From the age of 15 until his late 40s, Jeffrey Womack stood accused of committing the most notorious crime in Nashville’s living memory: the Feb. 25, 1975, murder of 9-year-old Marcia Trimble. He was arrested for the killing in 1979, but prosecutors dropped the case without seeking an indictment. Through the years, Womack stood mute as powerful officials and ordinary citizens called him a child-killer. With the actual murderer identified by irrefutable DNA evidence and jailed for life, Womack now speaks out. Along with retired attorney John Hollins, who represented him for decades, Womack is co-author of The Suspect: A Memoir, released last week. A companion documentary on Womack’s case, produced by WSMV anchor Demetria Kalodimos, premieres Monday, November 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Belcourt Theater.
“It is a story that shames a cadre of law enforcement officers, from both the Metro Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” writes John Seigenthaler, editor and publisher emeritus of The Tennessean, in the book’s foreword. “They recklessly and self-righteously made Jeffrey Womack a victim — a target of serious suspicion — some of them entertaining that possibility from the very first night of Marcia Trimble’s disappearance.”
In this excerpt, Womack recalls his youth before and after he came under suspicion.
Editor’s note: Some profanity within the text has been altered by The City Paper.
I was supposed to be scared. They thought they could shock me into confessing to something I didn’t do. It was logical for them to believe that. People will tell you anything you want to hear if you scare them enough. But I wasn’t frightened. I was angry.
The day before, August 27, 1979, was my twentieth birthday. After staying up past midnight on the front porch of my brother Jonathan’s apartment, I had watched about fifteen cops in SWAT gear swoop in at two in the morning. Now, in the middle of the night, they had me plopped down in front of a table in a little room at the juvenile detention center.
I would end up getting to know all those cops and detectives better than I ever wanted to. One of them was Officer Arlene Moore. Now, I try to speak like a gentleman when I’m talking to a lady. But I was just a little bit agitated.
Arlene said, “It’s your last chance to talk to us, Jeffrey. If you ever want to talk to us, talk to us now.”
I stared at her for a long moment. “Yeah,” I said. “Okay. I’ll talk to you.”
They all started snatching pens and pads as they gathered around the table, leaning in. I looked around at them.
“F*** you,” I said.
Well, I come up out of that chair awful quick. They hauled me out of there, right off down the hallway. One of the jailers shoved me into a cell. He yelled, “They finally got your ass!” And then he slammed the door.
I hope this story will give people a sense of who that kid was. I hope our memoir shows how a fifteen-year-old boy copes with being suspected of murdering a child, how he deals with police harassment that continues throughout his teen years, and how, at the age of twenty, he faces all the gathered power of the state, laser-focused on sending him to prison for the rest of his life.
I also hope that by speaking out publicly, I can put to rest the misconceptions that even some well-meaning people have voiced about me ever since my nine-year-old neighbor Marcia Trimble went missing the night of February 25, 1975, 33 days before she was found strangled in a shed near her home. The half-truths and outright lies repeated about me over the years are like a series of viral syndromes.
There’s the “you must have done something to get into that much trouble” syndrome. After all, the police don’t throw massive resources into tormenting a teenaged boy for no good reason, do they? Well, I don’t know.
I do know this much: I did not kill Marcia Trimble. I did not have anything to do with Jerome Barrett, the man convicted in 2009 for her murder on the basis of solid DNA evidence. I did not know anything about her murder. I did not sexually abuse her or any other child. And I never “confessed” to anyone that I had killed her.
But I have heard it plenty of times: “Jeffrey brought this all on himself.” So I did. I brought it on myself because I was your basic 1970s wise-ass kid, a long-haired dope-smoker. I brought it on myself because I was having an affair with a woman more than twice my age — sure, that means I must be a pedophile, right? I brought it on myself because I had lawyers who were so good the police were scared of them. Most of all, I brought it on myself because I did not let them break me.
