“We were down at the station at a little before midnight,” said William Fisher, a chorus member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. “The train [to Memphis] didn’t leave until 4:30. That gave us plenty of time to roam around the downtown Atlanta streets.”
Fisher was a member of the prestigious 750-person Met Company departing Atlanta’s Terminal Station in the early morning of April 21st, 1949, continuing their nationwide tour to Memphis after several performances at the Fox Theatre. The late train turned out to be a twist of fate that would claim the life of one of the Met’s best stars.
The delay sparked many performers who had shown up expecting to leave at 12:30 a.m. to venture out into the Atlanta night. One small group that included John Garris and Kathy Sanger decided to grab something to eat, calling a taxi.
When the taxi arrived the group realized they could only fit so many, and Garris chose to walk rather than ride with his fellow performers. Kathy Sanger was one of the last people to see the talented 36-year-old Garris alive.
John Garris offers an interesting personal story. He was born Hans J. K. Gareis into a musician’s family in Frankfort-on-Main, and early in his life was a musical wunderkind, a harmonious natural. In the late 1930’s Gareis fled Nazi Germany with a man named Lutz Peter, who eventually turned out to be his lover (in Germany Garris was engaged to be married to Lutz Peter’s sister; she would die in a Nazi gas chamber).
The young pair arrived in America from Greece in 1941. Hans Gareis was almost immediately hired by the Met as a tenor. His natural talents transferred, and he took the stage name John Garris. Up to that point in his life Garris hadn’t taken any professional lessons for singing, and he found himself performing with the most prestigious opera group in America.
Over the next several years Garris worked with the Met, and by 1949 he was performing leads. He continued to live with Lutz Peter, who frequently toured with the group, listed as a singing coach. The fact that he was gay never impeded his professional career, which seemed to just snowball. He always received great roles and reviews; on April 19th, 1949 he was Laërte in Mignon in Atlanta.
When Garris decided to abandon his friends to a taxi and walk through the Atlanta streets, he made a crucial mistake. The area around Terminal Station could be dangerous in 1949 (the station was torn down in 1972). His friends went out to eat, drink and dance, but they never saw Garris again. When the train departed for Memphis at 4:30 a.m. they assumed he was asleep on board.
But Garris was not asleep on the train. His body rested in an alley just a few blocks from Terminal Station, discovered around 7:45 a.m. by an African American porter named Love Thomas who was leaving work. Garris had been shot through the heart, dragged or positioned in the alley on his back with his hands over his head.
He had some dirt on one knee, so police theorized he was kneeling when he was shot. He still had his wallet and money; because of this police discounted robbery.
Reports out of the Atlanta police department indicated they were looking for a car that had been seen in the area, first a blood-stained blue Packard, and then a green Buick with a man and a woman. Both vehicles were eventually discounted. Atlanta detectives were dispatched to Memphis to question members of the Met opera group.
When Detective M.M. Coppenger arrived in Memphis and started asking questions about his victim, it became clear to the detective that he was investigating the death of a gay man. His quotes underline the prejudices of the times, and illustrate the mindset of the men on the police force. “There are many reports of unnatural sexual activities,” Coppenger told the press at that time. “Naturally we are checking that angle.”
When the Atlanta police looked into the record of Garris they found he had received a suspended sentence on May 28th, 1947, convicted of loitering in a men’s room in a subway station in Manhattan. This is as close as the newspapers of the time would get to saying someone was soliciting gay sex in a public bathroom. And because of the prejudices faced by this segment of the community at the time, it is safe to assume this didn’t help the Garris case in regards to the Atlanta investigators. But who knows if police prejudices heavily influenced the investigation, from downright apathy on the identity of the true killer to wanton disregard for the case entirely…
We do know Detective Coppenger’s interest in the relationships Garris had with men became the central focus of the investigation. The Atlanta gumshoe was convinced there was a young man accompanying Garris while on tour; Lutz Peter insisted the only man that would travel with Garris would be himself. But that didn’t stop Coppenger from following the Met troupe across the nation, through Texas, all the way to Los Angeles trying to find the mystery man travelling with Garris. Coppenger never found him.
The Atlanta police were committed to the theories that either a vengeful gay lover or random sexual encounter in the alleyway led to the death of Garris. The only man to be named an official suspect in the case was Grover “Togo” Pulley. Pulley was a paroled killer that carjacked an Atlanta driver around the time Garris was murdered. He was arrested for the carjacking in South Carolina, and police discovered his gun and bullets matched the type used in the Garris murder.
South Carolina police were convinced Pulley was also gay. Because of this evidence, and Pulley’s supposed sexual orientation, they tied him to the Garris murder.
But Pulley was never convicted or even tried for the crime. A dispute about ballistics allowed him to avoid the courtroom. The Georgia criminal lab matched the steel-jacket bullet taken from Garris to Pulley’s gun; the FBI determined the bullet pulled from Garris couldn’t be matched with any gun for it was deformed and twisted.
Was Pulley a scapegoat for the crime because he was gay or was he the actual murderer? Was it the young mystery man supposedly traveling with Garris? Was it a random sexual encounter with a stranger on the street? Or was it an attempted robbery that turned into murder? Only Garris and the person or people responsible for the murder know the answer to these questions, and the case remains unsolved, fading further into Atlanta history.