Unsolved Crimes: Higgins/Parks murders still unsolved after 38 years

Published 10:30 am Thursday, August 15, 2019

In today’s Unsolved Crimes we take a look back to the early 1980s, long before technology such as cellphones and the Internet were publicly available, to put a spotlight on a double homicide that has remained unsolved for 38 years.

It was a seasonable 71 degrees, windy and thundering in the Elizabethton and surrounding area on June 3, 1981, when the bodies of Rex Allen Higgins and Carolyn Janice Parks were discovered in a local church parking lot. They had both been shot dead by shotgun blasts.

There is much debate on who coined the term justice delayed is justice denied, but whoever did surely had persons like Higgins and Parks in mind.

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The 21-year-old Higgins was from Afton, which is between Limestone and Greeneville.

Parks was believed to have been 35 the night she was killed. She was from Parrotsville, which is approximately 27 miles southwest of Afton, in Cocke County.

The murder scene was the parking lot of the Happy Valley Church of Christ near the Rio Vista area of Elizabethton on Highway 321. The church’s minister, Roy Phillips, who lived in a parsonage behind the church at the time, discovered the two bodies. Phillips had left out with his family around 9:30 p.m. to go get something to eat only to return around 10 p.m. to the grisly scene.

When the Phillips family returned from their outing and saw the victims’ bodies they went to the home of the assistant minister and notified the Carter County Sheriff’s Office, which was led at the time by Sheriff George Papantoniou.

Later, Phillips’ wife told a reporter from the Elizabethton Star that the bodies were lying in the driveway in front of the church library.

“At first we thought it was the bodies of two young boys,” she said.

Residents that lived near the scene reported hearing loud voices followed by gunshots shortly before 10 p.m.

The sheriff’s office immediately launched an investigation into the incongruity of two persons that lived miles away from each other just so happened to be found dead in Carter County which was even more miles from where either of them lived.

Reports from the time detail the horrific manner in which they died and indicated it was an execution-style slaying.

Parks’ was found lying on her stomach, and was shot at least four times. Higgins was found lying on his back positioned vertically to the woman’s body. Higgins was shot once in the face. Higgins also had marks on his wrists that indicated that he had been bound with handcuffs.

According to then-Assistant District Attorney General Lynn Brown, a wallet containing $83 was found on Higgins so a robbery motive was ruled out.

Papantoniou’s investigation led to Parks’ husband. The former sheriff said information that he and his chief investigator gathered indicated the husband paid $5,000 to two gang members to have the couple killed.

However, the TBI conducted a separate investigation and developed a different theory about the murders.

“The TBI first became involved in the case because, at the time, a sheriff could not access banking records, but they could,” said Papantoniou in a recent interview where he recalled the case. Papantoniou had wanted to check the husband’s banking records as part of his investigation.

“They took the case because they believed a police officer out of Morristown was responsible [for the slayings],” said Papantoniou. “The TBI agent assigned to the case wanted to divert attention from the husband to the police officer because he was mad because the officer was seeing his ex-wife.”

Although Papantoniou and the TBI disagreed on who committed the murders, they agree that the suspect kidnapped and handcuffed them and transported them to Carter County, where they subsequently died.

After an exhaustive effort, the Star was unable to locate any relatives of the victims for comments and photographs of Rex Higgins or Carolyn Parks.

In an emailed statement the TBI would only confirm what is already known about the events that transpired that night, and that the case remains unsolved. The bureau is asking anyone with any information to call 1-800-TBI-Find.

(The Elizabethton Star’s Unsolved Crimes series examines unsolved homicides and other major crimes throughout Carter County. We want to remind our readers of the crimes that remain unsolved. We want to, when we can do so without compromising any ongoing investigations, tell the victims’ stories. We want to see these cases solved because every life counts.)