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. This experience confirmed his already low opinion of mankind. James' employment history with the lawyer would have been spotless had he not, while in a tree, dropped the firm's high speed camera. His parents, who wanted him in college, voiced their disgust at his line of work. A low, filthy business he father called it. As a boy James sought their approval but eventually became indifferent to them and their expectations. They would have to live with their disappointment.
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, nothing interested or excited him, including sports. Why would he go to a football game and root for one team over another?
A young English teacher named Misty Dawn once scolded James 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. His best high school memory didn't come from the prom or a championship game, but when Miss Lane, his 62-year-old French teacher stripped naked in front of the class while singing Frere Jacques. After seeing more than he wanted, James never saw this teacher again. The young woman who replaced her had a habit of spitting when she talked. High school memories.
James often wondered if other people found life as absurd as he did. In church he was told that God put each person on earth for a reason. If that were true He must be depressed as hell.
Among his classmates, and later fellow soldiers, James Sinclair was alone and apart. Although he wasn't bad looking, his lack of charm and distaste of group activities made him unattractive to girls. He wasn't fun. Because he didn't foresee marriage, children, home ownership, a high paying job, or any of the other things middle class people look forward to, James had no vision of his future. While he wasn't an enthusiastic, ambitious "full of life" person, low expectations kept him from being depressed. He had no ups and therefore no downs. Life was simply a day-to-day existence, a calendar with the days he had lived crossed off.
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 valid West Virginia driver's license, and no criminal record. The fact he didn't have investigative training or much experience in the field didn't disqualify him from acquiring the license. He figured his inability to personally connect with people made him dispassionate and rational, investigative assets.
As a private investigator just starting out, James barely made enough money to pay for his rent, car expenses, food and yellow page listing. He couldn't afford an office, so he met his clients in their homes or at a popular coffee shop downtown. If business didn't pick up soon he'd find something else. Although as a teenager he had read a couple of Perry Mason novels and watched "Dragnet" on TV, it wasn't as though he'd spent his childhood dreaming of becoming a private eye.
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 modest homes, and the Blue Moon Estates trailer court. The only traffic light in town hadn't functioned since 1960. The Lykes Funeral Home stood as the most impressive structure in town. In Booger Hollow, one had to die in order to move a few rungs up 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 and he didn't see the point of people making bad music together.
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 said 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 that big brick house next to the church."
"When did the pastor report Clystine missing?"
"He said she had left him. Walked out. He figured she had met some man where she works."
"Where is that?"
"The Luck Lady, a restaurant up on Interstate 79."
"Is that something your daughter would do? Run off with a man?"
"Absolutely not. Clystine would never do anything like that. Never. Ask anyone who knows her."
"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 gotten into her heart, something like that."
"He blamed the Devil?"
"Yes, it's always the Devil with those people--the pastor and his followers. I'm sure you've seen religious fanatics like them on Sunday morning television jumping up and down, rolling on the floor, and speaking in tongues. The preachers dance around like they are possessed. It's quite a show. The women in these churches don't cut their hair, wear dresses that go to their ankles, and never wear makeup. They all think they'll go to Hell if they touch a drop of alcohol, listen to non-church music, enjoy a movie, or play cards. And while they don't show it on TV, some of them handle rattle snakes."
"What are the snakes for?"
"I don't know, I guess they're like pets. They believe that rattlers won't bite handlers who are in good standing with Jesus. Religious snake handling is against the law in West Virginia, but they do it anyway. These people are not normal. Many of them are criminals."
"Has anyone been bitten?"
"Probably, but we'd never know it."
"How many people go to the Booger Hollow Church?"
"Most of the folks around here belong. Maybe four hundred or so, including the cock-fighting crowd, the bootleggers, and the moonshiners. Some members are local bigwigs."
"When your daughter went missing who did you report it to?"
"Sheriff Terry Blankenship. But he wasn't interested."
"Because he's a member of the church."
