A parole hearing is scheduled Oct. 1 for Karen McPherson, who was sentenced to life in prison for the Sept. 11, 1991, kidnapping of Cleveland native Carrie Smith Lawson.
McPherson is confined in the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala. She was last considered for parole in 2008. Alabama law dictates that inmates must be given a parole hearing at least every five years. As of July 17, she had served 21 years and eight months.
McPherson, who will be 52 years old Sept. 27, pleaded guilty in October 1991 to one count of kidnapping in the abduction and disappearance of 25-year-old Lawson, daughter of David Smith, formerly of Cleveland, and the late Harriet Smith. Lawson, whose body was never recovered, is presumed dead.
McPherson of Cullman, Ala., said her cousin, Jerry Bland of Jasper, carried out the kidnapping in exchange for $300,000 in ransom.
She admitted she was with Lawson for several hours on the first day or two after the abduction. She also admitted being with Lawson while Bland made the ransom demand.
However, she maintained Lawson was alive when she left Lawson in Bland’s custody and did not know her whereabouts.
According to news stories, Bland fatally shot himself while law enforcement agents staked out his home where about $200,000 of the ransom money was recovered. Unfortunately, Bland died without divulging where Lawson might be found.
Circuit Judge James Brotherton, when he imposed the sentence on McPherson, strongly recommended she not be given parole or early release from prison.
Joy Ratcliff Cagle’s novel “Presumption of Death,” published earlier this year, is based on the Lawson kidnapping.
In a Thursday telephone interview, she said she obtained information through a lot of research. She was “very involved in the case” from the beginning, conducted personal interviews “and I’m just going to have to say, (was) guided to look in certain areas and to talk to certain people.”
She said Tutwiler is trying to allow people to be released or paroled that probably should not be simply because they have a problem with space.
“They are very overcrowded and I think they’re looking at prisoners who they think have served enough time that they need to let them go,” she said. “I think it is quite possible she will (be released) unless there is enough opposition and enough people, and I know Dave Smith will be there, saying absolutely not.”
Cagle had moved to Birmingham only a couple of months before the abduction. Her involvement came after a picture appeared on her computer monitor at work, “a vision, if you will, of a woman being held captive in a small building. A week later, I saw the news reports on Carrie and at that point, I started looking and talking to people,” she said.
The author insists she is not an expert on the case and constantly reminds people the book is a novel and is written as fiction.
Cagle said as far as she knows, McPherson participated in the kidnapping simply because she needed money and was unaware of the consequences.
“I hate to use the word uneducated, but maybe, not worldly, not wise, and I think she just needed money,” Cagle said. “I think she agreed to help her cousin with the kidnapping, not understanding that there would be severe consequences. I think her true motivation for doing it was the money.”
According to newspaper reports, when Lawson was not set free after the ransom was paid, the decision was made several days later to broadcast tape recordings mysteriously found by a 6-year-old boy beside a swimming pool at an apartment complex not far from Bland’s home. The recording was of Bland talking with a woman identified as McPherson.
“The FBI played those tapes on the radio and people recognized the voices. They recognized Jerry Bland’s voice and they recognized her voice,” Cagle said.
News accounts show McPherson was taken into custody. She admitted her involvement and confirmed that Bland was responsible for Carrie’s abduction.
She admitted to having held Lawson the first night in a national forest near Jasper, but claimed no knowledge of what became of Lawson after leaving her in Bland’s custody.
Bland was subsequently picked up. He had some of the marked ransom money on his person. Officers questioned him, but then let him go — perhaps thinking he might lead them to Lawson.
News stories stated that Lawson’s father openly resented the manner in which the case was handled and is quoted as saying, “They had her (McPherson) testimony. They had him (Bland) on tape. They had found marked money on him, and still would not arrest him.”
The family strongly insisted that officers take Bland into custody. Authorities demurred. Finally, a decision was made to move in.
At 10:30 on the night of the last day of September, officers left to make the arrest, or so everyone thought. Someone decided otherwise.
An agent was left to keep the Bland residence under watch and in the early hours of the next morning, the agent heard the gunshot with which Bland ended his own life, according to archived news stories.
News reports stated that the Smith family was bothered by the way the investigation was conducted from several aspects.
Among them was the fact that several people who knew Bland, insisted he was not smart enough or brave enough to carry out the kidnapping alone. They cited the fact he was still recovering from open-heart surgery at the time of the kidnapping and would have been incapable of doing alone all that had been done.
They are haunted by the fact that authorities vacillated, delaying the arrest of Bland after being warned by several sources, including McPherson, that Bland was suicidal.
Cagle believes McPherson knows much more than she has ever revealed. “I think she knows there are more people involved than her cousin — and I think she knows he didn’t kill himself. I think she has very carefully kept her mouth shut, because she didn’t want them to come after her.”
