GILES COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — The third body in a 1991 drowning investigation out of Giles County was exhumed on Wednesday.

More than 30 years ago, the deaths of 20-year-old Dennis Martindale, 15-year-old Stephen Russell Bass and 16-year-old Patrick Fletcher were ruled accidental drownings by a medical examiner that later lost his license due to botched autopsies. It was a claim the families of the three young men never believed.

Now, decades later, loved ones are one step closer to finding out what happened.

Early Wednesday morning, exhumation crews, investigators and Medical Examiner Dr. Joe Fite gathered with members of Dennis Martindale’s family in Elkmont, Alabama, as Dennis’ casket was pulled out of the ground. 

“It’s finally here, it’s finally here,” Dennis’ sister Tammy Martindale shook her head while standing by the headstone.

Despite years of prayers, this is a day the Martindales never thought would come.

“It seemed like the clouds turned gray and ever since then things have been gray,” Jamicka, Martindale’s sister who was 12 at the time of her brother’s death, told News 2.

Dennis’ body, along with his two friends, was pulled from Richland Creek in Giles County.

“When you find three people fully dressed, tennis shoes and all on, come on now. They did not drown,” Tammy stated.

The Martindales believe the three Black men were murdered and it was covered up.  

“Payoffs, coverups. I could be wrong, but I know I’m right,” Dennis’ brother Tim Martindale told News 2.

A request for a death certificate brought the deaths back to the forefront earlier this year. District Attorney General Brent Cooper reopened the investigation and exhumed the remains of all three bodies, with Martindale’s in Alabama. 

As the excavator dug deeper and the casket was unearthed, the hearts of Dennis’ family were heavy.

“They were kids. They took our family away from us,” Tammy cried.

“Someone needs to be held accountable,” said Jamicka.

The family told News 2 that while angry, they are also overcome with a sense of relief as their prayers are answered.

“God didn’t bring us this far to leave us, so I know it’s going to be alright. It’s like I’m free, I’m free, I’m free. They are going to find out what happened to him mark my word. They gonna find out,” Tammy reassured us.

Dennis’ remains were sent to the Davidson County Medical Examiner’s Office where a new autopsy will be performed Thursday morning. 

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The remains of Bass and Fletcher were exhumed in July. The autopsies are completed, but investigators still haven’t determined a cause of death.