Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and infamous murders throughout history.
With a population of less than 1,000, Tellico Plains, Tennessee is the type of place where people marry their high school sweethearts and everybody knows each other’s business. Murder? Not something that happens. Not in small town America—or at least that what people like to think. When police were called to the home of 41-year-old mechanic Michael Strickland in 2013, they didn’t think it was murder, even though there was blood everywhere and a hole in the side of his neck.
Once they realized they were dealing with a homicide, the local rumor mill led them straight to his second wife, Marie Strickland. Anita Marie Strickland was born in 1972 in Tellico Plains, and from an early age, she was part of the in-crowd.
“Marie was always an outgoing person,” friend Franklin Harris told "Snapped," which airs Sundays at 6/5c on Oxygen. "We had our own little clique. We had about five of us that came together all the time, and we were probably the loudest and most outgoing in the class.”
There was Marie, her boyfriend Ben, her best friend Katrina and Katrina’s boyfriend Michael, who was also Ben’s best friend.
Soon after graduating from high school, Marie and Ben got married and had a daughter. Marie took to being a mother.
“She was comfortable at home, being a home maker, helping with her daughter,” her onetime friend Katrina told “Snapped.”
Katrina and Michael were soon married as well, making them Mr. and Mrs. Michael Strickland. Both couples spent a lot of time together, but after a decade together, the couples started to drift apart. Ben and Marie weren’t getting along and divorced in 2005, which shocked their friends.
“I guess I always thought they were going to last forever,” said Katrina Strickland.
The Stricklands divorced around the same time as Ben and Marie, and soon, Tellico Plains was buzzing with gossip. Marie began dating her best friend’s ex-husband, who was her ex-husband’s best friend.
“I don't know if they were seeing one another before anybody divorced, but Ben always had his suspicions,” Katrina Strickland told “Snapped,” adding, “After I saw them together, that just ended our friendship.”
According to his family and friends, Michael Strickland was a man’s man. He was big, strong, had a great sense of humor and was good with his hands. He liked working on anything with wheels and a motor. Like Marie, he was also a dedicated parent. Every Sunday after church, he would take his young son Jacob to Hooters for lunch, and then they’d head up to the garage and work on cars together.
As Michael’s sister Amy Miller told “Snapped,” “The sun rose and set in that boy’s rear. He loved that child to death.”
In 2007, Michael and Marie decided to get married and bought a home outside town on 10 acres of land. There was a freestanding garage next to the house, where Michael could work on his cars. In 2010, he bought several school buses, hired drivers and picked up a bunch of local routes. The following year, Marie’s stepfather died, after which she became closer with her younger brother, Chris Smallin. With her daughter now fully grown, she started working part-time at the post office. All seemed well in the family.
“They seemed happy,” Jacob Strickland told “Snapped.” They seemed to get along.”
On October 11, 2013, at 12:38 p.m., a 911 call came in from Marie Strickland. She had come home from running errands and found her husband Michael in the driveway. He was lying face-down, unresponsive and bleeding profusely.
Monroe County Sheriff’s Deputy Clint Brookshire arrived on the scene and found a distraught Marie Strickland, who directed him to her husband.
“It was almost like he had been running and just fell,” Brookshire told “Snapped.” “There was a lot of blood. There were no signs of life at all. I asked if she knew what may have happened to him, and she said, ‘No.’”
When paramedics arrived, they determined he was already dead, but they couldn’t tell from what.
"There was blood on him. You could see some blood around his ear and neck,” Monroe County Emergency Medical Technician Tangie Swanson told “Snapped.”
EMT Colby Eaton added, “We couldn’t really figure out where it was coming from initially. But looking at his neck, we seen a little piece of skin that was open that showed there was a wound.”
Clint Brookshire told “Snapped” his initial thoughts were, “OK, was he working on something? Was he working on a vehicle and it fell on him? What caused this injury?”
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Brad Nealon determined Michael Strickland had been in the garage when he was fatally injured and discovered a possible cause of death.
“Bullet marks were found inside the shop,” he told “Snapped.”
