The 1980 Gray Murders
Born in Corbin, Kentucky during the first year of World War II, Charlotte Miles Haynes was welcomed into a household anchored by two college-educated parents. Her father, Howard Miles, was a short, average built man with auburn hair and hazel eyes. His friends described him as quiet, easy going, responsible, and very intelligent. To the young Charlotte, he was more of a friend than a parent.
Charlotte's mother, Jessie Laws Miles, was an independent woman and quite intelligent in her own right. She was one of the few women of her time who had gone to college and earned a Master's degree. Whereas Howard was the more hands-off parent to Charlotte and her four siblings, Jessie was the disciplinarian in the house. She took no gruff from her kids but, whenever one of them had a problem, they would seek her guidance because she always seemed to have the right answer.
By late 1942, overseas hostilities were in full swing and much of the country was changing to support the war effort. In early 1943, Charlotte's father accepted a job with the War Department and relocated his family to a small community in eastern Tennessee. Charlotte was too young to know that the town, located in a 17-mile long valley, had no official name. As she entered her toddler years, she had no comprehension of the reason her parents always made sure she was wearing the special badge issued by the government. In elementary school, Charlotte would occasionally invite a friend over to her house to play. She didn't know that her friend's parents had to fill out confidential War Department forms before her classmate arrived. In fact, it wasn't until later in her adolescent life that Charlotte was told the reason for these unusual procedures. The unnamed town was officially known to the government as the Clinton Engineer Works (after the war, the town was named Oak Ridge), and the job her father had taken involved scientific work on the Manhattan Project – the top secret undertaking of the United States to develop an atomic bomb.
Life in Oak Ridge during the war years was strict, isolated, and controlled. It was also very busy. Because the final product of the Manhattan Project was needed as quickly as possible, and because a massive amount of manpower was required to complete the task, Oak Ridge grew to be the fifth largest city in Tennessee (with the sixth largest bus transit system) within three years of breaking ground, even though the city didn't officially exist and would not show up on a U.S. map until 1949. However, the pace of population growth far exceeded the development of any municipal infrastructure. Gravel roads, wooden sidewalks, pre-fabricated houses, and the constant noise from never ending construction were the norm rather than the exception. And like the rest of the country, food, sugar, and gasoline were rationed. Understandably, there was one precious commodity in abundant supply – electricity. During the conceptualization, building, and testing of the atomic bomb, Oak Ridge was able to consume thirteen percent of the nation's electrical power thanks to the nearby Norris Dam hydroelectric plant.
To Charlotte, the town seemed like an ant colony; constant movement, people coming and going twenty-four hours a day. And from an early age, Charlotte and her siblings, along with the other children of the community, were bombarded with directives to never discuss anything they saw or heard with strangers, or, for that matter, with each other. It was a world of secret codes, aliases, and lies. Secrecy demands were so essential to the success of the community that the Oak Ridge High School teams played only away games and no rosters were ever given to the opposing team.
Because Oak Ridge was basically a high-security government reservation, surrounded by barbed wire fences and patrolled by an army of armed guards (by early 1945, visible security forces included 4,900 civilian guards, 740 military policemen assigned to three detachments, and more than 400 civilian policemen ), parents felt safe in letting their children roam free. Charlotte took full advantage of the situation and developed into quite a tomboy. Climbing trees was one of her favorite past times. And while she was up in the branches, she thought, why not drop a twig on any unsuspecting person who ventured by?
One morning in the spring of 1952, 9-year old Charlotte was sitting in her third grade class trying to concentrate on Mrs. Porter's mathematics lesson. For the past few days it had been rainy and cold. The children had gone without recess at school and had been cooped up at home with nothing to do. But today the sun was shining brightly, it was unseasonably warm, and Charlotte's head was filled not with addition and subtraction, but with thoughts of getting outside and running barefoot through the mud. Suddenly, the principal, Mr. Evans, walked into the classroom and whispered something in the teacher's ear. The teacher had been writing equations on the blackboard and had her back to the class. But as she turned to face the students, the blood seemed to drain from her face. An air of anxiety filled the classroom. It wasn't uncommon for a student's parent to be injured doing the dangerous work down at the labs. The children sat quietly as Mrs. Porter walked back to Charlotte's desk. Kneeling down, she told Charlotte she had to go with Mr. Evans because her mother was in the office and needed her at home. Charlotte dutifully began to straighten her desk when Mrs. Porter stopped her. Go with the principal, the teacher said.
