By Greg Bird
41 years ago, on the afternoon of April 20, 1978, in the midst of one of the darkest periods of McCreary County’s history – one family’s lives would be forever changed by a shot in the dark.
Donald Ray “Buddy” Watson was riding home from work with his co-worker Arlie Hill, Jr. when gunshots struck the pickup they were in. One of the bullets struck and killed Watson…and the person who fired the fatal shot has never been identified.
Four decades later Watson’s family is still searching for answers on why the 25-year old was killed, and who pulled the trigger.
“He was a good man,” his youngest daughter Jennie recalls. “He never did nothing wrong to nobody.”
To understand the depths of the mystery shooting, one must look back at a turbulent time in McCreary County.
Watson was a miner, working at the Justus Mines, but it was a dark time for all involved in the industry.
An attempt to unionize among the workers led to a standoff between the miners and Blue Diamond Coal. The strike, which had been going on for 21 months at the time of the shooting had grown increasingly contentious as neither side seemed willing to budge.
The strike, fueled by safety concerns ironically grew dangerous for all involved.
According to newspaper stories at the time, just six months prior, several guards and miners were shot. 31 of the striking miners were indicted on attempted murder charges, and more than a dozen more were hauled in by State Police on assault charges.
The area around the mines was likened to a battleground, with fortified bunkers, armed guards, and bullet holes. The strikers, manning picket lines were armed as well, and it seemed not a day would go by without some type of exchange of gunfire or violence.
Water and power lines were routinely cut to the bunkers built to protect the mines. Supplies were once airlifted in by helicopter. That practice ended with the fears that the picketers would shoot the aircraft down. Before stopping the flights, guards would open fire in the direction of the striking men, claiming to try and suppress any fire toward the helicopter. Several strikers felt the guards used the flights as an excuse to further bully and intimidate the men on the other side of the fence. State Police Troopers were a constant presence, often providing escorts to guards and workers.
Back then McCreary County was a coal community. Working in the mines was how most men provided for their families. Generations of young men spent countless hours in the dark recesses chipping away at seams of the dark mineral just to put food on the table.
It was a dangerous way to make a living, and after concerns over safety reached a peak, the United Mine Workers Union stepped in and tried to unionize the mines, calling for more safety measures and other concessions for the workers.
The owners of Blue Diamond refused to listen – prompting the walkout.
While the men struck, Blue Diamond kept producing coal out of the mine by hiring replacement workers – a move which angered many.
For the strikers it was a long, and expensive struggle. With UMW providing some support in the form of benefits, most of those on the picket lines saw their income drop by 60 percent. Some members of the community chipped together what they could to help the families in need – holding bake sales and raffles to raise money.
Some men took the chance to cross the picket lines. They knew what the strike hoped to accomplish, but felt feeding their families was more important.
Buddy Watson was one of those men.
Watson, with three young children to provide for, recently returned home from Indiana to find work. Hill, his best friend, got him hired as one of the “scabs” that would defy the attempt to unionize the workers. Every day they went to work they were met with anger and resentment from the picketers, but bowed their heads and did what they felt they had to do.
The evening of the shooting Hill was driving Watson after a long day in the mines, headed to his home on Rock Creek. As they approached White Oak Junction, shots rang out from the side of the road – striking the truck…and Watson.
He never made it home that afternoon.
Hill told State Police, who investigated the ambush, that at least six shots were fired from the side of the road. He stated he didn’t see who fired, there was too much brush concealing the shooter or shooters.
The Police investigation recovered a few shell casings and other small items of evidence, but was unable to identify a suspect. They did conclude that the shooting was related to the strike, perhaps an attempt to frighten or intimidate those who dared to cross the line.
Jennie was only four months old at the time, and doesn’t remember the tragic event as she was too young, but she does know what it was like to grow up without a father.
“It was rough,” she said. “It was a lot for mom to take care of us. It wasn’t an ideal childhood, but we survived.”
Jennie said strong family bonds and loving relatives helped keep the family together through the tough times that were to come.
Her sister Melissa provided a statement with her memories of the time:
“I was 5 years old and my brother was 6 at the time,” she said. “I remember being on the front porch of a house hearing screaming but not knowing anything. Later we were told dad wasn’t coming home and everyone around was crying or screaming but I still didn’t know why.”
“It seems like everything went slow from there,” Melissa remembered. “We went to this place, which was the funeral home, and saw dad laying there, as if he was sleeping. I remember the smell of flowers and people grabbing and hugging us and crying. It was like a dream or something. I remember my mom being near this box, which was the casket; it was so big and blue on inside. She was screaming and crying and I didn’t know why dad wouldn’t wake up. I still did not know until I was older that he had been shot and killed – this is why he never came back home.”
The oldest brother, Brian, said he still feels the pain of the loss to this day.
“Having my dad taken from me at the age of 6 is indescribable,” he said. “Growing up without him was beyond difficult. I had my papaw and uncles that tried to fill the void but nothing compares to your dad. It affects more than people understand. I looked up to my dad like any boy would, he was my hero and I try everyday to make him proud.”
The family is still searching for answers in the hopes of bringing some closure.
They know the case is over 40 years old, and there is a good possibility that whoever pulled the trigger on that fateful afternoon may no longer be alive. But their search for an answer isn’t about vengeance – it is about closure.
“If nothing else, for my mother before she passes away,” Jennie said. “There is still a sore spot when we think of it. It had a massive impact on all of us.”
“Somebody does know something,” she added. “If they would just come forward, and say who did it. If they have already passed away – so be it. It’s not going to make it better, but at least it will close the door on not knowing.”
“We just need answers,” Brian echoed “We need to know why he was taken from us, which altered our lives still to this day.”
McCreary County Sheriff Randy Waters has spoken to the Watson family and has reviewed the case file, promising to look in to the matter.
So far, he said, he hasn’t had much luck unearthing new information.
“A lot of the people who may have been involved are dead now,” the Sheriff said. “There is still a lot of anger and resentment in the community over that strike, and I’m sure there is someone out there who knows something, but they are not coming forward.”
“I understand the Watson family wants closure, and I will do what I can to try and find some answers.”
The Kentucky State Police considered the case still open, and Detective Billy Correll has met with the family and Sheriff Waters to go over the case file.
Nearly a year after the tragic shooting, the strike ended after union officials agreed to a compromise, which for many seemed to be at the expense of the workers. A vote was held to choose UMW, a company endorsed employee association or neither. Only 60 of the 123 men on strike would be allowed to vote in the election, while 110 of the men hired after the strike began would cast a ballot.
The vote was 110 – 0 in favor of the Justus Employees Association, with none of the strikers casting a ballot.
That ending was unsatisfactory to the workers who spent three years of their lives fighting for their rights, with many feeling a sense of betrayal from the union that promised to fight for them.
The strike lasted nearly three years and touched many lives in and around McCreary County.
For some, the battle scars still linger.