CROSSES ON THE ROAD
Copyright 2012 by Bruce Burleson
And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” John 11:49-50
One after another, the blue waves rolled onto the white Pacific beach, casting their hypnotic spell. Attorney James Allen Harris (known to his friends as “Jim”) sat at his table, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the spellbinding Costa Rican coast. American surfers and expatriates mingled with locals here, among iguanas and palm trees, all taking in the sun and surf on a perfect January day. Harris had read about Lola’s beach restaurant and bar on the internet as he had planned his Central American trip, and it looked like the perfect place to end his month-long vacation. When he finally drove his rented van to this idyllic venue on January 5, 2012, it exceeded all his expectations. Within a relatively short period of time, he had achieved a state of almost total and complete worthlessness – exactly what he had hoped to accomplish before returning to the reality of his daily life. For the past three days he had essentially followed the same routine – sleeping late, then positioning himself strategically at the best table, sheltered by palm and almond trees. He subsisted on coffee, yellow-fin tuna steak sandwiches, Corona, and guaro sours. Occasionally he would drink the cool, sweet water straight from a coconut, or saunter out onto the beach to dip his feet into the ocean. Once, he had even gathered enough energy to walk up the beach to another resort, rent a kayak and venture out over the waves to the freedom of the open sea. But for the most part, he focused on achieving his Nirvana of worthlessness, that particular groove where his brain waves matched the rhythm of the ocean waves, and all that existed was experience itself. A table at Lola’s and a steady supply of guaro sours were conducive to such an enlightened state.
Lola’s is a favorite spot in Guanacaste, the dry tropical region of northwestern Costa Rica. Guanacaste gets its name from the guanacaste tree, enterolobium cyclocarpum, the national tree of Costa Rica. It is a large shade tree, and a particularly robust specimen of the species is found at Lola’s. The establishment features an open air bar/restaurant, an upper deck, and various covered tables on the sand and under the trees on the beach. Lola herself is actually an enormous sow, and the owner occasionally allows her to venture out of her pen to frolic on the beach. For most of the day, however, Lola exemplifies the worthlessness to which this place beckons the unwary. Harris suspected that if he stayed here much longer, he would pass the point of no return, and never again be able to function as a responsible, productive member of American society.
A friendly waiter brought him his fifth guaro sour of the day. Guaro is the national liquor of Costa Rica – a sugar cane-based spirit that is smoother than rum but just as potent. When mixed with simple syrup, lime and ice, it renders an elixir fit for the gods. But its transport is not Olympian by any means – it does not inspire flights of philosophic fancy or insights into the deeper meaning of existence. Instead, it casts an hypnotic spell that both dulls and lulls – it dulls the senses, and lulls one into a state of complete lack of motivation or concern about one’s condition in life. Harris felt himself being drawn to the precipice of this bottomless pit, and while he momentarily drew as much refreshment from his condition as possible, he knew that he would have to walk away soon or be forever lost. As a symbolic gesture, he attempted to get up from his seat to go relieve himself. He had sat motionless for so long that his scrotum had stuck to the inside of his thighs and he felt it pulling on the leg hairs as he tried to get up. He winced, partially in pain and partially in disgust for being so lazy, and made his way to the toilet.
Harris had left Texas for Central America on December 10, 2011, after he had finally settled the most lucrative case that he had ever had the good fortune of signing up. A horrible accident had occurred on US Highway 77 in Falls County, Texas, where he lived and practiced, and it had occurred within 100 yards of the only billboard that he had ever leased to advertise his services as a personal injury attorney. An 18-wheeler had crossed the center strip after the driver, who had a blood-alcohol level of .15, had fallen asleep. It ran head-on into a van carrying an Hispanic family who was returning from the Fiesta celebration in San Antonio to their home in Chilton. They were less than two miles from home when the collision occurred at 9:15 p.m., April 27, 2008. Damasco Gutierrez, a construction worker, was driving, and his wife, Ofelia, and five children, Diego, Linda, Roberto, Maria and Luisa, were all asleep in the van. Only Ofelia and Roberto survived the collision, and Roberto ended up a quadraplegic. Ofelia herself suffered numerous broken bones and internal injuries, but survived to experience the devastation that fate had dealt her family. As she lay in the hospital in Waco grieving over her destroyed family and screaming in pain from her own injuries, she thought about how she could get justice. Neither she nor her 14 year-old son would ever be the same. She had seen Harris’ sign on the highway near Chilton, and asked her sister to call him.
Harris knew about the wreck, and frankly could not believe it when he received the call. These types of cases usually go to the much larger firms who have runners who instantly appear at the scenes of tragic accidents, or in the hospital rooms of the injured, and sign the cases up before the small-town, small-time lawyers like Harris get a chance. He never understood how they could get away with this level of barratry, but apparently they did. He had submitted to the indignity of advertising about a year earlier, in hopes that he would get a case just like this. His significantly impaired Christian conscience hoped that nothing this horrible would ever have to happen to anyone, but, if it did, “Lord, let the victims come to me” he prayed. Everyone in the legal profession makes a living off of other people’s misery, anyway, so why should he not get his share? There are endless rationalizations for such behavior.
To make a long story short, it was the perfect case, which he had never had the good fortune of getting before. It seemed as though his very selfish prayer had been answered. The truck driver who caused the accident was drunk and went over the center line. He was clearly at fault and caused both death and horrible injuries. He eventually pled guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to a short term in prison. His employer was a solvent company and had plenty of insurance, and nobody really liked trucking companies, anyway. Harris was able to dig up evidence that the trucking company knew its driver had a drinking problem, but put him behind the wheel despite this fact. Almost every juror had probably had a bad experience with a tractor-trailer on the road, and Harris knew that he had enough facts to turn this case into a gold mine. Harris could file the case in his home town of Marlin, the county seat, since the accident occurred in Falls County. He had a good relationship with the judge, and had been around long enough that most people in the county at least knew who he was. Falls County was fairly good about handing down decent verdicts in the right kind of case, and this was the right kind of case. His clients were salt-of-the-earth working folks, with no black marks against them. In the words of Pink Floyd, he was so happy he could hardly count. The potential verdict range was astronomical.
Of course, the trucking company played tough and hired a big Dallas firm to try to threaten and harass Harris to death with paper. The company had a large self-insured retention which gave them the right to choose counsel, and they went for the biggest and best. The attorneys served Harris with every conceivable request for documents and information. They deposed everyone who had anything to do with the case or the family. They hired private investigators to try to dig up dirt on the family and on Harris himself. They filed motion after motion, all of which were denied by the judge. They tried filing petitions for mandamus with the appellate court, which were also denied. They attempted to get the case transferred to another county where they felt they would have the advantage. Harris had to spend everything he had to finance the case, including paying for deposition and expert witness expenses, and at times he didn’t think that he would be able to make it. In the end, he spent over $250,000.00 of money that he didn’t have, which he had borrowed from his bank, from family members, and from other attorneys. He had hired a life-care specialist and an economist to prove up his clients’ damages, and had good medical and rehabilitation experts to establish the level of their injuries. It would take millions to care for young Roberto. He knew that if he was just patient, it would eventually pay off, even if it almost bankrupted him in the meantime. The Dallas lawyers had to run up their fees so they could make their money. Harris understood this. That’s how the game is played.
Eventually Harris got a firm trial date and prepared to take the case all the way to a jury verdict. The Dallas lawyers bluffed until the end, and even went as far as picking the jury. But once the jury was enpaneled and the lawyers saw that Harris actually knew how to present a case, they knew the jig was up. They did not want to lose to a country bumpkin lawyer, and had already milked the case for all it was worth. So in the end, they agreed to a settlement of over $15,000,000.00, which included a structured settlement for Roberto that would provide for him for the rest of his life. Harris felt that the jury would have given him substantially more, but then the Dallas lawyers and their rich trucking company could have strung it out with endless appeals, and with a conservative Supreme Court in Austin, Harris and his clients decided that the wisest course of action would be to settle. If the jury had given him large punitive damages, the Texas Supreme Court would have found some reason to take it away from him, so it was too risky and too time consuming to go the jury/appeal route. Even though Harris had a contingency fee contract that gave him 40% of the recovery, he never felt comfortable taking that much from a client. He despised lawyers who took their full fee even when they settled a case with minimal effort. He was not going to be like them. After his expenses were reimbursed and his loans paid off, he only took one-third of the recovery, which still amounted to almost $5,000,000.00. He 5had worked hard and postured the case so that the client would get a good recovery.
The settlement had to be approved by the court because Roberto was a minor, but after the typical delays expected from Dallas lawyers, insurance companies and large corporations, the hearing finally took place in early December. The annuity provided for in the structured settlement for Roberto was in place, and the balance of the funds was paid into his trust account for Ofelia and his fees and expenses. He paid Ofelia her portion, and hooked her up with a financial advisor to make sure that it was invested wisely. She had wanted it that way, and Harris did not feel like arguing with a woman who had suffered so much. They hugged, and Ofelia expressed her gratitude. Then she left, and Harris sat down in his office trying to get his mind around the fact that he had almost $5,000,000.00 in his bank account.
He set aside enough for his taxes, and even gave some to his ex-wife who had divorced him seven years earlier. They had remained civil, and he felt some moral necessity to give her something for the years she had put up with him. After all was said and done, he still had well over three million dollars, and had no debt. He conservatively put most of it in three funds that invested in tax-free municipal bonds and paid about 4% per annum, and with the rest he took off for Central America.
His travels had taken him through Mexico City, then on through Belize and down to Antigua, Guatemala. Then he spent a little time on the Honduras island of Roatan before heading down to Panama in a rented van to see the canal. Then, finally, he drove back up to Costa Rica, where he eventually made it to Lola’s. He slept in his van, drank his guaro sours, and stared at the ocean for three full days. A flight awaited him in San Juan to return him to his usual dull reality, but on this last day of his trek, he wanted to experience the full effect of the beautiful Pacific coast. How different this world was from Marlin, Texas.
During his month on the road, he had the chance to reflect on his life somewhat. He was nearing 60, had been alone for seven years since his divorce, and was questioning just about everything he had ever believed. The pressure of dealing with Dallas lawyers, corporate evil and insurance bullshit had left him drained. He had prevailed, but at what cost to his own soul? There was something perverse about becoming a millionaire because a drunk truck driver had destroyed a poor Hispanic family. He was thankful, of course, as the circumstances of the accident occurring so close to his billboard had resulted in his good fortune. God, or at least the litigation gods, had smiled upon him. He had never had anything this significant happen to him before, at least financially speaking. He had won and lost cases, and had obtained or failed to obtain settlements, but nothing on this order before. This case put him over the top. He now had a cushion and was no longer caught up in the cycle of feast-or-famine that plagued so many small-town attorneys.
So as the endless stream of blue Pacific waves crashed upon the pearl-hued beach, he attempted to hold onto the reality of his current state of blessedness. Something seemingly good had happened to him, while unspeakable horror had been inflicted on someone else. “Better them than me” he thought, but was immediately stricken by the wickedness of such an attitude. “Just focus on the good that you have experienced” he told himself, and endeavored to turn this wonderful moment into a page from eternity. He would return to Marlin soon, and this beach would be a memory. Little did he know of the strange events unfolding in Falls County, Texas, even as he meditated for the last time at the Church of Lola, events which would entangle him in a web of evil.
THE FIRST CROSS
Bill Tomacek drove through the gate of his farm on County Road 451 in Falls County at precisely 4:50 a.m. on Saturday, January 7, 2012 on his way to Eddy, Texas, just a few miles to the north on I-35. He and four or five of his friends met early every Saturday morning for coffee and donuts at Jerry’s Café in Eddy, and cussed and discussed the condition of the world. How many times they had identified and solved the problems of humanity in that café will never be known. For 17 years they had met, common men of the soil, pragmatic and conservative, with decades of combined experience at living, earning a living, managing business, raising families, being involved in their community. The world was changing around them, and they were not all that happy about it. But they could always count on the unchanging reality of their Saturday morning ritual, a Sabbath retreat from their daily routine, a sanctuary from a troubled world.
Tomacek was a farmer and rancher. He had about 200 acres of pasture land where he kept a modest herd of cattle, and he either owned or leased another 400 acres under cultivation, growing either corn or wheat. He made enough to make ends meet and provide for his family, and have enough left over to enjoy a few simple pleasures, like drinking coffe with his friends. He was thinking about those friends as he left his farm and negotiated the sharp turns in County Road 451 on his way to Eddy. It was dark and cold, and it had rained a little a short while before. The thought of the hot coffee and warm friendship that awaited him only 10 minutes away filled him with a simple feeling of anticipation.
He had traveled this route so many times he felt he could do it in his sleep. He was familiar with every hackberry tree, every fence post, every sign along the way. He knew every farmer and family on the road, the fruit of 64 years of living on the same farm, the one his parents had left him in their wills. It was this familiarity that caused him to briefly notice something different as he made one of the sharp 90 degree right turns on the road. As he turned his truck he caught a glimpse of something strange out of the corner of his eye on the right side immediately after he had made the turn. His headlights had not picked it up as it had been hidden by trees along the fence line before he negotiated the curve. The impression that he had was that it was a scarecrow in the bar ditch, but his mind immediately rejected this impression. Who would put a scarecrow in a bar ditch? His curiosity was aroused by such a departure from the familiar that he stepped on his brake, put his truck in reverse and backed up. He had to see what he had just passed. When his headlights finally shined on the subject of his inquiry, the shock that traveled up his spine was as real as if he had grabbed a live wire in his work shop. Through his still water-streaked windshield, Bill Tomacek was staring at a very dead, crucified man.
Jack Haley had seen a few dead people in his 20 years as Falls County, Sheriff. Nothing he had seen had quite prepared him for awaited him on that cold Saturday morning as he traveled from his home in Marlin to the crime scene. The 9-1-1 call had been made by Bill Tomacek, and Sheriff Haley had been notified. As it was in the county but not within any city limit, he had jurisdiction over the investigation. When he arrived, Deputies Timothy Bailey and Rafael Gonzales were already present. Bailey was speaking with a still visibly shaken Tomacek, while Gonzales was shining his flashlight on the dead man on the cross.
“What the shit do we have here?” asked Haley.
“Beats the hell out of me,” responded Gonzales. “This farmer was driving to Eddy this morning to have coffee with his friends, and he came across this.”
Both men looked at the scene, which was like something out of a horror movie. The man on the cross was bearded and had long, stringy hair. Haley’s immediate impression was that he appeared to be a homeless man or a vagabond of some sort, and in a vague way reminded him of the lifeless Jesus that he had seen on so many crucifixes. His jeans were dirty, and his flannel shirt was soaked in blood. He was hanging on a wooden cross that appeared to be constructed out of 4x4 Wolmanized lumber, attached to a sturdy base with bolts. Both hands were nailed to the cross piece, and the arms tied with rope to the cross piece to ensure that the body stayed in place. He was barefooted, and a single large spike penetrated both feet. A rope was also tied around his waist and looped up behind over the cross piece to provide extra support. Whoever had done this wanted to make certain that the body stayed on the cross until it was found.