"Do you think your daughter was unhappy?"
"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 his church--speaking in tongues and all of that. She didn't fit in with those people. Half the time the women go around barefoot. What do they have against shoes? Clystine was not a religious fanatic. She was a normal person who made a big mistake and regretted it. But she would never run off."
It occurred to James that Clystine Todd's disappearance might be 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 with the pastor and his church. Do you know about the pastor's first two wives?"
"No. The only thing I know is what you've told me."
"They are dead."
"How did they die?"
"The first one, Maxine, committed suicide. Hanged herself. They found her in the church basement."
"And the second?"
" Poor woman broke her neck falling down a flight of steps."
"Were the 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 both women. 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 Maxine before putting her into the ground." 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 save 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 photograph of his daughter. "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 flashed on and off in the big windows flanking the front door. One blared: THE END IS NEAR and the other: GET RIGHT WITH JESUS. This was not Westminster Abby.
James parked his car in the lot in front of the church and walked to the large brick house next door. As he knocked on the door, James noticed the black 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood parked in the pastor's driveway. It was being waxed by a skinny young man with a ragged beard, pale skin, and homemade tattoos on both arms. The guy could have been a character in an Erskine Caldwell novel. James didn't imagine there were too many Cadillacs in Booger Hollow. The Lykes Funeral Home owned a couple, and the Pastor's vanity plates--DIED 4 U--were also a good fit for the funeral home's vehicles. The people of Booger Hollow who had never seen the inside a Caddy would get their first ride, albeit post mortem, in the funeral car.
A thin, middle-aged woman with gray hair to her waist, a long white dress and a long face answered the door to the pastor's house. 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 leather sofa as the barefoot woman entered the pastor's office and closed the door. The only thing to read in the waiting room was a Bible that looked like the ones placed in motel rooms. James never understood the relationship between the Good Book and motels. Perhaps Bibles were planted in these rooms to ward off some of the sinful activities that took place there. As James thought about some of his divorce lawyer cases involving motel rooms, the pastor's office door opened and the long-faced lady stepped out. She gestured James into the inner sanctum, then departed. The first thing James noticed, or felt, when he entered the office was the pastor's plush, blood red carpet.
From behind his massive oak desk, Pastor Todd rose and extended a hand. The man was shockingly small. Although the preacher had a normal-sized head, it was much too big for his skinny neck and narrow shoulders. Some heavenly assembly worker had badly screwed up putting this man together. The pastor combed his jet black hair into a prodigious pompadour that added three inches to his height and accentuated his out of proportion head. He wore tight-fitting blue trousers and a pink dress shirt buttoned at the collar. Around his neck hung a chain that supported a silver cross that occupied most of his chest. Surrounded by award plaques, group photographs, and pictures of Jesus on and off the cross, the pastor asked, "What can I do for you young man?" His booming voice startled James who felt uncomfortable in his presence. He looked nothing like James had pictured.
The young investigator took a seat on the wooden chair that faced the desk. He was immediately distracted by the brass cross bolted onto the wall behind the pastor's head. How much did the thing weigh? Was there a factory somewhere that manufactured six-foot brass crosses? James wondered if in Rome the Pope, in his office, had the gold plated version. Tearing his eyes away from the cross, James said, "My name is James Sinclair. I'm a private investigator from Charleston. I'm here about your wife Clystine."
"What about Clystine?" the pastor asked, placing a tiny hand on the leather Bible sitting on his desk. James wondered if this were the Bible he held above his head when he preached to his flock. If he dropped that book, slackers in the back pew would surely come to attention. If the Good Book landed on a snake--good-bye rattler.
"As you know sir, Clystine is missing. Her parents are worried."
"And why is that 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 to or if she'll return. The poor woman hasn't been herself. Last week a member of our church saw her at work at the Lucky Lady truck stop. She was wearing lipstick--and her hair was styled. She was being friendly--flirting--with some man. Have you seen the skimpy outfits they make them wear?"
