referred to herself as pretty and good which was repeated in Chris’ messages. In addition to that, Jenelle often added extra e’s into words and frequently transposed letters so Dr. Leonard was able to draw distinct correlations between the writings of Chris and Jenelle.
The prosecution was able to use the work of Dr. Leonard to convict Jenelle Potter and her mother of first degree murder as his work proved that without their involvement, the murders would not have happened. Message after message goaded Jamie and Barbara along, inflaming their anger and fears. Barbara then carried that anger and fears to her husband Buddy who eventually ended the lives of Payne and Hayworth.
Brooks (2016) paints Mountain City, TN as synonymous with a Norman Rockwell painting where something as horrific as murder is unheard of. For the residents of East Tennessee, this is simply not true. Mountain City is known to have a lack of education, high rates of poverty and drug use, where family histories can be traced more easily in police records than the family bible. Mountain City boasts a population of slightly over 18000, with per capita crimes rates for serious and violent crimes consistent with national averages (CityData.com, 2016).
When Brooks chose to write the book there was a great amount of uproar over the ethics of it. However, The Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility reported that there are no rules governing an attorney’s conduct after the verdict is rendered in a case (Campbell, 2016). Beverly Garland, the mother of murder victim Billy Payne states that she felt betrayed by Brooks, especially since he included her son’s gravestone on the cover of his book without her consent (Campbell, 2016 a).
While Brooks frequently references how the majority of the community clings to their Christian faith, it is important to note that upon further inspection, that faith when intertwined with ignorance and a lack of education leads to behaviors far from those outlined as Godly or Christian. The writings of Barbara and Jenelle Potter are perfect examples of this, frequently referring to the victims as whores and discussing how they need to be killed while simultaneously talking about how grateful they are to be good Christians. Interestingly enough the very last electronic communication included in the Potter trial was a link Barbara Potter had sent to herself in January 2016 entitled “Can God Forgive a Murderer?”
In the end Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood sentenced Jamie Curd to two counts of facilitation to commit first degree murder. His sentence was less than the other three defendants due to a plea deal in which he testified for the prosecution. The Potter women were both convicted of two counts each of first degree murder and sentenced to serve two concurrent life sentences. Marvin (Buddy) Potter was convicted earlier for both murders.
Media reports and the book itself all refer to Jenelle Potter as having an auditory disorder that made communication with her peers difficult, but it is very clear from her sociopathic actions that she suffered from something far more serious. Brooks does not address this fact in depth but repeatedly alludes to the Potter family’s mental health issues, defects, or maladies. There are sparse mentions of the sociopathic behaviors of Jenelle, as well as the bizarre and isolating parenting methods that made her that way.
Brooks reports that by writing the book he was able to lay a case that had consumed his life for years to rest. His task as prosecutor had been to convince the jurors that while and Buddy Potter and Jamie Curt had done the actual killing of Billy Payne and Billy Jean Hayworth, Barbara and Jenelle Potter were criminally responsible. It was the prosecution’s theory that without the assistance and prompting of Jenelle Potter (in several catfishing roles) and her mother Barbara that Payne and Hayworth would still be alive.
Essentially Brooks said it best when he described himself as a writer, he has no imagination. What he does do is tell an unbelievable story through the use of emails, phone call transcripts, court records and his personal experiences. The book is an easy read, but is sometimes redundant with many of the statements of the defendants being repeatedly included to accentuate his point. The amount of personal investment into the case is clear with him feeling that when the case ended he would “either be the hero or the goat. Justice served or justice eluded.” He is far more a narrator than an author.
This case was known by all involved to be the most senseless and bizarre case the state had ever seen, with each move perpetuated by the sick mind of Jenelle Potter. She cunningly made murderous puppets of those around her using nothing more than words typed on a computer screen. Brooks reports that it is clear Buddy Potter believed his daughter would be raped and murdered by Bill and Billie Jean. Equally convinced of their danger to Janelle was Jamie Curt, her boyfriend. Jenelle’s mother Barbara seems to be the most delusional and dangerous of them all. Not only did her bizarre parenting create the sociopathic woman Jenelle became, she then became sucked into Jenelle’s delusional world believing as well that her daughter was in danger. This case was more than catfishing; it was mental illness super powered by the world wide web. What was meant to be a tool for socialization became a murder weapon by default.
Brooks telling of the case is interesting and the craziness of the real life storyline keep the reader engaged for the most part. It is lacking in a deeper explanation of the legal principals utilized to prosecute the case but from Brooks own admission, the book was more of a way to release the torment the case had caused him than a legal or psychological manual. He had a story that he felt was told in error by the media and he wanted to make it right.
In a stunning twist of events, in July of 2016 the defense attorneys for Barbara Potter announced they were seeking a new trial based on the information not released in the trial but contained within Brooks’ book (Hinds, 2016). Brooks repeatedly mentions information he knew but did not disclose to the defense despite their legal right to obtain such information. Hinds (2016) reports two specific incidents of concern to the defense: extensive statements made by Jamie Curt that were inconsistent with stories they heard and the fact that police installed surveillance devices in the Potter home that they used to obtain images and information. The defense argues that without having this information their clients could not have the fair trial they are legally entitled to. The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals has now issued a stay to the appellate process while the defense pursues a petition for “a writ of corm nobis” which means that an error was made that if corrected would have led to a different outcome of the case (Campbell, 2016 b). The case is still pending in the courts and Brooks has yet to comment on how his book may cause a retrial in a case that took over years of his life.
Brooks, D. (2016). Too Pretty to Live; The Catfishing Murders of East Tennessee. New York:
Campbell, B. (2016 a). Facebook murders documented in true crime book written by prosecutor. Johnson City Press. Retrieved from http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/Local/2016/01/04/Facebook-murders-documented-in-true-crime-book-written-by-prosecutor
Campbell, B. (2016 b). Appellate court issues state in Facebook murder appeal. Johnson City Press. Retrieved from http://www.johnsoncitypress.com/Local/2016/07/27/Appellate-court-issues-stay-in-Facebook-murder-appeal
CityData.Com. (2016). Crime rate in Mountain City, Tennessee: Murders, rapes, robberies, assaults, burglaries, thefts, auto thefts, arson, law enforcement employees, police officers, crime map. Retrieved from http://www.city-data.com/crime/crime-Mountain-City-Tennessee.html
Highhfill, S. (2014). Merriam-webster officially gives "catfish' a new definition. Retrieved from http://www.ew.com/article/2014/05/20/merriam-webster-catfish-definition
Hinds, A. (2016, July 7). Defense attorneys in "Facebook murders" say new evidience revealed in prosecutors book warrants new trial. . WJHL. Retrieved from http://wjhl.com/2016/07/07/defense-attorneys-in-facebook-murders-say-new-evidence-revealed-in-prosecutors-book-warrants-new-trial/