Editor’s note: For the next two weeks, a Nashville Scene investigation into the murder of 9-year-old Marcia Trimble will disclose never-before-published details of what ranks as one of this city’s most infamous crimes. In this week’s installment, law enforcement officials, who continue to pursue the killer, painstakingly reconstruct the crime. As well, Virginia Trimble, Marcia’s mother, speaks for the first time in detail about the day her child was murdered.
In the summer of 1979, most Nashvillians had finally started to put the gruesome murder and sexual assault of Marcia Trimble behind them. Four years earlier, on an Easter Sunday, Trimblea feisty 9-year-old with straight blond hair, blue eyes, and freckleshad been found dead in a neighbor’s garage. But if the case had begun to fade away for most of Nashville, it was still front and center at the Metro Police Department. There, officers were obsessivelysome would say mindlesslyfocused on the case.
In its beginning stages, police had hoped they were dealing with a missing child who’d simply wandered off and gotten lost somewhere in her comfortable Green Hills neighborhood. But with the discovery of Marcia’s body 33 days later, the case became the city’s most sordidand most mysteriousunsolved murder.
That’s why police investigators had pursued the case so relentlessly for four years. And in August 1979, they were certain they’d zeroed in on her killer. The effort had been Herculean. Some 300 officers had been involved in some aspect of the investigation. Literally hundreds of individuals had been interviewed, some repeatedly, and many uncooperatively. In response to the flurry of tips that flooded in after her death, police had established a militaristic-looking mobile command post near the neighborhood where Marcia lived. One rugged detective had gone undercover, passed himself off as an ex-con, and washed dishes with the prime suspect at a local restaurant where the suspect worked.
For nearly a full day, assistant district attorney Pat Apel and police investigators conferred about how, and when, they should arrest their suspect. They wanted to surprise him, thinking that if news of the arrest warrant leaked out, the suspect might flee, or even kill himself. On Aug. 28, at 2 o’clock in the morning, officers made their move.
At the time of the murder, the suspect, Jeffrey Womack, had lived at 4102 Copeland Dr., a block uphill from the Trimble home at 4009 Copeland Dr., near Harpeth Hall. Womack had seen Marcia the day she disappeared. Now the 20-year-old Hillsboro High School dropout was staying with his brother at the Parkside Apartments at 3212 West End Ave., a stone’s throw from what is now Tin Angel restaurant. When four police cars converged outside the building, their suspect was calmly standing in front his apartment. Meeting the officers at the door, the barefoot Womack was clad in cut-off jeans and a Spats Restaurant T-shirt. Sporting a fresh mustache, he wore his brown, bushy hair down to his neck.
“I have been expecting you,” he reportedly told police.
“This is your day of reckoning,” one of the seven arresting officers sternly replied.
Womack did not protest his arrest. In fact, he took it calmly, although police do remember teardrops moistening his eyes as he tried not to cry. Handcuffed, he was hauled to Juvenile Courthe was 15 years old when the murder occurredand charged with first-degree murder. He then was set free on $25,000 bond. Expressing the pent-up emotions of an entire city, the next day’s Nashville Banner fairly exploded. “Marcia Trimble Suspect Nabbed,” screamed the headline across the top of the afternoon newspaper, which not only broke the story of Womack’s arrest but meticulously reported its finer details.
The Police Department’s actions on that August night more than two decades ago embodied everything right and wrong about its investigation. The officers were dogged and tireless. They were motivated by a sense of responsibility that often transcended their calling as cops. But some would say that very same sense of responsibility and commitment made them at times unable to handle the case in a professional way. Consider, for example, one of the arresting officers’ “day of reckoning” comment to Womackthe Trimble case had clearly gotten personal.
Along the seemingly safe and peaceful streets of West Nashville, dinnertime conversations in the wake of Womack’s arrest once again turned to the macabre. Was this a result of some evil, outside perpetrator? Or did the evil reside among the neighbors, heretofore undetected or unrecognized? Over backyard fences and at impromptu community gatherings, the speculation was unceasing and all-consuming. To some, the Trimble murder signaled the end of an era for a relatively sleepy, mid-sized metropolitan city. If Nashville’s genteel subdivisions had somehow seemed sheltered from the more troubling developments in America in the late ’60swar, assassinations, political unrestthen the Trimble murder had officially served notice that Nashville was no different than anywhere else. In an area of town given over to broad lawns and tall trees, filled with diligent, hardworking families intent on leading decent lives, something very horrible had taken place.
