Photograph Credit: Atlanta Trails.
Dora Robertson is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She graduated with a Master of Science in Criminal Justice in May of 2018 and aspires to become a crime analyst. She is also a writer, true crime enthusiast, experimental musician, and music critic. She is particularly interested in true crime items related to the music industry as well as unsolved murder cases from the deep south. She can be followed on Tumblr and Instagram.
Every small town or community has at least one urban legend, a story that often takes a real-life tragedy and hyperbolizes it for shock value. Urban legends often manifest in the form of town gossip, campfire stories, and well-meaning anecdotes from parents to their children about staying safe. In the Tennessee Valley – a broad area of the Southern Appalachians encompassing Chattanooga, Tennessee and surrounding communities in Northern Georgia – one urban legend has captured the morbid curiosity of locals for nearly sixty years. Whether factual or pure fiction in nature one question persists in each version of this tragic tale: What happened to the teenage lovers at Lula Lake?
In the early 1960s, Lula Lake was a picturesque nature reserve on Lookout Mountain, Georgia. The lake, which boasted a pristine waterfall and undisturbed wilderness, was a popular destination for fishermen, hikers, and wildlife enthusiasts. Lula Lake also had a reputation as a “lovers lane” location among local teenagers, who would sneak into the park area at night to drink and fool around. On the evening of April 14, 1963, which happened to be Easter Sunday, 19-year-old Orville Steele and 16-year-old Carolyn Newell left their homes in Rossville, Georgia in need of the secluded alone time Lula Lake promised. It would be the last time their families would would see them alive.
When both teens failed to return home after Midnight, their worried parents called the police to report them missing. At first police suspected that the couple, being young and intensely in love, had run off together to elope. However, their families insisted that Steele and Newell were planning to get married later that year and that nobody in either family objected to their union. Both teens were also happy and well-adjusted, never expressing any desires to run away. Also, both teens were popular in their local community and had no known enemies. There was no reason for Steele and Newell to simply disappear.
Within 24 hours following their disappearance, local police discovered Steele’s green Ford abandoned on top of a shale embankment near a popular hiking trail; its front tire was flat and a container of oil from a gas station was sitting nearby. Thinking that the teens could have just been stranded due to car trouble, their parents began an exhaustive search around the park, but to no avail. Despite not finding their children, both Steele and Newell’s parents held onto the hope that they were somewhere on the mountain or had made it to a nearby town for help, and they would return on their own accord.
Those hopes, sadly, were soon dashed. On April 20th, a mere five days after the initial search, Carolyn Newell’s body was discovered in a remote area of the park. She had been bound by her wrists, stripped of her clothing from the waist down, and dumped near a set of railroad tracks. It was later determined that she had been raped repeatedly and struck in the head multiple times with an undetermined blunt object before being strangled to death by her attacker. A few miles away, Orville Steele’s body was discovered; he had been tied to a tree and was also strangled to death. Both Steele and Newell had been strangled with the same type of twine that was used to bind their hands.
Local police were soon able to determine that a Rossville resident by the name of James Melvin Blevins, a 27-year-old married man with three children, was the most probable suspect. On April 14th, Blevins claimed he had been at Lula Lake on a fishing trip after having an Easter dinner with his family. Blevins admitted that he did encounter the young couple at Lula Lake briefly that day, but he maintained that he had nothing to do with their murders. Some who knew Blevins personally didn’t seem to buy this story – he was known to be a “cruiser” since his teenage years, meaning that he had a habit of driving around and spying on young couples having sex for his own sexual gratification. The fact that he was wearing camouflage despite claiming to only be going fishing that day also struck the local community as suspicious.
During his trial, the prosecution portrayed Blevins as a sexual deviant, a man with unorthodox sexual desires who frequented the Lula Lake area to spy on young couples like Steele and Newell. Inferences were made that Blevins was caught by Newell and Steele, and he killed them both to keep from getting in trouble with his family. Prosecution also seemed to believe it was Blevins who had been tampering with Steele’s car to keep them from driving away from him. Despite these conjectures, no hard evidence tied Blevins to the crime. Furthermore, Blevins maintained his innocence throughout his arrest, detainment, and trial, never once changing his story. A lie detector test proved inconclusive.
In May of 1964, Blevins was found guilty of both murders, but this verdict was later overturned due to lack of evidence. Blevins was then found not guilty and cleared of all charges. No other suspects were ever tried, and ot this day, the murders of Newell and Steele remain unsolved. The whereabouts of James Melvin Blevins is unknown. In 1994, Lula Lake and its surrounding land was privatized, which limited the number of visitors allowed. While mostly done as a measure to protect the environment, the privatization was also done in part to curtail locals and tourists alike from trying to find Newell and Steele’s murder location.
To this day, online communities on Reddit, Facebook, and independent message boards speculate over what actually happened that Easter night near Lula Lake. Relatives of the victims and of Blevins will occasionally chime in, although they rarely have any insights as to what could have transpired. Theories abound, but true leads or newly emerging evidence in the case remains scarce. Because of such, the urban legend of the teenage lovers preyed upon by some unknown (human) monster have run rampant. Some believe that the ghosts of Newell and Steele still haunt the Lula Lake area. Others simply post as a measure to offer condolences.
In addition to being the subject of local lore, Many sleuthers also speculate that Cormac McCarthy drew inspiration from the details surrounding Blevins during the Lula Lake murder trial when writing his horror/crime novel Child of God, released in 1973, due to similarities between the novel’s serial killer and Blevins. Although MCCarthy has hinted that “a real historical figure” was the inspiration for the novel’s anti-protagonist and storyline, he has never publicly stated that it was the lore of Lula Lake that served as primary inspiration.