Real Names: Harold and Thelma Swain
Nicknames: No known nicknames
Location: Waverly, Georgia
Date: March 11, 1985
Details: Harold Swain was the deacon of the Rising Daughters Baptist Church in Waverly, and his wife, Thelma, was actively involved in the church activities. The couple had been married for forty-three years.
On Tuesday, March 11, 1985, they had their weekly Tuesday evening bible class; nine women attended. At 8:50 pm, one of the women asked if she could leave early to pick up a friend from work. As the woman 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 the stranger, but none of them recognized him. The woman left as Harold met with the man, and then the man pulled out a gun and shot Harold several times. Thelma then ran out to help her husband, but was also shot. The remaining women ran to the deacon's office and tried to call the police but the phone wouldn'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 couple was deceased; they found a decent amount of physical evidence, including bullet casings and two pairs of eyeglasses. One pair 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 glasses' lenses were thick, the surface pocked by a welding torch. Also, the ear pieces did not match. Gregory believed that the assailant did not have enough money to get his own glasses, so he modified these ones.
Rising Daughters' Church is located on Highway 17, and transients often stopped at the church 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 suspect. 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 the killer, but the women could not get an accurate description of the man. For five months, police searched for the killer 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. In the trunk several weapons were found. Three suspects were arrested; one was Donnie Barrentine. Authorities learned that Barrentine had allegedly bragged about killing a black preacher and his wife in a church. When interviewed, Barrentine admitted to making those statements, but claimed that he was lying. Barrentine failed a polygraph examination; however, a comparison between him and the composite sketch was inconclusive. The eyewitnesses from the shooting 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 he was the shooter. Barrentine was never charged in the case, but was sentenced to five years in prison on weapons violations.
One year later, investigator Joe Gregory noticed that the composite made by one of the witnesses of the killer almost identically matched the composite of an unidentified man involved in a Kansas church robbery. The suspect had robbed a church in St. Benedict, Kansas in October of 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 murder was not a robbery; Sheriff Bill Smith believed that the man 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 double murder, or if it was someone that the Swains knew.
Suspects: The witness who left the church early described the suspect as having shoulder length hair. She also said that he was wearing scuff boots. Donnie Barrentine is considered a possible suspect in the case. The Kansas robbery suspect is also considered a possible suspect in the case.
Extra Notes: This segment originally aired on the November 2, 1988 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
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 Unsolved Mysteries claiming that he matched the composite drawing of the suspect. Police originally cleared him after they found that he had been working over one hundred miles away that day. 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 he had a grudge against Harold Swain; Beaver claimed that three weeks before the murders, Perry said that Harold had laughed at him when he asked for food. He allegedly threatened to kill Harold, although he only referred to him as "his grandfather's black neighbor". Two of the church group eyewitnesses identified Perry as the shooter based on a mugshot from 1990. One of them also said that they believed Harold knew the shooter. Two acquaintances of Perry also stated that he had used glasses for reading that were similar to the ones found at the scene.
When questioned after his arrest, he 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. Perry 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 his 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 the DNA of the hairs found on the glasses dropped by the killer; according to Perry, he did not even wear glasses. However, the DNA also did not match Barrentine, so this information was not brought up at trial.
Perry also had an alibi witness that placed him a work, far away from the scene. His girlfriend, while at trial, could not remember making her previous statement. Also, Jane Beaver, the girlfriend's mother, went to the eyewitnesses, showing them a picture of Perry, before they made the identification. Finally, investigators did not record Perry's alleged confession. Perry and his attorneys petitioned the court to have DNA testing done on items found at the scene. It is unknown if the testing has ever been done.
- Judge: Trial for suspect in 1985 double-murder to be this year
- Jacksonville man found guilty of murder
- Man Found Guilty Of 1985 Church Murders
- Man Gets Life Terms in Slayings; Jacksonville Man Declines Appeal
- Key evidence goes missing in Georgia church murders
- Dennis Perry Inmate Iinformation
- Court Document on Perry's request for DNA testing
- Harold and Thelma Swain at Find a Grave