photos by Eric England
On the morning of Aug. 3, 2005, Mexican authorities apprehended Perry March in his wife Carmen’s restaurant, Café Luna, and happily handed him over to FBI agents. As March was being jailed in Los Angeles, his arrest for the murder of Janet March was announced to the media. Nine days later, March flew back to Nashville on a Northwest Airlines flight, escorted by Metro Police Det. Bill Pridemore and Sgt. Pat Postiglione. March had the window seat, Postiglione was beside him and Pridemore was on the aisle. During the flight back, the conversation ranged from mundane to incriminating. March spoke at length with Postiglione about the charges against him regarding, as he put it, “the Janet incident.”
“He wanted to know what we had, how strong the case was against him, whether we had direct or physical evidence,” says Postiglione, who would not discuss evidence with him. Initially, March adamantly denied involvement in his wife’s disappearance, but he eventually spoke at some length about a deal in which he would plead guilty and do no fewer than five years and no more than seven, noting that he did not believe his wife would wait for him more than seven. According to Postiglione, March seemed fixated on working a deal, and was very eager to meet with Deputy District Attorney Tom Thurman to discuss the possibility of a plea, opining that it would be easier on the police department, the DA’s office, his own family and the Levine family if it didn’t go to trial.
The conversation on the plane ride home also had its absurd moments. Pridemore was reading a book about the Apostle Paul, and when March inquired about it, the detective told him it was for his Sunday school class.
“Perry leans over and says, ‘You know Paul was a Jew,’ ” Pridemore recalls. “I told him I knew that. He said, ‘You know, I’m a Jew.’ Pat and I just looked at each other, and I told him I knew that too. He said, ‘When all this is over, I’d be happy to come to your Sunday school class and talk about Paul.’ When all this is over? The guy lives in his own little world.”
But now Perry March lives in prison—and will for the next 56 years, serving time for stealing from his former father-in-law’s law firm, brutally murdering his own wife and then conspiring to kill her parents.
It took a decade to make the case against March, but on Aug. 17 of this year, the team of Pridemore, Postiglione and Thurman closed the case and won a guilty verdict against the former Nashville lawyer. For bringing an end to this grisly and disturbing chapter in Nashville crime history, the Nashville Scene has chosen the three men for its annual Nashvillian(s) of the Year honor.
It was 10 years and two days from the summer night that artist Janet March, devoted mother of two small children, beloved daughter, sister and friend, disappeared without a trace from her Forest Hills home on Blackberry Road when the most anticipated courtroom drama in recent Nashville history finally ended. It had begun on Aug. 9 before a jury chosen from Chattanooga and a courtroom packed with media. Over a grueling nine days, 55 witnesses were called, ranging from Janet’s mother Carolyn to a jailhouse informant in prison garb. After 13 hours of deliberation, the court was notified that the jury was ready to return.
It was 4:30 p.m. on that fateful Thursday when the guilty verdict came in. Pridemore and Postiglione, 30- and 26-year veterans of the Metro Police Department who had worked the case in some fashion since 1996, were sitting in Courtroom 6A of the new Justice A.A. Birch Building when Judge Steve Dozier asked the foreman if the jury had reached a verdict. Four months later, sitting in the same courtroom, now empty and quiet during a weekday lunch break, the two seasoned murder investigators, who have been in countless courtroom situations, admit they were nervous.
“You never know,” says Postiglione, who has lost neither his Queens, N.Y., accent or attitude. “You just can’t tell with a jury. They come back into the courtroom, your heart is pounding, your hands are sweating. You’re watching the foreman, the jury. Are they looking at us, are they looking at the defendant, are they looking at the floor and avoiding eye contact all together? Ten years comes down to 10 seconds.”
“We all thought about Janet,” Thurman says. “It was a long journey for the Levines. There was a feeling that justice had finally been done.”
“In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.”
That statement has precluded every episode of the iconic crime drama Law & Order since it began airing over 16 years ago. “That’s one thing that show gets right,” Pridemore says. “Ideally, it’s give-and-take between us and the DA’s office. We work together toward the same goal.”
Pridemore’s tenure in the criminal justice system surpasses Thurman’s by one year, and Postiglione’s by four. Growing up, his stepfather’s military career kept the family on the move. When he was a kid, his bike was stolen from one of the neighborhoods where they were living. “A policeman was driving by and saw that I was upset. He put me in his car and we rode around and found my bike. It left a pretty big impression.”
That and the service background he was familiar with drew him to law enforcement. His last year of high school, he was in Nashville and graduated from Stratford. He went on to Volunteer State, took the test for the police academy and spent a year on the waiting list before getting on as a patrol officer in 1976. He spent three years at the South Precinct, then a two-year assignment in the Canine Division, then back to Patrol in 1981, where he remained until passing the detective test in 1984.
