WAYNESVILLE – GBI agents on Thursday conducted an hours-long search on the property of Erik Sparre, a man linked through DNA to the scene of a 1985 double murder in a South Georgia church.

Nearly 20 agents sifted through boxes of paperwork, photos, letters and various items. The search encompassed the entire property, the home and multiple outbuildings, including one that contained two small cannons. Sparre, 57, who says he’s innocent of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain, wasn’t at the home during the operation.

In a statement, the GBI said the search was part of the agents’ efforts “to determine what involvement Erik Sparre had in the Swains’ deaths.”

The agency didn’t say what, if any, significant evidence it uncovered, but agents were seen taking photographs of things they found and carrying off several items, including the cannons.

The search appeared to mark an escalation in the GBI’s investigation into the case, which was reopened in May after DNA evidence linked Sparre to hairs found stuck in the hinge of a pair of glasses located inches from the victims’ bodies. The DNA led a Brunswick judge to throw out the convictions of Dennis Perry, who served 20 years in the slayings but has always maintained his innocence.

Perry was released from prison in late July.

After the search concluded, GBI Director Vic Reynolds said the investigation was continuing and he hoped more people would come forward to tell the GBI what they know about the case. “The GBI appreciates the people who have come forward,” Reynolds said, “and if there’s anyone else who has information, we certainly would appreciate speaking with them as well.”

Brunswick Judicial Circuity District Attorney Jackie Johnson has said she’s waiting to see the results of the GBI investigation before making a decision about whether to retry Perry. Experts have said it would be extremely difficult to try Perry, considering mounting evidence against Sparre. Sparre has allegedly told multiple people he committed the murders, according to police records, which noted that he called the couple a racial slur. The Swains were Black, Sparre is white.

Erik Sparre in a Facebook photo.

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Sparre’s roughly two-acre property sits in the Brantley County community of Waynesville in southeast Georgia, a half hours’ drive from Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Camden County, where the murders happened. Waynesville, a sparsely populated area of dirt roads and piney woods speckled with mobile homes near Dixie Motor Speedway, is known as home to Confederate Soldiers Park.

Sparre was initially a suspect in the murders that happened during a church Bible study after his ex-wife’s family secretly recorded him bragging about committing the murders, according to police records.

Sparre was dropped as a suspect because someone who claimed to be Sparre’s boss called a GBI agent to say Sparre was working at a local grocery store on the night of the shooting. But reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed in late 2019 that the “boss” gave a fake name. The man who actually managed the store back then told the newspaper he never spoke with police about Sparre. That revelation prompted Perry’s attorneys with the Georgia Innocence Project and King & Spalding to conduct the DNA test on hair provided by Sparre’s mother.

Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Spring Bluff was the site of the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain on March 11, 1985. TYSON HORNE / TYSON.HORNE@AJC.COM

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The mother, Gladys Sparre, was found dead two days after a judge tossed Perry’s conviction. Authorities haven’t determined a cause or manner of death for the 79-year-old.

The GBI said anyone with information about the Swain murders is urged to contact the agency’s tip line at 1-800-597-TIPS (8477).