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The Mysterious Disappearance of Marsha Brantley

This case has remained unsolved for 14 years, 7 months, and 6 days.

Marsha Brantley was a 50-year-old woman living in Cleveland, Tennessee (TN) with her husband, Donnie Brantley, in 2009. She was generally well-liked by her friends and family which made it all the more strange when she went missing and wasn’t reported for months afterward.

There weren’t many reports of unhappiness or troubles in the Brantley marriage, making it all the stranger when Donnie didn’t report his wife missing even after she’d been gone for months in 2009. He claimed she left him, but friends and family aren’t so sure. And now, over a decade later and despite several murder charges that were subsequently dropped or dismissed, there are still no answers. What happened to Marsha Brantley?

Table of Contents

About Marsha Brantley

Marsha Brantley was born on February 28, 1959 in Illinois. Described as “friendly” and “sweet,” Brantley was an only child. In 2009, she was 50 years old, loved animals, and volunteered at a local animal shelter. She also loved the outdoors and was described as an avid hiker.

In 1999, Marsha met Donnie Brantley, a competitive bicycle rider, on a dating service website. They married in 2000 and then moved into a home that Marsha’s parents had built for her in Cleveland, TN.

A photograph from Marsha and Donnie’s wedding with Marsha’s parents.
A photograph from Marsha and Donnie’s wedding with Marsha’s parents (Facebook).

Unfortunately, shortly after the marriage, both of Marsha’s parents passed away within the span of a month. With the inheritance she gained from her parents’ passing, she helped Donnie set up a handyman business. She also quit her job as a housing director at a local college and began writing, following one of her passions.

All seemed well enough in Brantley’s life at the time of her disappearance, even if the loss of her parents made it more difficult. Did she leave of her own volition, or did something sinister happen to her?

The Disappearance

It’s not clear when exactly Marsha Brantley went missing, but most think that she vanished around May or June 2009. Part of the problem is that no one reported her missing for some time, making the exact date of her disappearance imprecise.

Brantley’s friend and hairdresser, Kelly DeLude, noticed that Brantley hadn’t been in to get her haircut in several months — something that was odd and out-of-character. In the past, Brantley had gone in to get her hair done about once every six weeks for years on end.

Attempted Phone Calls

It was only later that DeLude noted that Brantley hadn’t been in to get her hair done for some time that she suspected something was wrong. Brantley’s last hair appointment had been back in April 2009 and DeLude hadn’t seen her since. She attempted to reach out to Brantley via phone, but the call was never returned.

After leaving several more voicemails, DeLude tried to reach out to Brantley’s husband, Donnie. However, the business number was disconnected.

A series of pictures of Marsha Brantley.
A series of pictures of Marsha Brantley (Facebook).

Other Oddities

Some neighbors and friends noted that Brantley’s beloved pet dogs weren’t being walked as often as they had been in the past, and that the garden and yard were overgrown.

One of the neighbors was especially concerned and went over to the home to ask where Brantley was. Donnie reportedly answered the door and told the neighbor that Brantley had “left him” and was “moving out west.”

Missing Meetings

Brantley was also a member of a local writing club for women. Knowing this, DeLude reached out to them to see if they had seen Brantley anytime recently, but they hadn’t seen her in months, either.

Police Contacted

Learning this, DeLude finally contacted the Cleveland Police Department (CPD) to report Brantley as a missing person. She was finally reported as missing in November 2009, many months after she’d last been seen.

A photograph of Marsha Brantley.
A photograph of Marsha Brantley (48 Hours).

At first, CPD wasn’t keen on taking the case seriously. DeLude says that they told her, “He said, ‘Well, ma’am, if he says she’s gone and that she left him, then she left him.’” She took matters into her own hands and began spreading the word that Brantley was missing, telling a local attorney about the situation.

The attorney took the story seriously and went to the District Attorney’s office to report the situation. Finally, investigators were sent out to take a closer look at the missing persons case.

The Investigation

When investigators went out to talk with Donnie about his wife’s disappearance, Donnie was apparently cool and collected, and he has always denied any role in his wife’s disappearance. Authorities found his apathetic behavior odd for someone whose wife had been missing for months. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) was called in to help investigate as well.

