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Pastimes : Murder Mystery: Who Killed Yale Student Suzanne Jovin?

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To: Jeffrey S. Mitchell who wrote (1239)12/21/2007 2:07:02 PM
From: Jeffrey S. Mitchell  Read Replies (1) of 1389
Re: 12/7/2007 - Nashville Post: News analysis: Is it really over?; Nashville now and then: A moment of closure?

News analysis: Is it really over?
By E. Thomas Wood and Ken Whitehouse
12-07-2007 1:32 AM

Marcia Trimble

For almost a third of a century, and for longer than many of you reading this story have been in Nashville, the unsolved rape and strangulation of 9-year-old Marcia Trimble in 1975 has been an ever-present fact of life.

As recounted in today's history column, many Nashvillians say the Trimble case changed forever the sense of security they felt in a city that previously had still felt in many ways like a small town. And the cloud it cast over the lives of several men who grew up with Marcia as a neighbor has lasted for decades. Police repeatedly floated their names as potential suspects, and to this day the authorities have said nothing to allay they suspicions they raised.

Three Nashville television stations have reported in recent days that Metro Police have found a match in DNA evidence from the scene of Trimble's murder, leading to new speculation that the case will be solved. Since last week, has been investigating a report from a well-placed source making a similar assertion.

The attorney for the childhood neighbor who was once charged with Marcia's murder says he has definite knowledge that a DNA match has been obtained. A police spokesman, while circumspect in his statements, is making comments that could be interpreted as suggesting a resolution in the case is on the horizon. But one well-informed source disputes certain elements of the TV coverage to date.

"A complete surprise"

The television stations say that advances in DNA testing have produced a match between crime-scene evidence and Jerome Sydney Barrett, a 60-year-old Memphis man with a criminal record of sexual assaults on both grown women and children. Another DNA match led to Barrett's recent arrest for the murder of a Vanderbilt student in early February 1975, three weeks before Marcia went missing on February 25, 1975. Police classified him as a "person of interest" in the Trimble case last month.

Barrett reportedly worked at the time in the neighborhood of the Trimble home, which was on Copeland Drive near the corner of Hobbs and Estes Roads. He is an African-American.

"It is a complete surprise to me that it would be an interloper, a stranger and a person of color in that neighborhood," retired Metro homicide detective Tommy Jacobs said in an interview this week. Jacobs filled out the missing-persons report the night that Marcia disappeared while delivering Girl Scout cookies near home. From the time her body was discovered 33 days later, on Easter Sunday, in a neighbor's garage, Jacobs worked the murder case until he left the force in 1996.

The police department's Trimble case file is huge, Jacobs said, and he has gone through every page of it. "And I don't think that an African-American was ever mentioned anywhere in there as a possibility," he said.

Police spokesman Don Aaron would not confirm or deny the report of a DNA match when reached on Wednesday. "At the proper point in time, there will be no doubt how this investigation has progressed over 32 years," he said. "This is, unfortunately, not the time. The police department has not publicly discussed evidentiary matters on the Trimble case in recent weeks.”

Aaron said the department's cold-case squad has the Trimble case "on the front burner" and that its detectives "were out of town working on the Trimble case as recently as Tuesday." However, he emphasized that "charges are not imminent."

But the lawyer for the only person ever charged with the crime, former Trimble neighbor Jeffrey Womack — against whom the authorities dropped all charges before his case reached the indictment stage — says the talk of a DNA match is for real.

"I've been told that by people involved in the investigation," John Hollins Sr. told "Let me tell you what: It's not a rumor. I'm sure of that."

Either way, one insider familiar with the case was scornful of a former Metro detective's televised claim that he had a hunch that Barrett was the offender over 30 years ago. Retired Sergeant Ralph Langston has told other media outlets that he suspected Barrett back in the 1970s, but that no one would listen to him.

"If that were true, why he didn’t come back five, 10, 15 years ago and tell someone his hunch?" the source asked. "I don’t understand. He should have gotten on top of Monteagle Mountain with the loudest sound system and screamed it, if he felt no one in the department was listening."

A crucible of suspicion

The arrest of someone who was a stranger to 9-year-old Marcia would mark an end to decades of law-enforcement focus on people from the victim's Green Hills neighborhood as the likely culprit or culprits.

