In mid-September, Arch contacted the district attorney. According to an investigator’s report, he told Butler he had a legal problem, that Buddy Clewis had spoken to him and asked him to testify as a character witness on Clewis’ behalf. Arch told Butler he “would not be able to say anything good” about the auditorium manager.
Assistant DA Charlie Graddick later told the Register that Arch McKay told him he was going to “blow the lid off the auditorium.”
On Sunday, Sept. 30, Arch bumped into a friend in the aisles of a Delchamps grocery store. The Register reported McKay filled the person’s ear with his tale about Clewis’ request to testify and Arch’s refusal. He also revealed his reluctance to testify due to the payola from Clewis. He said he had received further information in the case and that if it checked out, “a lot of them would be brought up on charges.”
It wasn’t true, though. “As far as the rumors he was working on an exposé of the Civic Center,” Tom Taylor explained, “you can forget that. He just didn’t do that kind of thing.”
But Arch’s words were intended to be heard. Whether he meant for them to bluff away disaster or merely alleviate a conscience is unknown. What’s known is that they were indeed heard.
And definitely by the wrong ears.
According to press accounts and investigators’ postulations, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 1973, was like most workdays for Arch McKay.
He left the Press-Register building mid-afternoon and strolled Government Street to the downtown YMCA. Arch let it be known that even at 44 years of age and a hefty 270 pounds, he was still fond of vigor. He was no wimp, no sir.
He was seen at the “Y” between 3 and 4 p.m., as was customary. He made a telephone call to a Prichard car dealer close to 5 p.m., then started the walk back to his car.
McKay’s little Volkswagen Squareback was parked in the lot across Government from the Press-Register. Arch had plans to eat dinner with Louise and others. Donald McKay and his family had cruised in from Haiti on their 54-foot yacht. Arch had no time to dally although the autumnal sunshine felt warm enough to solicit a leisurely pace.
McKay crossed Mobile’s busy main boulevard, the rush-hour throngs already building. He fished his keys from a pocket as he approached the lot and passed a green Ford parked just inside it.
He cranked his economy car’s engine and clicked the automatic gearshift into reverse. The VW stalled as he heard a noise at the driver’s window.
Across Government Street, Peggy Peterson sat in her second-floor office. Peterson, an artist and display advertising employee for the Press-Register, toiled over her last projects of the day. Near 5 p.m. she heard what she described as a “loud explosion.” Quickly, she peeked out the window at the source of the sound: the parking lot beneath her perch and across the four lanes of traffic.
What she saw next would never leave her. “I saw Arch’s car, a Volkswagen station wagon. A man seemed to ‘pop’ out of it, slammed the door and ran toward the gate.” She said he jumped into “a large dark green car and rapidly left the lot by the Jackson Street exit.”
Peterson described the man as wearing “a tan shirt and pants, or tan work clothes, it could have been a jumpsuit, but not a coat, it was belted and had long sleeves.” She said he “was white, broad shoulders, not fat, young man, 20s to 30s.”
Peterson would eventually write all of this down for investigators, including a sketch she drew of the suspect.
But for now, she went back to work.
Arch never showed for dinner on that Tuesday evening.
Louise called the YMCA, to no avail. She checked with others and came up empty-handed.
That evening, Louise received a curious telephone call. The police report described it as “believed to be w/f [white female] wanting her to get into a car for a meeting. Mrs. McKay advised she was blind and could not drive. Subj. hung up. Close patrol put on McKay’s home.”
A few blocks northwest of the Register building, the man who called himself Eugene Knowles loaded up a green sedan and headed out of town.
His partner traveled beside him, her green notebook within easy reach.
Louise called the Press-Register first thing in the morning, then went on to work at the Mobile Association for the Blind. She tried to concentrate. It was futile.
After Louise’s call, Press-Register employees wandered across to the lot and checked Arch’s car. He was still inside, crumpled in the passenger seat.
When the police arrived, they found an amazingly clean murder scene. Arch lay stomach-down in the passenger seat, knees on the floorboard and facing the rear. His head was jammed against the seat back, turned to the left.
Once they straightened his head, they found an entrance wound from the fatal shotgun blast. No exit wounds or ghastly crimson patterns on the vehicle’s interior were found. The vast majority of blood had slowly pooled in obscurity beneath the passenger seat. His position in the car, combined with the presence of his wallet, left little room for motive.
Whoever had done this meant to kill this man and nothing else. They knew how to do it quickly and efficiently and how to escape. Forensics determined the weapon used was “an extremely short-barrel 12-gauge shotgun.” Arch had knelt with his hands on the upright seat back, then vainly pulled his right hand up to cover his head in the last moment. The pellets tore through his fingers and temple, killing him instantly as he collapsed face first into the seat.
Peterson’s statement was taken, along with her sketch of the towheaded man she saw leaving the lot.
In the time that followed, the Mobile Police Department was stumped. They had few leads and little substance to act upon. Their investigation of McKay uncovered a few unsavory portions of his life, but nothing truly helpful was established.
In the midst of their early efforts, a letter was sent across the country soliciting any information. The plea went out to hundreds of police departments around the country and received little to no reply.
Not at first, anyway.
On Oct. 11, 1973, around 1:30 p.m, patrolman Wilbur Williams was dispatched to investigate an auto theft at Bolton Ford on St. Joseph Street. Once there, he talked to salesman Steve Stevens about a yellow Torino GT with a green roof that had disappeared in the days previous. The auto was a “demo,” one used by the sales staff and parked away from the pristine sales models. Williams said he filed the report and thought little else of it.
Later that same month, a short black man walked from the evening air into Naman’s Grocery on South Broad Street. The man, Vernon Johnson, produced a .38 caliber pistol and proceeded with robbery. He then forced the owner, Elias Naman, 50, and employee Larry Kling, 20, into the front of Naman’s station wagon, climbed in behind them and told them to drive.
They headed a few blocks north, then weaved into the Oakleigh neighborhood before the police spotted them. Johnson shouted for Naman to lose the cops. Naman lost control of the vehicle and wrecked into a parked car. Johnson immediately shot both men in the base of the skull at point-blank range, then climbed from the crumpled car.
He looked at a slackjawed passerby and motioned toward the wreckage. “You had a little accident here,” he nonchalantly told the witness before sauntering off. The witness was extraordinarily fortunate Johnson didn’t open fire.
Vernon took off through the neighborhood, shedding clothes as he jogged. He had worn two sets of clothing for just such a reason.
Police found him hidden in the shrubbery beneath a tree. He had thrown the pistol away in flight. The bag of cash was still with him.
On Dec. 2, 1973, Shreveport, Louisiana police received a tip about a stolen car in the area. The suspected Ford still bore traces of its original yellow color, the vehicle identification number matched and the driver was placed under arrest.
What the Shreveport police found in the car raised eyebrows. What they found when they checked the driver’s background raised gooseflesh.
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