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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Joelle Ann Lockwood: The Woman in the Cage

     Joelle Ann Lockwood, a 30-year-old mother of two, shared an apartment with her boyfriend in the southern Indiana city of Evansville. On July 9, 2014, after a night of drinking, Lockwood left the apartment following an argument with her boyfriend. She wandered the streets of Evansville that night.

     In the early morning hours of July 10, while meandering about the city, Lockwood encountered Ricky House Jr., a man she had once dated. The 37-year-old offered her a ride to his place in Stewartsville, a small town 25 miles northwest of Evansville where House lived in a mobile home with his 44-year-old girlfriend, Kendra Tooley.

     Later that morning, when Lockwood told House that she wanted to return to her apartment, he covered her nose and mouth with a rag soaked in chloroform. When she regained consciousness she found herself naked and tied to a bed. She had also been raped.

     Over the next several weeks Lockwood's captors forced her to wear a dog collar with an attached leash. The couple made her do chores that included cleaning and cooking. When House wasn't raping or beating her, she lived in a narrow wooden cage barely large enough for her body.

     On July 13, 2014, three days after Lockwood left her apartment in Evansville, her relatives filed a missing person report. The police coordinated a search but came up empty-handed.

     While the authorities and volunteers looked for Lockwood, her captor, Ricky House, attempted to impregnate her. He and Kendra wanted a child but Tooley was too old to get pregnant.

     Besides not having any children together, House and Tooley were in financial trouble. On Thursday September 4, 2014, Tooley's ex-husband, Ron Higgs, visited the mobile home in Stewartsville. He encountered Lockwood but assumed she was a willing participant in some kind of perverted sex arrangement with Ricky House and Tooley.

     On Saturday September 6, the 61-year-old Higgs returned to the mobile home with some money for his ex-spouse. This time Joelle Lockwood told him she was being held against her will since early July during which time she had been raped and beaten.

     In an effort to secure Lockwood's freedom, Higgs offered the captors additional money for her release. Ricky House rejected that proposal, and this led to an argument that became physical. Ricky House backed-off, left the room, then returned with a sawed-off shotgun. Ron Higgs grabbed the shotgun and stunned Ricky House with a head-butt. Ricky retreated into a bedroom as Higgs led Joelle Lockwood out of the mobile home.

     A Posey County prosecutor charged Ricky House and Kendra Tooley with multiple counts of rape, kidnapping and assault. The judge set House's bond at $500,000 and Tooley's at $150,000. At the arraignment hearing the couple, represented by a pair of public defenders, pleaded not guilty. 

     Ron Higgs, the man who rescued Joelle Lockwood from her captors, said this to the authorities in charge of the case: "I hope you all have some small cells. That's where they need to spend the rest of their lives, in real small cells."

     In September 2015, a Posey County jury, after a one-week trial, found Ricky House guilty of rape, kidnapping and other crimes. The judge sentenced him to 93 years in prison. Kendra Tooley pleaded guilty in July 2016 to rape and two counts of criminal confinement. The judge sentenced her to 25 years in prison. The judge gave Kendra Tooley two years credit for time served. 

The Criminology Of Marriage

Someone once said that marriages start in bed and end up in court. It's also true that one of the spouses can end up in court because the other one ended up in the morgue. O. J. Simpson wasn't the first, nor the last, husband to murder his wife. And wives can be just as deadly. There are women who marry rich men in order to kill them for their money. These cold-blooded killers are called Black Widows, and their weapon of choice is usually poison. Spouses have been known to commit murder on their honeymoons, quite often during ocean cruises where the victim, usually the wife, ends up with the fishes. For the husband, the most common motive for hiring a hit man to murder his estranged wife is to avoid the high cost of divorce. Moreover, men who don't want to be fathers have either killed their pregnant wives or hired someone else to do the deed. Jealous wives have been known to kill their wayward spouses out of rage, and in some cases, merely to save face. Whenever a married person is murdered, and it's not immediately clear who committed the offense, the spouse who doesn't have an airtight alibi usually becomes the first suspect. In the annals of crime, there are thousands of marital murder cases where the spouse has staged the killing to look like a suicide. And in missing persons cases where the wife has mysteriously disappeared, the experienced homicide detective will look closely at the husband. 

Amber Alert Systems

The Amber Alert System originated in Arlington, Texas in 1996 following the abduction and murder of 9-year-old Amber Hagerman. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice established a guideline for when local jurisdictions should initiate the missing child alert system. The guideline sets outs the following criteria:

* Authorities believe the child may have been abducted
* The child is 17 years old or younger
* The child is in imminent danger of injury or death
* There's enough information about the child and the abduction for an alert
* Case details have been entered into a national missing persons database 
     In 2019, there were more than 3,500 Amber Alerts in the United States.   

Writing For Children Isn't Easier Than Writing For Adults

Even famous authors of books intended for adult readers have found that their fame does not transfer easily into the children's market. Renown in one area of writing does not necessarily smooth a path into an entirely different genre. And that is precisely what writing for children is: a different and separate writing area, not an easier one. It has its own difficulties and calls on special and specific skills from its practitioners.

