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Tenn. Man Returns After ‘Death’

January 30, 1999

COLLINWOOD, Tenn. (AP) _ With Bruce Littleton now sitting in jail, the question in this small town near the Alabama border is this: Who was buried in his grave?

His relatives say they don’t know. They thought they buried Littleton 18 months ago after a fiery car accident.

Police don’t know either. Forensic tests were conducted on the corpse exhumed from the cemetery this week but no details were released. Officers do believe, however, that Littleton knows who’s buried there.

``The speculation is he faked his death and committed the homicide on the individual who was found (in his car) to avoid facing federal drug charges,″ said Richard Brogan of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Littleton, 31, was taken into custody on Jan. 21 in Smyrna, about 90 miles northeast of his hometown of Collinwood. His mother, Doris Littleton, seemed stunned a week later.

``I’m happy he’s alive and has a second chance at forgiveness if he really did do this thing,″ she said.

The bizarre saga began in 1997, when Littleton was arrested on federal drug charges for allegedly receiving methamphetamine through the mail.

Investigators believe he tried to ``disappear″ shortly thereafter, Brogan said. Sometime in late spring, his bullet-ridden car was found about 35 miles from Collinwood.

Littleton resurfaced and on July 31, 1997, the same car, with one person inside, hit a tree and burned.

``The night the body was discovered the investigators thought it was a really hot fire, and wondered if accelerants had been used,″ Brogan said.

Given the drug charges and suspicions about the fire, investigators wanted to be sure about the identity. Then-state Medical Examiner Charles Harlan checked dental records and declared the body was Littleton’s.

Nobody seems too sure how that mistake happened; Harlan won’t talk about it.

The body was buried in Collinwood. The drug charges were set aside. Life insurance policies were paid to Littleton’s wife, Tammy.

She bought a house for $105,000 on Sept. 25, 1997, in Murfreesboro, not far from the town where Littleton was arrested. Mrs. Littleton sold the property a little more than a year later at a small profit.

Mrs. Littleton was not at her Collinwood home when a reporter stopped by this week. She has an unlisted telephone number.

Authorities were checking whether she or anybody else knew Littleton was alive during the 18 months he was ``dead.″ They want to know if he had any help along the way.

``We expect other charges,″ Brogan said.

And two insurance companies that had policies on Littleton are curious about whether they paid a fraudulent claim. Neither of the companies, Liberty National and Tennessee Farmers Mutual, would say how much the policies were worth.

Littleton was using the name Gregory Bruce Lavender when he was arrested on Jan. 21 for driving with an altered license plate. He did not have a driver’s license, either, and during questioning admitted he actually was Bruce Alan Littleton and was supposed to be dead, Brogan said.

Meantime, Collinwood, population 1,014, is abuzz over the strange death-and-life story. Some residents say they believed Littleton was alive all along.

``It just didn’t add up,″ said J.R. Daniels. ``I just didn’t think it was right, the way it worked out.″

Crawford Littleton, Bruce’s uncle and a neighbor of his mother, said he had no idea his nephew was alive.

``I can’t tell you nothing because I don’t know nothing,″ he said.

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