Was missing Tenn. woman murdered or did she willingly disappear?
Produced by Josh Yager and Tom Seligson
[This story first aired on April 7, 2018. It was updated on June 29, 2019.]
When Marsha Brantley, 50, of Cleveland, Tenn., suddenly vanished in 2009, her husband Donnie eventually became a suspect in her murder. But was Marsha even dead?
The case was unusual from the start because for months after Marsha disappeared, nobody reported her missing – not her friends, her family or even her husband. No one took much notice until her hairdresser, Kelly DeLude, worried about a missed appointment and started asking questions.
“I felt compelled to find out what happened to her,” DeLude tells “48 Hours correspondent Peter Van Sant. “I wasn’t trying to be a detective. I was trying to be a concerned friend.”
DeLude eventually called police, and investigators later picked up the case.
The investigation was full of seeming contradictions from the start. Donnie Brantley claimed he hadn’t reported Marsha missing because she had left him. Then, police say he lied repeatedly about where she had gone and what she’d taken with her. Still, there was almost no physical evidence of a crime – no blood, no fingerprints, no crime scene at all. And with no body to prove there even was a murder, the investigators’ biggest hurdle in solving the disappearance of Marsha Brantley may have been Marsha herself.
When Donnie Brantley was deposed in a 2013 civil suit, he didn’t seem to want to talk much about his feelings for Marsha. In answering questions on video, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment or said he couldn’t recall more than 100 times.
Brantley was arrested in 2013, but prosecutors dropped the charges after deciding they didn’t have enough to get a conviction. Two years after his 2014 election, District Attorney General Stephen Crump charged Brantley again with essentially the same evidence.
Lee Davis, Brantley’s attorney, says his client is 100 percent innocent.
“What proof is there that she’s in fact dead – as opposed to gone missing or living someplace else?” says Davis.
It’s a case “48 Hours” has been working on for five years, and it raises questions about the challenges prosecutors often face when someone vanishes without a trace. It also includes a stunning ending that nobody – including prosecutors – saw coming.
Det. Zach Pike | Bradley County Sheriff’s Office: I’m raisin’ my family here. My parents raised their family here and their parents raised their family here! It’s a place that I like to call home and hopefully this is where I’ll remain.
Kelly DeLude | Marsha’s hairdresser: Cleveland, Tennessee is beautiful. …known as the “City with Spirit” … You can’t swing a ball bat without hittin’ a church.
Kelly DeLude: A lotta people know one another … and we do have a lot of older homes and a lot of history here … I’m very proud of our town.
Kelly DeLude: I’ve been a hair dresser for over 30 years … You have certain clients that you kinda click with and you’re closer to – and for me, Marsha was one of those clients.
Jana Wills | Marsha’s cousin: She was fun. She was outgoing … she was one of my favorite cousins.
Kelly DeLude: She did confide in me and I confided in her.
Jana Wills: She was beautiful … She was always kind.
Kelly DeLude: She loved her husband … She mentioned him every time.
Elise Brantley | Donnie Brantley’s daughter: …when I think of her, my first few words would not be giving, loving. I didn’t see a lot of that from her, even as her stepdaughter.
Peter Van Sant: How would you describe her?
Elise Brantley: Loner. …I believe that she was very depressed.
NEWS REPORT: A case that sounds like a “48 Hours” mystery … a Bradley County woman disappears without a trace.
Kelly DeLude: It struck me, oh, my goodness — she’s, you know, she’s not been in, that is odd … and I said, you know, she’s overdue.
NEWS REPORT: When Marsha disappeared in June 2009, her husband Donnie Brantley did not report her missing…
Elise Brantley: It’s hard seeing my father in this way, it’s a scary thing. …I know the inside of this man and the heart of him … he wouldn’t hurt anyone.
Peter Van Sant: He loved her?
Elise Brantley: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: And they had a real marriage?
Elise Brantley: Yes.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: During the years of your marriage am I correct that you maintained romantic relationships with persons other than your wife?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: Upon the advice of counsel I plead the Fifth.
Det. Zach Pike: We have a guy who’s told numerous lies about where his wife went, and we can prove otherwise.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: He may be the singularly most dishonest defendant I’ve ever dealt with.
NEWS REPORT: Authorities have not located Marsha’s body but were able to charge her husband with premeditated first-degree murder based on evidence.
Det. Zach Pike: I think we have a great circumstantial case.
Lee Davis | Defense attorney: There’s no blood, no fingerprints, no DNA … no body. …and there’s no crime scene … What proof is there that she’s in fact dead? …as opposed to gone missing or living someplace else.