Allan Frewin Jones and Lesly Pollinger, Writing for Children and Getting Published, 1996 

Georges Simenon on Writing a Detective Story

There is nothing easier than to write a detective story. For a start there is at least one corpse, more in American detective stories. Then there is an inspector or a superintendent who conducts the inquiry and who has the right to probe the past and present life of each of the characters. And finally there are the suspects, in varying numbers and different degrees of camouflage as the author decides will best lead to the final denouement.

Georges Simenon, The Man Who Wasn't Margret by Patrick Marnham, 1994 

The Manuscript Rejection Letter

Lee Pennington has been published in more than 300 magazines--and rejected so many thousand times that in one six-month period he papered all four walls of a room with rejection slips. ("I loved getting the 8 by 11 rejections more than the 3 by 5 ones because they covered more space.") He has also filled scrapbooks with rejection slips, used them for coasters, and given rejection parties--invitations written on the back of rejection slip. [I once received a rejection letter one year after the book in question had been published by another house.]
Rotten Reviews & Rejections, 1998

Monday, March 1, 2021

A 1980 Short Story by Thornton P. Knowles

                              The Devil in Booger Hollow


                                   Thornton P. Knowles


     Growing up in suburban Charleston, West Virginia, the state capital, James Sinclair couldn't think of a job he either could do or want to do. He could never be a physician, a lawyer, or even a school teacher. He didn't want to be a salesman like his father, work in a store, a factory, an office, or on a construction site. So, after high school he joined the Army and served a tour in Vietnam as a military police officer. 

     Following his discharge from the Army in 1970, James acquired a job as an investigator for a divorce lawyer in Charleston. He spent the next couple of years tailing cheating spouses, peeking into windows, taking surveillance photographs and digging up dirt on behalf of his employer's clients. He told his parents who wanted him in college that he worked as a paralegal in the offices of a prestigious Charleston law firm. They were not impressed, and told him so. Self esteem was not high up on the list of James Sinclair's  personality traits. 

     As a high school student James was at best mediocre. He considered his teachers boring and tuned them out. He daydreamed his way to his high school graduation, and couldn't imagine four more years trapped in a classroom listening to lectures on subjects that meant nothing to him. He wasn't interested in higher math, science, economics, foreign language, history, or literature. The same was true of sociology, psychology, and philosophy. Perhaps that was his problem, he found nothing interesting. Nothing excited him, not even sports. Why would he waste his time going to a football game? A young English teacher named Misty Dawn once scolded him for not having "school spirit." He informed Miss Dawn that the concept of sports fandom was as foreign to him as quantum physics. His chemistry teacher, Mr. Boggs, believed that intelligence could be measured by how fast one's hair grew. Although the man was certifiably mad, James considered Mr. Boggs the most interesting person in the building. James often wondered if there were other people who found life as boring and meaningless as he did. In church he was told that God put each person on earth for a reason. He was still searching for his. For James, life was a calendar with the days he had lived crossed off.

     Among his classmates, and later fellow soldiers, James Sinclair was alone and apart. Although he wasn't bad looking, his blandness made him unattractive to girls. He would probably never marry, have children, buy a house or do all the other things normal people do. An oddly enough, while he wasn't one of those happy, enthusiastic, ambitious "full of life" people, he wasn't depressed. With such low expectations, nothing disappointed him.

     In 1973, the 23-year-old applied for and received a West Virginia private investigator's license. He qualified because he was over 21, had a high school degree, a West Virginia driver's license, and no criminal record. The fact he didn't have any investigative training or experience wasn't disqualifying. He had, however, read a couple of Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason novels. He figured that his inability to connect with people would somehow be an investigative asset.

     As a private investigator just starting out, James barely made enough money to pay his rent, his car expenses, food, and his yellow page ad. He couldn't afford an office, so he met his clients in their homes or at a popular coffee shop downtown. Once he started making a few bucks he'd buy a brief case. 


     On May 3, 1974, P. I. Sinclair received an important telephone call. A woman named Bailey Collins wanted a private eye to find her missing 28-year-old daughter. Mrs. Collins and her husband, residents of Clay County 50 miles southeast of Charleston, had raised enough money from friends and family to afford, for at least a couple of months, a private investigator. 

     Mr. and Mrs. Collins lived in a farm house down the road from a village called Booger Hollow. The backcountry community featured a pentecostal church, a feed store, an abandoned movie theater, a used car lot, a service station/general store, a cluster of houses, and the Blue Moon Estates trailer court. The only traffic light hadn't functioned since 1960. The Lykes Funeral Home was the most impressive structure in town. In Booger Hollow, one had to die in order to climb the real estate ladder. 

     Seated at the kitchen table, P. I. Sinclair listened as Mrs. Collins, with her husband looking on, provided him with the background information he would need to begin his inquiry into their only daughter's disappearance. 

     Three years earlier, Clystine Bailey Collins, described by her mother as "plain, unworldly, and sweet," came under the spell of the 50-year-old pastor of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church. Pastor Cletus Todd hired Clystine to work as a house cleaner, church janitor, and when necessary, to help out in the church kitchen. A few months after taking the job, Clystine joined the church, and shortly after that, against her parents' wishes, married the preacher. 