“That’s some strange shit, man” exclaimed Gonzales. “Look at his forehead.” He shined his flashlight at the man’s face. Haley could see what Gonzales was referring to. There was a green tag of some sort nailed with what appeared to be about a 6 penny nail into the victim’s forehead. Blood from the wound had trickled down his face like spindley red fingers.
“No crown of thorns, but still a head wound,” said Haley. He looked closer, and noticed that the green tag, which appeared to be some type of laminated green construction paper, had the number “1” written on it. “Looks like whoever did this might be planning a repeat. He’s numbering his victims.” “Mother of God, what is going on here?,” responded Gonzales, crossing himself.
“I don’t know, but this is a little beyond my pay grade. I’m going to call DPS and get a trooper out here. Call the J.P. and get him out here to declare this guy dead and order an autopsy. Seal off this area and start taking photographs, but don’t disturb anything until the J.P. and the DPS get here. Has anyone else seen this?”
“Not that we know of. Tomacek called it in, and nobody has driven by here since then according to him. We got here about 10 minutes after the call, and you arrived 15 minutes after that. Not much happens out here this early on Saturday.”
“I wonder why in the hell he put him here. Whoever did this went to a lot of trouble. It takes a good bit of planning to make a cross, find a victim, crucify him, and then transport him out here, without being seen, and put him in a bar ditch. We may be dealing with more than one person.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll make the calls.”
Justice of the Peace Stan Preston was on the scene within about 15 minutes, and a DPS trooper was close behind. By that time, dawn was breaking, and more traffic started appearing on the road. The deputies waved them on, but needless to say there was a lot of rubber-necking going on. Folks in rural Falls County were not used to seeing crime scenes with crucified men on their county roads.
Preston did a preliminary inspection of the victim, and then walked over to Haley. “This is going to cause quite a stir.”
“Any idea what’s going on here?”
“He’s got a stab wound on the right side of his chest.”
“Looks like the murderer has read his Bible.”
“There have been quite a few murderers in history that have been pretty good Bible scholars. There’s a lot of material to work with there. But I noticed something that I don’t think has any biblical precedent. The deceased has some stab wounds in his back, as well. Hard to tell since he’s still on the cross, but it looks like there are at least three wounds right in the center of his spine.”
“That would be enough to kill anyone, I would think.”
“More than enough. Death could have been basically instantaneous. But we’ll wait for the autopsy to be sure. My preliminary ruling is going to be homicide, but obviously I want to see the report after they send him to Dallas.”
“This guy looks like a hitchhiker or a hobo of some sort. We’re close to an interstate and to a railroad. I sure don’t recognize him as anyone from around here. I think he would stand out if he was from Falls County. What do you think? Did someone just pick him up and kill him?”
Justice Preston furrowed his brow. “Hard to say. Obviously there was a good bit of planning. The cross is well-constructed – it looks like it was built by a professional carpenter. It’s even made out of good quality wood, like it was meant to last, like he wanted everyone to see that he was a professional.”
“He? Are we sure we are dealing with a man?”
“I can’t see a woman doing this. Maybe a woman participated, but this looks like the work of a man. I could be wrong, of course.”
Deputy Bailey walked up and joined in on the conversation. “I’ve taken a statement from Mr. Tomacek. He doesn’t really know much more than what we all see now. Can he go?”
“Yeah, no reason to keep him around. If we need him we know where to find him. Does he have any idea who this guy is?”
Bailey responded, “No, he’s clueless. This has pretty much rocked his world. That’s about the last thing he expected to see this morning.”
“He’s not the only one.” Sheriff Haley had a fleeting premonition that this was a portent of things to come. He quickly dismissed the thought.
Deputy Bailey signaled to Tomacek that he could go. Tomacek got in his truck and went back home. He had already telephoned his friends at Jerry’s and told them he would not be there. Besides, the thought of coffee and donuts no longer appealed to him. He would certainly have something to talk about tomorrow morning.
Department of Public Safety Trooper Albert Lee Swanson walked over. “Sheriff, I assume that you want the DPS to take the lead in this investigation.”
“Hell yes,” responded Haley. “I barely have enough manpower to keep the damned drunks in this county from beating their wives to death. I can handle a few meth labs, shootings at poker games and roving packs of pit bulls. Men hanging on crosses is just out of my league.”
“Understood. We’ll get this guy up to Dallas for the autopsy and do a thorough investigation of the scene to see what evidence we can collect, and have our forensics lab do a complete analysis.”
“Have you seen anything like this before?”
“Nope. This is a new one on me. But nothing surprises me anymore.”
“What’s your initial impression?”
“Maybe some type of ritual killing. I don’t want to go down the old ‘Satanic ritual’ path – that was usually a bunch of bullshit. But psychopaths are getting pretty creative these days. They’ve got lots of inspiration from TV and other sources.”
“What about the green tag on his forehead. Do you think that means the killer is planning on a repeat performance.”
“That’s possible, but I’d rather wait for the autopsy to see what we are really dealing with. It’s too early to tell right now. I just know that I have a strange feeling about this.”
Haley’s premonition returned, but once again he swatted it away. Let the DPS worry about this crap. He had done his initial duty and had assured that the matter was in good hands. He knew that the press would be on this soon, so he began to focus on preparing a statement to give to the media. If this killer planned on crucifying more people, Haley just hoped and prayed he would do his dirty work in another county. Let the shit happen to someone else.
Gonzales came up to Haley. “There’s really no way to distinguish which of the tire tracks belong to the suspect’s vehicle. Since the road here is dirt and since we had a little rain, it’s sort of turned to mush. The bar ditch here is covered with gravel, so you can’t see the treads. Whoever did this could have had the victim in the back of a truck or van already dead and nailed to the cross, and then all he had to do is back up, unload and tip the cross upright, and leave.”
Haley responded. “If that’s true, that means that he probably did this all in a garage or barn or workshop somewhere, and had his spot chosen beforehand. Sometime last night he drove out here and dropped him off. But why here? Why Falls County? If he wanted people to see it, which he obviously did, why didn’t he display it somewhere where people would notice?”
“People have noticed,” said Gonzales, and pointed to two vehicles pulling up. One was a van from the local television station, KCEN, which was located just south of Eddy, and one Haley recognized as the editor of the Marlin newspaper, The Marlin Democrat. Haley glanced over at Trooper Swanson and the other DPS troopers who had now arrived. They had lowered the cross without taking the victim off of it, and had covered everything with a tarp. Soon they would load the cross and victim into a van and travel to the medical examiner in Dallas. Haley motioned to the television and newspaper people to stay where they were, and he walked over to them.
“What do we have here, Sheriff?” asked Mark Wilson, the newspaper editor. Haley replied, “Folks, we have a murder. We don’t have a suspect, we don’t have a motive, and we don’t have an identity for the victim. If you’ll follow me back to Marlin, I’m going to call a press conference in two hours to bring everyone up to date. Right now, the investigation is just beginning, so I’m asking you to please be patient, and we’ll try to give you all the information we can without compromising the investigation.”
“Come on, Sheriff, we got here first right at the crack of dawn. Surely you can give us a little more than that,” said the reporter from the television station. “Alright, I’m going to tell you what you probably already know” Haley replied. “The victim was crucified, hung on a wooden cross. The cross was placed here, probably with the victim already on it, sometime probably after midnight last night. The victim was found by a local resident early this morning before sunrise. That should get your readers’ salivary glands going.” With that, he got in his car and left for Marlin. Deputies Gonzales and Bailey allowed the media to get a few photos of the scene and of the black tarp-covered victim and cross being loaded into the DPS van. Forensic specialists from the DPS were now present to continue inspecting the crime scene, and the deputies assisted with security. There was nothing more to see, so the media personnel started the 15 minute trip to Marlin to attend Sheriff Haley’s press conference.
At precisely 10:00 a.m., Sheriff Haley stepped out in front of the Falls County Sheriff’s Department in front of about a dozen reporters and other media persons, and a few townspeople. “At approximately 4:50 a.m. this morning, an unknown victim was found hanging on a wooden cross in a bar ditch on County Road 451 in west Falls County. He was found by a local resident who was on his way to Eddy. The identity of the victim is unknown, but he is a Caucasian male, approximately 45 years old. The body has been taken to the Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas for an autopsy, and we are awaiting the results of that autopsy, which could take a few of weeks. Until we receive those results, we are treating the death as a homicide, and we have requested assistance from the Texas Department of Public Safety. The perpetrator of the crime is unknown, as is the motive. This is an ongoing criminal investigation, so we are not in a position to share all the details about the incident. However, anyone having information about this matter should contact me or the DPS.”
“Who found him?” asked a reporter. Sheriff Haley responded, “Out of consideration for that person’s privacy, we are not going to reveal his name. However, he is not a person of interest in this investigation. He merely happened upon the scene.”
“Do you have any indications who the victim is?”
“No, but we are hoping that the autopsy will shed some light on that, or that someone will come forward with information about his identity. He had no identification on his person.”
“What did he look like?”
“He is a white male, somewhere around 45 by appearance, with long brown hair. He was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt. He had some tatoos on his arms, but no other distinguishing marks. That’s about all we know.”
“You said he was hanging on a wooden cross. Do you mean he was crucified?”
“I’m not sure what word you want to use. The cause of death is unknown, so I hesitate to speculate. That’s about all the questions I can answer now. As more information becomes available, I will keep you updated. In the meantime, anyone with information about this crime needs to report it. Thank you.”
The news spread rapidly in Marlin. Nothing this strange had happened in recent memory. Over the course of the next few days, Falls County would be mentioned on news casts and talk shows all around the world. Crucifixions, apparently, are still major events.
FALLS COUNTY, TEXAS
Falls County is a central Texas county with a population of about 18,000, small by Texas standards. It is located just east of I-35, and just south of Waco, Texas. It is rectangular-shaped, with 774 square miles. The Brazos River transects it, and the county gets its name from the “falls” of the Brazos. If you are thinking of falls as in “Niagra,” think again. The falls of the Brazos barely qualify as rapids. But this minor cataract marked the limit of steamboat travel in the 1800’s when “King Cotton” ruled. The falls were a little higher then because the river traveled a different route, which changed after a big flood. Steamboats from the Gulf of Mexico could come this far and no further, to load the precious cargo of white fiber that, along with cattle and other agricultural produce, provided the economic foundation of life here into the 20th Century. The high point of Falls County significance was in the 1930’s, when the population reached 38,000. Since then, there had been a steady decline, until today when half as many people live there as did 70 years ago. It still has an economic base of farming and ranching, with some government services. It is essentially flat, blackland prairie, just close enough to population centers like Waco, Temple and Bryan to keep it from becoming completely devoid of people, but off the beaten track enough not to attract much attention. A little over 60% of the population is white, with black and Hispanic making up most of the rest.
The county seat of Falls County is Marlin, with a population of about 6,000, decreasing like the rest of the county. It was given the nickname of “The Mineral Water City of Texas” when, in the 1890’s, people would flock to the town to bathe in the hot mineral waters that were discovered there during a search for an artesian well. People claimed to feel better after bathing in the waters, and enough tourist traffic resulted to support two good sized hotels downtown. The population actually reached 15,000 at one point, but the fad died down and now there is not much that draws people to Marlin. The once-full hotels are out of business. Young people seem to leave as soon as they have the opportunity. There are a few other small towns such as Rosebud and Chilton, but Marlin is what most people in the area think of when they think of Falls County.
For some reason, Jim Harris was drawn to this dwindling city after he graduated from Baylor School of Law in Waco in 1979. He had grown up in Burnet, Texas, in the Hill Country, but was looking for some place to establish a solo practice after passing the bar exam. Falls County adjoined to McLennan County, where Waco and Baylor were, and he had a chance during his legal training to watch a jury trial at the district court in Marlin during his final semester. He envisioned himself becoming a big fish in a little pond. He had no desire to go to one of the large cities like Houston or Dallas, and he didn’t want to return to Burnet because even as a high school student he had made enough enemies there that he felt his professional career would be compromised. He often said of Burnet that “there are more people there that I wouldn’t want to see than that I would want to see.” Nobody went out of their way to invite him to his class reunions. He had burned his bridges and had no family there any longer, so there was no reason to return. He loved the beauty of the Hill Country and the Highland Lakes, but he could visit incognito when he wanted to. He had no desire to “go home.”
Right after he got the results from the bar exam and learned that he had passed (barely), he started looking for an opportunity to open a law practice in Marlin. He had majored in business at the University of Texas in Austin, received his BBA, and then obtained an MBA from St. Edward’s before enrolling in law school. He had enough financial savy to run a small business, so he wasn’t afraid of that challenge. He had developed a decent lawn care enterprise as a teenager, as well as raising a money-making calf during his FFA and 4H days in high school. He could manage a dollar and knew how to balance the books. The question was whether he could generate any revenue practicing law in a place like Marlin. He was just not a big-city boy, so he was going to have to eak out a living in a small town – quite a challenge in the 1980’s.
Fortune smiled upon Harris, and he soon became good friends with the Falls County district judge’s son, Michael Fisher. Fisher was a few years older than he was, and was being groomed by his dad to run for district judge when he retired. Carlton Fisher had been district judge in Falls County since the late 1950’s, and it had generally been assumed that his son was the heir apparent to the legal throne. Michael had established a relatively successful practice (with his father’s help, of course), and with Carlton only a few years away from retirement, everyone assumed that Michael would run for the office and take his father’s place. No sensible attorney would run against him. The district covered both Falls and Robertson Counties, and the elder Fisher’s popularity with all attorneys in the district assured Michael of a successful campaign.
That expectation became reality in 1986, when Carlton retired and Michael was elected to assume his father’s place on the bench. With his good friend on the bench, Harris could be assured of at least a fair shake in any hearing, and an occasional decent appointment in other matters. As the saying goes, it’s not what you know – it’s who you know that counts. Harris’ law practice did fairly well for a small town enterprise, with a steady stream of personal injury, criminal, family law and real estate clients. He even took a probate case or two. A small town lawyer pretty much needs to take whatever comes in the door, and he needs to develop contacts with larger firms in the cities so he can refer cases he can’t handle. Such was professional life for Harris. He never got rich, but he did make ends meet.
