I grew up out in the country betwixt and between a small town and a tiny town. As a kid, I remember hearing the wildcats snarl and the coyotes howl in the distance at night. We knew everyone on our street and the names of pretty much everyone around the block as well. It was the 80’s in Tennessee, a time when Hee-Haw and Dukes of Hazzard (two of my favorite shows when I was 5 and 6) and Dallas were on the TV somewhere pretty much every day. It was the kind of place and time you could feel safe leaving your door unlocked. It’s the same place, but the times have drastically changed since Dallas was regularly shown on the major networks.
A lot has changed since. For one, there were wall to wall trees back then. I have fond memories of riding my bike up and sometimes running up through the forest where seeing a deer drinking from a pond wasn’t an uncommon sight. Now, most of those trees are gone which means tornadoes are more likely to touch down, there aren’t any deer resting by the ponds anymore and the sound of wild beasts in the distance is now only heard in distant memory.
Apart from that, thanks to the rise of methamphetamine’s popularity in cow country all over the US (and anywhere there's iodine and nothing to do to kill time) it’s certainly not safe to leave your door unlocked anymore. My dad has a placard hanging on the basketball goal in the driveway advising intruders that they will be shot and in case you miss that, his NRA membership sticker is slapped on the front door as a final warning to would-be hoods.
We lived out in the edge of the county but the county seat of McMinnville had already earned the nickname of MethMinnville by the late 90’s. In fact, we even have an <a href=”https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=McMinnville”>Urban Dictionary entry</a> that references this “honorific." McMinnville, despite its size, has a <a href="https://www.roadsnacks.net/white-trash-cities-in-tennessee/">greater per capita rate of violent crime and drug addiction</a> than most of the surrounding areas in the state.
1995 saw one of the first real horror stories related to meth in McMinnville. It's a story anyone my age or older who grew up in McMinnville remembers. The horrible occurence at that trailer in Dry Creek.
The story centers around James Christopher Tatrow. Chris Tatrow was a rodeo cowboy, college student and family man until he started abusing drugs after a serious back injury. After that things spun out of control as Tatrow grew more spun out on methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs.
Tatrow’s trailer became a sort of flop house where junkies were constantly in and out. The kind of spot where no one sleeps for days and numerous drugs are on hand. Balzac once wrote how joy was one thing rarely to be found in a “house of pleasure” such is the case in these sorts of rural meth dens and the combination of sleep deprivation, addiction and lowered inhibitions can make for gruesome outcomes.
The genesis of the nightmare was when Tatrow left McMinnville for Texas. When he came back he found that his trailer had been robbed. Nearly one hundred prize belt buckles won in rodeos, a Navajo blanket that belonged to a close friend how had died, an antique knife collection, a coin purse inherited from his great-grandfather, a tool box and several guns were reported to the sheriff’s department but having heard rumors that Roger Zammit, John Harry and Billy Teal were responsible for the theft, Tatrow decided to take matters into his own hands.
Tatrow and four accomplices snuck into the house of Billy Teal. Teal and his father, however, turned the tables on the gang of meth-fueled revenge seekers. A gun to their head, they were told to forget about the stolen items. It didn’t end there though, Tatrow was lucky enough to survive a drive-by attempt. His German Shepherd, however, was not so lucky.
The events continued to compound. Kenny Mason took Tatrow to Johnny Harry’s Dry Creek cabin where Dondie Billings, Roger Zammit’s girlfriend, Amber Frederick and Christy Mullican had been staying. Zammit opened the trunk of his car and Tatrow saw a tool box that he instantly believed must have been the one lifted from his trailer during the burglary while he was out of state. The two men “swapped licks” for a bit then Tatrow pulled a butterfly knife.
At this point, Tatrow decides it’s a good enough time for refreshments so some drugs are cooked up in the microwave (just another Thursday night in MethMinnville). While the drugs were being prepared Kenny Mason and others were charged with lookout detail armed with a shotgun expecting an ambush by Harry or Billy Teal.
Zammit was kept as a prisoner during the whole ordeal, arms held in the air. Tatrow, at one point, aimed an empty revolver at Zammit’s head as Rochefort continually punched him in the ribs. Tatrow would join in slapping and kicking the suspected thief. Zammit finally admitted that he knew where Tatrow’s .22 rifle was and he, Tatrow and two others in the band of revenge-crazed dope fiends headed into town to Harry’s place to recover some of his belongings while Harry was away.
Apparently, Tatrow was not in a forgiving mood that night, despite having recovered some of his things when the gang got back they amped up their abuse of Zammit. Zammit was kicked in the face, had chunks pulled out of his hair and cut in the scalp, shoulder and arms as well as an earring torn from his ear. After this round of torture, the gang decided to let him shower and his wounds and ribs were bandaged.
Johnny Harry was not as lucky. They ran into him sometime on Friday and after tying him spreadeagle to a chair in the laundry room a knife was thrown between his legs like the proceedings were some sort of drug-induced, deranged circus sideshow act. Witnesses say Harry was at one point tied to a telephone pole and whipped with a belt. Tatrow continued to kick Harry and at one point his nose was banged up on some furniture. Those at the scene say when they realized how badly he was gashed he was allowed to take a shower and bandaged up by Tatrow.
