The murder case that gripped Music City
Except for newcomers, almost everyone in Nashville instantly recognizes the name “Marcia Trimble.” The nine-year-old disappeared from her Green Hills neighborhood one winter evening in 1975 when she was out delivering Girl Scout cookies. Two months later, on Easter Sunday, her body was found a few hundred yards away in a neighbor’s garage.
It was a crime that horrified and forever changed a city where children had freely roamed their suburban neighborhoods without fear. The effort to catch Marcia’s killer would span more than 30 years and take the Nashville Police Department down many wrong paths, with several young men falsely suspected and one even arrested for the crime (though never indicted).
Nashville authors Douglas Jones and Phyllis Gobbell take readers through every step of the crime and the decades-long search for justice in their new book, A Season of Darkness. The co-authors recently answered questions from BookPage about the facts of the case and their collaborative effort to tell this riveting story.
For people outside the Nashville area who aren’t familiar with the Marcia Trimble case, how would you describe the impact this crime had on the local community?
PHYLLIS GOBBELL: We’ve heard it said many times: With the murder of Marcia Trimble, Nashville lost its innocence. And it is so true. The Green Hills neighborhood where Marcia lived was a microcosm of the city. Children played freely in the yards and streets, went in and out of neighbors’ houses, and returned home when the streetlights came on. During the day, doors stayed unlocked. Neighbors watched out for each other. It was a gentle time, and Nashville seemed insulated from many of the harsh, violent events of the world. This shocking crime ushered in a new era, where the entire city realized what could happen, just across the street.
One of the most unusual aspects of the Marcia Trimble murder is that the case was solved more than 30 years after her death. What do you see as the definitive factor in finding her killer?
DOUGLAS JONES: Cold Case Detective Bill Pridemore’s excellent investigative work was the reason this case was broken. Pridemore maintained an open mind and rejected 30 years of faulty police work that had created a mindset focused on one individual. Pridemore re-examined every lead and uncovered new ones. By being open-minded and a professional, he refused to accept the bogus assumptions of the Nashville Police Department homicide detectives. Pridemore was then able to crack the case.
Additionally, Deputy District Attorney General Tom Thurman had the insight, experience, and courage to try the 30-year-old case against Jerome Barrett. Thurman went in to the trial knowing that it would be very difficult to locate witnesses. He tried an excellent case, which led to Barrett’s conviction. Tom Thurman is one of the best district attorneys not only in Tennessee but also in the country.
You packed many fascinating details into every scene, giving readers a real “you were there” feeling as they read A Season of Darkness. How did you uncover this kind of detail about events that transpired more than 30 years ago?
JONES: Truman Capote in his landmark In Cold Blood painted the picture of Holcomb, Kansas, and the savage murder of the Clutter family. To paint the picture of Green Hills and Nashville in 1975, we had to capture the details of the time. This process was based upon reviewing articles and interviews done in 1975, as well as interviewing as many people as possible who were involved in the case. We also reviewed court files and records in detail. Additionally, I have practiced law in Nashville for 35 years, and I have a number of contacts and friends in law enforcement. This was invaluable in understanding and explaining the mystery.
You write about a lot about “what if’s”—missed opportunities in the investigation to find Marcia’s killer. Do you think the culture in the police department contributed to these wrong turns in the case?
JONES: Absolutely. In our research of the culture in the police department, we found that in 1975, the Nashville homicide detectives were known for wearing flashy suits and jewelry. They were determined to crack the Trimble case and get the limelight. In the book, they are referred to as “cowboys.” Because she was a woman, Detective Diane Vaughn’s productive work was ignored by the cowboy detectives. It was simple and easy to lock in on one suspect. They would continue to focus on the same suspect for the next 30 years.
In the years after Marcia’s death, several young men were wrongly targeted in the investigation and one was even arrested, though never indicted. Ultimately, do you think this case represents justice served, or justice gone wrong?
GOBBELL: If I were the parent of one of those young men, there’s no doubt that I’d focus on the mistakes made in the investigation. As Deputy D.A. Thurman pointed out after the trial, “there were a lot of victims” in this case. Justice was a long time coming, but I believe in the end justice was served when DNA analysis matched evidence on Marcia’s clothing with her killer’s DNA.
