Pauline Pusser has been dead for 56 years without a suspect in the case.
On Thursday, authorities exhumed her body, the wife of hard-charging sheriff Buford Pusser, who became known as a folk hero after his death in Tennessee.
Pauline was shot to death in an ambush presumably meant to kill her husband.
An overcast day accompanied by whistling winds blew a foul stench through the cemetery in Adamsville, a small town around 100 miles east of Memphis, after the departure of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents, which oversaw the exhumation of the body on Thursday.
Disturbed dirt rests in front of her grave, adjacent to her husband’s headstone that reads “He Walked Tall.”
A recent tip prompted a review of the case, TBI said, and they discovered that an autopsy was never done after Pauline Pusser’s death on Aug. 12, 1967.
“With the support of Pauline’s family and in consultation with the 25th Judicial District Attorney General Mark Davidson, TBI requested the exhumation in an attempt to answer critical questions and provide crucial information that may assist in identifying the person or persons responsible for Pauline Pusser’s death,” TBI said.
Buford Pusser and the ambush
Pauline Pusser was only 33 years old when she was killed. She was a mother of three.
The Aug. 13, 1967 edition of The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY network, said Pusser was killed and her husband “seriously wounded in the jaw when Pusser’s prowl car was fired on at dawn on a lonely country road.”
Hugh Kirkpatrick, the then-police chief in the nearby town of Selmer, said he heard a call on the radio from Buford Pusser about 6:20 a.m. They were found about a mile north of the Tennessee-Mississippi state line on U.S. 45.
“The sheriff and his wife were en route to investigate a complaint at the time,” the article said.
Buford was sitting behind the wheel of his car and Pauline was lying on the seat with her head in his lap, the article said.
“Kirkpatrick said Pusser told him the shooting occurred on New Hope Road about three miles from the state line,” the article said. “Investigators said they found 14 spent 30-caliber cartridges scattered on the road near where Pusser said the ambush took place.”
The Pusser car was hit 11 times. Buford Pusser was rushed to McNairy County General Hospital, then to Baptist Hospital in Memphis.
An investigator quoted in the article said they thought the couple drove into a trap. TBI, formerly the Tennessee Bureau of Criminal Identification, said they had a couple of key suspects.
But 56 years later, the case remains unsolved.
Investigators search for answers
Questions have arisen about the role of an iconic southern sheriff in the death of his wife in 1967.
Buford Pusser, made famous by two Hollywood movies and several books about his life, said he and his wife Pauline were ambushed on Aug. 12, 1967, as they were driving to a disturbance call at 4:45 a.m. just outside Selmer. Pauline was shot and killed at the scene, and Buford was shot in the chin but survived.
A former sheriff from Arkansas, Mike Elam, who wrote a self-published book “Buford Pusser: The Other Story,” said he has given tips about the case to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Elam said he believes cold case investigators are trying to find answers to three main questions:
Was Pauline Pusser killed in an ambush on New Hope Road, or somewhere else?
Was the fatal shot fired from the front or the back?
Do the forensics match the story Buford Pusser told about the shooting?
“I think they’ll be looking at the entrance and exit wounds,” Elam said. “I passed along a lot of information to the TBI.”
Buford Pusser’s life became a national story in 1971 when “The 12th of August,” a book by W.R. Morris, was published.
The gravesites, the Pusser home, and the memorial marking Buford’s fatal car crash have served as attractions to tourists in Adamsville or for fans of the “Walking Tall” series.
“Walking Tall,” a film starring Joe Don Baker, was released in 1973, and a remake starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was released in 2004. In the films, Buford Pusser is a heroic figure who prefered to use a hickory stick as a weapon instead of a gun.
“That’s a Hollywood myth,” Elam said.
Elam said he will be waiting to hear about test results from Thursday’s exhumation.
“The real question is the trajectory of the bullet,” Elam said.
Buford Pusser’s legacy
Buford Pusser’s name is infamous in Tennessee. He stood large over most people at 6 feet tall and was known for cleaning up McNairy County, which lies at the southern end of the state on the Tennessee-Mississippi border, jailing criminals who’d run rampant before his tenure.
He was elected to serve as sheriff in 1964 after serving as Adamsville police chief for three years.
Two years later, he was in his first shootout, killing Louise Heathcock, the owner and operator of the Shamrock Motel, after she shot at him while he was there to investigate several thefts, according to The Tennessean. Then in January 1967, he was shot three times, twice in the face and once in the arm, while he stopped a motorist for reckless driving.
Buford Pusser had also been stabbed twice and a moonshiner tried to run him over., according to the 1967 article.
He served as sheriff until 1970.
The sheriff’s life inspired several Hollywood adaptations. The first “Walking Tall” was released in 1973, six years after his wife’s death. It spurred two more movies, a tv series and a final movie in 2004 starring Dwayne Johnson.
Buford Pusser only lived to see the first movie. He died leaving the McNairy County Fairground in August 1974 when he lost control of his Corvette, crashing into an embankment on U.S. 64 near his hometown, The Commercial Appeal, part of the USA TODAY network, reported.
He was 36.
Contributing: Sarah Best
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Pauline Pusser, wife of iconic sheriff Buford Pusser, body exhumed