“I thought I would go to burglary,” he recalls. “Homicide was a pretty coveted division. You find out real quick if you’ll like homicide once you go on a couple of crime scenes.”
Born and raised in Italian neighborhoods in the blue-collar borough of Queens, then on Long Island, Postiglione had always wanted to be a police officer, particularly in homicide. “I’m not sure why,” he says. “But I had a cousin who was murdered when I was young. If you have personal experience with murder, you see what the victims’ families go through.”
Postiglione had applied for the NYPD, but the waiting list was long and he lacked the connections that might have helped push him up the list, so he worked construction instead. On vacation in Nashville, he found that Metro was advertising for police officers, and he put in his application. When he was accepted, he and his family moved here in 1980. Like Pridemore, he came on as a patrol officer until making detective and being assigned to homicide in 1987.
“Once you do it, it’s hard to see yourself doing anything else,” he says. “Some guys can’t deal with the crime scenes, and that’s OK. We’re all affected by them. They stay with you, but if you can find justice for the victim and their family, it makes it worthwhile.”
During the years that Pridemore and Postiglione were assigned to the Homicide Division, it wasn’t just murders they investigated, but other violent crimes too—beatings, shootings and suicides. The killings that homicide investigated were primarily ones in which the victim and killer were known. “If the shooter was standing over the dead body holding a smoking gun in his hand, that’s homicide,” explains Postiglione.
In 1980, then police Chief Joe Casey created the Murder Squad, pulling veteran detectives from homicide. Crimes in which a body was found without a readily identifiable suspect, and cases that required more extensive and thorough investigation, were assigned to the Murder Squad. “If a woman was found dead in an alley and you had no idea who did it, Murder Squad was called in,” Postiglione says.
Eventually, both Postiglione and Pridemore were assigned to the Murder Squad. “It’s a big deal,” Pridemore says. “You didn’t request Murder Squad. They looked at you to see if they thought you could do it. And they asked the other guys on murder if they wanted you.”
“I tried to keep Pat out, but it didn’t work,” he jokes.
The two men whose backgrounds, interests and physical appearances are so different share the kind of relationship rivaled only by marriage for its closeness, common experience and mutual understanding. At nearly 20 years, it’s characterized by good-natured ribbing, harmless bickering—mainly over where they’ll eat—a habit of finishing each other’s sentences, a profound respect for one another’s ability and the security of knowing your back is covered.
The first case they worked together was before Postiglione’s move to the Murder Squad. Cassandra Shelton was shot in the head as she sat in a car at 14th and Eastland on July 4, 1988. There was no immediate suspect, but within a month-and-a-half, they had one.
When Postiglione finally did join the Murder Squad, the first case he was assigned had been unsolved for a year. Vanessa Rucker, a young mother, was sexually assaulted and strangled in her apartment on 40th Avenue North. Working together, the duo identified a suspect and gathered enough evidence to take it to trial. The murderer has been in prison ever since. The names of the victims and the circumstances of their murders come as easily to the pair as if the cases had happened two weeks ago instead of 18 years. “You don’t let them go until you solve them, and even then, you don’t ever forget them,” Postiglione says.
The two have worked many other memorable cases together over the years. Some, like the cases of serial killer Paul Reid and victim Kevin Hughes, the young man gunned down on Music Row in 1989, caught the media’s attention and captured headlines. Others came and went, nearly forgotten by all by the police who were there.
Asked to name cases that had deep personal impact, Postiglione and Pridemore almost simultaneously cite a young couple from California brutally murdered in 1994 in a Murfreesboro Road motel room. The year before, Pridemore was the detective on call for a murder in which the body had been burned, and Postiglione was his backup. A suspect, Tom Steeples, was arrested and charged, but made bond. Less than a year later, Kelli Phillips, 24 years old, and her husband Rob, 21, were found beaten to death in a motel room. She had also been raped. The crime scene was so horrific that neither detective will describe it. There were details about the murder that made both of them think of Tom Steeples. They let it be known to the media that they would be looking for witnesses in the area and, while questioning employees of a nearby club, Steeples called the owner and threatened him. In fact, he had been there on the night the young couple—who had come to Nashville to pursue careers in country music—had taken part in a talent show. He presented himself as a talent scout, returned with them to their motel room and killed them.
