Although Music City is known for making dreams come true for a small number of aspiring musicians, for decades Nashville also had a dark underbelly where serial killers targeted people at a number of the city’s attractions: Vanderbilt University, dive bars, rest stops and motels.
True-crime author Michael Arntfield calls the period between 1975 and 2007 a “dark age” in Nashville’s history, with homicide detective Pat Postiglione and his cold-case Murder Squad leading the charge to capturing those who preyed upon the city. In Arntfield’s new book, Monster City: Music, Murder, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age he focuses on the many serial killers Postiglione is responsible for capturing over his 33-year career. Ultimately, the decorated detective would close 55 open and unsolved murders between 2005 and his retirement in 2013—a national record, and possibly an international record, for cold cases solved.
In this excerpt from Monster City, used with permission, we meet Tom Steeples, a computer store owner who found some of his victims in dive bars. Steeples would later die of a suspected suicide (a massive drug overdose) in jail while awaiting trial for his murders.
From the time he bailed out on October 24 through the holiday season, Steeples played the role of an innocent man who’d received a bum rap. He kept his head down, went to work, and talked with friends and neighbors about what he was calling a big mix-up—about how he’d have his day in court and be vindicated as he claimed Jack Lowery had told him. He also filed and soon retracted a divorce petition and made at least one attempt at suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning before deciding he wanted to plod on into 1994 and try his hand at a new type of murder. In the meantime, while celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas and doting on his kids the way that was expected of him, and as the fateful year 1993 became 1994, Steeples’s closet drug habit soon began to reveal itself. Money started to get tight, and the pressure mounted. He was entering a period of what’s known as decompensation—when the stress of playing nice and the rigamarole of daily life begin to wear on the psychopath, and the urge to kill returns with a vengeance.
It was the night of Monday, March 7, 1994—almost five months since he made bail—when Steeples decided it was time at last to indulge that urge. For one reason or another, he ended up at yet another Music City dive bar, now long since closed, this one known as the Stagecoach Lounge on Murfreesboro Road in South Nashville. Back in his element, he sat down by himself as he had at the Corral and started cranking happy-hour cocktails. Even among drug addicts like Steeples, it’s actually hard alcohol that serves as the most consistent and preferred disinhibitor, one thing that the vast majority of serial killers, especially organized psychopathic killers, have in common before their crimes. On this particular night, while Steeples didn’t have a specific plan on whom to kill or how, he was keeping his options open. Although the evening had started slowly, Steeples realized that he’d hit the jackpot. He’d arrived at the bar on an open-mic amateur talent night.
It was at the start of the amateur showcase, around 7:00 p.m., when a newly married couple, twenty-four-year-old Robb and twenty-eight-year-old Kelli Jean Phillips, showed up at the Stagecoach. They had driven a battered old GMC pickup over two thousand miles east from San Diego to come to Nashville with big dreams. Robb originally hailed from Charleston, South Carolina, and was a US Navy veteran who’d served aboard the aircraft carrier the USS Constellation for two years before moving with his new bride to San Diego to start a band. By 1994 he’d decided to make a go at a solo career in country music as a singer-guitarist. That left him only one option in terms of where to head next: Music City.
Like the thousands of people arriving by the month in Nashville to this day, Robb and Kelli Phillips came chasing the country-music scene and all its derivative industries. Hoping to take odd service-sector jobs and gigs wherever he could, Robb was determined to ride the wave of “new” country’s mainstream success and get discovered. His wife was unwavering in her support, either believing in her husband’s talent or just being too sweet to tell him he was lost in space, and served as both his publicist and manager. She was also his rock, even agreeing to uproot their lives to head to Nashville after having already been burned once during Robb’s first attempt at a solo career. The young couple had, by then, already been lured to Mexico and fleeced of their modest savings by a slimy industry “insider” with “connections” in the vein of Chuck Dixon at Cash Box magazine. By the time they arrived in Music City on the afternoon of March 7, they should have been once bitten and twice shy. Tragically, they were not. They still managed to trust people to a fault and believe in their dreams. Family nest-egg money now gone, and down to their last few dollars—their hopes and their battered old pickup truck both running on fumes—Robb and Kelli had checked into a declining Econo Lodge earlier that same day, one located just down the street from the Stagecoach Lounge. The sign out front read: “Where the Stars Stay.” To Robb, it was a good omen. Kelli agreed. It was also a decision that sealed their fates.
As Robb took the stage with his Yamaha acoustic guitar, stepping up to the microphone to perform some Toby Keith covers for the motley-looking crowd, Kelli sat at a table in the front row and beamed. It was then and there that Steeples took note of her and hatched his plan. Having correctly concluded that she and the man on stage were married, a newly reactivated Steeples honed in on her with a sinister confidence and an innate fearlessness that allowed him to manipulate and exploit the young couple’s desperation. Chalking Steeples’s charm up to genuine Southern hospitality, not knowing he hailed principally from Illinois and all sorts of other places, Kelli didn’t mind when he pulled up a seat beside her. Hearing the words “I’m in the record business,” Kelli’s ears perked up; he seemed believable. They were, after all, in Music City. “I think your man has real talent. I could introduce him to some of my people. I could Monster City 121 introduce both of you.” Kelli smiled; he talked the talk; he looked like he had money, and they needed money. “Let me buy you a drink,” he told her. The lure was cast.
By the end of Robb’s set, Robb joined his wife and the stranger beside her for a drink, quickly won over by Steeples’s ruse. They figured him for the real deal. They’d been in town less than twelve hours, and it already seemed that Robb was about to get his big break. Their booking into a room at the Econo Lodge, where they were told the stars stayed, now seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. It seemed too good to be true. Of course, it was.
After about two hours of buttering up Robb and Kelli and buying them round after round of drinks, Steeples, having played out the charade of the spendthrift and well-connected music producer, managed to elicit all the details he needed to proceed to the next stage of his plan. Bidding them farewell, he promised to call the couple in their room once he had more details on when Robb might get to meet the real players in Music City, when he might even get some studio time. It might be in the morning; it might even be later that same night. Robb and Kelli Jean were elated; they were also half drunk and not thinking straight. They were numb to the danger they were in. Shortly after Steeples walked out of the bar, they left and made their way back to room 112 at the Econo Lodge, Kelli hopping right in the shower while Robb tried on bedazzled country-star outfits. At the same time, Steeples was at home getting his tools.
It was a little past 9:00 the next morning, Tuesday, March 8, when two short knocks followed by a third and an announcement of “housekeeping” prefaced the door to room 112 being swung open by the motel chambermaid. It was eerily reminiscent of three years earlier and the actions that came immediately before the discovery of Michael Magliolo’s homicidal handiwork at the Esquire Inn. With history, it seemed, on autoplay, the maid entered the suite on that morning to find a scene of abject horror—a sight she’d never be able to unsee, and one that would forever change her…
Excerpted from Monster City: Music, Murder, and Mayhem in Nashville’s Dark Age by Michael Arntfield. © 2018 Published by Little A Books, September 4, 2018. All Rights Reserved.