The Bruce Brothers: Terror in Tennessee

Q&A with Former U.S. Prosecutor Steve Parker
(“Shell Game,” Forensic Files)

“Shell Game” told the story of the murders of Danny Vine, 27, and Della Thornton, 29, who were shot to death by three brothers from the Bruce family — all for a truckload of mussel shells worth $2,500.

 As a professional mussel diver, Gary Bruce knew Vine, who was a legitimate buyer and seller of the shells, the source of mother-of-pearl.

Thornton, a forklift operator, was Vine’s fiancée and together they had a Rottweiler puppy that also met its end at the hands of the Bruces and another man, William David Riales, on January 16, 1991, near Camden, Tennessee.

Crime family. Kathleen Bruce lied to police about her sons’ whereabouts on the night that they robbed Vine of his shells and committed the murders. She received eight years in jail for providing a false alibi, and the boys all got life in jail without parole.

This particular Forensic Files episode fascinated me for a number of reasons.                          

First, of course, was the reality that such horrifying cruelty could take place over a sum of money that would barely pay for a used Ford Focus.

Second, “Shell Game” provided some interesting backstory to the way mussel shells are procured. I’ll never look at all those Pier 1 mother-of-pearl-inlaid picture frames the same way again.

Menaces to society. Most compelling of all was something federal prosecutor Steve Parker said toward the end of the episode: “A lot of people were very happy [that the Bruce brothers were convicted]. It lowered the crime rate significantly in Benton County and the area.”

Attorney Steve Parker
Attorney Steve Parker

Fortunately, most of us have never lived in a town terrorized by felons like Gary, Jerry Lee, and Robert Bruce (plus a fourth brother, J.C., who did other horrible things on his own, although it wasn’t clear from the show what, if any, role he played in the Vine-Thornton murders).

But the comment made me think about some more-common scenarios in that vein. I’ve had jobs in a number of offices where the departure of one particular ogre or B-on-wheels washed away stress and conflict among the remaining co-workers.

I’m curious to hear tales from someone who lived in Benton County before and after the Bruces’ incarceration — and whether the residents ultimately felt like crocuses that could finally break through the March snow and feel the sun after a U.S. version of the Seven Samurai gave them their freedom. (Okay, maybe that’s overdramatic, but it is my blog.)

The aforementioned federal prosecutor, Steve Parker, answered some of my questions about the case in an April 20 phone interview. Parker now works in the private sector, as a lawyer doing corporate work for the firm Butler Snow in Memphis. But he still remembers vividly the aftermath of the Vine and Thornton murders. Below are some excerpts from our conversation.

Were you surprised that someone would murder two people over $2,500 worth of mussel shells?
I was a police officer earlier in my career — that’s how I put myself through law school — and then a federal prosecutor for 30 years. So, no, I wasn’t surprised.

The show mentioned that the Bruces used witness intimidation in their earlier crimes and, in one instance, blew up a building near the site where a witness was being interviewed. Did you know of any other such attempts by the Bruces?
Robert asked one of his ex-girlfriends to provide an alibi, and Mrs. Bruce began following the woman around to intimidate her. Some neighbors saw this and reported it to the police.

There was a TBI agent named Alvin Daniels, and he was out there working at the crime scene just after he got a cancer diagnosis and wanted to finish this case before he died. The Bruces would cruise around Daniels’ house to try to intimidate him.

Members of the Bruce family got in their trucks and followed Reverend Vine [Danny Vine’s father] to intimidate him.

 The Bruces thought they were invincible. And that made it easier to prosecute their case because they weren’t very smart about covering their tracks. They were very impulsive.

We had an eyewitness who saw them at the gas station. [The Bruces bought 10 gallons of gasoline to use as an accelerant and then burned down Vine’s house after killing him and Thornton.] We also had someone who was there the night they planned the murder and tried to recruit others to participate. They had a huge argument outside with someone who refused, and we found neighbors who heard the fight.

Della Thornton and Danny Vine
Della Thornton and Danny Vine

How did law enforcement contend with witness intimidation?
Normally, murder is a state crime, not federal, and normally we don’t have jurisdiction. But we accused them of robbery affecting interstate business. The shells travel and sometimes even go to Japan.