     James Sinclair didn't know anything about the Apostolic Pentecostal church. He wasn't interested in religion. His Presbyterian parents forced him as a youngster to attend Sunday school and church where they pumped Jesus into him like air into an inflatable raft. In his late teens, the raft developed a leak and collapsed. James hadn't stepped inside a church since. Although he found religion off putting, James didn't feel he was a bad person. To be religious one had to belong. Perhaps the reason people were drawn to church was the exact reason he wasn't. He couldn't stand the togetherness, what church people called fellowship. The group singing made him especially uncomfortable. All the hymns sounded alike. He just didn't see the point of any of it.  

     Addressing Mrs. Collins, James said, "On the phone you said Clystine went missing on Saturday, April 20."

     "Yes, Pastor Todd called us that evening around eight. He had been out of town. When he returned she wasn't home, or at work. He asked if she was with us, or if we knew where she was."

     "Did he seem upset, worried?"

     "No, not at all."

     "Where do they live?" 

     "In the brick house next to the church."

     "When did the Pastor report her missing?"

     "He didn't."

     "Why not?"

     "He said she left him. Walked out. He figured she met some guy at work."

     "Where is that?"

     "The Luck Lady, a restaurant up on the interstate."

     "Is that something your daughter would do? Run off with a guy?"

     "Absolutely not. Clystine would never do anything like that. Never."

     "Did you explain that to the pastor?"

     "Yes, of course."

     "What did he say?"

     "He claimed she had been acting strange, said the Devil must have entered her soul, something like that."

     "Did he actually blame the Devil?"

     "Yes, it's always the Devil with those folks--the pastor and his people. You can people like them Sunday mornings on TV jumping  up and down, rolling on the floor, and speaking in tongues. They put on quite a show. The women don't cut their hair. They wear dresses that go to their ankles, and don't use makeup. They all  think they'll go to Hell if they touch a drop of alcohol, listen to non-church music, see a movie, play cards or watch television. And while they don't show it on TV, they handle snakes, rattlers."

     "Snakes? What are they for?"

     "I don't know, they're like pets. Pastor Todd believes that a rattler won't bite a handler who is right with Jesus. Religious snake handling is against the law in West Virginia, but they all do it anyway."

     "You'd have to be really stupid to put your trust in a poisonous snake. Has anyone been bitten?" 

     "Probably, but we'd never know it."

     "How many people belong to the Booger Hollow church?"

     "At least half the folks around here are members, including the cock-fighting crowd and the moonshiners. Some are local bigwigs."

     "When your daughter went missing, did you report it to anyone?"

     "Yes, to Sheriff Terry Blankenship. But he wasn't interested."

     "Why not?"

     "Because he's a member of the church."

     "Was Clystine unhappy with her life?

     "Yes. We're pretty sure she regretted marrying that man, being under his thumb. I don't think she knew what she was getting into when she joined that church, speaking in tongues and all of that. She didn't fit in with those people. Half the time the women go around barefoot."

     It occurred to James that Clystine Todd's disappearance might develop into more than just a missing persons case. "Do you think the preacher knows where your daughter is? Do you suspect foul play?" he asked.

     "We don't know what to think. But we know that something is not right. Do you know about the pastor's first two wives?"  

     "No. The only thing I know is what you've told me."

     "His first two wives are dead."

     "How did they die?"

     "The first one, Maxine, committed suicide. Hanged herself. The found her in the church basement."

     "And the second wife?"

    " Poor woman broke her neck falling down a flight of cellar steps."

     "Were these deaths investigated?" 

     "No. Who would investigate? The sheriff is in the church and we don't have a police department."

     "Surely autopsies were performed on the bodies to rule out foul play?"

     "No autopsies. Ralph Lykes, the funeral director who handled the arrangements was, and still is, a member of Pastor Todd's church. He's also the Clay County Coroner. They wasted no time in burying the bodies. Maxine, the one found hanging in the church basement, wasn't even made available for viewing. No church service either. Who knows if they even embalmed her before lowing her body into her grave." Mrs. Collins appeared on the verge of breaking down. She reached for a tissue.

     James turned to Mr. Collins, "Sir, do you have anything to add?"

     "Call me John. We begged Clystine not to marry that guy. He took control of her life. We should have tried harder to stop her."

     "Does Clystine have a car?"

     "Yes," answered Mr. Collins. "A 1960 Chevy Corvair. A piece of junk, but it was cheap. I'll get you the tag number." Mr. Collins rose from the table and left the kitchen. When he returned he handed James the car registration information and a four year old photograph of his daughter. "So, where will you start?" he asked.

     Trying to sound more professional and experienced than he was, James said, "In missing person investigations you start with law enforcement, but because the sheriff is so close to Pastor Todd, I don't see the point. I'll start with the preacher."

     "His office is in his house," Mrs. Collins said. "Do you want his phone number?"

     "No, I'll show up unannounced."