Kelly DeLude: I felt compelled to find out what happened to her. …I knew that something was very, very wrong.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: He murdered her. He murdered her.
Elise Brantley: That’s crazy. It’s ridiculous. … It’s just not him.
Lee Davis: He’s 100 percent innocent of these charges.
Kelly DeLude: If he did do something to her… and if I just let this go, he’ll get away with it!
MARSHA AND DONNIE
Justice may finally be at hand for Marsha Brantley, a 50-year-old writer and animal lover who disappeared in 2009.
Peter Van Sant: You ready to go?
Lee Davis|Defense attorney: We’re ready for trial.
In February 2018, Marsha’s husband, Donnie Brantley, has come to court ready to stand trial for allegedly murdering her.
Peter Van Sant [outside courthouse]: This is a very important day for Donnie Brantley.
Lee Davis: It’s very important. He’s had a cloud of suspicion hanging over his head for nine years.
Back in 2014, when “48 Hours” first began investigating this case, Marsha’s aunt, Medra Justis, and cousin Jana Wills met with Steve Crump, who was about to take over as district attorney general.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Ultimately, I believe we will be able to do justice in this case.
Medra Justis: We’re just lookin’ forward to bringing this thing to a close.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: We’re gonna create within this district a cold case working group.
Crump raised the family’s hopes that he could win a conviction in a case guaranteed to be an uphill battle for the prosecution, because Marsha Brantley had simply vanished.
Prosecutor Steve Crump [to Justis and Wills]: We don’t have a crime scene. We don’t have … a dead body. We don’t have what you normally think of in terms of a homicide case.
As the years passed, Jana and her husband Mark became frustrated that there would never be justice.
Mark Wills: It’s a tragedy. It’s somethin’ that no one should have to experience, or no one should have to go through.
Peter Van Sant: What do you think?
Jana Wills: What happened to her? Will we find her?
It’s a good question — especially since the man they believe knows what happened to Marsha has, in their opinion, never offered to help.
Peter Van Sant: Not a phone call, not an email, not a text message?
Jana Wills: No.
Peter Van Sant: Not a postcard, nothing?
Jana Wills: None of her family.
Peter Van Sant: Did he organize any search parties?
Jana Wills: No. None.
Mark Wills: He proffered no help.
A civil deposition in 2013 shows that Donnie Brantley likely will never have much to say:
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: She was the love of your life, right?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: Yes.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: OK, when did she stop being the love of your life?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: I plead the Fifth.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: Didn’t have anything to do with her disappearance, did it?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: I plead the Fifth.
In 2012 – three years after Marsha went missing – Jana Wills and Medra Justis went into the house where Marsha and Donnie lived for nine years. They were upset by the chaos they found.
Medra Justis: This is the home where Marsha and Donnie lived for nine years.
Medra Justis: …somebody had no respect for her and we knew who that was. And Donnie Brantley is going to pay for what he’s done to her.
Medra Justis: There was not a picture of Marsha to be seen anywhere.
Jana Wills: There were pictures of Donnie and his daughter, but none of Marsha.
Growing up, Jana was especially close to Marsha, her older cousin.
Jana Wills: She would come and pick me up from high school sometimes and we would go get ice cream.
From a young age, Marsha had an endearing passion for pets.
Jana Wills: …she had her favorite dachshund named Barney … she taught him to pray before he ate his meals … He would cross his little paws [laughs].
As an adult, Marsha volunteered at a local animal shelter.
Jana Wills: I looked up to her when I was a little girl.
Kim Shank was Marsha’s closest friend.
Kim Shank: She was 5’10” … Even though she seemed to kind of command the room … she was probably one of the more shy people to be that commanding with her physical presence.
Medra Justis: She was a friendly person, a sweet person.
Especially to her parents. She grew up in an affluent family, an only child with no children of her own.
Jana Wills: She took care of her mother a lot, because her mother was ill for a very long time.
In 1999, Marsha met Donnie Brantley on a dating website. He was a divorced father of a teenage daughter.
Kim Shank: She called me and she said, “Well I’ve met someone,” and it was getting really serious. And she said, “I want you to meet him.”
Marsha and Donnie shared a love for the outdoors. She was an avid hiker, while Donnie was a competitive bicycle rider. At 41, this was Marsha’s first serious relationship.
Kim Shank: He was what I always wanted for her … somebody that she could be in to and love and share her life with and live on happily ever after.
Marsha even wrote poetry for Donnie: “…with love so pure and true, I can but only thank my God I fell in love with you.”
Donnie’s daughter Elise was happy her dad had found a soul mate.
Elise Brantley: When we would sit and watch movies on weekends and that kind of thing, they would hold hands.