In 1982 he had married Julie Tate from Waco, whom he had met at Baylor and had dated on and off for seveal years. They never had children, with Julie suffering three miscarriages. Harris was never interested in adoption, and the failure to produce a family drove a wedge between them. Julie had agreed to live in Marlin when they got married, but she never liked small town life that much. When she realized that she was going to be deprived of a family, her dislike for Marlin turned to hatred, and the marriage began to disintegrate. To add fuel to the fire, Harris began to develop a knack for preaching, and often filled in for his pastor at the First Baptist Church. The church eventually ordained him to the ministry and he became a part-time associate pastor there, as well as practicing law. Baptist churches ordain ministers locally, without the involvement of any central hierarchy, and bi-vocational ministers are common. Julie had no desire to be married to a preacher, and began to resent Harris for doing what he wanted to do while she could not have the family she wanted. In her mind, God had failed her, so why should she want to be involved with a husband who proclaimed God’s mercy and goodness when He had apparently turned His back on her. Harris’ religious tendencies were a source of constant tension in the marriage.
Eventually, the marriage fell apart and Julie filed for divorce. The separation was finalized in 2005, and Julie moved back to Waco to begin a new life. That began a period of depression and soul-searching for Harris, and he began to have his own crisis of faith. He had been a faithful husband, a decent provider, and had even preached “God’s Word.” Now, his wife had left him, his ministry was effectively ended, and he felt humiliated in front of his friends and colleagues. The church was understanding and did not request that he resign as associate pastor, but he felt like a hypocrite standing in front of the congregation telling them about the Christian life when he had failed in his own marriage. He voluntarily resigned and buried himself in the practice of law. God was placed on the back burner in his life, and Harris wasn’t sure he would ever use that burner again. He continued to believe, but his prayers were all selfish and half-hearted, and there was none of the dedication that had led to him being ordained in the first place.
Then came 2008, and the horrible accident that devastated another family eventually became a source of minor wealth for him. While Harris felt somewhat guilty about profiting off of someone else’s misery, he had done a decent job for the family and had obtained compensation for the survivors’ loss, even though nothing could restore what had been taken from them. He did his job, and he had been rewarded, even though it took over three years. He was completely out of debt and had enough to keep him afloat as he entered his 60’s. He would be able to travel some and not worry as much about the day to day grind of making a living practicing law in a small town. He had a financial cushion now, and he was healthy. Life was turning out pretty good.
Harris drove into Marlin from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on Sunday, January 8, 2012. He hadn’t kept up with anything happening in Marlin during his last few days in Central America. When he started back to work on Monday, he wanted to be completely relaxed, and the few days at Lola’s had accomplished that perfectly. Harris was ready to plunge back into work. Maybe there would even be another significant personal injury case in his near future. Success breeds success, and the news of the result in the Gutierrez case would spread, and others would come looking for the small town lawyer that wrenched big money out of the big city attorneys, corrupt insurance giant and heartless trucking company. Such were his fantasies, in any event.
Reality turned out to be much stranger. Harris pulled into the driveway of his remodeled two-story Queen Anne home that he and Julie had purchased for pennies in the early 90’s. He had kept the home in the divorce, and she had taken her share of the marital estate from the sale of some farm land on the Brazos River that he had acquired as part of a fee in a real estate case. Since the divorce, he had continued remodeling the home until it had become quite stately in its appearance.
As he got out of his car, his neighbor, John Martin, noticed him and called out, “Well, the world traveler returns.”
“It was great, but I’m glad to be back. I’m looking forward to getting back into the routine. How’s everything going around here? I’m sure nothing significant has changed.”
“Changed, no. But did you read the Sunday paper?”
“No, I don’t have a clue what has gone on the past few days. What happened?”
“They found a man crucified over on the other side of Chilton close to Eddy.”
“Say what? Crucified?” Harris tried hard to imagine what he was being told.
“Yeah, according to the paper, he was on a wooden cross in a bar ditch. A farmer found him yesterday morning when he was going to drink coffee in Eddy. Scared him to death.”
“I suppose it would have scared me, too. Good Lord, do they know who he was or who killed him?”
“No, but the DPS is involved, so we’ll probably be getting some more information soon. Sheriff Haley gave a press conference yesterday. He didn’t say much, but the fact that a press conference was even given puts this in a different category.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I’m going to unpack and have me a beer. One more afternoon of freedom and relaxation before I get back to the salt mine.”
“Good to have you back.”
Harris thought about the bewildering news he had just received. A crucified man – what could that mean? It had to have some religious signficance, he thought. There are a million ways to kill someone. To choose crucifixion – if that is how the man was killed – clearly shows that the killer wanted to make some kind of statement, and in a generally Christian society, crucifixion is going to have religious implications.
Since his crisis of faith had started, almost everything he thought of led to some theological debate in his head. The crucifixion of Jesus had started to bother him. Why did God have to have His Son crucified for our sins? Why couldn’t he just forgive people without demanding a sacrifice, like He tells us we are supposed to do? Southern Baptist Christians like himself are told from youth how sinful and wicked and evil we are as humans, and that we all deserve hell. Bible stories are read to us about how God was grieved that he had even created us, that he found it necessary to wipe out almost the entire race in a flood, how time and time again he destroyed cities and tribes and nations and individuals because of their wickedness. And the only way He could atone for all this human evil was to send His Son to die a horrible death on a Roman cross at the insistence of His own people’s leadership.
What if it was all just a bunch of bullshit? Harris was convinced that Jesus was an historical person who was crucified, but what if this whole atonement thing was just made up by priests and preachers as a way to control people? Tell people how horrible they are, and the only way they can be absolved of their manifold sins is to come to your church. And of course, while they are there, the offering plate will be passed around. And God wants those sinners to tithe (at the very least) to demonstrate the validity of their faith. Faith without works (like giving money) is dead, and will not save the sinner. What a racket.
The cynical lawyer side of him had taken over the debate, but before the faithful believing side of him could respond, he noticed that he was hungry. These theological debates that took place in his head always left him hungry. His kitchen refrigerator was basically empty, since he had not left anything there that could spoil while he traveled. But he did find a couple of frozen dinners, so he nuked one of them, and pulled a St. Arnold’s IPA out of the beer refrigerator in the laundry room. He sat down on his couch and turned on the television. A Baylor women’s basketball game was on, and Baylor was undefeated so far this year. Maybe this would be the year that they would win another national championship. They had the talent and the experience, and this year they had the motivation. After watching about five minutes of the game, it was pretty clear that Baylor was in control. Harris smiled and got another IPA out of the frig. The crucifixion that had just occurred in west Falls County was as far away as the one that occurred in Palestine 2000 years before.
BACK TO WORK
At 7:45 a.m., Monday, January 9, 2012, Jim Harris opened the door to his law office across the main street from the Falls County courthouse. His secretary/receptionist/paralegal/bookkeeper/my-girl-Friday, Jenny Starnes, would not be in until 8:30. Jenny had been with him for 10 years, and he trusted her implicitly. She kept the office going and pretty much did everything except clean the toilets, which Harris hired out to a cleaning service that came in once a week. Harris had given Jenny a nice bonus from the Gutierrez settlement, and she had taken the last two weeks of 2011 off and gone on a cruise with her husband David. Jenny just shut the office down during that time, as not a whole lot happens in the litigation world at the end of the year.
Harris made some coffee, gnawed at the Egg McMuffin he had just purchased at the McDonald’s on Highway 6, and read the morning paper. The Marlin Democrat ran basically a repeat story on the crucified man, as there was not a lot of new information. However, Bill Tomacek, the farmer who found the victim, had given an interview to the paper and shared his insights into the whole affair. “I just don’t know what the world is coming too,” opined Mr. Tomacek. “The morals of this country are breaking down, people have abandoned their Christian faith, and the result is this kind of degradation. Washington is run by scoundrels, and if we don’t get some change up there soon, the whole country is going to go to pot.”
What the hell does Washington, D.C. have to do with somebody crucifying a man in Falls County, Texas, Harris thought. He started a mock discourse in his head. “We have corrupt politicians in D.C., so I’m going to go crucify someone. It’s the only way.” What kind of stupid logic is that? You could have Jesus running the nation’s capital, and people would still murder each other. That’s how it’s always been. Tomacek has been watching Fox News too much, he thought to himself.
Jenny came in with her usual cheery greeting, “Hey, Jim, good to have you back! How was your trip? I hope you took some pics. If you had a Facebook account, we could have kept up with your adventures.”
God, not Facebook again, thought Harris. Jenny had been bugging him to get connected through social networking, but Harris really had very few people he wanted to be connected with. Facebook was too much trouble, and besides, it put pressure on you to respond to everyone’s stupid comments. There are some things that he liked about technology, but quite frankly he didn’t want to have to communicate with people all the time. When do you get your thinking and reflecting done if you have to post or Tweet all the time? Deep thought was becoming a lost art, in his opinion.
“Jenny, good to see you again, but you know I hate Facebook. Anything interesting happen here at the office while I was gone?”
“I guess you heard about the crucifixion.”
“Yeah, I’m reading the latest right now. Why did you kill that poor bastard?”
“Hah! If I wanted to crucify someone, I’d have chosen someone else. Do you want to know who?”
“No, I’m afraid his name would be spelled a lot like mine.”
“Well, I’m not going to crucify the man who sent me on a two-week cruise. Not yet, at least.”
“Hoping for another bonus at the end of the year?”
“That would be nice. A girl could get used to that life-style.”
“Oh great, I’ve spoiled you. Now you are going to be high-maintenance. That’s all I need.”
“Well, in my opinion, the best way to kill a man is not by crucifixion. You want to hear how I would do it?”
“Not while I’m eating. I have a pretty good idea that you wouldn’t put nails in his hands or feet.”
“No way. That would be a waste of good nails.”
“Not to change the subject or anything, but has our next $15,000,000.00 case walked through the door?”
“No, I’m guessing that Gutierrez was a once-in-a-lifetime case. Now we’re back to nickels and dimes.”
“You’re probably right, but here’s hoping.” Harris raised his coffee cup, and Jenny responded with an air toast. “Now, what’s on the calendar for today?”
Harris busied himself with cases and clients that he had put off for the past six weeks. Now the punishment for enjoying himself was meted out. A long list of phone calls, e-mails and correspondence had to be attended to. Some clients felt neglected, a few deadlines were urgent, and the statute of limitations was about to run on one case that he had. The next couple of weeks were going to require his full attention. But he couldn’t get his mind off of the crucified man. Something about it captivated him, from a legal and theological perspective, not to mention the pure human interest factor. He was embarrassed and ashamed to realize that he was thinking about how he might profit from this event. As the best known attorney in Falls County, if the perpetrator was found and tried here, Harris might be appointed to represent him. It would be a case of high notoriety, and for a lawyer, all publicity is good publicity. The fact that he even thought about this caused him to ponder Christ’s teachings in the Gospels, where personal profit from worldly affairs is not even on the radar screen. He was conflicted, but this was business. Surely there was nothing wrong with just thinking about something. Thought crimes aren’t mentioned in the Bible, are they?
Right before lunch he decided to call his good friend, Judge Michael Fisher. “Mike, this is Jim. I survived Central America and have returned to tell the tale. Can I treat you to lunch at Alene’s?”
“Jim, good to hear your voice. Sure, I’m free. Not much going on today in court. I’ll meet you there in 20 minutes.”
Alene’s Place is a favorite haunt of the downtown Marlin crowd. It’s your basic greasy spoon, with chicken fried steak, meat loaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread, banana pudding and iced tea among the favorite selections. Lawyers, bankers, courthouse personnel, law enforcement, and shopkeepers frequent its environs, and share the latest gossip and news (if there’s a difference). While Harris wanted to see his good friend, what he really wanted was more information on the recent murder. Judge Michael Fisher knew everything that was going on in Falls and Robertson Counties, and Harris fully intended to tap that source of information to the fullest extent. He contributed liberally to Fisher’s election fund as needed, since there was always some newcomer or upstart who thought he could unseat him. Such contributions were, in effect, legal tithes, and Harris felt entitled to some administration of grace in return, whether in the form of information, appointments, or other opportunities that may arise. Numerous rounds of golf and fully paid hunting trips also lubricated the system, and Harris had become accustomed to being the beneficiary of Judge Fisher’s largesse. That’s just the way it’s done in small town Texas. There’s nothing illegal or unethical about it, as long as it’s not too openly articulated.
Harris and Fisher chose their usual corner table, where it was less likely that their conversation would be overheard. After saying hello to at least half the patrons in the café, they sat down and made their menu selections. Harris ordered a chicken fried steak, french fries, and a small salad. Fisher chose a club sandwich and cole slaw. Both had iced tea to drink.
Harris broached the subject: “Well, I leave for a month and the whole county goes to hell. People getting crucified on county roads. What’s next?”
“It’s hard to figure out,” replied Fisher. “We’ll have to wait for the autopsy, but as far as we can tell, the dead man wasn’t from around here. There is nothing to suggest that this had anything to do with Falls County or anyone in Falls County. It could be that whoever did this just decided to get off I-35 at a random spot, and drove around until he found a deserted spot. Why he killed the guy, and why he put him on a cross is a mystery to everyone at this point. I hope the autopsy sheds some light on it.”
“I don’t know. This is a pretty dramatic murder, and it’s obvious that a lot of thought went into it. Someone had to spend a little time building that cross and its stand, attaching the guy to it, and then unloading him without being seen. It took a bit of planning to execute this. I don’t think anything about it was random. The killer was making a statement of some sort – he chose his victim and the manner of death, and he chose the place he put him. It is close to I-35, so maybe he picked up a hitchhiker. But even then, he would have had to take him someplace to kill him and get him on the cross. I’m thinking the killer doesn’t live too very far from where the body was found.”
“So you think we are dealing with a local? I guess we can rule you out since you were out of the country.”
“Heh, heh. I think at least it was someone who knows the area. It doesn’t mean that he’s from this town or county, but I’d put money on him being from central Texas. He’s within a fairly short driving distance from where the victim was found.”
“If and when they identify the guy, if Samuels has him indicted and he needs a lawyer, do you want the case?”
Fisher was referring to Frank Samuels, the Falls County District Attorney, who would be responsible for presenting any murder charges to the Grand Jury. Technically, Fisher and Harris were engaged in an ex parte communication that was probably not ethical, but small town law doesn’t often pay attention to such niceties. Both men knew that the first thing a defense attorney would have to do is move to have the case transferred out of Falls County to a venue where there would be less notariety. If Harris represented the defendant, Fisher would grant that motion and the case would be transferred. Then, another attorney would take over. Harris would benefit from the momentary notariety, and Fisher would get rid of a difficult case. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“Sure, if that’s what you decide to do,” said Harris, presenting a pretense of propriety. “I’d be honored to accept the appointment.”
“Well, let’s see what happens. If it comes to that, you’re the best in the county, so I don’t think anyone would question it, especially after that job you did in the trucking case. Not a week goes by that someone doesn’t mention that. I hope you are enjoying the fruits of your labor.”
“It was the best thing that had happened to me since I started practicing law, and at least I didn’t screw it up.”