     The Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal church featured a large out of proportion cross that shot into the heavens from the flat roof of the cinderblock building that once housed a farm equipment sales and repair business. Two red neon signs flashing on and off in the big windows flanking the front door said it all. One blared: THE END IS NEAR and the other: GET RIGHT WITH JESUS. Notwithstanding the huge cross and the religious signs, the place didn't look anything like a traditional church. This was not Westminster Abby. James parked his car in the lot in front of the church and walked over to the brick, two-story house next door. As he knocked on the door James noticed the late model black Cadillac Fleetwood parked in the driveway. It was being waxed by a young man with a long, narrow beard. He reminded James of a banjo player in a blue grass band. James didn't imagine there were too many Cadillacs in Booger Hollow, West Virginia. 

     A thin, middle-aged woman with long gray hair, a flowing white dress and a long face answered the door. Trying to hide his apprehension, James followed the towering women to a waiting room outside the preacher's office. He took a seat on an expensive looking sofa as the barefoot woman entered the pastor's office. A few minutes later, the big wooden door opened, the long-faced lady stepped out of the room, gestured James into the pastor's inner sanctum, then departed. The first thing James noticed, or felt, was the thickness of the blood red carpet. 

     From behind his massive oak desk, Pastor Todd rose and extended a hand. Except for his head, he was shockingly small. Although the preacher's head was normal-size, it looked too big on him. And highlighting the fact this man had been born with a regular-sized head, his pitch black hair was arranged into a prodigious pompadour that three inches to his height. Dressed in a pale blue suit and a pink shirt buttoned at the collar, Pastor Todd, surrounded by award plaques, group photos, and paintings of Jesus, asked, "What can we do for you young man?" Besides his head, the little man had a big voice. James pictured him belting out church songs.

     James took a seat in one of the wooden chairs facing the desk, and in his most confident voice, said, "My name is James Sinclair. I'm a private investigator from Charleston. I'm here about your wife, Clystine."

     "What about my wife?" the pastor asked, placing a hand on the thick, leather-bound Bible sitting on his desk. James wondered if this were the Bible he held in the air while preaching to his flock. It looked heavy enough to instantly kill a snake.

      "As you know, Clystine is missing. Her parents are worried."

     "And why is this any of your business?"

     "I've been hired to find her."

     "And you think I know where she is?"

      "You're her husband."

     "She ran off. I have no idea where, or if she'll return. She hasn't been herself. Last week a church member saw her at the truck stop. She was wearing lipstick, had her hair up, and was being friendly with a man. Have you seen the skimpy uniforms they make them wear?" 

     "Why would your wife run off?"

     "If you find Clystine, ask her."

     "If I find her?"

     "Yes. And if you do, tell her that Jesus still loves her. He forgives her. Everyone here is praying for her. And what about you, Mr. Sinclair?"

     "What about me?"

     "Have you found Jesus?"

     "I'm not looking for Jesus. I'm looking for your wife."

     "Did you learn to talk like that from your hippie, godless college professors?"

     "I didn't go to college."

     "Did your folks take you to church?"

     "Yes, they are Presbyterians?"

     "Well that explains it."

     "I understand, Pastor Todd, that in marriage you have been unfortunate."

     "What do you mean?" 

     "Your first two wives. They are dead."

     "Their deaths, young man, are a matter of public record. My first wife Maxine committed suicide. The poor woman gave up on Jesus. We did everything to cast the Devil out, but couldn't save her. Darlene fell down the cellar steps and broke her neck. A terrible accident. She's now with God."

     "Did you seek psychiatric help for Maxine?"

     "We don't believe in that kind of thing, Mr. Sinclair. It's time you go. You are not welcome here. The pastor pushed a button, and the long-faced woman appeared. The preacher said, "This man is leaving."  

     On his way to the door, James turned and asked, "Why weren't the violent deaths of you wives investigated?"

     "Do not come back," came the reply.


     The Lucky Lady Truck Stop and Restaurant sat within earshot of traffic moving north and south on Interstate 79 eighteen miles north of Booger Hollow. A young woman in a frilly pink and white uniform who looked like a cross between a nurse and a cocktail waitress, took his order. Her name tag identified her as Beverly. When Beverly returned with his coffee, James asked, "Could I have a word with you about a waitress named Clystine?"

      "I know Clystine."

     "I'm James Sinclair, a private investigator looking for her."

     "Is she in trouble?"

     "She's gone missing and her parents are worried about her."

     "I can't talk here. I'll meet you at McDonald's in an hour."

     As James sat in the booth waiting for Beverly, he wondered if they had actually sold 15 billion burgers. If this were true, it was amazing there were any cows still alive. As he contemplated the slaughter of all these animals, Beverly walked in still wearing her Lucky Lady uniform, the old meeting the new. 

     "We were not close," she said. "Clystine kept to herself, went home right after work. Something was bothering her though, she seemed afraid." 

     "Of what?"

     "She didn't say, but she wanted to leave her husband, that preacher down in Booger Hollow. He was older."

     "Did Clystine tell you she was leaving the pastor?"

