Absence of Motive
To Bartlett police, it's a clear-cut case of murder and suicide, complete with confession letters. But to families of Lisa Davis and Austin Agee, questions still abound.
Lisa Davis seldom drank alcohol, worked out regularly, and grew up sparring with older brothers. She was outgoing, funny, and a lover of practical jokes. She put her shapely, petite good looks to work as a part-time swimsuit model and casino hostess and was employed full-time at a motorcycle dealership. A close friend described her "as the girl you'd think would never be your friend because she was so pretty and cool. But she was real, genuine, and cared about everybody."
Austin Agee was reserved, yet sociable and easygoing, and maintained friendships from his childhood days. He dreamed of being a Marine, but health problems stood in his way, so he landed a job with a health-care company. He rarely raised his voice, walked away from fights, protected his little sister, and coddled his girlfriend. He came from a close-knit, churchgoing family, and according to his father, "knew right from wrong."
Lisa and Austin had never met — or if they had, no one knows exactly when — until a Saturday night in March 2009, when they went clubbing with mutual friends on Beale Street. The next morning Lisa, 29, was reported missing, and two days later her body was found. But not before Austin Agee, 21, wrote letters confessing to the crime and the whereabouts of her corpse, then put a gun in his mouth as his mother begged him to stop.
What caused Lisa Davis to drink enough to be barred from a club and prompted her companions to take her home? What drove a young man who had only a speeding ticket on his record to return to her house, shoot her with not one but two guns, beat her savagely, possibly rape her, and dispose of her body in a field? What made him leave notes full of remorse but no explanation, no motive, only: "I'm sorry . . . I can't explain why I did it . . ."
Tommy and Connie Agee can't explain it either. They can't fathom how their mild-mannered son could turn into a "raging maniac" in a matter of hours and why, after such a brutal attack on Lisa, he had no marks on his own body.
Lisa's father, Steve Davis, wonders the same thing: "She was strong and worked out all the time. Even with her size [99 lbs] and me 230 pounds, if I were to attack her, I could overpower her, but she would do damage to me. And she'd have done damage to Austin too. Unless she was jumped from behind, there'd have been marks on him." Steve, who lives in Grove, Oklahoma, is also baffled by his daughter's alcohol consumption: "The only thing I ever saw her drink was water."
Lisa's friends, including one of her closest, Shannon Lazek, are more than baffled — they're disturbed by reports of her getting drunk that night. "I never saw that [behavior]," says Shannon. "We'd go out and I'd get her to order one drink and I'd wind up finishing it myself."
Neither the Agees nor the Davis family — who talk regularly and have managed to forge a friendship from the tragedies thrust upon them — are accusing anyone else of murder. But loved ones have lingering questions about that night and the following morning, as well as some events that preceded the tragedy. Whether their questions will lead to answers, they're not quite ready to let them go, least of all Tommy Agee. "The amount of rage that went into that attack — something had to trip that," he says. "The ultimate question is how or why could this have happened?"
"Working there was like being part of the Bumpus family."
Lisa Davis spent most of her early life in Grove, Oklahoma, a small town northeast of Tulsa, where she lived with her mother, two older brothers, and younger half-sister after her parents divorced. Her father, a truck driver who stayed in touch with his kids, remembers the little girl who'd sit in his lap. "She was always glad to see me," says Steve. "[As she grew older], she loved tennis and gymnastics. At one time she said she wanted to be a boxer and she'd jump around and spar with me. She was always happy and joking."
After high school, Lisa attended a local college and also started modeling. According to her friend Shannon, she was in Hawaii competing for a job with Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion, when she met William "Chad" Brantley. He was from Memphis, and a Shelby County deputy sheriff on the SWAT team. The two took turns driving to see each other until 2003, when Lisa moved here and the couple set up housekeeping.
She pursued her modeling career, appeared in some local commercials and country music videos, and got a role as an extra, along with Shannon, in The Open Road, with Justin Timberlake and Jeff Bridges. "She wanted to make it to Hollywood," says Shannon, "and had signed on locally with Elzemeyer [Talent] Agency."