Another syndrome: “All Jeffrey had to do was talk to the police.” Now that Barrett is in prison, some people who were involved in the case say I could have put an end to all the scrutiny and suspicion if only I had not gotten attorneys and, on their advice, refused to speak to investigators. People act like lawyering up is an automatic admission of guilt. That strikes me as a pretty un-American way of thinking.
Attorney John Hollins and I have obtained documents proving how desperately the cops were trying to pin the crime on me. These papers show how narrow-minded they were in contorting their supposed evidence — important parts of which were either manipulated or completely made-up — so it would fit with their theories.
They hounded my teenaged friends and people in the neighborhood, interrogating them again and again to try to find out something damaging about me. They sent an undercover officer to pose as a co-worker and try to get me to incriminate myself. They hired a psychiatrist who analyzed my mind without ever meeting me. We now know they even tried to get prosecutors to indict me in 1991, eleven years after their first case against me collapsed from a complete lack of evidence and nine years after District Attorney Tom Shriver told The Tennessean that the 1979-80 prosecution had been a “serious injustice” and said: “I now feel that Jeffrey Womack did not do it.”
The Metro Nashville Police detectives working the Trimble case wanted me, not justice. For attorneys to let them question me would have been nothing short of legal malpractice.
I have also heard more than I want to hear of the “poor Jeffrey, this whole thing has ruined his life” syndrome. My life today suits me just fine, thank you. Yes, part of the reason I dropped out of high school was that I was tired of the taunting and suspicion from my classmates. But I left mainly because I was bored with school. I had been earning money from my childhood years on — cutting yards, delivering newspapers, helping out in the day care center next door, and working shifts at a restaurant. When I got a full-time restaurant job offer in the middle of junior year, I bailed on school and never looked back.
These days, I work hard and make a decent living. I have a nice home. I have all the friends I need. I am a father and a grandfather. Spending three decades as the suspect in the most notorious murder in Nashville history was a maddening experience, but it did not ruin my life. I made sure it couldn’t.
Almost anyone who lived in Nashville during the 1970s will say the murder of Marcia Trimble changed the entire city’s way of life. Part of the reason it shocked people so much was that our neighborhood was a quiet, middle-class suburb close to Belle Meade. What really freaked everyone out, though, was the police theory that the killer was a neighbor and a teenager. Within my neighborhood, it was suddenly as if anyone we knew might be a perverted murderer. And all over town, folks began to wonder what evil was lurking in their midst.
Before the night Marcia disappeared, a police car was a rare sight on Copeland Drive. For that matter, there was little reason for any unfamiliar auto to come down Copeland or Dorcas Drive, the neighborhood’s other side street. Our little area was not on the way to anywhere, and traffic was light.
My family and I lived at 4102 Copeland. Our house had three bedrooms and two bathrooms to accommodate my parents and their three boys. I was the youngest. Next-door was 4100 Copeland, a house much like ours. A recently divorced woman named Peggy Morgan moved in there in the summer of 1973, when I was almost 14, and started running a day-care operation from the home.
These days, those two modest homes are still there. But many other little houses on Copeland and Dorcas have been scraped off their spacious lots and replaced with huge mansions that sell for $1 million and up. That’s the case at 4009 Copeland, where Marcia Trimble and her family lived.
I was older than Marcia, but just about everyone knew everyone else on Copeland and Dorcas. It was normal for kids to ride bikes around the area, play in the street, and walk to each other’s homes without parents watching over them. There were rules: “Don’t go past Hobbs Road. Don’t get onto Estes.” Those busier streets were our borders. But within our area, the kids could more or less run free.
When it snowed, the Trimbles and all the other families would come out and build a bonfire at the four-way stop at the bottom of sledding hills where Copeland met Dorcas. I remember there was a man in the neighborhood who worked for a liquor distributor. His company car was a station wagon set up with a portable bar in the back. He would open that up, and the grown-ups would stand around drinking samples of his wares to keep warm while we sledded down the hills, over and over.