“They were just this sweet, naive young couple from California,” says Postiglione, a puzzled tone in his voice, even after 25 years of seeing dead people and the people who kill them. “They were so unlucky to run into him of all people, for him to be out on bond from another murder. He had no reason to kill them. We didn’t even get to bring him to trial because he killed himself in jail. His wife snuck in the drugs, and he overdosed.”
Tom Thurman’s first criminal case as a law clerk for Judge Alan R. Cornelius was as high profile in its day as the Janet March case. He served as chief court officer when cousins John A. Brown and Marvin Douglas Brown were tried for the 1973 murders of Grand Ole Opry star David “Stringbean” Aken and his wife Estelle. Thurman wasn’t exactly voted “Most Likely To Tear Up Criminal Courts” by his high school peers, and in fact, had he achieved his original ambition, he would have just as soon gone fishing.
Raised in Crossville, he first went to junior college on a baseball scholarship, and then got a tennis scholarship to Tennessee Tech, where he obtained a master’s degree in fisheries biology. “My goal was to be a catfish farmer,” he says with the faintest smile on his reliably implacable face, sitting in a conference room of the District Attorney’s Office on Second Avenue. “Unfortunately, banks were not understanding my vision, so I had to take a job.”
He came to Nashville and was a chemist from 1971 to ‘73 with the Nashville Water Department. “I spent all day in a lab testing water to make sure it was safe. I didn’t enjoy it.”
An uncle suggested he take a class at the Nashville School of Law. He did, and he was hooked. He became chief court officer and law clerk for Criminal Court Judge Alan Cornelius. He was in court all day and in law school at night. Among his classmates were two women who went on to become judges—Barbara Haynes and Marietta Shipley. “I fell in love with criminal law,” he says.
After getting his degree, he spent two years in private practice before moving to the DA’s office in 1977. He and Shipley began the Child Support Unit there. He was a prosecutor in juvenile court before landing for good in criminal court. He was an assistant district attorney and was appointed deputy district attorney in 1989. When Thurman came into the DA’s office, there were 15 attorneys on staff. Today, there are 60.
“I take certain cases, the ones that are more high profile, that require a lot of preparation,” Thurman says. “I have a small case load so I can devote a lot of time to those cases.” Among those was serial murderer Paul Reid, a case that Pridemore and Postiglione investigated.
“Pat and Bill genuinely care about what they do,” Thurman says. “They care deeply for the victims. They have not become hardened by it. I have been to some crime scenes, and it becomes so much more personal. You see what has happened to the victim or victims, what they have gone through just before they die. You can imagine what they might have felt. It’s not something that’s easy to live with, or to forget, but that’s good, because you don’t want to forget it. It becomes your motivation, in a way.”
The inability to forget was also a good part of the motivation behind the 2002 establishment of the Cold Case Unit (CCU), which revamped a previous police unit once known as the Special Investigation Unit. All unsolved homicides remain technically active and all new leads are checked, but as cases become older they get colder and are set aside as newer cases come in.
“Ideally, you should work a case until it’s solved,” Postiglione says. “There are years you catch the hard ones, but you would always go back when you have time. It’s just that when you are working new crimes, you don’t have the time to focus on old ones. Tom Thurman was the driving force behind the CCU. He saw a need for it, to try to solve some of these older cases.”
“What precipitated it was the fact that there were older cases that were no longer being investigated,” Thurman says. “It wasn’t the detectives’ fault. They were busy with current cases, and there was no organized mechanism to be able to reinvestigate unsolved cases. We felt like there was a wealth of experience available to us. Very seldom was there an older case that one of the veteran detectives on murder had not been on the scene.”
The new CCU was announced on Valentine’s Day, 2002. A joint effort between the police department and the DA’s office, it pulled three veteran Murder Squad detectives—Terry McElroy, Grady Eleam and Pridemore—out of the Criminal Justice Center and put them in the DA’s offices on Second Avenue. All received legal guidance from Thurman.
The year before, Postiglione had been promoted to sergeant and moved back to Homicide, but with the creation of the CCU, he served as a liaison. The first order of business was to go through old files, organize them and see if newly available scientific evidence—DNA in particular—could be used as the final step to solving the crimes. The group met weekly in the fifth floor conference room, bringing case files with them to talk over and brainstorm.
Over a period 20 years, the number of unsolved homicides in Davidson County totaled over 200, but CCU’s initial focus was on eight cases, each representing vastly different sectors of the community. Among them were Kevin Hughes, the young music business journalist who in 1989 was shot on Music Row as he was leaving his office one night; Marina Brown, a woman who had been robbed, raped and stabbed to death in August 1984, her body left in a field in an industrial area off Lebanon Road and Omohundro Drive; Melissa Chilton and Tiffany Campbell, the young women who were stabbed to death in February 1996 by an unknown assailant in the Church Street massage parlor where there were working; and Janet March. She was No. 6 on the list of eight, and her entry read: “Victim: Janet March; Date of Offense: Aug. 15, 1996; Circumstances: March was reported missing by her husband. She is presumed dead.”
