Death in the Delta

When the Gaias were murdered, Mississippi lost one of the finest guitarists in a generation and a well-loved daughter, sister and friend. Decades later, the slayings still haunt the Delta.

William Browning is a reporter whose work has appeared in Guidepost, Smithsonian Magazine...

 

It was not like Gene Gaia to be late.

On the evening of September 5, 1975, several young men in a rock band called Furthermore traveled to the small Mississippi Delta city of Ruleville to play a high school dance. They met at the Ruleville Youth Center, set their gear up and waited for show time. It was a Friday. The guys were in good spirits. But as the sky darkened and a crowd of teenagers gathered, their guitarist had still not shown up.

A twenty-two-year-old with long, brown hair and intense eyes, Gaia was the band’s de facto leader. As a  musician he had wide-ranging interests, something reflected in Furthermore’s unique sound. The group played extended loops of music that would begin, say, with a Chuck Berry number before moving into some Miles Davis and then into some David Bowie, closing with several measures of Stravinsky. Gaia wrote sheet music for the compositions. He had learned to take pieces of music that on the surface seemed to oppose each other, and stitch them together in ways that left no seams showing. He was a devoted guitarist. Musicians who knew his music call him one of the finest guitarists to come out of the Mississippi Delta in a generation, and he almost always arrived first for Furthermore gigs.

Mary Gaia, his seventeen-year-old wife, would often be at his side. They had married in spring and lived in an isolated old house about thirty miles west of Ruleville, down a long dirt road, in the middle of acres and acres of farm fields. Late summer rain storms had come to the Delta that week. Some of Gene’s bandmates thought the roads out there might have flooded, or that they might have had car trouble, leaving the couple stranded at home. At some point someone called Gene’s mother in Rosedale, a city along the Mississippi River. Jean Gaia said the last time she had seen her son was two days earlier, on his twenty-second birthday.

That night, the other members of Furthermore left Ruleville with Gaia on their minds. He had never missed a gig. “He was a true bandmate,” Chuck Kimes, the band’s bassist, said recently. “‘Something’s bad wrong here’ is what I thought.” 

*

Gene Gaia grew up in Rosedale, a place connected to the crossroads blues legend Robert Johnson sang about, said to be the last Mississippi city to get dial telephone service, where a train known as The Owl passed through.

One childhood friend said, “Gene appeared in Rosedale,” making it sound like he walked out of a clump of cypress trees near the town. The truth is his parents’ marriage fell apart. They had been living in Memphis. Jean Gaia moved back to her hometown with her only child, six-year-old Gene. A divorced mother approaching forty, she likely had nowhere else to go.

Why the marriage between Eugene Louis Gaia II and Jean Gaia failed is unknown. Hard luck, though, stayed in Gaia II’s pocket. He was an Italian-American whose parents owned a Beale Street liquor store. His mother died after being shot during an armed robbery at the store in 1968. He had a series of businesses himself, including a nightclub. “Like everything else he owned,” a distant relative said, “it went under, too.”

Gene Gaia had toy soldiers at home he did not mind sharing and fit in fine in Rosedale, a small-town, early 1960s scene, where boys played downtown near the Talisman, the local theater, or out along the levee. Mothers called the boys home at dusk for dinner and when Gene began second grade, he had a group of friends.

As he got older, though, Gene’s gaze fell more toward the ends of his shoes. Part of this was Gene, reserved by nature, preferring his own company to anyone else’s. It could also have been related to the first bloom of social awareness that comes at the onset of the teenage years.

The subtle lines that separate classes are adhered to in the Mississippi Delta. In Rosedale, where roughly two thousand people lived in the early 1960s, those lines were easy to make out. Gene could see his small family was not part of the Delta’s upper crust of lawyers, doctors and real estate men. Nor was he among the prominent farming families whose surnames signaled good lineage. He was an only child with a strange last name from somewhere else who lived with his single mother, a teller at Valley Bank. 

They lived in a small home on a shaded stretch in a residential neighborhood of Rosedale. Phillip Taylor, the son of a crop duster, lived nearby. He and Gene were the same age and often gathered as teenagers around a radio, listening to the new sounds of the 1960s. One of their favorite stations was WDIA out of Memphis. “On cool winter nights,” Taylor said, “you could get a strong signal.” The station played rhythm and blues. What took the kids away, though, were the rock-and-roll bands of the British Invasion. 

Gene grew his hair down to his eyes, like The Beatles, as long as his Rosedale football coaches would allow. He’d been teaching himself to play guitar since junior high. Before long he could drop a needle on a record he had never heard and within a try or two mimic the song’s guitar part without flaw. “He lived, ate, breathed guitar,” Dasel Moorhead, another childhood friend, said.

