Even after detectives caught up with Marcia Trimble's killer, her 1975 disappearance and death remained as vexing a crime as Nashville has ever seen. Last year, a Davidson County jury convicted Jerome Barrett of the young girl's murder after DNA testing identified his semen on her blouse. The defense couldn't counter that evidence — how could they? — and the judge sentenced Barrett to 44 years. Already serving a life sentence for the murder of Vanderbilt student Sarah Des Prez, Barrett will die inside the walls of prison.
And likely, he'll take his secrets with him. During his trial, the prosecution offered no theory on how the defendant actually got to Trimble. It's hard to imagine how a tall black man managed to seize and kill a 9-year-old Girl Scout in a lily-white Green Hills neighborhood right before the dinner hour while kids played basketball and parents returned home from work and errands. How could no one have seen or heard anything?
A Season of Darkness, a new book about the case, can't answer that. But it does largely capture what made her death one of the century's most infamous local crimes. Written by Douglas Jones, a Nashville litigator and lobbyist and Phyllis Gobbell, an English professor at Nashville Tech, A Season offers an exhaustive, often gripping account of an unfathomably sad puzzle of a case full of pieces that don't all fit. Offering fresh, vivid details on how the police finally caught Trimble's killer, the authors don't merely rehash old reports (though there's plenty of that), they get in the minds of the detectives and expose their inner lives.
The book begins with Trimble's disappearance on February 25, 1975. That evening, the young girl left her ranch-style red brick house on Copeland Drive to deliver Girl Scout cookies to a neighbor. Her mom, Virginia, told her to wear a coat, but Trimble said not to worry. "I'll be right back," she said.
Trimble didn't return, and after an intense, if chaotic search that included everyone from the youngest police cadet to Chief Joe Casey himself (and hundreds of volunteers in between), her body was found on Easter Sunday more than a month after she went missing. She turned up in a neighbor's garage tucked behind old tires and a wading pool. To this day, no one knows anything about how she got there.
Jones and Gobbell struggle to recount the search and media frenzy that surrounded it, relying too heavily in early chapters on press accounts (including the Scene's 2001 two-part feature), with little original reporting to drive the narrative. As a result, the first part of the book reads like a Wikipedia entry. Take the sentence introducing a pivotal chapter on the stunning discovery of Trimble's dead body. It doesn't exactly frame the moment: "Easter, a holy day of great significance for Christians, is widely celebrated in Nashville."
It's as if the authors were in a hurry to get to the revelatory raison d'être of the middle section: How a 1975 investigation into a series of sexual assaults and one brutal murder — all occurring just a few miles from Trimble's home — ultimately led to the capture of her killer. In these chapters, a detective named Diane Vaughn emerges as a tough-minded heroine, a woman among boys whose efforts laid the groundwork for Barrett's arrest decades later. In 1994, Vaughn died of cancer, and until now, her essential contributions to the case have been largely overlooked.
When Vaughn joined the department in 1970, male cops largely disparaged their female peers. Sexual harassment was as much a part of the Metro cop shop workday routine as filling out paperwork, with the male officers often referring to their female colleagues as the "pussy patrol." But Vaughn earned the begrudging respect of these good ole boys. She smoked, spoke in a raspy voice and took on the tough cases.
While her peers searched for Trimble, Vaughn spent March of 1975 investigating a murder and string of assaults around the Belmont and Vanderbilt campuses. Through exhaustive interviewing of the victims, she began picking out a few key features of the assailant. That came in handy when, one day, police arrested a tall black man in a dark, tweed overcoat for breaking and entering an apartment in Berry Hill.
When Vaughn recalled that the man matched one of the victim's descriptions of her assailant — right down to the color of the coat — she tracked down his address and convinced the suspect's roommate to let her search the place. There, the detective discovered some of the victims' stolen items. Vaughn arrested Jerome Sydney Barrett, who was charged for the rape and robbery of two women and the assault of another. He would serve 27 years behind bars.
Here, A Season of Darkness morphs into a full-throttled page-turner. Extensively researched details give Vaughn's character a rich personality not often seen in the genre, from her clothing to the precise questions she asked Barrett's victims — even scene-setting minutia, such as the detail that, as Vaughn received a pivotal phone call from a colleague, she gnawed on a piece of toast. In what may be the book's most cinematic moment, the authors describe Vaughn's vantage point when she first walked into Barrett's residence on Jefferson Street, a "musty one-room apartment with a closet."
"Wallpaper peeling off the walls, a naked light bulb hanging from the kitchen ceiling — the place was rough," they write. "It didn't look like anyone lived there. Vaughn noticed that the kitchen sink was full of dishes that had been there for some time."
While she was building a case against Barrett, Vaughn also looked into the rape and murder of Sarah Des Prez, a 19-year-old New York-native and Vanderbilt sophomore. Suspecting Barrett as the assailant here too, she persuaded the DA's office to obtain a court order to retrieve his hair samples. For reasons the book doesn't illuminate, the investigation into Barrett stalled. He was released from prison in 2002.
It would take five more years before detectives Bill Pridemore and Pat Postiglione would re-open Des Prez's murder investigation. Pouring through the case file, they came across Vaughn's mention of Barrett. The victim's bedding helped create a DNA profile, and it matched the profile of another unsolved murder — that of Marcia Trimble.
Pridemore and Postligione tracked down Barrett in Memphis, now living with his father. In another white-knuckle passage, Barrett allowed the detectives to snatch a DNA sample from inside his cheeks. As the detectives headed back to Nashville, Barrett told them, "Well, I won't see you again."
But the reader already knows otherwise: Only Barrett's sample matched that of the assailant in the Des Prez and Trimble murders. Pridemore and Postligione, who'd re-opened the investigation on a little more than a whim, had just cracked two cases in one moment — with the able assist of a long-dead detective.
Should Barrett have been nabbed sooner? The authors seem to think so, rebuking the case's earlier detectives, including Mickey Miller, a bright, warm-hearted veteran of the cop shop who comes off as so fixated on longtime suspect Jeffrey Womack (one of the kids in Trimble's neighborhood) that he and his colleagues missed the connection between the Belmont-Vanderbilt attacks and Trimble — crimes that happened within weeks of each other, just five or so miles a part. Had they put two and two together, perhaps they could have nabbed Barrett 15 years earlier.
You could read A Season of Darkness as a sweeping indictment of Miller and his predecessors for blowing the case. Or that Trimble's murder overwhelmed investigators with such a dearth of evidence that they naturally were going to focus on what little they had — or thought they had. Who knows which point is right? To their credit, Jones and Gobbell so dutifully scrutinize the investigation that you may very well convince yourself of both as you make your way through an engaging book that uncovers a mystery and wraps it up again.
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