Victim’s sister reflects on impact of Sutton’s crimes

FILE - This photo provided by Tennessee Department of Correction shows death row inmate Nicholas Sutton. According to the Tennessee Department of Correction, Sutton is scheduled to be executed Thursday, Feb. 20 for killing a fellow inmate. (Tennessee Department of Correction via AP, File)

One of the most detestable recollections seared into the memory of Amy Large Cook is that of her mother crying. It happened every evening for seven months. Nancy Large put food on the supper table, and the tears began to flow.

That was 40 years ago.

Cook’s father George was a stoic man. He said women’s emotions can change as they advance in years and left it at that. Cook was only 10 years old and she didn’t understand.

It was just the three of them. Cook had a brother named John, but he didn’t come around so much, and they didn’t talk very frequently, as 18-year-old young men and 10-year-old girls have divergent interests. John Large was living in Knoxville with his high school sweetheart, a woman he would later marry.

When Cook asked about her brother, her parents would tell her he was away on a business trip. Girls of her age generally don’t question what loving parents tell them, and Cook was blissfully in the majority group.

Cook remembers her brother as a loving person who talked about making a lot of money, which brings Nicky Sutton into the mix. Cook says she recalls her brother bringing Sutton by the house after they met while attending Morristown-Hamblen High School East.

Sutton had an ice cream truck and would give her treats for free. George Large had worked with Sutton’s grandfather, so Sutton was accepted in the Large home with a degree of familiarity.

As the mid-year school break approached, the Larges decorated their Christmas tree. Beneath the tree were presents for all the family members, including Cook’s brother.

Cook was in the sixth grade, her first year of middle school. A short time before the Christmas break, one of her teachers asked about her brother. Cook told the teacher he was away on a business trip.

No, the teacher said, your brother is missing.

Christmas passed, Cook returned to school and her brother’s Christmas presents remained unopened.

A form of matricide

John Large wasn’t the only person in this tale who missed spending Christmas with family.

Another was Dorothy Sutton, Nicky Sutton’s grandmother, a Hamblen County school teacher who was raising him as a son after his troubled parents proved unequal to the task.

She and her grandson planned to celebrate the holidays with family members at Christmas Eve dinner in Knoxville. Nicky arrived on time, bearing presents, including gifts from his grandmother. When Dorothy Sutton was a no-show, and her grandson reported he had last seen her on Dec. 22, red flags flew.

That night, Jewel Sutton Davis, Nicky Sutton’s aunt and Dorothy Sutton’s daughter, accompanied her husband and Nicky Sutton, traveled to Morristown to search for the missing woman. They found blood on the floor.

Then entered Charles Long, chief deputy of the Hamblen County Sheriff’s Department, who would later be elected sheriff.

When Long interviewed Nicky Sutton on Dec. 27, the suspect implicated a man named Charles Almon, a reputed drug dealer from Knoxville. Sutton told Long that he owed Almon money, and he was the only person who would have come to their home while he was gone.

At some point, Sutton told Long he knew the location of his grandmother’s body, the Nolichucky River, where he had tossed her from a bridge. Sutton reported that he discovered his grandmother’s lifeless body in her home, and then wrapped her in blankets and trash bags before affixing a concrete block to her body with a chain.

Dorothy Sutton’s body was recovered on Dec. 29. An autopsy showed she was alive when she had been thrown from the bridge. The cause of death was drowning.

The first trial

Morristown attorney Dwaine Evans and his law partner, Doug Beier, had been practicing law together for about four years when Dorothy Sutton was murdered. In an era before designated public defenders, Criminal Court Judge James E. Beckner appointed Evans and Beier to represent Sutton.

Evans, who describes Sutton as a “confused 18-year-old kid,” says that at trial Sutton stuck to his story he’d given Long about Almon killing his grandmother.

“It’s a case that Doug and I spent hundreds of hours on for virtually no compensation,” Evans said. “We were just appointed to represent a client and we did the best we could with the evidence that we had.”

Sutton testified that he and Large had pooled their money and planned to purchase $75,000 worth of cocaine from Almon. He testified he returned home to find his grandmother dead. At that point, Sutton said, Almon struck him from behind. Almon demanded Sutton’s drug ledger and threatened to kill him.

By Sutton’s account, Almon’s handgun was lying on a table. Sutton testified he snatched the gun and killed Almon with a single shot to the head.

The jury didn’t buy Sutton’s story. Following a three-day trial, a jury found the teen guilty of first-degree murder. Beckner sentenced Sutton to life.

As it turned out, Almon couldn’t have killed Dorothy Sutton. By Christmas 1979, Almon had been dead – at Sutton’s hand – for about two months.

When John Large went missing in August 1979, Sutton told Large’s new bride that her husband had made off with the $75,000 they had planned to parlay into a huge profit that would go towards Large’s goal of making lots of money. That wasn’t true, either. Large was already dead.

Truth emerges

The conclusion of the trial did not end the relationship between Sutton and Long, a tenacious investigator. Long had developed a rapport with the convicted killer and continued to question him while he was still housed at the Hamblen County Jail, awaiting transport to Brushy Mountain State Prison.

Long didn’t employ the good-cop, bad-cop method of interrogating suspects. The chief deputy, who would become sheriff, played both roles. Long would use salty, forceful language and appear to fly off the handle, only to warm up to the suspect seconds later.

Long’s interrogation method worked with Sutton. Before he was shipped to Brushy Mountain, he led Long and other investigators to Large’s body in North Carolina. A tobacco stake had been forced through his throat.

Almon’s body was discovered in a flooded rock quarry in Cocke County.

Sutton settled both cases with first-degree murder pleas that did not impact his life sentence.

Approximately four years after arriving at Brushy Mountain, Sutton became entangled in a marijuana-related dispute with a man named Carl Estep, a convicted child molester. Sutton settled the beef conclusively with a knife.

Following a trial held at the prison, Sutton was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

The end

At 7 p.m. on Thursday at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville – barring a last-minute reprieve – Sutton will die in the electric chair. He is 58.

Because he didn’t get the death sentence for the murders in East Tennessee, Cook won’t be allowed to watch Sutton die, though it’s an option she says she would exercise if given the opportunity. She’ll be outside the prison, awaiting confirmation her brother’s killer is dead.

“I could pull that trigger, flip that switch,” she said.

Cook says she remembers when she was 11 years old, seeing Long come to her home to speak with her parents. That night, she was in bed when her father told her that her brother wasn’t coming home.

Looking back, Cook says she can’t fathom how her parents, who are both deceased, sustained themselves while her brother was missing. The memory is particularly poignant, Cook says, because she has a 19-year-old son, the same age as her brother when Sutton murdered him and who resembles her brother and shares some of his mannerisms.

“My father was the pillar our family, holding it together,” she said. “He was a perfect father and husband. I think if he did cry – and I’m sure he did – he never showed any emotion around me. He said he missed John every day, but he held strong for my sake … my mother fell apart.”

Cook says she’s not convinced by reports that Sutton has turned his life around and found Christianity.

Evans, the attorney who served as co-counsel at Sutton’s first murder trial, professes Christianity, but says he is a firm believer in the death penalty in certain cases.

“Nicky has told people he’s become a Christian,” Evans said last week, “I have no idea if that’s true. Only he and God know that. I hope it’s true, for his sake. He’s a week away from eternity.”