In one of the farthest corners of the state of Georgia in Camden County, two older African Americans were gunned down in cold blood by an assailant later believed to be Dennis Perry. However, there is much controversy surrounding his accusation and subsequent conviction. The events in question have mystified local residents, legal scholars, and amateur sleuths alike.
In the small area of Waverly, Georgia, not far from the Georgia/Florida Line, African Americans gathered for Bible study at Rising Daughters Baptist Church on March 11, 1985. The meeting included both Harold and Thelma Swain, a married couple from the area who were stalwarts in the community and faithful, active members of the church. Swain was conducting the Bible study and missionary meeting where almost a dozen people were in attendance. Around 9:00 PM, one of the worshipers in attendance had to leave due to a prior commitment. As she left the area of the church where the meeting convened, she encountered something strange. A young white male approached her and said he needed to see someone. When questioned about who he needed to see, the young man pointed to Harold Swain, who had since entered the area. According to others on the scene, several of the other women in attendance saw the young man, but like the first woman he approached, no one recognized him. Very shortly after Harold approached the young white man, gunshots were heard, and after all was over, Harold Swain was shot several times. Hearing the gunshots, Thelma, Harold's wife, rushed out to see what was going on, and as a result, the young man shot her. Afraid for their lives, the other women who were part of the meeting rushed in to the pastor's office for protection. It was there they tried to phone the police; however, the phone did not work because the phone lines at the church had been cut. Finally, one of the women in the pastor's study summoned the courage to dash to the car and drive for help (Masee-Yost, 2007; Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d).
Shortly afterwards, police arrived where they found Harold mortally wounded; he was shot four times-three times in the chest and one time in the head. Thelma fared no better but was shot only once in the upper right side of her chest. She too died of her wounds. Harold Swain was sixty-six years old, and his wife, Thelma, was sixty-two (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d). They were well-respected members of the community, and their death horrified their family, friends, neighbors, and members of the congregation and community. There was no apparent reason for the murders, and because the young man who did the deed asked to speak to Harold, albeit not by name but by sight in the vestibule, it was apparent this was not a random act of violence (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d.; Masee-Yost, 2007).
The Georgia Bureau of Investigations teamed up with local authorities in Camden County to investigate the case. At the scene of the crime, investigators found bullet casings and three pairs of eyeglasses. One pair belonged to Mr. Swain, the other to Mrs. Swain, and the other was believed to have belonged to the assailant. Joe Gregory of the GBI was one of the first investigators on the scene. He proceeded to collect evidence and interview witnesses, gaining a description of the assailant from the women who were with the Swains on the night of the attack. However, he soon found that most of the witnesses only got a brief look at the man, and that was from a distance. This is logical given the chaos and fear that riveted through the group at the sound of gunfire and the sight of their beloved friends massacred by a madman. Agent Gregory commented the lenses of the set of glasses that must have belonged to the shooter were fairly thick, and the surface of the frames had been impacted by the use of a blowtorch. The earpieces did not match. It was further deduced the wearer was farsighted with astigmatism in the right eye (Rush, 2015). All this led Agent Gregory and police to believe the perpetrator could not afford a decent pair of glasses, so he modified these to fit him. There was some speculation this was a robbery gone wrong; however, the assailant left $300.00 in Harold Swain's pocket which led investigators to frown on this theory. Other evidence found at the scene were five bullet casings, five blue plastic shirt buttons, a white plastic button, four pieces of cut telephone wire, human hair in the hinges of the eyeglass frames, and Pepsi bottles-both of which were found in the parking lot of the church. Blood spatters at the scene were assumed to be the Swains, so no samples were ever taken (Masee-Yost, 2007; Greene, 2007; Rush, 2015). Investigators also collected the top of the telephone connection box and a smudged mirror from the church vestibule (Rush, 2015). Of course, notes on the eyewitness accounts and crime scene photos were part of the evidence collected.
