The Devil Finds Work for Idle Hands

Rev. John David Terry

There’s an old joke in the mental health business that the patient is getting better when he stops thinking about suicide and starts thinking about homicide. Unfortunately, it’s not a laughing matter when the patient decides to take it seriously.
 
The Rev. John David Terry had a dream many people share. Faced with an overwhelming sense of having failed in his life, Rev. Terry wanted to assume a new identity, run away and begin life all over again.
 
Unlike most of us, Terry’s dream consumed him, and with each setback he was dealt in life, he moved closer to making his dream reality.
 
Terry was the Associate Bishop Overseer of the Emmanuel Churches of Christ, and was the pastor of the Emmanuel Church of Christ Oneness Pentecostal in Nashville.
 
His plot, which would result in murder, mutilation of a corpse, and arson, began to take shape in 1983 when Terry entered a depressive state after his mother passed away. He started looking at himself and his accomplishments, and would later say that he “became overwhelmed by the sense that he had failed in life.” Suicide was one option, Terry said, but he rejected that idea.
 
A change of careers, from part-time minister to part-time aluminum siding salesman, didn’t alter his mood, but one day, while perusing Soldier of Fortune magazine, Terry said an ad jumped out at him.
 
“How to get lost … How to disappear,” Terry testified at his sentencing hearing. “It was something that began to feed a person looking for an escape.”
 
Answering the ad, Terry obtained a book about how to establish a new identity. He first tried to create a new identity using a dead childhood friend, but when he couldn’t get new documents, he turned to old newspapers looking for someone who had died prematurely, and whose identity he could steal.
 
He found 7-year-old Jerry Milom, who drowned in 1951, and was able to obtain a copy of his birth certificate and then get a driver’s license and Social Security card in that name by forging a baptismal certificate.
 
To further his plan, Terry began skimming money from the church in 1984.
 
By 1987, Terry was ready to put his plan into action. His discontentment with his own life was underscored when he learned that he would not be named Bishop Overseer of the Emmanuel Churches of Christ.
 
But it wasn’t enough for him simply to disappear. He decided that he needed to be a hero or martyr for his congregants.
 
At first, he said, it was his plan to have 32-year-old James Matheney, whose wife was a parishioner at Terry’s church, help him with the plot by staging “”some kind of a hoax or some kind of robbery and have . . . him be the one that would come in and . . . find blood or find some kind of robbery attempt.”
 
Accordingly, Terry befriended Matheney, who was down-and-out, by counseling him, bringing him on the church staff as a handyman, and paying Matheney’s rent.
 
Matheney “really loved (Terry),” the victim’s ex-wife testified. “He really wanted that friendship he was offering . . . I guess maybe it was kind of like a father image because his father died when he was at a young age.”
 
Meanwhile, Terry embezzled $15,000 from his church, and using his Milom identity, purchased and titled a Suzuki motorcycle. He kept $10,000 in cash.
 
On June 15, 1987, Terry and Matheney were preparing to go on a fishing trip for several days. Terry told the handyman to gas up the car, and gave him his credit card and keys to the vehicle. According to the murderous minister, the plan at that time was still to have Matheney participate in the scam, although Terry’s claims don’t quite ring true.
 
About a half-hour after sending Matheney to get gas, Terry said he was making some phone calls when he heard a noise in the church. He testified that he went to investigate and found the ladder to the church’s attic unfolded and the trap door open.
 
Several weeks before, Terry had secreted a duffel bag with a gun and some clothes in the attic. Afraid that his plan was going to be discovered, Terry climbed the stairs, retrieved the gun and shot Matheney in the back of the head with a .38 caliber pistol.
 
The prosecution argued at trial that Terry had encouraged Matheney to go up to the attic to perform some maintenance work, which Terry denied. His explanation was that he was afraid Matheney would reveal his escape plot.
 
Regardless, the bell could not be unrung, and Terry was forced to put his plot into motion.
 
The preacher first set about staging a crime scene to make it appear that he was the victim of a crime. Although Terry and Matheney were of similar body size and type, no one would mistake one for the other. Terry stripped the handyman’s body down to his underwear and placed his belt around Matheney’s waist.
 
Next, with a hacksaw and knife, he severed Matheney’s head and right forearm, which would (pardon the pun) come in handy later. He placed Matheney’s head and arm in one bag and the victim’s clothes and the tools he used to dismember the body in another. He hid the clothing bag in a storage garage where his motorcycle was hidden and then, after picking up two cans of gasoline, returned to the church to drop off the fuel that he intended to use as an accelerant.
 
Terry then drove to the area of Matheney’s boarding house, leaving his car a few blocks away. In the car he left a few “clues” for police: a beer bottle and his own credit cards with Matheney’s fingerprints that were also found inside the vehicle (which is why he needed the severed arm), a towel smeared with his own blood, and Matheney’s fishing tackle.
 
Taking a cab back to the storage shed, he drove his motorcycle to Lake Barkley, near Dover, Tennessee, where he rented a boat and used it to dispose of the weighted bag of body parts.
 
After dark, he returned to the church where the remains of Matheney’s body were left and with a knife, removed two tattoos from the victim’s shoulders by cutting away the flesh and flushing it down a toilet.
 
Terry wrapped the body in carpet, doused it in gasoline, set the fire and fled to Memphis where he checked into a hotel and went to a minor league baseball game.
 
Prior to leaving town Terry placed $100 bills in his three sons’ wallets and gave his wife instructions that she should pay some bills that normally he was responsible for. His wife was the beneficiary of a $50,000 life insurance policy.
 
His children had also been named as beneficiaries of a $100,000 life insurance policy he had taken out on himself.
 
Although the fire destroyed parts of the church and damaged Matheney’s body, firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it fully consumed the corpse, and the medical examiner was able to establish that the body was not Terry’s.
 
Two days after the murder, Terry contacted a criminal defense attorney in his hometown and turned himself in to authorities.
 
He was tried for capital murder and convicted in 1988, convicted, and sentenced to die in the electric chair. The sentence was overturned on appeal when the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that improper instructions were given to the jury during the sentencing phase, and he was given a new hearing.
 
However, a second jury also returned a recommendation of death, despite an impassioned plea by the minister that he be spared.
 
In 2003, just before his appellate attorneys were scheduled to argue for a new trial, Terry hanged himself in a bathroom at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, where he was working as a data-entry clerk while his appeals were pending.
 
The Rev. Terry was 58 years old. He left a wife and three sons. Matheney had a 4-year-old son at the time of his death.