We took the case federal, so we had a federal grand jury about 90 miles away from Camden, so witnesses didn’t feel intimidated.

 We had a good team of the FBI, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, and ATF. The ATF did the arson investigation.

The Bruce brothers and their mother were held without bail before the trial. We were able to prosecute J.C. Bruce early, so that let everyone in the county know they weren’t invincible.

Is the mother still in jail? And where was their father during all this?
She was released and passed away. There were no dads in the picture. I referred to the Bruces as Ma Barker and her boys during the closing argument at the trial.

What reaction did you get to the conviction?
Our phone started ringing. The sheriff’s office and other local law enforcement were very appreciative. We took out a whole crime wave.

Do you miss the drama from your days as a federal investigator?
Yes, as a fed you get to both investigate and try cases, which is compelling.

Did you feel Forensic Files was fair in the way the show portrayed the story?
Yes, very fair. It was a year-long investigation before we charged the Bruce brothers, and it was hard to get that all into 30 minutes. I was very happy with the way Forensic Files presented the case. 

47 thoughts on “The Bruce Brothers: Terror in Tennessee”

  1. Wow, fascinating follow-up on that story. Great insight from the prosecutor, Steve Parker. I’m so glad to hear that FF did a fair job with the story. Everyone I know who has been in a reality show says that the producers of the show misrepresent things and edit creatively to make it look like there’s conflict where there is none, that sort of thing. Very cool!

  2. Thanks, Terrie! I’ve heard that one of the reality romance shows hires counselors to “help” contestants once they’ve been rejected — by asking them depressing questions designed to make them cry for the cameras. I was also glad to hear Forensic Files has integrity and doesn’t resort to those kinds of tactics.

  3. Ma Barker and her boys immediately came to mind — I’m glad Parker mentioned them. This entry piqued my curiosity about genetics and antisocial personality disorder, so I read a Psychology Today piece about psychopathy vs. sociopathy, and it turns out that the former is believed to be genetic, the latter, environmental. The Bruces, like the Barkers, must be a case of genetics, don’t you think? Very interesting stuff. I love this blog; keep up the good work. Thanks!

    1. Tom, I’d be curious to read the Psychology Today story. Can you provide the link? (Another scary aspect to the story: In all, there are seven Bruce brothers.)
      Cheers and thanks,

    2. Ur talking genetics — his biological daughter played head games with my son. Now my son is dead. I am so glad I found this website. It took me three f****** years and I’m putting it all out there and as I say, karma is a b****.

      1. Shame on you for accusing someone else for taking your sons life. Heads games aren’t right but were you there to witness everything? Who’s to say he didn’t drive her away? It’s people like you that need help to grieve instead of accusing others of people’s death.

  4. This was a riveting story – shocking, fascinating and ultimately a case where justice was served. Too bad it took 2 deaths to bring down these career criminals who were able through intimidation and terror to take over a town. I was amazed to learn that the local authorities probably could not have successfully prosecuted them without the cooperation (thank goodness) of the Federal arm. Your questions and the answers to them were quite illuminating.

    I can’t wait for the next installment.

    1. I’m from Camden, Tennessee, and went to school with the youngest of the brothers, and he was anti-social and showed very violent behavior in school. I was friends with his ex-wife, who was actually a very sweet girl. I know a lot of stories about the Bruce family but I won’t say. There is nothing worth taking a life, especially this heinous. The stories about these people are just sick and horrible. I was surprised that they actually married. There are a few other disappearances that are unsolved to this day. People who knew them very well. So they really did think they were untouchable. It was so sad for all the families involved. Not all the Bruces were in on the crime — they were treated horribly just because of their last name. Danny and Della’s family and friends suffered so badly. It’s heartbreaking all around. Such a horrific tragedy happening in such a small Southern town has left a scar that will never heal. My husband knew Danny, Della, and the Bruces. He thought very highly of Danny and Della. They were honest, good, sweet, people who never did anything to anyone. May they rest in peace and hopefully all sides will find closure. By that I mean the family of the Bruces who are only connected by blood and not evil and hate.

