By Angie A. Gambill
The Tomahawk was contacted recently by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) requesting information about a body that was found in 1977 in Johnson County. Forty years later the middle-age male remains unidentified. We are reaching out to our readers that lived in the area during this time that might have information helpful to the investigation.
Articles that appeared in The Tomahawk in December of 1977 recount a gruesome tale of some two dozen elderly men living in the abandoned buildings and grounds of the property known as the Shady Mountain Orchard. Many of the men were disabled, some had skin diseases that required hospitalization, and most appeared malnourished and in general poor health.
According to the men interviewed by authorities at the time, they had been living in a facility in Atlantic City, NJ that was run by a man named Lee Cohn. They said they were not in Tennessee by choice, but that Cohn had loaded them up and brought them to the orchard. Later reports said the hotel building in NJ had been condemned and demolished.
The men also reported that there was no heat in the buildings on the property, they were fed only two meals a day consisting of a “small portion of macaroni and some wine,” and alleged that Cohn took all their Social Security and Veterans benefits to pay for room and board. Johnson County Sheriff Burl Brown stated that one resident showed him a receipt to Cohn for $220 per month for “food, lodging and services.” The receipt also showed that he had paid what he said was his entire Social Security check of $217.50, which left him owing $2.50 each month.
According to the articles, charges were filed against Cohn and on September 30, 1977 he was officially “made aware of the minimum standards and regulations for nursing homes and homes for the aged,” and was told that he must meet with local officials to “discuss the problem concerning his facility.” In mid-October, Shady Valley residents reported to the sheriff that the men were still living in the orchard. When Brown visited the site on October 18, all the residents were gone. Indications were that they had left in a hurry but neither an exact date nor means of departure could be determined. Cohn later alleged that Johnson County deputies had planted drugs on the property and that he had moved his residents to various locations in the northern states.
Investigation revealed that before Cohn had brought the men to Johnson County, that he had apparently brought this group and men at other facilities from locations throughout the United States to New Jersey. When authorities in NJ began to question the conditions of the facilities, he had moved this particular group to Shady Valley.
In early December, the badly decomposed body of a male between the ages of 51 and 60 was found near a stream on the property. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was called in, but the remains have never been identified. It is assumed that the John Doe was one of the men that had lived on the 385-tract of land leased by Cohn, as no local residents had gone missing during the time frame.
NamUs has requested that anyone living in the Johnson County area in late 1977 that remembers this incident and might have any information leading to the identification of the deceased to call their toll-free hotline at 1-855-626-7600. The current case file is available at https://identifyus.org/en/cases/1586 on NamUs.gov website. The original articles in their entirety and pictures of the scene can be accessed on The Tomahawk’s website at thetomahawk.com.
Any help in giving John Doe a name will be greatly appreciated.