ABOUT THIS STORY
This story was compiled through sheriff's office reports from Hamilton and Bradley counties, 59 pages of Tennessee Department of Correction records, transcripts from Terry Releford's 1997 rape case obtained from files at the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office, a written statement from one of the rape victims obtained by detectives, Releford's autopsy report in Gordon County, Ga., Hamilton County marriage records, and interviews with the women Terry Releford called his aunts, and Tammy Hale's parents.
Even a killer has a soul.
Two women pray for Terry Releford's.
Blood doesn't bind them to the 34-year-old man who raped two women as a teenager and killed his pregnant wife last month before turning a gun on himself.
But the women love "Terry," as they called him, just the same.
Releford referred to the women as his aunts. Eunice Heath, 78, and Carol Clevenger, 80, still can see the tenderhearted, but deeply troubled, little boy they raised.
They wanted to save him.
In interviews with detectives and prison staff, Releford said that of all the people in his life, his aunts were the most supportive. They came every weekend and every holiday, without fail, to the state prison at Pikeville to visit, prison records show.
It would have been easy to leave someone who had wrought such pain and trouble. But they didn't feel like they could abandon him. He didn't really have anyone.
Generations of nothingness haunted his family. Heath, who worked as a missionary in the projects in East Chattanooga, remembers Terry's grandmother.
"She had no family life whatsoever. She just walked the streets. ... She was just pitiful. She had two daughters and Martha [Releford's mother] was the youngest," Heath said. "It was a hard struggle for her."
When Releford came along the family wasn't prepared to care for him. His mother was young and unmarried.
Martha "just wanted to do other things," Heath said. "So she just let us take him."
Releford stayed with the women beginning in his grammar-school years. They lived in the heart of Cleveland, Tenn., in a small brick rancher near one of the main arteries of town off Keith Street.
Despite their best efforts, Terry struggled.
By the time he reached third grade, he was failing.
"He didn't like school," Heath said. "He couldn't focus, really. He was a problem to the teachers."
Releford's mother married when he was 8 and had another baby. He later told prison staff that his mother had bad nerves.
By age 10, Releford was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder and placed on medication.
He remained hyper.
"He wasn't a bad kid. He was just bad at times," Clevenger said. "He loved people. He was so sweet to people and then he would be just the opposite."
A rage seemed to boil in Releford. At any moment, it could spill over without warning.
"I think the insecurity he felt with his family -- he acted it out somewhat," Heath said.
"He was a very insecure [person]," Clevenger said.
"He knew we loved him but as far as others ..." Heath said.
He would slam and break objects. Punch holes in the walls.
"He's broken things here sometimes in his fit of anger," Heath said. "He threw something and broke our china cabinet."
"I may be excusing him, but I think a lot of kids do things like that," Clevenger said.
"No, no, no, no. Not to that extent, Carol," Heath replied.
At 12, Releford began huffing gasoline and paint. At 13, he was arrested for unruliness. He began to smoke pot.
About that time, Releford sought out his father, whom he had never met.
"I think he just saw him the one time. I don't think he had any contact with him after that," Heath said.
The rage continued to manifest itself. When Releford would explode, the women would pray.
"Ask the Lord to give us the strength and help us know what to do and how to handle it," Heath said.
At 14, he was admitted to a Knoxville mental hospital after pulling a gun on another student. He was kicked out of that facility because of violence.
Also while in a psychiatric hospital, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and taking Valium.
Over the next few years, he was moved from one treatment center to another -- six in all -- in between stays with his aunts.
It was around that time that Releford said the voice started speaking to him.
He could hear screams that sounded "like an echo" in his head.
He was in and out of trouble with the law, and at one point in another psychiatric hospital he was placed on Thorazine, a medication used to treat schizophrenia.
Releford was released, but his record did not reflect that he was doing any better.
Meanwhile, huffing gave way to more serious substance abuse, and his behavior problems worsened.
He first used Quaaludes, a depressant, at age 15. He moved on to painkillers, Dilaudid and Percodan.
In 10th grade, he was expelled from school for fighting. He never returned.
He was sent to a "teen ranch" for troubled youth but ran away.
At 17, he began using cocaine and amphetamines. A year later, he was on to hallucinogens. He stole money and items from his aunts.
"Drugs can do anything to you. A lot of things to you. He just got to the point where he couldn't get out of it. It just meant more to him than anything," Heath said.
"And he did stupid things."
She heaved a deep sigh.
At 18, Releford went with a childhood friend to pick up a young woman they both had dated. Releford had dated her for a week or so. His friend had dated her for a couple of months.
They showed up at the woman's house and told her they wanted to talk. Releford took her by the hand. His friend said he wanted to work things out with her. She went with them in Releford's Jeep to a remote location.
Releford and his friend began huffing gasoline. They told her to huff.
"And I kept telling them no and then Terry started giving me these evil looks. And I'm already scared of Terry," the woman told detectives. "He's threatened me. ... He told me in his own words that he was messed up in the head. And so I just went ahead and huffed the gasoline."
The pair slapped, beat and kicked the young woman. They tied her wrists to the front of Terry's Jeep. They taped her mouth. They blindfolded her during part of the attack. They took turns raping her.
"They, um, they kept on. They called me a bitch and whore," the woman told detectives.
She was strangled.
"I remembered something being put around my neck and I was hollering for my mom and everybody and I couldn't breathe," the woman said.