      1. Kimberly, thanks so much for writing in — I’ve been curious to hear from someone who has lived in Camden. Glad to know that there’s some goodness in the Bruce family gene pool. Also hope that it’s a comfort to the Thornton and Vine families to know that Della and Danny are remembered fondly and missed.

      2. You can say all what you want. I know the mother the wife of one of the Bruce’s Brothers. Her name is Kim, her daughter one of the Bruce’s Brothers biological daughters who is not supposed to have contact with him in prison sent him money. She like f****** with my son’s head and now he’s dead. I’ve been waiting for three f****** years to find this website and all I got to say is, karma is a b****. My son was the most kindest hardest person ever that took care of her child for 6 years and he wasn’t even the biological father. Can a daughter talk s*** about my son to the family Kim and her husband who absolutely love my son and the daughter talk s*** to the family and then all of the sudden they decided not to like him. They were not allowed at his funeral.

        1. Sounds like you need help to grieve.Stop blaming others.Some personalitys are stronger than others and sounds like your son just couldn’t handle the heartbreak of this.
          What is this website doing for you?

  5. Is this website propaganda against ongoing habeas petitions? Why was this story published 2 days after Bruce filed a habeas petition in the Third Circuit? Why are you writing about a television show from the early 1990s? Is this funded by DoJ?

  6. Thanks for writing in! I wasn’t aware of ongoing litigation related to the case. My blog’s only agenda is to provide new content for fans of Forensic Files. Although “Shell Game” portrays a crime from many years ago, the reruns are still on TV and Netflix — and they continue to interest viewers.

    1. You weren’t aware that in late May of 2016 he filed a habeas petition where the central issue is whether there was actually enough witness intimidation by the Bruces to make the feds involvement reasonably likely? Because the odd blog seems to try to answer the narrow question a few days after the brief was filed. What an odd Orwellian world we live in! Are you trying to to influence law clerks who google the cases? What interest group is behind this?

      1. Sheila Bradford went missed I do believe because of this case. She was the girlfriend of JC Bruce who was scheduled to talk to the TBI but never showed. She has never been seen again! Billy Bruce isnt listed here. He shot a cop that we call Austin, in a parking lot on main street! Nothing is exaggerated!

        1. Thanks for writing in! I didn’t know about the police shooting — those brothers must have really thought they were above the law.

  7. 1st, Student is an idiot, this is for Forensic File fans. Go somewhere else — you’re irritating. I hope the Bruce brothers are rotting and getting lots of attention in prison and not the nice kind, lol. It’s truly sad that these degenerates were able to terrorize this town, wow. I’m sure others that are missing in that town, they had a hand in. I very much hope that all of their victims’ families are doing well and may god rest the murdered souls. This was just tragic homicidal violent murder — they couldn’t even let the dog out. They were deserving of the death penalty and I hope their mother did a hard few yrs.

  8. Has anyone dug more into why William David Riales recieved the same sentence when there was no evidence that he was involved? This is a very tragic story all around, and my heart goes out to the victims and their families. No one should ever have to experience this crime committed by such sick, twisted individuals…but it seems to me that this man William Riales is also a victim who lost his life! The Forensic Files episode doesn’t even mention his name?!

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen William’s blog also…and I’m not trying to take away from the horrible crime that was committed, but it seems like this man lost his life as well! Like a “guilty by association” type situation. It’s sad all around, but I wonder why no one seems to want to talk about him — this is a classic case of how our justice system oversteps its boundaries! There’s a lot of talk about these men intimidating witnesses and therefore no one wanted to talk or testify…so I can’t understand why this man was charged and not numerous other people! It seems like he was charged because he wouldn’t cooperate, but most wouldn’t. Most of us are taught all our lives that tattling is wrong! Especially with a southern, country type upbringing! It was a pretty good episode and I realize they can only cram so much into each one…just would have liked some more info, I guess. Still curious why there was no mention of William?! The show doesn’t mention him at all, but when I googled the case after watching it…there’s things that pop up on him, such as his blog.

        1. I’m surprised that FF didn’t add the interesting twist about the one who was caught in Nashville. He was able to hide out for the amount of time he did because he dressed as a woman.