They were married in 2000, and moved into the house Marsha’s parents had built for her. But shortly after the newlyweds settled down, tragedy struck.
Medra Justis: Her mother passed away in November of 2000. And her father passed away in December.
Jana Wills: Imagine losing both your parents in less than a month.
Mark Wills: She was devastated. It was a lot of sadness, I mean, it was just heartbreaking.
Elise Brantley: I saw a different side of her when she lost her parents. There wasn’t a lot of … happiness after that.
But Marsha did her best to carry on. A large inheritance enabled her to help Donnie set up a handyman business franchise. She also quit her job as housing director at nearby Lee University to pursue her passion.
Kim Shank: She wanted to write young adult novels.
Reggie Jay and Nancy Grill were members of a writers’ group that Marsha formed in 2007.
Reggie Jay: She was very talented and definitely had what it took to be successful.
Peter Van Sant: What was the name of this writing group?
Reggie Jay: Thunder Rock Writers Group …the other name …was the Big Girl Panties Group. …We would critique each other’s work and we would say, “Put your big girl panties on because, you know, you might get your feelings hurt.”
Grill and Jay say Marsha was the best of the bunch.
Reggie Jay: “Dirty Little Secrets” is a story that Marsha wrote. [Reading aloud] “…The sun rose above the Kudzu covered trees as I swept the house and chased the dust outta the front door and across the porch with a broom.”
Peter Van Sant: Wonderful imagery. She can write, this woman.
Reggie Jay: Yes.
But in June 2009, a dark chapter began in Marsha Brantley’s life — with a plot twist right out of a novel — she seemed to fall off the face of the earth.
Kelly DeLude: “I knew that something was very, very wrong.”
In her 30 years as a hairdresser in Cleveland, Tennessee, Kelly DeLude says cuts, perms and parts are only part of the job.
Peter Van Sant: As a hairstylist, are you also a therapist?
Kelly DeLude: We’re in their personal space, so people certainly– share with us, probably a lot more than they would the clerk at the grocery store, you know [laughs].
But of the hundreds of clients DeLude has cut and consoled over the years, there has been only one whose face haunts her dreams.
Kelly DeLude [in salon]: When I would go to sleep at night, I would think of Marsha. And when I would wake up in the morning, I would think of Marsha.
Marsha Brantley first came in for a cut in the year 2000, and the two came together like scissors and hair.
Peter Van Sant [in salon]: What was it about Marsha that made the two of you click?
Kelly DeLude: We just got along … we would just talk the whole time. …we would just sort of catch up with one another. …She really spoke mostly about her home life with Donnie and her dogs. Her dogs were like her children.
DeLude says Marsha couldn’t say enough nice things about her marriage and her husband. As the years went by, the two women grew closer. But during what turned out to be Marsha’s final hair appointment in April 2009, Kelly saw a side of Marsha that left her concerned.
Kelly DeLude: She seemed troubled. She seemed a bit depressed.
Kelly DeLude: She was asking me if the economy had affected the business here, and I said, certainly, it had, you know? And she said, “Well, you know, it’s really affecting our business.”
Marsha told her Donnie’s handyman business was failing and money was tight. Still, DeLude expected Marsha to call about six weeks later to set up her next appointment.
Peter Van Sant: …and she was very regimented in coming to see you.
Kelly DeLude Oh, yeah. Yeah, she — she colored her hair — so most women are, sure.
But DeLude never got that call. She was too busy to notice. But as spring turned to summer, Marsha’s neighbor stopped into the salon.
Kelly DeLude: She said, “Kelly, when was the last time you did Marsha’s hair?” And I said, “Let me look.” And I looked at my file and I said, “April. That is so unusual. Is she OK?” …And she said, “She has not been walking her dogs. They are barkin’ their heads off.” And … her flowers were dead in the yard.
Kelly DeLude: And when she mentioned that, it struck me, “Oh, my goodness. She’s … she’s not been in. That is odd.”
Odd enough, says DeLude, that she was moved to pick up the phone.
Kelly DeLude: I called Marsha.
The call went to voicemail. She left a message, but didn’t hear back. For days, she called again and again — and no Marsha.
Kelly DeLude: One night I decided, “Well, I’m gonna call Donnie and … ask him if he knows where Marsha is. …I actually called … Donnie’s business, and the phone was disconnected. So that really concerned me.
Marsha’s neighbor was concerned too — so much so that she decided to confront Donnie in person at his house.
Kelly DeLude: She literally went up, knocked on the door, and when he answered, she said, “Donnie, where’s Marsha?” And he told her the most ridiculous story. “She’s leaving me. She went out West.”