Though the date of the offense was Aug. 15, Janet March was not reported missing until Aug. 29, and her case was initially assigned to the Missing Persons division of the Homicide Unit. Once her vehicle was found on Sept. 7, members of the Murder Squad and the DA’s office were called into the case. As a matter of procedure, both Pridemore and Postiglione were among those who participated in early searches of the March home, and both—along with others—strongly suspected Perry March was involved in his wife’s disappearance.
“There were so many things that weren’t right with his story and weren’t right with him,” Postiglione recalls. “But he always thought he was the smartest guy in the room. He still does.”
Because of the victim and her family’s social status and the ongoing media interest, the Janet March case was never dormant—tips and sightings were received and pursued on a regular basis—but it remained in homicide until 2002, when it was finally brought to the CCU. At that time, it was assigned to Det. Terry McElroy to review, to go through and organize the voluminous files, and to re-interview potential witnesses.
“In the beginning, the focus was in finding a body, which would establish that a murder had taken place,” Thurman says. “As we came to know Janet, interviewing her family and friends, we felt like we knew she wasn’t on some Greek island with her toes in the sand. In lieu of a body, we had to start building a body of evidence. We went back and re-interviewed witnesses before the memories faded, got everyone on tape that was not taped before. We felt like we needed to move quickly or we were afraid we might start losing witnesses. The longer it went, the stronger the circumstances indicated that she was dead and that Perry March had done it.”
In January 2004, McElroy retired after nearly 35 years of service. The DA’s office retained McElroy on a contract basis, but the March case was officially assigned to Pridemore and Postiglione, who began working it on nearly a daily basis as they tried to gather enough evidence to present it to one of the grand juries that convene six times a year in Nashville.
“If you look at one piece of evidence, you say, well, no,” Pridemore says. “But put it all together and you feel like you might have a shot. It’s a hipbone connected to the thighbone kind of thing. Luck played a huge part in Perry getting away with it as long as he did. I never thought he’d completely get away with it, but I kept wondering when we would have enough.”
In 2004, Thurman felt like the time had come. “It was a critical time, time to sit down and make a decision. Do we have enough to go forward? We felt like we did.”
On Dec. 7, 2004, Pridemore presented a grand jury the case to bring Perry March to trial on three counts: murder in the second degree, abuse of a corpse and tampering with evidence. At the end of the session, the 12-member jury voted to indict. It was then crucial that the indictment be kept under wraps until March could be brought into custody.
“Very few people in our office or the police department knew about it,” Thurman says. “And we owe a great deal to the 12 people who sat on that grand jury who complied with their oath.” The team knew that if word of the indictment leaked, March would likely flee Mexico—where he had been living with his two children since 1999—possibly to Argentina or Singapore, as he speaks fluent Chinese. Thurman began working with the FBI to get an order of extradition for March, who was under surveillance in Ajijic, where he was living and working as a lawyer, financial consultant and aspiring real estate developer.
“We were very concerned he would get away. Extraditing someone from Mexico is extremely difficult,” Thurman says. “Nothing can be based on hearsay. And the entire package has to be written in Spanish. Luckily for us, Perry had made so many people in Mexico mad that rather than us having to extradite him, they decided to expel him. We had heard before that they might do it, but it hadn’t happened and we didn’t want to get our hopes up. When it did, it happened very quickly. That was a real break. I might still be trying to translate everything into Spanish.”
Back in Nashville, after the bizarre conversation on the plane about the Apostle Paul, March’s little world got even smaller when he was “housed alone, rec alone”—placed in a solo cell and isolated from other prisoners during recreation breaks—in the Criminal Justice Center downtown. March seemed to change his mind about making a plea and it never got beyond the conversation that had transpired on the flight.
The plan was to try him first on the theft charges that he’d been indicted for in 1999. Meanwhile, the DA’s office would continue to gather evidence for the murder trial that would come next. But March, driven by what the detectives describe as his “intense hatred” for the Levines, made a critical error in judgment that would ultimately provide a key witness against him in the murder trial—his own father.
While in jail, March began talking to another inmate, Russell Nathaniel “Nate” Farris, who had three open cases in Davidson County Criminal Court that included charges of attempted murder and aggravated robbery. As they became friendlier, March made Farris a proposition: if Farris could make bond, would he be willing to murder the Levines in exchange for money and a new life in Mexico, which would be provided by his father, Arthur March, who was retired in Ajijic?