“No, you did a great job.” Harris inwardly beamed with pride. There really was nothing like doing something right and getting some recognition and reward. His stock as a lawyer was soaring right now, at least among the local legal community. Surely he would get some decent referrals out of this. It was only right, after all.
After lunch Harris picked up the tab and left a generous tip. He was not a tight wad, and local waitresses appreciated that. Harris and Fisher left Adele’s and went their separate ways back to work. Harris felt sure that, if it came to that, he would be appointed as the defendant’s attorney by Fisher. Nothing bad could come from that – there’s no such thing as bad publicity. He began to fantasize about the trial of a man accused of crucifying another human being. How salacious the details would be! Reporters from all over the state and even the nation would descend upon Marlin to get a look at the monster who did this. And Harris would be right in the middle of it all, soaking up the attention. Money in the bank.
Once again, the idea of a crucifixion awoke the preacher in him, and he began to have a theological debate in his mind. Maybe the death of Jesus was not so much a sacrifice demanded by God for sin, but it was just a dramatic portrayal of the lengths that a loving God would go to in order to reach His estranged children. Perhaps the whole “for our sins” meme that is encountered in the Gospels was just a Jewish spin on the historical fact of the death of Christ. Maybe God really didn’t require that, but the Jewish apostles had to explain it in terms they could understand. Harris really liked the idea of a totally loving and forgiving God who had no intention of sending anyone to eternal torment. All he wanted was to get our attention and cause us to focus on him, and the crucifixion certainly did the trick.
Hogwash, said the Satan in his brain. You can’t cherrypick the good parts of the Bible and leave out the bad. God essentially hates us – it’s apparent from the Old Testament. That’s what those idiots from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas picked up on – God hates America, God hates gays, God loves dead soldiers, etc. The God of the Old Testament hates the sin and the sinner, and the New Testament is joined hip and thigh to the Old. God is bloody, and required His own Son to be bludgeoned and tormented just to satisfy His bloodlust and hatred of humanity. Why worship a God like that, except for the fact that if you don’t, He’ll rip your guts out forever?
By the time the argument between his ears had reached this crescendo, Harris found himself back at his office. Time to put theology back on the shelf. There was law to practice. For the rest of the day and the week, Harris caught up on the backlog of neglected clients and forgotten cases. By Friday afternoon he had pretty much dug himself out from underneath the pile of work on his desk, and was ready to head to Waco for a night on the town. Even good Christians need an occasional night of minor debauchery to keep from getting wound up too tight. A few Big-O’s at George’s would do the trick. It wasn’t Lola’s, but the atmosphere was just as friendly, and the beer in large frosted mugs was cold. It was an old haunt from his law school days, and he felt at home there. The beer numbed the conflict in his brain.
On Sunday, January 15, 2012, the services at the Brazos River Independent Baptist Church were in full swing. This was a fundamentalist congregation, and anyone who attended the services was given ample warning. On the sign in front of the church the words “Independent, Fundamental, Pre-Millenial, KJV” were written. Their doctrine was there for all to see. They were “Independent” – not part of any denomination which they considered to be compromised and commiting apostacy, such as the Southern Baptist Convention or the (in their view) arch-liberal Baptist General Convention of Texas. They were “Fundamental” – the Bible was the literal, inspired, infallible and inerrant Word of God. It meant exactly what it said, and there would be no watered down metaphorical interpretations of any passage. Six days meant six days – they wouldn’t hear of a universe that was billions of years old. They were “Pre-Millenial” – the True Church would be raptured before the Great Tribulation, and then Christ would return to institute a literal 1000 year reign on the earth. And they were “KJV” – the 1611 King James Version of the Bible was the only one they accepted. The modern versions were anathema. They would read the KJV alone, even if they couldn’t understand or pronounce many of the words, and even though they did not speak like that to one another. God said it, I believe it, and that settles it. If the King James was good enough for Paul, it was good enough for them. Never mind that Paul spoke Aramaic and Koine Greek, and that neither Elizabethan English nor any other kind of English even existed in the First Century A.D. That was the Word of God, and to tamper with it would risk bringing down curses from heaven.
Pastor Rick Johnson was in perfect form while delivering his sermon. The congregation had sung a few old hymns, all from the 1800’s, accompanied by Sister Dora Jenson on piano. Then, after the offering had been taken, Brother Rick stepped up to the pulpit and began delivering his fiery message for the day, which he would hammer home with all the horsepower he could muster for the next 40 minutes, punctuating his points with pounding fists. His beet-red face looked at times as if it were about to explode. The congregation of about 100 people enjoyed the spectacle – they expected to have “their toes stepped on” and to be convicted and challenged by Brother Rick’s word for the day. While the Bible was the Word of God, its message was being delivered by God’s Servant, and the attendees took it very seriously. Congregational shouts of “amen” and “preach it!” punctuated Brother’s Rick’s delivery.
The text for the day was II Samuel 21:1-14. A famine had plagued Israel for three years, and King David had inquired of the Lord to determine the reason. He was informed, by priest or prophet or lot or dream or some other unknown method, that it was because of the bloodthirst of King Saul that the land had been cursed. Saul, the king before David, had killed a significant number of a group called the Gibeonites, non-Israelis who were supposed to be at peace with Israel. This evil had caused the plague. (How this causal connection was made is not clear from the text – God’s mysterious ways were at work). David went to the Gibeonites to seek reconciliation, and they told him that seven descendants of Saul must be delivered to them for execution. (David probably had no problem with this, as any descendant of Saul would be a potential rival to him for the throne). So seven descendants of Saul were chosen, with no evidence of their own personal guilt, and the Gibeonites “hanged them on the hill before the Lord.” This action apparently satisfied God, and He ended the famine. Such an enlightened manner of dealing with natural disaster enthralled Brother Rick, and it fit right in with his sermon series on blood sacrifice. The theme of the seven week series (anything is more spiritual if it comes in groups of seven) was “healing the land through atonement.” The basic idea was that if there is a problem in the nation, it will require the shedding of blood to bring healing. God provides the atonement through blood sacrifice. The blood sacrifice covers the sin, and results in abatement of God’s wrath. That general thread runs throughout the Old Testament, and “bleeds” into the New Testament, as well.
The congregation loved this sort of message. There was a very deep and abiding sense that the United States of America was going down the wrong path, and that the nation was under a curse of the wrath of God. This was proven by natural disasters, long wars, attacks on the homeland, and now – the deepest affront of all – a black Muslim in the White House (never mind that he repeatedly referred to himself as Christian). There was only one way to bring healing according to biblical precedent, and that was through blood sacrifice. God’s wrath had to be satisfied through the shedding of blood. We would have to endure the period of testing, but if we remained faithful, healing would come. The literal Word of God ensured it.
How all this squared with the God of the New Testament who supposedly loved the world so much that He sent His Son was not expressly stated. Brother Rick’s sermon series was entirely based on passages from the Old Testament. The New Testament offer of salvation was only briefly mentioned at the end of each sermon. For the most part, the congregants were treated to about 40 minutes each Sunday of violence, blood, hatred and retribution. They loved it.
One man in particular, who always sat on the last row next to the center aisle, was listening intently. Brother Rick’s words that “God demands a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the land” resonated with him. They confirmed exactly what he had been hearing for the past several Sundays. When Brother Rick spoke, the man felt that God was speaking directly to him, telling him what to do, how to act, what steps to take. He had already attempted to respond to God’s message to him. Now he had a number – seven. He had not understood what it would take to protect his land, his section of the world. Now he knew. The Word had been spoken. As soon as the seven descendants of Saul had been sacrificed, the famine would end, the land would be healed, and the blessing of God would be restored.
He felt blessed and chosen that God had revealed this to him. God had led him to this little church near the Brazos River in Falls County about three years before, and he had sensed that something important was going to come out of his decision to join this congregation. Brother Rick had the same general philosophy about life that he did. Both of them felt that the country was going to hell in a hand basket, and that unless there was some great revival and changing of people’s evil lifestyles, God was going to rain down judgment that would make the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah seem tame in comparison. 9-11 had only been a precursor, a warning. The warnings had continued with hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Ike smashing into the Gulf Coast, with general economic malaise, with protracted warfare and no clear victory. The world as they knew it was coming apart at the seams, a clear indiction of God’s displeasure.
Brother Rick had often preached that the problems began in Washington. The whole head was sick, and the body would therefore suffer. Even closer to home, the pastor had taken aim at the Texas state capital of Austin, preaching that its immorality would hasten the arrival of judgment in this state. Hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and wildfires were God’s method of shouting danger and warning. If only people would see the precedents in the Old Testament – devastating floods, droughts, plagues, famines, wars, all brought about by the sinfulness of God’s people – then they would see the pattern that was developing. Austin reveled in its own “weirdness,” promoting licentious behavior, slothfulness, abortion, and, worst of all (for the fundamentalist), homosexuality. If anything disgusted God, it was men having sex with other men. It threatened to undermine the very foundation of Christian culture – heterosexual marriage and the family. Nevermind that the family had been falling apart for decades and that divorce was just as high among Christians as it was among non-believers. Homosexuality brought God’s extreme displeasure upon its practioners and upon those who countenanced that sort of behavior. He would send wars, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and any other form of disaster wherever this type of activity took place.
Because Brother Rick was so certain that this was the cause of all the nation’s and state’s ills, he began his sermon series on blood sacrifice right after Thanksgiving. So critical was it that the congregation understand this principle, he did not go through the usual Christmas messages about the birth of Jesus. There was no time for business as usual, for Christmas pageants and Silent Night. We were on the brink of destruction, and people had to be warned. He had introduced the principle of blood sacrifice from the Torah – that the blood of animal sacrifices provided atonement or cover from Yahweh’s wrath. Leviticus 17:11 said that the blood makes atonement for the soul or life. Only blood would do. In a second sermon he based his message on Numbers 35:33 – blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land, except by the blood of him who shed it. The liberals in Washington and Austin promoted abortion, which was the wrongful shedding of blood. The land was defiled by this sin, and only the blood of those who shed it could remove the stain.
Most people in the congregation understood that Brother Rick was speaking metaphorically, and was not promoting the murder of politicians. He even stated that it was the Christian’s duty to remove the stain by removing the politician from office, shedding his “political” blood, so to speak, to provide atonement for the land by voting him out. But the man on the last row next to the center aisle did not hear it that way. He knew Brother Rick could not come right out and say what he thought and what he meant. He was speaking in a form of code – giving the truth in a parable for those of spiritual discernment to figure out. The man understood this, but he heard and understood the message that God was speaking to him. There must be a shedding of blood to atone for the land. He understood that he was being called to a task. He could not save the nation by himself, he could not even save the state. But he could save his land, the place of his birth, Falls County, Texas. If only there were thousands of others as faithful as he was, then the nation would survive. Maybe his example would inspire others.
He knew several sacrifices would be required, for the sins of the land were many and there was much defilement. Would there have to be a sacrifice for sloth and the welfare state, for homosexuality, for abortion? But it was not until this sermon that he knew exactly how many it would take – the perfect number of seven. Those to be sacrificed would represent the various sins that were dragging the nation into Gehenna. There would be seven, a perfect number, sufficient to atone for all wickedness. Just as seven descendents of the evil king Saul had to be sacrificed to save Israel of old, so now seven “descendents” of the current evil social condition would have to meet a similar fate. God had spoken to him. He believed it. That settled it. The task was given to him, and he would not fail.
Sheriff Jack Haley notified the local news media as soon as he received the autopsy report on the crucified victim from the medical examiner. It was Tuesday, January 17, 2012, and the report had come in quicker than he had expected. He had received a call from the DPS alerting him that the report was on its way, and the DPS had also forwarded him some critical information about the case. They had determined the identify of the crucified man, and left it up to Sheriff Haley to pass whatever information he chose to give to the public. Haley scheduled a news conference for 2:00 p.m. at the Sheriff’s Department, which was well-attended by local media and members of the general public. Jim Harris and Jenny Starnes both attended, as did several other attorneys and court personnel.
Haley began the conference at about 2:00 p.m. “I have some important information to relay to you about the murder victim found in west Falls County on January 8. This information comes from the autopsy report from Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science in Dallas and from the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin. The victim’s name was Stephen Wayne Shatner, and he was 47 years old. He was homeless and had been living in a shelter in Austin, Texas. A few days before he was found he had informed the shelter personnel that he intended to hitchhike to Dallas. That was the last anyone saw him alive. His identify has been confirmed by dental records and his family has been notified. He was not married and had no children.”
“The autopsy report indicates that Mr. Shatner died as a result of three stab wounds in his back. The stab wounds are all approximately the same depth, and are in a straight line, down the mid-back. There are exactly four inches between the upper and middle wound and between the middle and lower wound. All three wounds severed the spinal cord – the blade used was positioned horizontally. The upper wound was deep enough to pierce the heart, as well. Death was probably almost instantaneous.”
“At some point after he died, Mr. Shatner was placed on a wooden cross, and his hands and feet were nailed to the wood, using three spikes. He was secured on the cross by ropes tied around his arms and also by a separate rope tied around his waist and looped over the cross-member. He was stabbed between the fifth and sixth rib on the right side by what appears to have been a hunting knife, but, as I indicated, he was already dead by the time this occurred. He also had a laminated piece of green paper with the number “1” typed on it nailed to his forehead with a six-penny nail. The various nails were all placed after his death and had nothing to do with the actual cause of death. The fact that the killer labeled his victim as “1” may imply that he has plans of killing again.”
“Given that the victim was killed by the stab wounds to his back, this has been ruled a homicide. Anyone having any information about this crime is encouraged to contact my office or the DPS. I’ll take a few questions.”
A reporter from KCEN TV raised his hand and was acknowleged. “You said the stab wounds were in a straight line and there was an equal distance between them. What is the significance of that? Does that indicate the type of weapon used in any way?”
Haley responded, “Perhaps. It is difficult to tell exactly what the weapon was. However, given that the blades severed the spinal cord and one of them penetrated the heart, a significant amount of force had to be used. The likelihood that someone wielding a knife and just stabbing the victim by hand could make three evenly-spaced wounds in a line seems pretty remote. But we do not know at this time exactly how the stabbing was done.”
A reporter from the Marlin Democrat asked “Does this appear to be some sort of ritualistic killing or something done by some religious fanatic?”
“It’s hard to say,” said Haley. “The DPS is trying to put together a psychological profile, but since we don’t truly know the motive here, we are dealing with a lot of speculation.”
“Has the family given any important information about the victim?” another reporter inquired.
“Just that he had been living in Austin at the shelter for a few years. He apparently had a drinking problem and had been out of work for quite some time. He didn’t have any known enemies that we can determine. I’ll take one more question.”
“Any idea why he was placed on County Road 451?”