Peter Van Sant: Had she ever talked about trouble in the marriage?
Kelly DeLude: No, never.
For DeLude, it seemed inconceivable that Marsha would suddenly leave the house her parents had built for her, leave behind her beloved dogs, and most of all, leave the husband she adored.
Peter Van Sant: What are you thinking?
Kelly DeLude: I’m thinking at that point, he has done something to her. I knew that something was very, very wrong. … I had no peace about it. …And so finally, I thought, I’m gonna call around … And in my mind, I thought, you know, “I’m crossin’ a little line here into meddling.”
Peter Van Sant: You’ve become a detective at this point. You’re gathering information. You’re calling various people, right.
Kelly DeLude: Well I was, but I wasn’t tryin’ to be a detective. I was tryin’ to be a concerned friend.
DeLude found a member of Marsha’s writing club and got more disturbing news.
Kelly DeLude: She told me that Marsha was no longer coming.
One of the strangest things about this case is that for months, nobody reported Marsha Brantley missing. Her relatives, they live on the other side of the state; her best friend, Kim Shank, she’s in Ohio, and the members of her writer’s group, well they just didn’t hang out socially. In the end, it would be her hairdresser who tipped authorities to a potential murder.
Kelly DeLude: I came into work the next day and … I called the … Cleveland Police Department. …And I said, “I need to report a missing person.”…And he said, “Excuse me … Are you her mom, her sister?” And I said, “No, actually, I’m her hairdresser [laughs].
Kelly DeLude: He said, “Well, ma’am, if he says she’s gone, and that she left him, she left him.
Undeterred, DeLude turned to the best social network she knew: her customers.
Peter Van Sant: And you can cut and talk at the same time. You’re good at that.
Kelly DeLude: Oh, yeah [laughs]. For 30 years, yes.
DeLude chose a person who was long on brains under all that short hair — local attorney Jerry Hoffer.
Kelly DeLude: He couldn’t get away. So, when I was cutting his hair, I said, “You know, Jerry, I’m gonna tell you a story. And when I get finished I want you to tell me what you think.
Jerry Hoffer: I’m listening to the story … And I’m just sitting there thinking, “Man, this guy is — he might’ve killed his wife!”
Kelly DeLude: I felt like finally justice is gonna be done.
Jerry Hoffer: Right after I got my haircut … I walked in the D.A.’s office … And I just kind of in a flippant way, I said, “You’ve got, you’ve got a dead lady out there. You all need to be looking for her.”
Prosecutors agreed, and sent their investigator, Walt Hunt, now retired, to Marsha’s house to look for her.
Walt Hunt | Former investigator: When I approached him … he told me that they were having some marital issues.
But it wasn’t just what Brantley said — it was how he said it — that really caught Hunt’s attention.
Walt Hunt: He was pretty cool, and maybe a little cooler than I might expect.
Kelly DeLude: He was cool, calm, steady as a rock. He said that is not normal.
Hunt’s instincts convinced him to call the TBI — the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. They would launch what would become a nine-year coordinated effort between state and local agencies, all dedicated to finding Marsha Brantley.
Det. Zach Pike: It was around October 2011 … And I jumped at the opportunity … to be able to assist … with the investigation.
When Zach Pike and David Shoemaker of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office got the case in 2011, they quickly saw why Donnie Brantley was a suspect. He had always denied any role in his wife’s disappearance, but he’d lied when he claimed that Marsha had taken her phone.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: I think her cellphone in his possession is easily, in my mind, the most damning fact.
Det. Zach Pike: The cellphone never left pinging from a tower that’s two miles or less from the home.
In June 2009, right around the time authorities think Marsha disappeared, they say Donnie used her phone to make a highly suspicious call.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: …he calls on that cellphone … the Chattanooga Singles line.
Peter Van Sant: He calls a dating…
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes. Chattanooga Singles line.
While Donnie was apparently seeking a new love interest, investigators say he couldn’t seem to keep his story straight about his old love, Marsha.
Lt. David Shoemaker: She took a camper and moved to Townsend, Tennessee. … Every time someone asked him what happened to Marsha, it’s something different
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Gone to Florida … gone out west to … work as a missionary. …They were all lies.
If Marsha had left, investigators were struck by what she had left behind.
Det. Zach Pike: All of her clothes. Her shoes. Documents important to her. The baby book that … her mother compiled for her … brushes, toothbrushes, all that’s still in the house. …She left her car.
Lt. David Shoemaker: Importantly, she left her house.
The one her parents had built for her.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: That doesn’t make sense.
If Donnie Brantley did kill his wife, they say a look at the family finances may provide a motive.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: Did she keep the money or you?