     "In so many words. She saw something she wasn't supposed to see. When she went to her husband about it he got angry, accused her of spying. Told her to mind her own business. She though she was being followed by a couple of men from of the church. Clystine stopped coming to work the end of last month. I haven't seen her since."

     "Have you spoken to anyone besides me about Clystine?"


     "What else did she tell you about the church?"

     "Nothing that I can think of right now. But I did hear that it's some kind of sex cult where the men treat their wives like slaves and they abuse young girls. I also know that Clystine gave everything she earned over to the church. One time I lent her gas money to get home."

     "What have you heard about the pastor's first two wives?"

     "Nothing. Sorry."


     In Clay, West Virginia, a woman at the Clay County Court House directed James to the marriage and divorce records as well as the certificates of death. According to these documents, Pastor Cletus Todd married his second wife, Darlene nee Williams, on June 6, 1960 when he was 44 and she was 26. Darlene died on November 12, 1964. According to her death certificate she died from a fall in her home. James found no record of a coroner's inquest into her sudden and violent death. The funeral home owned by Clay County Coroner Ralph Lykes handled the burial arrangements. The couple had been childless. James made a copy of Darlene's obituary.

     The pastor married Maxine, nee Palmer, on June 4, 1954. The groom was 42 and his bride 24. On October 9, 1958, a member of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church found Maxine hanging from a rope above an overturned chair in the church basement. According to Coroner Lykes, Maxine Todd had taken her own life. She was buried without a viewing or church service. While autopsies are almost aways performed in cases of death by hanging, there was no such procedure in Maxine Todd's case. Since Coroner Lykes was a mortician and not a forensic pathologist, his cause and manner of death ruling was meaningless. Maxine's obituary was brief and devoid of biographical information. It was as though she had never lived. 

     While he was at the court house, James decided to check the criminal convictions records to see if Pastor Todd had even been in trouble with the law. He had. In 1950 he was convicted of criminal trespass. James wonder if he had been caught peeping into someone's window. He was convicted two years later of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Because the records did not include details of the offenses involved, James could only speculate about the nature of Pastor Todd's crimes. The judge who presided over both cases, now deceased, sentenced the preacher with small fines. The police files would contain more details regarding the Pastor's crimes, but this information was not available to private investigators without connections. James walked out of the court house that day feeling empty handed.

     The parents of Pastor Todd's second wife Darlene met P. I. Sinclair at the Whippy Dip Custard Stand down the road from their house in Jackson Bend, a village a few miles east of the Clay County Court House. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were already there when he pulled into the Whippy Dip parking lot. They were seated at a picnic table and did not look eager to make his acquaintance. Both were longtime members of the Booger Hollow Church, and considered Pastor Todd second only to Jesus Christ. And it was a close second.

     Following introductions, Mrs. Williams asked why a private investigator looking for the pastor's run-a-way wife was interested in the details of their daughter's death. Taken back by the question, James muttered something about covering all the bases. Mr. Williams, the owner of a used car lot in Jackson Bend, said, "You had a lot of nerve showing up at the church the other day and harassing Pastor Todd. Now you're bothering us about our deceased daughter."

     "I'm sorry but I'm not trying to harass anyone. I'm conducting an investigation into the whereabouts of the pastor's wife. I thought the pastor would be pleased that someone is looking for her. Apparently he isn't."

      Mr. Williams rose to his feet, he was tall and quite fat. "Stay away from Pastor Todd. The poor man has suffered enough. You are not welcome here."

      James thanked Mr. and Mrs. Williams for their time, backed away the Whippy Dip and with his car pointed toward Charleston, stepped on the gas. 

     A few days after the fiasco at the custard stand, P. I. Sinclair was in Booger Hollow speaking to Charlene Palmer, the mother of Pastor Todd's first wife Maxine. Charlene resided at Blue Moon Estates, a trailer court on the southern edge of town. She and her husband, Rolland, left the Booger Hollow church shortly after Maxine's hanging. He died of a heart attack in 1970. Rolland Palmer was 54, and died believing his daughter had been murdered. Mrs. Palmer looked frail and in poor health. James felt uncomfortable in her modest home where her husband's bowling trophies were still on display. "Do you share your husband's belief regarding Maxine's death?" he asked.

     "I do,"she said. "Pastor Todd told us Maxine had come under the spell of the Devil. Those were his words. This was a lie and he knew it. Maxine loved Christ. She never suffered depression and had no history of mental illness. She wouldn't hang herself. We said this to the sheriff and the county coroner, people we knew from church. They assured us that Maxine had taken her own life. How did they know that? There was no investigation. We asked for an autopsy but Pastor Todd said no. He said that Maxine wasn't meeting Christ with her internal organs in a bag. That's not why he didn't want an autopsy. Besides, if she had killed herself, she wouldn't be meeting God." 

     "What do you think happened to Maxine?"

     "She saw something she wasn't supposed to see and someone in the church made sure she couldn't tell the police."

     "Did she tell you or your husband what it was she saw?"

     "Yes. She unexpectedly walked into the room where they keep Bibles, hymn books and other church supplies. She caught a male member of the church with a young girl."