He joined The Ninth Time at fourteen. He was the youngest member. The group performed popular tunes—some Sam and Dave, some Wilson Pickett—and for Gene, on lead guitar, they came easy. He would whisper to the rhythm guitarist how to finger a certain chord, even though the rhythm guitarist was three years older than him. 

The Ninth Time evolved into Fyre, which included a keyboard player from the Delta named Jim “Fish” Michie. Michie, who lives in Nashville today and has shared a stage with Widespread Panic, said the first time he played with Gene the young guitarist did not utter a single word. “I didn’t know if he was painfully shy or just didn’t talk,” Michie said.

While Gene was just as reserved on stage, where he stood as motionless as a statue, his playing made him stand out. He was too young to have developed a style but nothing was too fast for him. Fyre played a bunch of Veterans of Foreign Wars halls and high school parties, where the crowds came looking to enjoy themselves and dance. When the shows began, though, said Jimmy King, the group’s vocalist, half of the people would stop dancing.

“They would be up front,” he said, “in front of Gene, with their mouths open, watching him play.”

If you ask about him today, people use words like “genius” and “savant” with conviction. One man who heard him play described the clarity of notes Gene brought out of guitar strings in a way that felt like grace.

Some people at the Ruleville show remember that, without Gaia, Furthermore packed up and left without performing. Others believe a friend of the band picked up a guitar and helped the group through an abbreviated set of rock songs. Whatever happened, they were all worried. 

David Moore, the group’s drummer, and his brother Wally, who played the saxophone and flute, stopped at their mother’s place, in Cleveland, for a snack on the way home. Not long ago, when asked what time they left their mother’s home, Wally said, “We didn’t pay much attention to time then.” The brothers were twenty-four and twenty, and it was likely after midnight when they left Cleveland heading west on Highway 8. Their thoughts kept circling back to Gaia. They went to Mary’s family’s home in Malvina and knocked on the door. There was no answer. After driving by Gaia’s mother’s home in Rosedale and seeing that his car was not there, they were headed home, but decided to go to Gaia’s home in the fields instead. David drove. Wally remembers sitting in the passenger seat, passing time by fiddling with a spotlight, shining the light down into ditches and up through tree branches.

At about 2:45 a.m., when far off Delta places reach a rare sort of vacancy and stillness, the brothers came around the edge of Bogue Phalia. They saw lights in the distance, coming out of the open front door of Gene and Mary’s home. Getting closer, they saw his car, a green Ford Maverick, parked at the house. David stopped the car at the top of the drive. 

Furthermore had practiced at the house many times. The brothers knew the property. The place was grown up and faded, the house rickety and old. Sitting in the car, David felt something out of place in a dark spot in the yard. He asked his brother, beside him, to shine the spotlight over. When describing what happened next, Wally said, “This is the part of my life where the terror has never been higher.”

When Gene graduated from Rosedale High School in 1971, many of the friends he played music with put their instruments down and went to work or college or joined the military. Gene went deeper into music. He was drawn to edgier guitar work, to musicians like Clapton, Hendrix and John McLaughlin, guitarists who did more than play three-chord love songs and smile. He joined a group called Bodock, and enrolled at Delta State University in Cleveland. He did not care about taking a degree. He wanted to learn about music.

Jim “Fish” Michie was a Delta State student then. Sometimes, outside of Broom Hall, he bumped into Gene, coming or going to music classes in Zeigel Hall. They would chit-chat. “I could hang in there with him on that stuff up to a point,” Michie said with a laugh. When Gene turned the conversation toward abstract music theories, Michie, a social sciences major, would get lost.

Gene still lived with his mother, in Rosedale, in a place beside his grandmother Emma Dawkins. In a sort of garage space between the homes he built a makeshift recording studio, where he practiced and recorded pieces of music he wrote. (A neighbour remembers that Dawkins, in her seventies, asked that he keep it down during General Hospital.) Mike Morrison, the owner of a music equipment store in Cleveland, recalls Gene hearing a Mahavishnu Orchestra record at the shop and explaining what he believed the musicians were meaning to impart with each note. In order to play classical guitar he grew out the fingernails on his right hand.

One of the friends Gene felt comfortable sharing his passion for music with was David Moore, who, since graduating from Rosedale High in 1969, had become a respected drummer in Delta music circles. The son of a Rosedale doctor, David, like Gene, existed at the fringes of the area’s conservative social webbing. He worked at a cotton gin but art and music were his passions. Eight miles north of Rosedale, up Highway 1, in Gunnison, he rented an old home with a wrap-around porch where he and Gene spent a lot of time playing music, smoking a little dope and deepening their friendship.

In 1974, to make some money, David and Gene played some shows at the Conservation League, a working class club and restaurant on Lake Beulah, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River. One night at the Conservation League, Gene met a sixteen-year-old girl named Mary Braxton. He was smitten with Mary, dark-haired and outgoing, and a relationship began.

