Revisiting one of Scott County’s most notorious murders

Brenda Lawson was scared.

It was late in the night of May 29, 1970. She and her husband, Robert, were sitting in their 1965 Pontiac Tempest, in a darkened Norma driveway. Not just any driveway; they were at the home of Dr. D.T. Chambers. The elderly doctor was one of Norma’s most prominent citizens, and his two-story brick home with stately white columns was the most prominent residence in the fading lumber community.

Brenda and Robert didn’t want to be there. But they were afraid for their life. What had begun as a fun evening of drinking and cruising Scott County backroads had turned sour. Really terribly, awfully sour.

Brenda was just 20 years old. Her husband was 23. They had just moved back to Scott County from Chattanooga. They had had some brushes with the law, sure, but nothing too serious. There had been a matter of forged checks. And Brenda had been arrested for lewdness, but the charge was later dropped.

Yet, here they were, sitting in a driveway where they didn’t belong, waiting for two men they knew but were hardly friends with to finish their business and return to the waiting Pontiac. The business? Brothers Clifton and James Pennington planned to rob the old man. It was rumored that he had a lot of money locked in a safe inside that big home of his, and they were going to take it. At gunpoint.

It was just before 11 o’clock. They say nothing good happens after midnight. But in Scott County, Tenn. in 1970, nothing good happened after 10 o’clock. Not even on a Friday night. Especially not on that Friday night.

While the Lawsons waited, Brenda heard what she described as a “low thud-like noise” coming from the doctor’s home. Moments later, the brothers came racing back to the car. “Get the hell out of here,” they ordered.

Brenda did as she was told, the Tempest racing along Norma Road with its lights out until they were out of sight of the doctor’s house. Somewhere along the way, they passed a deputy sheriff’s patrol car heading the opposite direction along the road towards Smokey Junction. Who knows what the lawman was doing that far out that late at night. But there he was. And when Clifton saw the patrol car, he had chilling words.

If the cop came back, Pennington proclaimed, he had already killed one man. He’d just as soon kill the cop, too.

That low thud-like noise Brenda Lawson had heard? That was a shotgun blast — the shotgun blast that had killed old Doc Chambers … taken the top of his head clear off.

***

THAT FRIDAY NIGHT had started peacefully enough for the young lovebirds who had recently returned from Chattanooga. Brenda was originally from Ohio, but Robert was from Scott County, so they had come back home to live with his mother.

May 29, 1970. A date that would forever change several Scott County families. It was around 5:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. — Brenda would later say in court that she didn’t remember exactly when — that she and Robert set out from Oneida for Foster Crossroads in the Pontiac that her father had given her. They had a transistor radio that a man wanted to buy, and they were going to deliver it to him.

Somewhere along the way through the Grave Hill community, they met the man, sold him the radio, and then headed back to town. It was going on 7:00 p.m. by that time, and as they drove, they saw Clifton and James Pennington walking on the road. The brothers motioned for them to stop. They should’ve kept going. Had they known what was going to happen about three hours later, they probably would’ve kept going.

But armed robbery and murder were the furthest things from the Lawsons minds at that point. It was 7:00 p.m. on a warm Friday evening, they were cruising in their Pontiac Tempest, and the Penningtons had beer. Two paper sacks of beer, in fact. They stopped the car, and Cliff and James climbed in.

For the next little while, the foursome just drove around and drank beer — “quite a lot of beer,” Brenda would later testify in court … but they were not “real drunk.” At some point, as they headed up U.S. Hwy. 27 towards Kentucky, they stopped at a tavern for more beer. Then they headed back into town. Cliff wanted to pick up his wife. The night was still young, and there was still beer left.

The two-door hardtop wouldn’t make it up the driveway to the Skating Rink Hollow home where the Penningtons were staying, so Brenda parked at the bottom of the hill. Cliff stayed in the car and continued drinking while his brother hiked up to the house to fetch Carol, Cliff’s wife.

***

SOMETHING WEIRD WAS GOING ON. That must’ve been what Mrs. Alice Thomas thought when she saw James Pennington heading out of his grandmother’s house with something sticking down each side of his clothes — some kind of “long something.”