     "What were they doing?"

      "What do you think?"

     "When you say young girl--"

     "She was eleven or twelve."

     "Who she was?"

     "Maxine didn't say."

     "After walking in on the man and the girl, what did Maxine do?"

     "She ran back to the house, and when Pastor Todd came home, she told him what she saw."


     "He was angry--at her! He made her promise not spread rumors about the church. He said he would take care of it. Of course he didn't, and never intended to."

     "Why is that?"

     "Because he was involved."

     "Was Pastor Todd abusing young girls in his church?"

     "Either that or he was procuring them for church members."

     "When did Maxine tell you about the girl in the supply room?"

     "About a week after it happened. A ten days later, she was dead."

     "Did you consider moving away after her death?"

     "No, this was our home. Neither of us had lived anywhere else. I still have friends here, good people. There is something else I want you to know."


     "Six months ago, a woman from Charleston called. She and her parents belonged to the church when Maxine died. When she was twelve, her family left the church and moved to Charleston after her father got a job there. A few months before calling me, she let her parents in on her terrible secret. She couldn't hold it in any longer."


     "For two years, several men in the Booger Hollow Church sexually molested her. And Pastor Todd knew about it."

     "How did she know that?"

     "After it first happened she went to him. He told her it was okay. She was serving the church. If she told anyone, including her parents, they would go to Hell."

     "Mrs. Palmer, did this woman give you her name, and how she could be reached?"



          Tilly McClure worked at the public library in downtown Charleston. She had agreed to meet P. I. Sinclair at a nearby coffee shop. After a bit of small talk, James asked Tilly why she confided in Mrs. about what had happened to her in the Booger Hollow Church. 

     "I wanted Mrs. Palmer to know that if her daughter had killed herself, it was probably because of what she had seen when she walked into church supply room. Maxine witnessed me being sexually abused by two men."

     "How did Mrs. Palmer respond to your revelation?"

     "She cried, and thanked me. She said Maxine did not kill herself. She was emphatic."

     "Do you believe Maxine committed suicide?"

     "Are you asking me if I think they killed her?"


     "I don't know. If they had I wouldn't be surprised. Those people, you have no idea."

     "I think I do."

     "They ruined my life. This is the third job I've had in a year. I miss work. I drink, I'm on medication. I'm still single and live with my aunt. The worst part is, I'm afraid of everyone. I don't know who I can trust? 

     James didn't know what to say to that except, "Okay."

     "Can I trust you?"

     "Yes. I know I can't help you, but I will do no harm. You don't have to be afraid of me."

     "I'm not. You seem different."

     "If I'm different it's because I am extremely ordinary."

     She smiled. "That's funny."

     "I'm afraid it's true."

     "I'd love to be ordinary. Lucky you."

     "At the church, how did it start?"

     "Paster Todd visited our youth camp when I was twelve. He pulled me aside and said he had been watching me, said I was special, a future leader in the church. I was flattered. Eventually he introduced me to one of his righthand men, said this man would teach me about Christian leadership. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew several men were having their way with me. I kept asking myself why me? Was it my fault?"

     "Of course not. Those men were sex offenders, perverts. You were the victim."

     "I keep telling myself that. But it doesn't help. They were respected members of the church."

     "Can you want to tell me their names?"

     "Sheriff Terry Blankenship and Coroner Lykes."

     "Are you aware that these men are still in power, still members of the church?"

     "Yes. And still abusing girls," Tilly added. 

     "Did Pastor Todd ever touch you?"

     "No, but he made it possible, and kept telling me if made accusations no one, not even my parents, would believe me. I would burn in Hell. I believed him. Why was I was so stupid? I should have exposed them."

     "You were a child. The were adults. You could expose them now. You could."

     "They raped me 17 years ago. The police can't do any thing. The people at the church will call me a drunk, a mental case, and they would be right. They will be against me, call me a liar. Anyway, who would I tell?"

     "You can go public. I know a crime reporter with the Charleston Gazette. He will tell your story."

     "What good would that do?"

     "It might inspire other victims to come forward, more recent victims. It might lead to criminal charges, and convictions, and the end of the abuse. Will you at least consider it?"

     "I'll do it. I have nothing to lose.


         Under the headline: CHILD SEX ABUSE AT BOOGER HOLLOW CHURCH ALLEGED, the Charleston Gazette, in June 1974, published Tilly McClure's story without naming the church, Pastor Todd, Sheriff Blankenship or Coroner Lykes. Even though the church and the perpetrators were not named, everybody in Booger Hollow knew who was being accused. Pastor Todd, ignoring his attorney's advice, held a press conference in front of his church. Behind him stood a dozen or so preachers from churches around the area. In front of him were several television cameras and a couple of print reporters. Pastor Todd threatened to sue the newspaper, the reporter, and Tilly McClure for libel, slander, and defamation. He asked members of his vilified church to prey for the accuser, a woman he described as troubled and Devil-possessed. While the little man with the wrong sized head and flamboyant hair attacked Tilly McClure, the preachers standing behind him nodded in agreement. The air was filled with amens. Pastor Todd's presentation was well received by members of his congregation, but more than a few viewers in Charleston considered it a shameful, Bible-thumping spectacle. Moreover, the press conference generated, in some circles, sympathy for Tilly McClure.   

