REIDSVILLE, Ga. -- For as long as three years, the body of Theresa Parker decayed near a dry creekbed in rural Georgia, discarded like so much trash.
Her remains have received a proper burial now, but that's small comfort to the friends and family who will never see her again.
Yet Sam Parker, the estranged husband and ex-lawman convicted of murdering her, thinks he, too, is a victim.
Parker never took the stand during his 2009 trial, but 14 months into a life sentence at Georgia State Prison, he decided it was time to talk.
In an exclusive interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Nov. 9, he insisted he is innocent, criticized the evidence against him and lashed out at prosecutors who, he said, painted jurors a twisted picture of his personality and falsely portrayed him as abusive and unstable.
"They had to paint me to look like a horrible person so the jury would hate me, and that's what they did," Parker said. "They destroyed my character in front of 12 people that don't know me."
The prosecutor who led the case said Parker is not to be believed, however. Parker chose not to give his side to the jury, said Floyd County District Attorney Leigh Patterson.
"Now that he's been convicted, he wants to tell his story," she said. "That story is not under oath, [he's] not subject to cross-examination."
Parker said he has an idea who killed his wife but declined to elaborate.
"Everything was focused on me from the very beginning," he said.
Sitting in the warden's conference room at the prison, Parker, now 55, has gained weight since the trial, filling out his white prison jumpsuit. Behind wire-rimmed glasses, he closed his eyes when recalling the moment he said he learned that the body of his missing wife had been found.
"I just didn't want to believe it was true," he said, his voice suddenly lower. "Everybody was hoping she had gone off somewhere. Because, I mean it hurt me as bad as anybody else."
A prison counselor delivered the news. A follow-up telephone call to Parker's younger brother, Kenneth, confirmed it. The body of Theresa Parker, a 911 dispatcher missing for more than three years, had been found on Sept. 20 behind a Chattooga County cornfield near the Alabama state line. The find came more than a year after Sam Parker was convicted of killing her, despite the lack of a body.
But he said he is far from fearful that the body might provide the definitive link between him and the killing -- the forensic evidence that authorities couldn't produce during his murder trial. He said he hopes the body finally will prove his innocence.
"I don't know what happened [to her]," he said.
Police and prosecutors maintain that Parker knew exactly what happened to his wife of 13 years from the day she disappeared on March 21, 2007. They said he killed her early the next day and -- using knowledge gained during his years as a law enforcement officer -- covered up the crime so well that virtually every shred of evidence disappeared.
Jurors agreed with police and prosecutors and convicted him of murder in September 2009.
It's been 14 months since Parker went to prison, but he only recently was released from solitary confinement, he said. He took off his glasses and locked in a direct, unnerving gaze.
"The food was delivered through a food port in the door," he said.
During the three showers he was allowed each week, "two officers had to be present when I left, and I had to be handcuffed."
He was moved in with the rest of the population two months ago, where "I had to learn how to talk to people again. I had to learn how to walk long distances again," he said.
At the start of the interview, he was stiff and nervous, but gradually loosened up and talked about his trial and Theresa's disappearance. He was calm for most of the three-hour interview but became agitated when recounting how investigators tried to get him to confess to killing Theresa.
They wouldn't listen to his story, he said. Once he was arrested, he said, they begged him to tell the judge he had killed her accidentally, then show them where her body was hidden.
"'I can't tell you that,'" Parker remembered saying. "'I can't take you anywhere. You're telling me to do something that is impossible.'"
He recalled the moment emphatically, slapping his hands onto the tabletop and rising from his chair, his eyes wide.
Nearby, a guard stiffened, and his hand hovered near his sidearm.
divorce made life "perfect"
At the time Theresa disappeared, Parker's life couldn't have been much better, he said.
Yes, the couple's marriage was ending, but he said that was OK. The fights would be over; the tension would be gone; he could get a fresh start.
Then suddenly she vanished and he was under a microscope.
"Everything that was supposed to be so perfect fell apart at once," he said, his voice trailing off. "I was going to get the house. ... I had everything in the world going my way."
Parker was on duty at the LaFayette (Ga.) Police Department on March 24, 2007, when Theresa's mother, Claire Carethers, filed a missing person report. At that point, Theresa hadn't been seen in three days.
Parker went with another officer to search the couple's trailer on Cordell Road, he remembered.
"I thought I was part of the team," Parker said. "Then all of a sudden it dawned on me that they think I'd done something."
Investigators' questions kept coming back to him, Parker said, and police continued to search his home day after day, combing the trailer and property in a search for clues to her disappearance. Police reports show investigators seized guns, jewelry and anything else they could find to test the items for blood or DNA.
