Her Deadly Web: Chapter 1
The humidity was rising and not a single speck of blue could be seen in the cloud-covered sky as Raynella Dossett Leath turned into the driveway of her farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, on March 13, 2003. She drove past the family vegetable patch, where newly planted onion sets thrust fresh green sprouts up through the dark soil.
She continued on past an outbuilding to the house she’d called home for nearly twenty years. In the time she lived beneath its roof, she’d lost a husband and a son; raised one daughter to adulthood and marriage; and now prepared for the high school graduation of her third child.
Stepping on the porch, unlocking the closed door and crossing the threshold, she entered a lifeless dwelling. David Leath, a barber who had been her husband of ten years, lay dead in the marital bed.
She picked up the receiver of the telephone on the table beside the body and punched in 9-1-1.
“Help me! Help me!” Raynella shrieked, choking on her words.
“Ma’am, where are you?”
“Please help me!” she yelled as she struggled to breathe.
“Ma’am, what’s going on?”
“My—my husband shot himself—three—uh—three-oh-three-one Solway. Hurry!”
“Okay, where is your husband?”
“He’s still in the bed. Please hurry!”
“I’m going to vomit.”
Raynella uttered wordless shrieks and moans.
Raynella gagged and made inarticulate sounds.
“Ma’am, I need you to calm down so I can get some help to you. Okay?”
The dispatcher sent units to the address to investigate a reported suicide attempt. Dispatch informed the emergency personnel: “She’s called in, says her husband shot himself. The phone’s off the hook, the line is open and the caller can still be heard screaming.”
The first responder to the scene, Deputy Sergeant David Amburn of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, arrived at 11:32. He found Raynella lying face down in the grass in the front yard. He thought that she, too, had been shot or injured. He bolted out of his vehicle shouting, “Ma’am, ma’am,” as he ran to her.
He knelt down and nudged her. She burst into unintelligible cries and wails then shouted, “Help him. Help him. He’s been shot.” She was, he said, a woman “overcome with grief.” He helped her onto the porch and went into the house with Deputy Chief Keith Lyons.
They found David Leath, age 57, dead in his bed. He had a black hole in his forehead over his left eye surrounded by copious gunpowder stippling, consistent with a shot fired from close range. He lay on his right side with his right arm extended straight out and his left arm bent at the elbow, with his wrist turned under and resting on the mattress. Beside that hand was an old blue steel Colt .38 double action revolver with a black grip.
Investigator Perry Moyers arrived at the solid brick house at 11:51. Raynella was on the front porch now with a rag in her hand. At 5’8”, weighing 170 pounds, with stark blue eyes and steel-colored hair, Raynella cut an imposing figure. She was wearing blue jeans, white Sketcher tennis shoes, and a gray and white long sleeved shirt, layered with a gray sleeveless shirt. He looked her over but saw no signs of any blood transfer stains. He thought that was odd. Raynella was a nurse—surely she attempted CPR on her husband.
Moyers went inside where Sergeant Robert Lee directed him to the left and down the hallway to the bedroom. He heard the sound of a clothes dryer running and made a mental note to follow up on that observation.
The deceased David Leath appeared to Moyers’ trained eye as if he’d been tucked into bed for comfort. A pillow in a green pillowcase was in between his head and shoulder, another between his legs. He lay on a blue sheet, and a white quilt with pink and green accents neatly covered the lower half of his body.
His position simply did not look right—it seemed unlikely for someone who had committed suicide. Moyers wondered if the scene was staged.
A plate of food—oatmeal, toast and jelly—sat on a table beside the bed. It had not been touched. It bore no blood evidence on its surface. There were neither lip marks on the drinking glass standing beside the plate nor any other indication that anyone drank a drop of the milk inside it.
Moyers saw early signs of lividity discoloring David’s skin. That in all probability meant his death could not have occurred in the last half hour. He pressed a finger down on the skin’s surface. Where he applied pressure, he observed blanching, suggesting that death could not have occurred much more than five hours earlier. The exposed parts of his body were cool to the touch but under the covers the toes were still warm. Moyers estimated the time of death as between 6 and 9 that morning.
Three officers in training were on the scene, learning from their more experienced colleagues. Before lifting the weapon from the bed to demonstrate the proper handling of a gun at a death scene, Moyers noted that the holes in the blue bed sheet indicated there had been a fold in the fabric when the gun was discharged.
“When you rotate the cylinder out, you need to be careful not to turn it,” he said holding the revolver up so that all the new officers could see. Then you need to draw the cylinder as you see it on a piece of paper.” Moyers made his drawing, but at the time, he did not notice the most significant piece of evidence the gun contained.
Raynella came into the house with her married daughter, Maggie Dossett Connaster, and asked, “What’s going on here boys? What’s going on?”
Moyers talked with Maggie while Detective Steve Webb spoke to Raynella. She informed Webb that it had been a typical morning. Katie was running a little late but she left home for school at 8:15. Raynella said she’d prepared and served her husband breakfast in bed. “He always tells me I bring it too hot to melt the butter.” The detective thought that was an odd statement but didn’t question her about it. Before leaving the house, she tuned the television to the Joyce Meyer show, a religious and inspirational program that aired at 8:30.
She also told him that the house was locked when she returned home. When Webb asked her why her husband would commit suicide, Raynella said, “He just found out yesterday that his mother has cancer.”
After a moment of silence, she added: “Well, he’s finally at rest. He can finally rest.”
She volunteered her journal, handing it to the investigator saying that it chronicled their family life and contained documentation of Dave’s health and state of mind. In response to the detective’s question, she said that she started the washer and the dryer just before leaving home at 9 that morning. Investigator Moyers silently wondered why the dryer was still running three hours later.
Moyers looked for signs of the grief and sorrow noted in Raynella by the first responder but saw none. Instead, he observed a woman in control, taking charge of the situation. That made him very uncomfortable.
He also wasn’t pleased to see the gathering of the who’s who of Knoxville’s legal and political world in front of the Leath home—public defenders, local Republican Party leaders, lawyers and at least one judge. They were clearly there in support of Raynella, their attention not wavering even when a burst of rainy drizzle blew through the gloomy afternoon. Investigator Moyers knew the pressure the powerful could apply. Their involvement always made an investigation difficult and delicate.
But what troubled Moyers the most was the evidence uncovered in the bedroom. Techs dug a bullet out of the wall. It had penetrated the headboard with a piece of the victim’s hair attached. They dug another bullet out of the floor under the bed. And a third bullet was lodged in David Leath’s head—the one that pierced his skull above his left eye, transected his brain stem and killed him instantly.
The evidence wasn’t in harmony with the widow’s story. Was it really a suicide?