On weekends, Lisa and Shannon often worked at casino promos greeting the gaming crowd. "Lisa showed me how to do my hair, my makeup," recalls her friend. "She'd get ready and then she'd help everybody else. We had such fun. We'd meet the high rollers and make up names for them like Jackie Jackpot and Lucky Lucy. And they all loved her."
For full-time employment, Lisa took a job in the leasing department at Bumpus Harley-Davidson in Bartlett. According to Shannon, Lisa left that position after about three years, went to work for a friend who had opened a children's salon and party place called Sweet and Sassy in Cordova, but returned to Bumpus after about a year. "She really liked her job," says Shannon, "and said working there was like being part of the Bumpus family."
"She was so stressed . . . more than I'd ever seen her."
By December 2008, Lisa and Chad had bought a house on Luxury Cove in Bartlett. "Her grandmother had left Lisa some money when she was 22," says Shannon, "and she took that $25,000, saved it for six years, and put it as a down payment on a house, with both her and Chad's name on the title." But though they'd been engaged for three years, several breakups marked their sometimes-rocky romance. On Valentine's Day 2009, when Lisa learned Chad was seeing someone else, she knew the relationship was history.
Lisa's father recalls a conversation with his daughter on the Wednesday before she died. "Chad had moved out that day and we talked in a text," says Steve. "She told me what had happened and was upset, but not mad. She insisted she was going to try to keep the house. I told her no way could she afford it and keep it up. It was huge," her father says of the 3,000-plus-square-foot residence, and that week Lisa put the house on the market.
On Saturday, March 7th, Shannon had expected to work a promotional modeling job at B.B. King's club on Beale Street with Lisa. "I had last seen her on Thursday and she was goofing off and upbeat and we had worked out here," says Shannon, who runs a personal training gym downtown. "But when I talked to her Friday, she was not her bubbly self, and on Saturday when we texted some, I asked what we'd wear to the promotion that night. That's when she told me she wasn't working, that she was going to Beale Street with friends."
This was a young woman who just a couple of weeks earlier, right after her breakup with Chad, had reluctantly accompanied Shannon to a downtown party. "I gave her a drink, and 15 minutes later she was taking a taxi back to my house. She didn't want to be there, she'd rather be working."
But on March 7th, Lisa didn't want to work. Instead she met three people in the Harley-Davidson parking lot: Lee Bumpus, who worked in sales at the family's dealership, his girlfriend Jessica Price, and a young man named Austin Agee. From there they headed to Beale Street in Lee's truck. "I think Lisa went out with them because she was so stressed — more than I'd ever seen her," says Shannon, "about the house, money, Chad, everything."
But far from easing her stress, the events of that night not only ended her life but shattered the worlds of two families.
"When I'd show irritation, Austin would just walk off."
Austin Agee grew up in the family's home in Lakeland, and according to his mother was a "happy-go-lucky child. We felt very blessed to have three obedient, well-mannered kids who never fought among themselves," says Connie. "Austin was the oldest and would be 23 in July. He and his brother Parker were best friends." With his sister Brandi, Connie adds, "he was your typical protective big brother."
While just a small boy, Austin developed kidney disease and for awhile was on dialysis — until 2003, when he was 16 and his aunt, Susan Agee, donated a kidney to her nephew. After that, say his parents, Austin took his anti-rejection drugs regularly and did well physically.
While the children attended county schools — including Arlington Middle and Bolton High — Connie preferred to homeschool them, and Austin graduated in 2006. When he learned that joining the Marines was out of the question, "he pursued the possibility of becoming a pilot," says Tommy, who with his wife owns Mid-America Title Agency. The couple sent Austin to Middle Tennessee State University's aviation school but that was "short-lived," says Tommy. "He could better focus on school if he were back home."After a brief stint at Southwest Community College, Austin got a job as a claims processor at Medco, parent company of Accredo Health Group. "He'd been there about a year, and the week before [he died] he got a performance pay raise," says Tommy. "The ladies from his office came to the funeral and told us how well he was doing." His goal was to become a pharmaceutical technician, and he had taken some classes toward that end.
