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GBI searches home of man at center of overturned conviction in 1985 double murder

Search warrant executed at Brantley County home of Erik Sparre and his mother, who was found dead in July

WAYNESVILLE, Ga. – The Georgia Bureau of Investigation on Thursday executed a search warrant at the home of Erik Sparre and his mother, who was found dead last month.

GBI agents said they continue to work to determine what involvement Erik Sparre, 57, may have had in the shooting deaths of Harold Swain and his wife, Thelma, at the Rising Daughter Baptist Church in Woodbine in 1985. Dennis Perry was found guilty of those murders, but a judge overturned that conviction after the GBI reopened the case.

The GBI said the search at the property on Stafford Road in Waynesville was part of its ongoing investigation into those murders 35 years ago.

On Thursday, News4Jax spoke with Sparre’s brother.

“You look at the pictures and you see their stuff strung apart in the yard and laying on tarps,” Sparre said. “There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s rough.”

According to the GBI, Gladys Sparre, 79, was found dead the morning of July 19 at her Waynesville residence. The GBI said the Brantley County Sheriff’s Office asked its Kingsland office was asked to investigate her death. Peter Sparre claims his mother died two days earlier, on the day Perry’s conviction was overturned.

“Do you think that her death has anything to do with the overturned conviction, or anything,” reporter Corley Peel asked Peter Sparre.

“No. I know for a fact that, that is not the case,” Peter Sparre said. “That weekend, my brother was with me.”

Despite DNA evidence, Erik Sparre has not been named a suspect in the Swain murders.

Peter Sparre says the investigations have been difficult for their family, especially losing his mother who was a former model and substitute teacher.

“Mom was an angel,” he said. “She’s probably the most religious person you’d ever meet.”

The GBI said July 20 an autopsy has been conducted and was pending results of further forensic testing and investigative efforts.

Judge grants new trial in 1985 double murder

Perry was arrested in the deaths of the Swains in 2000. A jury convicted him of killing the Swains in 2003, but on July 17, a Glynn County Judge overturned his conviction, based upon new developments in the case.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Scarlett decided to grant Perry a new trial in the shooting deaths of the Swains after new DNA evidence linked the crime to another man -- Camden County detectives’ first suspect in the case.

On July 23, the judge ordered Perry freed on his own recognizance pending a retrial.

Attorney’s for Perry asked for a new trial after new evidence emerged, including DNA evidence.

Perry has denied involvement in the deaths since his arrest. Perry was convicted largely on the testimony of his ex-girlfriend’s mother, who said Perry had told her he planned to kill Harold Swain. The state didn’t disclose to the defense that the woman was paid $12,000 in reward money for her testimony.

Joe Gregory, a GBI agent assigned to the case in 1985, testified that he ruled out Perry after determining it would have been “virtually impossible” for him to be in Camden County at the time of the crime. Perry worked in the metro Atlanta area and didn’t leave his job until after 5:30 p.m. The shootings occurred at 8:40 p.m.

New evidence suggests that Erik Sparre could have been involved.

Perry’s attorneys conducted a DNA test that now ties Erik Sparre to the scene after reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found Erik Sparre may have faked his alibi claiming he was at work at a supermarket. The then-manager testified last month that he didn’t recall talking to authorities. He said a sworn statement filed with investigators that included his Social Security number is not from him.

The DNA test linking Erik Sparre to hairs in a pair of glasses found inches from the bodies led Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson to ask the GBI to reopen the double murder investigation.

Forensic examiner Gloria Dimick said Perry’s DNA doesn’t match the hair, but a sample from Gladys Sparre does match. Dimick said the new evidence does not prove Erik Sparre is guilty but said: “He could not be excluded.”

Chad Head, the brother of Erik Sparre’s first wife, who died in 2013, testified last month that he remembered Erik Sparre calling the family home in 1986, spewing profanity and saying he killed the Swains. He also used a racial slur. The Swains were Black; Erik Sparre, who has said he’s innocent, is white. The words that Head said he recalled were similar to those his family told police that Erik Sparre used in 1986.

As police records indicate, Head said the call was recorded. He said relatives gave it to Camden County sheriff’s deputies. The tape now is among the evidence in the case that is missing.

Erik Sparre’s second wife, Rhonda Tyson, testified that Erik Sparre told her one day in the late 1980s that he killed the Swains.

“I was laying on the floor. He was straddling me with his hands on my throat,” testified Tyson, who said she recounted that Sparre said: “‘I will kill you like I killed those n-words in the church in Camden County.‘”

Andrew Ekonomou, a lawyer for the state, repeatedly objected to testimony not related to DNA evidence because the judge wasn’t deciding who killed the Swains.

But Scarlett said in his order granting Perry’s motion for a new trial that the DNA test linking Erik Sparre to the scene would have resulted in a different verdict at Perry’s 2003 trial, which entitles him to a new trial.

“Dennis Perry was convicted of double murder eighteen years after the fact without any physical evidence connecting him to the crime scene,” Scarlett wrote. “Newly discovered DNA evidence links another suspect, one whose alibi for the night of the murders may have been fabricated, to the key piece of evidence recovered from the crime scene.”

At this time, prosecutors expect to retry Perry, but the GBI continues to investigate the case.


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