Our family was certainly middle-class, perhaps even affluent by some standards. But my brothers and I had a blue-collar attitude. Tommy IV, who was four years older, graduated from high school and for a while attended Nashville Tech before becoming a grocery store manager. Jonathan, who was two years ahead of me, had already dropped out of school by the time I was fifteen, though he later went back to finish. He was working in a grocery, too. Grocery work ran in the family.
We were connected to the H.G. Hill family, but we were not connected in a way that meant we inherited wealth. My great-grandmother, Eliza Hill Womack, was a sister of Horace Hill Sr., who founded the grocery chain and real estate company in 1895. She lived to the age of 97, passing away in September 1974, so we kids knew her well.
For several decades, my grandfather and father had their own small chain of grocery stores called Womack’s Nu-Way. There were thirteen stores at one time. The last one closed in the early 1970s, I think.
I remember going into the stores for just one reason: to fish bottle caps out of the soft-drink machine. My uncle lived in the Imperial House Apartments across from the Belle Meade Theater.
We would go over there and stay with our uncle sometimes. And there was a deal where, for six RC Cola bottle caps, you could see the Saturday matinee at the Belle Meade Theater. So we’d go to my grandfather’s grocery store, and he had a string with a magnet we could use to reach into the machine. We’d grab up our RC bottle caps so when we went to stay with our uncle, we could go across the street and see the matinee.
After Womack’s Nu-Way stores closed, my Dad had a job as a television salesman and then as a boiler operator. He was a hard worker, good with his hands. When he had free time, his passion was working on wood out in our garage. I have a checkerboard and a candlestick that he made by hand. He made mahogany gavels for my attorneys. He used to make us wooden toy guns, sanding them down smooth. Other kids would come over to play, and they didn’t like their plastic guns. They wanted guns like we had, made out of wood.
I met my neighbor Peggy Morgan when she was thirty and I was fourteen years old. I remember right after she moved in, she threw this big party for her day-care clients, and — this is embarrassing — she dressed me up as a clown, and I drove the kids all around our yards in a golf cart.
I started hanging out over there with my brothers. We partied quite a bit, at first. Peggy took me to Wendell Smith’s liquor store, and I got a case of liquor — twelve fifths, all the clear liquors to make Long Island Tea with. We also made daiquiris. We’d plug watermelons in the bathtub and put pure grain alcohol in them. She even had a wooden chest in her hallway with a locked drawer where we would keep our bongs and dope. In the summer of 1974, she went on vacation for a week, and the woman she left in charge really took the partying to a new level. Peggy was furious when she got back and found out what we had been up to. She fired the woman and put a halt to most of the partying.
I was really surprised that she let me drive her car at fourteen years old. I’d go to Green Hills Market and get all the groceries for the day-care. One day, I got pulled over doing about seventy miles an hour down Kenner Avenue. Got thrown in jail. Got the car towed in. She got me out. Peggy knew the right people. She had pull. But I wasn’t allowed to drive again after that.
Peggy took an interest in me. She thought I didn’t do well in school simply because I didn’t see any reason to. When I was still fourteen, Peggy told me, “For every ‘A’ you make, I’ll give you five dollars.” I aced all my classes, and for the first time in my career at West End Junior High I made the honor roll. I never did it again. I remember she called me a “little s***” because I took her money. That was a lot of money in those days. Five classes, five bucks a class!
At some point, after I had turned fifteen, she took Jonathan and me to see Summer of ’42 at the old Green Hills Theater. That’s the one where the young guy is seduced by the older woman. Not long afterward, we went bowling one night out at Donelson Lanes. I got pretty high on pot that night. When we got back, the physical contact happened for the first time.
I had figured it was going to happen. Even as young as I was, I could see where things were going. I was not real experienced, but she was not my first one.
Peggy was good to me. But eventually she got to where there was no more smoking pot in the house, no more drinking in the house. And then I got excited about getting a car when I was sixteen, in the fall of 1975. Boy, she got madder than hell. “You have no business getting a car at your age,” she would tell me. “Don’t you bring it anywhere near me.” John Hollins figured she was upset because she was losing control over me.
