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Trial Begins for Preacher Accused in Decapitation of Handyman

September 12, 1988 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ A minister went on trial Monday on charges of beheading a handyman and burning down his church in an alleged attempt to assume a new identity and disappear with $50,000 in church money.

Jury selection is expected to take most of the week in the first-degree murder and arson trial of the Rev. John David Terry, who faces the death penalty if convicted.

Terry may take the witness stand to break his yearlong silence in the decapitation of James C. Matheny.

The slaying and fire on June 15, 1987, at Emmanuel Church of Christ Pentecostal Oneness stunned Terry’s parishioners. Some have stuck by him since Matheny’s body was found rolled up in a scorched carpet.

″Two days before this happened we would have given him our last dime,″ said Marsha Brown, 30, who with others in the 40-member congregation has been attending weekly services in a borrowed building in nearby Gallatin. ″I don’t feel personally betrayed. More let down than anything else.″

About half the members have stopped attending services, she said.

″I’m sad for him. I guess I’m a little bitter, but you have to keep the love of God no matter what,″ said Marlane McClanahan, 35, who has not been attending services held by the current pastor, the Rev. Wayne Cole.

Mrs. Brown, Mrs. McClanahan and other church members said Terry, 43, was well-liked and respected during his nearly 20 years as their preacher. Terry had befriended Matheny, who was the ex-husband of a church member and had been in trouble with the law.

Police initially thought it was Terry’s body firefighters discovered in the carpet because Terry’s belt and other articles of clothing were found on the body. The head and lower part of the right arm had been severed with butcher- like precision, and Matheny initially was suspected of killing Terry until medical examiners identified the body.

Terry, who had worked part-time as a supermarket butcher to earn extra money, showed up at his lawyer’s office two days after the fire. His lawyers have since turned over to authorities a map of a marina where they said the head and arm could be found, though a search begun last week was halted Sunday after divers came up empty-handed.

″The divers can’t see anything. They can only feel. It’s zero visibiliy″ in Lake Barkley, said Stewart County Sheriff David Hicks.


A birth certificate, driver’s license, post office box and the title to a motorcycle like the one seen whizzing away from the fire have turned up in the name of a man dead since 1951, court documents show. Terry’s picture was on the driver’s license that bore the dead man’s name.

Neither Terry’s lawyer nor the prosecution would discuss details the case. Terry is not charged in connection with the money taken from the church.

Teresa Matheny, 32, was divorced from the victim but said the two were close to a reconciliation. Mrs. Matheny, who lives in Nashville, stopped attending church services soon after her husband’s body was found.

″I loved him very much,″ she said.

Mrs. Matheny said the slaying and arrest of Terry have been difficult for the 4-year-old son she and Matheny had. ″It’s been real hard for him to understand,″ she said.

Members of the denomination formed in the early 1930s believe in faith healing and sometimes practice such rituals as foot washing and talking in tongues.

Terry’s former parishioners are looking ahead to the Thanksgiving opening of a new church under construction on the other side of town from their old meeting place.

″He was a friend,″ said Virginia Howard, 63, another church member. ″We had known him since he was a boy. Our children and he grew up together. There wasn’t anything ever bad about the boy. He just did good things. We’re amazed that someone we’ve known and never knew anything bad against is guilty of this.″