Eight-year-old Phyllis Seibers and her cousin Debbie Ray, 9, pushed a tricycle with no seat downSims Road on a sunny afternoon in 1966, just a week before Christmas in the tiny factory town of Shelbyville.
"They was laughing and having a big time," Debbie's mother Thelma said at the time.
Pronounced similarly to shovel by natives, Shelbyville lies some 60 miles southeast of Nashville. It was a solidly middle-class town. Most worked for Musgrave Pencil, Empire Pencil or U.S. Rubber. If there was a poorer side of town, the Seibers' little enclave near the dump would be it.
The girls were happy and healthy on this cool winter day. Phyllis wore a long wool coat, her fine, board-straight blonde hair running down to the fur collar. Debbie wore a matching red coat. Though one was towheaded and the other dark, they shared fine-boned features, imparting a certain frailty.
The looming specter of Christmas excited them. They were off to see their grandmother, Mary Helton, who lived across from the dump and had a Christmas tree with presents to be ogled. They left around 1 p.m., saying they would be back to help decorate the tree. "They got out on the porch and they kissed me and they said, 'Bye, Mamaw, we'll be back,' " Helton said. "And that's the last I saw of them."
The girls stopped at the entrance of the dump to play near a pile of dirt. Nineteen-year-old Eddie McGee rolled past on a rickety bicycle. He lived next door to the Rays with Harold Farrar and his family. Eddie was a classic cast-off; what family he had had either disowned him or died. He was always coming to the dump, scrounging for pop bottles and bicycle parts within this 50-acre weed-choked patch of land, which was sporadically swollen with piles of garbage and junk, and lashed with criss-crossing dirt roads.
Back then, folks had entry to the dump as they pleased, leaving what they didn't want and salvaging what they did. When McGee saw sisters Mary Ann and Anita Claxton enter the dump, he followed them in. He was sweet on Mary Ann, so he watched them from a hill above.
Eddie had a thing about staring at girls, Rosie Wright, Phyllis' sister, would later say. He'd watched the Seibers and Ray children that way before. "There was one time he was standing in a lot next to my aunt's house and just staring. One of my cousins went and told him, 'You get back up yonder where you belong and quit staring.' "
Eddie was a runt for his age, 130 pounds girding a 5-foot-6 frame. He had a shock of unruly brown hair and his face and hands were often begrimed. Good hygiene, the Farrars joked, was not among Eddie's qualities. Abbie Farrar, Harold's wife, was always scolding him about washing for dinner.
When the Claxton girls left, McGee followed them out. As he passed, Debbie and Phyllis asked him where they might find discarded dolls. He directed them to a pile of garbage further in the dump.
Between 1:30 and 2 p.m., 14-year-old Roger Dale Kelly saw McGee coast down the blacktop road toward the dump again. As he approached Debbie and Phyllis, they ran, pushing the seatless tricycle before them. McGee followed just a few yards behind, and they all disappeared at another entrance to the dump.
He told them he'd find the dolls for them. They traveled deeper into the dump. That's when Eddie grabbed Phyllis and threw her to the ground. He said she was "acting smart." He slapped her. Debbie began to whimper, pleading for him to stop. At some point, he sexually molested both girls.
"I know who you are," Phyllis said. "You live up at Harold Farrar's."
"Naw, I live on the other side of town," McGee lied.
McGee made Phyllis and Debbie hide behind a tree until he left. But as he got halfway up the hill, he paused. He knew the girls would tell, and it scared him. Phyllis' daddy, Charlie Bill, was not a man to be trifled with. So he returned.
The girls tried to assure him they wouldn't say anything. "I know you're not," McGee responded, "because I'm going to take you down here and make you hide where it will take you a long time to get out."
He led them down to the Duck River and forced them to stand against a tree.
"I know this area here," Phyllis said. "I'll beat you home."
McGee picked up a softball-sized chunk of limestone and struck Phyllis in the head. She crumpled to the ground. Then he hit Debbie.
Eddie fell to his knees, straddled each girl and struck her head he doesn't know how many times with the rock. Fractures radiated over the circumference of each little skull, like spider-line breaks on a window pane. It was enough to kill them both, but not immediately. McGee felt their chests for heartbeats.