Lt. David Shoemaker: He was financially supported by his wife.
They say Donnie’s failing business franchise was draining Marsha’s inheritance.
Lt. David Shoemaker: She would have cut him off from the money.
Peter Van Sant: What was the state of their marriage in those last months prior to Marsha’s disappearance?
Lt. David Shoemaker: There was a little bit of tension. …Obviously with the money problems.
And investigators soon unearthed phone records that revealed Donnie Brantley had begun calling an ex-girlfriend within days after Marsha disappeared.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: Do you know Stephanie Richardson?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: Yes.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: OK. And who is Stephanie Richardson?
Lee Davis is Donnie Brantley’s attorney.
Lee Davis: There was no affair with Donnie while Donnie was married to Marsha. …There was an intimate relationship that started after Marsha left.
And there was other suspicious behavior. Authorities discovered that just hours after Investigator Hunt had interviewed him, Donnie went to a pawn shop and sold a number of Marsha’s possessions, including …
Prosecutor Steve Crump: …14-karat gold cross, a Figaro necklace, a Figaro bracelet, a herringbone necklace and a Toshiba laptop.
And there was something else Marsha left behind that friends and family say she valued more than all the material possessions in the world.
Jana Wills: Marsha loved her dogs. …they were her kids.
Peter Van Sant: Would she have ever left the house without her dogs?
Jana Wills: No. Never.
In March 2010, authorities ask Donnie Brantley to take a polygraph test. Surprisingly, he accepts.
Peter Van Sant: How does he do?
Det. Zach Pike: Fails it.
Peter Van Sant: Fails it?
Det. Zach Pike: Flying colors.
Then, during that 2013 videotaped deposition, Donnie refused to answer –“I plead the Fifth” — or said he “couldn’t recall” more than 100 times.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: Are there other items of hers which you sold when she disappeared?
DONNIE BRANTLEY [pauses, reaches for a bottle of water before answering]: I plead the Fifth.
That performance, combined with circumstantial evidence, helped convince police in August 2013 to arrest Donnie Brantley and charge him with the murder of his wife.
WDEF NEWS REPORT: Donnie Brantley is now an inmate at the Bradley County Jail being held on a half million dollar bond for the first-degree murder of his wife, Marsha.
But after seven months behind bars, Donnie is freed when then-Prosecutor Steve Bebb decides he doesn’t have enough evidence yet and drops the charges.
Steve Bebb: …the family had told law enforcement that they didn’t feel good about going forward with it at this time and they wanted to try to get more evidence.
Jana Wills: We didn’t think that it was time yet.
Peter Van Sant: Cause you get one shot at this.
Jana and Mark Wills: Right.
Months later, newly-elected Prosecutor Steve Crump focuses his legal sights on Donnie Brantley. But it would take another two years to arrest and recharge him.
Prosecutor Steve Crump to reporters: I was interested in it from the very beginning.
Elise Brantley: Four cars pulled up and told him to get on the ground. It was pretty traumatizing.
Finally, in February of 2018, nearly nine years after Marsha Brantley disappeared, her husband’s murder trial is scheduled to begin.
Peter Van Sant: You’re convinced you’ve got the right man.
Det. Zach Pike: No doubt.
Det. David Shoemaker: The things that he did, things he said– all point toward a guilty man.
Peter Van Sant: How big a case is this among people here?
Det. Zack Pike: I think it’s pretty big, for the simple fact that this doesn’t happen here everyday. People don’t just disappear and not be seen for nine years.
Detective Zack Pike and Lt. David Shoemaker of the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office say as Cleveland, Tennessee natives, the Brantley case hits them close to home.
Peter Van Sant: In some ways is this personal for you?
Det. Zack Pike: Absolutely. Been many nights I haven’t slept, wonderin’ where Marsha is.
Lee Davis | Defense attorney: There’s no proof that Donnie Brantley murdered his wife, Marsha. …I’ve asked ’em point blank, “If Donnie is responsible, as you suggest, tell me how he did it?”
Donnie Brantley’s lawyers, Lee Davis and Janie Parks Varnell, say their client should never have been charged with murder once, let alone twice.
Janie Parks Varnell | Defense attorney: Law enforcement had tunnel vision … and they had tunnel vision that led directly to Donnie Brantley. And the rest of it they just ignored.
Peter Van Sant: Who murdered Marsha Brantley?
Det. Zack Pike: Donnie Brantley.
Peter Van Sant: You say the same?
Lt. David Shoemaker: I say the same.
Peter Van Sant: Where?
Lt. David Shoemaker: At her house — at their house.
Lee Davis: No proof of a crime scene. No proof of a body, an autopsy.
