Episode 055: Shannon Hercutt

September 19, 2022

When the body of a local businesswoman is found at the bottom of a mountain, officials quickly rule it an accident. But her family isn’t so sure… What really happened to Shannon Hercutt?

Episode Media
Dawn Shannon Hercutt (Knoxville News Sentinel)
Shannon Hercutt (WBIR)
One of the many drop-offs on Walker Trail (Google Maps)
Shannon’s Cadillac Escalade after it was recovered from the scene (KnoxNews.com)
Shannon’s home in Sevier County (Knoxville News Sentinel)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a mysterious case filled with its fair share of drama and betrayal. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Dawn Shannon Hercutt was born and raised in Sevier County, Tennessee. Growing up in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Shannon was adventurous and full of life. Her sister Penny described her as “rambunctious, not afraid to do anything.”

Shannon also had a sharp mind and a knack for business. While working in her parents’ general store, Shannon interacted with thousands of tourists coming in and out of the national park, and she saw the growing need for rental properties in the area. So in the late 1990s, Shannon founded her own real estate company, partnering with local homeowners and businesses to develop a strong network of vacation rentals in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.

Shannon’s dynamic business style and strong work ethic brought a lot of success to the company. Soon, she had a group of loyal employees and properties worth millions of dollars.

Shannon was also active in the community. She was involved in her church and was instrumental in the development of an inclusive playground in Sevierville City Park. She had built a reputation for herself in Sevier County as a savvy businesswoman, and she poured her heart and soul into her company.

On August 3, 2009, officers from the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office responded to the scene of a car crash on Walker Trail in the community of Williamsburg. The security company OnStar had received a collision report from the vehicle and alerted 911. The responding officers discovered a black Cadillac Escalade at the bottom of an embankment, nearly 125 feet off the road. Inside the car, they found the body of 40-year-old Shannon Hercutt.

It seemed that Shannon had lost control of her vehicle. Walker Trail is a winding mountain road with several steep drop-offs and few guard rails. According to the OnStar data, Shannon’s car had gone off the side just a few hours before midnight – there wouldn’t have been any lights on the road to guide her. 

Sevier County authorities determined that Shannon’s death had been a tragic accident. Her car was towed to the police impound lot, and her body was taken to a funeral home.

Shannon’s family members were hundreds of miles away when they heard the news. Her sister Penny was vacationing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with their father Ted and stepmother Anita. They were all stunned to hear that Shannon was dead. But Penny later said that even in her shock, she felt like something was wrong. “Right away my gut told me it was no accident, there has to be more to this.”

Ted Hercutt felt the same way. The details they’d received about Shannon’s death weren’t consistent with what they knew about her. According to the police, Shannon hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt at the time of the crash, and her driver’s side window had been rolled all the way down. Shannon never even left her driveway without fastening her seatbelt, and she never drove with the windows down – she took great pains to keep her hair looking neat and perfectly coiffed. Also, Shannon was a careful driver, and she had driven on Walker Trail hundreds of times visiting her rental properties. She wouldn’t have been caught unawares by the twists of the road.

Ted reached out to an old friend, a retired park ranger and former law enforcement officer named Jerry Grubb. Grubb used his connections to look into the police report from the crash scene, and when he called Ted back, he told him that Shannon’s death had not been an accident.

The front of Shannon’s Escalade had been damaged, but not to the extent that you would expect from plummeting down a mountainside. The windshield was completely intact, and the airbags had not deployed. There were no skid marks on the road to indicate that Shannon had slammed on her brakes. Even more confusing – the OnStar data showed that at the time of the crash, Shannon’s car had only been traveling 7mph.

The family immediately contacted the police and insisted that an autopsy be performed on Shannon’s remains. And it’s a good thing they did, because days later, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office announced that Shannon’s case was now a homicide investigation.

Unfortunately, by this time the Escalade had been in the impound lot for over a week, and officers had not collected evidence from the scene at the time of the crash, believing it was an accident. Now, investigators had to try and piece together clues from a compromised crime scene.

Authorities taped off Shannon’s home, which was located about 5 miles from where her body was found. According to Shannon’s family, investigators found several items that seemed out of place, including broken liquor bottles on the floor of the garage and a baseball bat in the bed of her truck. There was also blood on the handle of the outdoor refrigerator. Shannon was meticulous about the cleanliness of her home; she certainly wouldn’t have left broken glass on the ground or blood on the fridge.

Sevier County authorities have confirmed that they believe Shannon was killed in her home, and that her body was placed inside her vehicle and pushed off the side of the road down the embankment. This theory is consistent with the items found in the house, the odd state of the Escalade, and the softball-sized gash found on the back of Shannon’s head.