He dragged them to a drainage ditch. The banks were steep, between 8 and 10 feet tall, and thatched with maple and hickory roots. The area was flood-prone, so the water was higher than usual. The girls were tossed face-down in the muddy, stagnant liquid. McGee wanted it to appear that they'd drowned. And indeed, Phyllis did. An autopsy would reveal water and plant matter in her lungs.
McGee fled. Roger Dale Kelly saw him leave the dump, pedaling hard down Sims Road. McGee kept looking over his shoulder.
He washed his hands as soon as he got home. It was an event so peculiar that Mrs. Farrar joked with a friend about the sudden turnabout. Then he went to his room and pulled out his prized possession—a record player—placed the needle on a Chipmunks Christmas album and listened to their tinny voices sing of holiday cheer.
Later McGee returned to the dump with a gaggle of Farrar boys. The cold winter sun began to sink, taking the graying light with it. The temperature dropped by nearly 30 degrees. Clouds scudded in across the sky. They left within 45 minutes. One of the Farrars was pushing a tricycle with no seat.
When Phyllis' dad, Charlie Bill Seibers, discovered the girls weren't at Grandma's, he gathered his children and went door to door. That night, members of the local Civil Defense, city police and 200 to 300 volunteers combed the dump for Phyllis and Debbie.
At 1 a.m., Seibers and Sheriff B.H. Sanders shone flashlights down into the drainage ditch. But a dense fog had rolled in that night, obscuring their view. They found nothing. Flashlights continued to wink over the dump in the gathering murk until the search was called off at 4:30 a.m.
Earlier that evening, Eddie McGee had been rousted from bed. Tennessee Trooper Wayne Hartsfield heard that he had seen the girls that afternoon. As he rode in the trooper's car, McGee's story changed twice. "The little girls could be down that road," he told Hartsfield at one point, gesturing in the direction where the bodies were later found.
Eddie McGee was born in Nashville in 1947 to a single teen mother, the first of 12 siblings, all half brothers and sisters. He never knew his father's name. At only 3 months old, Lela Mae Farris left him with his grandparents; they would be the closest he ever came to a mother and father.
It was by no means an ideal upbringing. His grandfather, from whom Eddie took the McGee name, was an alcoholic. Grandma doted on him, but was overly protective, thwarting interaction with his peers and leaving him socially awkward as he aged.
By the second grade he couldn't relate to other children. Grandma forced him to wear a reeking asphidity bag around his neck to school in the winter. It was a pungent mixture of ginseng and yellow root dating back to 18th century Appalachia, believed to ward off colds. When a social worker visited the McGee household, 7-year-old Eddie was still sleeping in a baby bed on springs, no mattress, with a couple of quilts laid over.
By the fourth grade, McGee's IQ was estimated to be around 75 or 85, between mentally disabled and simply dull. Teachers weren't sure if his problems were mental or emotional and social. He was placed in a special ed class with older disabled children because he could read. The teacher, Mrs. Purnell Wood, became a second mother to Eddie.
"The first time I knew of Eddie was, well, before he was born," she would later say. "The year I went there (his mother) had been put out of school pregnant, and Eddie was the result... She was quite young, very low in intelligence."
Mrs. Wood described him as "small, anemic and most of the time unhappy." Each day he'd arrive out of breath because he ducked in the back of the school rather than come in the main entrance, avoiding the students who harried him. At the end of the day, he'd wait with Mrs. Wood until the campus cleared.
Eddie had a low boiling point and an even lower tolerance for stress, teachers and psychologists always said. He was fearful and occasionally violent, but not in an outwardly aggressive way. When pressed, he'd flail wildly at his tormentors. "It wasn't exactly temper," Wood said. "It was just like a cornered animal. It was fear."
When Eddie was 13, Grandma was dying of cancer. During her last days, Eddie listened to a record player in his closet. It was her gift to Eddie, and he'd play it with the volume on low, his ear placed near the speaker so as not to disturb her.
When she died, his mother came to the funeral, but he did not recognize her.