Peter Van Sant: Is there a witness in this case?
Lee Davis: No. There’s no … trace evidence, there’s no blood, no fingerprints, no DNA, no fiber analysis.
Lee Davis: What proof is there that she’s, in fact, dead?
He’ll argue at trial that this case is actually about a nine-year-old marriage that, because of financial problems, may have reached a breaking point in June 2009.
Lee Davis: And she — she told Donnie that she needed some time to herself and time to think.
Which is why, Davis says, it’s ridiculous to argue Donnie’s failure to report Marsha missing is suspicious.
Lee Davis: When your wife tells you she’s leaving the marriage, you don’t call the police or 911.
Jana Wills | Marsha’s cousin: She would never have left her family, she would never have left her home, she would never have left her friends and just disappeared and contacted no one.
Remember, her phone never left the house.
Peter Van Sant: He’s using her phone after he’s told law enforcement that she took it.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes.
Davis says that certainly doesn’t help Donnie, but it shouldn’t hurt him either.
Lee Davis: He lied about her cellphone. And that is something that has complicated the case. …There is a huge world of difference between somebody who lies about a cellphone and proof of a first-degree murder.
Nor should it hurt the defense that Marsha left many of her belongings behind – even if Donnie pawned some of them. Davis says he needed cash, but left most of her things alone because he figured she’d one day come back to get them, including her beloved dogs.
Peter Van Sant: Let’s talk about the dog issue.
Lee Davis: If you believe that Marsha was murdered, you would say she would never … leave the dogs behind … if you look at it from the lens of Marsha was troubled and depressed or not sure what she was gonna do, the one thing she wouldn’t do is take the dogs with her. She’d make sure she left the dogs with somebody who was gonna take care of them, no matter what, and that’s Donnie.
Elise Brantley: They got those dogs together. They were … their dogs. They weren’t just hers.
And Davis says there was one thing Marsha definitely didn’t leave behind: a wad of cash they kept hidden in the attic.
Lee Davis: She took with her a large amount of money, which was her money.
Peter Van Sant: And how much money are we talkin’ about?
Lee Davis: Probably talkin’ between $100,000 and $110,000.
Davis says all that money could have been Marsha’s gateway to a new life away from her husband and Cleveland, Tennessee. Donnie’s lawyers also claim that all those stories he told about where his wife may have gone, were actually suggestions once he realized she truly was missing.
Lee Davis: In the State of Tennessee, there are 283 missing persons cases open right now.
Though a civil court ruled that Marsha is deceased, her name can still be found on the National Missing Persons website.
Lee Davis: There is one for Marsha Brantley. Right now that’s open. Listing her as a missing person. Not a murdered person. Not a person who they suspect has been murdered by her husband.
Lee Davis: She’s … a smart woman … she left for reasons of her own.
Reggie Jay : She was always self-assured and … was a leader type personality.
But a couple of months before Marsha disappeared, Reggie Jay says the writers group was stunned by a bitter email exchange with her.
Reggie Jay [reading email]: She says, “Ladies … I just wanted to let you all know that I’d be missing for some time” without explaining.
Peter Van Sant: When you read that, what’d you think?
Reggie Jay: I was mad. I thought, “How dare you do that to us.”
Peter Van Sant: She writes, “No one in the group is responsible for my MIA, missing in action, status. I merely said I’d be missing.”
Reggie Jay: At that point, I truly did think to myself immediately, “Did Marsha write that?”
Peter Van Sant: Who’d you think wrote it?
Reggie Jay: Donnie!
But neither side in the legal case agrees with her. The defense says Marsha wrote the email because she was about to leave town.
Lee Davis: She was separating herself from those relationships that was closest to her.
The prosecution says she only sent it because she planned to quit her writing group, and the email itself proves she wasn’t actually going anywhere.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Later in that email she says … “But you all will see me around. Cleveland is a small town. We’ll certainly run into one another.”
Reggie Jay and Nansy Grill were bewildered and concerned. They remembered around the time of the emails, Marsha, who had suddenly lost a lot of weight, said something that now seemed ominous.
Reggie Jay: And she just made the comment, “I’ve been so depressed that I could hardly get off the couch.” And I remember doing sort of a double take, looking and, like, “Marsha, are you OK?”
Robin Terrero | Former pharmacist: I think that there was a whole lot going on with Marsha that she didn’t tell anyone, even the people in her writing group.
If Marsha Brantley had a secret, “48 Hours” contacted one of the only people she might have told. Robin Terrero is a former pharmacist who worked with doctors to treat patients. She specialized in hormone replacement therapy.
Robin Terrero: She first came in 2004, in June of 2004.
