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COLD CASE: Attorneys question possible "corruption within government" in 1980s

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

There are new details in a Hamilton County cold case. Attorneys for the man charged in a 1981 murder say some major pieces of evidence are missing and question if some of it was intentionally destroyed decades ago.

Billy Hawk, 61, was arrested in September. He's accused of killing 27-year-old Johnny Mack Salyer more than 34 years ago. Salyer's body was found stuffed in a barrel that was floating down the Tennessee River in July 1981.

"We're looking for the barrel. We're looking for the x-rays. Things that don't change with time," explained Bill Speek, one of Hawk's attorneys.

Nearly 35 years after Salyer was killed, Hawk's attorneys are now looking for "key pieces" of missing forensic evidence, including the barrel that was holding Salyer's body.

"If we could find that barrel, it may be that there's (DNA) evidence available that would exonerate our client and might implicate someone else," said attorney Jimmy Logan, who also represents Hawk.

Hawk's defense team says some of the original autopsy x-rays are also missing. The original forensic report never mentioned any bullets found in Salyer's body.

"But 34 years later, there's a bullet found," Speek said. "We just want explanations as to 1) how that happened and 2) where those x-rays were that a medical examiner reviewed and did not find a bullet."

Court documents allege those records were either neglected or destroyed.

Hawk's attorneys also request the state hand over any knowledge of an internal "cover up" or "paying witnesses" back in the 1980s.

"There are things that you may know and will learn in reference to the existence of corruption within government back in the 80s," Logan said.

Hawk's defense team says evidence exists that proves other people may have been involved in Salyer's murder, but those witnesses are now dead.

It's another hurdle in a case that spans more than three decades.

"Mr. Hawk has professed his innocence the entire time," said Speek. "Every day that he stays in jail, from our perspective, an innocent man is behind bars."

Hawk's defense team wants the state to either come up with the missing evidence or at least explain how it was lost between 1981 and now.

Hawk will be back in court in two weeks.

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