“No. It’s remote, but enough people travel that road to make it certain that he would be found within a short time. Maybe he wanted some place where he would have time to set up the cross without being seen. Other than that, we have no idea. If anyone has any information about this, please contact me or the DPS. Thank you.”
With that, Sheriff Haley retreated to his office. Harris and Jenny looked at each other and shrugged. “Very strange,” said Jenny.
Harris agreed. “We’ve never seen anything quite this macabre and dramatic here, at least since I’ve been around. Husbands and wives killing each other, an occasional card game ending in a shooting, and a drug-related murder here and there – that’s about as exciting as it gets. Crucifixion takes it to a whole new level. It just has to be religious or cultic in some way. It’s a proclamation of some sort, meant to convey a message.”
“The message it conveys to me is to stay home – there’s a nut on the loose. I hope this was a random occurrence and that we’ve seen the last of it.”
“I hope so, too, but this was too elaborate and thought out. The killer wants people to know something, and until that message is clearly conveyed, he’s not finished. The message is important, and he hasn’t finished giving it yet. But what that message is, I haven’t got a clue.”
“This is not something that the Marlin Chamber of Commerce wants to put on their website. ‘Visit Marlin – it’s an uplifting experience!”
“Yeah, oh for the days when people would come just to see the falls and soak in the hot mineral water. Now we are famous worldwide for crucifixions. Not exactly the image we want to have. And so close to Waco, too. Waco is just now recovering from the Branch Davidians massacre, and now we have crucifixions going on just south of there. I wonder what people think of us down here.”
“Most people probably don’t think anything at all. Until this happened, 99.9% of the people of the world had never heard of this place.”
“I’m afraid they are going to be hearing more,” mused Harris. He shuddered, thinking of the evil that could be lurking in the shadows so close to home. We never really know what other people are planning, he thought. They walk among us, appearing normal and innocent, but inside they are concocting schemes that would horrify anyone who knew about them. Preachers and priests molesting children. Men killing their own families, mothers murdering their children. People planning mass destruction. Anyone you meet on the street could be the one who murders you. And somewhere out there is a maniac waiting to nail somebody to a cross. What an insane species we are.”
The next two weeks passed by without anything out of the ordinary occurring. Harris was back in full swing at his law practice, taking in new clients, appearing in court, drafting pleadings and other legal documents. He signed up a fairly substantial personal injury claim from a young man who was injured by piece of farming equipment. His client had caught his hand on the power takeoff mechanism on his tractor while digging fence posts, and it had almost taken his arm off. Harris felt that he had a decent chance at a products liability claim, as it seemed as though the warnings on the machinery were deficient and that there was insufficient guarding in place. In the past, he usually had to refer these types of cases out because he couldn’t finance them, but now he had sufficient funds to handle all the expenses. It had taken him this long to get to this position in his professional career, but that’s the trade-off when you practice in a small town – less stress, but also less opportunity for success.
He had also been appointed to administer a fairly substantial estate of a farmer who had recently passed away. The decedent was intestate (meaning that he died without a will), and the heirs couldn’t agree on anything, so the County Judge had appointed him to administer the estate during the probate. Such appointments could be lucrative. Harris was certain that his successful handling of the Gutierrez case was paying dividends, as he had achieved a certain level of notariety in the area. Success was breeding success, and he was reaping the fruits of his labors.
He was even being asked to preach on Sundays at some local country churches. This was a good sign for him – the stigma of his divorce had passed and people were remembering that, at one time, he was a fairly good preacher. Besides, the idea of a lawyer who was also a preacher attracted some attention. Most of the church-goers in Falls County assumed that all lawyers were hell-bound. Maybe they were right, but Harris was going to take advantage of any opportunity he had to get exposure. He would pick up $100.00 or $200.00 every time he preached, and while he was not doing it for the sake of “filthy lucre” (he rationalized to himself), he felt that he did have something to say to people. If nothing else, he could tell them the difference between the crucifixion of Jesus and what had recently happened on County Road 451. He didn’t want the locals to start getting wrong ideas about the Gospel.
On Sunday, January 29, Harris had been asked to preach at the Shiloh Baptist Church east of Marlin. The Director of the local Baptist Association had given him a call and asked him to “supply preach,” or fill in due to the absence of the pastor. The former pastor had retired, and Shiloh was really too small to attract anyone else. On a good Sunday, it would have maybe 40 people show up for worship, much too small to support a preacher. Perhaps a seminary student from Truett Seminary in Waco would accept the call, but until that happened, people would need to fill in. Harris was on the list of available preachers, so he accepted the invitation. He was actually starting to warm up to the idea of preaching on a regular basis again, so if the congregation wouldn’t mind having a divorced attorney as their pastor, he would be willing to consider it. Bi-vocational ministry was fairly common in rural areas. He had a way to make a living, so he wouldn’t be much of a burden on this small, mainly elderly congregation.
He chose Matthew 5:3-12 for his sermon text – the Beatitudes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He remembered a story told to him by his uncle, who as a teenager had memorized the entire Sermon. After he had recited it to his church, a little old lady came up to him and said “that was beautiful – someone ought to write that down.” It served as a reminder to him that some people can attend church for 60 years and never learn a thing about the Bible. He had learned that many Christians were lazy-minded, and that Sunday School and church were sort of like a perpetual First Grade. Nobody was ever promoted to the next level, because everyone looked to the preacher to know the Bible. After all, he was the professional Christian. “Aim low, boys,” a seminary professor once told him about preaching to the typical flock. “They’re all riding on Shetlands.”
After he had concluded the service (the song leader had sung all six verses of “Just As I Am” for the invitation, even though it was clear that everyone there had been a baptized member of the church for at least 25 years), one of the elder statesmen of the church, the Chairman of the Deacons, approached him with the same tired refrain that he had heard so often (even more that “Just As I Am”) – “A lawyer and a preacher. Hah, hah, that’s a contradiction in terms.”
Harris had his patented response ready. “Well, you know, Jesus was a lawyer.”
“How so?” came the bewildered reply.
“In I John 2:1 it says that Jesus was our ‘advocate.’ That word in Greek was paracletos, which is a word that was used in those days for those who argued someone’s case for them, like attorneys. The same word is used for the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John. And the Father is the Judge, and everyone knows that in order to be a full-fledged judge, you have to be a lawyer. So the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is really the name of a law firm. I feel like I’m in pretty good company.”
The old man looked bewildered. Harris got a mental image of him riding on a Shetland pony. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere. The man felt that somehow he had been ridiculed, so he got defensive and responded with another stock statement. “I’ve never understood how an attorney, especially a so-called Christian attorney, could represent a person he knew was guilty.”
Not this one again, Harris thought. He pulled out answer #26. “Well, you know that Jesus did exactly that for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Jesus died for you knowing full well that you were a guilty sinner. In effect, He represented you before the Father, the Judge, knowing that you were guilty. We attorneys just follow His example.”
“Well, that’s different,” the man said, not explaining why. He shrugged his shoulders and then turned and left. Harris felt that he would not get invited to preach here again. Then, two or three other members came up and asked for free legal advice about issues they were facing. It was Harris’ consistent experience that when people found out he was an attorney, they were much more interested in legal matters that in spiritual ones. He dispensed the obligatory general statements about the law, accepted his check for $100.00 from the church treasurer, got in his car and drove back to Marlin.
On the way home he wondered why he even cared about preaching. For him, it was a mental challenge to come up with a good message, and he felt that the potential for doing something positive was there. But people were so set in their ways, he wondered if they ever heard what he said. He might have some insight into some teaching or parable of Jesus, but when he attempted to share it with a congregation, half of them were asleep, and most of the other half filtered everything he said through some sort of pre-conceived doctrinal filter, so that they were prevented from being challenged by any new idea. He wasn’t at all sure that religion was really good. Yes, it could inspire some people to do wonderful things. But for many others, it provided a justification for whatever maleficence already existed in their hearts. They were not challenged, they were not changed, they were not converted. They merely latched onto some statement that justified their already entrenched world view. And since they were lazy-minded, they were truly like sheep. Jesus was surely right about that. But a congregation of sheep breeds a clergy of wolves, and their inability to think for themselves and delve into the core teachings of the faith created congregation after congregation of regurgitating ovines, spitting up the sputum of manipulating ministers, concerned only for their own well-being. Harris felt that he was on the verge of becoming a true misanthrope. He was disgusted by humanity, including himself.
His first thought when he reached home was to pour himself a double shot of Jack Daniels. It would serve as an instant form of therapy, an attitude adjuster, and at least get him in a mellow mood. If anyone knew he was a drinking preacher, that would even be worse than a divorced one. He had a line for that, too – “Jesus drank wine, and even made it. I’m just following His example.” But he knew that wouldn’t work for the regurgitating ovine crowd. They had been indoctrinated from youth to think that alcohol was sinful per se, and that anyone who drank was a drunkard and a winebibber. Of course, the Scripture condemns gluttony as much as it condemns drunkeness, and the churches were filled with giant-gutted men and big-butted women who stuffed their faces with regularity at the local feeding trough after Sunday worship and before Wednesday night Bible study, but that was different. Somewhere along the line it had become acceptable to be a glutton, but not a drunk. Just as it had become acceptable in some churches to sing but not play the piano, or to play dominoes at a church picnic but not cards, or bowl but not play pool, or to be a cheerleader but not dance. Such distinctions were beyond Harris’ ability to discern. Religion, in general, seemed more ridiculous to him every day.
He melted on his back porch, sipping his whisky and looking out on the yard that soon would give birth to the riot of color that is spring. It had begun to rain again in Texas (God’s wrath having momentarily been lifted), and if it continued, it promised to be a much greener and more pleasant year than the one before, when the whole state was literally on fire. God had punished us with drought for electing Rick Perry yet again as governor (Harris chuckled at the thought), and now that he was out of the running for President due to his own stupidity, it appeared as though the curse was being abated. Apparently God just wanted him out of the state for awhile. Harris picked up the remote and turned on the outdoor television that he had recently had installed. He found an ESPN station where the Baylor Lady Bears basketball team was playing, and decided to watch. They were winning again, and winning made him happy. At least someone was doing their job right.
On Thursday, February 2, Groundhog Day greeted Falls County with a cold slap in the face. It wasn’t immediately clear what Puxatawny Phil had seen up in Pennsylvania, but if he had been in Falls County, Texas, he would have seen the shadow of death over the Brazos Valley. Harris arrived at his office a little before 8:00 a.m., and as he opened the door, he heard the telephone ringing. It was District Judge Michael Fisher. “It happened again, twice.” “What are you talking about?” replied Harris. “Two more crucified people,” said the judge.
“You’ve got to be kidding. Where?”
“One of them was close to the Brazos River just south of the McLennan County line, and one was close to the river just north of the Robertson County line close to Highbank.”
“What the hell is happening?”
“I don’t know, but we are going to have major problems with these. Sheriff Haley called me and told me that the one in north county was a black woman, and the one in south county was an Hispanic man. Now we’ve got race in the mix, possible hate crimes, and all hell is going to break loose. Reporters from all over are going to descend on us. We are going to look worse than Jasper.” His reference to Jasper was to the east Texas town, generally known for racism, where a black man had been dragged to death by some white men a few years earlier.
“That’s not how we are, you know that. People get along pretty well together here,” Harris replied.
“I know, but that’s how it’s going to be portrayed. This is a nightmare. We are going to need to do some serious PR. Haley and Branson are going to have their hands full.”
THE WORLD COMES TO FALLS COUNTY
Robert Branson was the County Judge of Falls County. County Judges in Texas are more executive than judicial in nature, and function as the chief executive officer of the county. Branson, as the CEO, and Haley, as the chief law enforcement officer, would be fielding most of the inquiries from the media and the public. The world was going to be forming a very negative impression of Falls County, Texas, and it was going to be largely up to them to engage in damage control as the county spokespersons. The world and nation already had a concept of Texas, and especially anyone close to Waco, as bigoted gunslinging racists, and this would only confirm that idea. It would take a concerted effort, especially from Branson, to get the leaders of all factions of the community, including black and Hispanic leaders, to dispel any false impressions. This was not an essentially racist county, and these unfortunate events were something that had been foisted upon it from without. Or at least that’s what they all hoped.
It didn’t take long for the entire world to descend upon Falls County, Texas. Three people found crucified along its country roads was enough to attract the media’s attention in all quarters. All the major players had representatives present, very much as it had been back in 1993 with the Branch Davidian standoff. However, this time they had no specific place to congregate, as there was no compound under siege like there was then. By the time the cameras and reporters rolled into Marlin, the latest two victims had been shipped off for autopsies in Dallas, and everyone was waiting for the results to see what information could be gleaned from the bodies. Judge Branson and Sheriff Haley did take the lead in fielding questions, and tried to spin the facts enough to avoid the conclusion that this was a redneck community brimming with religious nuts looking for human sacrifices. To their credit, they took a pro-active media stance and immediately began to call daily press conferences to update the media on developments. The FBI and the United States Department of Justice were now involved, as the possibility of hate crimes and civil rights violations were raised. Representatives of the NAACP and several Hispanic groups, including La Raza, made their appearance and began organizing demonstrations. Of course, there were now three victims – one white, one black and one Hispanic – and it was not apparent on the surface that these crimes had anything specifically to do with race. The perpetrator appeared to be an equal opportunity murderer. But people were stoking whatever fires advanced their particular agendas, and these crimes provided plenty of fodder for whoever wanted to complain about something.
Of course, comedians couldn’t stay away from the idea of “The Texas Groundhog Day Massacre,” and plenty of macabre jokes made the circuit. Talk show hosts on both sides of the political spectrum took the opportunity to argue that these killings demonstrated the need for such-and-so political or social reforms, coming to diametrically opposed conclusions. It was a general circus, with speculations and rumors running rampant. Various religious groups jumped on board, either trying to distance themselves from the events in question or using the opportunity to explain the “true meaning” of Christ’s crucifixion. Of course, the latter groups all varied in their interpretation, depending upon what denomination they were from and what their particular doctrine held.
The press conferences held by Judge Branson and Sheriff Haley at least attempted to keep the conversation on track. Each day they would inform the media and the public at large of the information they could release, with Sheriff Haley handling the play-by-play and Judge Branson providing the “color commentary,” so to speak. His purpose was more political and economic, attempting to show the world that Falls County was actually pretty normal and was a nice place to live. In response to a question from a BBC reporter Judge Branson explained that “Falls County citizens are hard-working, productive citizens. This county has a relatively low crime rate, and we are not accustomed to seeing this type of behavior here. We had no advance notice that anything of this nature was about to occur in our community. There is no indication that any sort of religious cult has taken up residence here, and none of the victims appear to be locals. We have no idea who has done this, but our local law enforcement agencies, in cooperation with state and federal authorities, are doing everything within their power to solve these heinous crimes. Nobody wants this matter resolved more than the citizens of this county.”