“It was every bit the JonBenet Ramsey case here in Nashville,” says Teddy Bart, who hosted an afternoon talk-radio show on WSM at the time and lived within a five-minute walk from the garage where Trimble’s body was found. “It had all the elements: a beautiful little girl, a murder, a bungled police operation, fundamentalist religion, and a neighborhood where things like this aren’t supposed to happen. Never before or after have I witnessed an event which so infused the totality of this town like the Marcia Trimble case.”
Between the time that Trimble was murdered and Womack was arrested, the neighborhood was decimated. More than half of the 22 families who had lived on Copeland Drive moved during that time span, according to a 1979 report in The Tennessean.
Former homicide Lt. Tommy Jacobs, who investigated the murder, says that for whatever reason, many of the children in the neighborhood stagnated in the years after the killing. “We interviewed the kids when they were 9 and 10 years old and went back and interviewed them 20-some-odd years later,” he says. “You won’t believe how many of the kids wound up in a mental institution or working at a gas station. Several of the kids were still living at home.”
For numerous reasons, Womack’s 1979 arrest stagnated as well. Within a year, then-district attorney Tom Shriver dropped the case for lack of evidence. From 1980 to 1990, the investigation into Marcia’s murder more or less lay dormant. But in 1990, Jacobs and Capt. Mickey Miller, head of Metro Police’s personal crimes unit, reignited the department’s efforts and began reinterviewing witnesses, collecting DNA samples, and scrutinizing aging evidence. For six years, they spent hours upon hourssometimes off-dutytracking dubious leads from California to Maine, eliminating some suspects, and focusing anew on others. In 1996, Jacobs left the department, although he still remains very close to the investigation.
Today, as police continue to track new leads and rework old theories, they haven’t scratched Womack off their list. In fact, rightly or wrongly, many of the original officers who worked the case, along with those who continue it today, still think that Jeffrey Womack was involved inor at the very least had knowledge ofwhat happened to Marcia during the final minutes of her life.
“I don’t have any problem with thinking that Womack did it,” says assistant police chief Judy Bawcum, who served on the task force that investigated the murder. “I never thought it was an intentional act. I thought it was an accidental killing.”
Capt. Miller is a bit more circumspect, but he acknowledges that Womackwho as recently as last August was living in nearby Spring Hillremains a suspect. “Jeffrey has more questions to answer than anyone else we have identified, but he might have some answers,” he says. “The only problem we have with Jeffrey is that he wouldn’t let us interview him. If he’s not guilty, we need his help to clear him. He has never cooperated with this investigation.”
Some observers who’ve followed the case argue that the perpetrator was an adult, meaning that Womack couldn’t have committed the crime. But based on the bulk of evidence they’ve collected, the officers who’ve pursued the case most intensively insist that the killer was almost certainly a juvenile. They’re backed up in that assertion by an official report from the FBI.
In the meantime, Miller has continued his quest to solve a crime that many think will remain forever a mystery. He hopes that the emergence of new DNA technology, a confession, or some other break in the case will finally lead police to the killer. “I want us to tell Mrs. Trimble what happened to her daughter,” he says. “I want to give her some answers.”
Like any number of young suburban girls in the mid-’70s, Marcia Trimble enjoyed roller-skating and watching the TV show Little House on the Prairie; her favorite singer was Donny Osmond. She snacked on hamburgers and powdered donuts, but she preferred fruits and even liked broccoli.
“Marcia was really sweet and funny,” says Jill Jackson, a fourth-grade classmate of Marcia’s at Julia Green Elementary. “She could be fun in a goofy way. She was really smart and just quirky enough to be interesting, but not weird.”
Although Marcia was popular among her friends, she could be shy around others. With her family, however, she talked incessantly. Even when she and her brother, Chuck, landed themselves in trouble and got sent to their respective rooms, Marcia would sneak across the hall and deliver written messages.
She liked to draw and loved to write. Ominously, the year she disappeared, she penned a mysterious story called “The Vanishing Treasure Chest,” the tale of a girl named Beth who felt haunted by two mysterious men. Police would later inspect the finer points of the story, grasping vainly for potential clues.
