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County native to pen true crime series

John Dean, a native of Watoga and former Cleveland, Ohio resident, is writing a series of true crime novels based on two cold case murders which occurred in Pocahontas County in the 1970s. The first book of the triliogy is titled “Blood Red Tomatoes.” Photo courtesy of John Dean
John Dean, a native of Watoga and former Cleveland, Ohio resident, is writing a series of true crime novels based on two cold case murders which occurred in Pocahontas County in the 1970s. The first book of the trilogy is titled “Blood Red Tomatoes.” Photo courtesy of John Dean

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Pocahontas County native John Dean has always had a knack for writing. Whether it was in his journalism class at Pocahontas County High School or for the Register-Herald, Dean was particularly interested in uncovering scandals and writing the crime beat.

Now, he is using his love of writing and journalistic skill to write a series on two linked cold cases which took place in the 70s in Pocahontas County.

“This series is about the murder of Walter T. Smith in 1975,” Dean said. “He was found in a cave in Lobelia. He had been murdered – tortured and shot.”

Dean was 14 at the time of the murder and knew Smith, who was a lifeguard at Watoga State Park during his summer break from West Virginia University.

“I was fourteen at the time, and he was eighteen,” Dean said. “This was a summer job for him and one day, on his off day, he and his ten-speed Shwinn bike left the park, left the boundaries and they ended up in the Lobelia area. His body was found in a cave near Peter Hauer’s home.”

Hauer’s death is also part of the mystery. His body was found hanging in a tree near his home in Lobelia.

“Even the spelunker group that Peter Hauer was involved in searched for his body,” Dean said. “The FBI posted a nationwide search for Peter Hauer when they could not find him. He was the main suspect [in Smith’s death] at the time. This went on for several months until late in the fall – October, November – during hunting season. That’s when his body was found hanging in a tree.”

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding Hauer’s death, as well. Although it was ruled a suicide due to guilt of the murder, many believe he was murdered and framed for Smith’s death.

“The interesting part, I have been told, apparently there are some mistakes in the confession note, grammar mistakes or typos and people have speculated that because of the typos, he was trying to indicate to everyone that he did not kill Walter. Then, supposedly, the noose was tied the wrong way in the tree. That was very interesting.”

Dean was planning to release the first book, Blood Red Tomatoes, this fall, but his editors said he needs to write a prequel to introduce readers to the area and the way of life of 1970s Pocahontas County.

“It’s a very interesting story,” Dean said. “I’m claiming it’s a cold case mystery. When my review team, which is Independent Reviewers, and an editor from New York City reviewed the book, they asked me how I grew up and what was the lifestyle like there.”

Part of the prequel will include tales of Dean and his brother, Ronnie, helping their grandfather on the farm and how innocent and carefree life was back then.

“We were not rich; we were not middle class,” Dean said. “We were probably poor but we did not know it. I want to tell that part of it, too. The review team wants me to go back and tell more of the Depression era and the fourteen children working on a two hundred, eleven acre farm in the Appalachian Mountains and capture the feel of the times.

“[My editors] are saying, ‘it’s not flowing right unless you tell your heritage – how your aunts and uncles grew up and how your grandparents lived,’” he added. “Then, in the summer of 1972, we spent time at our grandparents’ home. My grandfather had me and Ronnie plant five hundred tomato plants, and we learned the value of hard work.”

That summer, the boys spent every day in the fields, planting rows of vegetables and on most evenings, they went to the pool at Watoga.

“We had a work horse by the name of Kate,” he said. “Most of the time, I got to ride the horse and Ronnie would be behind the cultivators and the plow, and we would work in the fields from very, very early in the morning until dark. That summer alone, we ate one hundred quarts of green beans and probably fifty quarts of applesauce every day for lunch.”

That summer, the boys lives changed forever when Smith was found murdered. It is the reason Dean chose to write a series about the mystery – to show how life can be drastically changed in an instant.

“At that point in time in history, our lives changed because of this person’s disappearance and subsequent murder,” he said. “We were not, ever, ever, ever, allowed to go anywhere by ourselves. After his murder, we had to be together. Me and my brother, Ronnie, if we wanted to ride our bikes through the park, we had to do it together. They preferred an adult to be near us, and my dad would always made sure that we made it to the pool safely.

“Everyone’s life changed,” he continued. “You never locked your doors, and you never locked your car doors. After that, you did. I wanted to show the public and actually, the whole country that this was a very interesting and strange case that occurred in West Virginia and how differently people lived then.”

While this is Dean’s first foray into writing books, he is a skilled and award-winning journalist. While still in high school, Dean was the runner-up for Outstanding Journalist in the state of West Virginia and in 1979, he won first place in a new writing contest at West Virginia University.

After receiving a journalism degree from WVU, Dean entered the workforce as a staff writer at the Register-Herald in Beckley.

“They wanted me to do general stories at first and then they asked me to cover the police beat,” he said. “Nobody wanted to do it because it was a mundane job. I did that for a while and then one of my mentors there by the name of Neal R. Clark recommended that since I lived in Fayette County in Oak Hill, that they allow me to work from home and cover just Fayette County.”

Dean went on to establish a county bureau for the paper in Fayette County and covered high profile stories including a case including drugs, the sheriff and superintendent of schools.

“The Adam Tony/Matt Edwards story which was the sheriff of the county and the superintendent of schools were both convicted in federal court with drug deals and missing evidence from the Fayette County evidence room at the sheriff’s department,” Dean said. “It was quite a scandal. Adam Tony was convicted of planting marijuana on school property and also for selling it in North Carolina.”

Covering court cases was right up Dean’s alley.

“I loved covering murder cases,” he said. “I sat through so many trials. It was the best time of my life, probably.”

After several years at the Register-Herald, Dean moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became a legal editor for an international law firm. In 2001, he moved back to West Virginia and worked at the Home Shows in Beckley, selling homes for six years. He went on to sell Lay-Z-Boy recliners, sell jewelry for Jared, The Galleria of Jewelry and as an IRA custodian at Equity Administrative Services.

At the beginning of 2015, Dean decided it was time to fully retire and focus on writing full time.

“I write whether it’s day or night,” he said. “I keep a notebook by my bed and I jot down notes or I use a tape recorder.”

In order to focus and write the prequel to Blood Red Tomatoes, Dean has officially gone “off the grid” and has hidden himself away until the book is finished.

He will continue to update fans on his website, as well as on his Facebook page. Once the prequel is complete, he plans to go on a book tour to promote the series.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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