When Thomas Bruce was charged last year with a shocking crime, investigators found something strange: He had a clean criminal record.

In November 2018, the former Missouri pastor allegedly posed as a customer at a Catholic Supply store in the suburbs of St. Louis before returning with a gun and forcing two women to perform sex acts, then killing a third. Given the horrific nature of the crime and the fact that it seemed carefully planned, police suspected it was the work of an experienced criminal, the Riverfront Times reported. Soon, other disturbing allegations about Bruce surfaced.

Now, attorneys are questioning whether the 54-year-old might also be linked to another senseless murder that took place decades ago in Tennessee. Authorities have long considered the 1985 death of Suzanne Marie Collins to be a closed case, and in 2006, her alleged killer was executed by lethal injection. But the crime scene evidence never underwent DNA testing, leading lawyers from the Innocence Project to wonder whether police had the wrong suspect all along.

AD
AD

At a Monday court hearing in Memphis, Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said he learned about the possible link to Bruce earlier this year, when law enforcement officials in St. Louis sent him a “chilling” letter. Authorities had been researching Bruce’s background, and discovered that the accused murderer attended an avionics training school in Memphis at the same time that Collins was taking classes there.

“They were saying to us, there’s a possibility that he is the serial killer that you had argued might be discovered by a DNA test all those years ago,” Scheck said.

In July 1985, Collins, a 19-year-old Marine corporal, left her barracks to go for a run and never returned. The young woman’s body was found the next morning in a park in Millington, Tenn., the town just outside Memphis where she was completing avionics training. She had been sexually assaulted, beaten with a sharpened tree branch and strangled. A pair of red men’s underwear lay nearby, leading police to believe that they had been abandoned by her assailant.

AD
AD

To this day, despite considerable legal wrangling, the red underpants have never undergone DNA testing. Even before they found Collins’s body, authorities had honed in on Sedley Alley, a 29-year-old air-conditioning repairman who drove a dark green station wagon similar to the one reportedly driven by their suspect.

As the Nashville Scene reported in a 2006 profile, Alley struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. In July 1985, after police gave him breakfast, cigarettes and coffee, he confessed to murdering the young Marine. When he stood trial, a jury took less than three hours to convict him.

But in 2004, Alley recanted his story, and some experts came to believe that he had been coerced into the confession. There was no physical evidence linking the repairman to the attack, and his description of the murder didn’t entirely square with the autopsy results and crime scene findings.

AD
AD

Attorneys from the Innocence Project argued that Alley shouldn’t be subject to the death penalty until the red underwear and other evidence from the crime scene went through DNA testing. Otherwise, they argued, the state of Tennessee ran the risk of putting the wrong man to death, and leaving a dangerous culprit on the loose.

Their request was denied, and in June 2006, Alley was executed by lethal injection at the age of 50. Five years after his death, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the denial had been a mistake: Alley did, in fact, have the right to try to prove his innocence through DNA analysis.

During the years that followed, questions about Alley’s guilt didn’t go away. In April, lawyers with the Innocence Project petitioned to have the DNA evidence tested on behalf of his daughter, April Alley, who hoped to get closure. Scheck said at Monday’s court hearing that the new information from St. Louis law enforcement inspired the nonprofit legal organization to revisit the case.

AD
AD

“They were wondering, looking back, whether or not Mr. Bruce might have committed this crime as well as others,” he said.

Authorities in Tennessee have opposed the request to perform DNA analysis on the crime scene evidence, which is still being held in storage more than three decades later. In recent court filings, prosecutors argued that a number of different factors were used to secure Alley’s conviction, and DNA evidence alone wouldn’t prove he was innocent. A judge is expected to issue a ruling on Nov. 18, KTVI reported.

Bruce’s attorneys have not yet commented on his possible connection to the Tennessee case. Officials in the St. Louis area have acknowledged that they’re looking for other cases that may be linked to the murder suspect, but have not provided any other details.

AD

The 54-year-old is currently awaiting trial on the 17 felony charges stemming from the Catholic Supply store attack. In January, he was charged with another random act of violence: A 77-year-old woman, who recognized his mug shot on TV, told police that two months before the murder, Bruce had forced his way into her home and raped her, then stole her cellphone. He has pleaded not guilty to both sets of charges.

AD

At Monday’s court hearing, Scheck noted that private investigators working for the Innocence Project hadn’t been able to track down records from the Memphis avionics school that would show whether Bruce, who at one point left the program, returned for a graduation ceremony on the same weekend that Collins was killed.

“The truth of the matter is we never expected to be here," he said later. "But we got that letter from St. Louis identifying Thomas Bruce as a person who took courses with this individual, who could be the serial offender that we were talking about thirteen years ago, that no one ever knew about. Could be him, might be somebody else. DNA can tell us the answer.”

AD
AD