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.

 

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.