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Knoxville woman who died in 1975 was likely victim of serial killer

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Samuel Little

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Police in Tennessee say a woman whose body was found along a road in 1975 was likely the victim of a serial killer who may have had 90 victims.

Martha Cunningham’s death was considered to be from natural causes at the time. But now Cunningham is one of dozens of murder victims that Samuel Little has described to investigators.

The News Sentinel reports David Davenport, a cold case investigator with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, has identified who Little called “Martha.” The Knoxville mother’s body was found in a wooded area in eastern Knox County in 1975.

Cunningham’s sister, Jessie Lane Downs, said she never believed her sister died of natural causes.

“My sister didn’t drive,” Downs notes. “How was she going to get out there?”

Her body was found by a pair of hunters on the afternoon of Jan. 18, 1975. She was bruised and nude from the waist down; her pantyhose and girdle bunched around her knees. Her purse and some of her jewelry were missing. Her body appeared to have been dragged into the woods and dumped behind a pine tree, authorities said at the time.

Despite that evidence, detectives at the time attributed Cunningham’s death to natural causes within a day of the discovery. The medical examiner’s investigative report lists the probable cause of death as “unknown.”

FBI experts say Little may prove to be one of the most prolific serial killers in U.S. history. He targeted marginalized and vulnerable women, often prostitutes or drug addicts.

Cunningham was a talented singer and pianist, who grew up performing with her parents, Mary and Clyde Lane, and her six younger siblings in a gospel group known as the Happy Home Jubilee Singers.

Little’s decades-long crime spree was revealed earlier this year when a Texas Ranger traveled to California to interview Little in prison about a 1994 Texas killing. That interview resulted in a series of confessions and near daily discussions “to create the most accurate accounting possible of Little’s crimes,” according to an FBI statement.

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