Also in the last year, Austin fell in love with a young woman named Olivia Bell, who was pregnant by another man. Shortly before Austin's death, he was making arrangements to marry Olivia. "In January he asked me to help him find the ring," says Connie. "It's funny, he'd always said he didn't want kids. But he was smitten by Olivia, he spoiled her, and he was willing to take care of her baby." She adds that Olivia was good for him, had him on a budget, and Austin was ready to take responsibility for someone besides himself.
Recalling his son's temperament, Tommy says Austin was so "nonconfrontational that if I was working in the garage and showed irritation about something, he'd just walk off." Connie remembers Austin raising his voice once, when he was dating Olivia. "She was pregnant and would eat and eat. We're a joking kind of family and we'd carry on about it [teasing her] and she'd just laugh." But one night when Tommy joked about her appetite, Austin looked at him sternly and said, "That's enough." "That was the first time I ever saw him do that," says Connie.
The night before Austin went out with his friends and Lisa to Beale Street, he and Olivia broke up over what role the baby's father would play in their lives. However, the couple reconciled on Sunday, March 8th, just after Lisa's disappearance.
"Lee and Jessica were not Lisa's usual crowd."
From his kindergarten days, Austin was close friends with Lee Bumpus. "Austin went on trips with Lee's family," says Connie, "and Lee would come to our house sometimes and stay for weeks." At MTSU, the boys were roommates and at one point after college Austin worked in the dealership's parts department.
Though no one we interviewed knows for sure, it's likely that Austin had seen and perhaps talked to Lisa at the Harley shop, and both had attended the Bumpus family's annual New Year's Eve party. No one in Lisa's family or circle of friends had heard her mention Austin, and their proximity that night of March 8th was not a date, just a matter of going to Beale Street with mutual friends. Indeed, socializing with Lee and Jessica wasn't typical for Lisa. Says her friend Shannon, "Lisa and Lee were buddies but they didn't hang out on a regular basis. He and Jessica were not her usual crowd."
According to interviews with the Bartlett Police Department, the group of four went to several clubs that Saturday night. Over the evening, Lisa had about three drinks and according to Lee's comments to police, "seemed to be doing fine. We left Coyote Ugly and walked to Club 152." But at that point, Jessica stated, "Lisa started feeling sick and the bar management wouldn't let her go upstairs because she was drunk. We walked outside to get some air and decided it was time to leave." During that evening, according to Lee and Jessica, Lisa and Austin had little to say to each other.
Around 1 a.m., the foursome got in Lee's truck and he drove back to the Harley shop. "I didn't think it would be safe for Lisa to drive, so Lisa and I got in her car and she showed me the way to her house," Lee told police. "Austin drove my truck and followed us there. I parked the car in the garage and we all went in." At that point, according to Jessica's statement, the men waited in the den, while Jessica took Lisa to the bedroom, helped her undress, set her phone alarm for 9:15, told her to be sure to get up to go to work when it went off, and made sure Lisa's two dogs were in the bedroom with her. Then, according to Lee, they all left the house together.
The next morning — Sunday, March 8th — Lisa was scheduled to report to work at 11 a.m. When she hadn't shown up by 11:20, coworkers called Jessica from the dealership to tell her Lisa was not there. "Since we were with her last night," Jessica told police, "Lee and I drove over there to wake her up."
Sometime between noon and 12:20 p.m., they walked to Lisa's front door. What they saw through a window sent them running back to their vehicle, with Lee dialing 911.
"Brantley appeared visibly upset."
When police arrived on the scene, they found blood in the foyer, the dining room, the master bedroom, and the bed itself. Lying beside the bed were a pair of panties bearing traces of blood. In the foyer were blood-soaked paper towels and bath towels, which Lee and Jessica had seen through a window. Inside the garage was more blood, and a trail leading to the garage door that appeared to have been scrubbed, indicating the perpetrator tried to wash away evidence. Propped in a corner of the garage was a mop with blood and hair on its surface. And in the kitchen sink was a blue pail and a bloody-patterned glove.