With his grandmother gone, Eddie broke loose, enjoying the freedom he never had under her disciplinarian thumb. He roamed the streets. His grandfather reported him missing, then sent him to live with an aunt and uncle. But they too couldn't handle the uncontrollable child. Eddie was secretive about so much, and he lied constantly. They caught him stealing pictures of women—not an unusual thing for a teenager, but strangely prophetic of what was to come. Fed up, they finally dumped him in juvenile court.
He was sent to Central State Mental Hospital, then to Paradise Friendly Home, an orphanage in Farmington, Ky. Eighteen months later, McGee was kicked out for peeking into the girls' dormitory and stealing their underwear, which were later found cut into little squares in his closet. He was sent back to Central State Mental Hospital.
At 16, Eddie was discharged. He moved into an apartment on Music Row, working as a cook and dishwasher. He got evicted from several places for unpaid rent, and was forced to live in a nearby alley. It was while working at Shoney's Big Boy for $36 a week that he met James Farrar, who offered him $5 a day plus room and board to work in Shelbyville.
It wouldn't be long before Farrar's wife kicked him out, so Eddie wandered down Sims Road and befriended James' brother, Harold Farrar, who asked him to stay for dinner. Farrar gave him work and a home for slopping hogs and cutting trees. Abbie Farrar, Harold's wife, took a shine to him. "We took the boy in just like he was one of our own."
But Eddie's troubles didn't stop. In September 1966, he broke into Thompson's TV and Radio Sales and stole, not surprisingly, a record player.
Fog still clung to the ground the morning after Phyllis and Debbie's disappearance. Jessie Anderson was inspecting his trap line along the Duck River at about 7:30 that morning. He worked odd jobs at the dump for James "Red" Williams, the manager. Anderson was a simple man with a failing heart. Though he could neither read nor write, he could trap and follow a track.
Anderson crossed the slough, not far from the little girls' bodies. Near a low mound of gravel and mud, he found a tiny blue tennis slipper. He picked up the child's shoe, caked in mud.
He noticed prints in the mud, about the size and shape of a man's knees, as if someone had knelt there. The leaves coating the ground were disturbed. Not far from the drainage ditch, he found a second shoe. Now he was frightened. Something bad happened here, and he worried that he'd aggravate his heart condition. He went to town and told his niece, who told Anderson's brother, who phoned dump manager Red Williams.
Williams made his way to the drainage ditch where Anderson found the shoes. Thirty paces from the shoe, Williams peered into the ditch. He immediately drove to the Triangle Market and phoned Sheriff Sanders.
Minutes later, Sanders and Williams stood in the spot where he and Charlie Bill Seibers stood the night before. The water level had fallen and they could now see the girls, their red coats plastered with river mud.
"One of them was bloody—the other was bruised," Williams told The Tennessean. "It was awful."
Near the knee prints and scuff marks, police found a piece of limestone with blonde hairs stuck to it.
The murder of two little girls churned the town like nothing before. This was a place where parents didn't think twice about letting their children walk down the street unsupervised. Shelbyville was insulated, even isolated. Teens sipped sodas at Fly's Drug Store and there were no liquor stores. If a man wanted spirits, he knocked back moonshine made in the outlying county or drank bootlegged liquor. It'd be another four years before the puny police force found its first marijuana cigarette, Times-Gazette reporter Bo recalls.
As townspeople gathered where the bodies were found, stunned by this random act of brutality, a flock of starlings flared overhead. "You had murders now and then, but nothing that shook the public like that," Melson says.
For a family about to celebrate Christmas, the grief was inarticulate. "But I had already bought her a present," Debbie's mother told The Tennessean as she wringed a handkerchief in her hands. "We were all ready."
Thelma Ray bowed her head and wept. Both girls had brand-new dolls wrapped beneath Christmas trees, which had to be taken down to make room for caskets. No Christmas tree would ever see the Seibers household again.
Eddie McGee was arrested the next day, but not for murder. He was picked up for sentencing for the stolen record player. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agents Bill Coleman and Kenneth Shelton interrogated him for five hours about the murders, but he revealed nothing.