The details of what happened on the Tuesday evening of Marcia’s disappearance have never been reported in full. What follows is a careful reconstruction, much of it based on information never before released to the public, of what happened from the day she disappeared to the discovery of her body 33 days later. The reconstruction has been based on extensive interviews with Marcia’s mother, Virginia; on interviews with nearly every significant investigator from the Metro Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation involved in the case; and on public sources of information, particularly the Nashville Banner and The Tennessean.
On Feb. 25, 1975, at approximately 5:10 p.m., young Marcia was inside her family’s three-bedroom, two-bathroom, red-brick home while her mother, a kindergarten teacher, prepared dinner in the kitchen. Charles Trimble, Marcia’s father, was in the den; his mother Eunice had just dropped by the house with dessert. Marcia’s brother, Chuck, and his good friend and neighbor, March Egerton, were playing basketball outside at the end of the driveway.
Dinner was almost ready, but Virginia Trimble remembers her daughter telling her that she was going to run across the street to drop off some Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor, Marie Maxwell.
“Put your coat on, honey,” Virginia told her daughter.
“Oh Mom, I won’t need my coat. I’ll be right back,” Marcia replied.
Between 5:15 and 5:25, Marcia innocently headed out the back door onto the driveway. Standing 4 feet 10 inches, she was dressed in blue jeans, white socks, black boots, and a navy-blue-and-white checkered blouse with red-and-white trim at the collar. She was holding a cardboard box that carried her Girl Scout cookies, along with an envelope containing around $20 she had collected. Chuck and March, still playing basketball, asked her if she wanted to join them in a game of HORSE, a shooting contest, but she declined.
March and Chuck soon ended their game, and Chuck rode his motor scooter around the yard. According to a police affidavit signed years later, March, a 10-year-old who lived right across the street at 4014 Copeland Dr., saw his mother pulling out of the family driveway on her way to pick up some dinner. He spoke with her, telling her what he wanted from a nearby fast food restaurant.
At approximately the same time Marcia left home, Marie Maxwell, who lived almost directly across the street from the Trimbles, pulled into her driveway and began unloading groceries from her car. Through a hedge, she was sure she saw Marcia in a neighboring driveway with two people, one taller, one smaller. Capt. Miller says, “Maxwell was 99 percent sure the smaller of Marcia’s two companions was March.” As for the taller companion, Maxwell once thought it might have been Womack, but she never knew for sure. To this day, police have yet to make a positive identification of Marcia’s two companionsperhaps the greatest obstacle to solving this crime.
As Maxwell unloaded her car, she was only able to see Marcia’s back, but she recognized the girl’s profile. Maxwell also noticed that Trimble was holding the cookie box. Confident that it was Marcia she had seen, Maxwell then walked back into her house to write a check for the cookies she had ordered. But Marcia never came by.
An eyewitness later told police that around 5:30 p.m., he saw a girl who looked like Marcia near the corner of Estes and Hobbs, about three-tenths of a mile from the driveway where she was last seen. Marcia was, according to the witness, not carrying her cookie box. A second eyewitness saw Marcia five minutes later farther up the street, on Hobbs walking away from Copeland, near a tree nursery. This witness also says that Trimble was without her cookie box and that she looked confused. Miller theorizes that one of the two children with her in the driveway may have stolen the cookie box, and she may have left in hot pursuit.
Between 5:30 and 6 p.m., Jeffrey Womack walked into the home of Peggy Morgan, who lived right next door to Womack at 4100 Copeland Dr., an easy walk from Trimble’s residence. Morgan ran a day-care business of sorts in her home, and Womack sometimes helped her baby-sit the kids. According to Miller, Morgan remembers that when Womack walked in, he was “hot and sweaty.” Womack explained to Morgan that he’d been playing basketball.
Back at the Trimble home, dinner was ready, and Virginia began to wonder where her daughter was. She walked outside and looked for Marcia from her front yard. “I called her, she did not come, called her again, she did not come,” Trimble remembers. She then went to call her daughter from the backyard, then again from the front yard. Virginia noticed the family’s dogs, Popcorn and Princess, who often followed the two Trimble children around. The dogs were on the opposite side of the street.