          1. Gary changed his identity and had a new relationship with a woman who didnt know his real identity. It took like a year to find him. He had escaped through a fence in a West TN jail.

          2. Gary escaped through a fence from a jail in West TN. Camden was in fear for the whole year of him coming for revenge. He was found with his appearance changed living with a woman in Nashville who supposedly had no idea who he was.

      2. The show, as you know, is more about the evidence not necessarily the people. They only talked about the brothers, their mother and not William David Riales as to not confuse people watching. It is less than a 30 minute show and they were showing how the evidence was collected and how it was used, not so much the crime or any events that took place before, during, or after the trial. As far as Riales being a victim in all this, he is not innocent in this case, so don’t feel sorry for him. He was placed at the scene by 2 different people. He also had the chance to have his case separated from the others but by his choice did not. He could have testified against the brothers for what he knew but again did not. At first, I thought it was because he was afraid of the brothers, but after sitting through both trials and hearing everything, I learned he was/is just as mean as the others. And yes there were 7 of them. 1 that was not around much, but did make it to every day of both trials in support of them. 1 that was supposedly the “good” one of the bunch but he came and supported them every day of both trials, also. And of course you can’t forget the oldest who did go to jail for rape and attempted murder of a 15 year old who was pardoned by a governor years ago. I knew of one of them from school but never really knew of the family before they were arrested. And when the trial started we learned of the evidence just like the jury did as the jury did. No one was out to get any of these men or frame them for anything they didn’t do, the evidence was there for everyone to see at the trial. Nothing was planted against them, nor was anything held back that could have help them. The only one to take the stand in his defense was Gary during his trial after he was caught when the America’s Most Wanted was aired about him. You could see the evil, the devil plain and simple. For the year after their deaths we knew nothing, no one would come forward about anything they knew or saw. It wasn’t until a year later when the FBI and the ATF got involved with the TBI and local police that they were able to learn of evidence from witnesses because they were scared of this family and didn’t want to be their next victim or have a family member turn up missing. And even then it still took them another year to make arrests. January 16, 1991 to November 1993 was how long it took for them to build their case against all 4 men and the mother. Trials did not happen until May of 1995 and August of 1996. I feel if anything could have been done to prove any of them innocent they had plenty of time to do so if they were innocent. The things we learned during the trial, are things we will never forget…

        1. Thanks so much for sharing your account of the hearings! It’s good to know you feel confident the Bruce brothers and Riales got a fair trial. It sounded like a Herculean job for the prosecution team to get the case together. Also, sorry you had to hear testimony that was, no doubt, very disturbing.

        2. William David Riales is an innocent man he was not there when the crime happened one of the 2 witnesses you talk of was legally blind but said he saw him driving the truck

  9. What a horrendous family — mother and sons: total trash. Seems like many in the town agree with viewers (and vice versa): let them rot in prison.

      1. The silver lining in the fight for “hopeless cases” is that where it fails the public’s surer than ever that justice prevailed (of a US justice system too predicated on the wealth or otherwise of the defendant – “poor white trash” and most blacks will seemingly experience less fairness/leniency than those who can afford expensive lawyers); that some such cases have established innocence (not this case – but how appalling that innocent people are convicted of capital crimes); and that however atrocious offenders may be, they are not forgotten by the public and left to rot in a civilised society – even if in some sense they deserve it.

        So I’m glad that there are “freedom fighters” – but like you, RR, I’d really like to know why there’s any doubt about the guilt of the Bruces. Riales proclaims his innocence, stating that he was tainted by the Bruces’ reputation, as an associate. I’ve no idea if his claim has any merit…