Sheriff Sanders grew close to McGee at the county jail. He testified that his prisoner was no trouble at all, but that there was something different about the boy. When roused from sleep, his eyes were "wild," the sheriff said.
The next day Shelton and Coleman went to the Farrar home and picked up a pair of green Levi's, a button-up shirt and a pair of rubber boots from Eddie's room. They were sent to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C. The day before, Abbie Farrar found a trunk full of paper dolls McGee had made. They were mostly of young women in underwear and bathing suits. She burned them.
On Jan. 6, 1967, McGee was transferred to the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville on the burglary charge. Meanwhile, all manner of strange stories emerged in Shelbyville.
Rooster Farrar, Harold's son, told investigators he'd seen a vehicle containing several men and two bloody tow sacks at the dump, but this could never be confirmed. The young Farrar boys' stories about when and where and even if they saw the two girls fluctuated between interviews.
James Farrar, the man who brought McGee to Shelbyville, called Agent Coleman at around 2:30 a.m., a few days after McGee was arrested. He was drunk, but he had information. Coleman met Farrar and a man named Billy Lephew at a motel outside of town. In the throes of inebriation, Lephew told Coleman that his brother confessed to raping and killing the girls. Coleman later determined that Lephew's brother wasn't even in Bedford County at the time. No investigator, however, could convince the Ray family that someone as small as McGee could have acted alone. Debbie, they said, was simply too tough.
A formal murder warrant for McGee was sworn on Jan. 20. Four days later, Coleman and Shelton interrogated him once again, this time for only 70 minutes. Portions of the FBI lab report had arrived, and they wielded them mightily. The lab tests and a polygraph proved that McGee was lying, the agents told him. They asked McGee if he believed in the hereafter. He said he did. They told him he might receive God's salvation if he confessed.
So he did.
McGee never copped to the sex crimes, and he awkwardly tried to cast himself as an agent of vengeance, sticking up for Rooster Farrar, who'd allegedly been bullied by Phyllis' brothers. "I can't explain it," he said. "I don't know. The Seibers boys jumpin' on little Rooster may have had something to do with it. They pushed him on his bicycle every time he went to the store. One time, they bent his bike. I don't guess I would take trouble with the boys out on the little girls. When I first saw the girls, I had no intention of hurting them at all. I know that don't sound right."
Reporter Bo Melson says prosecutors offered McGee a deal pretrial—55 years for a guilty plea. "I said, 'Eddie, if you did it you better take it.' He never said if he did it or didn't."
The trial for Eddie McGee's life began Oct. 16, 1967. Prison didn't agree with him. Inmates threatened him; one threw a hot cup of coffee at his face. So fearful was he that he asked for a transfer to solitary confinement as he awaited trial.
For reasons unknown, the cases had been separated. The first trial would only be for the murder of Phyllis Seibers. The district attorney said he'd only try McGee for the slaying of Debbie Ray if necessary.
The court appointed Thomas Wiseman, an able attorney who primarily worked civil cases, to defend McGee. The deck was already stacked against him. A not guilty plea had already been entered on behalf of McGee by a previous attorney. Wiseman wanted to substitute it for a plea of abatement, arguing the indictment was based on unlawfully obtained evidence and that McGee hadn't been read his rights prior to the confession. Judge Bill Russell denied the motion.
The Eddie McGee everyone knew didn't show up in court. His hair was cut, slicked and parted, his clothes neat. Wiseman's strategy at first was to raise reasonable doubt. He questioned Sheriff Sanders about reports that Phyllis' brother, Ricky, was seen by several Farrar boys entering the dump at 4 p.m. that day. At that, Viola Seibers, Phyllis' mom, leapt to her feet.
"That's a lie," she yelled. Deputies approached and attempted to escort her from the courtroom. "I ain't going to leave this courtroom. I don't care who said it. Ain't no officers going to take me nowhere."
Officers physically removed her.
Wiseman contested the legality of confiscating McGee's clothing without a warrant. Judge Russell ruled that evidence inadmissible, but the confession would stay.