The Braxtons lived in Malvina. They were a large, blue-collar family—Mary had four sisters and five brothers. Once Gene and Mary met, “they were always together,” Wally Moore said.

They complemented one another. Mary had a sensitive young man with focused sincerity in a place where sensitivity and sincerity were not especially valued, and Gene had an attractive local girl who accepted his humble life and music. There is little doubt they were in love. They married on April 21, 1975. 

Shortly after the wedding they began renting the little isolated house outside of Malvina. Besides being a new couple after independence, Gene wanted a place of his own, where he could practice his music without bothering anyone. It was hot, with no telephone, and they let the grass grow knee-high, natural. But the place was cheap and anyone who has shared a home with their first lover knows the bliss those walls held.  The couple lived simply, with Gene focused on music and his classes at Delta State University in Cleveland, and Mary, who had recently quit high school, devoted to him. The majority of their first summer as a married couple was spent at the Rosedale Country Club swimming pool, where a lifeguard would jokingly tell them to stop kissing. Mary seemed to spend that entire summer in a swimming suit.

Sitting in the car, Wally moved the spotlight into the yard of the Gaias’ house. The light revealed Gene Gaia laying completely naked, dead. Beneath him lay Mary, on her back, “staring straight up into the sky,” Wally said, “like making a snow angel.” She was wearing bikini bottoms and Gene was on top of her, his knees and hands beneath him.

Friends would later describe Gene as dying “crouched over Mary, like he was trying to pick her up.” His face was down, hidden.

Panic rushed in around Wally. David began turning the car around. He had an Opel Kadett then, with a bad carburetor, and as the car struggled to gain speed on the mud and gravel he thought he glimpsed the figure of a man with long hair ducking into the house. 

In Malvina, a nearby community, they stopped at the home of Sybil Tyer, who David sometimes hunted Native American artifacts with. When she answered the door, the brothers told her to call the police, and asked for a gun. They wanted to return to the Gaia home and find who David had seen. Tyer called the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department and the brothers instead drove to Rosedale, where a carload of deputies met them beneath a red light in front of the courthouse. Then they drove back out into the fields toward the Gaia home. David described what they found when they got there as a “lit-up ghost scene.” 

Whoever David thought he had seen in the doorway, if he had seen anyone, was gone. Wally recalls that what met the deputies as they crept across the Gaias’ yard, guns drawn, was the foul smell of death, hanging thick in the air, and a kitten, wandering around, hissing. The bodies were nearby.

Gene had been shot in the back, in the right temple and in the mouth. A doctor who performed the autopsy would later say of the bullet holes in Gene’s mouth that “we could identify two, but the destruction was so much there could have been more.” Mary had been shot in the buttocks and multiple times in the throat, beneath her chin. They both died from bullets entering their skulls. A prosecutor later said they were “brutally executed, not murdered.” 

Gene’s car was parked in front of the home. The windows were down and bed linens and musical equipment were on the seats. It seemed like the couple had been getting ready to leave. Or had just arrived home.

The deputies asked the Moore brothers to accompany them inside the house, where it was clear a struggle had taken place. There was an overturned lamp on a table and the hinges of an interior door had been knocked out of a wall. There were drops of blood in several places and a broken ashtray. When the deputies heard a noise in the back, they pulled a curtain aside cautiously to find a dog, growling at them. There were pieces of dog feces in several spots on the floor and, beside the bed, a fully-loaded .22-caliber rifle. In the front room was a pair of shorts and the bikini top that matched the bottoms Mary was wearing. David had the impression Gene and Mary had been forced to disrobe at gunpoint.

In the kitchen, on the stove, two or three eggs had been left boiling in a pot of water. “It had been burning so long,” a deputy later testified, “that the handle had burned off the boiler.” The water was long gone. “The egg shells were just ash,” Wally said. Other signs of an interrupted meal were on a nearby table: Plates covered in mildew and mold, jar of pickles, bread, mayonnaise and tuna fish.

Deputies collected their evidence and photographed the scene, and an ambulance took the bodies to the Bolivar County Hospital morgue in Cleveland before sunrise. Some of Mary’s brothers, who lived down the road in Malvina, gathered at the end of the driveway. The Moore brothers eventually drove home in disbelief.

A deputy told them before they left that in the coming days, as the investigation began, they should not leave the area. They went home to Gunnison where, around midday or so, David’s girlfriend brought them some food. They ate what they could.