     The day following Pastor Todd's sanctimonious press conference where he attacked the mental soundness and morality of his accuser, a Charleston television crew stationed themselves on the sidewalk outside of her residence. Afraid to leave the house, Tilly missed another day of work. By that evening, the TV people were gone. The Booger Hollow Church sex scandal was already old news, pushed aside by a hotel fire in downtown Charleston. 

     Worried about the brave and fragile woman who had trusted him with her story, James tried several times to call her at home. No one picked up which, under the circumstances, was not surprising. Three days later, James called the library and was told that Miss McClure had been absent from work,.

     On the morning of June 15, 1974, twelve days after the infamous Booger Hollow press conference, James turned on the TV and was stunned by the news: Tilly McClure was dead. 

     The previous evening, Tilly McClure's aunt had returned home to find her niece unresponsive on the bathroom floor next to a bottle that contained pills prescribed to treat her depression. While the autopsy and toxicological inquiries had not been completed, the presumed manner of death was either suicide or accidental overdose. James felt certain that it was the former. Overcome by guilt and anger, he wept.


     Tilly McClure's death was not totally in vain. The news of her suicide prompted three mothers of the Booger Hollow Church to file reports with the West Virginia State Police alleging that within the past two years, members of Pastor Todd's congregation had sexually molested their pre-teen daughters. This time Pastor Todd listened to his attorney and did not hold a press conference. 

     In January 1975, state troopers arrested Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Terry Blankenship, County Coroner Ralph Lykes, and two other members of the church. The Clay County District Attorney charged Pastor Todd with three counts of facilitating the sexual abuse of a minor. The other men faced charges of felony rape of a minor. They all pleaded guilty and were released on bond. 

     The sheriff, the coroner, and the other two members of the Booger Hollow Church pleaded guilty to the rape charges and promised to testify against Pastor Todd. In return for their cooperation with the prosecution, they were each sentenced to ten years in prison. 

     In September 1975, Pastor Todd was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of child endangerment. At his January 1976 sentence hearing, several Pentecostal preachers took the stand and vouched for his good character and standing in the community. No one came forward on behalf of the young rape victims. The judge sentenced Cletus Todd to 18 months to be served at the the state prison in Moundsville. Members of the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church present in the courtroom cheered and praised the Lord when the judge handed down the shockingly light sentence. James Sinclair, seated in the back of the room, lowered his head, but not in preyer. When the news reached the pastor's supporters outside the courthouse, they roared in glee and looked to the heavens in thanks.

     Following the stunning failure of the Clay County criminal justice system, James reached out to John and Bailey Collins. He told them he wanted to continue his search for Clystine. He promised to find her. And when he did, the law might not be finished with Pastor Todd. Mr. and Mrs. Collins informed James they could no longer afford his services. They would try to console themselves with the image of their daughter living somewhere with a decent man in a suburban home far way from Booger Hollow, West Virginia.

     In April 1976, disheartened by his inability to find Clystine Todd, and the failure of the criminal justice system to adequately punish Pastor Todd for decades of criminal behavior, James Sinclair left the private detective business. He simply wasn't cut out for it. James moved to Wheeling, West Virginia where he acquired a job driving a city bus, an occupation that suited him well. He maintained an arm's length relationship with his parents, but had met a young, introverted woman he liked. While he frequently thought about Clystine Todd, James never brought up the subject of her disappearance. And the closest he came to a church was when he drove by one in his bus.


     After serving 18 months in the Moundsville State Penitentiary where he started a prison ministry, Pastor Todd returned to Booger Hollow. He was greeted at the church by a throng of gleeful followers gathered to celebrate his homecoming. The charismatic preacher thanked God, forgave his accusers, and promised to rebuild the church into a powerful religious movement that would run the Devil out of West Virginia. While he didn't say where the Devil would run to, this was not be good for for the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia.

     On August 14, 1997, James Sinclair, while driving his bus down Wheeling's steep Chicken Neck Hill, lost control of the vehicle. The bus crashed into several on-coming cars, swerved into a telephone pole, flipped onto its roof and slid to the bottom of the hill where it exploded and burst into flames. Paramedics pronounced the former private investigator and four of his passengers dead at the scene. Two others died in the accident. Pastor Todd had not run the Devil out of Wheeling, West Virginia. 

     As the Pentecostal citizens of Booger Hollow continued to thank the Lord for the resurrection of their savior, the Very Most Reverend Cletus Todd, the preacher's third wife, Clystine Bailey Todd, sat quietly behind the wheel of her Chevy Corvair. It was there, in the murky waters of a shallow pond, she waited patiently to be discovered by a Clay County boy out for a swim.   