Some have been led to suggest the murder was premeditated given the phone lines to the church were cut. If the assailant had done this, and it is logical to assume he did, as there were no reports of a malfunctioning phone or interruption in service prior to the murder, then this could have indicated premeditation. A composite sketch was made and circulated, and police began to mount a widespread manhunt for the assailant. About 135 miles away in Telfair County (near McRae-Helena), police pulled over the driver of a car for minor traffic violations, and they arrested him and two passengers when they found a few weapons in the trunk of the car. One of those arrested was Donnie Barrentine, a man who had reportedly bragged about murdering a black preacher and his wife in a church; however, when questioned intensely about the statements, Barrentine claimed he had been lying and only trying to get attention by doing so (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d). It just so happens one of the weapons found in the trunk of the car was a .25 caliber pistol, similar to the one used in the murder of the Swains. One might ask why Barrentine was not tried for the murder of the Swains. He was asked to be part of a lineup, and the woman who had encountered the murderer at the church on the night in question could not positively identify the assailant from anyone in the lineup. Nonetheless, it should be noted the lady did claim the boots Barrentine wore were identical to the ones the assailant wore the night the Swains were murdered (Masee-Yost, 2007). Barrentine failed a polygraph exam, but the composite drawing made by sketch artists based on the eyewitnesses at the scene of the crime did not match Barrentine, albeit some seemed to think it resembled him slightly (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d). Barrentine, while serving five years for weapons charges associated with his arrest in Telfair County, was not charged with the murder of the Swains. The district attorney who eventually tried the case also felt the witnesses who heard Barrentine state he had murdered a black couple in a church in Georgia were unreliable, with most of them being "dope-heads and prostitutes," (Greene, 2007, para. 35).
Another lead came in about a year later. Agent Gregory realized the composite drawing which had helped lead investigators to not charge Barrentine did resemble a transient from Kansas who had been involved in a church robbery there in 1981. This lead led nowhere, as no one was ever able to find or identify the transient in Kansas, and the only thing known about him was he drove a car with Florida license plates (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d). It should be noted Rising Daughters Baptist Church is very near the Georgia/Florida line. Furthermore, although some believed the murder was a result of a robbery gone wrong, Camden County Sheriff Bill Smith did not believe that to be the case. He pointed to the cut phone lines and the $300.00 remaining in Harold Swain's pocket as proof this was a hit on Harold Swain and not a robbery gone wrong. Smith felt the killer probably knew Swain and he came there to kill him; Smith also felt Thelma Swain was killed only because she rushed in to help her husband and may not have necessarily been the target of the murder, although he could not definitively prove the assertion. Smith was a personal friend of the Swains, and he was familiar with Rising Daughters Baptist Church. Because of its location in a rural part of the county, the church often had transients stop in asking for help. Sheriff Smith did not feel this was the case with the man who murdered his friends (Masee-Yost, 2007).
In 1988, the Swain's murders were part of a weekly telecast on the popular true crime show Unsolved Mysteries. While it would not be unusual for a murder case like the Swain's to be featured on the popular program, which is my favorite show of all time, I might add, followed closely by Murder, She Wrote, one thing about the episode was quite unusual-it featured the use of the actual glasses found at the crime scene and thought to be the ones worn by the perpetrator. In one scene on the show, Robert Stack, the series' popular host, can be seen holding them in his hand. While other episodes have featured the showing of actual evidence, this was unusual because the evidence was sent to the producers and was physically present on the set. Sadly enough, that was the last time the glasses were ever seen (Masee-Yost, 2007)! Agent Gregory was not happy the sheriff sent those glasses to the show's producers, particularly given the case was unsolved at the time. In fact, much of the evidence collected from the original investigation is missing, with only the bullet casings, bullets from the bodies, three pieces of phone wire, and one blue button remaining (Rush, 2015).
Although the eyeglasses were lost and could possibly still be sitting in a studio somewhere in Hollywood unidentified, the case's appearance on the popular show did bring in quite a few leads. One lead came from a resident in Camden County named Jane Beaver. She saw the show and said the composite sketch shown on the episode looked similar to Dennis Perry, a man who once dated her daughter (Greene, 2007). Beaver also contended Perry tried to borrow money from Harold Swain unsuccessfully. She told investigators that Perry told her Swain had laughed in his face, which infuriated Perry who swore to seek revenge on Swain and threatened to "kill that n****r" (Perry vs. Upton, Writ of Habeas Corpus, 2019). One thing to note about the composite drawing and the description given by eyewitnesses at the scene is there are only a few details about the assailant which all of the witnesses could agree upon-namely it was a young white male. However, the rest of the witnesses gave descriptions which were slightly different; none of them could totally agree on what the man actually looked like. This is problematic, as in a court of law, only consistent, positive identifications by eyewitnesses can withstand scrutiny and challenge.