Although they had a solid theory for how Shannon was killed, now investigators needed to figure out the who and the why

They started by looking into Shannon’s business ventures. Over the past few years, her real estate company had been steadily growing due to her hard work and business savvy. But some who knew her described Shannon’s business style as aggressive, and her father said she was hard-headed. Ted told the Knoxville News Sentinel that Shannon had made some enemies on her way to the top, and he believed that one of them might have killed her.

And it seemed as though Shannon herself may have suspected something was coming. In the months before her death, Shannon had made comments to her sister indicating that she was afraid of someone, but she wouldn’t say who. She would only say that if something ever happened to her, the family should have it investigated.

But Shannon wasn’t just facing trouble from fellow business owners. After her mother died in 2008, the relationship between Shannon and her father began to deteriorate. Soon, they were engaged in a fierce legal battle for a piece of property valued at over $1 million. According to other family members, the fight became so acrimonious that Shannon was about to cut Ted out of her will. 

But according to Ted, it was just a simple legal matter. He said that Shannon was involved in multiple legal disputes at the time of her death with various business owners; it was completely normal for the real estate industry. “I have got nothing to hide. I want everything to come out so they can catch whoever did this.”

But as time went by and the leads dried up, Shannon’s case languished. Rumors were rampant around the community, but the few tips that trickled in amounted to nothing. In 2012, on the third anniversary of Shannon’s death, Penny announced that the family was increasing the reward for information to $25,000. “As her sister, I will not stop trying to get justice for Shannon. I beg you all, please help us find this person or persons who murdered Shannon so he or she doesn’t kill again. Please come forward with any information. There’s a murderer running around our community.”

In February of 2015, Ted and Penny went on the Dr. Phil Show to talk about Shannon’s case. But just minutes into the broadcast, Penny dropped a bombshell. She looked her father in the eyes and said, “I know you paid someone to kill Shannon… Don’t sit there and act like you’re so innocent.”

Penny said that she believed Ted had Shannon killed so he could inherit her business, but he didn’t realize that Shannon had already removed him from her will. She said that Ted was a cold-hearted pathological liar who saw Shannon as a problem that needed to be fixed. Penny also claimed that three months after Shannon’s death, Ted “shot up” the real estate office, and that he’d said he was glad he’d done it.

Of course, Ted denied Penny’s accusations, saying that he didn’t need Shannon’s money, and that he had been cleared by the sheriff’s office. He later told local news outlet WATE that after appearing on the Dr. Phil Show, he’d had to take several days to recover from the heartbreak of losing Penny in such a public manner.

But Penny wasn’t the only one accusing Ted. His ex-wife, Jan Hercutt, who had been married to Ted for three weeks in 2014, also appeared on the show to talk about her experiences with Ted. According to Jan, Ted was possessive and controlling, and during their short relationship, he tried to cut her off from her family and friends. He told her things about Shannon’s death that Jan said only the killer would know. She said that he also told her that if she told anyone what he’d said, he would make her disappear.

Now, I’ve watched the entire Dr. Phil episode, and I have to say that it feels less like a moment of truth and honesty and more like a screaming match a la 1990s Jerry Springer. Penny and Jan had no evidence to bring against Ted other than what they claim he admitted to. They threw accusations like grenades, and it’s clear that Ted was blindsided in the moment.

However, in my opinion, Ted Hercutt was not the stand-up guy he pretended to be. In the 40-minute episode, he alternated between gaslighting, shedding big old crocodile tears, calling Jan a bitch and a gold-digger, and yelling at Penny that “if you were my girl at home, you’d be getting your ass kicked.”

That being said, being a horrible person doesn’t make you a murderer. In the words of Dr. Phil, “Let’s just say for argument’s sake that he behaves like a jerk. That is a long way from hiring a hitman to kill your child.” I’m not a fan of Dr. Phil, but he has a point. Ted was was never named a suspect in Shannon’s murder, and investigators have never even hinted at him being a person of interest. In 2017, Ted Hercutt passed away, so we may never know what really happened.

The saddest part to me is that Shannon’s story gets lost in all the family drama. Clear away all the money and hurt feelings, and what’s left is a woman who was brutally murdered in her own home, then dumped off the side of a mountain. Shannon Hercutt deserves justice.

Shannon’s case is still under investigation. In 2019, the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office announced that evidence from the crime scene was being re-examined with new technology, but there haven’t been any more updates since then. Chief Detective Jeff McCarter told the Knoxville News Sentinel that investigators believe they know who did it and why, but they’ve never released that information to the public, and no charges have ever been filed.

So for now, Shannon’s family and friends are just waiting for answers. Her cousin John, who now owns and operates Shannon’s real estate company, is hopeful that those answers may come soon. “I think that sometimes it takes years and years to solve a case. There’s just something that comes together at some point, and I truly believe that it will here, too. Maybe somebody knows something who just can’t talk about it right now, but down the road they may… As long as they don’t give up, I think there’s hope.”

If you have any information about the death of Shannon Hercutt, please contact the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office at 865-453-4668. It’s never too late to find justice.