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Case, But Not Mystery, Closed

Even with an arrest in the Marcia Trimble murder, just how it happened is as elusive as ever

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A few years after her young daughter died, Virginia Trimble went to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and said a prayer. She asked God to save the soul of the person who killed her child.

For 33 years, the question ruined lives, tore apart families, tormented cops and haunted a mother: Who killed Marcia Trimble, a Green Hills Girl Scout, one February evening in 1975? With the arrest last week of a left-field suspect, there may finally be an answer—but the mystery is just as perplexing and tragic as ever, particularly to Virginia, who would like, decades after her prayer in Jerusalem, just a little peace.

“Even if they could ask for the death penalty, I don’t know if I want him dead. I want to know what his faith is like. I want him to examine his faith, examine his soul,” she says, after expressing sympathy for the suspect’s family. “I’m connected with him if he killed my child. I’m bonded with him the rest of his life.”

On Friday, Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson announced Jerome Sidney Barrett’s indictment in the murder of Trimble, the 9-year-old who went missing for 33 days before turning up strangled, raped and dead in a nearby garage. Although police have linked Barrett to Trimble through DNA evidence following his arrest on another murder charge, police and prosecutors have offered no details on how the former landscaper came across the girl, or if any witnesses spotted the suspect, a black male then 28 years old, walking through her white, middle-class Green Hills neighborhood. Authorities may not want to tip their hand just yet, especially if they can extract a confession from Barrett, but people who once helped lead the investigation are befuddled about how someone with the accused killer’s description escaped notice.

“I couldn’t have been more surprised in the outcome of the case,” says Tommy Jacobs, one of the first officers to arrive at Trimble’s home the night she went missing. “We were pretty much looking for young, male Caucasians, and we were looking for that for 32 years.”

On Feb. 25, 1975, at approximately 5:10 p.m., Trimble was inside her three-bedroom red-brick home on Copeland Drive for the last time. It started out like any other evening. Marcia’s mother Virginia prepared dinner, while her father Charles was in the den. Outside, Marcia’s older brother, Chuck, was playing basketball with his friend and neighbor March Egerton.

Between 5:15 and 5:25, Marcia headed out the door even though dinner was almost ready, and told her mom that she needed to drop off some Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor. A feisty, friendly girl with straight blond hair, blue eyes and freckles, Marcia said she wouldn’t need a coat because she’d only be gone for a little while. When she didn’t return, her parents called the police, and after she wasn’t found that evening, 200 officers, along with print and television reporters, swarmed the neighborhood in a frenzied search for the girl. A young Oprah Winfrey, then working for WTVF-Channel 5, dropped by the Trimble house too, asking in vain for an interview.

Like a drama creeping toward a grim finale with each passing scene, young Marcia’s disappearance held the city in suspense for 33 days until she was found dead in a neighbor’s garage tucked amid piles of junk. Almost immediately, the police turned their attention to Jeffrey Womack, a 15-year-old in the neighborhood who showed up at the Trimble home voluntarily the evening of her disappearance when he learned authorities were looking for him. On his shoes were written the words “fuck you,” which didn’t endear him to detectives.

In August 1979, more than four years after Marcia’s death, the police arrested Womack for her murder, but District Attorney Tom Shriver dropped the charges 12 months later. In one of the case’s many intriguing subplots, a source in the police department, convinced that authorities were unfairly targeting the young suspect, took it upon herself to leak their case to the suspect’s lawyers.

“We had a mole in the police department,” says John Hollins Sr., who has represented Womack for the last 33 years. “We knew what they were doing as soon as they were doing it.”

Even with a turncoat in their midst, police uncovered evidence that seemed to implicate Womack in the crime. An undercover cop posed as an employee of a restaurant where the suspect worked. After the two became friendly, Womack confided seemingly obscure details about how Marcia’s body was hidden. Meanwhile, he boasted to friends that he raped and killed her, even if most of them didn’t take him seriously.

Police also believed that he talked with Trimble the evening she disappeared and thought that he was one of two people later seen with the girl in her driveway. To this day, those two people have never been identified, and for years police felt like they held the clues to the case.

Though the police had good reason to keep their attention on Womack, they seemed to dismiss the evidence that pointed to his innocence. He passed two lie detector tests, including one administered by the police department, and also had an alibi witness who claimed he was helping her babysit the evening Trimble disappeared. More importantly, the police had no eyewitness or forensic evidence tying Womack to the crime, although as several capital cases in Tennessee illustrate, such a defense doesn’t necessarily spare suspects from prison or death row.