Cagle said McPherson would rather be alive and in prison than have freedom and be killed.
“Absolutely, I think that because at least in prison she’s safe,” she said.
Though Cagle has no personal knowledge, she thinks McPherson has had very few visitations.
“I have not (visited her). I tried one time and was refused. She has to approve visitors and she wouldn’t approve it,” Cagle said.
At least 35 news stories between Sept. 13 and Oct. 31, 1991 tell the story of how Lawson was kidnapped from her home in Jasper, Ala.
She was the daughter of David Smith, a successful Cleveland businessman and the late Harriett Smith, who was a schoolteacher. Lawson was a 1984 graduate of Cleveland High School. She married Earl Howard Lawson Jr. of Jasper in March 1990 at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland.
After receiving her bachelor of arts degree from Auburn University, she entered the University of Alabama law school at Tuscaloosa where she and her husband both had graduated in May 1991.
According to reports published two days after the abduction, the Lawsons received a pre-dawn phone call on Wednesday (Sept. 11, 1991) saying the young man’s father had been taken to the local hospital after suffering a heart attack.
When the Lawsons left their house in the Heritage Hills area of Jasper, armed kidnappers seized them. Her husband was bound and left at the house and she was taken away. It was later determined the act was that of one man.
There had been no publicity on the incident at the request of the FBI. Authorities said the kidnappers had threatened to kill the woman if police or the media were notified.
The following is a timeline of the seven days after the kidnapping, according to past news accounts from the Cleveland Daily Banner and the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper.
— Wednesday, Sept. 11: Carrie Smith Lawson is abducted from her home, by a lone gunman. Later, the abductor is described as a white male, approximately 5-feet-11-inches tall, medium build, with a regional accent. At the request of the FBI, media outlets do not release news of the kidnapping, in an effort to protect Mrs. Lawson’s life. The abductor had threatened to kill Mrs. Lawson if the kidnapping was made public.
— Thursday, Sept. 12: Shortly before 9 a.m., Carrie Lawson contacts her family. In a Monday news conference, Whitaker said that Mrs. Lawson was “afraid for her life” when she made the call. It is the last time she is heard from.
However, she makes subsequent phone calls to a family friend to make ransom arrangements. All of the kidnapper’s demands are met by Friday, but Mrs. Lawson is not returned.
— Friday, Sept. 13: At 3:30 a.m., the family of Carrie Lawson gets the final demand from the abductor. The kidnapper demands ransom money rumored to be in the $300,000 to $400,000 range. At a 9 a.m. press conference, the family makes an impassioned plea for Carrie’s safe return. The victim’s sister, Margaret Smith, says, “She is our heart. We want her back.”
— Saturday, Sept. 14: Armed with a search warrant, federal, state and local authorities comb through a vacant house at 2305 13th Ave. West in Jasper, where Mrs. Lawson is believed to have been held.
The FBI removes possible evidence from the house, and sends it to the FBI headquarters in Washington for forensic analysis. Results on the material may take weeks. It is still uncertain if she was in the house. Also, there was no evidence found to indicate any injury to Mrs. Lawson.
— Sunday, Sept. 15: Whitaker reveals the first detailed information on the abduction. The couple was accosted at gunpoint. Earl Lawson Jr. was tied up, and Mrs. Lawson was taken. The physical profile of the kidnapper is given.
“Our energies are still focused on gaining the safe return of Carrie Lawson, but we must be realistic that time is not our ally in this matter,” said Whitaker.
—Tuesday Sept. 17: In an interview with pool reporters from the Cable News Network and the Daily Mountain Eagle, Whitaker says it is a “distinct possibility’’ the kidnapping is the result of a business dispute with one of the two families in the case.
Whitaker also says that money may not be the only motive in the case, and that the FBI has “an open book” on suspects and motive. Also, Gov. Guy Hunt authorizes the use of the Alabama National Guard in the search. David Smith, father of the victim, also meets with the media.
“It’s been a week out of our lives we never expected to occur,” he says. “You have children and you expect them to get in car wrecks, you expect them to get sick, you may even expect them to die. But you don’t ever expect them to get kidnapped.”
Lawson’s body has never been recovered. Cagle said authorities have looked, “but they have looked with people who didn’t want it to be found. Even though their efforts have been heroic and her dad, especially, has just not stopped. But, I think a lot of that search has been sabotaged.”
But, she said, the people of Cleveland were wonderfully supportive of the Smith family.
“I’ve never seen such compassion and such support as I saw coming out of Cleveland. It was truly amazing and 22 years later it is still amazing,” she said. “The outpouring of love for that family is just truly amazing.”