Releford had planned to kill her. He and his friend were going to douse her body in gasoline afterward and burn her before burying her.
She begged for her life.
In the end, Releford and his pal told the woman they would let her live if she promised not to tell.
They dropped her off at her house.
"They told me that if I don't do what they say, that they would kill me," the woman told police. "Terry told me that he's already murdered somebody before, but no one's known about it. And he said ... if he ... goes to prison because of me, when he gets out that he will come after me and he said that he don't care if he'll blow my mom and dad's head off and my brother's head."
She went to police anyway.
Releford was arrested on the day of the attack.
During questioning, Releford acknowledged that he and his friend had planned to kill the woman.
But he told detectives he couldn't go through with it.
"See ... when she wasn't there, it was like, 'Yeah, we can do this,' ... And when I'm sitting there looking at her. ..."
The detective prompted him, "You had a hard time."
"I don't have enough guts to kill somebody. I don't, I mean ..." Releford said. "We had a hard time doing it, OK."
"It's sorta kinda like a ... well since you screwed me up, maybe I'll get you back. You know, revenge. I don't know. I've always had a problem in my life controlling my anger," Releford said.
Releford was freed after posting bond.
A few months later, while awaiting trial on the first rape, he found a woman stranded on Interstate 75 walking to get gas. He picked her up. She thought she was getting help. Instead, he took her to a remote area and raped her, then he let her go as well.
Releford claimed he had no memory of the rapes. He had flashbacks. He said he was on muscle relaxers, gasoline, cocaine and amphetamines at the time.
He pleaded guilty to the charges involving both women and began his 17-year prison sentence. He was required to serve 85 percent of the term.
In prison, he chewed his fingernails. Had crying spells daily. Lost 38 pounds the first few months he was locked up. Slept about four hours a night.
And the voice stayed with him.
The voice told him he should have killed the first woman. He said he hears the voice when he gets depressed.
"Of course when he first went in, he caused a lot of problems, I'm sure," Heath said. But, "he realized if he got visits he had to behave himself. He wanted visits with us. So he straightened out."
During an evaluation, staff determined, "Abuse of chemicals are relevant to his anti-social behavior and that he is likely to be 'emotionally upset ... and miserable.' In addition he may have an 'acceptance of criminal behavior' and be willing to 'be assaultive or threatening.'"
Releford's prison disciplinary records show he used drugs while incarcerated. He was moved around in the prison system, spending time at seven different facilities. He assaulted another inmate in 2005, about halfway through his sentence. The inmate was beaten badly enough to seek medical treatment.
Releford stayed under the radar after that.
He obtained numerous tattoos -- including one reading, "Only God Can Judge Me," across his back.
He never underwent recommended counseling or required sex offender treatment. He told prison staff he would get treatment once he was released.
"They failed there," Clevenger said.
Six months before his release, Releford was working as an animal caretaker at a farm. The farm manager went to prison staff and told them he believed that Releford had killed a dog that hung around the dairy. He had no proof, though, and nothing happened.
Heath, who was unfamiliar with the incident, said Releford loved animals.
At 33, Releford was released from prison.
A relationship was on the horizon, the "till death do us part" kind.
There was no record of prison visits from Tammy Hale. It's unclear how the couple met. But she married Releford a few months after his release.
He worked as a plumber. He shared a home and a family with her near Soddy-Daisy. The couple was expecting a baby.
At least on the outside, things seemed to be looking up.
"He seemed to be doing good there for awhile," Heath said.
Releford called his aunts daily, even though he didn't see them often.
"He had a big heart," said Clevenger, repeatedly. She has Alzheimer's disease.
When the women were asked for an example of something kind Terry had done, the conversation lulled.
"I can't, can you?" Heath said. "That's terrible, isn't it?"
On May 19, the storm came.
"What has happened recently is terrible. Of course, I don't approve of it. I don't think he should have reacted in this way. But he found out she was pregnant with somebody else's child," Heath said. "That just blew his mind. So he just went berserk."
At least that's what Releford believed. He told them there was a paternity test.
Maybe it was the drugs. Maybe the voice was back. Whatever the cause, the anger manifested once again.
This time there was no mercy.
Releford beat Tammy to death. Her injuries rendered her unrecognizable to her family. They had a closed casket at her funeral.
Hale's family said maybe Releford believed the baby wasn't his because Hale was giving birth a month early. Her other two babies came early too, said Vicki Hale, Tammy's mother.
Right up until the day of Tammy's death, the couple seemed happy. There were no warning signs. The baby was his, according to the Hales.
After Tammy's death, they found a Mother's Day card addressed to her from Releford.
He thanked her for being the best thing that had ever happened to him. He wanted to adopt her youngest child. He was excited about their baby. It was a girl. They had settled on the name Olivia.
On the same day that he killed Tammy, he raped a teenage girl in an attack similar to the two that had sent him to prison.
Afterward, Releford fled to a Calhoun, Ga., motel.
At some point, he phoned law enforcement saying he wanted to turn himself in.
He called his aunts to say goodbye.
"He was in Georgia when he called," Heath said. "He called and told us that he loved us. I guess he told us what he'd done."
They tried to comfort him. They told him, "Come back home and we can talk," Clevenger said.
But the time for talking was over.
He placed a pistol to the right side of his head, at contact range.
And the day after taking a life, Releford took his own.
"He didn't want to live," Clevenger said. "He didn't want to live."
Contact staff writer Beth Burger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.
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