The Bruce Brothers 2: Deadly Details

A Book by Danny Vine’s Parents
(“Shell Game,” Forensic Files)

In last Wednesday’s post, Steve Parker shared his experiences prosecuting Gary, Jerry Lee, and Robert Bruce for murdering Danny Vine and Della Thornton as part of a 1991 robbery plan. Parker offered compelling information that Forensic Files couldn’t fit into its 30-minute “Shell Game” episode.

This week, I’d like to offer some additional facts from The Day Hell Knocked on Our Door (Vine/Branch Ministries, 2003), written by Pastor Larry and Carol Vine, the parents of Danny Vine.

Carol Vine during her appearance on Forensic Files
Carol Vine during her appearance on Forensic Files in 2007

With Larry Vine as the narrator, the book tells the couple’s story starting from the time they became spiritual leaders at the First Assembly of God Church in Camden, Tennessee, where 12 people showed up for their first service in 1982.

It continues to the winter of 1991, when an acquaintance of their son’s called to express concern about Danny’s whereabouts because his house had burned down the previous night, then to the day DNA tests confirmed that the bones in the incinerated home belonged to Danny — the eldest of the Vines’ four children — and Della, his fiancée, the investigation by the FBI, TBI, and ATF, the trials that followed, and the 1995 and 1996 convictions of the Bruce brothers.

Because the Vines couldn’t be reached in order to authorize quoting of any passages from their book, I’m simply going to enumerate some points of interest about the crime and its aftermath culled from the The Day Hell Knocked on Our Door.

Della Thornton and Danny Vine lived separately but both died in the house he rented
Della Thornton and Danny Vine lived separately, but both died in the house he rented

Intimidation and threats
• The Vines received numerous calls from people who knew something about the murders — but when TBI investigator Alvin Daniel contacted them, they didn’t cooperate for fear of repercussions from the Bruces.
• Some Benton County, Tennessee, residents believed the Bruces “ran the county” and had “no fear of the law.”
• After Jerry Lee Bruce’s arrest on traffic offenses, he threatened the lives of a deputy and his wife and son. He got four years for that.
• Sheila Bradford, the girlfriend of J.C. Bruce — one of the killers’ brothers — disappeared forever after she met (secretly, she thought) with Sheriff Billy Wyatt and Daniel in 1992.
• Members of the Bruce family followed Larry Vine “bumper to bumper” in cars.
• Ralph Sentell, owner of Eva Road Grocery — where the Bruces bought fuel to burn down Danny Vine’s house — testified that after the murders Gary Bruce and another man began loitering inside the store, not buying anything.
• The court house received a bomb threat and had to close temporarily and postpone Gary Bruce’s hearing.

The Bruce brothers after their arrest for the murders
The Bruce brothers after their arrests for murder

The Investigation
• A $40,000 reward — a fortune for many of Camden’s residents, according Larry Vine — offered for helping bring the killers to justice didn’t work because residents feared the Bruces so much.
• Gary Bruce escaped from the McNairy County jail in 1994 and remained at large for a year. America’s Most Wanted broadcast a segment about him. He was so good at changing his appearance that the authorities had to use handwriting samples to confirm his identity after his capture in Hermitage, Tennessee. A separate trial was held for Gary.
• Sheriff Billy Wyatt died of natural causes before the trials as did TBI investigator Alvin Daniel.
• Investigator Jerry Dickey used a chocolate Labrador retriever named Allie from the Tennessee Bureau of Commerce and Insurance canine unit to help identify the pattern of accelerant at the crime scene.

Kathleen Bruce lied about her sons whereabouts on the night of the murders
Kathleen Bruce lied about her sons’ whereabouts on the night of the murders

The Trials
• Court proceedings began in 1995.
• Fortunately, this was no OJ trial — it lasted less than a month.
• One witness, a mussel digger, was so scared he checked out of his government-paid hotel room and fled to Kentucky.
• Kathleen Bruce fell asleep more than once at the trial.
• It took the jury 6 hours and 40 minutes to decide Robert and Jerry Lee Bruce were guilty of all charges. Kathleen Bruce was convicted on some, not all, charges.
• Jerry Lee and Robert Bruce received two life sentences plus 10 years. Kathleen got eight years.
• At his trial, Gary Bruce testified he had nothing to do with the murders and that he thought his brothers Jerry and Robert were involved.
• Gary Bruce’s jury deliberated for two hours before returning with a guilty verdict.
• Like his brothers, Gary got life in jail.

Aftermath

J.C. Bruce
J.C. Bruce had been convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1974 but was pardoned and released early

• The community “breathed a collective sigh of relief” once the brothers were in custody, according to Larry Vine’s book.
• After Gary Bruce’s capture, Nell Thornton, mother of murder victim Della Thornton, said she was “wild with happiness.” Carol Vine described herself as so happy she was “floating.”
• Persons unknown stole the $500 portrait of Danny Vine and Della Thornton from their gravesite. It was recovered, undamaged, at a grocery store.
• Della Thornton’s father, Mac Thornton, died the day Gary Bruce received his guilty verdict.


Next: A look at Molly and Clay Daniel’s insurance fraud debacle (“Grave Danger,” Forensic Files) that disgusted and amused folks from the U.S. to the UK.

 

7 thoughts on “The Bruce Brothers 2: Deadly Details”

  1. Kudos to Allie the chocolate Lab who helped sniff out the accelerant! Having owned Labrador retrievers of all colors at various times in my life, I can say that chocolate Labs are highly intelligent and intensely motivated. I’m glad that one was able to contribute to the resolution of this case.

    1. Gwen, thanks for responding! It may have been Blanton, although I’m not sure. The prosecutor, Steve Parker, mentioned that the same governor had pardoned a number of convicts who didn’t deserve forgiveness before he vacated (or was forced out of) office.

    1. Thanks for writing in! I believe Sheila Bradford was never found. Her loved ones set up a Facebook page, “Sheila Bradford Missing,” for her. As of 2012, they were still looking.

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