Financial Troubles in the Marriage

DeLude, Brantley’s long-time hairdresser, said that Brantley had opened up to her about financial troubles that the couple was having: “She was asking me if the economy had affected [my hairdressing business], and I said certainly, it had. And she said, y’know, it’s really affecting our business.” This was in regards to Donnie’s handyman business that Brantley had helped him set up.

According to investigators, Donnie’s business was draining Brantley’s inheritance fund. This certainly could have caused a rift or conflict between the two, and could serve as a potential motive for murder.

A photograph of Donnie and Marsha Brantley.
A photograph of Donnie and Marsha Brantley (Greeneville Sun).

Brantley’s Cell Phone

Donnie claimed that Brantley had left him, taking her phone with him back in 2009. However, when cell phone pings were traced by authorities, it was revealed that her phone never left an area about two miles or so around the home.

Furthermore, a call to a singles hotline was made after Brantley’s disappearance. The only person who could have made that call was Donnie, according to investigators.

Changing Stories

While Donnie originally told his concerned neighbor that Brantley had “left him” to “move out West,” he told authorities a different story, saying that Brantley had taken a camper van and moved to another city in Tennessee. Then, she had gone out west to work as a missionary.

Law enforcement looked into all these stories and couldn’t confirm that any of them were true. Donnie also hadn’t reported his wife as missing for all the time that she’d been gone.

Items Left Behind

Brantley had also left behind nearly everything she owned: her clothes, shoes, important documents, scrapbooks from her childhood, personal hygiene items, etc. Additionally, she left her car and the house (the one her parents had built for her) behind. Perhaps most importantly according to her friends and family, she left her beloved dogs behind — something they say she would never do.

Additionally, after being interrogated by authorities, Donnie went o a pawn shop and sold a number of Brantley’s possessions. Investigators understandably found all of this suspicious.

An Ex-Girlfriend

Authorities also discovered that Donnie had contacted an ex-girlfriend within days of Brantley’s suspected disappearance. Donnie’s lawyers claim that there was no affair while Donnie was married to Brantley.

One of Marsha Brantley’s cousins putting up a missing persons poster.
One of Marsha Brantley’s cousins putting up a missing persons poster (Times Free Press).

Case Updates

Usually, case updates are left for the last bit of the article, but in this case, there have been several important case updates throughout the years.

December 2009: Donnie Brantley Indicted for Murder

A grand jury indicted Donnie Brantley on charges of first degree premeditated murder. However, he wasn’t arrested however until much later, when authorities believed they had enough evidence to go to trial.

March 2010: A Failed Polygraph

In March 2010, Donnie agreed to take a polygraph examination. According to investigators, he failed. Personally, I don’t put a lot of stock into polygraph examinations, but it is another piece of circumstantial evidence in this case.

2013: Civil Deposition

In 2013, Donnie was interviewed in a civil deposition regarding his wife’s disappearance. He pleaded the Fifth or said “I don’t recall” over 100 times during the deposition. Some of the questions he refused to answer included:

  • “When did [Brantley] stop being the love of your life?”
  • “[You] didn’t have anything to do with [Brantley’s] disappearance, did you?”
  • “Are there other items of [Brantley’s] which you sold when she disappeared?”

August 2013: Donnie Brantley Charged

Donnie Brantley was arrested and charged with the murder of missing Marsha Brantley in August 2013, some four years after she went missing. Later however, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence, devastating Brantley’s loved ones.

A newspaper article discussing the charges against Donnie Brantley (Facebook).

December 2016: Donnie Brantley Charged Again

In December 2016, Donnie Brantley was again charged with murder in connection to his missing wife. Again though, the charges were dismissed as there was not enough evidence available to prove that a homicide had taken place.

Most of the evidence that authorities have on Donnie would have come out in a trial. Because no trial has ever taken place, it’s likely that the public will never be privy to what additional evidence there is that points to Donnie.

Theories on What Happened

There are several theories about what happened in this case, mostly involving Brantley’s death. Even her family believes she is no longer alive, regardless of what actually took place.

Donnie Killed Brantley

Obviously, the prevailing theory is that Donnie killed Marsha Brantley at some point around the time she went missing. Suspicions fell on him quickly because he never reported her missing, not even when she’d been gone for at least several months.

Some of Brantley’s family also claim that Donnie has never reached out to them regarding searching for Brantley, not even to participate in search efforts or set up missing persons flyers.