The Albert Jackson Sterling II Murder-For-Hire Case

      Life had been good to Roxanne Sterling, or so it seemed. She lived in a $400,000 house, was married to an ambitious man who made good money, and was eight months pregnant with her second child. Early in the afternoon of November 21, 2006, before leaving the house to go shopping, Roxanne said good-bye to her husband, Albert Jackson Sterling II. In an hour or so, Albert would be driving from the couple's home in Allen, Texas to nearby Dallas to catch a flight to his parents' home in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

     At four o'clock that afternoon, with her husband on the plane to New Mexico, Roxanne pulled her car into the garage and entered her house. She walked into the master bedroom and nearly fainted when she came face-to-face with a man wearing gloves and holding a black leather belt. The intruder rose from the edge of the bed and said, "Your husband wants you dead." Keeping his voice calm, the intruder asked the terrified woman not to panic. He had changed his mind. Instead of killing her, he was there to warn her of her husband's intentions. She was free to call the police. Roxanne, moving as fast as she could, ran to a neighbor's house. The neighbor called 911. The emergency operator could hear Roxanne sobbing uncontrollably in the background.

     Officers from the Allen Police Department found the intruder, Jeffrey Boden Thompson, waiting for them at the Sterling house. Thompson told the officers that Albert Sterling had given him the leather belt which he was to use in strangling the victim. Thompson said he had instructions to haul the corpse, in the victim's car, to a predetermined site in Dallas. After dumping the body, Thompson was to abandon the vehicle at another spot in the city. Mr. Sterling, the murder-for-hire mastermind, had designed his plan to fool the police into thinking that Roxanne had been carjacked and murdered in Dallas. For his efforts, Mr. Thompson would have earned $2,500.

     Because Jeffrey Thompson was willing to cooperate with investigators, the Collin County district attorney decided not to charge him with burglary. To show his willingness to help, Thompson played detectives a message Albert Sterling had left on his cellphone before flying to New Mexico. "The chicken has flown the coop," Albert said, referring to his wife's leaving the  house. "She will be there [back at the  house] in an hour. Just have patience."

     With detectives listening in, Thompson called Sterling in New Mexico with the message he had been told by the mastermind to leave upon completion of the hit: "The chariot (the victim's car) is in south Dallas and the trash (her body) is in west Dallas."

     The next day, in Alamogordo, police officers arrested Albert Sterling on charges of soliciting the murders of his wife and unborn child. The officers booked Sterling into the Otero County Jail where he would await extradition back to Texas. Through his attorney, Sterling denied having arranged his wife's murder, stating that she had caught Thompson in the act of burglarizing their house. The burglar, according to Sterling, had made up the hit murder business to avoid being charged with the break-in.

     Albert Sterling's family, friends, and neighbors were shocked that he had been accused of murder-for-hire. From all appearances he and Roxanne had been happily married, and looking forward to the birth of their baby. People who knew Albert refused to believe that a well-educated man with a good job would hire someone to murder his pregnant wife. Albert not only possessed a good job in the computer industry, the 38-year-old worked as a trainer/instructor in a 24-hour fitness club in Dallas. There had been rumors of a girlfriend who was one of his students in his other business, Al's Punch Time, a boxing gym. Still, no one believed he would have his pregnant wife murdered simply because he had found another woman.

     On December 7, 2006, Albert Sterling was brought back to Texas and placed in the Collins County Jail under $500,000 bond. Two weeks later, a Collin County grand jury indicted him on two counts of murder solicitation. Late in January 2007, a judge released the suspect on bail on the condition he wear an electric monitoring device, and report once a week to the court bailiff. Sterling also had to relinquished his passport.

     While awaiting his murder trial, Albert admitted to Roxanne that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. She not only forgave him, she told the Collins County prosecutor that despite what she had been told by Jeffrey Thompson, she believed that her husband was an honest, trustworthy man who had never plotted to murder her and their baby. She stunned the prosecutor by saying that she would testify on his behalf at his upcoming trial.

     Albert Sterling, through his attorney, Russell Wilson, denied attempting to hire Jeffrey Thompson, an ex-convict, to kill his wife. According to the defense attorney, his client had been working on a car insurance scam with Mr. Thompson when Thompson chose to burglarize his house. When Roxanne walked in on him, the intruder made up the murder-for-hire story.

     On February 13, 2009, a Collin County jury of six men and six women, after a short period of deliberation, found Albert Sterling guilty as charged. The judge sentenced him to two concurrent 30-year prison sentences. Throughout the trial, Roxanne remained loyal to her husband. She had taken the stand for the defense, and at the sentencing hearing, had testified on his behalf.

     Six months after the sentencing of her husband, Roxanne divorced him. When asked by reporters if she still believed in Albert's innocence, she didn't respond. After the sale of the house she and Albert had shared, the 39-year-old moved into a rental house not far from her former residence. 

The Destructive Power of Junk Forensic Science

According to The Center for Integrity in Forensic Sciences, between 1989 and 2019, more than 2000 innocent people were victims of wrongful convictions. Among these victims of injustice, 24 percent had trials that featured improper or invalid forensic science.

Where Do You Go To Get Justice?

Justice?--You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.

Opening line to A Frolic of His Own (1994) by William Gaddis