By Kathryn Kopp with Todd Matthews
Editor’s Note: This is will be a three-part series based on the closed case of Vickie Bertram, co-authored by Kathryn Kopp and Todd Matthews.
Matthews was appointed and served as the Overton County Coroner for some time. He also served in the U.S. Department Of Justice as Regional System Administrator for NamUs. NamUs is the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
Just over 44 years ago, on Oct. 3, 1976, three local servicemen with the National Guard, Terry Melton, Jackie Murphy and Bob Terry, Jr. drove out to Rock Crusher Mountain in Livingston, Tenn.
It was an “unofficial” shooting range where many would drive in at the bottom of the bluff, set up targets and fire off some shots. They stated they had simply stopped to eat some watermelon together when they happened to stumble upon the lifeless, partially decomposed body of a young girl who had seemed to have fallen from the top of the cliff’s edge to where she lay at their feet below.
Authorities were called to investigate and soon after were able to make a match to a local 16-year-old young girl reported missing on Sept. 20,1976, by the name of Vickie Bertram.
With no local medical examiner, Bertram’s body was quickly gathered up and sent to Crossville where late Dr. Michael Jackson performed her autopsy. While that was underway, a brief investigation occurred.
The site was not taped off and curiosity drew many to disrupt any signs of criminal activity. Bertram’s death certificate stated “Fell into abandoned rock quarry.” Sheriff at the time, Terry Mitchell, of the Overton County Sheriff’s Department seemed to agree with Bertram’s initial autopsy reports. Her cause of death was allegedly a tragic and unfortunate stumble—a troubled teenager at the top of a quarry bluff alone—falling to her death, or possibly even a suicide.
At first glance, it may have seemed the most convenient of answers, as once Bertram’s death became public, Mrs. Willie Dishman came forward stating that she had been near the bluff on Sept. 10, 1976, ten days before Bertram was reported missing, and had seen someone resembling Bertram and hollered out to her to be careful.
Based solely on that information, officials decided to go with that day as Bertram’s date of death and forever it is imprinted upon her death certificate and headstone.
The first story covered on October 7, 1976 by the Overton County Newspaper, quoted Sheriff Mitchell stating, “The autopsy showed no broken bones, no skull fractures, no bullet holes or stab wounds.” He went on to say, “The pathologist told me that he thought she might have spread eagled when she fell and her heart just exploded when she hit. We don’t think there was any foul play involved.”
No broken bones? Heart exploded?
When questioned in an interview a few years later, Mitchell stated he never even read the autopsy report. Indeed, the autopsy report by Jackson stated there was no trauma, such as stab wounds or bullet entry, “There are no fractures identified of any of the bones that are present; this includes the ribs, all of which are present, as well as both clavicles. … In conclusion, this is the body of a young white female without any obvious signs of trauma, whose immediate cause of death cannot be ascertained due to the condition of the remains. The length of time of death would be compatible with the history of four weeks.” Jackson finalized the autopsy by ruling her cause of death as undetermined by a “fall into an abandoned rock quarry.”
Case closed. Or was it?
How could a small framed, 5’ 2” young girl fall over a hundred and twelve feet to her death and have not one broken bone, no trauma to her body?
Though memories of those involved fade and reality can be clouded with time, throughout interviews and emerging details, further information has come forth that seems to contradict rumor and official reports that this young girl just got up one day and decided to take a steep walk up a curvy road alone, purse in hand, paycheck uncashed, then fought her way through overgrowth at the top of the bluff, to slip and fall or possibly jump to her death, leaving her scattered purse on the cliff’s top, while she and her paycheck fell to the rocky ground below.
After 44 years of rustling whispers, there is no reason to keep secrets anymore and it is time to be the voice for Bertram, because there most definitely are individuals that know more of Bertram’s last day but for unknown reasons have chosen to stay silent.
Many believe Bertram’s case did not get the investigation it deserved because she was a young girl with a hint of teenage troubles that had followed her up until her death.
Truth be told, Vickie’s haunting voice has been carried to the hearts of many in this community and she deserves to be heard.
