June 13, 1977
The reason the press conference was held on the courthouse steps, Jim was told, was because there wasn’t a room in the courthouse big enough to accommodate all of the reporters and media people descending on Jackson City.
Jim had been one of the few reporters in the state covering the story, but after the death of Lucy Mae Woods, someone at one of the larger Alabama papers had written a piece and it was picked up by the wire services.
The story went national, fueled by a single word that caught everyone’s attention: voodoo. News agencies from all over the country sent representatives to ferry out the gruesome details.
They milled about the courthouse square like restless ants, suffering in the 90 degree heat, and waiting for someone to emerge from the courthouse and provide them with some new little tidbit of information they could print.
As he meandered along the edge of the crowd, Jim recognized familiar faces from the Montgomery Advertiser, the Alabama Journal, and WSFATV. He spotted press badges from the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution, and the Washington Post. Photographers were rumored to be on site from People Magazine, Life, and Jet.
Never before in the history of Jackson City had anything attracted so much national attention, and a festival atmosphere ensued. Despite the heat, regular citizens wandered up to the square to see what all the fuss was about. All they needed now, Jim thought, was someone selling hot dogs and balloons.
Not wanting to be marginalized in his own story, he elbowed his way toward the front of the crowd, pausing in certain spots to eavesdrop idle chatter coming from the other reporters.
“Who’s running things here?” He heard someone ask.
“The ABI. Guy named Victor Ellis.”
“What happened to the Sheriff? What was his name?”
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter. He’s out.”
“He had enough chances to catch this guy, I guess. What do you know about Ellis?”
“Usual bureau type. Standard issue suit and haircut. Everything is by the book.”
On cue, Victor Ellis and his entourage spilled out of the courthouse and headed down the steps toward an out-of-place lectern affixed with several large microphones with wires running into the courthouse through a side entrance.
Jim jostled for position.
Ellis looked to be in his mid-fifties, but other than his age, only a pair of wire-rimmed glasses distinguished him from every other man in the bureau. He had the same square jaw, wore the same square haircut, the same square clothes: everything about him was square.
Among the men and women shuffling down the steps after him, Jim made note of the mayor and the chief of police. Representatives from the sheriff’s office were conspicuously absent.
“Can everyone hear me?” The agent began. He paused a moment while someone adjusted the sound; then he started again.
“My name is Agent Ellis from the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. I have a few details to share with you.” He looked down at his prepared notes. “In the case of Lucy Mae Woods, an autopsy was conducted yesterday, June 12. I’m told it lasted over eight hours.
“I have in my hand the coroner’s report. As you know, Miss Woods was found dead underneath a 1974 Ford Torino. It has been determined by our esteemed doctors that this young woman expired prior to the vehicle falling on her. Consequently, the ABI is treating the matter as a homicide. As of yet, no arrests have been made, but our investigators are gathering evidence and I can assure you all, just as I want to assure the people of Jackson City and its surrounding areas, that the person who committed this crime will be caught and brought to justice. I’ll now take a few of your questions.”
“Has the actual cause of death been determined?”
“That’s something we’re still working on. Next question.”
“When are you going to arrest Baxter?”
“That’s not something I can comment on at this time. I can tell you that we have a suspect, and we expect to make an arrest very soon. Next question.”
“Did you find any evidence of voodoo at the scene of the crime?”
“This is an ongoing investigation. I’m not going to comment on any details at this time.”
There was murmuring among the crowd at the mention of voodoo.
“I heard he has a room in his house where he stores shrunken heads,” mumbled one of the reporters closest to Jim.
“You should ask him about that.”
Jim heard another voice rise above the hum. “Can you confirm that a doll filled with pins was found on top of the girl’s body?”
As Ellis proceeded to not answer the question, Jim noticed someone sidling up beside him. “Hey, are you Easton?” The man asked.
“I’m Dave Everett from the Birmingham News.” He flashed his press badge. “I’ve been following your coverage in the Sentinel.”
“I didn’t know anyone read our paper outside the city limits.”
“It’s good stuff. Say, after the press conference, maybe I could buy you a cup of coffee. I’d like to pick your brain.”
“That sounds good,” Jim said. “I’ll have to have a rain check though. I’m late for an appointment.”
“Is it about the story? Mind if I tag along?”
“No, this is personal,” Jim said. “I’ll catch up with you later.”
He tried to maintain a leisurely pace as weaved his way through the crowd, but once he broke onto open concrete, he made a beeline for his car, checking over his shoulder occasionally to make sure no one was following him.
Jim knocked on the door of the Reverend’s cottage. Within seconds, a curtain moved in a nearby window, and then a chain lock rattled on the other side of the door. It opened and the Reverend hustled him inside.
Jim found himself in a well-kept formal living room filled with a style mix of new and classic furniture. The floor was covered in light green carpet. A red velvet sofa was pushed against one wall underneath a painting of a pot of daisies. Other than the couch, the only other furniture was an end table, a Tiffany-style lamp, and two hard-back wooden chairs with burgundy-upholstered seats.
The Reverend flitted from the door to the window. “Did you park where I told you?”
“Down the street and around the corner,” Jim said. “In front of a neighbor’s house.” He looked for a place to sit, choosing the chair closest to the end table.
“Did anyone follow you?”
