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Arrest in Girl Scout's 33-Year-Old Murder Jolts City

For 33 days, Nashville wondered what happened to a 9-year-old Girl Scout who disappeared while out delivering cookies.

For 33 wrenching years, the city has wondered who could do what police say was done to her.

Virginia Trimble-Ritter offered up a sad prayer when her daughter Marcia's body was found on Easter 1975: "God, please don't let me forget her face."

It would be hard for anyone in Nashville to forget that face. A black-and-white school picture of the smiling girl accompanied nearly every news story that tracked the case over three decades. It has haunted an entire generation of Nashvillians.

Theories about the case abounded until this summer's surprise indictment of a man no one in the neighborhood — not the ones still there, not those who had long since moved away — had even heard of, much less seen with the girl.

Police all along thought the killer was a teen in the neighborhood, likely someone Marcia knew. They were so certain, in fact, that they arrested someone who fit that profile, the one the FBI conjured up.

Then they dropped the case and admitted they had the wrong man.

But they stuck unwaveringly to their theory for a third of a century, and that hammered home a message:

Fear thy neighbor.

In 1975, youngsters roamed freely on foot or bicycle through the Trimbles' upper middle-class Green Hills neighborhood 10 miles south of downtown, a neighborhood where crime rarely rose above the level of driving 35 mph in a 25-mph zone. Kids were selling magazine subscriptions on the tree-lined block a week before Marcia vanished. One family even had cows.

"It was a safe environment," recalled David Zald, who lived in the neighborhood and was one year younger than Marcia. "It had a quaint feel to it."

Then one chilly day Marcia went out to deliver her cookies in a ritual repeated annually across the country, only she didn't come back.

For 33 frustrating days, hundreds of volunteers helped search for the girl or her body. An out-of-town psychic directed police to the wrong spot. Even bloodhounds couldn't find her.

TV cameras set up outside the Trimbles' three-bedroom, red brick home, fighting for space with portable toilets in the front yard. For a while, the police command post was in the master bedroom.

The effect on the city was palpable. Minnie Pearl's "Howwww-dee!" on the Grand Ole Opry didn't resonate with its normal exuberance. The "Hi, y'alls" on the streets became less friendly and more cautious.

A radio station wrongly reported the girl had been found in Centennial Park. One man was arrested after he broadcast a false report on his CB radio that Marcia had been sighted in the southern part of the city. A woman in the neighborhood was hypnotized to see if she could remember anything about the case.

Then, on Easter, Marcia's body was found 150 yards from her home amid the clutter of a rarely used, windowless garage, under a shower curtain and a child's wading pool.

She had been strangled and sexually assaulted, and her cookie money was missing. Cookies were scattered around the clothed body. A neck bone was fractured.

One of the most troubling pieces of the mystery is why the body was not found sooner. Police have said repeatedly that the garage was searched, yet tests on the body suggested it had been there all along.

When Marcia went missing, life in her neighborhood changed.

"The kids in that neighborhood feel this case was a pivotal event," Zald said.

Finding the body didn't speed finding a suspect. The city waited at first desperately and then patiently for an arrest.

"After 33 years, you don't get over it but you get through it," said Trimble-Ritter, a woman of profound and persistent religious faith. "You go on as gracefully as you can."

As the years ticked away and the leads went cold, detectives worked on their own time. The local media kept the case alive with stories on the anniversaries of the killing, so that even newcomers to the city and younger generations grew to know the girl's story.

"It's the first story I ever felt deeply about emotionally," recalled Chris Clark, who spent 41 years in Nashville as an anchor for WTVF-TV before retiring in 2007. "I kept a reporter's arm's length, but that one really tore me up because my daughter Penelope was that age and doing the same thing Marcia was."

Police at the time followed normal investigative patterns.

"Anytime in a small neighborhood like that, you start with the people closest to the victim, and since she was found in the neighborhood, it added to the suggestion that it would be somebody she knew," said Tommy Jacobs, a retired homicide detective who investigated the Trimble slaying. "And the FBI profile said we should look for a white teen, a loner, who lived close by."

To that end, in 1979 police charged Trimble neighbor Jeffrey Womack with the slaying, but prosecutors dropped the charges about a year later because of lack of evidence. He was 15 at the time of the crime.

"They (police) wanted to charge somebody and charged Jeffrey without making a full, complete investigation," said John Hollins Sr., an attorney who represented Womack. "They had no evidence Jeffrey was guilty and that's the reason the charges were dismissed."

But the theory had taken root.

Zald, now an associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, said even residents felt the perpetrator lived nearby, privately speculating about neighborhood "troublemakers" and if they could be involved.

Womack declined to be interviewed until the case is resolved.

In the early 1990s, DNA was submitted to the FBI for tests, renewing hope and igniting a flurry of media interest again. But no matches were made and the investigation went cold again.

The next arrest jolted the city anew.

Jerome Sidney Barrett, 61, who was in prison on sex charges between 1974 and 2002 except for about a year when Marcia disappeared, was indicted June 6 on a charge of first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty July 2 and is jailed without bond.

"He's eager for his day in court," said Kerry Haymaker, Barrett's attorney. "He's confident things will turn out well for him."

Prosecutors say scientific evidence linked Barrett to the slaying, but decline to elaborate. Barrett's name surfaced in the Trimble case last November when he was arrested in a rape-slaying that happened three weeks before Marcia disappeared. He is to go on trial in that case in January in that case; no trial date has been set in the Trimble case.

Jacobs, consulted about the case even after he retired in 1996, said the indictment resulted from a DNA match that came after Barrett's name arose in the other case.

But the investigator admits the arrest puzzles him in at least one key detail: Barrett is black. The Trimble neighborhood, then and now, is nearly all white.

"It seemed like somebody would have seen a subject of a different color, especially a stranger," he said.

Today, Marcia's neighborhood looks much the same — brick homes, shade trees and neatly trimmed shrubs. Mornings are filled with walkers and joggers who wave at drivers who move over to give them room. Country stars Martina McBride and Leann Rimes have homes not too far away and often shop at a mall that's been built about a five-minute drive from the Trimble neighborhood.

The Woodmont Baptist Church and Woodmont Christian Church, both less than two miles away, are still imposing pillars of Nashville's spiritual side. Julia Green Elementary School, where Marcia attended fourth grade, is still there.

On a recent Sunday, a soccer goal and basketball goal were in the front yard of the former Trimble home. American flags flew in the yards of two homes across the street.

The garage where the body was found was torn down with police approval.

Marcia's father died years ago. Trimble-Ritter, who recently remarried and moved to southern Kentucky, said she never got discouraged that the case would go unsolved.

"I've released it to God and hopefully this is God's timing for Marcia, her justice time," she said.

Her motherly instincts were more on target than police procedures or neighbors' gut feelings on another point, too:

"I've never felt it was a kid in the neighborhood," she said. "But I just didn't know."