Investigation Discovery’s ‘Grave Secrets: Baptism by Fire’ chronicles how James Matheny was an unfortunate victim of a horrible murder plot that resulted in him getting killed in June 1987 in Nashville, Tennessee. The police solved the murder within two days after the perpetrator turned themselves in when they realized their carefully concocted plan had failed. If you’re interested in knowing more about the case, including how the murder happened and what happened to the killer, we’ve you covered. Let’s begin then, shall we?
How Did James Matheny Die?
According to his former wife, Teresa Thetford, James Chester Matheny Jr. suffered from severe alcohol issues in his late twenties. His heavy drinking resulted in her leaving him with their young son, William. Eventually, James had to be admitted to hospital rehab at General Hospital as an alcoholic when he was 32. Grossly overweight at 260 pounds, the tousle-haired, mustached young man had an extensive rap sheet — from pimping to street robbery — and had served frequent prison stints.
Teresa recalled how James was a regular attendee of the Emmanuel Church of Christ Oneness Pentecostal and was well-known to the erstwhile Reverend. Once during a hospital visit during his five-month detox stay, he asked her to request the Reverend for a prayer session for him. When Teresa called the preacher, he readily agreed and stated he was thinking about “Brother Jim.” She recounted, “I thought, wow, the Lord is really working in our lives.”
Over the following few weeks, James and the Reverend became friends, with the latter baptizing him back into the church and taking him on fishing trips after he was discharged. With a 300 dollars advance to pay six weeks’ rent in the nearby Nashville Union Rescue Mission and employment as the church sexton and handyman at ten dollars an hour, James turned his life around with the Reverend’s help. According to the show, the loner had few friends in Nashville, and he felt rejuvenated and prayed for reconciliation with his family.
It was shocking for the neighbors living around Emmanuel Church of Christ Oneness Pentecostal when they noticed the church was on fire on June 15, 1987. When the firefighters arrived, the two-story brick church building was engulfed in flames. After the fire was under control, the emergency responders were stunned to find a decapitated charred body in the burnt-out church attic. The corpse also lacked an arm, and the autopsy report showed he had been shot with a .38-caliber pistol at point-blank into the back of his head.
Who Killed James Matheny?
The investigators initially thought the body belonged to the erstwhile Reverend of the church — John David Terry. Because of his planned fishing trip with James, the latter became the logical suspect. However, the medical examiner positively identified the charred remains belonged to James Matheny. A nationwide search was launched for the missing preacher, who was then presumed to be another victim in this supposedly bizarre double homicide. Yet, to his family’s astonishment, John returned to his family on June 17 with a newly shaven head.
John’s wife, Brenda Terry, said, “We were just so glad he was home that we didn’t want to go into any questions. He told me he could not get into details, and I know my husband. We did not pressure him.” A grand jury indicted him for first-degree murder/arson on June 18, and the Minister peacefully surrendered at the Criminal Justice Center. The detectives found $10,400 in cash in John’s bedroom and a $100,000 life insurance policy, naming his three sons as the prime beneficiaries.
Over the following few months, the police pieced together what happened at the church on June 15. The Nashville minister hatched the elaborate plan in late February 1987 after being turned down for a long-awaited promotion to the bishop that came with a steep salary hike. According to reports, the reigning bishop had deemed John unworthy to be his successor, and he decided to fake his death and start a new life away from the church and his devoted family.
Hence, John got a new identity by faking the details from the tombstone of Jerry Milsom, who had drowned at seven on July 23, 1951. The church minister had obtained a Social Security number and a driver’s license by early March 1987. He also embezzled $50,700 from a parsonage sale the same month and used some of the money to buy a used Suzuki Cavalcade in the name of Jerry Milsom on April 24. John used a check designated for a church missionary program for the purchase.
After John had purchased the hefty life insurance policy three weeks later, he decided to find a victim to help him disappear. Thus, he befriended the hapless James and took him on the proposed fishing trip on June 15. John asked the handyman to help him bring down some furniture from the sanctuary before embarking on the journey. Next, he shot the unsuspecting James dead, stripped him down to his underpants, and dressed the deceased in clothes similar to the Minister.
How Did John David Terry Die?
Using his butcher training, John severed the head and right arm to conceal the corpse’s identity before disposing of them in Lake Barkley, 50 miles west of Nashville on Route 79 — all part of his carefully thought-out macabre plan. He returned to the church, doused it in gasoline, and set it on fire before riding into the night. The clergyman checked into a small motel on the edge of Nashville and changed his appearance by shaving off his hair and bushy mustache.
John was ready to begin his new life when his new plan fell apart on June 17 morning after he saw he was a wanted man for James’ murder. Defeated, he called his lawyer and instructed him to negotiate his safe surrender. After discarding the murder weapon, John rode back to Nashville and suffered from a severe motor accident on the way. He got preliminary treatment at a nearby clinic before meeting with Nashville’s erstwhile Assistant Police Chief. When John refused to answer any queries, the police had an arrest warrant out for him the following day, and he surrendered.
For the next 15 months, the Reverend remained behind bars waiting for his trial and refusing to cast any light on the murder or reveal the whereabouts of James’ head and arm. However, he relented three days before his trial and disclosed the location to the police on September 5, 1988. John was sentenced to death on September 26, 1988, after being convicted of first-degree murder and arson. After spending a year on death row, his death sentence was overturned on appeal, but the murder conviction was upheld, making the Minister eligible for parole in 2010. But before that happened, John Terry died by suicide in prison in 2003.
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