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1958 Murder of 12 Year Old Treva Joyce Raper by her cousin Thomas Everett Rutledge

Updated on April 26, 2016
Kim Bryan profile image

Tennessee-based freelance writer with a passion for true crime, a thirst for knowledge, and an obsession with lists.

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When 12 year old Treva Joyce Raper set out along the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks in Campaign in Warren County, Tennessee on the morning of June 14, 1958, she didn't know it was the last day of her life.

The young girl had plans to visit her grandparents' house which was less than a mile from her own home. From what others later told law enforcement officials, this was something Treva Joyce had done quite often.

The day soon wore on and later that evening, having missed family dinner, her parents, Lonnie and Ruby Raper, decided Treva Joyce had been gone long enough and went to the grandparents' home to retrieve their daughter. It was then the couple learned their daughter had never arrived at her intended destination.

Frantic, the Rapers called out for help in searching for the girl and soon enough the Warren County Sheriff's Department and the Rescue Squad joined the growing search. Those familiar with the area were afraid the preteen may have been met with harm from one of the "bums" known to set up camp along the railroad tracks but tried to keep these thoughts pushed to the back of their mind as they searched for Treva Joyce.

Treva Joyce Raper
Treva Joyce Raper | Source

It was around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 15, 1958, just a little more than twenty hours after Treva Joyce was last seen, a searcher discovered the girls' body in a thicket along the railroad tracks - the very thicket Thomas had discouraged volunteers from searching.

After only a cursory examination, the county coroner declared the little girl's death to be the result of natural causes. This wasn't difficult for townspeople to believe as it was well known Treva Joyce had suffered from Cerebral Palsy since shortly after her birth. Nonetheless, the coroner as well as Sheriff Eldridge Youngblood encouraged the parents to request a state-certified autopsy.

In 1958 in Tennessee, the only way an autopsy could be performed was at the request of a family member. With such, however, came the expense and the Rapers were not a wealthy family. But family and friends who shared the opinion of the Sheriff and coroner began gathering funds for a formal inquest as the Rapers went about the formalities to secure the autopsy.

While waiting for official word on the autopsy from Nashville, Warren County law enforcement continued to investigate the little girl's death as if it was a homicide. Fortunately so, as they soon learned from the state medical examiner Treva Joyce Raper had been sexually assaulted and strangled to death. The child's body was returned to Warren County and laid to rest in the Crain Hill Cemetery on Rocky River Road in Van Buren County, Tennessee.

Suspicion soon fell on Treva Joyce's second cousin Thomas Rutledge, a 32 year-old part-time sawmill worker, father of three with a history of alcoholism and violence, after it was learned he offered the girl's parents help in digging her grave while she was still considered only to be missing. Witnesses also claimed Rutledge told volunteers during the search, "There's no use looking in that dark thicket. She's at one of the neighbors."

During questioning by Tennessee Bureau of Investigations Agent Ken Shelton, Rutledge confessed to killing his young cousin but claimed he could remember little of the crime as he was drunk and "blank" during such time.

Thomas Everett Rutledge
Thomas Everett Rutledge | Source

Thomas Rutledge was arrested and charged with murder before being whisked away to the Tennessee Central State Mental Hospital in Nashville to undergo psychological testing. Not to anyone's surprise, Rutledge was declared sane and ordered to stand trial.

More than 200 hundred potential jurors were called to the Warren County, Tennessee, courthouse in September 1958. Many of those summoned balked at the idea of sitting in judgment of a child killer but the Court soon seated twelve jurors along with four alternates.

The State of Tennessee vs. Thomas Rutledge trial commenced on September 22, 1958, and more than twenty witnesses took the stand for the next two days.

One of those witnesses was Thomas Rutledge himself. He testified he had no recollection of the crime until he was arrested. His testimony continued with the defendant saying the crime had began with a lewd "suggestion" made by him to his younger cousin which resulted in her screaming and trying to run away. Rutledge said, out of panic, he covered Treva Joyce's mouth with his hand to keep her quiet and this is when his drunken amnesia came into play. He remembered nothing more.

The case was handed to the jurors just shortly after 7 p.m. on September 24th. Having deliberated only one hour and twenty-seven minutes, the jurors returned a verdict of guilty with a recommendation for death. The Judge accepted the jury's recommendation and Thomas Rutledge was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

One June 15, 1959, exactly one year to the date little Treva Joyce Raper's lifeless body was found, Thomas Rutledge's death sentence was carried out in the state's electric chair. Rutledge was the last person from Warren County, as of this writing, to be sentenced to death and the next to the last person in the state to die in the electric chair. Rutledge's body was returned to Warren County and buried in an undisclosed location.

And this is where the story should have ended but unfortunately it does not.

Jimmy Lee Rutledge was six years old at the time of his father's execution - too young to remember much about his father but old enough to have been influenced by his father's behavior.

In May 1993, Jimmy Lee went to a Locke Bend Road residence in Campaign where his uncle was residing to confront the man about an unknown issue that had angered him. However, the uncle was not at home when Jimmy Lee arrived so instead he directed his anger at 35 year-old Ricky King. After shooting King above the eye and in the back of the head, Jimmy Lee Rutledge put the body in the truck of a car parked outside the residence.

For eleven years the murder of Ricky King remained unsolved. In the meantime, Jimmy Lee was sent to federal prison on a 24-year sentence for being in possession of a firearm while a convicted felon. Jimmy Lee's prior convictions which led to this charge were kidnapping, aggravated assault, and having carnal knowledge with a minor.

After keeping quiet for more than a decade, Jimmy Lee's girlfriend, who had witnessed the murder of King, turned state's evidence and helped investigators solve this very cold case. The girlfriend claimed she came forward out of fear for herself and her family.

On Tuesday, February 15, 2005, Jimmy Lee Rutledge entered a guilty plea in exchange for a sentence of life in prison with a chance of parole in 25 years; effectively dodging the death penalty sentence for which the District Attorney intended to ask should the case go before a jury. With this sentence running consecutive to the the remaining 14 years on the weapons charge, in addition to his age of 52 at the time of entering the plea, prosecutors say they feel confident Jimmy Lee will never be released from prison.

Jimmy Lee Rutledge, who grew up to carry on a family tradition, is currently incarcerated at the United States Penitentiary, a high security male correctional institution, in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Upon the completion of his federal sentence, Jimmy Lee will be transferred to the Tennessee Department of Corrections to begin serving his second murder sentence. He will be eligible for parole in 2044 when he is 91 years old.

Treva Joyce Raper's grave at Crain Hill Cemetery, Van Buren County, Tennessee
Treva Joyce Raper's grave at Crain Hill Cemetery, Van Buren County, Tennessee | Source

© 2016 Kim Bryan

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