DeLude, Brantley’s hairdresser, said that she’d never heard of any troubles in the marriage. That being said, she still had her suspicions about Donnie: “I’m thinking at that point that he has done something to her. I knew that something was very, very wrong.”

Donnie’s daughter (and Brantley’s stepdaughter) said of the murder accusations, “That’s crazy. Ridiculous.”

Proponents of the idea that Donnie is innocent point to the lack of evidence to show that a murder took place: no fingerprints, no blood, no gunshot residue, etc. However, if Donnie indeed murdered Brantley, he would have had many, many months to clean up the scene of crime before anyone even started looking for her.

Authorities believe that Brantley went missing between May 1 and July 31 of 2009, and she wasn’t reported missing until November 2009. That gave Donnie at least three months to cover up a potential crime scene. He also made some interesting purchases at a local Walmart store around the time authorities think that Brantley went missing including a drop cloth, polyethylene sheeting, and Gorilla tape.

A receipt from one of Donnie Brantley’s shopping trips.
A receipt from one of Donnie Brantley’s shopping trips (CBS News).

So yes, there is a lack of evidence in this case, but there is also a substantial amount of time that Donnie would have had to cover up his tracks if he indeed committed the murder.

Brantley Ran Away

Some have suggested that Brantley indeed headed off to start another life out West, as Donnie had said. However, many people argue that Brantley wouldn’t have just run off or left her beloved pets behind. DeLude, Brantley’s friend and hairdresser, said of the pets, “Her dogs were like her children.”

Brantley’s family also doubts that she left willingly, mostly because of all of the items she left behind, including her her home, car, and cellphone. If she did run off somewhere else, wouldn’t she have taken her car? And why not sell the home and have some money to start fresh with?

Marsha Brantley’s gravestone, featuring her maiden name of Rader.
Marsha Brantley’s gravestone, featuring her maiden name of Rader (Facebook).

Brantley Committed Suicide

There is also some evidence pointing to the idea that Brantley was depressed and possibly even suicidal. (If you are struggling yourself, please contact the Suicide Hotline.) “I believe that she was very depressed,” said stepdaughter Elise Brantley regarding her stepmother.

Several of Brantley’s friends also corroborated this idea. DeLude, Brantley’s hairdresser, said of the last time she’d seen her friend, “She seemed a bit depressed.” In March 2009, other friends reported Brantley saying that she was “so depressed she couldn’t get off the couch.”

It’s entirely possible that Brantley put an end to her own life, perhaps because she was suffering from the loss of her parents or other troubles in the Brantley marriage.

What Do I Think Happened?

As I’ve said in other cases like this one, I tend to believe that the simplest theory is usually the correct one. That is, I think it’s very likely that Donnie killed Brantley and took the months in-between her disappearance and when she was reported missing to conceal the crime. It would make sense that little to no evidence has been found because he had so much time to cover up the scene.

Circumstantial cases (those without direct evidence like blood, fingerprints, or DNA) are notoriously difficult to prove in a court of law. Still, circumstantial cases can be strong. Some of the most suspicious pieces of circumstantial evidence to me include the following:

Additionally, women tend to be murdered by people they know; 64 percent of female homicides carried out by a family member or intimate partner. All that being said, I believe it’s possible that something else happened in this case as well.

Suicide Possible

I also think it’s possible that Brantley committed suicide given the information that her friends had provided to law enforcement and media outlets. Almost all of them agreed that Brantley was depressed around the time she went missing, although depression doesn’t necessarily mean that she had suicidal ideations.

Case Outlook

Unless authorities are able to find Brantley or her remains, or otherwise locate some fool-proof evidence of Donnie’s guilt, I doubt this case will be able to be solved. More information and evidence is needed to either exonerate or convict Donnie, and to get justice for Marsha Brantley. She was loved and is missed by those that were left behind. It’s time to find out the truth.

Do You Have Information?

At the time of the disappearance, Marsha Brantley was about 5’10, 130 lbs., with blonde hair and blue eyes. If you have any information about what happened to her, please reach out to the Cleveland Police Department at (423) 476–7511.

A missing poster for Marsha Brantley.
A missing poster for Marsha Brantley (CBS News).

Cold Case Questions

  • What do you make of Donnie Brantley’s deposition answers?
  • What do you think happened to Marsha Brantley?
  • Is Marsha still alive somewhere out there?

Let me know your thoughts about this case in the comments section below!

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