"Was this church member there on your behalf?"
"He's a truck driver." The pastor's smile did not conceal his irritation. He obviously was not accustomed to being interrogated.
"Why would Clystine run off without telling you? Unless of course she was afraid to."
"If you find Clystine you can ask her that." The preacher leaned forward. With closed-set eyes he glared at the disrespectful young investigator.
"If I find her?" James replied.
"Yes. And if you do, tell her that Jesus loves her. He forgives. Everyone here is praying for her."
"Why aren't they looking for her?" James asked while trying to imagine himself telling someone that Jesus loved them. How would he know who Jesus loved or didn't love?
"We will leave Clystine's fate to Him. God will determine if and when she comes home. It's out of our hands, all we can do is pray." The pastor leaned back in his chair looking quite pleased with himself. "And what about you, Mr. Sinclair?"
"What about me?"
"Have you found Jesus?"
"I'm not looking for Jesus. Right now I'm looking for your wife."
"Did godless college professors teach you to talk like that?"
"I didn't go to college," James replied. Now that the gloves were off, he asked, "What about you Pastor Todd, what college did you attend?" Before the preacher could answer, James said, "Let me guess--Oral Roberts University."
"I was fifteen when the Lord called. There was no time for college."
"God called you? You picked up the phone and it was Him?"
"Very funny. It's obvious your parents didn't bring you up in church."
"Actually they did. They took me every Sunday."
"And what church was that?"
"United Presbyterian in Charleston."
"Well that explains it."
Instead of speaking up for his parents, or asking exactly how being a Presbyterian explained his religious cynicism, James decided to change the subject and ask the pastor about his deceased wives. "I understand," he said, "that in marriage you have been unfortunate."
"What do you mean by that?" the pastor asked. He of course knew exactly what James meant. The question had caught him off guard.
"They died unexpectedly," James replied, imitating Sergeant Joe Friday in tone and brevity, thinking that watching every episode of "Dragnet" had paid off.
"My wives' deaths, young man, are a matter of public record. My first, Maxine, committed suicide. The poor woman gave up on Jesus. We did everything we could to cast the Devil out of her soul, but couldn't save her. Darlene, my second, fell down cellar steps and broke her neck. A terrible accident. She's now with God."
"And Maxine? Where is she?"
"You're a Presbyterian, you tell me," the pastor snapped.
"Did you seek psychiatric help for Maxine? She must have been very depressed to have taken her own life?
"We don't believe in psychiatrists or drugs. We believe in the healing power of Jesus. I also believe it's time for you to go. You are not welcome here. If you come snooping around again, I'll have you arrested. You can spend the night in the Clay County Jail." The pastor pushed a button under his desk and the long-faced woman suddenly appeared in the doorway. She must have been standing just outside. The preacher said, "Show this man out."
On his way to the door, James turned and said, "A night in the slammer is better than hanging in your basement at the end of a rope." James, who wasn't accustomed to exerting the energy it took to personally dislike people, surprised himself with his burst of anger. He did not like this man.
Unfazed by the reference to his first wife's death, the pastor said, "I'm not kidding, do not come around here again. Consider that a warning."
"Threatening the man looking for your wife is not very Christian," James said before closing the door behind him.
As James walked to his car, the bearded man polishing the preacher's new Cadillac looked up and said, "God be with you."
"Thanks," James replied. No one had ever said that to him in Charleston. This was a strange place, a culture he could never understand. And he was only sixty miles from his home. Perhaps as a private investigator he wouldn't be welcomed anywhere. He'd have to figure out if that mattered to him. Being an outsider was one thing, being unwelcome everywhere was another.
The Lucky Lady Truck Stop and Restaurant sat within earshot of the 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 trainee 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," she said.
"I'm James Sinclair, a private investigator."
"I've never met a private investigator before. I've seen them on TV. Do you carry a gun?"
"Is Clystine in trouble?"