At one of the conferences Sheriff Haley gave some details about the newest victims, adding that the information he was sharing was subject to the official findings of the autopsies. “The second victim that was found was a black female, and appeared to be in her mid-thirties. She was found on County Road 108 near the intersection with County Road 110. She was found at approximately 4:30 a.m. on February 2 by a local resident. The third victim was an Hispanic male, perhaps in his late-thirties or early-forties. He was found on County Road 205 south of Highbank, very close to the Brazos River. Like the other victims, he was found by a local resident. He was discovered a little after 5:00 a.m.”
“The crosses upon which the victims were found hanging were of the same type as the first victim. Both had the same type of stab wounds in their backs – three wounds about 4 inches apart. Both had a green, laminated piece of paper nailed to their foreheads, the black female with the number “2” and the Hispanic male with the number “3.” Otherwise, the manner of crucifixion for both appeared to be the same as the first victim, with the following differences. The black female had a stab wound to her genital area, and the Hispanic man had a stab wound to his right calf. As you may remember, the first victim had a stab wound to his chest. Also, it appears that the black female was frozen for some period of time before she was afixed to the cross. She was still partially frozen when she was found.”
“The time of death, the exact manner of death, the identities of the victims, the motive and the perpetrator all remain unknown at this time. Autopsies are pending which hopefully will help answer some of these questions. We will keep you updated regularly as we obtain information. Again, if anyone has anything to tell us about these crimes, please contact us. We want to do everything we can to assure that this does not happen again.”
“Was the female victim sexually assaulted?” asked a journalist from the Dallas Morning News.
“Nothing indicates that. From outward appearances, it looks like the wound to the genital area was post-mortum. The single wounds on each victim are in different places. It appears that the perpetrator is making some sort of symbolic statement, but exactly what it is we do not know at this time. We’re hoping the autopsies will shed some light on that.”
“Isn’t it obvious that there is some sort of religious motivation in these killings?” inquired a reporter from the New York Times.
“Nothing is really obvious about the motivation, except that the perpetrator is numbering his victims, which may mean that he apparently intends to kill again. Why he is doing it remains a mystery.”
“You keep saying ‘he,’ Sheriff. Have you established that the perpetrator is male?” asked a well-known journalist from CNN.
“In the experience of law enforcement, I believe I can say that this type of crime is usually committed by men. Whether or not a female is involved at some level is unknown. That will conclude this session, but we will report to you again tomorrow on any developments that we become aware of.”
Harris attended the press conference and noticed Judge Michael Fisher there, as well. He approached his friend and they exchanged bewildered glances. “I’ve never seen anything exactly like this,” said Fisher. “I wonder where this is all leading.”
“It’s certainly giving Falls County a lot of publicity. Not exactly the kind we want. Now it’s clear that this county is the focus of the killer’s plan. It would help if he would plant a few corpses in Milam County or Bell County. I wouldn’t mind sharing some of the spotlight with them. The crosses really bother me. Everyone is drawing parallels with the Branch Davidians, but I’m getting the sense that this is a solo act, not some cult. This is just one madman’s work.
“It’s curious that he is placing the crosses near the county line. Nothing’s happened in the middle.”
“That’s too close to Marlin. He wants to stay as far away from town as possible. The more remote, the less likely he’s going to be seen. What I find strange is these last two were placed near the river. One at the north end of the county, one at the south. It’s almost like he’s marking off some sort of territory.”
“Surrounding us with death? What’s the message? If he wants to express something, he needs to make it clearer.”
“You are assuming that he wants to communicate something to people. Maybe he’s communicating to someone else.”
“To whom? Aliens? God? Good Lord, that’s all we need. Some nut who thinks he’s got God’s attention.”
“They are among us, judge. I’m starting to think about half the world is insane. You know, I settled in a small town partially to keep away from the craziness of the city. It’s pretty clear that you can’t escape. It follows you.”
“Well, at least he’s an equal opportunity nut. He’s not just singling out one minority. What’s it going to be next time? Indian? Chinese? Pretty soon we’ll have every civil rights group in the nation here.”
“Look on the bright side – they’re spending their money here. Nobody comes here for vacation, anyway, so this is our only chance for some form of tourism. Nobody knew where Marlin was – now people will be coming for years just to see if they can find where the crosses were. We’re famous.”
“I can do without that kind of fame. Well, time to get back to work. Talk to you later.”
As they parted, Harris started thinking about how the world must be thinking of his hometown. A bunch of redneck freaks, country bumpkins, ignorant simpletons, religious zealots. Deep down, he knew that religion was playing a part in these crimes, and the religion was Christianity - his faith, his tradition, the way he related to God. Passion for God could easily go astray and turn into bizarre behavior. Preachers were always exhorting their flocks to be 100% for Jesus, to go the extra mile, to be sold-out and radical, to make God the center of one’s life. But when those congregants went to the Bible, they read story after story of people killing and being killed in the name of God, especially in the Old Testament. Somebody somewhere was inevitably going to get the idea that killing for God was a form of devoted service. The merciful tempering of the New Testament didn’t always take in certain people. Their natural inclination was toward violence, anyway, and with the world changing rapidly around them and spinning out of their control, it was only a matter of time before someone would take one of those stories literally and apply it to their own situation. In the past, the Bible had been used to justify slavery, oppression, brutality, genocide. Now, Harris had the sick feeling that it was being used to justify the crucifixion of innocent victims. The three decedents all appeared to be weak and vulnerable in some way. The killer was obviously familiar with the New Testament, but focused on the wrong themes. He brought the spirit of the Old Testament into the New, and somehow came to the conclusion that crucifying people was acceptable to God. How does religion get things get so twisted?
Harris had preached hundreds of sermons in his career as a bi-vocational minister. He wondered how many times he had gotten it wrong, how often he had said something that inspired someone to do something bad. People take things that you say wrong sometimes. You may say something that you intend to have a positive effect, but because of the circumstances of that person’s life at the time, he or she may hear something entirely different. The same Bible that he understood to teach a message of love and compassion also inspired white southerners to brutally enslave blacks. He had been raised in a church that belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention, and he was well aware that one of the factors that led to the formation of that organization was the desire to retain slavery as an institution in the South. In the mid-1800’s those people were reading the same Bible he read, and in it they found justification to brutalize an entire race. How could they read Jesus’ commandment to “love others as I have loved you” on Sunday and then on Monday go to a slave auction and rip a woman away from her children? People interpret words differently. They bring their own motives, prejudices and agendas to the Bible. They listen to what affirms what they already think, and disregard anything that challenges them to change. It was no different today. Christians have been hating other groups for 2000 years, and they weren’t about to stop now.
The whole thing made him want to quit preaching. He was just starting to get back into it, but he questioned whether he had the strength and energy to really challenge people to act differently. People were more moved by politics and economics than religion, and they just assumed that they would find support for their views when the preacher delivered his message from the pulpit. That general disposition of people made Harris wonder whether there was really any transformative power in the Gospel at all. It appeared more and more that people just used it to justify their own attitudes and weren’t challenged to change at all. It was window dressing. Was it even real? Was there any “power” that actually came upon people from above and brought rebirth?
He had felt that power when he was younger, when the freshness of an encounter with the divine had truly inspired him. But over time, he had sunk into the rut of sameness, and now he was much more motivated by a good legal case than by a passage from the Bible. It seemed dead to him, and he didn’t know how to resurrect it. Oh, he could get a little inspired by an idea for a good sermon from time to time, but nothing ever really happened. He might get a compliment or two from somebody in the congregation, and maybe someone would even say that he had helped them understand something or confront some problem in their lives. But, really, nothing ever changed. It was just more of the same.
He came to himself and realized that he had wandered off down a residential area close to downtown, just following the sidewalk and looking down as he thought. He had completely lost track of where he was. He became self-conscious and looked around to see if anyone was staring at him. Perhaps he looked strange to children. Maybe he was talking to himself and someone saw his lips moving. He imagined mothers herding their children inside as the village idiot passed. He was not that much different than the people one sees sleeping under bridges. The only thing that separated him is that he stopped talking to himself every now and then, and went to work. Which is exactly what he did now, walking swiftly back to his office.
Jenny was waiting for him when he got back. “What did they say at the press conference today?”
“It’s just more bizarre stuff. Now there’s a sexual component to it. The black female had some genital mutilation, but it appears that happened after she was dead. The hispanic male had a stab wound to his right calf. What that all means is beyond me.”
“Who’s doing this? Why is he putting them all in this county? He must be from here or have some ties to this place. There probably aren’t that many people who even knew much about this place before this happened. Even though we are between Austin and Dallas, and pretty close to Waco, we are off the beaten path. People coming through the county on Highway 6 or Highway 77 seem to blow right through. I’ll bet he’s from here.”
“You may be right. I just can’t put my finger on exactly what he’s doing. It’s something religious, but I can’t figure it out for the life of me.”
“Well, speaking of life, it goes on, and you have a law practice to attend to. I gotta get paid, you know. You have a potential new client coming in this afternoon, a man named Chris Bingham. He’s supposed to be here at 3:00, and wanted to talk to you about some estate issues.”
“Chris Bingham. I’ve heard of him. His mother died a few years ago and left him and his brother a fairly sizeable estate, consisting of a lot of farm land and cattle, and some oil interests out in West Texas. He had an attorney for the probate. I wonder why he’s coming to me.”
“Don’t know. But if he’s got that kind of property, don’t agree to do this on the cheap. Charge your full fee. Gotta keep them dollars coming in, you know. We got bills to pay.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m here to make sure you survive.”
Harris wandered back to his office and propped his legs up on his desk. He wouldn’t mind a shot of Jack Daniels right now, but with a client coming in he thought better of it. Jack would have to wait. He started thinking of the sun-drenched sand at Lola’s, the blue Pacific waves crashing on the beach. The thought of sitting at a table under a palm tree, staring out into the infinite sea, sipping on a guaro sour, put him at ease. Soon, he dozed off.
THE NEW CLIENT
Jenny woke him up at 2:55. He jumped up with a start and almost fell out of his chair. She laughed. “Mr. Bingham’s here. I’ll put him in the conference room. Better splash some water on your face and have a breath mint.”
Harris took her advice. He washed his face in the small bathroom connected to his office and gargled with some mouthwash. He then looked at himself in the mirror and realized how old and disheveled he appeared. His bald head had a few sun spots on it, and his face was full of wrinkles. Time and life were taking their toll on him, and he knew it. Every one of his almost 60 years loudly proclaimed their presence on his head. It disgusted him to look at himself, so he wiped his face with a towel and turned his attention toward the possible client in his conference room.
As he walked in he saw Chris Bingham sitting at the head of the conference table. Bingham was about an inch taller than Harris and about 50 pounds heavier. He looked to be around Harris’ age and had a nice round stomach that looked like it had housed its share of beer and sausage. He had even less hair than Harris, and was wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Bingham started to rise, but Harris motioned him to stay seated. “Keep your seat, Mr. Bingham. I’m Jim Harris. Very pleased to meet you.”
“Chris Bingham. Happy to finally get to see you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
“Likewise. I’ve been in this county for quite some time and I’ve heard your name, but never got to meet you.”
“I’ve been here all my life. My family has farmed in Falls County since the late 1800’s. Most of our land is over toward Rosebud. My mother died a few years ago and my brother Daniel and I inherited it. That’s where I spend most of my time now.”
“Yes, I heard about your mother’s passing. My condolences.”
“Well, she lived 85 good years and at least she had one good son.”
Harris assumed that Bingham was talking about himself. “I take it that you and Daniel don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.”
“Daniel is, or perhaps was, a drunk and a drug addict. He never amounted to anything and caused my mother and father no end of grief. He wasted everything that was ever given to him. Before my mother died, she set up a testamentary trust that included his half of the estate, and appointed me as the trustee. Daniel owns half of the family estate, but he can’t do anything with it except by my permission. I would give him enough to live on, but he would take it down to Austin and blow it on drugs and alcohol, and then come to me for more. I held firm, and only gave him his monthly allotment. It was a never-ending source of strife between us.”
“What do you mean that he ‘perhaps was’ a drunk and drug addict?”
“Daniel would often not be seen for a month or so. He has a small trailer home on the farm, but like I said, he would spend most of his time in Austin. But I could always depend on him showing up around the first of the month to get his money.”
“Would you give it to him in cash?”
“No, I’d give him a cashier’s check for $5,000.00 and he would take it and put it in his bank in Austin. It usually wouldn’t last him a month, and then he might come home for a week or so when he was broke. And that’s the problem. I haven’t seen him for two months now. I’m afraid something has happened to him.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“It was in December. I kinda expected him to go on a long drunk over the holidays, but he never showed back up. That’s really out of character for him. I don’t think he has another source of money.”
“Is he married or does he have a girl friend?”
“No, he got divorced a long time ago, and a woman would have to be stupid to want anything to do with him. Like I said, he’s a drunk.”
“Does anyone else live out at the farm with you and Daniel?”
“No, my wife died about 10 years ago from cancer, and our daughter is married and living in Bryan. I run the farm myself and manage all the assets of the estate. We have some employees but nobody lives there now except me.”
“Did Daniel have any enemies?”
“Not that I know of. He kept to himself when he was up here. I don’t know who he associated with in Austin, but I’m sure they weren’t reputable people. He could very well have gotten in trouble down there in a drug deal or some other fiasco. Nothing would surprise me.”
“Have you told the police that he is missing?”
“Not yet. That’s one of the things I wanted to talk to you about.”
“What is it exactly that you want me to do?”
“Well, if something has happened to Daniel, I’m going to need some help getting the estate in order. I’m sure he doesn’t have a will, and as far as I know, I’m his closest relative, unless he has some unknown child down in Austin. I need some advice on that, if he is actually dead. I just feel in my bones that he is.”
“Well, I would let the police know that he’s missing. If he did meet an unfortunate fate, you would at least want to know about it and have the police be on the lookout for him. If he just goes missing for a long time with no clear evidence of what happened to him, that could cause a problem for the estate. At least you are the trustee and have the right to administer it, so that makes it a little easier. What else do you want me to do?”
“I just need a lawyer to advise me during this time. If something did happen, I would like legal counsel regarding all my affairs. I’ve been handling things on my own since momma died, and I’d like somebody just to look over things from a legal perspective.”
“Who handled your mother’s estate?”
“She had an old lawyer from Temple whom she had always dealt with, but he died a couple of years after she did. I never felt real comfortable with him, anyway. I’d like someone from this county, and you come highly recommended.”
“Well, I appreciate that. I’d be happy to help anyway I can.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to put you on retainer today just so I know that I have my own attorney. Is $10,000.00 enough?”