But Farris, in a rare display of good sense, got nervous about the consequences were the plan to go awry. Setting off a domino effect, he told his mother, his mother called the Levines and the Levines called Thurman.
“We didn’t know who Nate Farris was,” Thurman says. “We didn’t know if maybe Perry had confessed to him, or if he was just another inmate trying to work a deal for himself. When he described it to us, we asked him if he thought he could get Perry to talk about it so we could get it on tape. His response was that Perry never stopped talking about it.”
In a secretive and complicated process, the police recorded detailed conversations that took place between the two on Oct. 6 and 7, 2005, and then phone conversations between Farris and Arthur March beginning on Oct. 12, during which they discussed the plan and Farris’ future in Mexico. The final conversation happened Oct. 27, when Farris told Arthur March that he had completed his task and would be landing in Guadalajara at 2:30 p.m. that day on Continental flight 2046 from Houston. Arthur March was to pick him up at the airport. But Farris was actually speaking to Arthur March from Nashville with detectives Pridemore and Postiglione present, and never made it to Mexico.
On Oct. 28, the grand jury returned an indictment charging father and son with conspiracy to commit murder in the first degree. In Mexico, Arthur March vowed that he would not go willingly or peacefully to Nashville, so another extradition process began. But for the second time, the DA’s office got a break. On Jan. 5, 2006, Arthur March, like his son five months before, was deported, taken into custody, jailed in Houston and finally returned to Nashville.
Detectives say that during the first few days of February, Perry March tried to make a deal with his father, pledging that neither would roll on the other and that “We will wear these orange jumpsuits as a badge of honor.” Arthur March didn’t quite see it that way. Within days, the 78-year-old agreed to plead guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to commit murder, told authorities that his son had indeed murdered Janet March—beating her to death with a wrench in their home—confessed his role in the aftermath, and agreed to testify against Perry.
In the next six months, there were three trials. On April 19, Perry March was convicted of stealing from his former law firm, owned by his father-in-law Lawrence Levine. On June 8, he was found guilty of murder for hire. And on Aug. 17, the day after powerful closing statements from Senior District Attorney General Katy Miller and the unflappable Thurman (who showed a photo of Janet March during his statement), the jury convicted Perry March of the second-degree murder of his wife.
Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Steve Dozier sentenced the former Nashville attorney to a total of 56 years in prison for the murder, the murder-for-hire plot and the theft at the law firm.
The week after the murder trial ended, Tom Thurman went to Costa Rica on vacation with his wife and another couple. While there, he broke his collarbone when a bike he rode up a steep hill was discovered on the way down not to have brakes, ironic considering the steely control for which Thurman is known. Postiglione went to Florida with his family. “After going through something like this,” he understates, “you really need to go somewhere and decompress.” And Bill Pridemore, a passionate golfer, took off for a tournament in Myrtle Beach. But before he left, he had one order of business to take care of.
In 2002, when the Cold Case Unit was announced, the unit received an email from Sandi Goldberg Freels, the sister of a woman who had been murdered in 1985 and whose case had not been solved. Donna Goldberg suffered from drug addiction and had a record of prostitution. She was 31 years old when she was strangled in her truck at 9th and Main Street. Though William D. Lake III’s fingerprints were found on Goldberg’s truck, he denied having contact with her, and there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute him. Pridemore got the cold case and began looking into it. Though he hadn’t been assigned the Goldberg case in 1985, he had investigated a case in 1986 in which Lake had stabbed his victim to death in the neck. He felt strongly that Lake—who was convicted and is serving life for that crime—must also be Donna Goldberg’s murderer. He drove to Oak Ridge, where Sandi was living, and obtained DNA evidence that showed it was indeed the same man.
On the day Perry March was found guilty of murder, Pridemore took the elevator one flight down in the A.A. Birch Building to testify in the Goldberg case. The next day, he returned to that courtroom to hear William D. Lake III pronounced guilty of the woman’s murder. After 10 and 20 years, respectively, there was, in the span of two days, justice for two women whose lives had been stolen from them.
“It wasn’t anything like the March trial,” Pridemore says. “The only people in the courtroom for Donna’s trial were the judge, the defense attorney, the prosecutor, Lake, her sister and me. It was sort of sad. We get accused of paying more attention to cases like Janet March than cases like Donna Goldberg. But it’s not true.”
Postiglione agrees. “We lose as much sleep over Donna Goldberg as we do Janet March. When a case is solved and there is justice for the victim, you feel a sense of relief for the family. But tomorrow, there’s another case waiting for you. The story never ends.”