Saturday morning, Tatrow and Redmon called Dondie Billings’ parents to have her picked up. Billings said that Tatrow, on his knees, swore that he would take Zammit and Harry home as soon as she and Christy Mullican were gone. Who would have thought that vicious junkies wouldn’t make good on their word? Tatrow did not send the men home but did at least find them some pain pills. After being given a couple Xanax and some beer Zammit passed out. The last of the girls, Amber Frederick, came back momentarily but at the sight said she wouldn’t stay any longer. Tatrow ordered the others present to keep her from the scene.
Tatrow’s mother visited to see how her son was and on the stand testified that he looked crazy and was obviously “strung out on drugs.” He exploded in a rage when she tried to speak with him about this. After this visit, according to Mason, Tatrow “wigged out” and began beating him in the face with a styrofoam bat. Jeff Sanders punched and kicked him in the face until they realized he was bleeding so badly he should be dumped in the bathtub. After a short soak Mason and Sanders dragged Zammit by the hair. Harry and Zammit had their hands and mouths duct taped and Zammit’s eyes were sealed shut with tape.
Zammit, gored and bloody along with Harry was made to kneel in the tub with the fiends surrounding them. Mason said he stepped out for a moment and when he returned Zammit had a plastic bag around his head and a cord around his neck. Tatrow, the former Rodeo star, had his knee in Zammit’s back and yanked the cord, playing at “riding a bull.” Chris Tatrow at this point took a heavy-duty flashlight and mercilessly beat him and left the bathroom until someone informed him that Roger Zammit was not yet dead.
Tatrow made Harry, still in the tub, pull the cord attached to Zammit’s neck as he laughed until Zammit drooped and the group left Harry in the tub with the dead body. After a break to smoke a joint (after opening a window because the trailer now “smelled bad”) it was time to get rid of Harry. They marched him out the door but he made a break for it. Only about 30 yards before he fell and was apprehended again. Tatrow told him to keep walking. It was just a few steps further for Harry before Tatrow ended his life with a .22 rifle bullet to the side of his head.
It was time to clean. Carpet was removed and the bodies were both wrapped in woven wire fencing. For some reason, until reading the court transcript today the idea that they were wrapped in barbed wire stuck in my head, but considering the events leading up to this, it would still be no less gruesome.
Bloody towels, rags and clothes were burnt, a revolver and some dynamite were hidden in the brush and a culvert near the trailer.
It was Dondie Billings who called the police reporting John Harry and Roger Zammit missing. When the deputy arrived Tatrow and co. were drinking beer and playing cards as if nothing had happened. Just business as usual. They did admit that Zammit and Harry had been there and that he’d given them “a good whipping” for taking his things but that they’d dropped them off somewhere in Dry Creek where they were picked up by someone in a black Camaro. According to the deputy, the men didn’t even seem to be intoxicated and there was nothing “unusual or out of place” at the scene of the vicious crime. It wasn’t until agents from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation dragged the bodies of the dead men from Center Hill Lake that justice caught up with Tatrow and his partners in crime.
Tatrow opted for an insanity plea. According to the court records:
<blockquote>In support of his insanity defense, the defendant offered the testimony of Dr. Donna Segar, a physician who is board certified in toxicology, and Dr. William D. Kenner, a psychiatrist at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute. Dr. Segar testified that regular, long-term use of substantial amounts of methamphetamine and cocaine would completely change one’s personality.
Thought processes become delusional and paranoid. A person under the influence of “crank” or “ice” often speaks very rapidly and literally spits out the words through clenched teeth.
Such a person demonstrates increasingly hostile and aggressive behavior and his judgment would be substantially impaired. She testified that two grams of methamphetamine per day is a high dos
age and that a person who used that amount would experience hallucinations.
A common hallucination, according to Dr. Segar, is the belief that insects or bugs are crawling under the skin. Dr. Segar did not examine the defendant but testified from her knowledge and experience.</blockquote>
Court records also go into the drastic transformation in Tatrow from a fun loving, hard-working family man without an angry bone in his body or a grudge to be held to a “jumpy and twitchy” bundle of rage related to his drug use and exacerbated by recent events from losing his job and separation from his wife to his cousin’s suicide and parents divorce. At the height of the disease of addiction, before the fateful events of January 1995, he experienced serious tactile hallucinations that caused him to dig at his own skin with a knife. Apparently, there is no bug spray or balm strong enough to get rid of the meth bugs.
Separated from the drugs, he was unable to sleep without medication and broke down in tears on the stand when forced to recount the grotesque horrors he had unleashed upon Zammit and Harry. At one point, a recent video of Tatrow playing with his two young sons was played for the jury until Tatrow, once again breaking down in tears, begged the judge to stop the tape.
Tatrow is <a href=”http://www.iclassifiedsnetwork.com/contentitem/54609/1259/convicted-killers-serving-hard-time”>currently serving out two consecutive life-sentences for the murders and 22 years for the kidnappings</a> in the Morgan County Correctional Complex in Wartburg. He is eligible for parole at the age of 93 in 2061.
This tragedy was one of the most dramatic and bloodcurdling things to come out of Warren County, but not the first or last nightmare brought on by meth. There are plenty of outlandish stories related to the county crankheads. Like the fellow caught up in the 100+ MPH car chase who wouldn’t pull over for the cops because he had determined they were actually vampires out to suck his blood. Might even be worth going into how Senator Jerry Cooper’s son was let off the hook (rumor has it then VP Al Gore had a hand in this) despite his part in importing the meth epidemic to middle Tennessee in the first place, but that will just have to be a story for another day.