Naturally, the Trimbles began to worry. At around 7 p.m., Marcia’s father, Charles, rang up his old friend, police detective Sherman Nickens, and asked what he should do about his missing daughter. The hard-boiled detective, who’d attended the Trimbles’ wedding years earlier, told Charles to take a ride through the neighborhood. Charles and his son followed Nickens’ advice, but they still couldn’t find Marcia. Again, he called Nickens, who then drove out to the home. Youth guidance and homicide officers also arrived at the scene.
George Currey, the commander of the youth guidance division, was one of the first to arrive. “It was unusual for a child in that area to be missing. One thing that entered my mind was that her name was Trimble, and we had a divorce judge by that same name. We were concerned there was a kidnapping to get back at the judge, or that she got ill or hit by a car.”
Currey, realizing the gravity of the situation, says he soon “called for everybody I could to be available.” By 9 p.m., search teams comprised of police officers and recruits, members of civil defense units, and highway reserve officers were blanketing the area with flashlights. At least one helicopter flew over the neighborhood shining a spotlight on the homes below, with a search worker calling out to Marcia over a loudspeaker.
Many of the officers at the scene thoughtor perhaps hopedthat Marcia had wandered off and simply lost track of time. Others figured she’d had a fight with her parents and, much like children do all the time, had run off in a fit. Any moment, they thought, this lovely, little child would amble back into the neighborhood and wonder quite innocently what all the fuss was about.
But Judy Bawcum, who was there that night as a youth guidance officer, had a bad feeling almost immediately. “There was something in your gut that told you this was something different. This wasn’t just a typical missing kid case,” she says. “I can’t describe it, it [was] just instinct.”
That evening, Marcia Trimble’s sudden disappearance made it onto the television news. Oprah Winfrey, then a fledgling television reporter for WTVF-Channel 5, was one of the first on the scene. She knocked on the door of the Trimble home, and Charles sternly informed her that the family wouldn’t be granting any interviews. Not wanting to appear impolite, even under the circumstances, Virginia told Winfrey, “Please excuse us. Understand, our child is missing.” Winfrey obliged and left.
One of the first officers to arrive on the scene was detective Tommy Jacobs, a well-regarded, stone-tough cop who once survived a gunshot to his face. He and other officers interviewed many of the neighborhood kids about Marcia’s whereabouts. “The night Marcia was missing,” Jacobs remembers, “we were told that she would be right back, she was with Jeffrey Womack.”
Immediately, the officers went to Womack’s home, but he wasn’t there. Between 9 and 10 p.m., however, Womack heard that the police were looking for him, and he voluntarily walked into the Trimble home, which already was starting to look like a makeshift police precinct. He told police that he had been at a local quarry looking for Marcia Trimble. On his shoes were written the words “fuck you”which, needless to say, did not go unnoticed. “That made us think he was someone we needed to talk to,” Jacobs says.
Although Womack’s story clashed somewhat with what police had heard from neighborhood children, they did not immediately finger him as a suspect. But they did want to speak with him because they thought he might be able to provide some clues. Performing a search of his pockets, they found an unused condom.
Soon after the interview had ended, neighbor Peggy Morgan, then in her early 30s, walked into the Trimble home. Facing the police, she said, “Jeffrey did not do anything. He was with me.”
That raised some of the officers’ suspicions. Why, first of all, was she defending Womack? And how could Morgan have known what police were questioning Womack about? In fact, Jacobs says police later determined that Morgan was not with Womack for a good part of that evening. She had gone bowling, while Womack stayed at her home to baby-sit the kids in her care.
Morgan, according to various reports, has since married and no longer lives in the neighborhood. The Scene was unable to locate her. For his part, Jacobs says he doesn’t think Morgan knows anything for sure, but “she was very protective of Jeffrey, and we couldn’t figure out why.”
In the early days of the investigation, as police began pouring questions on Womack, the young man’s parents thought officers were pressuring their son. So they hired attorney John Hollins Jr. to represent him, a relationship that continues to this day.
Three days after Trimble disappeared, police Capt. Noble Brymer administered a lie-detector test to Womack and asked him if he’d harmed Marcia Trimble. He said he hadn’t. Years later, Brymer told the Nashville Banner that he thought Womack was being truthful.