"She's gone missing. Her parents hired me to find her."
"I can't talk here," Beverly said. "I'll meet you over at McDonald's when I get off in an hour."
As James waited in the McDonald's booth listening to the cars and trucks on Interstate 79, he wondered if the franchise had actually sold 15 billion burgers. If this were true, it was amazing there were any cows still alive. As he contemplated this attack on the bovine population, Beverly walked into McDonald's wearing her perky Lucky Lady uniform: the old meeting the new.
"We were not close," Beverly said. "Clystine kept to herself. After her shift she'd go straight home. I could tell though that something was bothering her. I think she was afraid."
"She didn't say, and I didn't ask, but I think she wanted to leave her husband. He's that wild preacher down in Booger Hollow."
"Yes, we've met. Did Clystine tell you she planned to leave the pastor?"
"No, she didn't come out and say it. But she saw something at the church that disturbed her, something she was not supposed to see. When she told the preacher about it, he got angry, accused her of spying. Told her to mind her own business. She told me she was being followed by a couple of men from the church, that building with the big cross on the roof and the neon signs in the front windows."
"Yes, I've seen it. It's hard to miss."
"About two weeks ago Clystine stopped coming to work."
"Do you know what she saw that was so disturbing?"
"She didn't say, and I didn't press her. But it must have been something pretty scary."
"At the truck stop, was Clystine friendly with any of the customers? Anyone special? A man perhaps?"
"No. She was nice to everyone, but she didn't flirt."
"Have you spoken to anyone else about Clystine?"
"To your knowledge, has anyone from the church been to the truck stop asking about her?"
"Did she talk much about the church?"
"Not much. But I've heard rumors. The men treat their wives and daughters like slaves. I never asked Clystine about that. She did tell me she gave everything she earned over to the church. One time I had to lend her gas money to get home. I think her being missing has something to do with the husband and that church. Her parents have every right to be worried."
"Have you heard anything about the pastor's previous marriages?"
"I don't know anything about that. Sorry. I hope you're not going to tell anyone what I have told you. I don't want to get mixed up with those people. They scare me."
"They will never know," James said.
"Clystine did not run off with another man. I don't believe she ran off, period. Find her, she's a nice person."
While James didn't have a history of finding missing persons or uncovering evidence of criminal wrongdoing, his experience as a divorce attorney's investigator had taught him how to follow people. Having been banned from Pastor Todd's house had piqued his curiosity about what might go on there at night.
Shortly after dark on a moonless May evening, James parked his 1966 Plymouth Fury in the alley alongside the feed store across the street from the pastor's house. At ten o'clock, a girl who looked to be in her early teens wearing a long, loose-fitting dress stepped out of the dwelling. She was followed by the bearded man James had seen waxing the preacher's car on his first and last visit to the pastor's home. He carried a small suitcase. A few seconds later, Pastor Todd, dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt, appeared under the light above the door. He handed the skinny man a white envelope then re-entered the house.
The man who had informed James that God loved him, opened the Cadillac's rear passenger door for the girl. He climbed in behind the wheel, backed onto street, and headed west.
About a half mile east of downtown Charleston, the Cadillac turned onto the parking lot of the Honeysuckle Inn. James immediately recognized the place. Once, when he he worked for the divorce lawyer he followed a married accountant to the one-story motel. You could book a room for $19.95 a Nite and Pets Were Welcome. The accountant didn't have a pet, but was accompanied by a 19-year-old hooker named Kitty.
From the street, James watched the Cadillac pull up alongside a green Buick Roadmaster parked facing Room 15. The bearded driver alighted from the Caddy and opened the back car door for the girl. A chunky middle-aged woman with short gray hair came out of Room 15. The Cadillac driver handed this woman the girl's small suitcase and the white envelope from Pastor Todd. He returned to the vehicle as the girl and the woman entered the motel room.
