PARSONS, Tenn. – The young woman’s smiling face peers out from pink and green signs stationed along a Tennessee country road, demanding “Justice for Holly Bobo.”
Lampposts, bus-stop benches and mailboxes in the small city of Parsons are adorned with bows, symbols of support for Bobo’s family after the 20-year-old nursing student was abducted from her home in April 2011. All over this community of 2,400 people nestled on the banks of the Tennessee River between Memphis and Nashville are reminders of the case that tore Parsons apart.
Last week, more than six years after Bobo had vanished, some justice came in the form of a guilty verdict for Zachary Adams, 33, one of three men charged in her kidnapping, rape and murder.
After the verdict was read, Bobo’s father smiled for the first time in six years, according to his wife.
Serenity has begun to return amid the green fields, piney woods and winding roads where law enforcement agents, family friends and volunteers once searched frantically for Bobo, who sang in her church choir and was popular in her hometown.
But in the years between her disappearance and a trial that spotlighted a culture of drug abuse and larceny amid the bucolic setting, suspicion festered in Decatur County. Locals couldn’t help wondering about each other and any outsiders passing through. Front doors are locked more frequently now. Parents keep closer tabs on their teenagers.
“We lost our innocence,” said Bobo’s mother Karen.
Adams’ conviction brings, at least, a measure of closure. He was found guilty Sept. 22 of kidnapping, raping and killing Bobo. In a deal reached with prosecutors and the family that spared him from the death penalty, Adams was sentenced to life in prison plus 50 years.
Two other men — Jason Autry and Adams’ brother John Dylan Adams — also are charged with kidnapping, rape and murder. A November hearing could determine if they will face trial or reach plea deals.
Bobo’s kidnapping shattered her family’s peaceful world in Parsons, a mix of small businesses, rural homes, farms, and fishing and hunting camps. There’s one main intersection and just a few street lights.
Signs on the main highway boast that the high school baseball team recently won a state title. The county’s annual raccoon hunt, featuring a white bean supper and a beauty pageant, is a big draw.
“It’s a country life,” said lifelong Decatur County resident Tommy Box, 80, leaning against his Dodge Ram pickup truck outside Fred’s Pharmacy.
Bobo’s older brother Clint testified he was awakened by a dog’s barking and heard angry voices in the home’s carport on the morning of April 13, 2011. He saw a man in camouflage leading his sister into the woods behind their home.
Clint Bobo said he briefly thought it was his sister’s boyfriend, but it wasn’t. He was confused.
When he called his mother, she told him to get a gun and kill the man.
He called 911 instead.
When his mother got home, he testified, she grabbed his arms, shook him and asked him, “Why didn’t you do something?”
In the years that followed, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation conducted what it has called the most exhaustive and expensive investigation in the agency’s history.
Tips from the public eventually led them to Zachary Adams, described by witnesses as a thief and methamphetamine user who did odd jobs and hauled scrap metal.
In March 2014, while Bobo remained missing, Adams was charged with murder and kidnapping.
Six months later, two men looking for ginseng discovered Bobo’s skull just a few feet from a logging road.
Co-defendant Jason Autry, a friend of Adams and a self-described methamphetamine addict, testified that Adams told him that he, his brother and friend Shayne Austin had raped Bobo. Autry said he injected himself with morphine and methamphetamine, and then served as a lookout while Adams shot Bobo near the river.
As long as Bobo remained missing, her community held out hope.
The town held prayer vigils on anniversaries of her disappearance. Pink bows popped up all over town. Pink was Bobo’s favorite color — she was wearing a pink shirt when she disappeared.
But an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust settled in.
“Everybody’s connected to this in one way or the other,” said Amanda Smith, 35. “It’s such a small town, and you kind of know everybody. You start thinking of every bad person you know.”
Testimony about a dangerous drug culture lying just beneath the surface surprised many who watched the trial. All four men lived in a “dark world” of methamphetamine and morphine, prosecutor Paul Hagerman said.
Investigators and prosecutors struggled to pinpoint what exactly happened to Bobo in the hours between her abduction and slaying. But with no DNA evidence available, there’s plenty that townspeople still don’t know — about what happened and about the town they thought they knew.
Will Parsons ever be the same?
“I don’t think so,” Smith said. “Even with the guilty verdict, I still don’t feel like we know half of what went on that day.”