“I think the investigation was botched from the start,” says Hollins. “I think Jeffrey Womack was mistreated, and I don’t think anyone cares.”

More than 20 years after Shriver dropped the case against Womack, detectives still considered him a suspect—or at least someone who held clues to unraveling the case. But all that changed last year when the police matched DNA evidence from the scene of Trimble’s murder to a convicted rapist named Jerome Sidney Barrett, who had already been tied to the murder of Vanderbilt student Sarah Des Prez in February 1975, three weeks before Trimble’s disappearance.

So far police and prosecutors have been reluctant to divulge even the basic facts of their case, including the central element: How did the killer find his victim? But there is a plausible scenario that brings the two together, which detective Mickey Miller laid out in a 2001 interview with the Scene, long before the current defendant was in his crosshairs. About three-tenths of a mile from Trimble’s home was a tree nursery. Two witnesses, whom police have long viewed as credible, saw a girl who looked like Marcia near the nursery at the corner of Estes and Hobbs roads at around 5:30. One said Marcia wasn’t carrying her Girl Scout cookies, while the other observed that the 9-year-old looked confused.

Miller speculated that one of the two people seen with Trimble at her driveway stole her Girl Scout cookies, leading her on a playful chase, perhaps to the intersection where she was spotted. Shortly after, Miller theorized at the time, Trimble was sexually assaulted at the nursery. He went on to provide more details, but what is uncanny about the broad outlines of his old theory is that when he offered it, he didn’t know that a convicted rapist named Jerome Barrett, at the time working as a landscaper, would one day be tied to Trimble’s murder.

Did Barrett work at the nursery near where Trimble was spotted? Miller won’t say. Now, seven years later, with an indictment in hand, Miller declined comment, but if his original theory remains in play, it could explain how Trimble came across a stranger on a February evening when she had planned to leave her home for a few minutes.

What still makes little sense is how the landscaper snatched Trimble without anyone noticing. No witness ever came forward putting anyone fitting Barrett’s description in the girl’s neighborhood. If he abducted Marcia by the nursery, it would have been at a time when people were driving home from work. If he took her on her street closer to her home, there were as many as 12 adults and kids milling about who likely would have spotted a 28-year-old black man approaching a 9-year-old white girl. And yet no one saw them?

Another odd puzzle piece is the forensic evidence that indicates Marcia Trimble had been in the garage for the entire 33 days she went missing. In fact, police cadets searched the cluttered garage shortly after her disappearance and never found a body. But Miller had long believed that they simply missed her, and he has the science to prove it.

Where Marcia’s body was before it was discovered may seem like an obscure point, but it could actually be a huge part of the case. Early in 2002, Miller visited the Knoxville office of Dr. Bill Bass, an expert in body decomposition who consults with police departments across the country. He reviewed all the details about the girl’s death, the condition of her body when it was found and the temperature ranges for the days she went missing. He concluded, without equivocation, that the girl was killed in the garage shortly after she left her home that evening.

If Bass is correct, it seems to rule out the possibility that Barrett assaulted and killed her in another location and then stashed her body away in the garage late one night when no one was looking. If that’s the case, we’re left with a scenario of Barrett leading or carrying Trimble through a woodsy, backyard trail from the nursery to the garage—during the dinner hour, no less, when such a sight is unlikely to have gone unnoticed.

“You can put together a story about how she could get to the nursery if she was chasing someone for play—that puts her in the approximate area where that guy was,” says Richard Knudsen, a former FBI agent who became involved in the search during the days before she was discovered. “But how in the hell does he get her back into that garage without somebody seeing something?”

Like Tommy Jacobs, Knudsen doesn’t question Barrett’s indictment. A DNA match in a case like this is a hard point to argue. But it upends his preconceptions that the answer to who killed Trimble could be found in the neighborhood. Instead, as it may turn out, the killer was someone no one knew or spotted, who killed a girl in a busy community on a February evening when the sun was only beginning to set.

“I’m flabbergasted; it defies logic,” Knudsen says. “What I don’t know is how that little girl met that man in the neighborhood and ended up the way she did.”

Talking from her new home in Kentucky as her husband naps nearby, Virginia Trimble says calmly that she wants a heartfelt confession from Barrett if he indeed is the killer. That alone could provide Trimble with the definitive account of what happened to her daughter during her last hour. Perhaps more importantly, a belated moment of honesty and penance for Barrett could finally answer her prayer from the Wailing Wall.

“If he killed Marcia, the only way he’s ever going to know what a horrible, horrible thing he’s done and how much pain he’s caused is if his soul is set free,” she says. “He needs to know what he’s done and stop hiding.”

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