Credit: Directed by Ryon Horne, Story by Joshua Sharpe, Produced by Tyson Horne and Sandra Brown
Georgia Today: Shedding New Light On 1985 Double Murder Case
PODCAST: Last week, after nearly 20 years behind bars, Dennis Perry was freed from prison. He had been convicted in the 1985 murders of a husband and wife in Camden County. Georgia Today host Steve Fennessy talks with Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Joshua Sharpe. His year-long investigation into the murder led to Perry's conviction being thrown out -- and fresh scrutiny on a potential new suspect in the slayings.
Joshua Sharpe: He speaks with his attorneys, and attorneys... His attorneys tell him, "Look, we didn't think that they were going to convict you." You know, one of them said, "I think this is a hanging jury" meaning, not like a hung jury — but a jury that wants to see you hang.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. It's Friday, July 31. I'm your host, Steve Fennessy. My guest is Josh Sharpe, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Josh's investigation into the 1985 murder of husband and wife Harold and Thelma Swaine at a rural church in southeastern Georgia has now led to the freeing of the man convicted in the case and implicated a suspect who was initially cleared years ago. I started by asking Josh what happened that night of Monday, March 11, 1985.
Joshua Sharpe: So Monday, March 11, 1985, there were about a dozen people inside Rising Daughter Baptist Church. At some point during, during the night — you know roughly, around 9:00 p.m. is what is, what is generally agreed upon — a stranger showed up.
News reporter: The town is still in a state of shock. Almost everyone in Spring Bluff knew the Swains. They can't believe this has happened.
Archival Interview: It was a Monday night Bible study and mission meeting. And, it just so happened, that Harold Swain — a deacon at Rising Daughter Baptist Church — was the only man there.
News reporter: Vanzolla Williams was leaving the church when a man with long blond hair approached her and pointed to Swain, saying he wanted to speak to him. Williams went on her way, and left the two talking.
Vanzolla Williams archival: And before I could get the car door open, I heard the shots — four shots.
Archival Interview: Harold's wife Thelma was also there, and she ran to her husband's aid. And when she got there to the vestibule, she was shot and both of them fell dead in the vestibule.
News reporter: Police are just as baffled.
Police interview archival: We don't have a motive at this time. We feel like the, the individual might have been transient.
Steve Fennessy: And this is a predominantly black church, correct?
Joshua Sharpe: Yes, I should say. Pre, yeah, so, so — the stranger was white.
Steve Fennessy: Ok.
Joshua Sharpe: Everyone in the church was Black. This is a predominantly Black church.
Steve Fennessy: Did people get a decent look at him?
Joshua Sharpe: It's sort of, it's sort of complex. Some of them — it ended up being that there were four women who said, who felt that they had seen him well enough that they could assist a sketch artist in making a composite sketch of what the killer looked like. The women were generally happy with the way the sketch looked. It seemed to take some parts of what they each remembered. But there was one woman who did not think it looked like the killer.
But this sketch was printed out and distributed all over southeast Georgia. It was put up in gas stations and, you know, it ran in the papers. It ran in the papers up here in Atlanta. It ran in the papers in Jacksonville and on TV — and, you know, it really, really got out there. And that is actually how Dennis Perry first heard about the case.
He was working with a friend of his, and his friend was reading the newspaper and he saw the sketch of the killer. And he turned to Dennis and said that, he said something to the effect of, "Wow, this guy looks just like you. You've got a twin here.”
And, but it was funny to this guy because he knew that Dennis couldn't have done it. He knew, because — because this guy drove Dennis to and from work every day. He had driven Dennis to and from work just a couple days earlier when, when the crime happened. So he knew Dennis couldn't have done it. He remembered Monday, you know, whatever day, whatever day of the week it was. So it was just funny, but it — it turned out, you know, to not be funny at all in hindsight.
Steve Fennessy: So at what point did Dennis kind-of get under the radar of investigators? Because this case dragged on for years before there was an arrest.