*

The band that became Furthermore formed a month or so after Gene married. Gene played the guitar, David the drums. They asked Larry Prestage, from Cleveland, to be the vocalist. Prestage called Chuck Kimes to play bass. Kimes, 19 at the time, jumped at the chance to play with Gene, who, he said, “was a heavyweight in the Delta,” as far as musicians go. The guys recruited Wally Moore, David’s younger brother, to play flute and saxophone, which sounded, David said, “like a pterodactyl.” At first, they called themselves Dog Brains (though now, there’s some dispute over whether it was in fact Dog Brain or Dog Branz).

Kimes remembers that there was creative tension, the good kind. While Gene indulged his strange interests and Prestage wanted more straight-forward rock, David gave speeches on the band not prostituting itself and needing to practice more. Gene sometimes called his old friend “Hitler” behind his back for the driving intensity of his personality. For weeks, they practiced at Gene’s new place. With only crops around for miles they could turn the amps up with no worries. 

Gene, under the influence of musicians like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, wrote out long compositions, welding wildly different pieces of music together in ways that kept them afloat. If an audience found something to dance to, David said, then good. But that was not the goal. The idea was to play music that inspired them, but Gene knew they also had to play popular music to make money.

Eventually they changed the name to Furthermore, a more approachable moniker. There was no lack of gigs. Photos of the band from the time, set against a campfire, show an innocent awkwardness in four of their faces, the kind that comes from going at something you have not learned how to reach. Then there is Gene, thin with long hair and slouching with indifference. He rarely looks directly at the camera and seems attuned to something far away, something only he can see.

*

From the beginning, investigators with the Bolivar County Sheriff’s Department had trouble uncovering a motive for the Gaia murders. 

No gun was found near the bodies, so presumably murder-suicide was out. Nothing appeared to be missing from the house, so robbery was out, too. Because a plastic bag containing about a pound of marijuana was found in a closet, investigators thought the murders might have been the result of a botched drug deal. Authorities summoned Kimes for an interview. After showing the bassist gruesome photographs of the bodies, they implied that drugs must have been involved. Kimes heard from Prestage that Gene grew a little marijuana near the house but only for personal use. Also, if it was a drug deal, why were the Gaias nude? And why was the marijuana left behind? 

Establishing when the murders occurred was just as challenging as identifying a motive. The bodies were taken from the scene at 5:30 on Saturday morning, and put in refrigeration at the morgue about twenty-five minutes away, approximately three hours after being found. The bodies were badly deteriorated and bloated. One newspaper reported that investigators guessed they had laid outside since at least Thursday. It’s likely the rain that week accelerated the decomposition process, distorting the timeframe. They hoped autopsies would clear up a time of death. 

Meanwhile, word of the murders made it through the community. By Saturday night something chilling was circulating: Whoever committed the Gaia murders was still at large.

There were conflicting stories about the last time the Gaias had been seen alive. Friends of the couple told the Delta Democrat-Times, a local newspaper, that Gene and Mary had last been seen late Thursday afternoon. The newspaper also reported that the couple’s parents had last seen them Tuesday, something contradicted by Jean Gaia at the eventual trial for the murders, where she would say she’d seen them Wednesday.

The autopsies were performed two days after the bodies were discovered. Instead of clearing up the confusion around the time of death, the findings brought out more contradiction. The pathologist believed the murders occurred 48 to 72 hours prior to the bodies being placed in the morgue. That meant Gene and Mary were shot sometime between Wednesday morning and Thursday morning.

Either the pathologist was wrong or the people claiming to have seen the couple Thursday afternoon had actually seen someone else. Or they were lying. 

A local newspaper reporter named Pam Bullard did not know Gene and Mary but several days after their bodies were found she wrote a piece for The Bolivar Commercial about seeing them at the pool.

“Mary would drift to a group of swimmers younger than herself to practice diving, race or play water games,” Bullard wrote. “Gene, almost motionless, would rest against the side of the pool, either watching her or appearing to meditate on something far removed from his surroundings… Then they would leave, arm in arm, taking with them all those things new love is suppose [sic] to be.

“In those moments,” the piece ended, “it always seemed that the real world was far removed from their existence.”

One person  interviewed for this story said Mary died pregnant.

Furthermore played high school dances and Delta bars that summer. In August, the band played a fraternity party at the University of Mississippi in Oxford.

The Sunday before he died, Gene’s mother gave him a watch for his upcoming twenty-second birthday. On Monday, Mary and Gene had a check cashed at a Rosedale service station. They went to Gunnison on Tuesday so Gene could discuss Furthermore’s music with the Moore brothers. They spent Tuesday night at Jean Gaia’s home, where they often stayed as the summer wore on, because when August comes to the Mississippi Delta and blackbirds flock to the fields to eat rice, farmers respond by carrying rifles and shotguns into the fields, shooting relentlessly to scare them away. Sometimes they have airplanes fly back and forth to make them scatter. The rising southern heat and amount of bugs made staying at the little old house in the fields hard.