Turns out, that “some kind of long something” was a disassembled 12-gauge shotgun. James had hiked up the hill at Skating Rink Hollow intending to retrieve more than his sister-in-law. He also wanted the shotgun. Except his aunt would have none of it.

“Miss Effie” they called her. She was his dad’s sister, who took care of her elderly mother. Around 60 years of age, when Miss Effie talked, her nephews listened. So when Miss Effie saw James making off with the shotgun, she hollered at him to put it back. He did. Or, at least, he said he did.

Mrs. Alice Thomas was a next-door neighbor who just happened to be in the Pennington home that night, helping to care for her elderly aunt. She heard Miss Effie tell her nephew to put the gun up, but she didn’t think much of the strange objects James had concealed in his clothing as he and Carol left the house and headed for the car she’d seen waiting at the bottom of the driveway — that is, she didn’t think much of it until the county sheriff came calling with a TBI agent, and she learned that the 12-gauge shotgun had been used to murder old Doc Chambers.

***

DOC CHAMBERS. THAT’S WHAT EVERYONE CALLED HIM. His name was Divine Truth Chambers, but most people knew him simply as D.T. Chambers.

By 1970, Doc Chambers wasn’t practicing much medicine. He was 85, needed the assistance of a cane to get around, and had declining eyesight.

But until just recently, he had seen patients at his stately Norma home, where he had lived alone since his wife, Artie, had died more than 20 years earlier. Of course he had opened his home to patients. Helping the people of Norma and eastern Scott County was just what he did … it’s what he had always done.

“Poor as a church mouse.” That’s how Doc Chambers described his first few years out of medical school. Establishing a medical practice back home wasn’t easy, not when he had to compete with the company doctors in the logging and mining camps. But he intended to do it. And he did.

After all, Doc Chambers had deep roots in the shadows of the Cumberland Mountains. His great-grandfather, Thomas Chambers, had migrated to nearby Buffalo Creek from North Carolina in the late 18th century, becoming one of Scott County’s first white settlers.

Doc Chambers set up his first clinic at Smokey Junction in 1916. It was a new whistle-stop on the Tennessee Railroad which was expanding deeper and deeper into the Cumberland Mountains as the huge swaths of virgin timber were cut and new coal mines were opened.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic struck. Death was in the air. Doc Chambers worked day and night to care for the sick.

Three years later, he moved his office down the road to Norma. By 1970, Scott Countians would’ve considered Norma “closer to town.” And, by that, they would’ve been referring to Oneida. But in 1921, Norma was town. The lumber mill was turning out 100,000 board feet every single day. There were hundreds of workers making it happen, and their spouses and children made up hundreds more. Doc Chambers soon had all the patients he could handle.

Through the middle stages of the 20th century, Doc Chambers was the only doctor in eastern Scott County, aside from a couple at Winona, which was closer to the county seat of Huntsville. He worked long hours to call on all who needed him. He traveled on horseback when he needed to, and on foot when he had to. He even jumped on a steer’s back to cross New River and reach patients in need. An engineer on the Tennessee Railroad would cut his engine loose from the train and transport the doctor up and down the tracks so he could access sick people.

To say that Doc Chambers was an immensely popular figure in the Norma and Smokey Junction communities would be to put it mildly. He delivered the vast majority of people who were living in those settlements by 1970. It was documented that he delivered an incredible 4,500 babies over the course of his 55 years in the medical profession. If you’re doing the math, that’s over 80 babies per year … or one about every five days.

But D.T. Chambers wasn’t just the community’s doctor. He also served on the county school board, and was chiefly responsible for seeing secondary education come to Norma. Had it not been for Doc Chambers, Norma High School might have never been established. Before he insisted that a public high school was needed in the logging town, the only schooling was at a tiny backwoods school on Little Smokey Creek that was called Hembree School. And not only was Doc Chambers responsible for Norma High School being built, but he was its biggest benefactor through the years. When the junior and senior classes took a trip to Washington, D.C. each year and some students couldn’t afford to go, he paid their way out of his own pocket.

***

IT WAS IN THE PARKING LOT OF THE HIGH SCHOOL THAT DOC CHAMBERS BUILT that Brenda Lawson stopped her Pontiac Tempest that Friday night. It was going on 10 o’clock by that time, and she and her husband, Robert, realized that they were in a mess.