As that first night dragged on, it became clear that Marcia had not simply lost track of time. The search continued. Police dogs sniffed out the area, while neighbors were urged to check their attics, basements, and garages. That evening, police investigators set up a command post in Virginia and Charles’ bedroom and even set up their own phone line by drilling a hole through the wall.
Two years earlier, Virginia Trimble had had a profound religious experience. “I asked Jesus if He was real and if He would reveal Himself to me, I’d serve Him every day for the rest of my life,” she recalls. During her first night without her daughter, the teary-eyed woman knelt by Marcia’s bed and prayed.
“I talked to God like a friend. I said, ‘I’m going to put my cards on the table. Lord, Marcia’s missing, and you know where she is. God, please take care of her and keep her warm and dry.’ ”
Charles Trimble, a native Nashvillian and graduate of Montgomery Bell Academy and Vanderbilt University, worked in sales for Keith-Simmons, an industrial supply company. He could hardly have been prepared for the hordes of TV cameramen and reporters who had descended on his home. On Wednesday, the day after Marcia vanished, he stood in his front yard and pleaded before reporters for the safe return of his daughter. Tennessean writer Nancy Varley described his face as etched with “lines of worry and pain.”
Despite their anguish, the Trimble family cooperated fully with authorities. Virginia and Charles each took lie-detector tests and answered whatever questions were asked. Chuck, the older brother, even helped out with the search, and Virginia saw a hypnotist to help her remember details related to the disappearance. “We never got a lawyer,” she says. “Why would we need one? Whatever the police suggested we do, we did.”
During the first 24 hours, the search for Marcia Trimble verged on chaos. On the scene were four different police units: youth guidance, homicide, intelligence, and patrol. Each unit had its own command structure, making the sharing of information almost impossible, especially in a time before computers revolutionized the gathering and dissemination of data.
“We had too many people involved,” Bawcum says. “We had different components of the department, and we weren’t communicating for the common good.”
“You had some turf wars going on; one element wouldn’t tell the other element what was going on,” says Russell Hackett, who served as a sergeant in homicide at the time.
Along with nearly 200 police officers, television and print reporters milled about, while a parade of curious onlookers cruised through the scene in morbid fascination. TV cameras set up outside the Trimble home, and portable toilets were placed in the front yard.
“I remember so distinctly going out there the day after, and it was a carnival atmosphere,” says FBI agent Richard Knudsen. “You had way too many peopletoo many media, way too many search people. There was so much milling around, you almost started looking for a Ferris wheel.”
After that first day, the police started doing a better job organizing their efforts. Pairs of detectives would visit homes in the neighborhood at least once, and often more than that. They’d ask residents if they’d seen Marcia, if they’d bought Girl Scout cookies from her, if they knew her parents, even if they had seen Popcorn and Princess, the dogs.
With nearly the entire city following the search in the newspapers or on television, police were inundated with bogus reports that Marcia Trimble had been sighted. Various accounts had her at Centennial Park, Clarksville Highway, and even in the town of Bucksnort. One television station received a tip that a black family in East Nashville was holding Trimble hostage, while authorities arrested one man for broadcasting on CB radio that she had been seen at the Haywood Lane exit off I-24. Yet another sighting even had her at the Canadian border.
Because the Trimble family was not particularly wealthy, authorities did not suspect she’d been kidnapped; however, they did not dismiss that possibility entirely.
In the meantime, search teams continued to scour the neighborhood and well beyond. From Percy Priest Lake to Radnor Lake to Percy Warner Park, police trooped through the city’s remote, isolated areas where a kidnapper might take a live hostage, or where a murderer might dump a dead body. Police also flew in specially trained search dogs from Philadelphia that had assisted in the manhunt for Patty Hearst. The dogs were given articles of Marcia’s clothing to help pick up her scent. They then sniffed their way through the neighborhood.
From the lowest-ranking police cadet to Police Chief Joe Casey, everyone worked furiously to find Marcia Trimble, hoping to discover her alive and well. Casey even ferried a renowned psychic from the airport and, acting on the psychic’s premonition, searched for Marcia Trimble at a pond off Highway 100.