By that time, anyway, she and I both had a lot more on our minds than a new car.
In early 1975, I was getting out of school at West End an hour earlier than anyone else. There was some sort of work program, even for ninth-graders. Peggy would pick me up.
On February 25, I helped take care of the kids at her house for part of the afternoon. When my shift was over, I went back home, watched some TV, and took a nap on the living room couch. I was half-asleep when I heard someone at the door. It was Marcia Trimble.
She wanted the money for the cookies our family had ordered. I said, “Look, I don’t have the money. I’ll get it down there to you later.” She said, “That’s fine.” She didn’t leave the cookies. She walked out and sat down at the top of the ditch in our front yard. My Mom was right across the street, getting her hair done by Anita Collins in one of the front rooms of the Collins house. They saw her going through her papers, figuring out which delivery to do next, I guess.
Somewhere that afternoon, I’m pretty sure my friend Doug and I played a little basketball. I think we played after the nap I took. This was actually the very beginning of my troubles. When I talked to him years later, he said, “Jeffrey, I just don’t remember.” I think that’s what he told the cops when they went to talk to him. And instead of writing that answer down, they just said, “Jeffrey’s a liar.”
Late in the afternoon, I went back to work at Peggy’s and then I went with Amy Norvell, a woman in her twenties who also worked for Peggy, to McDonald’s in Green Hills to get burgers for the kids. And here we go. This is the big deal. Was it 5:00 or 5:15? Was it five after five or was it 5:20? They completely obsessed over who was where during these crucial minutes. Looking back, I understand why they focused on the timeline that night — but the police were still basing much of their case against me, years later, on vague testimony from several people about when they saw Marcia and when I was at Peggy’s.
It came down to this: While I was doing my job, taking care of preschoolers, I was supposed to have run down the street, lured Marcia away and murdered her, either expertly hiding her body in the shed or maybe hauling her back up to put her in the freezer at Peggy’s. You’re going to try to build a prosecution on that theory? It’s almost forgivable just after the body was found. But the forensics immediately proved it had not been frozen. So, while I was earning a few bucks an hour and watching over young children, I somehow broke away long enough to abuse and kill another child a block away — and to do so with such ruthless efficiency, at the age of 15, that no neighbor detected anything unusual that night and the body went undetected for 33 days. Right.
After supper, my Mom calls me at Peggy’s: “Jeffrey, they can’t find Marcia Trimble.”
Come about 8:15 that night, there are cars all over the streets, uniformed police and Civil Defense personnel wandering around, a helicopter buzzing overhead. Peggy and some others came home from bowling, and I was done with the babysitting.
First thing, I went next door to Doug’s. We were sitting in my backyard, smoking a joint, and a helicopter came over and passed this big spotlight over the whole yard. Doug: “I gotta go!” He runs through the bushes and goes home. I ran too, and he later told me the spotlight hit me while I was on the run.
Only in 2011 did I learn of one claim the police made about me as they theorized about the case. They never asserted this in public or even through a leak to the media, as they did with so many other supposed details of the case. A summary of evidence prepared before my arrest in 1979 includes this paragraph:
Sgt. [Doug] Dennis and Officer [Arlene] Moore can testify to the fact that when they arrived on the way to the scene, they observed Jeffrey Wommack [sic] hiding behind a bush, looking toward the Trimble residence at approximately 8:15 p.m., in between his yard and Peggy Morgan’s yard. When they slowed down to question him if he had seen the reported missing child, he looked at them and ran.
Think, for just a moment, about what they’re saying. They are approaching the site of a major missing-persons investigation, and as they make eye contact with a young man, he flees from them. And then what? They just keep driving? They don’t give chase? In an area crawling with law enforcement, they don’t get on the radio and report that there is a suspicious person on the lam?
