Deputy Pralo Wood endured wife’s tragic murder

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Thornton Pralo Wood was a Tigerville native who served as deputy sheriff of Greenville County in the Dark Corner area for 28 years. For a number of those years, he partnered with Frank Reid of Gowensville.

The son of John Thomas and Cordia Victoria Noe Wood, Pralo was born March 13, 1909, and grew up in Tigerville. He had an older brother, John T., and a younger brother, Paul Franklin.

At age 22, he married Helen Roberts, the daughter of Will and Dicie Roberts, on September 1, 1931. They had a son, Willie.

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Pralo took his law enforcement oath as a deputy sheriff in 1936 at age 27, the same year that Frank Reid became a deputy. He served as deputy under five different sheriffs of Greenville County during his 28-year career.

An unfounded rumor that persisted while he served as a deputy was that he would ask students from the local North Greenville Junior College (now full fledged North Greenville University), who spent hours hiking in the Dark Corner mountains, to keep their eyes open and report to him any suspicious evidences or activities that might lead to locating illicit distilleries. He would reward such reports with a $10 bill, it was said.

On one occasion, two college students who were hiking on Glassy Mountain were approached by a bearded man in overalls with a shotgun.

“I hear you fellows that walk in these here woods are gittin’ paid cash money for reporting things you see here to Deputy Pralo Wood down in Tigerville. Any truth to it? If there is, you might just like to know that folks hereabouts don’t take too kindly to them that look and tell, and a couple of fellars have found their bottomsides punctured by buckshot, or worse. You might do well to pass the word along to your school buddies.” Pralo didn’t get any hiker tips after that, folks said.

He retired from the sheriff’s force at age 55 in 1964 and spent much of his time engaging in conversation residents of the Tigerville and surrounding communities and visitors to the area at the T.P. Wood Store and Gas Station. An outside bench was a favorite gathering place in warmer months and a potbelly stove in the rear of the retail store was used in colder months.

The store was opened in the early 1900s and was operated by Willie Wood for over 50 years. The Tigerville Post Office was adjoined on one side of the first floor retail operation and Tyger Masonic Lodge met on the second floor, which was reached only by an outside stair.

Helen Wood was postmistress of the tiny postal operation and in her office, when, on Thursday, February 12, 1981, Dale Robert Yates and Henry Davis decided to rob the T.P. Wood Store, using a borrowed gun and a knife. They had been driving around the countryside for three days with a third man, looking for an easy victim. Finding none, they left the third man at a Greenville mall and rode toward the mountains.

Driving through the college community, they noticed there no cars parked at the store or gas pumps and decided an empty store should be easy to rob. They entered the store and found Willie Wood standing behind the counter, apparently alone. They confronted him and demanded that he empty the cash register. He did, and placed approximately $3,000 cash on the counter.

Davis demanded that Willie bend over the counter, which he refused to do. Instead, he took a step back and reached into his coat for his own handgun. Davis yelled for Yates to shoot. Yates fired at Willie, who, putting up his hands in a defensive posture, received a shot through his hand as a bullet grazed his chest. The other shot missed.

Hearing the shots, Helen Wood came out of her office and shouted, “What’s going on out there?”

Yates shouted to Davis, “Let’s go.” He ran out of the store and jumped into the passenger side of their vehicle. Davis, with a knife, was grabbed by Willie Wood and the two men began wrestling down the counter, ending up with Davis on Willie’s back. At that point, his mother entered the store and attempted to grab Davis and pull him off her son.

Willie managed to get to his gun out and started shooting and backing Davis against a stack of shoeboxes. Davis hollered and hit the floor. The knife fell out of his hand.

As soon as Davis fell, Willie saw that his mother was on her hands and knees. Blood appeared to be spurting out of her heart. As he reached her, she said, “I believe I am dying.” Both Helen Wood and Davis died of their injuries.

After moments passed, Yates decided that Davis must have been overcome by the store owner, so he decided to slide over under the wheel, start the car and drive off at great speed. Before he was able to escape the vicinity, he was noticed by Greenville County Deputies, and stopped after a high-speed chase. When stopped, he ran with the pistol and money in hand but was apprehended in some nearby woods.

Although Yates killed no one, the state of South Carolina prosecuted him for murder as an accomplice under state statutes. Following instructions of the court on malice and accomplice liability, the jury returned guilty verdicts on the murder charge and on all the other counts in the indictment, and the State Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.

Subsequent appeals went to both the State Supreme Court and to the United States Supreme Court on three occasions (four if one counts the occasion when the United States Supremes declined to review the conviction on direct appeal).

Through the original trial and each of the subsequent appeals, the tragic circumstances of Helen Wood’s murder had to be relived by Pralo and Willie Wood.

Pralo died at age 86 on April 11, 1995, and was buried at Tigerville Baptist Church cemetery.

Willie closed the T.P. Wood Store and Gas Station in 1996. North Greenville University acquired the historic property and has renovated and expanded it to be the Tigerville General Store, which includes a retail store, a pizza parlor and an ice cream vendor. The upper story provides a lounge and relaxation area for the students. An inside staircase has replaced the old outside stair. The parking space has been expanded and larger gas tanks have been installed underground.