Harris was slightly but pleasantly surprised that Bingham had suggested this. It was pretty rare for clients to offer a decent retainer before he had even broached the subject of money. “That would be fine. We’ll just draw up a contract and we can put the retainer in my trust account. My standard rate is $250.00 per hour, and I would charge against the retainer and send you a statement, if any work is done. I won’t actually do anything unless you request it, however.”
“That’s fine. How should I make out the check?”
“James Allen Harris Trust Account. I’ll get my legal assistant to start working on the contract.”
Harris buzzed for Jenny and she quickly appeared. It seemed to Harris that she must have been pretty close to the door. He chuckled to himself.
“Jenny, please draft a standard retainer agreement for Mr. Bingham for general legal services, $10,000.00 retainer, and my standard rate of $250.00 per hour.”
Harris could see Jenny almost laugh. He had no “standard rate,” and had rarely had a client that could pay that much. This was Marlin, Texas, after all. “Yes sir,” she said, and withdrew to her desk.
Bingham continued talking. “I also understand that you are an ordained minister.”
“Yes, that’s correct, I still do a little preaching, and have even been an associate minister at a church.”
“You know, I don’t have a pastor, so I wonder if you would mind me considering you my minister.”
Harris thought this request was a little odd. He wasn’t actively involved in a ministerial capacity at any church, and didn’t even know if Bingham attended any congregation. The idea of a private minister was foreign to him.
“Well, I’d be happy to discuss any spiritual issues with you, but I’m not actually in any formal ministerial capacity right now.”
“Yes, I understand that, but I’m getting older, and with my brother’s disappearance, I just feel the need to have someone that I can discuss my life with and know that things are confidential and private. I realize it’s an unusual request, but it would give me a great sense of peace to know that there is someone I can talk to.”
Harris still felt that there was something a little odd about the request, but he didn’t want to offend a new client, and he didn’t think there was any harm in responding positively to Bingham’s wishes. “Sure, I’ll be happy to act in a ministerial capacity toward you any time you feel the need to discuss something with me.”
“Great. I’d even like to start off by making a contribution to your ministry. I’m going to make out a check for $1,000.00 and give it to you, and you can do whatever you want to with it. It you want to give it to a charity or to a church, that’s fine with me. If you want to keep it, that’s fine, too. Since we are talking about spiritual matters, I just want to start out by giving something instead of asking for something.”
Harris could never recall such a strange encounter with anyone in his law office. This man was not only willing to offer him a $10,000.00 retainer for his legal services, but he was now rather enthusiastically giving him $1,000.00 to establish a ministerial relationship. His internal alarm system was going off, and he started mentally flipping through the ethical principles that attorneys in Texas have to observe in their practice. He wasn’t sure that this violated anything, but it felt so weird that he was concerned about it. On the other hand, refusing money was just not in his nature. But he thought better of keeping it for himself.
“Mr. Bingham, since I’m not officially a minister at a church, I doubt that you could get a tax deduction for a charitable contribution for this gift. The I.R.S. would probably be suspicious if you attempted to claim this on your tax return. But far be it from me to thwart a man’s charitable impulses. I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll just endorse this check over to the local food bank, which is operated by the Marlin Ministerial Alliance. They’ll give me a receipt for it, and you can probably then claim it as a deduction, since they are a recognized charitable organization under the I.R.S. rules. You would need to talk to your CPA about that, however. As far as you and I are concerned, I’m more than happy to act as your minister in any way that is helpful to you. Do you belong to any particular church?”
“No. I was baptized in a Methodist Church, but I haven’t been since I was a teenager.”
“Well, maybe we can talk about things later on.”
“I’d like that very much. Right now, I need to get on back home to take care of some business. I feel very good about securing an attorney and a minister in one shot. I guess you are sort of like a ‘soul practitioner,’” he said with a smile.
“Yes, I guess you could say that,” replied Harris. He had used that line himself before, and was slightly annoyed that someone else had come up with it independently.
Jenny appeared again with the retainer agreement, which Bingham signed without question. As Bingham left, Harris couldn’t help but feel that he was being set up for something that he would later regret. But he dismissed the sensation, chalking it up to his overly suspicious nature. A man had given him a large retainer to establish an attorney-client relationship, and had made a contribution to seal a ministerial relationship. What could be wrong with that? He shrugged to himself as he accompanied Bingham out the door.
After Bingham left, Jenny chuckled. “Standard rate? Ha! Your standard rate is whatever you can get, and nobody has ever offered to pay you $250.00 an hour. But I’m proud of you. I told you not to do it on the cheap, and you didn’t. Maybe you are finally starting to listen to me.”
“I always listen to you, Jenny. Because you are always talking. I can’t help but listen.”
“Yeah, yeah. You turn on your ‘selective male deafness’ machine when you want to look like you’re listening. I know it goes in one ear and out the other.”
“Now Jenny, you know I value everything you say. We got a decent retainer today and a good hourly rate. It’s time to celebrate.”
“Just endorse this check and I’ll put it in the trust account. We’ll see if it bounces or not. If not, then we can celebrate.” They walked out of the office together. It was Friday, February 17, 2012.
2012 was turning out to be a much more pleasant year than the previous year had been. The entire state had been in a sustained drought for almost the entire year, and the summer temperatures had been record-breakers. Wildfires broke out all over the state, some of them burning thousands of acres. All 254 counties in the state had experienced this inferno to one degree or another. Lakes and rivers almost dried up in some areas, and most creeks were bone dry.
This year, however, was different. There was more rain than normal, and ponds on farms (called “tanks” in Texas) were filled to the brim. The winter had been mild, temperature-wise, so the prospect of an early spring was present. Green leaves were starting to appear on the trees, and the redbuds were in bloom, a certain sign of the arrival of spring. Cardinals began making their appearance, perching in trees and on chimney tops, singing their distinctive tune. The difference in the weather put everyone in a better mood generally.
Mildred Kavanaugh got up at her usual time, around 4:00 a.m. (as many country folk do), and got dressed. She lived on a farm on County Road 358 in the very southwest corner of Falls County. Her plan that day – Thursday, February 23, 2012 – was to go to Rosebud to the farmer’s market held on the fourth Thursday of every month. She loved to buy fresh produce straight from the farm (when it was in season), and look at all the crafts and other offerings to be found at the market. Rosebud was a small town, but the people there enjoyed their country life. And nothing exemplified country life like a good farmer’s market, where town and country meet.
But on this day, fate had decided that Mildred would be written into the sorry saga that was playing itself out in Falls County, Texas. For as she rounded a corner on her way to Rosebud that morning, she encountered the fourth cross. A man hung like a scarecrow at the edge of her own corn field, eerily visible in the early morning light, greeted her like a messenger from hell. She screamed, slammed on her brakes, and instinctively brought her hands to her face. Mildred was looking at death. As she was familiar with animal death from living on a farm all her life, the idea itself did not upset her that much. But the death of an animal is nothing like the death of a human. Skunks, armadillos, raccoons, dogs, cats, deer and just about every other kind of animal naturally found in central Texas are routinely encountered as road-kill, usually with a few buzzards in attendance. Everyone is desensitized to the sight of an animal corpse being picked clean by the black carrion diners. But a human is different. A human is one of us, and human death reminds us of our own mortality. We are all equally weak, and the last chapter is the same in all our earthly novels. We never get used to reading that ending.
Mildred Kavanaugh was staring at some man’s last chapter. As she lingered, transfixed by the sight, for a moment the crucified corpse in her headlights seemed to look up at her and proclaim “The End.” It was over for him, and she was the first witness. Then she came to herself. She instinctively locked her doors and looked around. Seeing no one, she picked up her cell phone and, hoping that the infrequent service was present this morning, dialed 9-1-1. Within 20 minutes, the Rosebud police and the Falls County Sheriff’s Department were on the scene. Soon after the media began to flock to the sight, like the ever-present buzzards hungry for carrion.
Judge Michael Fisher was the first to contact Harris and let him know about the fourth cross. Preliminary reports from the investigation indicated that the victim had already been identified. He was fairly well known to residents in the area, including Mildred Kavanaugh. His name was Daniel Bingham.
When Harris heard that Daniel Bingham was the victim, he immediately contacted his new client, the victim’s brother. He thought that if ever there was a time when it was appropriate for a combined attorney/minister to contact a client/congregant, this was it. “Mr. Bingham,” Harris said, even though he and Bingham were about the same age – it seemed appropriate to call him “Mr.” under these circumstances, “I’ve just been informed that a fourth cross and victim have been found in the southwest part of the county. I’m sorry to inform you that it appears to be your brother Daniel.”
“My God!” Bingham replied, and Harris felt that the response was sincere and indicated true surprise. He wasn’t sure why he expected otherwise. “Are they sure it’s him?” Harris could hear Bingham’s voice crack and tremble. If he was faking it, he was doing a good job. Harris again wondered why he was even thinking these thoughts.
“I’ve been informed by Judge Fisher that it is him. Several people involved in the investigation knew him and provided a solid identification.”
“Do they know how this happened, or who did this?”
“It’s pretty early in the investigation. This is the first victim that had any connection with Falls County, as far as anyone knows, so that’s why the identification was made so soon. Nothing else is known, other than it is a crucifixion like the other three.”
“My God, I can’t believe he died like that. I thought he might be found dead in an alley some place. I never suspected he would be a part of this.”
“Are you OK? Do you need me to come see you?”
“No, that’s not necessary right now. Let me collect my thoughts, and I’ll probably want to speak to you later, but right now I just want to be alone. Where did they find him?”
“On County Road 358, close to the Bell County and Milam County lines.”
“That’s not very far from our farm. Could it have been someone who knew him?”
“Too early to tell. I may be getting information sooner than the general public gets it, so I’ll tell you anything I hear. Do you need me to contact anyone or do anything for you right now?”
“No, I’ll let my daughter know. She is his only other close relative.”
“Did you report Daniel missing like I suggested?”
“Yes, I told the Rosebud police department.”
“Good. At least law enforcement has some record of that and can’t claim that you concealed his absence. You will probably be contacted in the next few minutes by the Sheriff’s Department to make a formal identification of the body. I don’t think it’s necessary for me to be there for that, as it might look a little suspicious if you show up with a lawyer to identify your brother. I’m just letting you know that, as his brother, you might be considered to be a ‘person of interest’, especially once they find out that you administered his portion of the family estate and would probably be in line to inherit it. I advise you to just be open with them if they ask you questions, and tell them pretty much what you told me in our meeting. But if they start bearing down hard on you, tell them you want a lawyer and give me a call.”
“Thanks for the advice. Someone’s trying to call me now.”
“That’s probably the Sheriff. Let me know what’s going on.”
After he hung up, Harris started thinking about what he had told Bingham. It was strange that Bingham had come to him, asking him to be his attorney and pastor and telling him about his brother’s disappearance, and then Daniel being found dead less than a week later. Bingham would be at least a person of interest and some investigation would be done. But on the other hand, this was another crucifixion. It was one thing to think that Bingham had killed his brother. It was another thing entirely to think that he had killed three other people and crucified them. The facts seemed to point to another party who just happened to choose Daniel Bingham as a random victim. The details of this crucifixion would be important.
Daniel Bingham’s body was taken to the medical examiner in Dallas, and the cross on which he was hung was taken to the DPS lab. With four murders in the county in a span of a little over a month, there would be a rush job on both the autopsy and the analysis of the cross. By now it was clear to everyone that the killer was focusing exclusively on Falls County. The whole county would be crawling with law enforcement agents – police, Sheriff’s deputies, DPS, Texas Rangers, FBI – they would be stationed in all corners of the county in an attempt to spot the killer. No one knew whether he would kill again, but there would be a million eyes watching for him. The news media would be out in full force, as well, and residents of the county were in a heightened state of alert. There was a lot of fear, especially in rural areas where the killer seemed to prefer depositing his victims.
As Harris suspected, Chris Bingham was a person of interest since he was the closest relative and administered Daniel’s portion of the family estate. However, it appeared early on that law enforcement was not pressing him too hard. Perhaps they were just watching him from afar, or perhaps they really didn’t think he was involved. They did a couple of interviews, but nothing to suggest that they were about to charge him or that they even suspected him. The fact that he had reported Daniel missing and that he cooperated with the investigation (both of which Harris had suggested) appeared to have satisfied the cops. After all, it looked like Daniel was just a random victim of a serial killer, killed in the same manner as three other victims before him, and no one had any reason to think that Bingham had anything to do with the other three deaths. If a man wanted to kill his brother to get his inheritance, crucifying three other people before killing his brother would be a strange way of going about it.
Chris Bingham kept in close contact with Harris over the next week, and Harris started doing his own investigation. Judge Fisher and a contact that Harris had in the Sheriff’s Department kept him apprised of developments in the investigation. From all appearances, it looked like Daniel Bingham’s death was caused by the same person that had committed the three previous murders. The cross was constructed in the same manner as the others, and Daniel’s body had been attached to it in a similar way. He had the three tell-tale puncture wounds in his spine, and a green laminated sheet with the number “4” nailed to his forehead. The additional wound for Daniel was a stab wound to his right hand. Harris felt that the location of the additional wound for each victim was sending a message about the killer’s intentions. The first victim had been stabbed in the side, the second (the female victim) in the pubic area, the third in the right calf, and now the fourth in the right hand. Each wound meant something.
Furthermore, Harris noted that the victims were all placed near the county line. The first was in the northwest corner of the county, the second along the north central line, the third along the south central line, and the forth in the southwest corner. Nothing had happened in the east half of the county, and Harris wondered if the killer was planning to leave his next victims there, if there were going to be any more. Harris could sense that everyone was somewhat relieved that the fourth victim had been a white male. With the two previous victims being minorities and one of them a woman, racial and political tensions had risen somewhat, with representatives from the NAACP and La Raza, as well as some feminist groups, coming to town and proclaiming that they were keeping an eye on the situation. With the death of the fourth victim, it appeared that the murderer was an equal opportunity serial killer, perhaps a religious psychopath, and that no particular group was being singled out. This had a strangely calming effect, as nobody gets up in arms about the killing of a white male, especially a known drunk.
Falls County was once again in the news all over the world. Ritual crucifixions proved to be a powerful attraction for the general public. Sheriff Haley and Judge Branson were being interviewed by some news organization daily, and their faces had become well-known in all corners of the globe. Residents locked their doors, loaded their guns and kept the lights on all night, even though it appeared that the killer was not after “respectable” folks. He was choosing his victims from the lower echelons of society – the homeless, drunks, prostitutes, illegal immigrants. He was not snatching children from their mothers’ arms or invading homes. But the idea of someone creeping along country roads at night looking for a place to raise up a crucified human being was enough to unnerve anyone. Nobody wanted to encounter that situation unarmed.