In the ensuing hours, police took statements from Lee Bumpus and Jessica Price — who according to Captain Doug Bailey, were "borderline frantic and wide-eyed when I got there" — and from Austin Agee, who showed up shortly after police arrived and seemed very "wired" according to a police report.
Also on the scene was Chad Brantley, whose sheriff's office SUV was parked in the cove; a police narrative states that he appeared "visibly upset." Questioned at BPD headquarters, Chad said he had dated Lisa for approximately five years and had been engaged for the past three, that they had purchased a home together but had recently broken up. He stated that he was currently staying with a friend in Cordova, and was last inside the Luxury Cove home on Friday, March 6th, when he picked up some clothing stored in an upstairs closet. Later investigation showed that he still had personal items in the home and a key to the residence. He further said that the last time he spoke to Lisa was March 6th, when she inquired about his payment on a student loan. On the night Lisa disappeared, Chad stated that he was at the home of the friend in Cordova, Brian Selby, and with a woman named Christina Featherston. Police confirmed this information.
BPD's Captain Bailey says, "We looked at the boyfriend, Mr. Brantley, pretty hard. But as we were clearing him, things took a direction leading to Austin."
On Tuesday morning, March 10th, Bailey says they had plans to re-interview Lee, Jessica, and Austin. Two detectives began to gather materials to be taken to the state Bureau of Investigation for processing, while another went to Bumpus Harley-Davidson to examine security-camera video from the morning that Lee, Jessica, and Austin returned to the parking lot. The latter proved unhelpful as only exits and entryways were taped and not the dealership's back parking lot, "to save computer drive space," according to police reports.
"No, Austin, no!"
As these events took place, three detectives drove to the Agee home at 6711 Palomino Cove in Lakeland and saw Austin's truck in the rear driveway, a revolver visible on the console. After knocking and ringing the doorbell to no avail, they parked and waited. Around 1:15 p.m., Austin's younger sister arrived. At the officers' request, she went inside and told her brother that detectives wanted to speak with him, but Austin would not agree to that till his mother returned.
When Connie Agee arrived, she told police she would get Austin and be right down. Less than a minute later, detectives heard the scream of "No, Austin, no!" coming from inside. They entered the house, raced upstairs, and found Austin in his bedroom, a gunshot wound to his head, his mother and sister distraught.
On a bedside table were four handwritten notes — one to Austin's parents, one to his girlfriend Olivia, one to police, and one to "everyone." These contained a remorseful admission to Lisa's slaying and a location of the body: ". . . you will find Lisa Davis at the track where we used to ride . . . on the right side of the stream in some bushes . . . my camo jacket is covering her. . . ."
With help from Connie and Austin's brother Parker, police went to a field where the brothers would ride four-wheelers, at Interstate 385 and Salem Road in Lakeland. Down the hill, secluded in bushes, the body was so hidden that "we nearly stumbled on her," says Bailey. A camo jacket covered the victim's face; her body was clad in a black tank top pushed below her breasts.
She had been shot twice — once in the chest by a .410 shotgun combo revolver — and once in the back of the head by a .22 semiautomatic pistol — and sustained blunt force injuries to her head, torso, and extremities. Based on information from friends and family members, both the .22 and the .410 were weapons that Austin — who engaged in skeet shooting and target practice — carried with a permit in his vehicle or on his person. According to the police narrative: "The [medical examiners] were able to confirm that the .22 caliber pistol was used during the assault by comparing strike marks left on the body to specific features on the weapon's grip. Specifically, the clip release had details that matched up to imprints on the victim's head." According to Captain Bailey, "The bullet was fragmented so that match was inconclusive, but since that gun was in his hand when he was hitting her, it's highly likely that's the one he used to shoot her in the head."
Shortly after discovery of the body, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, which was working with BPD, found a barrel behind the Agees' garage that contained a blood-soaked white comforter and sheet that matched the bedroom set belonging to Lisa. The barrel also yielded a woman's bathrobe, blood-soaked blue jeans, and rubber dish gloves with a pattern matching that of the gloves found at the crime scene — all evidence pointing to Austin.