Terrero says Marsha was going through menopause and was having a tough time, including night sweats and mood swings.
Robin Terrero: It can be very, very severe.
Peter Van Sant: And in the worst cases, what can it lead to?
Robin Terrero: Well, I mean, there have been cases known where women did commit suicide during this time.
Terrero worked with Marsha’s doctor, who prescribed medications for her right up to the time she disappeared.
Robin Terrero: What concerned me more with Marsha was not what she shared, but what she didn’t share. …that there was a lot more underneath there than she was willing to share with me.
Terrero’s chart notes show Marsha repeatedly reported feeling depressed, including this passage one month before she disappeared:
Robin Terrero [reading]: On May 1st, 2009, “Patient has been off of hormones since April the 12th. Was having severe depression.”
Peter Van Sant: So Marsha said to you she was experiencing severe depression?
Robin Terrero: Yes. It was underlined. Severe.
Peter Van Sant: And what are the last notes that you have written
Robin Terrero [reading]: On 5/18 …She was having … mood swings, sleepless. She was … up and down.
Lee Davis: You have a woman who … describes herself as being severely depressed. Those things were disclosed in 2010 to law enforcement and from all I can tell, they’ve never been investigated.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: There was no significant mental illness. …I never thought that that was the real answer.
In 2015, the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy revoked Robin Terrero’s license for unprofessional conduct unrelated to Marsha’s treatment. She was never charged with a crime.
Peter Van Sant: What do you think happened to Marsha Brantley?
Elise Brantley: I wish I knew. …I really have no idea
Peter Van Sant: Did you ever just look him in the eye, daughter to father, and say, “Dad, did you do this? Did you kill her?”
Elise Brantley: I did not. …I knew he didn’t.
Jana Wills: She’s gone. She’s dead.
Kelly DeLude: Well, he’s disposed of her body very well. I know that.
Now, after nine long years, a jury will hear both sides of Marsha Brantley’s mysterious disappearance.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: This has got to be done exactly right. We don’t have any room for error.
AN UNEXPECTED TWIST
NEWS REPORT: A Bradley County cold case from nearly a decade ago heads to trial next week…
But just two days before Donnie Brantley’s murder trial is set to begin, Prosecutor Steve Crump — the man who four years earlier promised Marsha Brantley’s family justice — gives “48 Hours” some shocking news.
Peter Van Sant: I’ve heard you have an announcement to make.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: We just met with the family … and we told them that we’re probably gonna be dismissing this case on Monday.
Peter Van Sant: Whoa, whoa, whoa. You’re going to dismiss this murder case?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes.
Peter Van Sant: Why?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: This is an unusual case. …We’re afraid that the judge will enter a judgment of acquittal because we can’t prove that Marsha Brantley was murdered.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: You only get one shot.
Crump fears the jury would never get a chance to decide on guilt or innocence — that the judge would rule there just isn’t enough evidence to go on and throw the case out.
Peter Van Sant: To be charged with murder, dropped, charged with murder and dropped again, I’m sorry, I — I just feel like there’s some incompetence here.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Sure. Well, and — and I — I can appreciate that. …and my view of what Donnie Brantley did to Marsha Brantley hasn’t changed. I don’t believe we have the wrong guy. I don’t believe– we have the wrong set of facts. This is a legal decision, one that is made as a matter of trial strategy.
Crump stands by what he’s done.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Maybe I should have done it earlier. Maybe I should have seen this sooner. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it was incompetence. I’ll never stop self-evaluating … but no matter what the outcome is, I better always do the right thing.
Peter Van Sant [at Kelly DeLude’s front door]: Hey Kelly.
Kelly DeLude: Hello.
Peter Van Sant: I have some rather startling news to tell you. …There will not be a trial.
Kelly DeLude: Are you serious? …That’s terrible. That’s terrible.
On Feb. 5, 2018, court convenes to make it official.
Peter Van Sant [outside court:] Hey Zach.
Det. Zach Pike: Good morning.
Peter Van Sant [outside court]: “It’s kind of a sad day for you.”
Det. Zach Pike: Absolutely.
Peter Van Sant [to Donnie Brantley outside court]: That’s him, that’s Brantley. Donnie can I just ask one thing? What’s going through your mind, after all you’ve gone through, this is such a day of victory for you…
[Donnie Brantley walks by without speaking]
Judge: This is the state of Tennessee versus Mr. Brantley. General would you like to approach? Do you have a motion to make?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes, your honor.
Steve Crump [to judge]: I made the decision on Saturday that we would not go forward with this case.
Nearly 10 years after Marsha’s disappearance, it takes a judge just 10 minutes to dismiss the case against Donnie Brantley yet again.