Public and media interest in the case was intense from the beginning, as the girl's disappearance prompted a massive search involving police and volunteers throughout the city and surrounding areas. After the body was discovered in the garage of a home on Estes Road, pressure to crack the case intensified as weeks, and then months, and then years went by without an arrest.

By all accounts, police and prosecutors decided early on that the killer must have been someone who knew Marcia. Different investigators have posited different scenarios as to how many boys were involved, but there was a consensus that the fatal incident was some sort of adolescent activity that got out of hand, rather than a premeditated murder.

When authorities finally felt ready to charge someone with the crime, they made the arrest as dramatic as possible. Even though Womack had retained Hollins as counsel, officers swooped down on the West End apartment where he was living at 2:30 on the morning of August 28, 1979 — Womack's 20th birthday.

Hollins said the police were well aware that he represented Womack, who had been interviewed several times already and shadowed by detectives and undercover cops for years. "They went out and tried to hot-box him and get a confession out of him," the lawyer claimed. "The public wanted an arrest, and that's what they gave them."

Womack passed polygraph tests administered both by a technician Hollins hired and by Metro Police Capt. Noble Brymer, whose proficiency was renowned, according to Hollins. The latter test, the attorney said, ended with the police examiner telling him: "John, that boy is telling the truth."

A year after Womack's arrest, all charges against him were dropped. Prosecutors were unable even to muster enough evidence for an indictment, despite the old proverb about how a prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich if he sets his mind to it.

Under public criticism for failing to bring the killer to justice, police and prosecutors sent clear signals that they still believed Womack was guilty, even though their initial effort to nail him had foundered. They also suggested in public statements that Womack might not have acted alone, and that a dark conspiracy was afoot involving other boys from the neighborhood who either knew about or participated in the rape and murder.

Scores of young men were interviewed as the investigation continued, many in a manner they found routine but some in ways they found disturbingly accusatory. At least four names of neighboring boys made it into press accounts. All four surnames turn up today on Google searches in combination with the name Marcia Trimble.

Besides Womack, the neighbor subjected to the most public attention and police pressure was March Egerton, son of author John Egerton. The Egertons lived immediately across the street from the Trimbles on Copeland. At the time of the disappearance March was 10, a year older than Marcia.

Police interviewed March multiple times in the years after the killing, administering a polygraph at one point. In 1979 a dispute arose between his parents and investigators. The police wanted to have him examined by a psychiatrist, possibly under hypnosis, to determine whether he had suppressed knowledge about the crime. John Egerton resisted, saying he did not want the teen put through further interrogation and that the authorities had previously told him there would be no more questioning.

The DA's office sent Egerton a letter in August 1979, soon after Womack's arrest, demanding that March be made available for an interview. Two detectives delivered the letter in a squad car. The controversy became public when the letter was leaked to local news outlets, and Egerton fumed in an interview with The Tennessean.

"It is a frightening thing for me to see this city's investigative authorities act in such a manner toward law-abiding citizens," Egerton said. He asserted that some of those pursuing the case "will go to any lengths to get a conviction in this case, even if innocent people — adults and children — are harmed in the process."

"This miserable saga"

More than a decade later, history repeated itself for both the Egertons and Womack. On August 28, 1990 — again, on his birthday — Womack was working in a Nashville Burger King when police descended on the location with guns drawn, as Hollins recalls. They wanted a DNA sample, and this was how they asked. Hollins hurried to the scene and escorted Womack to General Hospital, where he provided the samples.

Around the same time, investigators said they wanted to re-interrogate and take DNA samples from March Egerton. John Egerton, in a statement issued in September 1990, explained what happened next:

In light of the long history of this mishandled case and the hostile treatment we had received from the police, I responded through our attorney that we would appear for questioning only under certain specific ground rules and conditions. The police detective who heard this response replied that they did not grant conditions and he cut off the conversation.

On Monday night, Sept. 17,at 9:20 p.m., one minute after I answered a phony person-to-person call for March Egerton, several carloads of uniformed and plainclothes Metro police officers sped into our driveway, surrounded our house and, with hands on their weapons, closed in on us....
The warrant served on March contained a summary of information concerning the crime that was intended to say why the police were justified in taking this extreme action. This so-called statement of probable cause is an error-filled mish-mash of unsupported assertions and unattributed claims that falsely insinuates that March has withheld evidence in this case.