Here’s what I think really happened — and I think it shows how they made things up later to fill in gaps in their evidence. I bet they did see me running under the glare of a spotlight, if only for a split-second. Since I wasn’t running from them, they didn’t see any reason to pursue me at the time. Later, they learned that the young man they had seen running was in the backyard of their chief suspect and looked a lot like him. That’s when they invented the details about me hiding behind a bush, looking toward the Trimble house (which was not visible from my backyard), looking at them as they slowed down, and then fleeing from them. And why did they not bring up this episode after they arrested me, when they were laying out their case against me before a Juvenile Court judge? Simple: They knew, even then, that this story was unbelievable on its face.
People were everywhere, just everywhere, swarming the streets and yards. After a while, I thought: I ought to go down there and tell them she came up to our house. I walked down to the Trimble place. Mari Margaret, an older girl who lived at the corner opposite Peggy, was standing right there in front of the patio. She saw everything, though I am told she could not remember this episode when contacted recently.
I said to this uniformed officer, “Hey, I saw her this afternoon.”
He said, “Hey, son, you need to run along. I don’t have time.” He blew me off.
So I went across the street, and I ended up following these guys — Mari Margaret’s father and a couple of others — who went up and searched the detached garage of the Thorpes, who lived on Estes. They went in with flashlights, and I saw them moving around all kinds of things in there. We now know for certain that the body was in there, but numerous other searchers — including Sheriff Fate Thomas himself — also failed to detect it in the month to come.
Later, way back on the far side of Dorcas, we had gone down into the rock quarry to look for her. There was someone there — I don’t know if he was a police officer or with some other organization — who had a microphone. And word came over his radio: “We’re looking for Jeffrey Womack.”
I said, “I’m Jeffrey Womack.”
They said, “We’ll see you at the Trimbles’ house.”
By the time I walked over there, after stomping around in the woods and the quarry, I didn’t have much of a buzz anymore from smoking with Doug. When I walked down the hallway, Mrs. Trimble was in the bathroom putting on makeup. The cops took me back to the Trimbles’ bedroom.
Sergeant R.C. Jackson and Detectives Sherman Nickens and Tommy Jacobs were in the bedroom. It seemed like Jackson was in charge at that time. They sit me down on the Trimbles’ bed, and all three of them start firing questions, back and forth, back and forth. I give a “yes” answer to this guy, and a “no” answer to another guy, and the third guy says “Wait a minute — you just said yes to him.”
I didn’t immediately figure out they suspected me of the murder. I wasn’t so much scared at this point as frustrated. They were peppering me with all these detailed questions. And then they got to the timetable. “Okay, what did you do at 5:05? At 5:10? At 5:15?” How the hell do I know?
Then they stood me up and searched me. R.C. Jackson was sitting in a chair. Sherman Nickens was sitting on the bed. Tommy Jacobs was standing off to the side.
They saw my shoes. They were just tennis shoes. One day I was bored in school, and I wrote, “F*** you” along the base of one of them. I don’t have any idea why. Why does a teenaged kid do anything?
They found some penny-wrappers. We always had those around when we worked paper routes. Lunch at school was 35 cents. My Dad would give me a roll of pennies in the morning. It later turned out that Marcia had penny rolls with her when she was killed.
They found a rubber. Peggy had taken me to Green Hills Drugs and had me pick out some condoms. She paid for them. After seeing Summer of ‘42, where the kids fill them with water and throw them off the roof, I told them that’s what I had this one for.
After a while, Mari Margaret went back up to Peggy’s house. She said, “They’ve got Jeffrey in that house, and they’ve had him in there for over an hour.”
It lasted well over an hour — I’m not sure how long. And then, boom! The bedroom door flies open, and there’s Peggy with my Mom.
Peggy says, “You leave him alone. You can talk to his attorney.”
Tommy Jacobs says, “Well, who’s his attorney.”
“John Hollins,” Peggy says.
And Jacobs says, “S***!”