“I was chief of police, and I was looking like everyone else was,” Casey remembers. “We searched the wooded areas, we had helicopters and dogs, we went door to door. It was a huge search.”
Three people told authorities they had spotted a suspicious man driving a white, ’50s model Chevrolet or Oldsmobile in the area at the time of Marcia’s disappearance. According to a Tennessean story, the witnesses described the man as having a large nose and a bushy head of hair. Police eventually picked up the man, who turned out to be a music promoter, and cleared him after two days of questioning.
The Trimbles tried as best they could to keep up a routine. The Sunday after her disappearance, they went to the Lord’s Chapel, a Pentecostal Church then at the corner of Granny White Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard, and prayed intently for Marcia’s return. To help bring about some semblance of normality, police dismantled the command post they’d put together in the family’s master bedroom and moved it to the department’s youth guidance division off Elm Hill Pike.
The longer Marcia Trimble remained missing, however, the more police began to doubt she would ever be found alive. Virginia Trimble tried to maintain hope and even would smile before TV reporters in an effort to keep up herand everyone else’sspirits. “I believed she was alive, but people told me I needed to come to the fact that she was dead,” she says.
The FBI’s Richard Knudsen stayed at the Trimble home for part of the long ordeal. He remembers that Virginia’s deep-rooted faith sustained her and the investigators, even as the likelihood of Marcia’s safe return began to dwindle. “She wasn’t the sobbing, hysterical mother that some expected to see,” Knudsen says. “Rather, she was a woman of great faith who expected her daughter would come back.”
At 11 a.m. on March 30, four weeks and five days after Marcia walked out her back door, a Memphian named Harry Moffett was looking for a boat engine cover in a garage off Copeland Drive. Moffett’s relatives, the Thorpes, owned the house behind which the garage sat. The garage, a dilapidated structure made of rotting wood and with no windows, was about 200 yards from the Trimble home.
Sifting through piles of junk, Moffett saw a girl’s legs underneath some clutter. Thinking it might have been a doll, but still not entirely sure, Moffett and another relative poked the body with a stick. Then they notified John Thorpe, who owned the home, and he promptly called police. On Easter Sunday, two days after what would have been her 10th birthday, Marcia Trimble was no longer missing.
Search teams had scoured the garage previously, leading some to believe that the killer had dumped her body some time after the crime had been committed. Retired police chief Joe Casey still believes that she wasn’t in the garage the whole time. Today, however, police investigators point to evidence that they say shows Trimble walked into the garage voluntarily before she was killed. Soil tests on her shoes reveal that she most likely wasn’t dragged, and tests of generations of insects found on her body suggest that she had been lying there the whole time. Finally, tests performed on how the blood pooled in her body appear to indicate that she hadn’t been moved too far from where she was discovered.
“Every indication forensically is that she was in the garage for 33 days,” Miller says.
The day Marcia’s body was found, Judy Bawcum got word from George Currey. She was at church with the Trimbles, and her instructions were clear: Bring the family back home as soon as possible. When Charles and Virginia pulled into their driveway, detective Sherman Nickens, their old friend, greeted them and said that he had some bad news. They went inside, and Nickens told them: “Marcia has been found, and she’s dead.”
“Charlie cried, and I said, ‘How do you know it was Marcia?’ ” Virginia recalls. “I could not believe she was dead. I just knew she’d be found alive. So many times, I told them, ‘You don’t understand. I want her to be found alive.’ ”
Charles wanted to know many of the details of his daughter’s death; Virginia did not. Both, however, chose not to see their daughter’s dead body. “We wanted to remember her the way she was,” Virginia says. “We didn’t want to know what she looked like after 33 days.”
Marcia’s killer stole her Girl Scout cookie money, leading police to believe that the perpetrator was a juvenile. Authorities ruled that the young girl had been strangled. It would be another four and a half years before the Trimbles would learn that their daughter had been sexually assaulted before she was killed.
The years following the discovery of Marcia’s body would be extraordinarily difficult for everyone involved. The case would prove, time and again, a Sisyphean effort. No matter how much work police investigators did, they never found themselves close to a resolution. But still they continued, chasing down leads and returning time and again, it seemed, to their prime suspect.
Next week: An in-depth look at the undercover operation that led to Jeffrey Womack’s 1979 arrest, along with a look at the more recent police investigations.