Judge: At this time, Mr. Brantley is free to go.
For Donnie, it’s a second victory.
Donnie Brantley [addressing reporters outside the courthouse]: I’d like to thank the judge for dismissing the charges. But also, I’d like to thank my family for all their support during this extremely stressful period. And I look forward to putting this difficult time behind me.
For Marsha’s family, it’s a second devastating blow in court.
Medra Justis | Marsha’s aunt: I felt like life has been squeezed out of me.
Jana Wills | Marsha’s cousin: My family is crushed, but tomorrow’s a new day. …This isn’t the end.
Later that month, the judge orders Donnie’s record of criminal charges in Bradley County to be erased. And Steve Crump does something “48 Hours” found remarkable.
Peter Van Sant: So this is from the case file?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: It is.
Peter Van Sant: And this is an extraordinary thing … because generally, you don’t get to see this pretrial.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: That’s right.
With Detective Pike guarding the evidence, Crump showed “48 Hours” what a jury never got to see. He hopes that by showing the evidence, a viewer may remember something important and call in a tip.
Peter Van Sant: And what are you holding in your hand?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: This is a receipt for … for a torch kit — for a welder.
They are receipts for items Donnie bought around the time Marsha disappeared, including duct tape and plastic sheeting.
Lee Davis: The man runs a home repair business!
Prosecutor Steve Crump: We believe … that all of these receipts represent preparations for disposing of Marsha Brantley.
Peter Van Sant: Disposing of her body?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: Yes, correct.
Peter Van Sant: What do we have here?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: A greeting card.
It’s a greeting card Crump says Donnie hand delivered to that ex-girlfriend he’d been calling.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: This was delivered, we believe, the day after Marsha Brantley disappeared.
Peter Van Sant: And what did Donnie write on the inside of this card?
Prosecutor Steve Crump: “Hi, girl!!” With two exclamation points. “Things are better for me now!!” … “Call me if you can,” with his number.
DEPOSITION ATTORNEY: Do you know how a card got in Stephanie Richardson’s mailbox on the morning of June the 3rd, 2009? In your handwriting?
DONNIE BRANTLEY: I plead the Fifth.
Preosecutor Steve Crump: it provides at least in part a motive. There’s another woman.
“48 Hours” wanted to meet that “other woman.”
Peter Van Sant [in car]: We’ve decided to drive out to her neighborhood to try to speak to her … I’m gonna go up to the door, and knock, and see if Stephanie is home.
Stephanie Richardson is now married.
Peter Van Sant [on porch]: Hey, Stephanie.
Stephanie Richardson: Hi, how are you?
Peter Van Sant: I’m Peter Van Sant with CBS News, “48 Hours.”
Stephanie Richardson: Nice to meet you.
Peter Van Sant: It’s really nice to meet you.
She disagrees with the prosecutor’s interpretation of the card.
Stephanie Richardson: I’m sorry, they’re stretching things.
Richardson says she did date Donnie, but not while Marsha was in his life.
Peter Van Sant: The prosecutor’s claiming that there was an affair.
Stephanie Richardson: That’s not true.
Peter Van Sant: I would love to ask you just a few questions about that. Would you be —
Stephanie Richardson: No. …You have to understand [cries] this is my life. I don’t want to deal with this anymore.
Donnie Brantley has gone back home to Georgia, where he’s spending time with a new love interest and his grandchildren, too.
Elise Brantley: Getting to see that grandfather side of him is just a whole other very special side … What I want people to know … is how loving, kind, thoughtful and how hard working he is.
Despite the prosecution’s repeated failure to prove Donnie Brantley committed a murder — or even that a murder was committed — they pledge to work harder to one day bring the Brantley case back to court.
Prosecutor Steve Crump: I’ve been very plain that we’re not gonna stop and so, whatever he feels — relief or whatever he may feel — I wouldn’t get accustomed to it.
Back in Cleveland, former writing group member Nansy Grill believes Marsha’s story may have one last dramatic chapter.
Nansy Grill: I’m probably the only person in the world that doesn’t really, truly, believe that Marsha is dead.
Reggie Jay: What?!
Peter Van Sant: Do you believe that one day, Marsha Brantley may re-emerge?
Nansy Grill: I think it’s a possibility.
But sadly, Marsha’s family thinks Grill’s hope is pure fiction.
Jana Wills: Oh yeah, I think about her every day. …Can we get her back? Can we lay her to rest beside her mother and father? …Our family has a hole there that can’t be replaced and we will do everything we can to find her … And we won’t give up.
To call in a tip, contact the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office at (423) 728-7336.
Leave a Reply