James found a parking spot that afforded a good view. He glanced at his watch: it was eleven forty-five. Rather than drive through the parking lot and jot down the Buick's license plate, James decided to stay put. He couldn't risk being made by the man in the preacher's Caddy.
At two-thirty in the morning, the motel door opened. The woman stepped out and waved the Cadillac driver into the room. A minute later, the man came out carrying the girl and her suitcase. She had on a blue, terrycloth robe and a pair of white slippers. The bearded man carefully placed the girl onto the back seat then gently closed the door. James watched as the Cadillac backed away from the motel, pulled onto the street, and headed east toward Booger Hollow.
James decided to wait for the woman even if he had to spend the night in the car. As it turned out, it was a short wait. The gray haired woman, carrying a small leather satchel and a full laundry bag, came out of the room. She placed the satchel on the front passenger's seat and the laundry bag into the trunk. She re-entered Room 15 and returned carrying what looked like a portable message table she placed into the trunk. She closed the lid, climbed into the Buick, and backed away from the Honeysuckle Inn.
Since traffic was light this time of night, James followed at a distance. At a traffic light in downtown Charleston he jotted down the Buick's license number. James followed the woman to an upscale apartment complex on the north side of the city. She pulled into the gated parking lot and entered the building through a side door.
The next day, a paralegal who worked for James' former employer submitted the Buick's license number to a contact he had at the Motor Vehicle Department. The car was registered to a Dr. Joyce Petit, an Obstetrician with offices in a large suburban medical center.
James had witnessed a clandestine abortion, something that had not been on his list of things that went on at the Honeysuckle Inn.
In Clay, West Virginia, a woman at the Clay County Court House directed James to the marriage and divorce records as well as to where they kept 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 committed suicide. 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 in the court house, James decided to check the criminal convictions records to see if Cletus Todd had ever been in trouble with the law. As it turned out, he had. In 1950 he was convicted of criminal trespass. James wondered if he had been caught peeping into someone's window. Pastor Todd was convicted two years later of misdemeanor animal cruelty. Because the conviction records did not include details of the offenses, James could only speculate about the nature of Pastor Todd's crimes. The presiding judge, now deceased, had sentenced the preacher to small fines. The police files containing the details of the pastor's crimes were not available to a private investigator who didn't have a friend on the force. James walked out of the court house feeling powerless and empty handed.
The parents of Pastor Todd's second wife Darlene had agreed to meet P. I. Sinclair at the Whippy Dip Custard Stand down the road from their home in Jackson Bend, a village a few miles east of the Clay County Court House. Mr. and Mrs. Williams were already there when James 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 himself, and a close second at that.
Following introductions, Mrs. Williams asked James why, in looking for the pastor's run-a-way wife, he 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 wasn't trying to harass the pastor. I'm conducting an investigation into the whereabouts of his wife. I thought he would be pleased that someone was looking for her. Apparently he wasn'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 out of the Whippy Dip parking lot, pointed his car in the direction of Charleston, and stepped on the gas. Why were these people so hostile? What were they hiding? What were they afraid of?
A few days after the fiasco at the custard stand, P. I. Sinclair was back in Booger Hollow, this time speaking to Charlene Palmer, the mother of Pastor Todd's first wife Maxine. Charlene resided in a mobile home in Blue Moon Estates, a trailer court on the southern edge of town. In the 1950's the trailer court had been a drive-in theater of the same name. Mrs. Palmer and her husband Rolland had left Pastor Todd's church in 1958 shortly after Maxine's death. Mr. Palmer died of a heart attack in 1970 at the age of 54. According to his wife, he died believing that his daughter had been murdered. Mrs. Palmer looked frail and in poor health. The tiny woman sat on a threadbare sofa amid family photographs and a couple of Mr. Palmer's bowling trophies. James felt uncomfortable sitting in the living room of her rusty mobile home. He felt like an intruder invading the poor woman's privacy. This was an aspect of the job--privacy invasion--he'd have to get used to. "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. Maxine loved Christ. She never suffered depression and had no history of mental illness. She would never take her life and the pastor knew it. We said this to the sheriff and the county coroner, people we knew from church. They assured us Maxine hanged herself. How did they know that? There was no investigation. We asked for an autopsy of Maxine's body, but Pastor Todd forbade it. He said Maxine wasn't meeting God with her internal organs stuffed into a bag. But we knew that wasn't the reason he didn't want an autopsy. Besides, if she killed herself, she wouldn't be meeting God."
