GBI exhumes body of man killed at Camden County church in 1985

Investigators gather DNA evidence in murders of Harold Swain and his wife

CAMDEN COUNTY, Ga. – Investigators with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation on Wednesday exhumed the body of a man who was killed at a Camden County church.

The GBI said it’s hoping to obtain DNA evidence in the investigation into the 1985 murders of Harold Swain and his wife, Thelma.

The Swains were laid to rest at the cemetery behind the church where they were killed. For decades, the couple’s resting place sat untouched -- until Wednesday. It took investigators took two hours to exhume Harold Swain’s body.

The GBI said exhuming a body is extremely rare but necessary in finding answers to the 35-year-old murder case.

“We are doing this in an attempt to gain DNA evidence in pursuing the murder investigation,” said Stacy Carson, special agent in charge of the GBI’s Kingsland office.

Carson said investigators were able to gather evidence during the exhumation.

“Just due to the facts that we know, that occurred during the incident, we believe the DNA evidence we need would be on Mr. Swain and not Mrs. Swain,” Carson said.

Carson declined to elaborate on the specific evidence they’re looking for.

“Just DNA evidence,” Carson said. “We are 35 years past the incident. Technology has changed and developed, and so we are taking the opportunity to gather what we need to pursue further the investigation.”

Harold and Thelma Swain were at Bible study at Rising Daughter Baptist Church on the evening of March 11, 1985. On Wednesday, one of only a few living witnesses recalled the moment the gunman came into the church and signaled to Harold Swain.

“And Mr. Harold said, ‘I wonder what he wants with me.’ So he got up and went out,” the witness said. “Then we heard scuffling out there in the vestibule area, and the next thing we heard: ‘Pow, pow, pow.’ Gunshots. And then Mrs. Thelma got up. She was at the table and ran out there. Then next thing, he shot her, and we just started running.”

The witness recounted that she ran into the secretary’s room and grabbed the phone, but it was dead.

When asked about her thoughts on Wednesday’s development with the GBI exhuming Harold Swain’s body, she said: “I think it is a good thing, you know? We want to find out what was the reason behind it ... and who done it.”

In 2000, Dennis Perry was arrested in the Swains' murders. He was convicted in 2003, but in July of this year, that ruling was overturned based on new DNA evidence that points to Erik Sparre, who was once a suspect in the case, according to court documents.

Perry was released from prison and is awaiting a new trial. He maintains his innocence.

The GBI said it could take months to process the evidence gathered Wednesday. When asked about Sparre, the GBI said it has no comment.

Harold Swain’s siblings told News4Jax that they were not aware of Wednesday’s disinterment and will be following up with the GBI.

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