On Wednesday morning—September 3, 1975—before she left for work, Jean Gaia looked in on her son and daughter-in-law. They were both still sleeping. They eventually went to the swimming pool and stayed until late afternoon, when they left in their swimming suits. They went back to Jean Gaia’s home around 4:30 p.m., where they picked up the cake Mary had made for his birthday, which they were going to share with Mary’s siblings. 

Then, on Friday, Gene never showed up for Furthermore’s gig in Ruleville. 

*

Investigators focused on the evidence collected at the Gaia murder scene.

A deputy found three empty bullet cartridges on the floor of the home’s front room. The sheriff, combing through the high grass outside, found, a couple of feet from the bodies, five empty cartridges and, a third of a mile from the house, beside a gravel road, several empty cartridges. The cartridges found near the bodies were Federal brand .22-caliber, long rifle hollow point bullets, and the sheriff and his investigators gathered at the Rosedale courthouse on Sunday to inspect them all with a magnifying glass. Deputy Sheriff James Harper said the markings on the cartridges appeared to match.

According to the Delta Democrat-Times, one of the few local buyers of Federal brand bullets was Robbins & Long, a local farming company based in Rosedale that also owned the house Gene and Mary had been renting. The company gave the bullets, as well as rifles, to its workers to deal with blackbirds. C.D. Long, one of the owners, handed police the key to a work truck used by Joe Travis, an employee who worked the fields around the Gaia home.

The sheriff knew Travis, a thirty-year-old Rosedale native, not because he was a criminal, but because the sheriff knew just about every longtime Bolivar County family. Travis and his wife lived in Cleveland, twenty miles east of Rosedale. He had been with Robbins & Long about three years.

On Monday, investigators found his work truck, a green and white ’73 Ford Ranger, parked outside of his South Third Avenue home in Cleveland. In the cab they found boxes of Federal-brand bullets and two .22-caliber rifles—one on the seat in plain view and one behind the seat. The one on the seat belonged to Travis’s father. The one behind the seat, a Remington Nylon 66, belonged to Robbins & Long and was wrapped in a blue jean jacket. Investigators took both. They sent the guns, along with the spent cartridges found at the Gaia home, to the Mississippi Crime Lab, where analysts would work to determine if the cartridges had been fired from either of the guns.

Investigators also spoke with Travis. Newspapers reported that he maintained his innocence. He said he worked into the evening on the previous Wednesday, and arrived home around 7:15 p.m. On Thursday, he said, he ate dinner at his father’s home and on Friday went square dancing in Grenada. 

A Robbins & Long employee would testify that he and another man had worked with Travis on Wednesday. Sometime in the afternoon, Travis left them in the fields while he went into town. He returned before they left work with some whiskey, offered them a drink, then drove them home between 5 and 5:30 p.m. The employee said that as Travis dropped them off, he mentioned that he was going to go shut off the water pumps in the rice field near Malvina.

Authorities arrested Travis and charged him with the murders of Gene and Mary Gaia. He was held without bond. When the next Bolivar County grand jury met, in October, it would hear the evidence against Travis.

*

Gene and Mary were buried side by side in Beulah, south of Rosedale, after Joe Travis’s arrest. A crowd attended the funeral, including Mary’s family, Gene’s musician friends and the Bolivar County sheriff.

As people gathered around the grave, one of Mary’s relatives pointed at Larry Prestage, the Furthermore vocalist, and accused him of knowing more about the murders than he was letting on. Morrison, who supplied Furthermore with PA equipment from his music store, described the graveside scene as “spooky.” The accusation might have been connected to unfounded rumors about an affair between Prestage and Mary. Yet something deeper was at play, too. Something simmering just beneath the area’s social surface.

A distrust between the old working class and new hippie scene had emerged in the Delta, like in most places. “You had to stay away from them to avoid getting into anything,” Jimmy King, a vocalist in one of Gene’s early bands, said. After the Gaia murders, the distrust became more pointed. 

There was a feeling among Gene’s friends that he had been targeted because of his lifestyle. He was an outsider and sight to see in the conservative Delta. His hair touched his shoulders and he was spotted at Morrison’s music store in Cleveland wearing cowboy boots, gym shorts and no shirt. There was talk that whoever killed him and Mary had done so for something like sport. “It seemed like a hate-killing because so many shots were fired,” Jimmy King said. “I immediately thought a redneck did it, that a redneck got drunk and decided he was going to kill a hippie.” Kimes, the bassist in Furthermore, felt jealousy may have been a motivating factor. Maybe someone from the Conservation League, he said, had not liked a hippie like Gene getting into a relationship with Mary. Kimes wondered if someone decided to teach a lesson.