"He told Olivia that he had cheated on her."
Despite numerous claims that Lisa had been drinking the night before she disappeared — not just by her companions but witnesses interviewed at the clubs — her autopsy tested negative for alcohol. This is not unusual, according to Rebecca Taylor, of the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee: "Alcohol is a simple sugar and it breaks down quickly. It dissolves even faster when your body is doing nothing but [decomposing.]" Austin had also been drinking that night, and his autopsy tested negative for alcohol.
Both bodies were tested for various drugs as well, including amphetamines, barbiturates, cocaine, opiates, and benzodiazepines — which include "roofies" or date-rape drugs. None of these were detected in Lisa's autopsy.
Among the numerous injuries found on Lisa's body were some that suggested rape: abrasions to her thighs, genitals, and vaginal wall. Although seminal fluid was found, it was not sufficient to obtain a full DNA marker, so it's uncertain whether or not Lisa was sexually assaulted.
However, on March 18th, eight days after Lisa's body was discovered, two detectives conducted a wrap-up interview with Austin's girlfriend, Olivia Bell, who told police that the first time she had contact with Austin after the homicide was on Sunday night around 7 p.m. According to the narrative: "She stated that Austin was very upset and crying. When asked why, he told Olivia that he had cheated on her. He originally said that he had raped a girl but later changed his story saying that he had begged the girl for sex until she gave in to his pleas, and they started to have sex, but he decided he didn't want to anymore. Austin told Olivia the girl was blond and her name was Lisa." Austin stayed at Olivia's home from Sunday night till Monday night, and she talked to him briefly on Tuesday morning before he committed suicide. She told police he didn't mention anything about the case, only that she should "get on with her life."
"She almost got out the door."
Though physical evidence and four confession letters point clearly to Austin Agee, for the families involved the case is far from closed.
A troubling fact for some is that shortly before Lisa died, according to at least two BPD witnesses, she changed the beneficiary on her life insurance at Bumpus Harley-Davidson from Chad Brantley to family members. She also told several people that "if anything happens to me, you tell the police to look at Chad" and confided to some friends and relatives that she was "a little afraid" of him.
BPD Detective John Keys, who worked the case extensively, acknowledges the beneficiary change and Lisa's comments, and says that's partly why they investigated Chad first. But he adds that after BPD and the sheriff's department checked phone and computer records, nothing connected Chad to Austin. "On Brantley's phone, nothing for Austin ever came up. Plus, you don't convince somebody like Austin, who was generally nonconfrontational, to kill somebody," says Keys. "Imagine how long it would take to convince him, how many conversations would take place, how many people would see them together, and what the phone records would show."
The house, which Lisa had recently put on the market, revealed no signs of forced entry, and the lockbox log showed no record of being used. Chad Brantley had keys to the residence but the detective points out, "Again, we had his established alibi and witnesses that put him in place. He was pretty much out of the picture as far as having been there that night. And I believe only one person was involved in the killing."
Why? For two reasons: Blood was found in various rooms of the house — some of it tracked as the killer attempted a clean-up, and a larger amount in the bedroom where police speculate the killer lay Lisa's body on a blanket after he shot her in the head. But the majority of blood was pooled in the front hallway. "Everything really happened right in the foyer; it was a chaotic mess," says Keys. "My take is that [the killer] rang the doorbell and Lisa opened it. High-velocity blood spatter indicates that's where she was standing when she was shot. She was strong and in good shape and put up quite a fight, with defensive wounds on her feet, hands, and arms. And she almost got out the door. So the fact that it all happened in the foyer and she almost made it out makes me believe two people weren't involved. If there had been, you'd have better scene control. You wouldn't have a person almost get away."
Asked how unusual it is for a killer to use two guns, Keys says, "Fairly unusual. But he knew the first gun would not have killed her. It's used to shoot rats, not that powerful, and would have made a small entry. The pistol shot to the head was another story, and he used it to beat her too."
