NASHVILLE — The state of Tennessee has put to death its first inmate since 2009, killing Billy Ray Irick for 1985 rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl–Paula Dyer in Knoxville.
Irick, then aged 26, had been living with Dyer’s family for over a year, and was babysitting five of the family’s children (including Dyer) on the night of the girl’s murder.
In 1983, while working as a dishwasher at a truck stop in Knoxville, Irick met and befriended Kenny Jeffers, an auto mechanic who lived in nearby Clinton. Jeffers later introduced Irick to Kathy, his wife who he had married the previous year, and ultimately in 1984 Irick moved in with the couple and five of the eight children between them (seven of which, including Paula Dyer, were the offspring of previous relationships, while the Jeffers’ first child together was born in 1983.)
Irick frequently babysat the children while the Jeffers parents worked long hours. At the start of April 1985, the family home in Clinton burned down, an ordeal during which Irick saved two of the boys from the burning building. Nobody was severely injured or killed during the fire, however, the family had to live in separate abodes as a result of difficulty in finding a house big enough for all eight of them. Thus, Irick moved to the Western Heights neighbourhood with Kenny Jeffers, where they lived with Kenny’s parents, while Kathy and the children moved to a small rental home on Exeter Avenue in Knoxville.
On the morning of Monday April 15, 1985, following an argument, Kathy Jeffers kicked Irick out of the Exeter Avenue home. That night, because the family’s regular babysitter since moving house was unavailable, Kenny Jeffers dropped Irick off at the same house to babysit the children. When Kathy left for work at 10pm, the children were asleep, and she felt uncomfortable leaving the children in Irick’s care, on account of the argument earlier that day, Irick’s behaviour, and her suspicions that he had been drinking.
At around midnight, Kenny Jeffers received a call from Irick, telling him to come because Irick was unable “to wake (Paula) up”. Upon arriving at the Exeter Avenue address, Kenny found Irick stood in the doorway looking vacant, before finding Paula unconscious on the living room floor in a pool of her own blood. After finding a pulse, Kenny wrapped Paula in a blanket and took her to the nearest children’s hospital, where a doctor attempted unsuccessfully for 45 minutes to revive her. The same doctor, Dr. Jim Kimball, pronounced Paula dead of asphyxiation in the early hours of 16 April 1985.
Following Paula’s autopsy, her cause of death was confirmed to be asphyxiation. In addition, the severe tears in her vagina and rectum were confirmed to be consistent with a brutal rape, as well as a head injury sustained during her ordeal being attributed to blunt force trauma that may have knocked her unconscious. As a result of Paula’s murder, the Knoxville police department told the public on the morning of April 16 to be on the lookout for a man matching Irick’s physical description. By 5pm, Irick had been found and arrested beneath a bridge on the I-275. Paula Dyer was buried on April 19 following a crowdfunding campaign by the community she had been part of for mere weeks.
The killer’s last meal was a “super deluxe combo” from an unnamed restaurant (due to security concerns), which included a super deluxe burger, onion rings and a Pepsi soda, according to TDOC.
Irick was executed at Riverbend Prison Thursday. He was pronounced dead at 7:48 pm