Everything came back negative, except for some blood spots on the back of Theresa's sport utility vehicle, police reports show.
Search for a body
National and local media swarmed in to cover the story of a woman gone missing, a pretty 42-year-old brunette, caring aunt and loyal Walker County 911 dispatcher who was loved by many.
Hundreds of people turned out to search for Theresa. Tips flooded into the Walker County Sheriff's Office. Investigators even set up an anonymous tip line to track the information.
On April 1, 2007, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson sent out a news release naming Sam Parker as "a person of interest." But it would take 10 more months for police to build their case and arrest Parker.
Kenneth, Parker's brother, said recently he thought police arrested his brother "out of desperation" because the investigation had dragged on for so long.
Meanwhile, investigators searched the woods, inside wells, along roads, in caves. They even drained a pond. But they found nothing despite all the tips.
Finally, on Sept. 20 of this year, a farmer spotted a jawbone in the woods behind a cornfield, a few miles south of Lyerly, Ga. Theresa's remains quickly were identified through dental records.
The remains gave closure to Theresa's family, but have yielded little evidence of how she died.
Weeks after Theresa's body was found, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab concluded that she died as a result of foul play but couldn't determine the cause of death based on what was left of her bones.
Ron Carlson, a University of Georgia law professor, said a body is the single most important piece of evidence in a murder case and, when it is found, the details of what happened should become clear.
"Certainly, the physical facts of how the person was killed can be confirmed or rejected," Carlson said. "Discovery of the body usually helps the defendant or helps the state."
Both Parker and police believe the body has helped bolster their arguments and for exactly the same reason -- where it was found.
In announcing the discovery, police said that Theresa's body was found just 13 miles from where Sam Parker grew up in Trion. And that's where he had been staying -- at his father's house -- after he and Theresa had separated months earlier.
Patterson said cell phone evidence shows that he was moving in the direction where the body ultimately was found.
Parker, shaking his head, said the site near Lyerly is "nowhere near" where investigators said he was based on signals from his cell phone.
"That's what I don't understand," he said. "If everything was confined to here" -- demonstrating with his hand -- "and all of a sudden you have a crime scene over here, something is way off."
* March 21, 2007 -- Theresa Parker is last seen.
* March 24, 2007 -- Her family files a missing person report.
* April 1, 2007 -- Sam Parker named a "person of interest" in the case.
* Feb. 4, 2008 -- Parker is arrested on charges of killing his estranged wife. He claims he is innocent.
* Aug. 17, 2009 -- Parker's trial begins.
* Sept. 3, 2009 -- Parker is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison plus five years on felony conviction for murder, violating his oath as a public officer and making false statements during an investigation.
* Sept. 20, 2010 -- Theresa Parker's skeletal remains are found.
Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press archives, court documents
Ben Chaffin, a friend of Parker's, testified that Parker confessed in a phone call at 4 a.m. on March 22, 2007, that he "shot Theresa through the head."
A forensic examination of Theresa's skeletal remains showed no evidence of a bullet hole.
Where was it? Parker asked during the prison interview.
Patterson said the lack of a bullet hole didn't matter because Theresa's "complete skeletal remains weren't recovered" and that part of her skull was missing.
In closing arguments, Patterson said that Parker could have killed Theresa with a chokehold. The prosecutor said last week that authorities still believe Parker "choked her out," even though the exact cause of death is unclear.
No matter how the killing was committed, "there's still no one else out there that had a motive to kill Theresa except Sam Parker," Patterson said in an interview.
During the trial, prosecutors zeroed in on other evidence, including the fact that Parker's artificial hip was dislocated, which they say could have happened when he was carrying her body. They also pointed out scratch marks on his legs right after Theresa went missing, and blood spots on the back of Theresa's SUV.
The blood was positively identified as Theresa's, mixed with Parker's DNA, reports show.
Parker said he tried to explain, but investigators wouldn't listen. Theresa had broken a glass snow globe when she was packing to move out of the trailer, he said, cutting herself in the process.
Investigators said what tipped them off to Parker were inconsistencies in his story about where he was and when on the night Theresa was last seen.
While he told investigators that he was at the home of a friend, Christy Bellflower, that night, she testified that he arrived later than he said he did -- 2 a.m. versus midnight.
Patterson told the court that Parker killed Theresa between 12:30 and 1:30 a.m. March 22 and got rid of her body early that morning before he went fishing.
But Parker said he gave approximate times to investigators.
"I told them I didn't know exactly what time. I didn't have a watch on that night," he said, his voice getting louder. "I wasn't keeping up with time."
While announcing that Theresa's body had been discovered, Patterson said the discovery undercut Parker's entire defense -- that she was off in Mexico with a guy named Elvis.