Beaver claimed Perry bore a strong resemblance to the man in the drawing, and he had lived in Camden County at one time, moving to Jonesboro, Georgia in 1984. He worked for a concrete company there, and after interviewing him and his supervisor, investigators found he was not in the vicinity of Camden County when the murder took place. Also, Vanzola Williams, the eyewitness who the assailant met in the vestibule and said he needed to speak to someone, failed to pick Perry out of a line-up (Rush, 2015). Agents were unable to muster enough evidence to arrest Perry, and in fact, they did not think he was their man based on the interviews and the lack of a positive ID from Williams in the lineup.
The case remained open for ten more years after the 1988 Unsolved Mysteries episode, and in 1998, Dale Bundy was assigned to the case. In the ten year interim, Jane Beaver continued calling the show's hotline as it went in to reruns claiming the assailant was Dennis Perry. In fact, she even approached the ladies at Rising Daughters Baptist Church who were witnesses to the crime and showed them Perry's photograph (Greene, 2007). One of the women to whom Beaver showed the photo of Dennis Perry was Cora Fisher, who claimed when she saw his picture, she was rattled and stricken with fear, as this was the man she remembered from the church who had shot the Swains (Rush, 2015). Some researchers have also suggested Beaver showed the photo of Perry to the ladies at the church and claimed he was the father of her grandson who was also shown in the picture; however, Perry did not father a child with Beaver's daughter, and in fact, the child in the photo was Perry's little brother, according to Helen Umphrey, Perry's mother (Masee-Yost, 2007). When Bundy showed both Fisher and Williams a single photo of Perry, both women identified him as the man who burst in to the church on March 11, 1985, shot Harold and Thelma Swain, and left them for dead. Bundy went to Florida where he interviewed Perry, but Perry maintained he had lived and was working in the Atlanta area at the time, knew of Harold Swain but never met him, and did not even own a handgun. Bundy nor any other investigator spoke with Perry for another two years. On January 13, 2000, Perry was arrested at his home after returning from work and charged with the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain (Rush, 2015).
To many, this is where the mystery of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain ended; however, the group who believe this grows smaller and smaller each time the case is discussed. Perry was put on trial in 2003 and convicted of the murder, and because he struck a plea deal for two life sentences to avoid the death penalty, he cannot appeal the decisions due to the deal. There are quite a few who believe Perry is innocent of the crimes, and one group seeking to prove he is innocent is the Georgia Innocence Project. The family of Dennis Perry, as well as amateur sleuths feel Donnie Barrentine could be more involved in the crime than investigators at the GBI and Camden County Sheriff's Department believe him to be, and in fact, they believe he is the man who shot the Swains. According to some writers, the murder was a tactic to get the attention of Harold Swain's son-in-law who was said to have owed a debt to Barrentine's cousin (Rush, 2015). Interestingly enough, Barrentine testified for the defense at the 2003 trial, but he maintained he knew nor had anything to do with the murders. An investigation in to his work records showed he reported to work on March 11th and March 13th but was mysteriously absent from work on March 12th, the day after the murder.
Although the district attorney did not focus much attention on Barrentine, they did feel they investigated him thoroughly. Perry's defense attorneys presented a defense they felt surely would result in an acquittal based on the legal requirement of "beyond a shadow of a doubt" as the benchmark for convicting a defendant. However, the jury returned a guilty verdict. Did they get it right? Was Dennis Perry the killer? There are some things that stick out about this case.
1. Why was Jane Beaver so adamant that Dennis Perry was the murderer? Did she have a vendetta against Perry? There was some bad blood between Perry and her family, particularly over his time dating her daughter. Why did she tell people Perry was the father of her grandchild? Did she taint the photo identification process with Williams and Fisher by showing them a single photo-that of Perry? Did Perry really tell Jane Beaver he tried to borrow money from Harold Swain only to be laughed at by Swain and that Perry planned to seek revenge on Swain by killing him using a racial epitaph for Swain? Did Perry ever use Harold Swain's name? From her description of the event, she said he only referred to the man as his grandfather's black neighbor (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d).