Fast forward from 1976 to 22 later, when in 1998, after seeing Todd Matthews on the television show 48 Hours, Vickie Bertram’s brother, Ryan Allred, who was only ten at the time of her death, and then an Overton County Deputy, and previously an officer with the Livingston Police Department, reached out to Matthews. A cold case sleuth that brought national attention to the “Tent Girl” mystery, Matthews grew up and lived in Livingston all his life.
Allred advised Matthews that he and his family had always suspected foul play in Betram’s demise and he was certain his sister didn’t simply fall from the cliff, rather there was possibly something more sinister at hand and there may be a killer in their community responsible for her death or individuals who could shed light on the circumstances surrounding her last day.
Prior to reaching out to Matthews, Allred recalls when he had first begun his personal investigation into his sister’s death as an officer with the Livingston Police Department, “Chief Howard Garrett told me I could investigate on my own time and not in uniform.”
Allred was fierce in his quest to find truth, like his sister herself, was prodding him; he refused to give up and for years had been demanding answers.
He had been informed that the Livingston Police Department had possession of her case file, but when he asked to see it, he was told it was missing. For years the answer was the same.
Disappointment in those he trusted became the new normal, but it wasn’t something he was going to just accept and move on, he was a police officer and he was also a brother to a possible murder victim. Tenacity ran through his veins as much as the DNA he shared with his sister.
When Allred joined forces with Matthews in 1998, they began their own investigation into the death of Bertram. They merged their findings into what became substantial doubt that Bertram’s death was from an accidental fall or suicide.
Pertinent errors and details seemingly never investigated, and multiple, possible dark scenarios emerged.
The crime scene hadn’t at any time been taped off and curiosity drove people to the scene of her death, corrupting any future evidence. It seemed after the initial removal of Bertram’s remains, officials may not have returned to the scene to further investigate as Bertram’s good friends had gone to where her body had lay and found fingernails, clothing, bone fragments, and hair left carelessly behind.
Bertram’s purse was found scattered at the top of the cliff in an area that was overgrown with weeds and brush, yet her paycheck for that week from a new job at the sewing factory in town, was down at the bottom of the cliff with her remains.
Matthews and Allred had interviewed Rick Savage, the first city police officer who arrived on the scene years earlier and during my recent interview with Savage, now a highly respected businessman in the community, he reiterated as both an official at that time and as an observer, “I believe that Vickie’s life ended due to foul play. I do not believe that her body actually came off that cliff.”
Looking into Savage’s eyes, one could tell Bertram’s death had weighed heavily on his heart.
“Bertram was face down, spread eagle, as if positioned there. Her arms were raised above her head and it looked to me like a pair of gym shorts were wrapped around her wrists and down to her elbow. The clothing immediately reminded me of the color of Livingston school’s boys’ gym shorts they wore at that time. She was wearing a dress. Her face was unrecognizable due to decomposition, I didn’t know who she was,” stated Savage. “I just don’t agree with the assumption she jumped or fell as just the trajectory of where her purse was found and where her body was found seemed physically difficult.”
Shortly after his arrival, he stated Overton County Sheriff’s Department and Dusty Hale with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) arrived and took photos. “Polaroid photos were taken of her, I never saw those photos again. No official reached out to me for any further information.”
“When I later found out it was Vickie Bertram, I immediately recalled that just about a month before, I saw another officer had a car pulled over for a suspected DUI. I pulled over and got out and went to speak with the passenger, Vickie Bertram. I engaged in conversation with her, asking questions about this incident. She became agitated and distressed, stating if she told me anything or they thought she was talking to me, ‘They will kill me.’ She wasn’t referring to the incident underway or people she was currently pulled over with, but she refused to elaborate on who it was that would “kill” her, but I could see that she seriously felt in danger speaking with me. She then stated she was joining the service in one to two weeks. I didn’t see Vickie again until the day at Rock Crusher Mountain.” Savage stated.
When asked how Bertram’s death affected him, Savage sighed heavily, “I guess I always felt somewhat responsible, thinking maybe someone mistakenly thought she said something to me that day and brought harm to her. It seemed that maybe because she didn’t have the best of reputation at the time, the investigation may have been swept under the rug. It makes you wonder how in this small of a town with so many knowing one another, that someone may have gotten away with harming her, it doesn’t seem possible.”