But that's not true, said Parker defense attorney David Dunn.
"Our defense at trial was we didn't know what happened to her, whether she was dead or alive," Dunn said. "We simply did not know. We couldn't prove what happened, but that's not our job. That's theirs."
"loved to fight"
Family members of Theresa and Sam Parker said the couple had an unusual relationship. They were always fighting and then making up, said Kenneth Parker.
"They loved to fight, verbally," he said, "If she wanted to fight, she could bring a few things up that would set him off."
Theresa's sister, Hilda Wilson, told investigators that Sam would get jealous and accuse Theresa of cheating on him. Theresa's family members later said they thought Parker was abusive and that they had begged her to leave him.
Niece Amanda Hill said Theresa was torn about leaving Parker but finally decided to do it weeks before she went missing.
"She knew she was making the right decision; it was just a matter of getting away from him," Hill said. "She was so close."
Prosecutors portrayed the divorce as a source of bitterness for Parker but that wasn't the case, Kenneth Parker said. His brother had been married twice before meeting Theresa.
"It's not like he hadn't been divorced before," Kenneth Parker said.
When Theresa first went missing, Kenneth Parker said his brother seemed aggravated because he thought "she was trying to get out of the divorce again."
The couple originally filed for a divorce in August 2006, but Theresa told her attorney in October she had decided to hold off, court documents show. They decided to finalize the divorce early in 2007 after Parker's father died, Kenneth Parker said. The couple had plans to meet on Friday, two days after she went missing, to take care of remaining details.
His brother was excited about the divorce. "He was getting the house," Kenneth said.
Parker was known for his quick humor and his practical jokes around the office, according to friends and police officers. Investigators noted at one point that he was such a likable guy, they were having a hard time finding anyone who could say anything bad about him.
But he also could take jokes too far and was known for saying things that made people uncomfortable, some said. At trial, the prosecutor argued that Parker had a sick sense of humor. She showed the jury a picture found in Parker's locker that made fun of a battered woman.
He was also obsessive, Patterson said. When Parker found out Theresa had taken a trip to Gatlinburg the week before she went missing, he thought she was with another man and was furious, Patterson said.
Parker's second wife, Keila Beard, testified that he abused her. She said he once dragged her by the hair during a fight, but she was too afraid to report it.
Carolyn Wooten, Parker's older sister, said he had a temper, but she never saw him hit anyone.
Wooten said she questioned Theresa about Parker, and Theresa said he had "never laid a hand" on her. When Theresa's body was found, "it was like I lost a sister," she said, and after Parker went to prison, she "lost a brother, too."
When Parker was convicted of murder, Kenneth Parker said the family "dealt with it in different ways."
"It's hard for people to understand what we've gone through," he said, wiping tears from his eyes. "Our faith wasn't in the system. ... We relied on our faith in God."
Attorney Dunn said moments during the trial have played over and over in his head.
After the conviction, Dunn immediately filed a motion for a new trial. More than a year later, he is still waiting for the transcripts from the first trial -- necessary paperwork for the process. When the transcripts are finished, he said, the first step will be to have a hearing with Walker County Superior Court Judge Jon "Bo" Wood, who presided at Parker's murder trial.
Wood can grant the motion for a new trial, Dunn said, adding that if the judge refuses, an appeal will be filed through the Georgia Supreme Court.
Many issues in the trial will be examined, he said, including "the judge allowing in evidence that was introduced simply to make Sam look bad but [had] nothing to do with this case." The details about Theresa's body also will be addressed, but Dunn said he wouldn't go into specifics.
In prison, Parker likes to recall better times, like when he was named LaFayette's police officer of the year after rescuing a child from a burning building.
"The good that you did, that's what sticks with you more than anything," said the man who was nicknamed "Daddy's little buddy" growing up.
He said other inmates haven't hassled him about being a former police officer, but sometimes they make fun of him for not having tattoos.
He has only three people on his visitation list. His brother and sister visit often. His first wife, Denise Parker, has been to see him and writes to him, as well.
And letters from complete strangers pile up, he said.
"I've gotten letters from all over," he said. Sometimes people write "crazy stuff," he said, explaining how a woman from Texas told him she had seen Theresa.
"If somebody writes me, I'll write them back."
He doesn't have a job in the prison, but he likes to read books on the Civil War and European history to pass the time. When he talks about a possible appeal, he said he doesn't know if he'll "even hope" for a new trial. He's said he's still confused about what happened to Theresa but is certain of one thing:
"If I was ... on the [execution] death bed with a needle in my arm, I still could not tell anybody any different than what I told them now."