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Dark Finale: Who Killed John Garris?
Part 1: A dead man in the rain
Prologue: Tenor to Tenor
As a young voice major studying opera, I first encountered the name John Garris in a book about singing, where I learned about his mysterious death while on tour with the Met. Years later, I was singing with the Atlanta Opera Company, and a friendly stagehand at the Fox Theater mentioned a famous unsolved murder near the theater in the 1950s. I eventually realized it was the Garris case. At the time, I was also blogging about crime. The merging of interests and pursuits—a dead opera singer, a tenor like me (listen below), and true crime—was inevitable.
Garris's story never left me. Recently, I was listening again to Garris's few available recordings and was reminded of his talent and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. There's so much more to this story that makes it worth telling. And as a fellow tenor, I feel a responsibility to remind the world of John Garris's voice, accomplishments, and the unsolved mystery surrounding him.
Love, April 21, 1949
Love Thomas was on his way to work that April morning when he saw the dead man in the alley.
It was pouring rain in downtown Atlanta. Streetcar bells dinged echoes dampened by the sound of the rain, and cars and trucks rushed past, water fanning from beneath the wheels. The sun had risen behind the gray clouds by 6 am. By 7:45, people were trudging down Marietta Street to work, heads bent, umbrellas tilted into the steady wind, stepping aside to avoid splashes from passing vehicles.
Thomas was fixed to one spot, perhaps heedless of the rain. As a Black man in 1949 Georgia, he likely dreaded reporting he’d found a dead white man’s body. One lazy, racist cop looking for a quick case to add to his solve rate might try to pin it on him.
Still—in the alley between Marietta and Thurmond Streets, a man lay on his back as if stretched out for a cat nap: Arms folded, ankles crossed. His blue shirt, gray pants and brown tie were soaked with blood and rainwater. A hat was nearby. His coat was found neatly folded atop a trash can sometime later. He’d been sturdily built, handsome, and nearly 6 feet tall. His blond hair was thinning, though he rarely went without his toupee.
Love Thomas made up his mind. He turned and went to his workplace at 305 Marietta Street, where he reported his grim find.
Thomas had no way of knowing that he’d seen the corpse of John Garris, a rising opera star, a man with a story that stretched back across the Atlantic to Greece and the man’s homeland, Germany, where he’d been born Hans J.K. Gareis. Thomas didn’t know he’d seen, and perhaps pitied, the body of a man who had briefly shared the silver screen with stars like Ray Milland and hobnobbed with the ultra-wealthy Getty family. A man who was, for the time, unusually open about his homosexuality. A man who had been on the cusp of becoming a recording star just a few years before, though he was likely unaware that he’d actually signed a contract with a Russian-owned shell company that used to launder money for operations in America.
Love Thomas certainly didn’t know he’d stumbled on a mystery that would flummox some of Atlanta’s finest investigators—and eventually the world—for decades.