  10. I want to say I lived in Camden before and after. First I want to tell Della and Danny’s family I am so sorry for the tragic loss of your kids. I worked with Della and knew Danny through her. They loved each other so much. Della was so sweet I just loved her. After their death, it really struck us all at work. We were so hurt. I lived right down the road from Danny’s house. I didn’t know all the Bruces, but knew of them. Who didn’t? I went to school with Robert. He was anti social and a bully so to speak. He married one of my best friends Kim and had a child. Robert beat her up a lot and she ran off, getting away from him. I remember during the murders I really thought Kim was the one who came up missing. Come to find out it wasn’t but my heart broke. I really feel after their arrests Camden actually could breathe again. I can’t speak bad about all of the Bruces. I do feel because of a few, the rest have to suffer for their family’s crime. I feel Robert and his brothers should have gotten more then life. In prison they get free food, cable, education, etc. I’m tired of paying for that. They should have gotten the electric chair. They made Della and Danny suffer. I only hope God gives Della and Danny’s families peace. They were good loving people who were great friends and I miss them. I will never forget their funerals — it was devastating and one of the worst times ever in Camden.

    1. Thanks so much for writing in with your own story! Glad to hear that locking up the three Bruces who committed the murders made life easier for the people of Benton County and I hope it brought some comfort to the victims’ families, too. Also hope it removed a cloud from the reputations of the law-abiding relatives of the killers. We can’t choose our families.

  11. I wasn’t alive during the time of the crimes. I was born the same year they took place (1991). But, growing up in Camden, I had heard many stories about the brothers. I wanted to find some more information and came across your article here. I just wanted to tell you that I found it very informative. I’m going to tell my dad about this article, I’m sure he would like to give it a read. At one time, he had the Forensic Files episode taped off, but that was lost ages ago.

    (P.S. – It’s actually Benton County. Camden is the county seat.)

  12. The scary thing is that potentially the worst one of the bunch, who is an unconvicted person of interest in at least 7 unsolved rape/murders, is still free and living there. Creeeepy.

  13. I hate to admit this, because I’m a fan of FF as well. Some photos of killers etc were taken of actors. Including photos of the presumed-actual killers etc. For example, in episode ‘Ticker Tape’, the killer, I. J. appears entirely white-Australian, but he’s Aboriginal. And some names had been changed. For example, in episode ‘Tagging a Suspect,’ they refer the killer’s first name as Pete, but his real first name was Jim. There are also errors. Accidental or not. Some obvious, some hidden. One error was in episode ‘Over and Out.’ When it is mentioned that the bomb components are available in every state in the country, a map is shown with all the lower 48 states. Almost… Michigan is nowhere shown on the map. That is- except for, the Upper Peninsula. So, not forgotten, and not remembered, but partially forgotten and partially remembered. Another geographical error was, in episode ‘Needle in a Haystack.’ When it presumably shows the outline of Ireland on the map, where the killer fled to, the outline is of the entire island, which includes Ireland AND Northern Ireland. Yet, when it shows outline of Senegal on the map, where the killer fled to next, the computer animator THAT TIME was careful to show the border between Senegal and Gambia. So to worry or not to worry about the accuracy of the map? One very odd inconsistency was in episode ‘Quite a Spectacle’, in a photo of the presumed-actual killer wearing eyeglasses. While the 2 lenses were in fact not the same shape, in a photo of the presumed-actual killer, (and I doubt it because-) the order of the lenses by their distinctive difference in shape to one another- is opposite to the order of the lenses when shown up close. But the photo wasn’t backwards, since the name on the man’s shirt in the photo wasn’t backwards. And one intensional inaccurate detail was in episode ‘Shoot to Thrill’, the brand of shoes shown when the 3rd set of shoe impressions were revealed by the brand, had a different sole pattern than the shoe impressions. But later, when they mention who the shoes that left the 3rd set of impressions belonged to, they show another pair of shoes, with, the same sole pattern.

    1. It was probably Gov. Ray Blanton. There was a lot of corruption floating around during his administration, including payoffs for pardons.

  14. I knew Della very well. We went to church together and played tic-tac-toe during sermons as young girls. My husband and Della’s first husband were best friends and we double dated and spent lots of time together in the late 70’s and early 80’s. She was as sweet as pure sugar. Everyone loved her. We happened upon a re-run of the FF episode a couple of days ago and found it hard to watch.

    Governor Blanton left office in 1979. That would have been before the Bruce brother pardon, I think.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment — it’s good to hear from someone who knew Della Thornton and to find out she was as sweet as she looks in the pictures. Hope it’s a comfort to you that the perpetrators are where they belong.

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