In last Thursday’s Post, I wrote about the “found” manuscript pages some are attributing to Harper Lee and how I believe those pages were actually written by Tom Radney, the Alabama attorney who enticed Harper Lee to Alexander City in the 1980s to research a crime novel centered around one of his clients. According to news sources, the four pages of manuscript describe the first phone call from the infamous Reverend Maxwell to the attorney who would keep him him out of jail despite the suspicious deaths of five of his family members. Today’s post includes an introductory quote from Radney, followed by an exerpt from my novel, The Reverend. – Christamar Varicella
“Let me tell you what I think you need for a start as far as my involvement with Reverend Maxwell. I had never heard of Reverend Maxwell. I got a call about two in the morning, which is not unusual in law practice. Somebody’s in trouble, they call you. And he called me. He said, “Mr. Radney, they’re down here at my house accusing me of killing my wife. Would you come down and help me?” … I said, “Reverend, I don’t know you,” and I said, “I have to have a down payment.” – Tom Radney, former attorney of Reverend Willie Maxwell, in a 2008 interview.
June 29, 1969
The bleating of a rotary phone lifted Melvin Little from a deep sleep.
“What?” he grumbled.
His wife jabbed him in the ribcage with the receiver. “You have a phone call.”
Blinded by the light of the bedside lamp, Melvin rolled over and squinted at the clock on his nightstand. “Good God, is that the time?” he asked, but his wife had pulled the covers up to her chin. Her breathing settled into a steady rhythm.
“Hello,” he muttered into the phone.
“Is this Mr. Little, the attorney?”
“Yeah,” Melvin answered. His eyes were closed again. By his half-conscious reckoning the stranger’s voice belonged to a colored man.
“This is Reverend Baxter. I’m at my house. The police are saying I killed my wife.”
Melvin vaguely remembered the name, but couldn’t picture a face. He sat up and wiped his eyes, trying to adjust them to the light.
“Why’d you call me?”
“I need a lawyer, Mr. Little. They say if you’ve been accused of murder, you’re the man to call.”
Melvin smiled. “Is that so?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“Have you been charged?” His mind, like his vision, came into focus.
“The police are searching my home. I think they’re going to arrest me. You have to help me, Mr. Little. I did not do what they’re saying.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Do you have any money?”
“My wife had an insurance policy. I could pay you with that.”
“How much is it worth?”
“The policy is in my name. It’s for eighty thousand dollars.”
“I’ll take half.”
There was a pause at the other end of the line.
“Yes sir. That will be fine.”
“Where are you?” He flipped back the covers, swung his legs off the side of the bed. His feet searched the cold floor for his slippers.
“Do you know where Highway 11 and 22 cross?”
“I live about a mile east on 22.”
“Don’t say anything until I get there.”
Melvin dropped the phone on his sleeping wife. “I have to see about something,” he said. Doris snored as he made his way to the bathroom.
Twenty minutes later, he located the crime scene. A pair of squad cars from the sheriff’s department and two belonging to state troopers—all with blue lights flashing—lined each side of the two lane highway. He parked behind a trooper and stumped up the driveway. This must be Baxter’s house, he decided. He slowed his gait as he passed a brick house with newly painted trim and white shutters in the windows—a house befitting a preacher. The lights were out, so he continued toward the crossing beams of flashlights floating in the trees up ahead. When he reached the back of the house, he glanced over at the purple Lincoln town car parked in the wraparound driveway. It had a retractable roof and white leather interior —a flashy car for a man of God.
Melvin stepped into the wooded area behind the house. His loafers weren’t built for the great outdoors, and his left shoe became entrenched in the mud. “Goddamnit,” he barked. He wobbled precariously as he navigated his foot back into the grip of leather. He cursed again as he examined his clothes in the early morning light. There was mud all over the cuffs of his favorite slacks. “Somebody should have told me I’d be wading through this slop.”
He fought his way through the woods, following a line of yellow police tape that marked the victim’s final path until he found his way to the clearing. Up ahead he could see a group of uniformed officers gathered around a pecan tree whose limbs sagged under the weight of several hanging bundles.
An officer noticed him stumbling out of the forest and came up to meet him.
“What the hell are you doing out here, Melvin?”
“I came to make sure you boys weren’t planting evidence.”