Joshua Sharpe: It did. He came on the radar in 1988 when a local resident who wished to remain anonymous came forward with a tip that said something about, someone had been growing some marijuana and Harold Swain had found the marijuana and was thinking about going to the police about it or would go to the police about it. And Dennis had some sort of — he was friends with the person who was growing this pot, and maybe that's why he would have attacked, attacked Harold Swain. So the detectives could not find any evidence to suggest that that tip was grounded in reality at all.
Steve Fennessy: So not long after he got onto the radar of investigators, he fell off of it.
Joshua Sharpe: Just to be safe, they had a picture of him and they put it in a photo spread with, I believe, either four or five other faces and showed it to the woman who had encountered the killer in the vestibule. And asked if she recognized anyone, and she didn't. ... When she didn't recognize anyone, they considered Dennis Perry cleared and they pretty much forgot about it.
Then in 1988 — later in 1988 — after they investigated Dennis Perry, Unsolved Mysteries comes to town.
(Unsolved Mysteries theme music)
This is great for investigators working the cold case.
Unsolved Mysteries clip: The quiet sanctity of Rising Daughters Church was violated by the brutal double murder of Harold and Thelma Swain.
Joshua Sharpe: It also gives them so much more work to do. You know, they spend day and night, every day pretty much — as they, as they recall — running down lead after lead after lead.
Unsolved Mysteries clip: Three years later, the brutal murders of Harold and Thelma Swain remain a mystery. Were they just random killings committed by a violent trenchant or were they a planned and premeditated murder? And if so, why?
Joshua Sharpe: You know they had, I think they said, over — certainly hundreds of leads from, from Unsolved Mysteries. So it took them quite a while, I mean, you know, they're working on for several years.
Steve Fennessy: Who are the primary investigators at this point? Or is it, is it local? Is it state? Is it both?
Joshua Sharpe: It's both. It's, it's a collaboration between two men primarily. Now, there are other people who help. But the primary investigators are then-Chief Camden County Sheriff's Deputy Butch Kennedy.
Butch Kennedy: It's not easy to pass by here without thinking about it. Or waking up at night and thinking about it. I see them back in the church — laying on the floor — and somebody just, took them away.
Joshua Sharpe: And his counterpart from the GBI, GBI agent Joe Gregory.
Joe Gregory: Swain is highly respected people, are active in the community, are just not the type of person that would be the victim of a murder plot.
Joshua Sharpe: Seven years after the murders, seven terrible years in Butch Kennedy's life, where he spent, you know, every day agonizing over this and every day working on this with Joe Gregory, you know — these guys were just driving themselves crazy trying to solve this case.
Kennedy has long blamed himself for not solving the case.
Butch Kennedy: You hate yourself for not being able to do what, what you're supposed to do: you're supposed to solve these things, you're suppose to make them right. You're supposed to do that. And when you don't and you can't, you're just so disappointed.
Joshua Sharpe: And then Butch Kennedy leaves. And Joe Gregory is still at the GBI, and he still continues to work the case. And then, about 1998, one day, Joe Gregory is on the way to a scene of, of a, of, of another case that he's got to work — and he has a terrible car wreck, and breaks his back, and ends up having to retire.
About that time, maybe a little bit before that, then-Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith decides to hire a special investigator to reinvestigate the Swain case. And he picks this guy, Dale Bundy, who had previously resigned from the sheriff's office. But now, Dale Bundy's coming back in 1998 to be the point person on the Swain murders. And his, his job says.... His job description is to investigate the Swain murders. That's what you do.
Steve Fennessy: I mean, this is a cold case.
Joshua Sharpe: It's a very cold case.
Steve Fennessy: It beens years.
Joshua Sharpe: It's been 13 years. He's just given a year to solve this case that, for 13 years, several other very experienced investigators could not solve — and drove themselves about half crazy trying to solve. He's given a year. And within the first two weeks, he's identified Dennis Perry as his main suspect. He's arrested in January of 2000. This is after he's indicted on two counts of murder.
News reporter: 15 years after Harold and Thelma Swain were murdered, Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith has even more reason to think about them. That's because the couple's alleged killer is now behind bars.
Bill Smith: I always thought that somewhere in these files there was the clue that would sort of unravel the whole story. And I've got to thank Mr. Bundy again for bringing that information to light.
