The Shadowed City will be a semi-regular series of articles exploring the impact single crimes can have on communities.
From 1998 to 2005 A&E aired City Confidential, a docuseries which sought high-profile crimes that took place in various cities. Show producers worked from the premise that the event being profiled was a crime which forever changed whatever community they featured.
Confidential followed a familiar formula: Footage of scenes and locations, insinuating narration, interviews with cops and journalists, and sometimes matter-of-fact sit-downs with living victims or others close to the case.
The idea behind the show made sense. Sometimes a single crime really does change a place. It’s something you feel, akin to the way light shifts from summer to fall. You sense it before you see it.
I know exactly when it happened in my hometown, Nashville, Tennessee. It happened in 1975. It happened at twilight on a winter’s day in an upper middle class suburb on the west side of town.
The moment a Girl Scout named Marcia Trimble vanished while out delivering cookies, Nashville became a different city.
“The girl, who would have been 10 last Friday, was found lying on her back on top of some sacks and a tire, covered partially with a plastic swimming pool, in the cluttered garage. Seven boxes of Girl Scout cookies were found near her left side.” — From the Tennessean, March 31, 1975.
Screen capture from an archived edition of the March 31, 1957 edition of the Tennessean via newspapers.com
From February 25th through the end of March investigators searched — but she’d been there all along, hidden away in a cold, dark shed.
Thirty-three days, even as neighbors, cops, volunteers from everywhere scoured the streets. Thirty-three days of kids like me all over the city watching the news and seeing ourselves, seeing a friend in her face. When you’re 5, 6, 7 years old and think, that could be me, it has a powerful effect.
What we felt was but a fraction of what Marcia Trimble’s friends experienced. A girl I dated in high school had been in Marcia’s Girl Scout troop. She was the life of the party. When she talked about Marcia she grew quiet and for a moment went away, as if she was back there and wondering where her friend was.
We had a mutual friend who was Marcia’s neighbor. This friend was supposed to deliver cookies with Marcia that day, but was too sick to go outside. When I reconnected with her decades later she made no secret of the fact that even in her forties, the murder was rarely far from her mind.
With her girlfriend, she walked me through that neighborhood one summer day. She pointed out the Trimble home, a few houses away from her own childhood home. She told me about the day of the disappearance. About TV cameras outside, police everywhere, portable light towers shattering the dark through the night. TV engineers would knock on doors asking to use the bathroom. Someone brought coffee for the police. It was like a block party of the damned.
It can get very cold in Nashville. Winters can be far more bitter than any tourist riding a pedal tavern downtown in the summer could ever imagine. I only remember the mystery of Marcia Trimble from that winter, and I remember the weather was unusually cold.
We lived on a country road and at night the only light outside was from a weak yard lamp my father installed and from our front porch. You could step outside and the dark seemed like a wall just beyond the patio. I remember growing truly afraid of that darkness, and asking my mom to lock the door each night.
The Trimble case wasn’t the only murder in Nashville that year — right around the time Marcia disappeared, Vanderbilt student Sarah Des Prez was raped and murdered, smothered to death in her apartment.
There’d also certainly been far more dramatic crimes in the past, and others — like the Des Prez murder — occurred around the same time. But the Trimble case was always different.
Here’s one thing we know now: Jeffrey Womack didn’t do it.
Womack was an older boy in the same neighborhood. Some kids found him creepy, while others had no problems at all. My friend, the one who’d been too sick to deliver cookies with Marcia, said the boy had sometimes been her babysitter, and he was a nice guy.
But Womack was disheveled and sullen, and police quickly zeroed in on him. He ended up being their forever suspect. Over the years he was stalked, the subject of stakeouts. The harassment from regular citizens and the police seemed never-ending. He’d even been arrested in 1980, only to be released due to lack of evidence. Many in Nashville were angry the police let him go.
In 2007, DNA evidence exonerated Womack. It exonerated everyone ever suspected of the crime. The Girl Scout had fallen prey to a stranger. The DNA, though, didn’t initially match anyone else.
It was two more years before a match popped up.
Jerome Barrett was in prison for a very long time. He was a convicted rapist known for the extreme violence of his attacks. In 1976 he was convicted of raping a student at Belmont University (then a college), which wasn’t far from the Trimble residence, and very close to Vanderbilt.
By 2009 Barret was 61. No one knows if he was shocked he was arrested, but it’s possible; he’d gotten away with it for so long. His DNA told the story: Evidence collected at both scenes said Barrett murdered Sarah Des Prez and Marcia Trimble.
He would later allegedly tell a fellow convict that he’d killed “four blue-eyed bitches.”
In July 2009 Barrett was found guilty and given what amounts to a life sentence for a man in his sixties — 44 years.
“In that moment, Nashville lost its innocence. Our city has never been, and never will be, the same again. Every man, woman and child knew that if something that horrific could happen to that little girl, it could happen to anyone.” — From a statement made in 2002 by Metro Nashville Police Capt. Mickey Miller.
Everything you find online about the Trimble case quotes Capt. Miller. It’s simply because he was right.
I’ve told you nothing new here — save what it was like the moment a kid realized it could happen to anyone, just as the policeman said. For many who knew the victim, it was a fault line, a crack they were unable to completely repair. For others it was an extra shadow, a shape in the dark that that stopped your breath before you realized it was just a coat thrown over a chair.
Nashville is not alone in having ghosts like Marcia Trimble. Many cities see moments when everyone realizes they have to lock the door, that they’d rather leave a nightlight on.
I’ll tell you about more of them soon.
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