So Wiseman turned his attention to keeping McGee out of the electric chair. As a member of the Tennessee legislature, he'd co-sponsored a bill to abolish the death penalty in 1965. In McGee he saw a pitiable urchin who walled himself away during his time in prison. He never showed any emotion during his visits with Wiseman. A psychologist explained that Eddie was simply a sociopath—able to comprehend right and wrong but lacking a conscience. Only once during trial was that torpor shaken. During the testimony of Mrs. Wood, his beloved teacher, he cradled his face in his hands and wept.
McGee, Wiseman thought, deserved mercy.
The townsfolk were disinclined to agree with him. Threats were even made against Wiseman's life. So concerned was Judge Russell that he assigned a trooper to protect the lawyer—now a U.S. District judge—and ordered the crowd to remain seated until he left the building.
A bevy of neighbors testified, but the most damaging character testimony came from Abbie Farrar. She told of an incident in which Rooster, a precocious boy to put it mildly, stole some of Eddie's bike parts. When he refused to produce them, Eddie threw a pocketknife at the youngster, who managed to duck the blade.
McGee took the stand himself for long, often heated cross-examinations with special prosecutor Ron Wilson and District Attorney General James Kidd. He fenced ably for the most part. He denied ever confessing to more than hitting the girls with a rock. And even that was coerced, he said. Everything else was put in his mouth by TBI agents.
"I'll put it to you real simple: Had you rather confess to murder and go to the penitentiary, or confess to sexually molesting children and go to the penitentiary?" Wilson asked. He knew McGee understood the reception that awaited sex offenders in prison.
"Well, at the time when I confessed, both of the charges was on it," McGee replied.
"But which of the two had you rather confess to and go to the penitentiary?"
"If I done it, murder—yes."
Despite Eddie's protestations, the jury found him guilty. At the time, juries did the sentencing. McGee was given 99 years. The DA's office assumed it was enough to keep him shackled for life. Besides, fellow inmates would surely finish the job prosecutors couldn't convince the jury to do.
"No one ever imagined he'd survive," Melson says.
No one thought Phyllis and Debbie's killer would breathe free air again. Back then, 99 years meant 99 years. But a change in Tennessee law altered that arithmetic with good behavior. This put McGee's mandatory release date at Aug. 12—41 years into his sentence.
On the verge of his release, Bedford County indicted him for the murder of Debbie Ray. In 1967, prosecutors had seen no need to pursue a second life sentence. Now they were forced to cobble together a case from dusty files, aged or deceased witnesses and investigators, all to keep McGee from walking the streets again.
Those who knew McGee as a young man say prison has not been good to him. He's now a bent, overweight figure with sallow skin. And he's still being bullied. As recently as 2005, he was assaulted by another inmate.
Nor has he been a model prisoner. He's been written up for smashing a sink with a coffee pot and refusing orders from prison staff. In 2003, the parole board declined to hear his case because of the severity of his crime.
Yet now nothing but a guilty verdict can keep him inside.
"When the book is closed, it needs to be closed for good this time," says District Attorney General Charles Crawford.
Last month, Eddie McGee, now 61, shuffled down the courthouse steps, his hands and feet shackled. Amid a rabble of younger inmates, cocky and cat-calling a photographer who's come to take his picture, McGee stands out. He is silent and does not look at Phyllis' sister, Rosie.
He's still diminutive, but prison and age have given him a visible paunch. Puffy bags sag beneath his blue eyes, and with his head down jowls dig against his chest. It's suspected that Eddie McGee will cop a plea. After all, what kinds of prospects await a convicted murderer with an eighth grade education?
"He couldn't live in 1966 on his own," Melson says. "I don't think he'd last today."
Rosie, now in her 50s, drags on a cigarette. She's here with the rest of the family and her niece, whose pale blonde hair and delicate features make her a hereditary reflection of what Phyllis would have looked like had she grown to a woman.
Yet Charlie Bill never got to see this. Until he died, he wouldn't let a lawnmower cut the grass over the graves in Willow Mount Cemetery. He got down on his hands and knees and clipped the plots himself. This was where his daughter and niece are buried with the Christmas presents they never got to open—two brand-new dolls.