Steve Fennessy: How does a man go from having what appears to be, you know, a relatively bulletproof alibi to being convicted in a court of murder? How does it go from from point A to point B there?
Joshua Sharpe: Nearly all of the documentation from, about Perry's alibi, goes missing from the case file. Jurors would later say that they were, that they were impressed by the testimony of Jane Beaver. And Jane Beaver is Dennis Perry's ex-girlfriend's mother. And Jane Beaver testifies that Dennis Perry told her a few weeks before the murders — a few weeks after the breakup — that he is going to go kill Harold Swain, because Dennis had asked Harold for money and Harold had laughed in Dennis's face.
And unfortunately, the jury didn't know a lot of things about this case, you know: they did not know that Jane Beaver, the star witness in the whole thing, was was soon to be paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony. And the jury didn't know that because the defense hadn't been told that by the state, as they should have been. And then, we have eyewitness testimony from a woman who was in the church when, when the murders happened.
Steve Fennessy: So walk us through that, that trial and and what it was that the jury heard that convinced them that he was guilty in the murders of, of this couple.
Joshua Sharpe: What the jury heard was, was from a few different key witnesses. One was Cora Fisher, the woman who had been in the church and fainted that night. She, she testified via deposition —because she was ailing in a nursing home, and her, her testimony, her testimony was read aloud for the court — and she, in that testimony, identified Dennis Perry as the killer. She said that is the man I recognized, that man is the one who came to the church and shot the couple.
She also is shown a photograph of Donnie Barrentine. Donnie Barrentine is a former drug trafficker who was considered a suspect in the case for many years, by the initial investigators. And she also — and she says that he's the killer. And we only know for sure that there was one, there was one person in the church — not two. So that, that tells you that, obviously, she's having some trouble. But for whatever reason, that doesn't bother the jury enough to sway them.
The jury also hears from Donnie Barrentine. He testifies and he says, "You know, I don't know anything about this. I didn't do it." And, and that essentially is the case, but for testimony from Dale Bundy. And Dale Bundy testifies about an interrogation of Dennis Perry that took place on the day that he was arrested. And it was Dale Bundy and three other investigators interrogating Dennis Perry — and they asked him what Dennis would later describe as, or what Dennis' attorneys would later describe, as leading questions. You know, "If you could undo what happened, would you?" And he says, "Yes." You know, “Do you think the gun could have went off by accident?" He says, "yes" — things like that.
And you know, what his attorneys have essentially argued is that they were trying to, you know, get him to confess. And but Dennis shuts down this interview by saying, "Y'all are trying to put words in my mouth." And only then did one of the investigators ask Dennis if he could turn on a tape recorder and record the interrogation. So none of that interrogation is, is recorded. All we have is the recollections of the interrogators and the report, the one report that was written about what was said.
And then, on the witness stand, Dale Bundy testifies that Dennis said he was at the church on the night of the murders. That he was at the church. He says that Dennis admitted that to him. And, and this is not even, this is not in the report. And the other investigators who were there — who were there during the interrogation — testify that they don't remember that. They don't remember him saying that.
But here, Dale Bundy said it on the stand, and then once he says it on the stand, it's admitted. It's evidence. And then prosecutor John B. Johnson keeps repeating it: "Dennis Perry admitted that he was at the church. He said he was at the church. He said he was at the church — what alibi? He said he was at the church."
Steve Fennessy: How long did this trial take?
Joshua Sharpe: Four days.
Steve Fennessy: Four days, and the jury was out for how long before they reached the verdict? Do you know?
Joshua Sharpe: It was not long. It was less than a day.
Steve Fennessy: Okay.
Joshua Sharpe: Yeah. Yeah.
Steve Fennessy: Less than a day. And they come back with it with a guilty verdict.
Joshua Sharpe: This is a capital case. This is there — the state is seeking the death penalty in this case. And Dennis, he speaks with his attorneys. And his attorneys tell him, "Look, we didn't think that they were going to convict you. We can't, you know, we can't make any promises here."
You know, one of them said, "I think this is a hanging jury" meaning, not like a hung jury — but a jury that wants to see you hang. So Dennis Perry decides he would rather live than die. And he takes the deal. He's sentenced to two life sentences.
