true crime

Jenelle Potter catfished her own parents and convinced them to kill two innocent strangers.

Not much happened in the quiet community of Mountain City, Tennessee.

For decades its 2500 residents slept soundly at night.

Then on January 31, 2012, two killers crept into the home of 36-year-old Billy Payne and his 23-year-old fiancee, Billie-Jean Hayworth, through an unlocked back door.

They gunned down the couple and slipped away unseen.

Mamamia’s daily news podcast The Quicky speaks to the ABC journalist who broke the story about catfish Lydia Abdelmalek. Post continues after audio.

The next morning a neighbour discovered Billy’s lifeless body on his bed. He had a bullet wound to his face and his throat had been cut.

Billie-Jean’s body was found in the nursery next door. She had been shot in the head while she was holding her seven-month-old son, Tyler.

Tyler was covered in his mother’s blood but was unharmed.

There had never been a case like this in Mountain City and residents had no idea who would want to kill the young, friendly couple.

Despite the lack of physical evidence at the crime scene, police soon turned their focus towards the Potter family.

Marvin “Buddy” Potter, then 60, and his wife Barbara, 61, lived nearby with their 31-year-old daughter, Jenelle.

According to ABC News, Jenelle was a bit of a loner. She had always lived with her parents and she’d never had a job. She didn’t interact much with the wider community and didn’t have many friends in Mountain City.

Jenelle had never had a boyfriend and without a driver’s license, she was dependent on her parents to get around.

She stood at almost 6ft tall and had a child like voice, making her a target of bullying throughout her high school years.

Living at home with her strict parents, Jenelle turned to the internet for connection.

“I’m a very sweet, caring person,” her Facebook profile read. “I love life and I love to make other’s laugh.”

In 2009, Jenelle became Facebook friends with some of the Mountain City locals including Billy Payne. Billy’s friends described him as a nice guy who had time for everyone.

When he was nice to Jenelle on Facebook, she quickly became infatuated with him.

catfishing meaning
Billy-Jean and Billy. Image: YouTube.
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Billy started inviting Jenelle to group social activities like rock climbing and hiking. He even set her up with his cousin, Jamie Curd, and the pair began secretly dating behind her parent's backs.

The following year when Billy began dating Billie-Jean, things took a dark turn.

Jenelle accused the group of unfriending her on Facebook and of bullying her. She told her parents her new friends were threatening to rape her, that they were making constant prank phone calls, and they were driving past the house to intimidate her.

Jenelle told Buddy and Barbara her friends were jealous of her because she was "too pretty".

However, according to Billy, Billie-Jean and their friends, it was Jenelle who was harassing them.

Both Buddy and Barbara denied having any involvement in Billy and Billie-Jean's murders, but when police spoke to Jamie he cracked.

"Is the CIA here?" he asked.

Jenelle's secret boyfriend then told investigators he and Buddy shot the couple, after a CIA operative called "Chris" told them to do it.

When police raided the Potter's home they found ripped-up photos of Billy and Billy-Jean. Many of them had words like 'b*tch' scrawled across them.

They found a bag of shredded emails in the back of Buddy's car. On the family's computer they found hundreds of emails between Barbara, Jamie and "Chris the CIA operative".

Chris had started emailing Barbara around the time Billy and Billie-Jean got together. He told Barbara he was an old high school friend of Jenelle and he was watching over her.

The two got so close that Barbara started calling him "son".

Chris later told Barbara that Billy and Billie-Jean planned to rape Jenelle, who was a virgin, and then cut off her head. He told the worried mother the only way to stop them was to kill them first.

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Barbara was hesitant but decided she had to do whatever it took to protect her daughter.

“We’ve had enough and we want peace and no one here wants to kill anyone, but we will,” she wrote in one of the emails.

That's when Buddy and Jamie slipped into Billy and Billie-Jean's home.

In October 2013, Buddy was found guilty of first degree murder and handed two life sentences, as The Daily Beast reports. Jamie, who testified against Buddy, was sentenced to 25 years behind bars.

catfishing meaning
Barbara and Buddy Potter. Image: Washington County District Attorney's Office.

Convicting Jenelle and Barbara was a little more complicated.

During their investigation, police discovered the character of "Chris" was based on a man named Chris Tjaden, a police officer from Delaware who had gone to high school with Jenelle.

Tjaden only vaguely remembered Jenelle, but Jenelle had been obsessed with Chris for years.

She had used photos of Chris she'd found online to create the fake Facebook profile she'd made to catfish her parents.

With a slew of online evidence showing how Barbara and Jenelle plotted the murder of Billy and Billie-Jean, both women were found guilty on all charges.

They were both sentenced to life in prison.

Jenelle continues to proclaim her innocence from behind bars.

“I went through a lot with [Billy and Billie-Jean] but I never wished them dead. I never wanted them dead,” she said in a 2015 TV documentary.

“I didn’t murder anyone.”

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