Real Names: Harold and Thelma Lang Swain
Nicknames: No known nicknames
Location: Waverly, Georgia
Date: March 11, 1985
Case[edit | edit source]
Details: Sixty-six-year-old Harold Swain was the deacon of the Rising Daughters Baptist Church in Waverly, and his sixty-three-year-old wife, Thelma, were actively involved in the church activities. They had been married for forty-three years.
On Tuesday, March 11, 1985, the Swains had their weekly Tuesday evening Bible class; nine women attended. At 8:50PM, one of them asked if she could leave early to pick up a friend from work. As she left the church, she encountered a stranger in the back and he asked to see Harold. Some of the other women only caught a brief glimpse of him, but none of them recognized him. The woman left as Harold met with him, and then he pulled out a gun and shot Harold several times. Thelma then ran out to help him, but was also shot. The remaining women ran to the pastor's office and tried to call the police but the phone didn't work. Twenty minutes later, one of the women ran out to her car and went to the police.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was brought in to help investigate the case. When authorities arrived, they discovered that the Swains were dead; they found a decent amount of physical evidence, including bullet casings and two pairs of eyeglasses. One belonged to Harold, while the other believed to have belonged to the killer. GBI investigator Joe Gregory believed that the killer was a transient based on the state of the glasses. The lenses were thick, the surface pocked by a welding torch. Also, the ear pieces did not match. Gregory believed that the killer did not have enough money to get his own glasses, so he modified these.
Rising Daughters' Church is located on Highway 17, and hitchhikers often stopped there for a free meal. However, if it was a robbery, then why was $300 left in Harold's pocket? Other evidence found at the scene suggested that the crime may have been premeditated, including the fact that the church's phone lines had been cut. However, this could also suggest that the crime was a premeditated armed robbery gone wrong.
The witness who left early had the clearest look at the killer. She said that he was calm; she assumed that he was there for a handout. Authorities brought in a sketch artist to help create a composite of him, but the women could not get an accurate description of him. For five months, police searched for him with the composite drawing but had no success.
Then, on July 5, 1985, police 135 miles away in Telfair County, Georgia, pulled over a car for a minor traffic violation. Several weapons were found in the trunk. Three suspects were arrested; one was Donnie Barrentine. Authorities learned that he had allegedly bragged about killing a black preacher and his wife in a church. When interviewed, he admitted to making those statements, but claimed that he was lying. He failed a polygraph examination; however, a comparison between him and the composite sketch was inconclusive. The eyewitnesses from the murders were taken to Jacksonville to view a police lineup. The woman who left the church early recognized the scuff boots that Barrentine was wearing as the ones that the killer was wearing. However, she wasn't certain if it was him. He was never charged in the case, but was sentenced to five years in prison on weapons violations.
One year later, Joe noticed that the composite made by one of the witnesses of the killer almost identically matched that of an unidentified man involved in a Kansas church robbery. He had robbed a church in St. Benedict, Kansas in October 1981, but had never been identified or arrested. They did know, however, that he drove an older car with a Florida license plate.
Despite these suspects, others believe that the murders were not a robbery; Sheriff Bill Smith believed that the killer cut the phone lines as his intent to kill Harold and not just rob him. Authorities still don't know if a transient was responsible for the murders, or if it was someone that the Swains knew.
Suspects: The killer is described as a Caucasian male in his late twenties or early thirties (in 1985). He is believed to be between 5'6" and 5'8" with a medium build. However, the eyewitnesses gave differing descriptions of the man. The woman who left the church early described the killer as having shoulder length hair. She also said that he was wearing scuff boots.
Donnie Barrentine is considered a possible suspect in this case. He allegedly bragged about killing a black preacher in his wife in a church. However, he later told police that he lied when he made the statements. During a lineup, the woman who left the church early noticed that he was wearing the same type of boots as the killer. However, she was unable to determine if he was actually the man that she had seen that night.
The unidentified Kansas robbery suspect has also been investigated in connection with this case. His composite matched exactly to one of the composites made in the Swain case.
Extra Notes: This case first aired on the November 2, 1988 episode.
Results: Unresolved. In 1998, a special investigator was assigned to the case. Two years later, on January 13, 2000, police arrested Dennis Arnold Perry and charged him with the murders. Perry was an early suspect in the investigation; his girlfriend's mother, Jane Beaver, originally called the telecenter claiming that he matched the composite drawing of the killer. Police originally cleared him after they found that he had been working in Jonesboro, over one hundred miles away, that day and would not have had time to make it to the church that night. However, his girlfriend later claimed that he had come to Waverly that day to visit his grandparents, who lived near the church.
Police also found out that Perry had a grudge against Harold; Jane claimed that three weeks before the murders, he said that Harold had laughed at him when he asked for food. He allegedly threatened to kill him, although he only referred to him as "his grandfather's black neighbor". Two of the church group eyewitnesses identified him as the killer based on a mugshot from 1990. One of them also said that they believed Harold knew him. Two acquaintances of him also stated that he had used glasses for reading that were similar to the ones found at the scene.
When questioned after his arrest, Perry changed his story, claiming that he had been at a party in Texas at the time of the murders. However, it was confirmed that no such party occurred. He then allegedly confessed to killing the Swains, but claimed that it was an accident. He was tried and convicted of the murders. He waived his right appeal to avoid the death sentence and was given two consecutive life sentences.
However, doubt remains over Perry's guilt. A large amount of evidence from the original investigation had been lost by the time of the trial. One of the pieces of evidence was the glasses found at the scene. Interestingly, Perry's DNA did not match that of the hairs found on the glasses dropped by the killer; according to him, he did not even wear glasses. However, the DNA also did not match Barrentine, so his defense attorneys decided not to bring it up at trial.
During the initial investigation, Perry also had an alibi witness (his boss) that placed him at work, far away from the scene. His girlfriend, while testifying at the trial, could not remember making her previous statement. Also, Jane went to the eyewitnesses and showed them a picture of him, before they made their identification. She also asked about a $12,000 reward the day after Perry's arrest, which she later received. Finally, investigators did not record his alleged confession. He and his attorneys petitioned the court to have DNA testing done on items found at the scene. In 2015, DNA testing was completed by the Georgia Innocence Project. However, no usable DNA was found.
In March of 2020, DNA testing determined that the hairs found on the killer's glasses belonged to fifty-six-year-old Erik Sparre. He was an early suspect in the case who was initially cleared after he provided an alibi. However, Perry's lawyers have claimed that his alibi is "highly suspect and likely false". They believe that Sparre gave investigators a fake name and number for his boss.
Along with the possibly false alibi, Sparre allegedly told his ex-wife that he committed the murders. He also threatened her family, claiming that he was responsible for killing two people in a church. Furthermore, his ex-wife identified the glasses found at the crime scene as belonging to him. She and others also claimed the he was racist and did not like black people.
As a result of the new evidence, Perry's lawyers have started a motion for a new trial. The motion was granted and Perry was released from prison in July of 2020.
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