Ga. podcaster seeks answers in Cleveland cold case

By Kaitlin Gebby
Posted 7/17/19

It was Sept. 11, 1991, when Cleveland-born Carrie Lawson,  25, got a call at her home in Jasper, Alabama, saying her father-in-law was ill and she needed to rush to the hospital. She and her …

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Ga. podcaster seeks answers in Cleveland cold case

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It was Sept. 11, 1991, when Cleveland-born Carrie Lawson,  25, got a call at her home in Jasper, Alabama, saying her father-in-law was ill and she needed to rush to the hospital.

She and her husband of nearly two years, Earl Lawson, went to the car parked in the garage only to be confronted by a masked gunman. He ordered Lawson to tie up her husband on the ground, forced her into their car and drove away. 

The next two days led the family on what Georgia native Kristi Bryant describes as a “wild goose chase,” in her crime podcast Southern Gone. 

Bryant started the podcast  in 2018 after she noticed a surplus of popular crime podcasts, but a lack of ones focused on missing people and cases in the South. With one episode every two weeks, Bryant goes case by case, telling the chilling stories of Southerners who have gone missing. 

Published 27 years to the day after her disappearance and suspected murder, episode nine of Bryant’s podcast marked the beginning of a wild goose chase of her own. 

“This case just doesn’t make sense,” she said in an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner. “Something just doesn’t add up.” 

As described in the Southern Gone episode featuring the case, the Lawson family spent the next two days attempting to pay a ransom of $300,000 in the hopes  their daughter would be returned safely. On Sept. 12, with FBI agents listening in, Lawson’s kidnapper allowed her to speak to her family to prove she was alive, but it would be the last time they heard her voice. The next day, the Lawsons made a drop of the ransom money for the safe return of their daughter, but she was never seen or heard from again. 

Her kidnapper was later identified through voice recordings as Jerry Bland. Bland’s cousin, Karen McPherson, identified him and later confessed she was Bland’s accomplice in the kidnapping.

She told authorities she was the voice asking the Lawsons to come to the hospital that night, the one who dropped off Bland at their home, and the person responsible for keeping an eye on Carrie Lawson while Bland made ransom demands. 

In her podcast, Bryant explains the FBI searched Bland’s home but didn’t make an arrest. What was found was some marijuana and firearms, but no ransom money. The FBI later located the ransom money in a ceiling tile that Bland led them to in a suicide note. 

“They left. They left Bland at home with all these guns in his house, and he committed suicide and the whereabouts of Carrie was still unknown,” she said. 

McPherson was arrested on kidnapping charges, and the FBI investigation slowly dropped dissipated, Bryant said.

McPherson pleaded guilty to kidnapping in November 1991. The prosecution made a deal that if she revealed everything she knew about the kidnapping, then the family would not oppose parole after 10 years in prison. She didn’t deliver on her promise, and the deal was off. 

Now she is serving life in prison for kidnapping and is the only known suspect serving time for the disappearance of Lawson. 

Lawson was declared legally dead after two years, and her widowed husband remarried 18 months later. 

Bryant said her interest was piqued both by the severity of McPherson’s sentence and Earl Lawson’s willingness to remarry not too long after his wife was officially declared dead. A missing person is typically presumed dead  seven years after they’ve gone missing, a decision made by a judge who can then order a death certificate. 

“That doesn’t feel right to me,” she said in the episode. “That dog don’t hunt.” 

Bryant also noted Lawson “had no connections” in Jasper. Originally from Cleveland, Lawson had just graduated from law school and passed the Bar exam. She and her husband met in law school and he was able to begin practicing law at a firm in Jasper while she finished school. 

She said Lawson also came from a “wealthy family,” that otherwise had no ties to Jasper.

Earlier in the episode, Bryant explains  Bland had “fallen on hard times,” and earlier phone conversations revealed  he may have been looking to kidnap someone for ransom. She also explains Earl Lawson was not investigated by the FBI. She theorized it may have been due to his connections in Jasper and that he may have hired Bland. 

“To say this case is a mystery is an understatement,” Bryant said. 

Since the initial episode on the case, she has been captivated by the mystery of Carrie Lawson’s kidnapping. Members from both the Lawson and McPherson families have reached out to share how they have suffered as a result of Lawson’s kidnapping. 

Now, Bryant wants to dig deeper. She intends to turn what she has discovered into a full-length documentary, and hopes to learn about Lawson’s kidnapping and suspected murder in the process.

She recently created a GoFundMe page with a $20,000 goal to hire a crew out of Nashville. She said shooting the footage should take around six months, not including post-production, and could cost upward of $65,000. 

Bryant said she wants her documentary to be “Netflix ready,” and it won’t come without danger. 

The podcaster said she and her team have already faced threats and been made aware of the potential dangers if they were to dive deeper into Lawson’s case. But danger won’t deter Bryant from her goal. 

“I want justice for Carrie,” she said. “I think this case is bigger than it seems. Karen is the only one serving time, and it’s for kidnapping. To me, that’s not justice.” 

She said she feels connected to Lawson’s case, “because she was taken when her life was just getting started.” 

 Margaret Smith, Lawson's sister and a practicing lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, told Bryant in an interview her sister was “naturally kind” and “a mentor” for young law students in her program. 

Putting some theories to rest, Smith said it wasn’t likely  Earl Lawson hired someone to kidnap and kill his wife for life insurance money. And she noted her declaration of death came at her father’s consent, who was also listed as a beneficiary for the insurance policy. 

However, she said involvement with Lawson’s Jasper law firm couldn’t be ruled out. She recalled a time when her sister said her husband alledgedly  came home with money from the law firm, money he said couldn’t be deposited in the bank, and other “odd” circumstances related to the firm. 

When asked how it has affected her family, Smith said they all dealt with her sister’s kidnapping in different ways.

She told Bryant about the deal struck with McPherson to find Lawson, and how heartbroken her dad was when the plan unravelled. 

“She talked for four or five hours and they got it all on tape. They sent the tapes to the FBI, to their voice analyst, and he immediately said, ‘She’s lying. She’s not telling the truth.’ … That just reopened a wound for my dad, because he tried so hard to get her to talk and then she didn’t.” 

At the end of the day, she said it was difficult for her dad to “do anything but look for Carrie.” 

Bryant said she hopes that creating the documentary, despite the danger, might spread awareness about Lawson’s case and encourage anyone with information to come forward. 

The Southern Gone podcast is available on Apple Podcasts and features four episodes on Lawson’s kidnapping. Information on Bryant’s dive into the case as well as a link to the GoFundMe page can be found at her website, SouthernGone.com. 

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