An autopsy would later determine Michael died from a single gunshot fired from an intermediate distance which entered the right side of his neck, puncturing his larynx and jugular vein, before exiting.
As word of Strickland’s death spread around town, the Tellico Plains gossip mill began churning yet again. Not everyone was unhappy Michael was dead, such as his former best bud Ben, who was also Marie’s ex-husband.
“Ben had made statements that he wished he could have killed Michael,” Prosecutor Derek K. Smith told “Snapped.”
“I had heard Ben say Mike was mean to Ben and Marie's daughter and would call her names,” said Katrina Strickland. “I think Ben was upset that Mike treated their daughter like that.”
However, after interviewing him, police ruled him out as a suspect.
“He was forthcoming. Ben did have an alibi. He was eliminated pretty early on,” said Smith.
Police next turned their attention to Marie Strickland.
“The first suspect you're going to have in any murder case is the spouse,” Smith told “Snapped.”
As they talked to the Stricklands’ friends, family and acquaintances, authorities learned that the home had turned tense.
“They argued a lot,” Jacob Strickland said of his father and stepmother.
One thing the Stricklands argued about was marital fidelity, or the lack thereof.
“Marie caught Mike cheating on the school bus,” said Katrina Strickland, who claimed he had also cheated on her during their marriage. However, he wasn’t the only one being unfaithful.
“Michael did have one on the side and come to find out she did too,” Amy Miller told “Snapped.” “She was dating one of the postal drivers.”
According to Miller, Michael wanted a divorce and had papers drawn up, which he presented to Marie.
“From what I understood, it did not go over well. She did not want to leave. Basically, she refused,” Miller said.
Marie suggested he move out, but he wasn’t going anywhere.
“It was his property,” said Miller. “He had had all of that before they got married. So, no, he was not going to give up what was rightfully his.”
Detectives obtained warrants to access both the Stricklands' phones. While they found text messages that confirmed infidelity on Michael’s phone, most of Marie’s text messages had been deleted. They were later obtained through a subpoena. They showed she had been in contact with her brother on the day of the murder.
“In the text that she sent to Chris Smallin, she had said that the gun was cocked, the clip was in, but she wanted to know if this gun was still loaded,” Prosecutor Derek K. Smith told “Snapped.”
“The content put Marie in possession of a firearm the day of the murder based on the text message times,” said Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Josh Melton.
Police interviewed Smallin and, according to Special Agent Melton, “he was very truthful about the fact that he had provided a gun recently to Marie for self-defense.”
According to Derek K. Smith, “two weeks before the murder, (Marie) had indicated that she was somewhat scared of Michael and that she needed a gun.”
On the day of the murder, she contacted Chris and gave him the gun back.
He took the gun and “tossed it into the Tellico River,” says Prosecutor Smith.
When confronted with her brother’s text messages and the events he described to investigators, Marie claimed she was the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband. According to court documents, she would later claim on the day of the murder, Michael had “both physically abused and threatened her.” These allegations were strongly refuted by both the police and those who knew Michael Strickland.
“I was just trying to get away from him,” Marie said in a video recording of her police interview. “I just, I just didn’t want to fight.”
According to Special Agent Nealon, she claimed her memories from that day were “blurry.”
“She thought she was kind of running away and firing back towards him,” he told “Snapped.”
Unfortunately for Marie, forensics determined this shooting scenario impossibility.
On December 10, 2013, the Monroe County Sheriff's Department arrested Marie Strickland and Chris Smallin in connection with the shooting death of Michael Strickland, according to WVLT. Marie was charged with first degree murder, while Smallin was charged with accessory after the fact and destruction of evidence.
“Oh lord, we were so happy whenever she got arrested,” Amy Miller told “Snapped.” “She got arrested in December, just a week or two before Christmas.”
In June 2015, Marie Strickland pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, reported The Advocate and Democrat. She was later sentenced to 21 years in prison, according to court documents. Her brother Chris Smallin also pleaded guilty to all charges and received a two-year suspended sentence. Marie is scheduled to be released on December 31, 2032, by which time she will be 60 years old.
[Photo: Monroe County Sheriff's Office]
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