Joe Travis was a family man who attended a local Baptist church. His supporters felt he could not have been involved with what happened at the Gaia home and in October, the grand jury agreed—it declined to indict Travis for the murders.

The evidence against him—the rifles in his work truck, the brand of bullets, the fact that he worked the fields near Malvina—was circumstantial. Also, there were no witnesses. Travis was free to go—for the time being. A different grand jury would indict him one year later and he would stand trial. But no one knew that then, and with no suspect in custody, fear spread, especially among friends of Gene and Mary. They saw the workings of a conspiracy. 

Morrison said he went to bed with a double-barrel shotgun after the deaths. “We didn’t know who had killed Gene,” he said.

Or why.

Through fall, winter and spring people speculated about what happened at the Gaia home. The theories were fueled by the crime scene’s details, which seemed to grow more lurid in memory as time went by. 

There was talk that when authorities arrived at the scene that night they discovered a dead puppy in Gene’s car. A newspaper reported that the puppy was named “Sally” and that Mary took it with her everywhere. The rumor was that the dog, trapped in the car, had died of heat exhaustion, or perhaps starvation. In fact, when investigators arrived at the scene, the windows of Gene’s Maverick were down. Some people said the cake Mary baked for Gene’s birthday was found in the car, too, with melted icing. 

One of the theories that went around involved the deaths of two young men twelve years earlier, during the summer of 1963. The men were hunting at Lake Bols near Malvina. They were shot and no arrest was ever made. The case bewildered some locals—it does to this day—and after the Gaia murders some wondered if something sinister moved in the woods near Malvina. L.B. Williams, the sheriff of Bolivar County, dismissed any connection. No arrest had been made in the Lake Bols deaths, he said, because investigators deemed it a murder-suicide.

Another theory involved Gene Gaia’s sexuality playing a role in what happened.

In a letter David Moore wrote around Halloween 1975, he mentions being under the impression that the autopsy suggested Gene, around the time of death, had been penetrated anally. In the same letter, David mentions that the sheriff told him an expert claimed there was no reason to think that happened. Either way, investigators were asking people if Gene was homosexual. He did not appear to be, but the questions led to whispers, which revolved around Gene’s relationship with a Rosedale man with long hair named Harmon Braxton.

An uncle of Mary’s, Braxton, according to local gossips, was gay. When Gene was younger, Braxton had been something of a father figure to him. After the murders, an investigator with the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol asked Jean Gaia about her son’s relationship with Braxton. She said that when Gene was 13 or 14 he was friends with Braxton, who would have been in his early thirties. She thought that Braxton was “queer,” she said, and told her son to quit spending time with him, and he did. (At trial, Jean Gaia denied telling this story.) David Moore said Gene never talked about his relationship with Braxton, but some people wondered if Braxton committed the Gaia murders out of frustrated jealousies. He died in 2006, at the age of seventy-one, on the banks of the Mississippi River. He does not appear to have ever been a formal suspect. 

There was also talk about investigators needing to take a closer look at the Moore brothers. This theory began early—someone called their mother, in Cleveland, the morning the bodies were found, falsely claiming that they’d been arrested as suspects. The brothers chose not to attend their friend’s funeral. 

David said recently he avoided the services because he was hearing rumors—about his possible involvement, about drugs being involved—and he felt it best to stay away. Investigators asked Wally Moore to take a lie detector test. He agreed, but when David, who Wally says is the more emotional of the two, learned of the request, he talked him out of it, saying it was ridiculous and insulting.

There was also the matter of a strange drawing Wally made several months before the murders.

Around the time Gene started dating Mary, he moved in with the Moore brothers in Gunnison. One night Wally was in his bedroom, trying to read. Mary was over, and loud music was coming out of Gene’s room. Wally, nineteen or twenty, grew agitated. He drew a picture, a sort of cartoon portrait of a face in distress, with a screw passing through its skull and a pan of eggs on top of its head—this was meant to show Wally’s frustration. Behind the head were two stick figures having sex, surrounded by stray words of a sexual nature: “Slurp.” “Hummmmm x 1032 minutes.” “Fukk.” “Suk my nose.” There were also several measures of music written out and, in a corner, an upside down cat. Wally slid the drawing under Gene’s door and forgot about the whole episode.

“I never in a million years,” he said recently, “believed that I would still be talking about it forty-three years later.”

For some reason, Mary kept the drawing—investigators discovered it in her purse after the murders—and when Joe Travis stood trial, his defense attorney used it to suggest to jurors that Wally might have been involved with Mary and, by extension, in the double homicide. 

*

In late 1975, after the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, a newspaper reporter asked L.B. Williams, the sheriff, what his office planned to do about the unsolved Gaia case. “We will be looking at everything that moves. Going over everything again,” he said. “As long as we tote this badge we will never quit looking. Somebody did it and it’s our job to find out who.” 