Steve Fennessy: When Josh started looking into the story, it had already been exhaustively examined. But there was one aspect of the case that he zeroed in on, and that is what changed everything — that's when we come back. This is Georgia Today. We're back with Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. My guest is Josh Sharpe, an AJC reporter who spent a year examining the case of Dennis Perry.
So when Dennis Perry began his prison sentence in 2003, he ended up divorcing his first wife and then reconnecting with a woman he'd known from earlier in his life. And they ended up actually getting married while he was in custody, no?
Joshua Sharpe: Dennis gets a letter from a woman named Brenda, who he'd sort of known in passing from the Camden County area. Then, you know, they exchanged letters. And they really get along well, it seems. And then they, they decide one day to talk on the phone. And Dennis has this great opening line. He says, "Do you know who this is?" And she says, "Who's this?" And he says, "This is the rest of your life." Had a chance to speak with Brenda about the connection she's formed with Dennis.
Sharpe in Interview: What is it that y'all, you and Dennis, sort of, connect on? What y'all, what do y'all talk about?
Brenda: Everything. We talk about fishing, about life, we talk about what happened to me at work, what he goes through during a week.
Sharpe in Interview: Yeah.
Brenda: You know, sometimes we talk about nothing. We just sit there and, you know... And for me — and he says it's that way for him — for me, when I'm on my way there, I have so many things I want to tell him. So many things I want to tell him. Personal things.
Sharpe in Interview: Yeah.
Brenda: But when I get there, none of that matters — it's just being there. To me, that's the way it is.
Sharpe in Interview: Yeah.
Joshua Sharpe: They end up getting married in 2009, while he's in prison. And they've been together ever since. Here she is speaking last week during a bond hearing.
Brenda: I would visit him every weekend — I'd visit him every weekend since 2007 — and I would spend the weekends with him when he's... when he was transferred to Coffee, I went — I go every weekend, up until the pandemic. And then when the pandemic happened, we relied on the video... they had a video session that you could have a video visit. We did that. And he calls me continuously.
Joshua Sharpe: So the, the trying to make the best of it. But it is enough for them amazingly, through all that time. They become each other's, you know, just about closest friend and just about the most important person in the world to each other.
Steve Fennessy: Josh, when did you first hear about this case? When did it get on your radar? When did you start becoming interested in it as, as a reporter?
Joshua Sharpe: It seemed of interest to me, partly because there'd been a podcast that that studied the case. And that was a podcast called Undisclosed.
Undisclosed clip: In 2018, we covered the case of Dennis Perry in season three of our podcast. Dennis is now serving two life sentences for the murder of Harold and Thelma Swain, who were shot down...
Joshua Sharpe: They were doing, you know — taking a holistic look at the entire case. But as far as alternative suspects go, the one they focused on most was Donnie Barrentine. They mentioned, sort of, in passing a few times this guy named Erik Sparre.
Undisclosed clip: In fact, a version of the composite was done up to match Sparre's facial hair. And yeah, he could be another one of the dozens of dead ringers who look just like that drawing...
Joshua Sharpe: who had allegedly told his ex wife's family that he killed the Swains — who he referred to by the N-word — and that he was going to kill his ex wife's family, too. And this was on tape. They had recorded him saying this over the phone and they'd given it to, and they — and they told the sheriff's office about it. And as I'm listening to this podcast, I'm thinking: "Wait, wait, wait... What about that guy?"
Steve Fennessy: So this is another suspect that that is mentioned, but you say pretty much only in passing or so in the Undisclosed podcast.
Joshua Sharpe: Yeah.
Steve Fennessy: And there's something there's something about him that that kind of strikes a cord with you.
Joshua Sharpe: Yeah, there is. And that is that, according to the police records, he told his first and second wives that he had committed the murders. Kalem Head is one of Erik Sparre's sons. I asked Kalem what his mother told him about Erik.
Kalem Head: She once told me about how he admitted that he had murdered two people in the church. And that they actually had her — had him on recording saying that, you know, he had admitted to killing the two people. And that he wouldn't think twice of knocking somebody else off if he needed to.