When James and Carol had walked back down the hill from the home at Skating Rink Hollow and climbed into the back seat of the car with Cliff, Brenda had turned around to be introduced. She knew James and Cliff, but she had never met Carol. When she turned around, she saw the shotgun — the 12-gauge that Miss Effie had hollered at James to put back … the 12-gauge he had promised to put back, before he snuck it out of the house under his clothes.

Brenda Lawson didn’t make any bones about it. She didn’t want a gun in her car, and she said so. But Cliff told her that some man was trying to beat him up, even kill him, and that he needed the gun for protection. Brenda must’ve bought his story. Because after shrugging off her worries about the gun, he asked her to drive them to Norma. She did.

As they drove by the school and neared the community’s grocery, Cliff told Brenda to turn the car around. She did that, too. And when they got back to the school, he told her to stop the car. Again, she did.

That’s how the Lawsons and the Penningtons wound up in the parking lot of Norma High School. And that’s where Cliff Pennington told Brenda and Robert that he was going to rob Doc Chambers. While Norma might have been a bustling place at one point, there wasn’t much money left in the declining community by 1970. But Doc Chambers — he might have been poor as a church mouse early on, but he had money. At least, that was the rumor. Doc Chambers, they said, had lots of money.

Robert Lawson asked Cliff not to do it. Drinking and having fun was one thing. Robbing an old man was something else.

That’s when things started to turn ugly. Cliff said they were going to rob the old man. If Brenda and Robert tried to stop them, he would beat them. If they fled, he would kill their entire families if that’s what it took to get to them.

Brenda and Robert must’ve believed the threats. Because when Cliff and his wife and his brother got out of the car and headed up to Doc Chambers’ house, they stayed put. They could’ve fled; who would’ve stopped them? That’s what a court-appointed defense attorney asked at trial later, when Brenda took the stand after turning state’s evidence. Why didn’t she and her husband just leave while the Penningtons were up at the house, demanding that old Doc Chambers open his safe? Because, she answered, she was afraid.

That’s the way Brenda told it. The Penningtons had their own version of what happened. At trial, as Brenda testified for the state, Carol piped up to say, “Oh, Brenda, why don’t you tell the truth woman?”

Things almost ended a lot better than they did. The Penningtons knocked on Doc Chambers’ door several times. No one answered. So they started back to the car.

But then a light came on in back of the house and the Penningtons turned back to the door and knocked again. Someone opened the door. And things went downhill from there. One of the men — Brenda would testify later that she wasn’t sure who, but she was pretty sure it was James — produced the shotgun. The man backed into the house with the brothers following him, as Carol ran back to the car and climbed into the front seat.

A few minutes later, the “low thud-like noise,” and then Cliff and James running, jumping in the car and telling Brenda to get the hell out of there.

***

DOC CHAMBERS OFFERED $1,000 FOR HIS LIFE. That’s what Cliff and James told the Lawsons later on, after they had fled Scott County and headed north to an apartment they owned in Cincinnati. They said Doc Chambers offered them $1,000 not to kill him. Did they take it? Nah. They laughed at him.

So why did they kill old Doc Chambers, the beloved community physician who had offered his services to so many over the years?

The way Brenda told it, the Penningtons asked the doctor if he had a gun. He told them he didn’t, but then they opened a drawer and found a .32 caliber Smith & Wesson nickle-plated revolver and realized he had lied. That pissed them off.

“You lied to me,” James said. Then one of the brothers lifted the shotgun and shot the doctor in the face at close range.

Once they were settled in at the apartment in Cincinnati, Brenda said, the brothers told her that they had blown old Doc Chambers’ head off because he told them he didn’t have a gun.

They never made entry to the safe. When they fled the home after killing the doctor, they made off with about $45 in cash.

For less than $50 in cash, the beloved Doc Chambers had lost his life. Hundreds of people would turn out to mourn him at a funeral at Norma Baptist Church — where he had been a member — three days later, on a Monday afternoon. At that point, no arrests had been made and no suspects made. But the noose was tightening as Sheriff Bernard Brummitt and TBI Special Agent John Marcum conducted their investigation.

