Dead man running


Illustrations: Jade They

On 9th March, Mexican cartel leader Nazario “The Craziest One” González was killed in another of the drug war’s bloody shootouts. While such a death is sadly not uncommon in Mexico, González’s murder raised a few eyebrows as he was supposed to be dead already. In December 2010 the Mexican government said that there was proof that González had been killed during a gun battle in his home state of Michoacán. The proof was bogus and the infamous narco continued to pull the cartel’s strings until his recent, more, well, fatal death. But you don’t need the backing of a major network of international drug traffickers to achieve a respite from the land of the living.

It was on 13th July 1997 that police in Grundy County, Tennessee, discovered the burning body of convicted drug dealer Bruce Alan Littleton behind the wheel of his wrecked car, wrapped around a tree on Altamont Mountain. Charred beyond recognition, he was officially pronounced dead at the scene and was later buried. There was just one problem: Bruce Alan Littleton was alive and well. It would take 12 long years to discover just who was actually buried in his grave.

It wasn’t the first time the highly unpleasant Littleton had staged his own death. Facing a stretch in a federal prison after getting busted by the DEA for trafficking cocaine, he procured a $250,000 life insurance policy, then shot his car full of holes and left it in his hometown of Collinwood, Tennessee, hoping that it would be enough to convince the authorities that he had been the victim of a murder. Unsurprisingly the ruse failed, and he was spotted just two months later in Oregon. His second attempt would, tragically, be a lot more thorough.

It was as he was passing through Las Vegas, Nevada – while driving home from California – that he picked up a drifter named Joel McElroy. Littleton at first intended to kill McElroy and use his corpse as a stand-in for his own, but McElroy was an older gentleman, and unlikely to pass for Littleton, who was in his late 20s. It was clear even to the reckless Littleton that no detective would be fooled for long. Frustrated but reluctant to lose his back-up option, he continued on his cross-country trip with McElroy as his passenger. It wasn’t until the pair reached Albuquerque, New Mexico, that he finally found his victim: hitchhiker Andrew Joseph Bluitt.

Bluitt was a 32-year-old from Michigan who had served time for vagrancy in the infamous Tent City jail in Phoenix, Arizona. An adventurous, weather-beaten man whose only possession seemed to be a single blanket, Bluitt accepted a lift from Littleton, and the three drove approximately 800 miles across the country together, passing through Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas before finally hitting Humphreys County, Tennessee. It was the last place Bluitt would ever see.

Pulling up in a secluded parking area under a bridge crossing the Tennessee River, Littleton asked Bluitt to move to the front passenger seat while McElroy took the wheel, so he could climb into the back and get some sleep. Once seated behind Bluitt, Littleton lunged forward, wrapped a bungee cord around Bluitt’s neck and jerked it back repeatedly, attempting to strangle him. The cord snapped under the viciousness of the assault, but Littleton, undeterred, pulled off his belt and used it to finish the job, eventually choking Bluitt to death. Once satisfied that the murder was complete, he dragged him to the back seat and covered the body with Bluitt’s own blanket.

Joel McElroy, unaware of what was to transpire and naturally freaked out by this terrible turn of events, had leapt out of the car during the murder. Too scared of Littleton to run, however, he was coaxed back into the car, and the pair drove to the Wildwood Motel in La Vergne, Tennessee, where they checked in and stayed for three days. Bluitt’s body remained hidden under the blanket in the back seat the entire time. It was the middle of summer.


“The temperature there would have been in the 90s Fahrenheit [mid 30s centigrade],” says Larry Davis, a criminal investigator for the district attorney’s office who, at the time of the murder, was a Special Agent for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, a branch of the state police which investigates all major crimes. Davis would soon become intimately acquainted with the case. “Inside the car it would have been over 100 degrees. I’ve worked over 500 murders in 42 years, and I’ve had a lot of stinkers, but the smell from that body inside the car would have been really bad.”

Sickening as it was, it wasn’t enough to deter Littleton, who had finally settled on the perfect place to stage his own death. Around midnight on the third day, he climbed into the reeking car and drove 80 miles with the badly decomposing corpse towards Chattanooga. With no air conditioning, and too afraid to open the windows in case the smell alerted other people to his vehicle’s heinous contents, it can only be assumed that it must have felt like the longest 80 miles of his life.