March left peacefully with the officers and was taken to General to give his DNA samples.

In May 1991, the authorities asked March to come in for yet another interview. He agreed, but this time he issued his own statement, excoriating the authorities:

I have been repeatedly prodded and cajoled by these people to "remember" things that never happened and to point fingers at people of whom I have no knowledge.... The FBI and the District Attorney have repeatedly apologized to me for the way I have been treated by the police department, using such terms as "wronged" and "badly mishandled...."

I have experienced first hand their tactics of intimidation and have been privy to their inability to reason as well as their reliance on innuendo and at times outright lying in their efforts at detection.... The police, along with the FBI, seem to fall hopelessly in love with one halfbaked theory after another, demonstrating that in the absence of conscience one need only repeat something enough times before they begin to believe it themselves. A number of the parties involved in this investigation are more interested in making themselves look good than in seeing that justice is served....

Despite how I may have been portrayed, I want as much as anyone for this matter to be resolved, so that the Trimble family, and everyone else whose lives have been wounded by this tragedy, may once and for all put this miserable saga behind them.

March Egerton is now a real estate developer in East Nashville. John Egerton told that his family has decided not to comment further on the case in public.

Womack, now 48, has consistently refused to speak publicly about the Trimble case. Hollins would not say what he does for a living. The attorney and his firm have continued to represent him without payment ever since an initial fee of $10,000, raised by a church for Womack, ran out. Hollins estimates that he has put more than $100,000 worth of billable time into serving as counsel to Womack over the years.

Hollins' former law partner, Ed Yarbrough, also represented Womack until his recent appointment as U.S. Attorney for Middle Tennessee.

"A good question"

Neither Don Aaron nor Metro District Attorney General Torry Johnson would comment on the effect that the Trimble investigation may have had on the men who have been subjected to police scrutiny over the years. But former detective Tommy Jacobs, who is now vice mayor of the city of Oak Hill, said this week that he and his colleagues were simply doing their best to solve the murder mystery.

"I sympathize with any of the people that we took a hard look at back then who were not involved," Jacobs said, "but that's basically the name of the investigative game. You look at people who are handy, who are close by."

Jacobs then dropped an inadvertent bombshell.

As recently two weeks ago, someone posting to a Tennessean online forum claimed to have discussed the case with "one of the lead detectives" and asserted: "From the details that I have been told and have been privy to, I’d bet the house it was Womack" who murdered Marcia Trimble.

More substantively, in 2001, Nashville Scene staff writer Matt Pulle wrote a pair of cover stories that included interviews with Jacobs and others who had worked the Trimble case. The articles, available at this link and this link, constitute the most comprehensive single narrative of the Trimble case yet published. Pulle noted that Jacobs and two other detectives each asserted that "Womack remains a suspect." Jacobs is quoted as saying of Womack: "I cannot eliminate him. He's the most consistent suspect we have."

The Scene story asserted that the DNA-gathering efforts of the early 1990s had "only eliminated a few possible suspects" because the DNA evidence was so degraded. "More often than not, the findings were too vague to be useful," the weekly reported. Some 70 samples had been taken by 1996, and though more were taken in the years that followed, all of the men whose names had been floated in the 1970s and '80s were covered in the initial six years.

To the notion that the tests were inconclusive, attorney Hollins replied: "Bullshit!" He said he learned definitively, years afterward, that the results excluded Womack. "I think they excluded him right after he gave them the samples," Hollins said. "They just never have admitted that."

Now has confirmed that the DNA tests of the early 1990s did, in fact, exclude Womack, Egerton and the other former neighborhood residents as potential sources of the evidence found on and around Marcia's body. Tommy Jacobs provided that confirmation.

When we asked Jacobs about the results of the testing, the following exchange ensued:

NP: By the time you left the force in '96, had DNA pretty much excluded all the people who had been under investigation?

TJ: Pretty much, yeah.

NP: Had they been told they were excluded?

TJ: I don't know. I don't know that we ever told anybody they were excluded. I never told anybody they had been excluded. I guess they would have figured that once we took their blood and compared it, if we didn't come knocking on their door with the handcuffs, they were excluded.

NP: Was there any consideration given to making public that people like Womack and Egerton were exonerated, given that it had been made public that they were suspects?