As Charlotte walked down the long hallway toward the front office, she couldn't come up with any reason why her mother would pull her out of school. Both of Charlotte's parents were highly intelligent and knew the value of a good education. In the Miles home, missing school was practically against the law. Looking up at the stern, humorless, face of the principal, she asked if she was in trouble. Mr. Evans, in a gentle, paternalistic, tone of voice replied that she wasn't. Still confused, Charlotte and Mr. Evans turned the corner that led to the principal's office. Sunlight poured through the front entryway glass and bounced off the waxed floor. Charlotte raised her hand to shield her eyes from the glare. Once her vision had adjusted to the harsh light, Charlotte noticed her mother standing in the middle of the hall. She was wearing a dark blue pleated skirt, a white cotton blouse with tiny rose buds printed on it, and the black wedge sandals that Santa had brought her for Christmas. As Charlotte walked closer, she noticed that her mother was sobbing. The young girl was not accustomed to seeing her mother exhibit this type of sensitive emotion and the sight of tears streaming down her mother's face caused Charlotte to begin crying also. Charlotte didn't know what had happened, but she subconsciously knew it couldn't be good. Her mother dropped to her knees and cradled Charlotte's face between her hands. Brushing the hair from her daughter's eyes and wiping the tears from her cheeks, Charlotte's mother wept the words that would bring the young girl's world crashing down around her.
The news of her father's death shook Charlotte to the core. The words were barely out of her mother's mouth when she felt like her heart was going to stop beating. How could her best friend be dead? He was so young, only thirty-seven years old. And just this morning hadn't he kissed her forehead and promised her that he'd be home for supper?
It took five minutes for the rest of the Miles children to be escorted from their classes to the principal's office. Charlotte stood in the school's entryway, watching the sun yield to an unexpected spring shower rolling over Black Oak Ridge. Visions of her father's smile, his laughter, filled her head. Her sorrow increased at the same rate as the rain drops that were now falling out of the sky. The principal and a few teachers grabbed umbrellas and helped Mrs. Miles load the crying children into the family's sedan. As Charlotte and her siblings − Katie, Myrtle, Maryann, and James – rode home from school, they had no way of knowing that there was a secret their father had never disclosed to the family. It wasn't a government secret that Howard had taken an oath to protect; it was a personal secret − Howard Miles was a sick man. But it wasn't a disease that could be discerned by looking at him. He grew up to be of average height and average weight, with a fair complexion and friendly brown eyes that all the girls found captivating. However, since early childhood, his heart had been slowly disintegrating. This fact was made all too aware to him and his parents when, at age six, Howard suffered his first heart attack. Growing up, he knew that he'd never be a baseball star, or a race car driver, or an air mail pilot. He knew that his heart condition would never allow him to pursue those goals. But he did possess one incredible strength − his mind. It was an asset that he planned to use to its full potential.
Howard was an outstanding student throughout his elementary and secondary schools. He worked hard, made good grades, and eventually attended college, earning a master's degree. It was his exceptional intellect which led to Howard being offered a job by the United States War Department at the onset of World War II. The government was looking for deeply motivated, incredibly intelligent, men and women to work on a project of the highest national priority. Howard jumped at the offer and spent the war years working on the Manhattan Project − the building of the atomic bomb.
Howard knew that signing on to work for the government would be intense, but how could he reject the opportunity? Uncle Sam was picking up the expense of relocating his family to Oak Ridge, he was going to be paid an above-average salary, and his kids would have the opportunity to be educated in one of the finest school districts in the country (Oak Ridge schools were taught by teachers from 40 states and the superintendent was brought in from Columbia University. Every class in high school was taught by a teacher with a master's degree.) But, most of all, in Howard's mind it was the patriotic thing to do.
Once President Franklin D. Roosevelt was made aware of the advances being made in atomic weaponry, he declared that no expense in money, time, or manpower would be spared in the building of the bomb. The pace of clearing the land, constructing the laboratories, and developing the bomb, for town that would come to be referred as Oak Ridge, was fast and furious. Up until the point where Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by atomic weapons, the professionals at Oak Ridge worked around the clock. Sometimes Howard would be at this job for exceedingly long periods of time. When he finally did come home, he was so stressed and fatigued that all he wanted was to eat and rest. Charlotte would ask her father where he'd been and what he'd been doing but, of course, he couldn't say anything to his daughter.
When the war ended in 1945, Howard was one of the few who decided that he'd stay in Oak Ridge. Several scientists formed an organization called the Federation of Atomic Scientists and petitioned Congress for civilian control of atomic power. Their legislative lobbying was instrumental in passage of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which created the Atomic Energy Commission and gave it jurisdiction over the control of atomic power. Union Carbide had been authorized by the AEC to manage Oak Ridge's nuclear laboratories and Howard settled in to his job assisting in the development of radioisotopes that would be used for scientific research and medical treatments. However, by the early part of 1952, the stress and strain of the war years, and the added pressures of safely converting atomic energy from military use to civilian use, caught up to Howard and he died of a massive heart attack.
