The Tragic Unsolved Murder Of Buford Pusser's Wife

It was after 5 a.m. on a summer morning in 1967. Buford Pusser, the sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee, and his wife Pauline were headed to a tavern near the state line with Mississippi to investigate a reported disturbance. Pauline had been accompanying her husband in the hopes it would prevent his many enemies from attacking him. She was wrong. Suddenly someone sprayed their car with .30 caliber bullets. Pauline, just 33, died after having the top of her head blown off.

Buford Pusser, who had been shot in the jaw, survived but required extensive plastic surgery. He would soon become famous through the blockbuster 1973 film "Walking Tall" about his attempts to stem the lawlessness — moonshining, gambling, and sex work — in an area that had earned the disreputable nickname Murder City U.S.A. No one ever paid for these crimes. More than 50 years after Pauline's murder, Tennessee authorities disinterred her corpse in February 2024 after receiving a tip about the case. What if anything the police learned hasn't been publicly released.

Welcome to Murder City U.S.A.

Buford Pusser met Pauline Mullins in Chicago. Pauline, who was originally from Virginia, already had two children when they married in 1959. The couple had a daughter, Dwana, and in 1961, the family moved back to Tennessee where Buford was originally from. In 1964, he ran for sheriff, promising to clean up the county without the aid of a gun. Initially, his preferred weapon of choice was an ax handle he used to smash stills and gambling equipment. Buford was a strapping 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound former professional wrestler who wasn't afraid to take the area's organized crime syndicate head on. "It is nothing unusual for him to whip four or five [men] at a time," one of his deputies told the UPI in 1967.

When her husband became sheriff, Pauline took a job as the cook for the jail and went above and beyond for many of the prisoners. "She was a good woman," T. E. Sowell, a local constable, told The Tennessean after her death. "She used to take money out of her own pocket to buy prisoners soft drinks and other little extras the county doesn't furnish."

[Featured image by Matewan via Wikimedia Commons | Cropped and scaled | CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED]

Not quite like The Andy Griffith Show

In her memoir "Walking On: A Daughter's Journey with Legendary Sheriff Buford Pusser," Dwana Pusser compared her life to "The Andy Griffith Show," which began airing in 1960, with Griffith portraying a sheriff in a rural Southern town. "The difference, of course, was that daddy was facing a much more dangerous element than Sheriff Andy Taylor ever encountered," she wrote. During his six years as sheriff, Buford Pusser was shot, stabbed, thrown out of a window, and nearly run down by a bootlegger.

It wasn't long before Buford dropped his campaign promise to clean up the county without a gun. In February 1966, he killed Louise Hathcock during a shootout. She was the owner of a nightspot called the Shamrock Motel, the girlfriend of gangster Carl "Towhead" White, and the alleged ringleader of a local crime syndicate. Likewise, on August 12, 1967, when Buford and Pauline were ambushed, he was packing a pistol and had a shotgun in the car. There were two more pistols in his vehicle's trunk. But none of his weapons prevented his enemies from shooting him and killing his wife that morning.

Buford Pusser drove into a trap

As Buford Pusser raced down back roads toward the state line, Pauline was by his side. She'd taken to riding with him if he was responding to a call at night alone as the death threats against him had been mounting. As they drove south a black car suddenly pulled out from where it had been hiding, overtook the sheriff's car, and the occupants pumped a volley of bullets into Pusser's vehicle. Buford wasn't hit, but one of the bullets hit Pauline in the head.

Pusser drove another 2 miles before stopping to help Pauline, believing he'd lost their pursuers. But they attacked once again, shooting Pusser, a bullet nearly ripping his jaw off, and hitting Pauline again in the head. The sheriff made a garbled barely audible call for help on his car radio. When help arrived, they found Pusser behind the wheel of his car. Pauline was stretched out on the front seat with her head in his lap, dead.

Walking Tall ends with Pauline Pusser's murder

Not long before her death, Pauline Pusser begged her husband to quit his job. Instead, on the heels of his wife's murder, Buford Pusser once again ran for sheriff in 1968. Per the Buford Pusser Museum, during the campaign he thanked the county's residents for their support during his family's "hour of greatest grief ... The goodwill, the kindness, the understanding all of you gave to us then... makes me even more determined to be the kind of Sheriff you deserve, and that is the very best."

In 1970, Buford — due to state laws on term limits — was forced to turn over the reins of law enforcement to his successor with his wife's killers still roaming free. Then, three years later, the movie "Walking Tall" came out and made him famous. The film starred actor Joe Don Baker (above) in the role of Buford. It also starred a young Leif Garrett, who went from child actor to pop star before his tragic experiences with substance use issues. "Walking Tall" ends with the ambush and Pauline's murder. Even with all the media coverage, investigators failed to arrest anyone for the killing. In February 1974, Buford Pusser told the Associated Press, without naming names, that two of the assailants were dead and a third was serving a life sentence for an unrelated crime. "I know there were some people out walking the streets who were indirectly involved in it, but you can't prove it," he said.

The murder case is still open

At the time of Pauline Pusser's murder, police investigators told the media that they had good leads as to who the killers were, but the case languished with no arrests. Buford Pusser died in a car crash in August 1974 with his wife's murder still officially unsolved. In 1990, allegations emerged that Buford's longtime nemesis Carl "Towhead" White was behind the killing and had hired Kirksey Nix Jr. to do the deed. White was a well-known Southern gangster who later went to prison for life for an unrelated crime. Nix denied any involvement, and White died in 1969. 

Pauline's killing is just one of the unsettling number of unsolved 1960s murders in the U.S. due to a steadily declining police clearance rate for homicides over the decades. In February 2024, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, acting on a tip and the fact that Pauline Pusser's body had never been autopsied, exhumed her body. The TBI told CBS News its move came "in an attempt to answer critical questions and provide crucial information that may assist in identifying the person or persons responsible for Pauline Pusser's death." Since that time, her body has been reinterred. Whether this new evidence will finally lead to an arrest for her murder remains to be seen.