"What do you think happened to Maxine?"
"She saw something she wasn't supposed to. Someone in the church made sure she didn't go to the police."
"Did she know Sheriff Blankenship couldn't be trusted?"
"Yes, but she could have gone to the state police."
"Did she tell you what she saw?"
"Yes. She unexpectedly walked into the room where they store hymn books, donation baskets and other church things. She caught two men with a young girl."
"What were they doing?"
"What do you think?"
"When you say young--"
"Eleven or twelve."
"Did Maxine know the child?"
"If she did she didn't say."
"Who were the men?"
"She didn't say. She said it would be better if we didn't know."
"After walking in on the men 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 warned her not to spread rumors about the church. He would take care of it himself. Of course he didn't and never intended to."
"Because he was involved."
"Are you saying Pastor Todd was sexually abusing girls?"
"Either that or he was procuring them for members of the church."
"When did Maxine tell you about about this?"
"About a week after it happened. Ten days later she was dead."
"Did you consider moving after that?"
"No, this was our home. Neither of us had lived anywhere else. I still have friends here, good people. Here in Clay County we are not the most sophisticated people in the world, but we're not all hicks. A lot of us come from humble beginnings, myself included. I grew up on a small farm not far from here. My dad was born at home and he died at home. He was 55 and had never stepped out of Clay County. He didn't trust doctors and couldn't believe that to hunt, fish or drive a car you had to get a license. My father didn't go beyond sixth grade and even today very few kids around here go to college. People from the city look down on us. Why would they care about my daughter or Clystine Todd? That's just the way it is. You should understand that."
"I'm from the city and didn't go to college. I care about what happened to your daughter and Clystine."
"Do you really? Or are you just paid to care?"
"I'm being paid but I want to find Clystine Todd and in the process expose her husband. And if someone murdered your daughter that person should go to prison."
"Okay then. There is something else you should know."
"Six months ago a woman from Charleston called. She and her parents belonged to the Booger Hollow church when Maxine died. When this woman was twelve her family left the area, moved to Charleston. She knew that Clystine Todd's parents had reported her missing. She called to tell me something, something she had wanted me to know for a long time."
"For two years several men in the Booger Hollow Church had sexually molested her. Pastor Todd knew about it and did nothing."
"How did he know?"
"After it first happened she went to him. He told her it was okay, said she was serving the church, doing God's work. If she told anyone about her relationship with these men she and her folks would go to Hell. She eventually told her parents. That's when they moved to Charleston."
"Why didn't her parents report this to the state police?"
"Her parents were ashamed. They were also afraid the police wouldn't believe them. The word of a kid against so-called men of God. Can you blame them?"
"I guess not. Mrs. Palmer, did this woman give you her name?"
"Do you think she would talk to me?"
"I don't know, but it wouldn't hurt to try."
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 McClure why she had confided in Mrs. Palmer about what had happened to her as a child 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 the church supply room. Maxine witnessed me being sexually abused by two men."
Surprised by the sudden straightforwardness of Tilly McClure's revelation, James wasn't sure what to say. "I see," he managed.
"Don't you believe me?"
"I believe you. I just wasn't expecting that," he replied. "How did Mrs. Palmer respond to your revelation?"
"She cried, then thanked me. She wanted me to know that Maxine did not kill herself. She was emphatic about that."
"Do you believe Maxine committed suicide?"
"Are you asking if I think she was murdered?"
"I don't know. If she was murdered I wouldn't be surprised. Those people--you have no idea."