TJ: That's a good question, and I don't have a good answer for you. I can tell you this: Nobody that I know about at the police department went after anybody to try and ruin their reputation....

I'm sure some people suffered some degree of embarrassment, but that's just part of our justice system. We can't take our time stumbling over ourselves apologizing to people whose names might come up in an investigation.

Note: Please see accompanying column for disclosure of co-author E. Thomas Wood's ties to individuals mentioned in this story.

© 2007


Nashville now and then: A moment of closure?
By E. Thomas Wood

The rape and murder of Marcia Trimble, who lived on quiet Copeland Drive in Green Hills, has been the most talked-about unsolved crime in Nashville history.12-07-2007 1:24 AM —

This weekly history column is often about events that happened and people who flourished long ago. Today, it is about a history that I share with many of you who are reading.

My connections to the Marcia Trimble murder case are tenuous, like many of yours: I am slightly older than Marcia and never met her. But those links are substantial enough that I feel required to preface this piece, and make known to readers of its companion piece, the ways that the Trimble saga intersects with my personal history.

Both Marcia's father and the owner of the home where her body was found were classmates of my father at the old Woodmont School. Girls in my class at Percy Priest School were friends of Marcia's. I live today fewer than 300 yards from where her body was found.

My wife Nicki, who grew up on the street where we now live, knew several of the families directly affected by the case. She knows March Egerton, who lived under police scrutiny for years, as a fellow food writer. And John Egerton, his father, is a former business partner of mine.

In the late 1980s, I briefly worked for a company that employed one person whose name had come up in press accounts of the Trimble case. I recognized his name immediately and tried to make sure, when we were introduced, that he did not detect that recognition. My boss at that company had moved to Nashville from the upper reaches of New England. Days after I came aboard, he took me aside.

"What's all this whispering I keep hearing about ____ possibly being a child-murderer?" he asked.

My most direct connection is not one that touches on any possible conflict of interest. As an 11-year-old Boy Scout in March 1975, I was among hundreds or perhaps thousands of volunteers who searched every vacant quadrant of Davidson County for Marcia. I vividly remember being assigned to search the grounds surrounding Nashville's airport, Berry Field, and turning to ask the scoutmaster just before our troop set off:

"What are we supposed to do if we find her?"

Our adult leader found some way to evade directly answering that question, thus preserving the fiction that we might find her alive, which is what I had in mind when I asked. I don't think I was capable of imagining that she was dead.

There's at least one more connection that has preyed on my mind this past week. Marcia Trimble was a 9-year-old 4th-grader at Julia Green School when she perished. My daughter is the same age, in the same grade, at the same school.

Memories, unfiltered

This week, I have appealed to numerous friends and acquaintances who found their lives touched by the Trimble case to tell their stories. I gave all the option of anonymity, and although only some asked for it, I think it appropriate to treat all of their comments the same way.

The two exceptions include one current colleague and one friend whose encounter with the case happened on a professional level. The latter is Pat Nolan, now a well-known political commentator and a senior vice president at public relations firm Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence. Pat's e-mailed recollections are as follows:

I was just about to begin my career at Channel 5 when Marcia Trimble disappeared in late Febuary,1975. By the time I came on board in the newsroom the next month (March 3) at the age of 23, it was the lead story on every newscast every night.

Obviously, the nature of the story had a lot to do with that kind of coverage . But technology may have played a role too, at least in how the story was covered. TV stations were just beginning to add electronic news gathering (ENG) capabilities to their reporting from the field. Channel 5 was one of the first stations in the nation to have such capabilities, which included using videotape cameras rather than film cameras. That allowed the station to be able to instantly show what was happening rather than having to wait to process and develop film. More importantly, ENG used small microwave trucks which could send back live reports and/or video tape direct from the field.

The other local stations quickly scrambled to catch up. For example, Channel 4 had a large mobile production truck that wasn’t used all that often. But as the Trimble search continued, it was put into daily use so reporters could give the latest on every newscast live from the scene about what was happening.

All that came to a final, sad conclusion when Marcia’s body was found some weeks later. The discovery was made on Easter Sunday.

As the years went by, the investigation continued. I remember once when an arrest was made, I had the assignment to do a reaction story talking with the people who were neighbors in the boarding house (just off West End Avenue) where the suspect was living. Those charges were later dropped.

