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"It was the right thing to do." Metro detective on bringing a killer to justice 21 years later

Metro Police Cold Case Detective Mike Roland discusses Velma Tharpe murder case with  Jennifer Kraus
calvin atchison
Calvin Atchison II police mugshot
Paul Shane Garrett police mugshot
Posted at 4:03 PM, May 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-27 21:48:46-04

NASHVILLE, Tn. (WTVF) — Earlier this week, Metro Police arrested a man for a murder that happened more than 20 years ago.

But someone else had already pled guilty shortly afterward.

But a longtime Metro detective discovered many years ago that the guy who'd served time for it was the wrong man and that detective worked hard to finally bring the right man to justice.

"You think you now have the right guy?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Metro Cold-Case Detective Mike Roland.

"Absolutely. Absolutely," he replied.

Roland was there Tuesday morning as SWAT officers arrested 51-year-old Calvin Atchison for the murder in 2000 of Velma Tharpe, a sex worker whose body was found in an alley in North Nashville, beaten and likely strangled.

"You think Calvin Atchison killed Velma Tharpe?" we asked Roland.

"Absolutely. I think the evidence tells the tale and yes, I do," he answered.

Roland, who has been with Metro Police for 34 years, first became convinced Atchison was the killer ten years ago when Paul Shane Garrett was already serving time for the crime.

Paul Shane Garrett police mugshot

The 28-year-old tow truck driver was arrested a year after the murder and pled guilty, even though there was no evidence or witnesses. Garrett had insisted to police he didn't do it and now says he believed he was facing the death penalty and felt he had no choice.

"And you believe that Paul Shane Garrett is innocent and had nothing to do with her murder?" we asked Roland.

"I do," he said.

We now know the original detectives and prosecutors totally bungled this case.

Detective Roy Dunaway, it turns out, repeatedly lied in court and both police and the DA's Office knew the DNA found all over the victim did not match Garrett's. And a year after Garrett went to prison, the TBI told police and the DA's Office that it did match Calvin Atchison. Yet neither Detective Dunaway nor the DA's Office ever followed up.

Then in 2011, Roland and Pat Postiglione, another longtime Metro Cold Case detective, stumbled across the DNA discrepancy and started digging.

They went through all of the court and case files, listened to the interviews with Garrett and others and realized the wrong man was behind bars.

Then they visited Garrett in prison.

"There was a look of relief about him. It was almost like, well. it was like the statement that he made was, 'What took you guys so long?' It was like there was some relief that you all now know, you all now believe me or you figured it out or whatever," Roland recalled.

They also interviewed Atchison who claimed he couldn't remember exactly what happened.

"I don’t believe he was being truthful. I believe that when you do something, you know you’ve done something. I mean he didn’t definitively say he didn’t do it and he didn’t definitively say he did," Roland shared.

Roland and Postiglione took their concerns to then-DA Torry Johnson. His office conducted its own investigation and the ADA in charge of it said in her final report that she had no confidence in Garrett's conviction, that evidence showed he was innocent and his conviction should be thrown out.

She also recommended that all homicide cases handled by Detective Dunaway be re-examined as soon as possible.

Yet her boss, the DA at the time, Torry Johnson, was totally against exonerating Garrett and even fought Garrett's initial efforts to clear his name in court.

But Mike Roland never gave up.

"I just have always felt that Paul Garrett deserved exoneration and that Calvin Atchison should be arrested, should be arrested for the homicide. It was just the right thing to do," Roland explained.

So last year, now with a new DA in office, Roland went to Glenn Funk and this DA's new Conviction Review Unit took another look at the case and came to the same conclusion as the Cold Case detectives had.

DA Funk is now asking the court to throw out Garrett's conviction while Atchison is now charged with Velma Tharpe's murder. He was arrested just shy of 21 years after she was killed.

Roland says this justice for Tharpe was long overdue.

Discussing Atchison's arrest, Roland said, "He came willingly."

"He knew why you were there?" we asked.

"Oh, I’m sure he did. There’s no doubt," Roland said, adding, "I said, 'I told you I was coming back (to Atchison),' and he said, 'You did.'"

Mike Roland refuses to take credit for doggedly pursuing the case and he, at least publicly, refuses to criticize former Detective Roy Dunaway and former DA Torry Johnson. He said if people take anything from this, he wants them to know that both the police department as a whole and the district attorney's office as a whole try to do the right thing and do their jobs as best they can.

Meanwhile, Paul Shane Garrett recently asked the court again to exonerate him, in other words, clear his name.

He has the support of both the DA's Office and Detective Mike Roland.