"Pastor Cletus Todd and his followers. They ruined my life. I flunked out of college and every boyfriend I've ever had--and there haven't been many--left me. And for good reason. I can't hold a job for more than a few months. I drink too much and the pills don't help. I'm depressed, single, and live with my aunt. I don't even own a car. The worst part is, I'm afraid of everyone. I don't know who to trust."
James didn't know what to say except, "Okay."
"Can I trust you?"
"Yes. You don't have to be afraid of me. I believe Pastor Todd and his people are evil and have to be stopped. Who knows how many other lives they ruined. I'm single, don't have a girlfriend and can barely afford a car. My parents think I'm a failure, a misfit. I don't trust people either and suspect I'm in the wrong business."
"You seem different than other men."
"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."
"Would you mind telling me how Pastor Todd groomed you for sexual abuse?"
"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 church leader. He gave me little gifts, religious trinkets and the like. 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 this my fault?"
"Those men were sex offenders, degenerates. You were a victim."
"I keep telling myself that. But it doesn't help. They were respected members of the church."
"Can you identify these men?"
"Sheriff Terry Blankenship and Coroner Ralph Lykes. And there were other men I didn't know."
"Are you aware that Blankenship and Lykes are still in power, still leaders in Pastor Todd's church?"
"Yes. And still abusing girls," Tilly added.
"Did Pastor Todd sexually abuse you?"
"No, but he made it possible and kept telling me that if I 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 all."
"You were a child. They were adults. But if you want you could expose them now. You have the power do that."
"They raped me 17 years ago. The police can't do a thing, it's too late. The people at the church will call me a drunk and a mental case, and they would be right. The entire church will be against me. Anyway, who would I report this to?"
"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 women to come forward, more recent victims. It might lead to criminal charges, convictions, and the end of the abuse. Will you at least consider it?"
"I'll do it. What do I have to lose?"
"Are you sure? It could become unpleasant."
"I know all about unpleasant. Let's do it."
Under the headline: CHILD SEX ABUSE AT BOOGER HOLLOW CHURCH ALLEGED, the Charleston Gazette, in June 1974, published Tilly McClure's story without specifically naming the Booger Hollow Apostolic Pentecostal Church, Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Blankenship or Coroner Lykes. Although the church and the alleged sex offenders were not named, everybody in Booger Hollow knew who was being accused. For that reason, Pastor Todd, ignoring his attorney's advice, held a press conference in front of the 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 announced that he intended to sue the newspaper, the reporter, and Tilly McClure for libel, slander, and defamation. Because a libel trial would expose him and his church's sex offenders, this was a hollow threat. Nevertheless, being the performer that he was, the threat sounded real. In his most self-righteous voice, Pastor Todd pleaded with the members of his vilified church to prey for his 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's character and mental stability, the preachers standing behind him nodded in agreement, filling the air with amens and an occasional hallelujah. Pastor Todd's presentation was well received by members of his congregation, but more than a few TV viewers in Charleston considered it a shameful, Bible-thumping spectacle. It reminded some of a scene out of "Night of the Hunter," a religious/horror film set in Moundsville, West Virginia. Moreover, the press conference generated, in some circles, sympathy for Tilly McClure.
The day following Pastor Todd's sanctimonious press conference where he repeatedly attacked Tilly McClure's mental soundness and morality, three Charleston television crews were stationed on the sidewalk outside her residence. Afraid to leave the house, Tilly missed another day's work. By that evening, the TV people were gone. The Booger Hollow Church 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 and had been terminated.
On the morning of June 15, 1974, twelve days after Pastor Todd's Booger Hollow press conference spectacle, James turned on his television 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 lying next to a bottle that contained pills proscribed 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 it was the former.
Overcome by guilt and anger the dispassionate private investigator wept.
