DNA points to the former suspect in 1985 church murders.
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What to know about the murders of Harold and Thelma Swain

The story of a black Georgia couple slain by a white man who approached them at their humble church, Rising Daughter Baptist, has been riddled with multiple theories, including one that their killings were racially motivated, for the last 35 years.

What has been crystal clear is that Harold Swain, a 66-year-old deacon at the church, and his wife, Thelma Swain, 63, were killed by an unknown man who had entered the church, and asked to speak to Harold.

What has been unclear is who ended their lives violently and why they did so. Though Dennis Perry, 58, was convicted of their murders in 2003, doubt has shrouded his conviction for more than 15 years. 

Without any physical evidence tying Perry to the scene, Perry and his attorneys had begged for more investigation into what happened that night. Now the case of Harold and Thelma Swain has been reopened, and a previous suspect, Erik Sparre, has been linked to their murders. Sparre is linked to the scene by DNA, according to Perry’s attorneys at the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm.

The twists and turns of this case have been chronicled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s crime and criminal justice reporter Joshua Sharpe. Here are some of the primary things to know about the case, culled from previous AJC reports. 

Harold Swain, a deacon at Rising Daughter Baptist Church, and his wife, Thelma, were shot to death in 1985 by a white man who walked into the African American church. Dennis Perry was convicted but maintained his innocence. A court filing by the Georgia Innocence Project says new DNA testing matches Erik Sparre, an earlier suspect. New testing came after learning that AJC reporting uncovered problems with Sparre's alibi.
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

What happened that night at Rising Daughter?

On March 11, 1985, a southeast Georgia community was shaken by the killings of the Swains. The couple was attending a Bible study with 10 other people in the rural area of Spring Bluff. About 8:45 p.m., a man showed up to the church saying he wanted to speak to “him,” pointing at Harold Swain, a retired pulpwooder. The two men soon began to struggle. Thelma Swain came to her husband’s aid, and, within moments, they were both on the floor. They had been shot dead by the mysterious man, who fled swiftly after the shooting.

No one recognized the assailant.

Dennis Perry, seen in a recent photo, is serving two life sentences for murder. His wife, Brenda, says he sends poems and crafts from prison. 
Photo: Family photo

How did Dennis Perry come into play?

In the first few years of the investigation, Camden County investigators looked at numerous suspects, including Dennis Perry and Erik Sparre. Sparre’s ex-wife’s family  told police they had him on tape saying he killed the “two n------ in that church.” 

In 1986, the investigators dropped Sparre as a suspect after someone identifying himself as Sparre’s boss called GBI agent Joe Gregory to say Sparre had been working on the night of March 11, 1985. 

Perry came up in 1988 when someone came forward anonymously with a dubious tip. Investigators say they learned Perry had been living in the Atlanta area at the time of the murders and had no car. He worked on the day of the killings and couldn’t have made it to the church in time to be the shooter, the investigators believed.

In 1998, a new investigator, Dale Bundy, took up the case and spoke with the mother of Perry’s former girlfriend. She claimed Perry was the killer. Jane Beaver said Perry had told her he planned to kill Harold Swain because Swain had laughed in his face when Perry asked for money, according to Bundy’s files.

Beaver would play a critical role in Perry’s conviction. Perry’s attorneys say they learned in 2018 that Beaver was paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony.

The jury’s conviction sent Perry to prison in 2003. In 2018, Perry’s attorneys  helped make a season of the “Undisclosed” podcast about the case.

What DNA was found linking to a new suspect?

The initial investigators on the case found a pair of glasses near the victims’ bodies. Stuck in the hinge of the frames were two hairs.

Perry was tested before his trial to see if his DNA matched the hairs. It wasn’t a match, leading the state to suggest the glasses might not be relevant to the case.

But in 2020, after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed problems with Sparre’s alibi, Perry’s attorneys decided to test Sparre. An investigator was able to get Sparre’s mother to share her hair samples. The test showed that the hairs belonged to someone from Sparre’s maternal line, according to a motion for a new trial for Perry.

“The new DNA evidence is critically significant because it for the first time provides reliable forensic physical evidence linking a known suspect, Erik Sparre, to physical evidence at the crime scene,” the lawyers wrote.

Erik Sparre, left, was dropped as a suspect in 1986 but has now been linked to the scene where Harold and Thelma Swain were killed in Camden County, according to a new court filing. Dennis Perry, right, was convicted of the murders and has maintained his innocence.

What does Erik Sparre have to say now?

When contacted by AJC reporter Joshua Sharpe, Sparre, 56, said he couldn’t explain the DNA match.

“I don’t have any glasses missing,” he said.

Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson in early May asked the GBI to reopen the murder case, based on the DNA results. 

Sparre’s ex-wife previously described him as someone who “hated blacks.” She is no longer living, but a second ex-wife told the AJC that Sparre also told her he killed the Swains. Sparre denies he’s racist and insists he’s innocent.

What happens next?

Johnson said she would use the GBI’s findings to determine how to respond to a motion for a new trial for Perry. This comes as the DA’s office is embroiled in controversy surrounding its handling of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man allegedly murdered by two white men while jogging. The U.S. Department of Justice and the GBI are investigating Johnson’s office.

Perry’s attorneys have expressed dismay that his case could be stalled as the two cases, both linked to race, wait to be considered. 

“We are surprised and disappointed to learn that the District Attorney waited six weeks after we provided the DNA results to ask for this assistance,” the lawyers with the Georgia Innocence Project and the King & Spalding law firm said in a statement. “While we are heartened that the GBI is now investigating … Mr. Perry remains in prison for crimes he did not commit.”

More on the “Rising Daughter” case

» Special presentation: “The Imperfect Alibi”

» Full coverage: The Rising Daughter investigation

» Video: Introducing the Rising Daughter investigation

» Podcast: Listen to the author read “The Imperfect Alibi”

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