"That's all I have to explain his behavior."
While the Agees don't suspect anyone else of murder, Tommy questions "gaps" in phone records that BPD provided him,
According to Keys, when the department subpoenas phone records, companies may provide different information: "They're private companies and I can't force them to keep accurate logs. It's all a matter of how much space they have to store."
Tommy's concern is that "Austin's record gives all his phone history, Lisa's shows just the two days in question, and Chad's shows a [radio tower transmission] report, tracked from cell towers, but I don't have his actual phone calls, unless I'm reading this report wrong. I'm going to be asking questions, and eliminate them."
Another issue raised by the Agees relates to whether Austin suffered from end-stage renal failure. His autopsy shows that the "right and left kidneys demonstrate changes of end-stage renal disease." Yet words describing the transplanted kidney include "smooth," "unremarkable," with a "bladder containing clear yellow urine." Tommy wrote a letter to the medical examiner last October requesting a meeting about the report but says he "never received a response."
He and Connie also question Olivia's statement to the police that he'd been passing blood in the urine for a week or two before he died. "I listened to Olivia's recorded statement and she did not say that," says Tommy. "She only mentioned it happened on Monday, March 9th. We attribute that to stress."
Detective Keys holds with Olivia's statement about blood in the urine, and with the autopsy: "That's all I have to explain his behavior. Everything I've read says psychotic behavior is one symptom of end-stage renal failure. It's rare, but it happens, and with Austin's stress, his drinking that night . . . that's the only direction to go without him sitting here telling us why he did it."
Another point of disagreement for Austin's parents relates to the letters he left behind. Published reports quoted him as writing, "Things just got out of hand." Those words don't exist anywhere in the notes. "Detective Keys says he paraphrased, but the words were in quotations," says Tommy. "Also, nowhere in the notes does Austin say he actually killed her. I know it could be me playing with words, but we don't know what the circumstances were when he wrote the notes. There was no motive, no interaction between Austin and Lisa, nothing to lead up to all this. And she's brutally beaten when Austin doesn't have a mark on him, and no DNA at the scene."
But Keys explains that DNA belonging to a number of people would have been present at the house because "we know Austin and Lee and Jessica were all there, and that Chad Brantley lived there, and others had visited. We mainly check major [blood serum] and it all came back to Lisa Davis."
"More to the story than has been reported."
For Lisa's father, as for the Agees, the whole tragedy is a question mark and a burden on the heart. In a phone interview Steve Davis chokes up talking about his daughter. He says Chad "seemed like a good kid," that he never met Lee Bumpus, and that Lisa never mentioned Austin. He and others in the Davis family talk to the Agees often. "From what they tell me," says Steve, "I don't think the boy was capable of [killing] Lisa, just from the type of person he was. And she was such a fighter." BPD's Bailey insists that "guns trump fists," and that a 200-pound man with two guns could indeed overpower a petite woman.
Officers sympathize with the families and call them "fine people who suffered a terrible tragedy." But Keys has told the Agees, "You're not going to find the 'why' in this report. The 'why' died along with your son."
Still — whether they're in denial or see valid unanswered concerns — both families say they'll continue their own investigations. "Steve and I are convinced there's more to the story than has been reported," says Tommy. "We're not discrediting Bartlett Police. They've been cordial and cooperative. And we're not denying Austin was there, or pointing fingers at anyone [else]. We just think there's more."
Meanwhile, asked how he and his family would like their son to be remembered, Tommy uses the words of the family pastor who at Austin's funeral said he hoped people would recall the young man's "entire life and not just the events of March 8th through the 10th" of 2009. "More importantly," adds Tommy, "Austin asked the Lord for forgiveness and was granted it by the saving grace of God."
Steve Davis will cherish the memory of a laughing, lively daughter who thoroughly enjoyed her jobs and her friends, and who stayed in close touch with her father and all her family. "I miss her every day," he says, his voice breaking. "That's a fact." M
Lee Bumpus, Jessica Price, and William "Chad" Brantley either could not be reached, declined to comment, or did not return phone calls regarding this story.