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JUSTICE STORY: Brothers Shot and Dismembered Victims of Scorned Woman

For three weeks, they were only known as Mr. X and Mr. Y.

A man picking berries on a sweltering Sunday afternoon in June 1959 saw Mr. X lying next to a dilapidated farmhouse near Gadsden, in northeast Alabama.

The next day, a woman checking a vacant house on her property discovered Mr. Y on her property, about 10 miles from where Mr. X was found.

They both looked the same. His arms and legs had been severed at the shoulders and hips. Their heads were still attached, but shotgun blasts had torn off their faces, leaving them unrecognizable.

“In my opinion, they were smugglers, gangsters or a maniac,” a county chief deputy told The Birmingham News. There was general agreement that the murders were probably the work of one man or group of men.

No one gave much thought to the possibility that the killer was a woman.

Weeks passed with no leads. Then a business in Anniston reported that a welder, Lee Harper, 55, did not show up for work.

At the same time, the Birmingham News published an artist’s reconstruction of their faces. A resident of White Plains, a small town 15 miles from Anniston, thought the sketches resembled two brothers from the area. Once again, the name of Lee Harper came up. The second sketch looked like Lee’s brother, Emmett.

Police tracked down another brother, Robert Harper, a farmer who lived about 200 miles away, and showed him the gruesome photos of the mystery men. He tentatively identified them as his siblings. Both were World War II veterans; one had survived the brutal Bataan death march.

For about three years, Lee and Emmett had lived in a trailer in a community known as Rabbittown. His house was hidden behind a one-story house on 40 acres belonging to 75-year-old Martin Hyatt. Hyatt lived there with his second wife, Jessie, 67, and his only daughter, Viola Virginia Hyatt, 30, a daughter from a previous marriage.

Emmett and Lee Harper.

Newspapers described Viola, a high school dropout, as “tough, stocky” and “easygoing.” She seemed well suited to work on her father’s farm, the only job she ever had from her.

Viola told police that the men had gone to visit her family in Andalusia. But relatives there said they had not seen them in months.

When confronted with this, he offered a second version, attributing the crime to an ex-boyfriend.

Six hours of questioning passed and then, very early in the morning, he said, “I have something to show you.” He launched into a confession, offering up all the sickening details of how he shot the Harper brothers, cut them up, and dumped parts of their bodies along Alabama’s back roads.

“They did me wrong,” he told police when asked why.

Viola had an “understanding” that she and Lee were getting married. On the night of the murders, she said her girlfriend forced her to commit an “unnatural sexual act” while Emmett pointed a knife at her, the Birmingham News reported.

Outraged, she ran home, grabbed her dad’s 12-gauge double-barreled shotgun, went back to the trailer, and blew their faces off. She had to cut off their arms and legs so she could haul their bloody load on a wooden wheelbarrow to transport them to Lee’s car.

He then drove down a secondary route, known locally as the “whiskey road”, shaking arms and legs and finally dumping torsos.

The deserted “whisky highway”" it was a convenient place to scatter body parts.  (Albert Pego/Shutterstock)

In the morning, he led investigators on a tour of his butcher trail. At a spot on an isolated road, he pointed to two legs. About 10 miles away, they found a pair of arms.

Viola said she threw the other legs off a bridge into the Tallapoosa River and dumped the other arms at a roadside rest area. A fisherman thought he saw a leg floating down the river. None of the other limbs were found.

“I feel better after telling my story,” he was quoted as saying.

Some neighbors told reporters that Viola was quiet but generally friendly. “A little different, but as nice as she can be,” an acquaintance told the Alabama Journal.

Others said that she had a bad temper and recalled that she was an “excellent shot”.

No one had much to say about the Harper brothers, except that they were heavy drinkers.

It took the insanity commission more than five months to find Viola competent to stand trial. Still, her attorneys pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity when she began her trial in March 1960. Alabama braced for a lengthy court battle filled with dueling psychiatrists and details that turned her stomach.

Viola Virginia Hyatt

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It all ended at noon on the first day. On March 14, Viola pleaded guilty and got life in prison with the possibility of parole after a decade.

By 1961, his good conduct had earned him trusted status. He spent his spare time knitting, embroidering, and taking care of the prison dogs and cats.

In 1970, he was on probation. For the rest of his life, he didn’t cause trouble or give interviews.

A few months after her death on June 12, 2000, at age 71, The Anniston Star published a lengthy article about her four decades of freedom, describing her as a witty, fearless and God-fearing woman, often referred to as I would see her reading the Bible on her porch. Neighbors mourned her passing, protected her reputation and refused to speak about the crime.

“It would do me good if the (bad) stories about her just faded away,” said an acquaintance.

In the article, the names of his victims appear only once.

JUSTICE STORY has been the Daily News’ exclusive version of true crime stories of murder, mystery and mayhem for nearly 100 years. Click here to read more.

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