“Um…” Jim placed his cassette recorder on an end table and popped the eject button. “No. Everyone is still at the press conference. You should be safe for a while.” He removed the cassette, looked at the reel of tape, and then flipped it upside down and slid it back into the recorder.
Baxter turned to look at his visitor. “It’s not the press I’m worried about.”
“I didn’t see anyone,” Jim said. “Do you think someone might try and hurt you?”
The Reverend paced the room, then stopped to rest his hands on the back of a chair. “I know people want to hurt me. I’m not a fool. I’ve heard the rumors. Everyone’s heard the rumors. After a while you start to believe them.”
“Well, that’s kind of what I wanted to talk to you about,” Jim said. “I wondered if you might go through it all with me. Both the rumors and the facts.”
“It’s bad luck is what it is,” said the Reverend. “I have terrible luck.”
“Some would say it’s your family members who have terrible luck.”
The Reverend fell silent. His eyes focused on Jim, who looked down at his cassette recorder.
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” the Reverend said. His voice was softer than before. Calmer. He sat down in a chair. “It’s crossed my mind that all of these tragedies are not coincidental.”
Jim sat forward in his chair, resting his elbows on knees. “Do you think someone is trying to set you up?”
“I think someone wants to hurt me. When my first wife was killed, I believe they were waiting for me, but when she turned up, they took her instead. They used her to hurt me.”
“Who would do that?" Jim asked. "Why would anyone do that?”
“I feel like some enemy is out there trying to hinder me. I can’t see him, but he’s out there. I’m asking the Lord to see him. If I stay close to the Lord, I’ll see him too.”
“What about your second wife? Do you think she was murdered?”
“I believe it was the accident that killed her. They said in the court that the accident caused the asthma or something like that, but that seems too complicated. I think she hit or head in the accident, and that was it.”
“So it was just a coincidence?”
The Reverend nodded.
“And your brother?”
“They said someone must have held a gun to his head to make him drink all that alcohol, but…” The Reverend paused to wipe his eyes. “But I think… I think J Christopher did that to himself.” He paused a moment and looked away. “He was a good man though.”
“What about your nephew?”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know.”
“Someone told me that you tried to wrestle power of attorney away from your sister so you could collect the insurance money.”
“Who told you that?” asked the Reverend. “Did she tell you that?”
Jim looked at him, stone-faced.
“I only tried to help that woman. It was my family duty. She had started to believe all of those rumors, you see. She wouldn’t even trust her own brother.”
The Reverend shook his head. “That girl always had to do everything herself. I think it was an accident. I think she was trying to change that tire, and a nut or a bolt or something rolled under the car. When she went to get it, it fell. I never did get to go and look for myself. They said it didn’t concern me. It didn’t concern me! My own stepdaughter, but it doesn’t concern me.”
“The coroner has ruled that it wasn’t an accident. The report said she was dead before the car fell on her.”
The Reverend stared down at the carpet. “I wouldn’t know,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed to go view the scene for myself.”
“There’s one more thing I have to ask you about,” Jim said, “speaking of rumors.” He cleared his throat. “I heard that you have… um… that you have a… voodoo room in your basement.”
The Reverend stared at Jim incredulously.
Well, that’s it, Jim thought. He’s going to kill me.
The silence seemed to stretch on for a while, and then finally the Reverend asked, “Would you like a tour?”
Jim felt himself rising out of the chair. He left his tape recorder running on the table, watched the tape spinning. He knew he needed to do something—turn it off, take it with him, run screaming out of the house—but felt powerless to do anything. He followed the Reverend as if pulled by a rope, like he had no control over his own legs.
At the center of the house, the Reverend opened a door. He stretched out a hand, inviting Jim to go down the steps first.
Jim peered down into the darkness. “Is there a light?” he asked.
“I have to apologize about that,” the Reverend said. “I’ve been meaning to replace the bulb.”
Jim took the first step onto a creaky wooden plank. He grasped blindly for a hand rail, but there was none. He hand slid across unfinished boards with a splintered, peeling texture.
Heavy boots landed on the steps behind him. The hairs of Jim’s neck stood on end. He could feel the Reverend’s presence hovering above him like the angel of death.
No one saw me come here, he thought. I didn’t tell my editor. I didn’t even tell my mother. No one knows I’m here.
He continued down the stairs, using his foot like the cane of a blind person. He closed his eyes because he could see just as well that way. Any second, he expected to feel a push against his back and then he would be falling into a pit of blackness and never be heard from again. Why didn’t I tell anyone? I’m going to visit a suspected murderer and I don’t even let my editor know?
His thoughts continued in this manner until his foot touched the concrete floor. Again, he waited for something. A gun barrel against the back of his head? The blade of a knife against his throat?
A room appeared in front of him as the Reverend flipped the light switch. Jim had expected to see a wall of shrunken heads and bookshelves lined with jars and potions, but instead he saw a lot of wicker furniture.
“Well, what do you think?” the Reverend asked. “I thought I would go with a beach theme.”
Jim exhaled a literal sigh of relief as he turned to the Reverend. “I like it,” he said, smiling. “It’s better than I expected.”
Go to Chapter 21.
*Much of the dialogue in this section was inspired by or taken directly from newspaper articles including several articles written by Al Benn and appearing in the Alexander City Outlook between June 15, 1977 and June 20, 1977 and “Five Tragic Deaths…” by Lou Elliott, published Sunday June 19, 1977 in the Alabama Journal.