I guess because of that, while I certainly hope and pray Marcia’s murderer is one day brought to justice, I have been reluctant to jump to any quick conclusions about the case being solved.

My colleague and fellow Nashville native Ken Whitehouse, who is younger than I but shares my passion for local history, sent this recollection:

Former Davidson County Sheriff Fate Thomas was a friend of mine, and occasionally, just before he passed away, I'd go out to see him when he was working out at Bob Frensley's car dealership. One day we were talking about famous Nashville murders, mainly the Capitol Chevrolet murder and the Trimble murder.

When I asked about Trimble, Fate lit up with a fire I hadn't seen in a long time. He pounded his desk, exclaiming: "I checked that damn refrigerator the day before, the whole garage — she wasn't there!!!

Mind you, this conversation took place in 1999 (we were also talking about Al Gore's presidential chances, which is why I remember when), shortly before Fate died. After all that he had been through in his own life, his fortunes rising and falling in the interim, you could see that he still was upset, pissed-off even, that this was a case that had gone unsolved."

I also spoke with my Mom about this the other day. I told her that I remembered not being allowed to play in the yard with my sister when all of this happened. Sure, a police dragnet was evident all over the place, but I was only four and really wasn't aware, so you're talking about a kid who was mainly upset that he couldn't go outside.

Before I could ask what she recalled, Mom said very softly, with her voice trailing off:

"I still can hear the helicopters."

Others who sent me their recollections include relatives, old friends, and friends of friends:

Most of us recall an idyllic youth spend with few restrictions on movement of liberties as young children.

I can recall summer-time rules such as "be home by the time the street lights come on," and unchaperoned walks/bike rides to the commercial district in the third grade.

All that changed with the Trimble case. It rightfully horrified parents that our suburban paradise could thus be violated.

— a local stockbroker, 11 years of age when Marcia disappeared, who lived about two blocks away

The whole thing truly did change not just Nashville, but put a face on death for me at a very young age. I will never forget driving in the car on Easter Sunday 1975 and hearing how they found her body in the ______s' garage. There was no way a parent can sugar-coat that kind of news to a 9-year-old kid.

Now with an almost 9-year-old kid myself, I would hate for him to go through losing a friend like I did. We all grew up too fast at that point. In a way, this arrest would be closure not just for the Trimbles, but for me and every other kid in that neighborhood who knew Marcia.

A couple of years after her death, I had an old camera that my grandmother had given me. I had forgotten about it and took the film in it to be developed, and it came back with 12 pictures taken one day — one with a picture of just Marcia on it sitting on her front porch when me and her and another kid were playing in her front yard.

— a successful entrepreneur now living away from Nashville, 10 years old when Marcia disappeared, who grew up close to her home

I remember the helicopters as well. Surprisingly, there wasn't much parent panic, at least that they let us see. What I remember most about it was the endless speculation about which of the disturbed young men from the neighborhood was actually the perpetrator.

We also had many policeman searching through the yard (maybe with dogs) and they looked in our crawl-space — which really frightened me, wondering if they would find a body.

— a Nashville woman, 10 years old when Marcia disappeared, who grew up close to her home

I remember that a guy about my age named ____ ______ [ed. note: neither Jeffrey Womack nor March Egerton] lived in that neighborhood, and he was questioned several times over a period of many years by the police. I can remember playing against him in a church basketball game two or three years after the murder and it feeling awkward — as most of our teammates and our parents were thinking that we might be playing church ball against a guy who had possibly gotten away with the rape/murder of a 9-year-old girl.

I remember my own instincts telling me then: There’s no way this guy is guilty (he was a very nice kid) and what an injustice it was that so many people seemed inclined to think he was just because no other perpetrator had been caught yet.
When it was reported on the news the other night that the DNA was a match with that murderer, I immediately thought of ____ ______ and how his life would surely have been much better if they had caught this guy in 1975 instead of now.

— a Nashville banker who was a few years older than Marcia

You know, Tom, I am consumed by guilt, as I had assumed that the town gossip was correct: The death was a result of teenagers engaged in a sex game with Marcia that got out of control.

I know we were frightened and activities were curtailed.The aftermath for those neighborhood boys haunts me, if, in fact, they had nothing to do with it. I think it has in some ways scarred them.

— a Nashville entrepreneur, female, close to Marcia's age

© 2007
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