In October 1976, a second grand jury convened in the Rosedale courthouse. This time, the jury indicted Travis, twice—once for the murder of Gene Gaia, once for the murder of Mary Gaia. M. Lee Graves, the young district attorney, chose to try Travis on Gene’s murder first.

For his defense, Travis hired Charles L. Sullivan, a 52-year-old white-haired Clarksdale attorney and powerful member of the Delta’s complex, unseen power structure. Sullivan had been Mississippi’s lieutenant governor five years earlier. There was talk that Travis’s friends and family pooled resources to pay Sullivan’s fees.

The trial took place in April 1977. The jury was sequestered at the Holiday Inn in nearby Cleveland. Spectators piled into the Rosedale courthouse as testimony began.

Wally Moore was the first to take the witness stand. Graves had to ask him to speak up several times so the jury could hear him. While the prosecution used Wally more or less to establish the discovery of the bodies, the defense had other purposes. From the moment Sullivan began his cross-examination it was clear he intended to suggest that the Moore brothers should be suspects.

“Mr. Moore,” Sullivan began, “did any of the group indulge in the use of drugs or narcotics to any extent?”

Wally said they drank occasionally and smoked cigarettes. After Sullivan asked Wally if he had been sleeping with Mary and Wally said he had not, Sullivan handed Wally a copy of the drawing found in Mary’s purse.

“Can you tell me what this is?” he said.

“Yes, I can,” Wally replied. “I drew it.”

Sullivan wanted jurors to see how closely the drawing’s details—the sexual nature of the bodies, the eggs, the cat—mirrored the crime scene. He also felt like jurors might take the drawing as evidence that Wally and Mary were romantically involved.

Throughout the trial, the defense suggested alternative theories and intriguing what-ifs, and pointed out that the drops of blood found in the Gaia did not match Travis’s blood type. Neither did pubic hairs taken from the home.


The prosecution, meanwhile, leaned on the findings of a criminalist from the state crime lab, who testified that the .22-caliber rifle taken from Travis’s work truck fired the cartridges found in and outside of the Gaia home. However, the criminalist could not say with certainty that the bullet fragments removed from the bodies were fired from the gun—something Travis’s team repeatedly pointed out.

After the doctor who performed the autopsies testified that Gene and Mary died 48-72 hours prior to the bodies arriving at the morgue, the defense produced two witnesses who claimed to have seen the couple Thursday evening. One defense witness testified to having seen Travis and his wife square dancing in Linn on Thursday night and in Grenada on Friday night. Another witness said she didn’t think Travis’s wife was with him in Linn. 

During closing arguments, Frank Wynne, a prosecutor, held the Remington rifle above his head. “This witness will not lie,” he said of the gun. “It’ll tell you the truth every time.”

Sullivan responded by reinforcing the idea that authorities had arrested the wrong man. “Some sick person committed the murders of these people,” he said. “Joe Travis is not that kind of person.”

Jurors got the case at 4:25 p.m. on Friday. They reached a decision two hours later. After the clerk read the verdict—“Not guilty”—a shriek came from one side of the courtroom, and some people began crying. Travis showed no emotion and left with his arm around his wife, who was pregnant.

Jean Gaia left the courthouse. She died seven years later, at the age of sixty-two, and was buried in Beulah, not far from Gene and Mary. Phillip Taylor, one of Gene’s childhood friends, remembers speaking with her a year or so after the murders. “She had pretty much…” he said, his voice trailing off. “It was her only child.”

*

There was a Rosedale police officer named Grady Jenkins hanging around downtown at the time of the trial. When not playing dominoes at the courthouse, he was looking for conversation. He had the gift of gab and wide-ranging friendships and his son, Milton Jenkins, said he had a way of “absorbing information.” Before Grady Jenkins died in 1981, he told someone that he knew what transpired in the jury room during the Joe Travis trial in 1977. 

According to someone who heard the story, Jenkins claimed that when deliberations began, only one of the jurors was in favor of acquittal. This person attended church with Joe Travis and said even if Travis admitted to the murders she wouldn’t believe he did it. Hearing this, another juror decided to acquit, and the jury sat deadlocked, ten to two. The foreman decided that no matter the outcome, prosecutors still had to try Travis on Mary’s murder indictment. Because of that second indictment, Jenkins said, the jury agreed to a not-guilty verdict.

What the jury could not have known is that following the acquittal, Sullivan asked the judge to dismiss the indictment against Travis for Mary Gaia’s murder. Sullivan said since the two murders occurred at the same time, and the evidence in both cases was identical, to prosecute Travis for Mary’s murder amounted to double jeopardy. The judge agreed and dismissed the indictment. 