The day-to-day life of any widow is difficult enough. Being a young widow, and coping with the responsibility of raising three children, is a life filled with exponential hardships. There were opportunities for Jessie in Oak Ridge but after two years of getting her affairs in order, and giving the situation much thought, she decided that she'd rather be closer to family. She packed up her kids, said her good-byes to her Tennessee friends, and moved to Liberty, Kentucky.
Charlotte entered 6th grade in Liberty, Kentucky. At that time, Liberty was a small farming community 80 miles northeast of Corbin, Kentucky. To her, it was culture shock to move from the hustle and bustle of Oak Ridge to the rural solitude of Casey County. Whereas Charlotte had grown accustomed to seeing the huge, multi-acre, K-25 and X-10 reactor facilities on her way to school, now the largest building she saw was the old two-story courthouse in the town square.
Charlotte did well in school. She had to – her mother, Jessie, was her teacher. When Charlotte wasn't studying or working on a school project, her mother tried to keep her busy with babysitting. Entertainment and extracurricular activities were limited in Liberty and Jessie wasn't going to have her daughter sit around with time on her hands. Jessie would entrust Charlotte with the care of her baby brother, James, and her little sister, Maryann. Charlotte would obediently comply with her mother's wishes, often enlisting some help from her younger sister, Myrtle. On the other hand, Charlotte's sister, Katie, was a constant irritant. In typical sisterly manner, the girls would spend a great deal of time bickering and trying to make life difficult for the other.
Charlotte had the quintessential 1950's childhood. Even though money was tight, her days were filled with fun, laughter, and friends. One of Charlotte's best friends was her first cousin, Henrietta. Henrietta's family enjoyed a close relationship with Charlotte's family and the two households would often get together on weekends and holidays. One of the fondest memories Charlotte has of her cousin is the time Henrietta taught her how to drive. Henrietta was two years older than Charlotte and had a 1957 Chevy. She would let Charlotte drive around Corbin and, occasionally, to Louisville when the two cousins visited relatives. Years later, Henrietta would marry a local boy. His name was Riddle C. Thomas. This union would produce a son. His name would also be Riddle C. Thomas, except everybody would come to know him as “Junior”.
By the time Charlotte reached high school age, her family had left Liberty and moved to Corbin. Charlotte enrolled in Lynn Camp High School, located in the Knox county area of the tri-county town of Corbin (the other two counties located within the city limits are Whitley and Laurel). Charlotte easily made new friends and even tried out for a position on the school's cheerleader team. To no one's surprise, she made the squad on her first attempt. Over time, Charlotte's personality made her very popular with the students, especially the boys. She never had a problem finding a date for a local dance or to see the latest movie being shown at the drive-in. Among the throng of testosterone-fueled males at Lynn Camp, there was one boy in particular who always seemed to be first in line to ask Charlotte out. His name was Tommy Sisk. Charlotte had actually known Tommy since she was eleven and he was thirteen. Tommy didn't have much money so the couple would spend most of their time hanging out in group dates at church.
One day when Tommy was walking Charlotte home from church he asked her to marry him. Charlotte was only sixteen years old and a sophomore. But Tommy was eighteen, a few weeks shy of graduating from high school, and then having to report to boot camp for the Navy. He didn't want to go alone. He wanted Charlotte to come with him and the only way that could happen would be for them to get married. Charlotte sat down on the curb to think about Tommy's unexpected proposal. She wasn't in love with him but, then again, she didn't dislike Tommy. He was a good-looking boy, curly strawberry blonde hair, tall, muscular, and with the cutest freckles across the bridge of his nose. Tommy wasn't like the other boys, anxious to get out of school so they could get a job in the coal mines. No, Tommy was going places. Faraway places; places that Charlotte had only seen in pictures or read about in books. Charlotte, more out of a sense of boredom and a quest for adventure, accepted Tommy's proposal.
During the morning hours of April 4, 1959, Tommy secretly picked up Charlotte in his father's car and drove thirty-one miles to Jellico, Tennessee. Shortly after arriving in town, the couple found the local justice of the peace and eloped. That afternoon, Charlotte returned to her family as Mrs. Tommy Sisk. Her mother wasn't happy about the situation but decided not to interfere. A short time later, the happy-go-lucky life Charlotte had led as a teenage girl romping around the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains faded into her past. Charlotte found herself headed to the coastal flats of Florida as the young wife of a Navy gunner's mate.
Charlotte soon discovered that the Navy life wasn't all it was cracked up to be. During her husband's frequent deployments, she was often engulfed by a blanket of loneliness and boredom. And Charlotte hated being alone and bored. When Tommy did return, he usually had transfer orders and it was a mad scramble for Charlotte to pack up their belongings and coordinate the move to a new base. Making matters more intense was the fact that the Sisk family now consisted of seven people – Charlotte, Tommy, and their five children: Kathy, Tammie, Gene, William (called Howard by his family), and Jessie.