Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nothing Hides Forever

By Beth Terrell

Today, I've been reading An Unfinished Canvas by Phyllis Gobbell and Michael Glasgow. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, it's an exceptionally well-researched true crime book about the disappearance of Janet Levine March and the eventual prosecution and conviction of her husband, Perry. Janet disappeared in 1996. Although her body was never found, there was a mountain of evidence (including the testimony of Perry's father, Arthur March) that Perry had murdered her.

Janet's murder, like the 1975 rape and murder of 9-year-old Marcia Trimble, hit Nashville hard. Of Marcia's death, Police Captain Mickey Miller said, "In that moment, Nashville lost its innocence. Our city has never been, and never will be, the same again. Every man, woman and child knew that if something that horrific could happen to that little girl, it could happen to anyone." I was 15 that year, older than Marcia, but like most of my peers, I followed the case religiously. For 33 days, while police searched for Marcia, we waited and worried, knowing something horrible had happened and unable to conceive of the evil mind that could have caused it. When she was found and we learned what had happened to her, it felt like the world would never be safe again.

When Janet disappeared in 1996, it was like "deja vu all over again," to quote the famous Yogi Berra. My friend Tammy was in Janet's book group and saw Janet shortly before she died. Later, Tam told me, "We all knew he had killed her. He was always so cold and arrogant. And we knew she would never have left those children."

Once again, my friends and I were riveted by the case. We were haunted by the thought that this woman--this artist, this mother, this book lover--someone a lot like me and my friends (though quite a bit richer) could have been murdered in her dream home by someone she had once loved. Murdered in the very place where she should have been safest.

Worse, for almost a decade, it looked like he'd gotten away with it. But the real-life detectives,, like our fictional protagonists, never gave up. In 2005, March was extradited to Nashville from the Mexican paradise to which he'd fled. The defense attorney insisted that, since there was no body, there was no evidence of murder. In hopes of creating a reasonable doubt, he spun a tale of a mysterious lover who had disposed of Janet's body after she took an overdose of sleeping pills. The jury didn't buy it, and in 2006, March was finally convicted of Janet's murder.

Two years ago, a friend of mine and his hashing group ("a drinking group with a running problem") were holding an event in a wooded area near the Kentucky/Tennessee border. One of the men came into camp swinging a leg bone. "Look here, guys," he said. or something to that effect. "I found a deer bone."

One of the others, whose day job was in the medical profession, paled. "That's not a deer," he said. "That's human."

Of course, they called the police. Waiting for the investigators to arrive, the hashers speculated that they might have found Janet March's remains. It was, after all, in the vicinity of the area where Arthur March claimed he and Perry had dumped Janet's body. They wondered if, at last, her bones would reveal their secrets and be released to her family.

It was not to be. The skeletonized remains belonged, not to Janet, but to another woman, a local woman who had been missing for two years. She too had been murdered.

Occasionally, my friends and I still talk about the Janet March tragedy. "That body will never be found," someone always says. "Perry made sure of that."

But I still hold out hope. Roads are widened and wilderness is developed. People bring their dogs to camp in wild areas. Rain and weather change the face of mountains, bury what lies on the surface and churn up what was buried beneath.

Nothing hides forever.


Jean Henry Mead said...

A beautifully written article, Beth. It could certainly be the basis for a good book. Have you thought about writing the story?

Beth Terrell said...

Thank you, Jean.

Unfortunately, I'm probably incapable of writing true crime, since I find myself veering into fiction mode and making things up. That was a little bit of a handicap when I took college history. ("But...professor...William and Mary WOULD have done that--if they'd thought of it!")

But Phyllis and Mike did a crackerjack job writing about the March case already. I interviewed homicide detective Pat Postiglione for my book, and he mentioned that theirs is the best true crime book about the March case, bar none--that their research was impeccable and very, very thorough. I'm not sure I could add much to it.

I have, however, been playing around with a fiction piece loosely based on the story.

Chester Campbell said...

Good job, Beth. As you know, I based my character Greg McKenzie's problem with the Metro Police on a case modeled after the March murder. Only in my version, the "victim" suffered from amnesia and later showed up. Too bad that wasn't the case in real life.

Ben Small said...

Great post, Beth. I went to grade school, junior high, high school and college with Herb Baumeister, the monster serial killer of gay men in Indianapolis. And my cousin did all that and worked with Herb for ten years to boot. Herb buried young men's remains in his yard, and when his dog found a leg bone, Herb tried to pass it off as a deer bone. Ultimately, he was discovered and killed himself in Canada. Herb was also suspected of being the I-70 killer, who murdered lots of people between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. Herb used to make that drive quite often. Herb's victims were ultimately identified and were well into the teens in number. Add in the I-70, if true, and the number grows quite high.

And what they say about never suspecting a person of being a serial killer is true for Herb. I didn't know him well, but always thought he was a harmless, slightly effeminate guy who wouldn't harm a fly. So did my cousin. Who knew?

At least in this case, the cops could focus on the surviving spouse, who is often the culprit. I hope Ms March's remains are someday found.

Beth Terrell said...

Chester, I remember that part of Greg's history. I thought it was an interesting take on the story, especially since I always believed Perry had killed her. But you took it to the "what if" level and made a new story of it altogether.

Ben, now I have to go and Google Herb. I can only imagine how creepy it must have been to realize this guy was living among you and no one suspected. Makes you wonder who else is out there pretending to be human.