Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tommy Morris Murder: 24 Years Later

The following account was taken from material originally published in Shoalanda Speaks on November 23, 2008.

Law enforcement officials in the tri-county area currently list a backlog of 15 unsolved homicides. The oldest of these is the murder of Tommy Morris, a 35 year-old special education instructor from Lauderdale County.

On the evening of October 17, 1986, Tommy Morris forwarded his phone to a sister's home and left his apartment in the University District of Florence; he was never again seen alive. By the next day, his two sisters became concerned enough to report him missing to the Florence Police, who initially dismissed the family's fears.

Deciding to take matters into their own hands, family members found Morris' car three days later near the intersection of Natchez Trace Parkway and Waterloo Road. The car had been torched, and authorities called to the scene found Morris' body locked in the trunk.

Tommy Morris had taught at Lauderdale County High School before transferring to Wilson a short time before his death. Morris, who was generally considered someone with designer tastes, also worked at Shankey's Men's Wear and Caster-Knott Department Store in Regency Square Mall. The school teacher, known for his elaborate wardrobe and expensive dental work, had friends in both high and low circles--a situation that made the investigation into his personal life that much more difficult. It was even rumored at the time that authorities videotaped Morris' funeral, but all inquiries led to dead ends.

Rich Thigpen, a former Rogersville resident who remembered Morris from Lauderdale County High School, speculated on the teacher's death. Writing in Prism Comics' online magazine, the openly gay Thigpen theorized that Morris' closeted lifestyle had contributed to his death. Whatever the motive, the murder was especially brutal and stood out to the detectives assigned to the case.

By December 1987, there had been little progress in the case when then-Lauderdale District Attorney Steve Graham announced the formation of a Special Investigations Unit consisting of the Lauderdale Sheriff's Department and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. Graham emphasized the Morris death would be one of the unit's top priorities.

In January 1993, then-Sheriff Billy Townsend revealed that Morris' autopsy didn't confirm the teacher had been murdered; however, the department was still viewing the case as a homicide. Considering that the body was found locked in the trunk of his burned out car, it would seem less than logical to consider Tommy Morris' death anything less than murder. Many, especially Morris' family, were taken aback by Townsend's statement.

Charles Ford and Charles Perkins, Lauderdale County investigators, have since retired and handed the investigation over to Jr Witt. Since late 2005, Witt has received at least two new leads and still hopes to solve the mystery of Tommy Morris' death.

Next month will mark the 24th anniversary of Tommy Morris' death. Members of Morris' family still live in the area, as well as many of Tommy's former students; they deserve closure. Anyone with information concerning this crime should contact Witt at the Lauderdale County Sheriff's office.