Phantom of the Opera

When tenor John Garris was murdered in Atlanta while on a nationwide tour with a New York Metropolitan Opera company, police frequently made oblique references to the sexual undercurrents that ran through the case like a subplot of a tragic opera.
 
The 36-year-old Garris, born Hans J.K. Gareis, was a refugee from Hitler’s Germany when he came to the United States in 1941. The child of a Frankfort opera performer, Garris was a musical prodigy, but spent the early part of his brief life as a conductor, recitalist, and accompanist for Italian and German singers. Unlike most opera performers who train exclusively as singers, Garris demonstrated his innate talent by not taking his first professional lesson until after he was hired as a tenor for the Met in the early 1940s.
 
By 1947 Garris was singing leads in such operas as Mignon and Otello. Thanks to opera fans who apparently trade recordings like Deadheads, listeners can once again buy a recording of Romeo and Juliet that Garris made with Maestro Arturo Toscanini.
 
“Under the surface could be sensed an inborn purely musical consciousness for transcending what was demanded of it by the medium of expression being employed,” one reviewer told readers upon news of Garris’s murder. “One has the impression that Garris never revealed all of which he was capable as an artist.”
 
In fleeing Nazi Germany Garris left behind his fiancee, and made his way to Greece with her brother. His betrothed subsequently died in a concentration camp. When the Nazis moved into Greece, Garris and a friend, Lutz Peter, made their way to the United States where Garris earned a job with the Met and Peter, by this time his housemate, became his performance coach.
 
In the mid-1940s, a man who gave his name as John Garris and who listed the Garris/Peter apartment on West 57th Street in Manhattan as his address was arrested for “loitering” in the men’s room at a nearby subway station. Garris pleaded guilty and his sentence was suspended.
 
Although the artistic community at the time might have been accepting of gay performers, few ever stepped out of the closet, so any assumption about Garris’s sexual preferences is merely speculative. However, there are plenty of more pleasant places for one to loiter than in the men’s room at a Manhattan train terminal.
 
Garris’s sexuality is relevant to his death is because police speculated that it may have been a clandestine sexual rendezvous that led to his murder and used suspicion of “perversion” as a probable motive. That angle surfaced several times throughout the case, and comments from the press and the detectives provide g look at how homosexuals were viewed at the time.
 
There was no concept of a hate crime when Garris was murdered and even if there was, the evidence at the scene indicated the motivation was not discriminatory hatred.
 
“There is every indication that this was a jealousy killing and it had the feminine touch,” said lead detective M.M. Coppenger. “The body had apparently been tenderly placed in the alley where it was found.”
 
Garris’s body was found prone in a dirty Atlanta alley, and despite the cool, rainy weather that April night in 1949, his coat and hat were found folded neatly some distance from his body. His corpse had been arranged, although it wasn’t overtly posed, and was placed with care. He lay with his hands folded across his chest and his ankles crossed.
 
The tenor had been shot once, on the left side, while he was kneeling before his killer. His left arm was raised and the bullet entered underneath his upraised arm and into his heart. Garris had not been robbed. His wallet was filled with cash and he still wore his wristwatch.
 
Authorities could tell he was kneeling on his right knee because cinders like those on the ground in the alley were found only on that section of his trousers.
 
The Met opera troupe had finished a three-day run in Atlanta was scheduled to take an overnight train to Memphis, Tenn., the night Garris died. He did not perform that night, but did have dinner with friends and then attended the opera.
 
He had checked out of the Biltmore Hotel at 6 p.m. and shortly after he telephone the Atlanta Y.M.C.A. where several members of the Met crew were staying. Police were never able to identify who Garris called there.
 
“John and I dined with Mrs. Albert E. Meyer and then went to hear the opera,” said Herta Glaz, a member of the company. “Mrs. Meyer drove us to the station. I went right to bed and didn’t see John again.”
 
The special train for the opera company was scheduled to leave at 4:30 a.m. after the crew struck the stage and packed up their props and costumes. Garris checked in on the train; his ticket to Memphis had already been punched and was found, along with his musician’s union card and passport, in his wallet. The ticket revealed that he had been on the train around midnight.
 
Investigators learned from the cast and crew that when it was revealed that the train would not leave nearly dawn, several people, including Garris decided to head back into town to get something to eat. One witness interviewed by police said the taxi was too crowded and Garris volunteered to walk. He never showed up at the restaurant. A porter on the train, however, said Garris told him after checking his bags that he was going to the Robert Fulton Hotel to play cards. Friends said Garris never played cards.
 
The only hard evidence police had wasn’t much help. A .38 steel jacketed slug was removed from Garris’s body, and a dispute between local and federal officials about its source became central to the case when an ex-con who admitted he was in Atlanta on the night of Garris’s murder was arrested in South Carolina carrying a cheap Belgian-made .38 Nagant revolver with steel-jacketed cartridges of the same make as the one that killed Garris.
 
The ex-con, Grover “Togo” Pulley, was a paroled cop-killer-turned-burglar who carjacked a driver in Atlanta and forced him to drive to South Carolina where he was caught.
 
The Clinton, S.C. detective who questioned Pulley also made reference to the sexual undercurrent when he felt it necessary to tell the press that Pulley had “definite homosexual tendencies.”
 
When the Atlanta crime lab test-fired Pulley’s handgun, ballistics experts presumptively linked the murder bullet to Pulley’s gun. However, the FBI also fired the gun and refused to link the two because the slug taken from Garris was too misshapen to draw any conclusions.
 
Detective Coppenger, who reflected the homophobia of the time, threw more fuel on the fire surrounding Garris’s death when he said his investigation was centering around “a possibility that sexual perversion” may have been involved in the crime.
 
“There are many reports of unnatural sexual activities,” Coppenger told the press. “Naturally we are checking that angle.”
 
For weeks, Coppenger became like another member of the Met troupe, following the touring company from Memphis to Dallas and then to Los Angeles. He continually questioned performers and crew members including interrogations held between acts during performances.
 
Sex came up again when police let it be known that they were searching for an unnamed male companion who frequently traveled with Garris. This theory was apparently prompted by Garris’s reservation of a room in Dallas that had two twin beds. Eventually Coppenger gave up on that theory when no companion could be found and Lutz Peter said there was no such person in Garris’s life.
 
Peter, who was in Los Angeles at the time of the murder, scoffed at the idea that anyone other than him would be traveling with his roommate.
 
“I would have been his only companion and I was in Los Angeles,” Peter said.
 
In July 1949, the Fulton County, Georgia, coroner’s jury recommended that Pulley be charged with Garris’s murder. The jurors made their decision based on testimony from the Fulton County criminalists who rejected the FBI analysis of the handgun found on Pulley. No one from the FBI testified.
 
Pulley, who was by that time serving a 10-year stretch in South Carolina for possession of burglary tools and who would be sent back to North Carolina to finish his life term for his murder conviction there, was never indicted for the slaying of Garris. With only a weak ballistics link to the murder, the case would have been very difficult to prosecute.
 
Pulley was the only person ever named as a suspect in a case that remains unsolved.