Joshua Sharpe: Erik Sparre maintains his innocence. He says he has nothing to do with the church murders.
Erik Sparre: I hope ya'll find out who actually did it; I had nothing to do with this. I want it to stay where it is: gone. You know, I don't even know where the church is. Even though I'm from over there and I know the area, I've never been to the church. Don't know where it is, don't care to.
Joshua Sharpe: The game-changing part of my reporting is that I determined that the person who called police to vouch for Sparre — that he was at work when the murders happened — that person gave a fake name. That person gave fake details, personal details: fake social, fake birthday, fake address, fake home number, fake work number. All of it is fake.
News reporter: Investigators reopen the 1985 case of a husband and wife murdered inside a Camden County church after new DNA evidence was uncovered. I-Team investigator Zach Lashway examines the evidence that could prove this man's innocence.
Zach Lashway: In February, Erik Sparre's mother voluntarily gave a DNA sample to Georgia Innocence Project investigators. The DNA was compared to hairs found on the eyeglasses at the scene more than 35 years ago — it was a match. A lab concluded the hairs could have only come from less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population. And Sparre was in that grouping.
Joshua Sharpe: It was so amazing that after 35 years — finally, finally there’s some solid evidence in this case.
Steve Fennessy: And how does Erik Sparre react when you tell him this?
Joshua Sharpe: Well, I call him.
Erik Sparre: I'm not gonna sit here and go into all this. You got your DNA thing, that was you that came back.
Sharpe in Interview: It wasn't. It wasn't me. But listen.
Erik Sparre: Or somebody you sent.
Sharpe in Interview: I didn't.
Erik Sparre: I want to be left alone.
Sharpe in Interview: Let me tell you something, Erik: the DNA test was done by the Georgia Innocence Project, and it showed that you — that your mother's hair matched the DNA found on a pair of glasses next to the bodies. And I want to see how you can explain that to me.
Erik Sparre: Look, I have no idea. I don't have any glasses missing. Leave me alone.
Joshua Sharpe: That is the last time I spoke with Erik Sparre.
News reporter: A Glynn County judge could decide today whether a man who says he was wrongfully convicted of killing a couple inside a Camden County, Georgia, church will get a new trial.
Joshua Sharpe: He granted the motion for new trial, which means that Dennis Perry stands today not convicted anymore in this case — his conviction is overturned.
Steve Fennessy: But, but he is still under indictment?
Joshua Sharpe: Essentially, the posture of the case goes right back to the way it was before the trial. It's as if the trial didn't happen, legally speaking. Dennis Perry is still charged in the case. And the D.A.'s office is going to have to decide whether or not to retry him.
All of the experts I spoke to say that a retrial would be extremely difficult, you know, when you got DNA pointing to another suspect — because Perry is still charged, the conviction being overturned did not mean that he would automatically be released. He has to, he had to request bond. There was a hearing last week about Perry's bond motion.
Judge: Right, the court’s gonna grant ... bond on the charges in C.R. 03-53-063.
Joshua Sharpe: The judge granted him a signature bond, which essentially, you know — he doesn't have to put any money down. He just, just walks out on the promise that if he needs to come back to court, he will.
So, so then when that order is filed — granting him bond — the Department of Corrections starts readying him for release. Here's Dennis Perry moments after he was released from prison.
Dennis Perry: I feel good: free. I feel free. I told my wife, I was going to pray myself out here — and that's what I've done.
Steve Fennessy: And no word from Erik Sparre. There, he's, he's not been charged. He's not been arrested or not....
Joshua Sharpe: Erik Sparre faces no charges in any case that I'm aware of. When the DNA evidence came back, I knew Perry's getting out. It's just a matter of when — and Sparre is going to have some explaining to do. I knew this was going to happen. I just didn't know when.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Josh Sharpe, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Two days after Judge Scarlett threw out Dennis Perry's conviction, Erik Sparre's mother, Gladys, was found dead in her southeast Georgia home. Though an autopsy was performed, no results have been announced and officials have yet to say what a cause or manner of death may be.
I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producer is Sean Powers. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.