***

WITHIN AN HOUR OF LEAVING SKATING RINK HOLLOW, Brenda Lawson’s Pontiac Tempest was rolling back into Oneida. James Pennington returned the 12-gauge shotgun that Miss Effie had ordered him not to take, Carol retrieved her son, and Cliff Pennington ordered Brenda to drive toward Cincinnati.

By now, James Pennington was on a roll. When Brenda stopped the car at a gas station in Whitley City so they could use the bathroom, James begged Cliff to give him Doc Chambers’ revolver, which they had taken when they fled the murder scene, so he could use it to rob the joint. Cliff refused.

On Monday, the same day hundreds were turning out at Doc Chambers’ funeral in Norma, the Lawsons and Penningtons drove back to Tennessee. They threw the handgun over a bridge into the Licking River, then drove to Attica, Ind. the following day.

James and Cliff knew the law must be after them. They made several phone calls trying to find out whether warrants had been issued for their arrest. They also went to Carol’s mother’s home several times to watch the news to see what was being said about the murder.

Then, Cliff got really brazen. He called the jail in Huntsville exactly one week after the murder and asked for Sheriff Brummitt. He even identified himself, according to the deputy who answered the phone. When the deputy, Boyant Sexton, told Cliff the sheriff wasn’t available, Cliff asked if there had been any warrants issued for the Penningtons for murdering Doc Chambers. “I understand they went up there and tore the damn house all to pieces,” Cliff said.

The deputy asked Cliff where he was. “I couldn’t tell you that,” Cliff answered.

But Cliff didn’t have to tell. An Indiana State Police officer was patroling in Williamsport, Ind. when he saw four people at a phone booth in front of the courthouse. The Penningtons and the Lawsons, phoning back to Tennessee to inquire as to whether the law was looking for them. They were taken into custody and held until law enforcement officers from Scott County arrived to transport them back to Huntsville.

TBI Agent Marcum contacted police in Covington, the town near Cincinnati where Cliff and Carol had an apartment. A lieutenant searched the place, and found a scrap of paper with “663-2245 Huntsville, Tennessee” written on it. The number for the Scott County Jail. Cliff was obsessed with whether the cops were closing in on him.

Meanwhile, Robert led authorities to the bridge where Doc Chambers’ gun had been tossed into the Licking River. Using a tugboat and a seven-ton electric magnet, the river bottom was dragged and Chambers’ nickle-plated S&W revolver was hoisted out of the water.

As for the Lawsons’ story that they were afraid for their lives after being threatened by Cliff Pennington? Attorney General Arzo Carson insisted that they were not accomplices — that they helped the Penningtons escape Tennessee but did not help them kill Doc Chambers. An appeals court ruled that law enforcement officers in both Indiana and Kentucky had witnessed the Penningtons and Lawsons together on multiple occasions — corroboration for the Lawsons’ assertion that Cliff and James wouldn’t let Brenda and Robert out of their sight, so that they could keep a “careful watch” over them.

Carson said that the Lawsons were not offered leniency for testifying on behalf of the state at the trial.

***

NINETY-NINE YEAR PRISON SENTENCES. That’s what a judge doled out for both Clifton Pennington and James Pennington after a Scott County jury found them guilty of first degree murder. They would spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Martha Carol Vandeveer Pennington was sentenced to 50 years in prison for her role in the doctor’s death. In 1976, Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton commuted her sentence to time served. She was released and left the area.

Robert Lawson was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was released after three years and moved to Kentucky, where he remarried.

Brenda Lawson was not sentenced to prison, but was allowed to return to the area of Ohio where she had been raised.

On July 10, 1980, Clifton Pennington suffered a heart attack and died at Brushy Mountain State Prison in Petros, Tenn. He was 37 at the time of his death. He was buried in the family cemetery in Oneida.

James Pennington later died, as well.

Footnote: Family members of both Dr. D.T. Chambers and the Pennington brothers, Clifton and James, still reside in Scott County today. The point of this story isn’t to rip bandaids off of old wounds or drag skeletons out of closets, but to take a renewed look at a significant historical moment after the passage of time. Last spring marked half a century since Dr. Chambers’ death. The factual basis for this story is taken from newspaper accounts and court documents.

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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