published Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

Aunt welcomes slaying charges against husband of missing woman

Donnie Ray Brantley
Donnie Ray Brantley
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    The Bradley County Sheriff's Office searched the basement of Marsha Brantley's home Friday. Brantley, who once worked for Lee University, has been missing since around June 2009. Results of the search weren't made public Saturday. Anyone should contact the Bradley County Sheriff's Office at 423-728-7336.

As Medra Justis sat in court Monday morning, she waited for a show. She didn't know what to expect, exactly -- perhaps something dramatic, something ripped straight from a TV script.

Justis had been waiting more than three years to see this, so she drove from Clemmons, N.C., to Bradley County looking for vindication.

"I am sure that he did something to her," Justis said.

She can't remember exactly when she found out. December 2009? January 2010? "When" has been a difficult question in so many ways during this case. But regardless of the date, Justis got a call that winter informing her that her niece, Marsha Brantley, was missing. She was 51.

No one had seen her for about six months. Some neighbors suspected foul play by her husband, Donnie Ray Brantley. Others didn't need hard proof. They were sure he killed her.

Finally, on Monday morning, as he came to court for a separate case, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office arrested Donnie Brantley on a charge of first-degree murder. Justis doesn't know precisely how it went down, but the arrest was quiet, and it was quick.

"We didn't even realize it until it was over," she said.

A grand jury indicted Brantley in July, but police could not arrest him until Monday. He has been living in Kingston, Ga., and did not return to the county until Monday, when he was due in court for a hearing related to a hindering-secured-creditors charge.

On Tuesday, he remained in the Bradley County Jail in lieu of a $500,000 bond. He is due in Criminal Court on Nov. 18 for an attorney status hearing.

Neighbors, meanwhile, said they were relieved by the arrest. For so long, they doubted that Donnie Brantley or anybody else would ever be charged. Investigators have not found Marsha Brantley's body.

They don't know exactly when she went missing. The grand jury indictment says that Donnie Brantley, 48, must have killed her some time between May 1, 2009, and July 31 of that year.

The couple lived at 328 Benwood Trail in Cleveland. Marsha Brantley owned three dogs -- all rescues -- and she walked them around the neighborhood several times a day. She was friendly, but removed. An introvert. She liked to write and was active on her blog.

Donnie Brantley was a handyman. For a while, neighbors say, he had a couple of men working for him. He built a porch for a home down the street from him. And he loved cycling. Almost every night after work, neighbors said, he would bike for a couple of hours.

The couple went out to breakfast almost every Saturday and Sunday. They seemed happy, though neighbors said Tuesday that you never quite know what is happening behind closed doors.

In July 2009, a woman living down the street from the Brantleys asked Donnie where his wife was. Nobody had seen her in about a month, and she walked her dogs almost every day. The woman recalled Donnie Brantley telling her that Marsha had gone out West for a vacation.

Others said he told them that his wife was visiting some missionary friends, or that she was trying to "find herself," or that she had just plain left him. A divorce would soon follow, he supposedly told some.

One neighbor, Joan Hanlon, did not ask Donnie about his wife's whereabouts. But, sometime in the summer of 2009, she remembers telling her husband that Marsha seemed to have disappeared.

"All of a sudden," she said, "you notice something's missing."

Eventually, one neighbor told Marsha's hairdresser that something didn't seem right about the disappearance. The hairdresser then told a lawyer she knew, and the lawyer told the 10th Judicial District Attorney's Office, which ultimately led to an investigation involving the Bradley County Sheriff's Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

District Attorney Steve Bebb said Tuesday that Donnie Brantley was the primary suspect once the investigation began in November 2009. But, without Marsha's body, the chances of successfully prosecuting her husband seemed slim.

Bebb would not say Tuesday why prosecutors had enough evidence now to arrest Donnie Brantley.

But regardless of how the case ends, Justis said she was happy with the arrest. She said she was Marsha's closest living relative. Justis, 74, lived with Marsha's family when Marsha was a child.

Later, after Justis got married, she and her husband took their niece to Walt Disney World. Eventually, with time, they grew apart. Each woman had her own family now, and they didn't talk on the phone often.

But when Justis found out her niece was missing, she dedicated part of her life to helping investigators.

"It has consumed my whole mind, my whole being for the last four years," she said.

She passed out fliers around town with her niece's face on them. And when the TBI said it needed to know who Marsha's dentist was, Justis began flipping through the phone book and calling every dentist in town until she tracked down the right one. When Donnie Brantley abandoned his Cleveland house sometime in 2010, Justis hired a lawyer to help her get control of the property.

And after she did that, she searched through the house for evidence. She said she found her niece's journals, the last entry coming on June 2, 2009. She also found phone records and, in a trash bag behind the furnace in the basement, she found clothes, and a wedding album.

But now, she can only wait and watch what happens next.

"We're just praying that this will cause him to tell us where she is," Justis said. "I don't know that it will, but I pray."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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