published Sunday, June 16th, 2013

Parents didn't know about son-in-law's violent past before he murdered their daughter

This is the home in the 8900 block of Lovell Road near Soddy-Daisy where Terry Releford killed his pregnant wife May 19. Law enforcement tracked Releford to a Georgia motel the next morning and were negotiating with him when he shot himself fatally in the head.
This is the home in the 8900 block of Lovell Road near Soddy-Daisy where Terry Releford killed his pregnant wife May 19. Law enforcement tracked Releford to a Georgia motel the next morning and were negotiating with him when he shot himself fatally in the head.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Even now, their daughter's body in the grave, the Hales can't say they ever saw any sign that their son-in-law was trouble.

Terry Releford took their daughter, Tammy, to church regularly with the pair of elderly women who raised him.

He played Santa Claus during the holidays at a center for people with disabilities.

He attended all of Tammy's doctor visits after they learned she was pregnant.

He bought Tammy's youngest child a puppy when she wanted one.

"That's the kind of person he was," said Vicki Hale, Tammy's mother, during the family's first interview with the media about their daughter's May 19 killing.

Tammy Hale was murdered by her husband of nearly a year at their white log cabin home on Lovell Road near Soddy-Daisy. Releford raped a teenage girl before fleeing to Georgia and turning a gun on himself.

"He had everyone fooled. He had us all fooled," said Vicki Hale, sitting with her husband, Danny, on their front porch swing.

None of them, Tammy included, had any inkling that Releford was a violent ex-convict and sexual predator, Vicki Hale said.

The Hales don't know how or when the couple met, but two months after they were introduced to Releford, Terry and Tammy got married.

Tammy was 35. She wanted to be a schoolteacher and softball coach. She loved her two daughters and was pregnant with a third. She planned to complete college at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga after the baby's birth. In the meantime, she worked as a manager at Liberty Tax Service.

Now, all of that is gone.

Tammy was bludgeoned so brutally the Hales did not recognize her. The children weren't allowed to say good-bye.

"The way she was beaten so badly, I know she was fighting for those girls," said Vicki Hale. "Those girls were her life."

The Hales worry about paying off the couple's debts. The white log cabin is still filled with furniture and personal items. They haven't been able to bring themselves to touch it.

It was where Danny Hale spent his boyhood. Now he can't stand the sight of the place. He'll sell it, he said.

He rocks slightly on the porch swing. It's hard to sit. He has to stay busy.

"If you sit still, you think too much," he said.

If only he had known. He would have protected his girls.

"We opened both of our houses to him," Danny Hale said.

When Releford met Tammy, he had just completed nearly 15 years behind bars.

He served time for three counts of aggravated rape, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of aggravated assault and one count of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

As he approached the one-year anniversary of his May 21 release, there was nothing to indicate Releford was going to snap.

Tammy and her parents knew he was a registered sex offender who had to check in with the sheriff's office to update his personal information. Releford had told them he had a rape conviction.

But he told a story much different than what court records revealed.

At 18, he told the Hales, he had an affair with a married high school teacher. When she became pregnant, she claimed he had raped her. As a result, Releford was a sex offender for life. But he never went to prison, he said.

"That was the tale he told us," Danny Hale said.

The couple learned of their daughter's death as they were driving back from Florida. Someone phoned Vicki Hale to tell her a pregnant woman was reported dead on Lovell Road.

Vicki Hale called Tammy. She called Releford. She called one of the girls. No one answered.

"It's still a dream. I keep thinking I'll wake up, but I know it's not," Vicki Hale said as fresh tears emerged.

She had spoken to Tammy the day before her daughter was killed. The family was getting ready to attend a soccer game. They never made it because Tammy began to have contractions.

Releford had told friends, "I've got a feeling we're going to have a baby tonight."

Since their daughter's death, the Hales have learned about Releford's record from coverage in the newspaper.

Some people in the community have judged Tammy for getting involved with Releford, even though she didn't know the details about his past, Vicki Hale said.

"A lot of people look at it like she deserved what she got," Vicki Hale said. "She didn't deserve any of this,"

The justice system let Releford slip through the cracks.

Releford was supposed to undergo sex offender treatment and counseling in prison. Upon his release, he was supposed to submit to drug screenings, face-to-face meetings with officers and have officers visit his home.

None of that happened, authorities have acknowledged.

"He was definitely one they shouldn't have let out," said Danny Hale. "The system failed. ... If someone had talked to him along the way, they might have figured it out before it got to this point."

The Hales try to remember better days, but solace is elusive.

It's peaceful at their home near Chester Frost Park in north Hixson. The only sounds are birds chirping and the soft hum of an airplane from thousands of feet above. Tammy had her first wedding in the lush grass of their backyard.

Releford was Tammy's fourth husband, county marriage records show.

Of all the relationships Tammy had, she seemed happiest with Releford, Danny Hale said.

"That's why this doesn't add up," he said.

Vicki Hale calls her sister frequently. She talks. She weeps.

"We were planning on holding a new grandbaby," she said. "And they were so happy."

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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