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.