Halfway up the road over Altamont Mountain, Littleton turned the car around, aimed it at a tree, and drove right into it. He quickly manhandled Bluitt’s body behind the steering wheel, doused it with gasoline and set the car on fire before running off to hide himself in a good vantage point to spy on what followed.

Why would you travel 150 miles to a place you’d never been before, and just happen to wreck your car and burn up?”

“When I got to the scene, the body was still smoking,” says Davis. “The arms and legs were burnt off – it was just a torso and a head. I’d got the call from Highway Patrol: They said it didn’t look right, because the driver’s door had three bullet holes in it, which were from where he’d tried to fake his death a few months prior.”

Davis ran the plates on the car and discovered it belonged to Littleton. A quick check with local detectives told him everything he needed to know about Littleton’s history, and Davis correctly assumed that this was a second fake. “I said, ‘It looks like he’s done it again. But he’s finally found someone to put in the car.’” Despite Davis’s suspicions, a forensic pathologist named Charles Harlan confirmed that it was indeed Littleton’s body in the car – a fact that never sat right with Davis. “Why would you travel 150 miles to a place you’d never been before, and just happen to wreck your car and burn up?”

While the body was being misidentified, Littleton himself had fled – along with McElroy – back to Las Vegas, where they worked in a casino restaurant, washing dishes. McElroy was still terrified of Littleton, but was clueless as to how to get away from him. “If you talked to McElroy for five minutes, you would say this guy is very, very slow,” explains Dr Mike Tabor, a forensic dentist who Davis eventually brought in to help identify the body. “He’s not mentally retarded, but he’s not all there. He was a street person, strung out on crystal meth.” Finally, feeling his time was running out and lacking a better plan of escape, McElroy had himself admitted to a mental institution.

With no reason to stick around, Littleton returned home, only to face more complications. He had informed his wife of the murder after it took place, and although she was horrified by his actions, she felt conflicted over her course of action. “He told her, ‘You’re going to have to help me cover this up, or turn me in for first degree murder,’” says Tabor. This led to a long string of fights between the pair that only escalated once the insurance money arrived. “She told him, ‘You can’t spend this, you’re dead!’” says Tabor, laughing. “He wanted them to move away to Colorado or somewhere else far away and she told him, ‘You’re crazy as hell, I’m not going anywhere!’”

Bluitt’s body – still believed to be Littleton’s – was released for burial, with the internment taking place in a spot in the cemetery in Collinwood, next to Littleton’s father. Around this point, events mutated from twisted film noir into full-on Coen brothers black comedy. Stuck at home and hopped up on crystal meth, Littleton became desperate to know what was transpiring at ‘his’ funeral. After riding his motorcycle to the cemetery while his wife stood at the funeral home, welcoming guests as they came to pay their respects to his (closed) casket, Littleton hid the bike in some bushes and climbed a tree overlooking the grave. There he perched with a pair of field binoculars, awaiting his own funeral procession, filled with a morbid – and crank paranoia-fuelled – desire to know which of his friends would show their faces. Unfortunately, a branch blocked his view of the mourners, and while straining to see who stood around his grave, he lost his footing and fell out of the tree. Plummeting to the ground, he crashed into the bushes, landing with such force that he was convinced he had broken his arm. Limping away from the scene, he pushed his bike down the hill, then hightailed it away from the area. “He told us that he knew if his wife caught him, she would kick his ass,” says Tabor.


Littleton remained unable to convince his wife to move with him to another state. Instead, using the insurance money, she bought a house in Murfreesboro, a mere 110 miles north of Collinwood. Littleton himself moved to the town of Smyrna, which borders Murfreesboro, where he lived under the alias of Gregory Bruce Lavender. Eventually he moved in with a local woman, whereupon the story takes another odd turn: the woman, it transpired, was an informant for the Smyrna police department.

Once Littleton started boasting about his crimes, the woman wasted no time relaying what she knew to her contact. All the police needed was an excuse to question the man calling himself Lavender. As the pair rode down Main Street one day on Littleton’s bike, a police officer noticed a broken tail light and saw the opportunity. When Littleton handed over his papers, the cop’s response was succinct: “This is the shittiest example of a fake ID I have ever seen. We’d better go into town.” Knowing that it would all be over the second they ran his fingerprints, Littleton immediately confessed to everything. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff he told us when we were trying to figure out who he’d killed,” says Tabor. “I think he thought that if he told us every detail, he might get a lighter sentence.” The one thing Littleton couldn’t tell them, however, was who was really in his coffin. He had only known him as “Andrew”, and with nothing else to go on besides a description given to a composite artist, Bluitt’s identity was still a mystery.

