The Fortner Brothers Tragedy

Published 9:08 am Monday, October 14, 2019

In this installment of unsolved crimes, we are again whisked back to the 1980s to examine the case of the tragic murder of Gary Fortner and the suspected suicide of his brother and apparent murderer, Randy Fortner.

All the information in this story has been taken from press reports at the time; information obtained from police files and interviews with persons and law enforcement officials both past and present that were involved in the case.

Randy Fortner and his brother Gary were well liked by the community that they lived in. Gary was a 1983 graduate of Unaka High School.

The circumstances surrounding the death of Gary Fortner are not unclear. On the night of May 27, 1987, Gary’s body was found in the trailer that was shared by the two brothers. Gary had been shot dead with a reported seven gunshot wounds to the chest and left arm.

While there were no eyewitnesses to Gary’s murder, a neighbor, Ricky Richardson, told deputies at the time that he and Randy had been drinking and that he had dropped Randy off at the soon to be murder scene around 8 p.m.

Richardson said further in his statement that about 9 p.m. he heard several gunshots coming from the direction of the Fortner residence followed by seeing an unidentified person leaving the home carrying something under their arm and driving off in a 1966 Pontiac.

The Elizabethton Star reported that Carter County Sheriff’s Department Investigator Larry Markland said Richardson did not identify Randy as the person that left the scene that night, however, Markland did say that the Pontiac belonged to the elder brother.

It was also reported that it was not long after police arrived at the murder scene that another deputy, Sgt. Donie Julian, had responded to a call of a car blocking the Butler bridge with its lights on. The car turned out to be the Pontiac.

The Pontiac was discovered with the doors locked and a shotgun inside. A K-9 unit from Johnson City Police joined the scene at the bridge to try and locate the driver. The police dogs lost the scent at the other end of the bridge from where the car was found.

While the circumstances surrounding the death of Gary are evident, there was much speculation as to who murdered him. While all the facts at the scene pointed to Randy, police officials at the time indicated they could discover no motive.

Richardson was reported as telling investigators that the house (actually a trailer) was owned by Randy and that Gary had recently moved in with him. He said they appeared to get along well.

The shotgun found in the Pontiac was owned by the brother, and according to CCSO Deputy Rocky Croy’s report, “Gary Fortner had seven wounds to his chest and left arm.” Croy was also reported as saying that eight spent .12 gauge “bird shot” shells were in the living room and hall of the house which led officials to believe that Randy may have shot his brother and drove to the bridge to commit suicide.

Sheriff Bill Crumley said the case was being treated as a murder-suicide even though there was no motive and no suicide note discovered.

Officials said that either Randy jumped to his death from the Butler bridge into the Watauga Lake or was picked up by someone and the whole scene at the bridge was to make it appear that he had done so.

Dragging operations began May 29, when a visual inspection of the shorelines and areas around the bridge and river revealed no body, which would have more than likely re-surfaced after a time from the initial impact. The Carter County Rescue Squad conducted the dragging. It was last reported in The Elizabethton Star that dragging operations continued Sunday, May 31. Whether dragging continued afterwards is not known.

In the last report done by the Star, Sheriff Bill Crumley said close friends and relatives believed if Fortner did kill his brother he would have “probably committed suicide.” The sheriff said other law enforcement agencies have been alerted to be on the lookout for Fortner.

The case goes cold until Paul Peters was elected sheriff during the 1990s. Family members asked the sheriff to reopen the Fortner investigation.

The reason for the request is that the sheriff’s administration under Peters had been having some success in closing out some old cases.

Sheriff Peters agreed to reopen what was described as the Fortner tragedy and assigned the case to his chief deputy, Kenneth Potter.

Potter, who is now a local constable, in a recent interview confirmed rumors that the family would receive phone calls during holidays. The caller would not say anything, but the family suspected it may have been Randy, and after some of the members would wish the caller well, the caller would immediately hang up. A source inside the current sheriff’s administration also recalled these mysterious phone calls.

According to Potter, his investigation led him to Savannah, Ga. He had learned that Randy had ties to the area. “He liked the area and had a job down there,” Potter said.

Potter then reached out to law enforcement officials in Savannah to be on the lookout for the suspected murderer.

The effort appeared to pay off because it was not too long before a lead came from it in the form of an unidentified body found on a desolate beach.

Savannah officials advised the chief deputy that they had found a decomposed body of a suspected suicide and they believed it was Randy.

Potter said he obtained some of Randy’s dental records from an undisclosed dentist in Elizabethton and sent them to the Georgia officials to be compared with the remains.

“Except for one missing tooth, they were almost an exact match,” Potter said.

The clothes on the decomposed body held a set of keys that went to a General Motors car. However, Potter was unable to locate the Pontiac that was discarded on the bridge.

The Savannah connection proved to be inconclusive, according to Potter, so the case remains open.

Anyone with any information is urged to call 1-800-TBI-FIND or the CCSO at 423-542-1845.

(The Elizabethton Star’s Unsolved 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.)