Tilly McClure's death was not totally in vain. The news of her suicide prompted three current members 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, following a brief investigation, state troopers arrested Pastor Cletus Todd, Sheriff Terry Blankenship, County Coroner Ralph Lykes, and two other members of the Booger Hollow 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 pleaded not guilty and were released on bond.
The sheriff, the coroner, and the other two members of the church, in March 1975, pleaded guilty to the rape charges. As part of their plea agreements the defendants promised to testify against Pastor Todd. In return for their cooperation the serial rapists were each sentenced to ten years in prison.
In September 1975, the Clay County District Attorney allowed Pastor Todd 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 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 seated in the courtroom cheered and praised the Lord when the judge handed down the lenient sentence. James Sinclair, sitting in the back of the room, lowered his head but not in preyer. When the news reached the pastor's supporters outside of the courthouse they roared in glee, raised their hands and thanked the Lord.
Following the failure of the Clay County criminal justice system to adequately punish Pastor Todd, James reached out to John and Bailey Collins. He hoped to continue his search for Clystine and expressed confidence he could find her. When he did find her the criminal justice system might not be finished with Pastor Todd. Mr. and Mrs. Collins informed James they could no longer afford his services. The money for the missing persons investigation had been spent, and they couldn't raise more. Mrs. Collins said she knew that James had done his best and thanked him for his service. She would give him a high recommendation. She and Mr. Collins would try to console themselves with the image of their daughter living far away in a suburban home with a decent man and a child. Perhaps some day Clystine would call and invite them for a visit. That hope was all they had.
In April 1976, disheartened by his failure to find Clystine Todd, James Sinclair left the private detective business. He simply wasn't cut out for that kind of work. He did, however, learn something about himself: he had the capacity to connect with people. That spring James left Charleston and settled in Wheeling, West Virginia where he acquired a job driving a city bus, an occupation that suited him perfectly. He still maintained an arm's length relationship with his parents, but met an introverted young woman he liked. Her name was Anna. She played the banjo and enjoyed blue grass music. They met at a K-Mart store where she worked as a cashier. Like him, Anna was a lapsed Presbyterian turned off by holly rollers and Bible thumpers.
While James often thought about Clystine Todd, he never talked about her case. He kept a photograph of Clystine in his wallet in the event she climbed aboard his bus one day. James lost touch with Clystine's parents and rarely thought about Pastor Todd and the Booger Hollow Church. He'd closed the book on that part of his past. As for negative thoughts about religion in general, he tried to put that behind him as well. If people wanted to have faith in something bigger than themselves, that was up to them. It was none of his business what other people believed or didn't believe.
For the first time in his life James felt he had a future worth living.
After serving eighteen months in the Moundsville State Penitentiary where he had 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 the great man's homecoming. Standing beneath a banner that read: THANK GOD FOR PASTOR TODD, the little preacher with the improper head and booming voice took the opportunity to thank the Lord, forgive his accusers, and promise to rebuild the church into a powerful religious movement. He would not only throw the Devil out of Clay County, he'd make the entire state Devil-free. Hallelujah!
On a sunny day in August 1977, James Sinclair, while driving his bus down Wheeling's 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 crash. James Sinclair was 27. Apparently Pastor Todd had not gotten around to casting the Devil out of Wheeling, West Virginia.
As members of the Apostolic Pentecostal Church of Booger Hollow continued to rejoice in the resurrection Pastor Cletus Todd, Clystine Todd's body floated inside her Chevy Corvair as it sat on the bottom of a remote, Clay County pond. When the car plunged into the murky water, she was already dead. She had died of asphyxia, but not from drowning. The abrasions on her neck revealed she had been manually strangled. Unless a boy out for a swim discovered the car and its occupant, the story of Clystine Tood's death would remain untold, and the person responsible, unpunished. Moreover, as long as the details of her abduction and murder remained a mystery, the work of James Sinclair would go unrecognized, and the Devil in Booger Hollow would continue preaching the Gospel, abusing girls, and murdering his wives.
Post a Comment