As you did your research and wrote the book, did you find any lesser-known characters in the story who really stood out?
JONES: Yes. Detective Diane Vaughn. Diane Vaughn was from Alpine, a remote village in Overton County, Tennessee. In 1967, she applied to be a police officer with the Nashville Police Department. Two years later, she was hired. She worked hard and after several years was promoted to detective. As a female detective, she was assigned the “dirty cases”’—rapes and murders of prostitutes— that the “cowboys” in the homicide division refused to work. But Diane Vaughn solved many of these cases and gradually built up a reputation and credibility in the department. Vaughn’s tenacious and professional investigation led to Jerome Barrett’s conviction in the case of the rape of Belmont coed Judy Porter. Vaughan was the first Nashville detective to link Barrett to the string of rapes and murders in Nashville in February 1975. Diane Vaughn died in 1994, never knowing her work would ultimately lead to Barrett’s conviction in the Marcia Trimble murder case.
Tell us one thing you were surprised to learn about Jerome Barrett, the man convicted of Marcia’s murder.
JONES:Jerome Barrett was an extremely dangerous man. The Vietnam vet had lived off the streets of Memphis making a living fighting barefisted for cash. In Memphis, he was a prime suspect in a number of assaults, rapes and homicides. After Barrett was captured he confessed to police that he was constantly on the prowl looking for an open door or unlocked window. Barrett spent years in prison for convictions of aggravated rape. A number of tough, hardened inmates that were assigned to be Barrett’s cellmate begged various wardens for transfers because they were deathly afraid of the man.
If a murder like Marcia’s happened today, how would the case be handled differently?
GOBBELL: I was surprised to learn that in 1975, individual detectives kept the case files. There was no central database. With today’s technology, the investigation would be entirely different. Via computer, information would be available to all involved in the search or the homicide. Had that happened, the link between Marcia’s murder and the other crimes for which her killer was charged would surely come to light quickly.
You’ve said that the Marcia Trimble case is a sad story, any way you slice it. As you think about the overall series of events, what strikes you as the single saddest moment of this 30-year ordeal?
GOBBELL: This is a hard one because there are so many sad moments—some that aren’t actually dramatic, but they still break your heart, like Virginia Trimble [Marcia’s mother] standing under the streetlight, calling for Marcia. The Trimble family coming home from church on Easter Sunday and being met by their friend, Detective Sherman Nickens, who delivered the news that Marcia’s body had been found—that was an unbearably sad moment. When the word spread across Nashville, it was as if the city suddenly fell under a dark cloud.
What is the one element of Marcia Trimble’s murder that still puzzles you or keeps you lying awake at night?
JONES: Marcia Trimble left her parents’ house around 5:30 p.m. on the evening of February 25, 1975. By 7:00 p.m., the police department was actively working the missing person’s case.
On February 26, 1975, around noon, the Nashville Police Department received a phone call from a Tennessee State Trooper in West Tennessee advising them that they had pulled over a white Chevrolet driven by a Phillip A. Wilson, who was a Black Muslim in Nashville. The state trooper wanted someone from Youth Guidance to advise him because the previous night, during the extensive search, the Nashville Police Department sent out a BOLO (to be on the lookout) for this vehicle “wanted for kidnapping.” The police couldn’t determine who sent the BOLO, so Mr. Wilson was allowed to drive away.
To this day, this mystery has never been cleared up and questions about the incident abound, including the question of whether Jerome Barrett was inside the vehicle that was stopped the day after Marcia’s disappearance.
Publishing trends come and go but true crime remains a popular genre. Why do you think readers are attracted to true crime stories?
GOBBELL: I think the main attraction is that we like to see the worst offenders caught and punished for their deeds, which is often the outcome in a true crime story. The complexities of investigations keep readers turning the pages. True crime books add depth to stories that may have made the news and show the many dimensions of the people involved. And it’s a cliché, but truth is often stranger than fiction.