2. The eyewitnesses could not agree on the description of the shooter. In fact, the eyewitnesses could not agree on whether or not the assailant was wearing glasses. Cora Fisher, who was a key witness for the prosecution kept changing her description of the assailant. At first, she said he had light, medium brown hair, then told investigators it was brownish or black and was curly before finally settling on yellowish or white. The jury was never presented with the contradictory testimony, only that three of the witnesses agreed he had blonde hair. The defense attorneys argued the eyewitness testimony suffered from cross-race effect where eyewitnesses have problems remembering descriptions of people who are not members of their own race-research which dates back to the early 1900s. Eyewitnesses have been more apt to remember descriptions of people of their own race. Also, only two of the eyewitnesses-Fisher and Williams-identified Perry as the shooter and they only did that after Jane Beaver showed them a photo of Perry and a period of 13 years had passed. The other eyewitnesses were not asked to identify Dennis Perry at the trial (Rush, 2015).
3. Why was so much evidence lost from the original investigation? Also, why did Sheriff Bill Smith agree to send the actual set of eyeglasses found at the scene off to the producers of Unsolved Mysteries for Robert Stack to use in the broadcast? Further, why did no one tightly supervise their return to the evidence file at the Camden County Sheriff's department? Apparently, Agent Gregory was not happy about the decision to do this. Also, what happened to the hairs found on those glasses, some of the buttons, parts of the telephone wire cut outside, the top of the telephone connection box and smudged mirror found in the vestibule?
4. Did Harold Swain know his assailant? The eyewitness testimony conflicted there too. Some witnesses said Harold acted as if he knew the assailant, where others said he acted as if he didn't. Also, Vandora Baker, one of the witnesses, claimed the assailant came down the aisle of the sanctuary, but all the others maintained he simply stuck his head through the door but remained in the vestibule (Sloan, from The Georgia Innocence Project, 2020).
5. The hairs on the glasses were from a Caucasian, but when they were tested for DNA, Perry's did not match the DNA from the hair, thus eliminating him as the provider of the hairs.
6. The eyeglasses found at the scene were designed to correct farsightedness. The GBI ordered an eye exam on Perry. He was found not to have farsightedness and in fact was found to have 20/20 vision. Research by the defense found that if Perry had farsightedness, he would have MUCH worse vision in each eye than 20/20; therefore, the glasses did not belong to Perry, or if they were his, they did not match his eye conditions and thus would have been problematic for him to wear (Dennis Perry, 2020). Logically, it could have been assumed that Perry could have worn the glasses as a disguise, but this would have impaired his vision, and he might not have been able to pull off a premeditated murder with impaired vision. There would have been a risk of misfiring or even making mistakes in a struggle with Swain resulting in getting tangled up and getting caught. There were too many risks with that. If a set of eyeglasses were going to be part of a disguise, why not simply use a pair of sunglasses or a pair of glasses with non-prescription lenses or no magnification at all? Or why not wear a mustache or fake beard? Why not wear a hat? I doubt Perry was using glasses to try to disguise himself if he were the assailant. It appears the person who owned the glasses needed them, and they even were modified to fit the assailant given the things investigators found on and about them.
7. Perry had an alibi. A Mr. Charlie Williamson drove Perry to work each day because Perry had no car in 1985. Williamson testified he took Perry to work the days in question and that he did not remember Perry not showing up for work around the time of the murders (Masee-Yost, 2007). In fact, investigators ruled out Perry after receiving the tip that Perry resembled the man in the drawings and was possibly the assailant because they deemed him to have a solid alibi-namely that he was hundreds of miles away working on his job (Dennis Perry, 2020).
8. What happened to the Pepsi bottles found in the parking lot? They were unable to do DNA tests on them because they were lost. What happened to them? Were they possibly used by the assailant(s) as he or they waited in the parking lot to make their move on the church and take out Harold Swain?