After hearing Jenkins’s story, I tried to find out if it was true. One jury member I could identify, James Aycox, died in 2012. I never found out the identity of the juror who came around. The one who allegedly held out for an acquittal, though, I found living in the Arkansas Ozarks. 

Her name is Anne Brister. She is in her eighties now. When I reached her on the telephone and explained the reason for my call, she politely asked that I discuss the matter with her husband, and handed him the phone. 

John Brister, in a kind but firm voice, asked if I had attended the trial. I told him I had not. He said he sat through nearly all of it. He said he had known Joe Travis since he was a baby and he could not have been involved. “In this country,” he said, “you’re innocent until proven guilty. And they never had any proof.”

When I told him Grady Jenkins’s story—that ten jurors had wanted a conviction while his wife wanted an acquittal—he responded, “Well, that pretty much was the case.” 

The person likely involved in the murders, he said, drew crazy pictures and left the country after the trial. I asked Brister if he was referring to Wally Moore, who moved to Japan in the 1980s. Brister said he was not calling any names. I asked if his family had attended the same church as Travis. He said they had.

Later, he said, “Poor old Joe.”

A sort of black hole has spread around the corners of the Gaia murders in Bolivar County. While part of this is the passage of time, part of it is harder to explain. Like the sheriff’s department claiming not to have any files whatsoever relating to the investigation, which lasted nearly two years and involved six or seven local investigators, as well as state and federal officials. Some people say L.B. Williams took investigative files home with him after his retirement. Maybe the Gaia files were among them. Or perhaps they were lost when a tornado came through Bolivar County more than a decade ago, destroying several buildings, including a correctional facility that housed old files.

Most everyone involved in the investigation and trial has died. The judge in 1978. Charles L. Sullivan the following year in a plane crash. The sheriff in 1993. The lead investigator in 2005. The pathologist who performed the autopsies died in 2016.

The only person left is M. Lee Graves, the district attorney who prosecuted Joe Travis. A retired Delta attorney said, “He likely has a very sore spot about the outcome of that trial.” There are people who feel Graves, at best, was apathetic about the murder of a poor, hippie musician. But when the first grand jury declined to indict Joe Travis, Graves could have walked away. Instead, one year later, he presented evidence to a different grand jury and got indictments. Then, after that jury found Travis not guilty of Gene’s murder and the judge tossed the indictment for Mary’s murder, Graves appealed to the state Supreme Court. Joe Travis’s team filed a motion to dismiss the appeal, which a judge approved, because so much time had passed. That same day, Graves filed a motion to withdraw the appeal himself, because he’d missed a deadline for filing additional paperwork. 

One day I called Rickey Davis, the former Robbins & Long employee who worked that Wednesday with Joe Travis. “I couldn’t tell you whether he did it or not,” Davis said. “I just worked with him.” He said he passed by Gene and Mary’s home in those fields multiple times that week and never noticed anything. He says now that he always thought no one lived there, because the grass grew so high.

Robert Johnston, one of the attorneys who worked on Travis’s defense team, is also still practicing law in the Delta. He declined to comment, saying he would need Travis’s permission to do so. “I do not know where he might be,” he said, “and or even if he is still alive.”

I am told Travis might, in fact, still be alive. 

He would be in his seventies now. I never did find a phone number that worked for him. Some people said he was in the Delta. Others said he was in south Mississippi. I found addresses for him in both locations, sent letters and never heard back.

Each surviving member of Furthermore was open to talking at length about their memories of Gaia and what happened, except for Prestage, who, I was told, was busy helping a family member through a hard time. That said, the band was a May-to-September affair and, like any affair, it haunts the memories of those involved to different degrees.

Larry Prestage lives in south Florida, and Chuck Kimes lives in St. Marys, Georgia. Both of them are still involved in music. Wally Moore, after two decades in Japan, lives in Oregon. Sometimes he carries a flute into his garage and plays for his own satisfaction. “I have no dreams,” he said, “about playing in public again.” The only band member still living in the Delta is David Moore, a widower. The tallest magnolia tree in Rosedale used to grow nearby, but it’s been cut down. He still performs music on peculiar, percussion-like instruments he makes himself and keeps in his music room a Marshall amp that once belonged to Gene Gaia.

Once, when I visited David in Rosedale, we went into the fields outside of Malvina. We drove along a wet gravel road until David felt we were close to where Mary and Gene lived—the house burned years ago and all traces of it have vanished—and then we parked and got out. David mentioned he had not come to the area much. 

I wondered if we might conjure up some ghosts out there, but on that cool and overcast January day, with the fields around us bare, everything seemed calm, vacant and still. It was all gone. The only sound other than our voices was a gusty wind and as we walked away, getting ready to leave, it seemed to grow stronger.

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