“Aw, Melvin. You know we wouldn’t do that.”
Sherriff Ford nodded and gestured toward the pecan tree. “Hell of a thing,” he said. A toothpick jutted through a gap in his teeth.
Melvin heard a gentle crackling sound, like raindrops dropping from the leaves after a rain shower. “What’s that in the trees?” he asked.
“See for yourself.”
Melvin ventured closer. His mouth dropped open as he came close enough to distinguish the suspended objects. Half a dozen headless chickens dripped blood into little pools along the base of the tree.
“Looks like he killed the nigger woman first,” Sheriff Ford said cheerfully as he walked Melvin through the crime scene. “Then he started wasting fowl. Chopped their heads off on that little stump over there then strung up the bodies like tinsel on a Christmas tree.”
Two deputies, who had been standing in front of the victim puffing cigarettes and chatting absently, stood aside so Melvin could view the gruesome spectacle. His gaze shifted from the dead chickens to the woman below. A black woman, around forty, with her arms tied down at the waist, sat motionless against the base of the tree. Her eyes were wide and empty of life. Her body was punctured with numerous stab wounds.
Melvin curled his nose at the sight. “What’s her story?” he asked.
The Sheriff flipped open a small notepad. “Her name is Shirley Baxter. Thirty nine years old. Unemployed. Married at the time of her death to the good Reverend William Baxter, currently in custody.”
“That’d be my client,” Melvin said. He put his hands behind his back, paced a circle around the tree as he meditated on the circumstances, momentarily forgetting the raining blood, which now splattered down on his foot. He lifted his foot into the air and scowled.
The representatives of law enforcement chuckled merrily. A deputy shook his head. “You should’ve worn your huntin’ boots.”
“I paid forty dollars for these loafers.”
“What’s a matter, Melvin? You act like you’ve never seen a voodoo killin’ before.” Sheriff Ford said.
“Is that what this is?”
“That’s what the colored folks are saying.”
“Are they now?”
“They are indeed. They say our chief suspect is a practitioner of the black arts.”
“This is the first I heard about voodoo.” It surely would not be the last.
Melvin turned to the sheriff. “You say you have the reverend in custody?”
The sheriff dropped his toothpick on the ground and then pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. He was a big man with a belly like a bass drum. He lit his cigarette with a Zippo lighter and then blew a stream of smoke into the air above his head.
“I wouldn’t show him the respect of calling him reverend, but yeah, he’s in route to the jailhouse as we speak.”
“What’s your evidence?”
“The rope came from a hook in his shed. There’s another coil just like it. Found a hunting knife under his bed. Looks like a match.”
“What about motive?”
The sheriff waved his hand dismissively. “Aw Melvin, you know how these folks are with their women. He was probably running around with another gal, and when she raised a stink, he put her on the butcher’s block.”
“Along with all them chickens?”
Sheriff Ford coughed and spat on the ground. “Who the hell knows? Probably some crazy pagan nonsense brought over from Africa.”
“How can you be sure it’s the same knife?”
The sheriff pointed at the corpse. “The blade looks to fit them holes, but we’ll have an examiner test the body. Also, there’s a GBI man on the way out here to look over the crime scene. He’ll probably have his people double check.”
“What’s his name?”
“Detective Abel. You know him?”
“I see him around from time to time. He’s testified against a few of my clients.”
Abel was as capable as his name implied. He’d worked for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for several years and had earned a solid reputation for detective work. Melvin hoped the sheriff and his boys would disrupt the crime scene and destroy any other evidence Abel might find. He turned to go, but the sheriff stopped him cold with a line intentionally delivered to sound like an afterthought.
“We also have an eyewitness.”
“The hell you say.”
“Saw him coming out of the woods half naked with a shovel in his hand not four hours ago.”
“Where’s the shovel?”
“We’re looking for that.”
“Well, let me know when you find it,” Melvin said as he wandered toward his car. He looked calm, but in his head he cursed this horrendous piece of luck. The prosecution had, in all likelihood, the murder weapon and enough circumstantial evidence to convict his client. It didn’t help matters that the Reverend was black and the jury would be chosen from a pool that was majority white. If Baxter copped a plea, the insurance wouldn’t pay out on the policy.
Melvin berated himself for taking the case in the first place and vowed never again to agree to anything before having at least one cup of coffee.