While straining to see who stood around his grave, he lost his footing and fell out of the tree”

Determined to find out just who Littleton had killed, Davis had the body exhumed, and put the few details they had into the John Doe Network. “I kept it active,” he says. “I wanted to identify Andrew before I retired.” The body’s dental X-rays were entered into a national database of missing persons, but Bluitt’s family had never reported him missing, and the computer was unable to make a match. At Davis’s request, Tabor began to regularly compare the dental records of missing persons from all over the world, hoping to find a positive ID. It was a task he would continue to perform for the next ten years.

“I reviewed hundreds of them, and every time we struck out,” sighs Tabor. “From a personal standpoint, after year two, I was done. I knew we would never solve it. I was ready to give up, but Larry kept me going.”

After a decade of searching, the case was finally solved in an appropriately strange way. Responding to a request for information that had run in a 20-second segment at the very end of an episode of America’s Most Wanted, Bluitt’s sister called Davis, believing the description of the murdered man matched that of her long-vanished brother. As per Davis’s instructions, she acquired Bluitt’s dental records and sent them to Dr Tabor, at which point the team met yet another snag: Bluitt’s dental records showed only the lower right portion of his jaw, which happened to be the exact area of the corpse that had been mangled beyond recognition by the exploding car. Bluitt’s records were useless.

It was at this point that Dr Tabor had an ingenious idea. Having asked Bluitt’s sister for a saliva cheek swab, Tabor removed one of the corpse’s remaining teeth, cut it open, and took a sample of the residue inside. “Inside the tooth is the pulp, where the blood vessel and nerve supply are,” he explains. “If there’s a blood vessel, there’s DNA.” Tabor sent the sample to the lab for genetic analysis, but despite the advances in DNA research over the previous ten years, he did not hold out much hope of a result. “Keep in mind, this body had been strangled, blown up in a car crash, buried for two years, and been sitting in a morgue for ten years,” he says. “But 30 days later, we got a match. Can you believe it?” The report from the lab confirmed that the woman was indeed Bluitt’s sister. “The odds of these two samples not being biologically related on at least the first generation,” it read, “are one in two billion.” Twelve years after Andrew Joseph Bluitt was strangled by the Tennessee River, the mystery was finally solved.

By this time, Littleton was already a long way into his 20-year jail term, which he was serving concurrently with his drug charges. “I wanted to go to trial with the case, because I think I could have got life, which in Tennessee, means you have to serve 51 years before you’re eligible for parole,” says Davis. “But the DEA case was settled with plea bargaining, and they gave him 20 years to run concurrent with his federal time. He’s been in jail about 12 years now, and he’s getting ready to come out. I’d say when he does, he’ll probably do it again.” “The wife never spent one night in jail,” says Tabor. “She testified that she hated her husband and wanted to help the cops. She’s kind of guilty, but not guilty…” McElroy, meanwhile, was sentenced to a short stint in prison, and is already free, last seen living on the streets of Memphis.

“It is one of the strangest cases I’ve worked on,” admits Davis. It’s such an unusual tale, in fact, that Tabor was inspired to write a semi-fictionalised novel based on the events, called ‘Walk Of Death’. “People say to me, you have written the most imaginative novel!” he marvels. “But all I really did was write down what I found out as this story unfolded.” Davis, meanwhile, is just happy to finally have the case closed. “I knew that wasn’t Bruce Alan Littleton in that car,” he says, his tone that of a man whose suspicions have finally, finally been proven right. “I was born at night, but I wasn’t born last night.”

González and Littleton used their time as the walking dead very differently. While Littleton spied on his funeral and indulged his drug habit, González used his time as a faux-corpse erecting shrines to himself and attempting to change his legacy to that of a folk hero. Incredibly it seems to have worked. News of ‘The Craziest One’’s second death was met with mourning and grief in parts of Mexico and unsubstantiated and unlikely rumours that he has risen yet again. But with parole looming, it is Littleton that will soon be back in society – and nobody is going to confuse him with a saint.

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