C. H. Butcher Jr. was the most famous non-witness in the most famous trial in recent Memphis history.
Butcher died April 30th at the age of 63 after a fall in his home near Atlanta. He and his brother Jake, the Democratic candidate for Tennessee governor in 1978, built a Southern banking empire from Knoxville on corruption and fraud. It collapsed in 1982 and 1983, and both brothers did prison time. A notable offshoot of the Butcher banks was the indictment and trial of then-Congressman Harold Ford Sr. of Memphis, who was charged with receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans from the Butchers in exchange for political favors. Ford was acquitted in 1993.
Four years earlier, the government brought Butcher and Jesse Barr to Memphis to testify in the first Ford trial, which ended in a mistrial due to juror misconduct. But only Barr was called to the stand to testify. Butcher was too unpredictable or, perhaps, too predictable in his loyalty to Ford and his co-defendants.
"He's their friend," said prosecutor Dan Clancy when asked why Butcher didn't testify.
Butcher and Barr spent the days before and during the trial locked up in a jail in rural Arkansas. When I went to interview them for a newspaper story, they were wearing the standard-issue blue chinos and white T-shirts and, I swear, peeling potatoes over the jailhouse stove. I could not detect an ounce of self-pity, depression, or remorse in either of them. Barr was going to testify as an expert on bank fraud, which he had already done many times in rehearsals, debriefings, and even a television interview. When he got done with all this business, he said, he planned to write a book called Pussy and Politics, which came out as Sex and Southern Politics in my story the next day.
Butcher, amiable and smiling, with hands as big as hams, played straight man to Barr's rogue, feeding him set-up lines and laughing at his jokes. He would have made an interesting witness but wasn't called at the second Ford trial either. Apparently, he was considered too dangerous to the prosecution, which lost the case anyway. After the trial, some of the jurors said they wanted to hear from him. (It was erroneously reported in The Commercial Appeal's Butcher obituary that the trial was held in Jackson, Tennessee. It was held in federal court in Memphis with a jury picked from the Jackson area.)
Butcher was an irrepressible optimist. In the Arkansas jailhouse, he shrugged and said he did not mind hard work one bit because he had done plenty of it as a boy growing up in East Tennessee. He served most of his six years at the federal prison in Atlanta with the hard guys. When inmates rioted and tore up their cells, I was not at all surprised to hear that he had volunteered for cleanup duty in exchange for a reduction of his time.
It pained Butcher that so many people who had grown up like him lost their savings in the collapse of his banks and savings-and-loans, but, of course, it pained the investors even more. Nashville attorney James Neal, who represented Jake Butcher and, briefly, C.H. Butcher, had a simple explanation for Jake's guilty plea.
"The facts," he told me, "were so much worse than the indictment."
Twenty years ago, the Butchers and their buddy Bobby Ginn had big plans to develop Mud Island, where they owned an option on a chunk of property. But there was no bridge from downtown, only the causeway at the north end of the island. The publicly funded Auction Street Bridge was designed and approved in 1982 on the mistaken assumption that it would connect to an interstate highway link on Mud Island. Ford was accused of using his influence to get it built as a favor to the Butchers.
The Mud Island property wound up in the hands of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which sold it to Jack Belz, Henry Turley, and Meredith McCullar for $2.3 million. They developed Harbor Town, which, like every other private development on Mud Island, could not have happened without the Auction Street Bridge.
In a bit of political patronage, the city administration under former Mayor Dick Hackett gave the bridge an honorary name after A.W. Willis Jr., a good man and a civil rights leader who had nothing to do with it.
In a different kind of world, it would be named for C.H. Butcher Jr., a good bad man or a bad good man, who had a lot to do with it.