KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Blair Adams wasn’t himself, and everyone he knew could see it in his eyes.
Two years sober, he stopped attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The 31-year-old Canadian construction foreman began leaving the job site unlocked, then quit without picking up his paycheck, saying he “didn’t know if he could carry on here.”
His coworkers suggested he see a doctor.
He told his mother people were spreading rumors about him.
He told friends he feared someone was going to kill him. As it turned out, he was right.
Two workers found Adams’ half-nude corpse on July 11, 1996 at an East Knox County construction site, thousands of miles from his home in Surrey, British Columbia.
Whoever beat him and left him to die didn’t steal the gold bars, gold coins, jewelry, or the cash that he had on him.
Authorities believe Adams knew no one in Tennessee, and investigators who retraced his steps found the way he arrived made as little sense as the way he died.
“It’s a real mystery,” said David Davenport, a former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent and Jefferson County sheriff who is now the chief of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit. He oversees roughly 40 unsolved homicide cases, including Adams’.
No one’s been charged in the killing, all leads have been exhausted, and only one piece of DNA evidence exists.
“Son, we don’t quit on a murder case,” Davenport said. “You go to these things that happen 40, 50 years ago, and they say, ‘We thought you forgot about that.’ I say, ‘Well, we don’t forget.'”
At first glance, they thought he was a vagrant who had bedded down at their job site.
Further inspection revealed he was dead, and had too much gold to be homeless.
Two construction workers discovered Adams’ corpse in the parking lot of an under-construction hotel at about 7 a.m.
Thousands of dollars in Canadian, German and American cash were found around his body and in the pockets of his blue jeans.
Adams’ pants had been removed “like somebody else pulled them down for him,” said Knox County Sheriff Jimmy “J.J.” Jones, who was a lieutenant over the Major Crimes Unit when he responded to the scene.
A fanny pack stuffed with nearly 5 ounces of gold bars, gold and platinum coins, jewelry, more keys and a pair of sunglasses lay unzipped, its contents untouched.
The killer beat Adams, an autopsy found. The fatal blow ruptured his stomach, and he died of septic shock. A weapon sliced open his forehead.
He put up a fight.
Investigators recovered a long strand of someone else’s hair from Adams’ hand, the only significant piece of physical evidence in the case.
Certain injuries indicated he had been sexually assaulted, former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent David Davenport said, but there was no DNA evidence.
Toxicology reports showed no drugs or alcohol in his system. He had not officially been diagnosed with any kind of mental illness.
The only person who reported hearing anything out of the ordinary was a security guard at a nearby business. He told detectives he heard an abrupt scream around 3:30 a.m. and believed it to be a woman’s voice.
Six days before his death, on Friday, July 5, Adams withdrew almost all of the money from his bank account in Canada and emptied the valuables from his safe-deposit box into a fanny pack.
He told his mother something was bothering him, then took a trip to Courtenay, British Columbia, to visit his uncle, who was not home.
On Sunday morning, Adams, driving his Chevrolet Chevette, tried to board a ferry from Victoria to Seattle.
U.S. immigration officials flagged him as a possible drug courier and didn’t allow him to board. Adams then visited a girlfriend in Vancouver, a friend in New Westminster, and his mother, Sandra Edwards, in Surrey.
He cryptically told a friend he needed to cross the border: Someone wanted him dead.
Adams left his mother’s home on the morning of Monday, July 8.
Before dawn on July 9, Adams was spotted wandering near the border. He abandoned his Chevette at the Vancouver International Airport and rented a Nissan Altima. After two failed attempts, Adams made it across the border to Seattle.
He ditched the Altima at the Seattle airport and purchased a one-way flight to Washington, D.C. From there, he drove to Knoxville.
The first reported sighting of Adams in Knoxville occurred at a gas station on Strawberry Plains Pike at 5:30 p.m.
An Interstate Repair Service driver, Gerald Sapp, responded to the gas station after a clerk called saying Adams claimed the key to his rental car didn’t work.
That’s because Adams was trying to use a key that belonged to a Nissan from one rental company when he was driving a Toyota Camry from another, Sapp recalled recently.
Sapp arranged for a wrecker driver to tow the Camry to an auto shop and dropped Adams off at the nearby Fairfield Inn. Sapp said Adams walked off without his bag. Sapp took it to him, then went home.
Police called Sapp the next morning and informed him of Adams’ death, then brought him in for questioning and took hair samples. The ordeal led Sapp, then in his 40s, to leave his job.
And the allegedly missing key? It was found near Adams’ body.
At the Fairfield Inn, located across I-40 from the site where his body would later be discovered, Adams continued to exhibit odd behavior.
He purchased a room with a $100 bill about 7 p.m., then walked away without getting his change. Surveillance video showed him entering and exiting the lobby five times within 40 minutes.
He seemed “paranoid,” hotel employee Ticca Hartsfield said in a 1997 interview on the popular TV show, “Unsolved Mysteries.”
If Adams’ journey was motivated by a planned drug deal or a romantic rendezvous, his friends, relatives, coworkers and girlfriends appeared unaware.
None of them believed him to be involved in drug dealing, and no calls to the U.S. had been made from his home.
Because his body was found nude from the waist down with injuries indicative of sexual assault, investigators’ favored theories to explain the killing tend to revolve around a sex act that turned deadly.
A truck stop near the crime scene and Adams’ hotel served as a hotbed for prostitution at the time. Several of the suspects considered over the years were pimps or prostitutes known to work in the area.
Davenport believes the sex act could have been committed in a vehicle. When the struggle began, the killer might have hit Adams in the head, thrown him onto the road, and struck him while driving away.
The fatal blow to the stomach could have been caused by the vehicle’s front bumper, Davenport believes. (Jones disagrees: He thinks the blow was a kick.)
Davenport’s theory would explain Adams’ blackened hand.
“He caught the pavement,” Davenport said.
After 21 years, some people who might have known about Adams’ killing are likely dead or in jail. And with scarce physical evidence, cracking the mystery “will take somebody telling us about it,” Davenport said.
Jones describes the case as “the most interesting and the strangest” in his 38-year career. Solving it has been a pipe dream for decades.
“If I could have one wish, somewhere in a damn mayonnaise jar I could find a note that tells me what happened, just so I’d know.”
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com