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Accompanied by court officer Tim Higgs, right, defendant Tony Bigoms enters Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom Wednesday during the first day of testimony in his murder trial. Bigoms is accused in the 2012 slaying of Dana Wilkes.

Convicted murderer Tony Bigoms died in prison on Friday, the Tennessee Department of Correction confirmed Tuesday.

Bigoms, 61, was serving a life sentence for the 2012 killing and dismemberment of 48-year-old Dana Wilkes. He'd been housed at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility.

The manner of his death has not yet been determined, Department of Correction spokesperson Dorinda Carter said. It won't be known until the medical examiner has made an official ruling.

Bigoms was first convicted of the murder in 2014 and sentenced to life in prison plus four years for abuse of a corpse. But he asked for a new trial the next year, with his attorneys arguing the first jury was influenced by forces outside the courtroom.

Then in June 2017, the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals reversed the judgment, citing issues with jury sequestration and the trial judge's decision to allow testimony about a different 2006 slaying in which Bigoms was acquitted.

The new trial took place in September 2019 and, while not postponed, it was interrupted by a major water main break that affected a large portion of downtown Chattanooga and surrounding areas that Sept. 13, a Friday.

Judge Barry Steelman and attorneys had to coordinate how to accommodate the sequestered jurors who had been affected by the water outage, and fans were brought in due to the lack of water leaving the air conditioning system unable to function.

The trial continued into that Saturday, and by Monday night, the jury found him guilty.

 

The case

Wilkes, a petite, blonde woman, standing just 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 100 pounds, was last seen Nov. 9, 2012, the Times Free Press previously reported. She spent nearly her whole life helping others, buying groceries for a neighbor, bringing smiles and laughter to her family, friends and co-workers.

Her 2000 green Jeep Cherokee was found near the Wilcox Tunnel on Wilcox Boulevard the day after her disappearance. A wad of blonde hair and an earring were found in the front passenger seat, and blood splatter and smears were found throughout the vehicle.

Cell phone records showed Bigoms was near the site where her Jeep was found.

His attorneys, however, argued cellphone records are unreliable and — apart from his DNA being found on a bra that was believed to be Wilkes' — there was no physical evidence linking Bigoms to where Wilkes' body was found.

One of her friends said Bigoms seemed "infatuated" with her.

Her body — headless and handless — was found down an embankment in the 3700 block of Youngstown Road next to South Chickamauga Creek, 16 days after her disappearance. Her head and hands were never found.

A bra was found right next to an impact barrier on the narrow road. A red, inside-out shirt clung to some bushes that appeared to have been pushed down, as if something — or someone — had traveled from the road down toward the creek bank where her body lay.

There weren't very many clues left for investigators. Animal interference and decomposition had set in from the waist up, making it difficult for forensic pathologists to determine how she died, but they noted marks on the victim's bones that were consistent with a pattern caused by some type of tool — possibly a saw, the prosecution suggested.

Part of her forearm had also been severed, and bruises were noted along her midabdomen and neck.

Her clothes were dirty and wrinkled. She had a red cigarette lighter in her pocket, and a single white pill was tucked away in her change pocket. A plastic keyfob lay beside her.

Cadaver dogs were brought in, but apart from an unrelated black bag with decomposing animal remains, they found nothing.

A medical examiner later ruled her cause of death undetermined.

At the time of Wilkes' death, her husband, Tom, was incarcerated at the Hamilton County Jail since being arrested the month before for violating probation for a traffic offense.

Tom Wilkes suspected Bigoms from the beginning, according to Times Free Press archives. But he did not live to see justice. He died in January 2013, just weeks after Bigoms was indicted on the charges.

Bigoms had been acquitted in 2006 of the 2002 kidnapping, rape and murder of 37-year-old Dinah Burney, despite police having found his DNA in the victim's mouth, under her fingernails and on her own sock that was used to strangle her. Burney's body — hands bound behind her back — was found in a ditch in the 4000 block of Caine Lane.

The following year, he was convicted of holding a knife to another woman's throat and forcing her to perform oral sex on him.

Bigoms was sentenced to eight years in prison in that case, according to Hamilton County court records. Had he served his full sentence, he wouldn't have been released until 2015, three years after Dana Wilkes died at his hands.

Contact Rosana Hughes at 423-757-6327, rhughes@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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