9. Detectives stated Dennis Perry "confessed" to the crime. Perry claims he was merely telling detectives what he thought might have happened. He felt that the murders were the result of an attempted robbery gone wrong and the assailant fled. However, regardless of what Perry said or intended to say, why was his "confession" not video taped or recorded? In fact, Masee-Yost (2007) posited no notes from the interview were ever made. Why? Perry contended the confession was coerced.
10. Why did the sketches made by the police artist based on the eyewitness accounts vary so much? The first four were indeed similar, but the final composite looked nothing like those four. Why was that the case?
11. The first four drawings made from the eyewitness accounts looked eerily similar to the transient in Kansas who robbed a church there in 1981. Was it possible that the man had come to Georgia on a crime spree? He was supposedly driving a car with a Florida license plate. This means he could have been in the area. Did he know Swain? Or had he been following Swain and knew he had money on him?
12. Why did two of Perry's acquaintances claim Perry used reading glasses that were similar to the ones found at the scene? Did he? Were those his glasses? Could they have been used for reading?
13. Was Perry indeed in Waverly visiting his grandparents who lived near Rising Daughters Baptist Church the day of the murders as claimed by Perry's girlfriend (Harold and Thelma Swain, n.d)?
14. Why did Perry claim to be at a party in Texas during the murders when there really was no party?
15. Why did Perry claim to have murdered the Swains but then claimed it to be an accident only later to recant that?
16. Was it known that Jane Beaver was seeking a substantial reward for her role in the arrest and conviction of Perry, and that she did receive $12,000.00 for her testimony at the trial (Perry vs. Upton, Write of Habeas Corpus, 2019).
17. Why did some eyewitnesses at the scene state the shooter had a mustache while others did not? Perry did have a mustache, but none of the composite drawings included one. The four composite drawings made before the final one all looked VERY similar to the transient from Kansas who robbed a church in 1981, and he did not have a mustache (Dennis Perry, 2020).
This case is quite interesting and has as many twists and turns as a bucket of snakes. The petition for writ of habeas corpus is quite informative. Any amateur sleuth researching this case should read it, as well as the trial transcript. The Georgia Innocence Project has taken up this case, and is now partnering with the producers of the podcast Undisclosed. The case is receiving a great deal of attention. I am not sure if Dennis Perry is completely innocent of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, but I am also not sure he is the man who committed the deeds. From the eyewitness testimony, the collection of evidence, the DNA tests, and the eye exam, I am led to believe Dennis Perry was not the man who wrestled with Swain and shot him and subsequently, his wife Thelma, in the vestibule of the church that night. Could he have been with the assailant? Possibly. Was he one of two people in the parking lot who drank Pepsi and discarded the bottles in the parking lot? Possibly. DNA testing, while emerging on the scene in 1985, was not something the average person knew about in 1985, particularly not the criminal elements of the world, so it is possible the assailants figured they could drink from the bottles and throw them down at the scene of the crime without fearing the bottles would reveal their identities as long as they wiped off the fingerprints. But what happened to those bottles? Modern DNA testing could be done on the bottles to see if they contained traces of saliva and if DNA could be traced to them. However, their disappearance prevents that.
This case is far from resolved in my mind. I certainly hope the case is reopened. I am not saying Perry was not involved at all, but I do not think he was the shooter. Therefore, his sentence is completely unjustified.
What are your thoughts?
Dennis Perry. (2020). Georgia Innocence Project, Retrieved from https://www.georgiainnocenceproject.org/cases/active-cases/dennis-perry/
Greene, S. (2007). Key evidence goes missing in Georgia church murders. The Denver Post, Retrieved from https://injusticebusters.org/04/Perry_Dennis.shtml
Harold and Thelma Swain. (n.d.). Unsolved Mysteries Wiki, Retrieved from https://unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com/wiki/Harold_and_Thelma_Swain
Masee-Yost, T. (2007). A law students thesis on Dennis Perry's case. Free Dennis Perry, Retrieved from http://freedennisperry.blogspot.com/2007/10/law-students-thesis-on-dennis-perrys.html
Rush, J.S. (2015). Attorney seeks DNA testing in murder case. Tribune & Georgian, Retrieved from