Harris’ contact in the Sheriff’s Department was Rebekah Tharp, who was Jenny’s younger sister. She was an administrative assistant to the Sheriff, and had access to just about any information in his office. While she would have never intentionally compromised an investigation, she was a good source of general information. In this case, since no client of Harris was under suspicion, she willingly told Harris and Jenny what she knew. She confirmed before Daniel Bingham’s autopsy and the DPS analysis of the cross were published that this appeared to be the work of the same killer. That put Harris’ mind at ease about Chris Bingham, as he simply did not see any way in the world that Bingham could have been responsible for all four deaths. She informed them of a fact that sent chills down Harris’ spine – Daniel, like victim 2, had been frozen for some period of time before he was attached to the cross. That suggested to Harris that the killer may already have additional victims in cold storage, and that he was simply waiting for the opportune time to plant them on some dusty road. He had a feeling that this story was far from over.
The man was confused and puzzled. He had learned about the murder of Daniel Bingham by reading the Marlin Democrat and listening to the evening news. Who had done this? His method had been copied almost perfectly. Someone had understood his message, and was now joining the sacrificial rite. He would not have placed his next sacrifice in the southwest corner of the county, but that was of little consequence. This event only confirmed to him that the Lord was speaking to him. Someone else was getting the same instructions, and understood the plan. The Lord, indeed, works in mysterious ways. He felt a thrilling sensation going up and down his spine. The account in the Book of Acts where the apostle Peter and the centurion Cornelius both receive independent messages from God came to his mind. There was a brother out there who was also chosen to perform the necessary holocaust to ensure the preservation of the county from the coming judgment. For some reason, God had chosen Falls County, Texas above all other places on the earth to save from the coming judgment, and these sacrifices would ensure its survival. Suddenly it all seemed clear to him, and a wave of peace and exhilaration swept over him. Perhaps the Lord would bring him together with this fellow soldier, but even if He didn’t, it was clear that the Almighty was saying the exact same thing to someone else. The man felt so overcome with emotion that he dropped to his knees and praised God.
The early spring was glorious. Bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes gaily festooned the fields and roadsides of Falls County. The flowers came early this year, and Texas’ “Holy Week,” the first week of March, was much more joyous than the year before when the drought promised nothing but misery. There was rain, and the earth responded with a melody of color and a chorus of green. March 2, Texas Independence Day, and March 6, Alamo Day – High Holy Days in Texas - came and went, and the hope of better things to come was palpable among the denizens of the land. James Allen Harris’ law practice continued to thrive, with new clients coming in every week. He was still reaping the dividends of his success in the Gutierrez case, and was enjoying being an attorney more than any time in his life. He had finally achieved a measure of both respect and financial success that made him hold his head high. There was no shame in saying “I’m an attorney,” and people seemed to look up to him more. Or, at least, that was his impression. When you are in a good mood, everything seems better than it probably really is.
March came and went, and the first part of April was even more beautiful, as spring went into high gear. In a typical central Texas April, there will usually be a few perfect days, with cool mornings, warm afternoons, pleasant clear evenings, and no excessive humidity. These are days when working in an office seems like a sin against the universe, a cosmic travesty. Harris believed this with all his heart, and spent several of those perfect afternoons on the back porch of his home, picking his guitar, reading, or just beholding the glory of the season. He had a wisteria in his back yard, and it produced riotous lavender blossoms that had a healing effect on him as he gazed upon them. It was as though the bush was writing poetry and song, and Harris was the sole spectator, the only beneficiary of the creativity of the season.
April also brought the joy of the Baylor University women’s basketball team winning their second national championship. Harris watched the Final Four contests taking place in Denver on his flat screen television on his back porch, sipping IPA’s and eating nachos. Never had his law school alma mater achieved a level of success in so many sports as in the 2011-2012 season, and the women’s national championship was the icing on the cake. So many things were going right for him that he wished he could latch hold of this feeling forever, even though he knew that was impossible. So he would savor the moment, and draw as much pleasure and satisfaction from this fleeting glory as he possibly could. Darker days were sure to come, as they always did. The ebb and flow of fortune and despair continued unabated in the world at large. Harris knew he was just riding a perfect wave that would eventually crash onto the beach. “Enjoy the ride while you can,” he thought.
Easter came and went, and hardly a mention was made of the murders. Even as Good Friday was observed, the day that Jesus himself was crucified, nobody made any associations between the events. People are so easily distracted, and so rapidly compartmentalize events and ideas in their minds that they forget what happened only a few weeks before. Anything to keep mental peace and to avoid having to wake up to new realities.
Fortunately for Falls County, there had been no more crucifixions since February, so it was natural that the events started to fade from the collective consciousness. Investigations into the four murders continued, but law enforcement had no solid leads. Chris Bingham did not seem to be on anyone’s radar as being a suspect, although Harris knew that this situation could change abruptly. It still appeared to everyone as though the same person had committed all four murders, and Bingham had not even been in the state when the second and third victims had been found. He had traveled to Oklahoma on business and had the documentation to prove it. Harris had no reason to suspect that he had been involved in anything criminal.
Little by little, the media and law enforcement began to file out of Falls County. The Sheriff’s Department still kept extra forces patrolling the county roads at night. By now everyone had figured out that the killer, for whatever reason, was trying to encircle the county with his victims, so most of the deputies were concentrated in the eastern part of the county, where no crosses had previously been found. But as the weeks and months passed, everyone seemed to accept the idea that the killing was over. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but it’s difficult to maintain a heightened state of vigilance for a long period, especially when nothing is happening. Baseball season started, and high school seniors started thinking about proms and graduation. The warmer weather had people making summer plans. Before long school would be out, and people would be taking vacations and road trips, traveling to destinations unknown. People want things to get back to normal as quickly as possible, so soon the crucifixions were out of sight, out of mind.
Harris made a few weekend trips to places he enjoyed, like Austin, San Antonio and the Hill Country. There were always festivals or special events to attend, good food to eat and cold beer to drink, and live music was everywhere. There was never any reason to get bored in Texas, even if you lived in Falls County. It was close enough to the hot spots that it was easy to get away, and he loved getting in his car and hitting the road. He had basically gotten used to being alone, and besides, if he wanted any female companionship there was always someone to talk to at a bar, a restaurant, a concert. He enjoyed his freedom and not having to worry about keeping anyone else’s rules or having to apologize for being himself. On weekends when he wasn’t on the road, he would just work in his yard and do things around the house. He had no problem keeping himself occupied, and was disciplined enough not to become a drunk or a couch potato. Working around his house gave him a sense of accomplishment that he couldn’t get just practicing law. At the end of the day he could look back at something he had done and actually see the results of his labor – a newly mowed green lawn, a tool shed that he had built from scratch, a door that he had painted. That wasn’t always possible as an attorney – sometimes you weren’t really sure that you had done anything worthwhile.
However, the fact that his law practice was going pretty well made him feel thankful, and for Harris feelings of thanksgiving always turned into thoughts about God. Maybe that was just his upbringing, but thankfulness didn’t seem complete unless there was someone to thank. Perhaps that’s the role God played – a recipient of our thanksgiving projected from our own minds. In any event, his gratitude toward God, life, the universe, made him want to do something positive and good. Being thankful is one thing, but translating that into action is really bringing it full circle. There were others not as fortunate as he had been, and all his problems and woes were nothing compared to what some people experience. One positive thing about Christianity is that it affords one plenty of opportunities to reach out to others. Churches and para-church groups are always having mission projects, and they welcome volunteers who want to lend a hand. Participants usually don’t even have to be members of that particular church or denomination, as charitable enterprises have an ecumenical character to them. If there is one thing that brings believers together, it’s helping others. Ecclesiastical doctrine and dogma and political and social conflicts drive a wedge between Christian groups, but they can usually seem to get past those issues when the matter at hand is helping children or the poor or the disabled. If only believers would focus on those things instead of demanding ideological purity, perhaps the rest of the world would truly know us for our love for others, like Jesus wanted.
This spirit of helpfulness inspired Harris to look for an opportunity to give some of his time, effort and money. He had been given a few opportunities to preach at small churches over the past couple of months, and was in the market for a short-term mission trip of maybe a week or so. There was an organization in Waco that he had heard of through one of the small congregations where he preached that organized trips down to El Salvador and Nicaragua to build church and school buildings, and even a house or two. That was right up his alley, as he was handy with hammers and nails, and enjoyed the challenge of building. In a mission setting, there was hardly anything better than to physically work side by side with the locals. It engendered a sense of comraderie and togetherness that was conducive to developing a spiritual bond. People are a lot more willing to discuss faith if they see that you truly care about them, and how better to show that concern than to sweat and get tired with them building something that will improve their community, something meaningful to them. One of these well-organized trips could result in a completed building within a week. All the materials would be on location, and a foreman would be present to assign the tasks and organize the work. It would be a hive of activity, with people putting in 12 hour work days, stopping to eat with the villagers, and then having a worship service at night, which focused mainly on singing, talking, laughing, and the obligatory feasting. Accommodations were always pretty primitive, but that was part of the experience. At the end of the week, the building would be blessed by the local pastor, and everyone would hug and say their goodbyes. Harris had been on these trips before, and it was always worth it. He could even force himself to put aside the booze for something like this.
The organization he contacted was called “Building Love” and was operated by a board of directors made up of Waco evangelical laymen. Harris checked into their schedule and found that they had a trip planned for Nicaragua over the Memorial Day weekend through the first weekend in June. That would be before it got too blazing hot there, although Central America was always going to be warm and humid. This particular trip would be to a small village in the jungle about two hours from Managua. The local evangelical pastor at that village had welcomed such visits before, and volunteers had built a church building and a school house there. This time the project was a house for one of the elderly couples in the village. The house would be built out of cinder blocks, but there would be plenty of opportunity for an amateur carpenter like Harris to put his skills to work on the roof. There would be about 20 people engaged in the project, with everyone expected to pay for their own flight down. The organization was a charitable organization under the IRS regulations, so payments to it for the airplane tickets would be tax deductible, another benefit for the volunteers. It was hard to keep Mammon out of the picture when religion was involved.
Harris learned that several people from Falls County churches had participated in previous projects at this village, although he would be the only one on this trip. Most of the volunteers this time would be from McLennan County, and several of them would be kids. One small church school was sending its 8 high school seniors down for a field trip on the last week of school. They would then have their graduation service when they returned in early June. There were also four adult chaperones from that church, so that accounted for 12 of the 20 volunteers. Another church in Bellmead was sending six people, and then the organization’s foreman and Harris made the other two people in the group. There were four women, and they would be working right alongside the men in the construction. Central American villagers would not be used to seeing that spectacle, but it was consistent with the idea that “there is no male or female in Christ Jesus.” It’s not until women are at least relatively equal that a society or a community can truly progress toward modernity.
Harris spent most of his spare time in May getting ready for the trip. Everything he carried to Nicaragua would be in a backpack, including his sleeping bag. He had all the necessities for a primitive trek into the jungle: insect repellant, a flashlight and plenty of batteries, work gloves, a first aid kit and allergy meds, aspirin and Pepto-Bismol, a broad rimmed hat, and toilet paper. Food and bottled water would be supplied by the organization, and the village women would be cooking the meals. He had an iron stomach and didn’t anticipate getting sick from the local food, but if anything did happen there would be no doctor nearby, so it was better to be prepared. He was looking forward to getting away for a week, and the month went by rapidly. Jenny was prepared to hold the fort down while he was gone. He was so thankful to have a competent assistant. She cleared his schedule and let the clients know that he would be out of the country. She was happy to have him out of her hair for the week, as well, since she had plenty of work to catch up on. Being a paralegal/receptionist/bookkeeper at a thriving law practice has its price – lots of work and not enough time to do it all. But she enjoyed it on the whole, being Jim’s “My Girl Friday.”
Nothing out of the ordinary happened during May. People kept their fingers crossed that the killing was over. Some began to wonder if it would ever be solved. There were no clues that specifically pointed to any suspect. However, the DPS and FBI had constructed a profile of the killer, which had been made public. They were looking for a white male, a religious extremist or fundamentalist (there was no short supply of the latter in Falls County), who was probably single, a loner with perhaps a history of psychological disorders, and someone who may also have extreme political and/or social views. In the political environment that was developing in the nation during the Presidential campaign, it was not hard to find people with very strong political views, so some in the media were starting to suspect every Tea Partier in the county as a person of interest. In addition, law enforcement made the obvious observation that the killer probably lived in a rural area and was proficient with tools and construction. It would be difficult to build crosses, freeze people, and then nail them to the crosses right in the middle of town. But even with this profile, there were no actual suspects. Lots of suspicious neighbors and conspiracy theories, but no real leads.
One of the most humorous conspiracy theories came from the political right. Harris overheard three men talking in Alene’s Café, who surmised that these killings were somehow orchestrated by President Obama’s henchmen to get people’s minds off of his stance on gay marriage, and to allow him to point the finger at extremists down in Texas. He knew he wasn’t going to win Texas, anyway, so why not make something like this happen right in the heart of the state so that he could show how crazy Republicans down here are? Those politicians will go to any lengths to get votes, and as long as he can use this as an example of extremism, he can keep people’s minds off of the economy and off of his support for queers getting married. After all, the FBI is down here and hasn’t turned up anything. They probably aren’t really looking, since Obama has told them to look the other way. Hell, the FBI was probably involved!
Harris chuckled when he heard this. The main problem was that Obama hadn’t said anything at all about the crucifixions, so he wasn’t overtly using Falls County as an example of anything. “But you never know,” he said to himself, tongue in cheek. “Anyone who can fake his own birth in Hawaii and who can forge his own Selective Service documents can certainly carry out multiple murders in a backwater Texas county, especially since he has the power of the entire United States government at his disposal.” It’s easier to believe something like this for some people than to just accept that there’s a crazy man on the loose. Harris thought how he wished he was already on the plane going south.
Saturday, May 26, 2012, the day of the departure for the mission team, finally arrived. They flew out of Austin early that morning to Mexico City, and from there they caught the plane to Managua. As Harris began to see Central America from his window seat, he remembered Lola’s and the beautiful Costa Rican Pacific coast. It beckoned his thoughts and soon he was caught up in a daydream about the relaxing time he had recently spent there. He briefly wondered if he would have enough time to slip over there for another visit, but he quickly put that idea out of his mind. They had just enough time to complete their building project, and the less he thought about cold beer and guaro sours, the better. His volunteer spirit did not need to be distracted, nor did his energy need to be wasted on such idle thoughts. There would be time for alcohol later.
IN THE JUNGLE
Their plane landed in Managua at 2:30 p.m. local time, and it took them about an hour to get their bags and make it through customs. Building Love had arranged for a few vans to be present to take the team to their destination - the tiny village of Santa Dolores, nestled in the mountainous jungle of central Nicaragua. The village had about 100 residents, most of whom were no longer of the Catholic faith, but were members of Pastor Enrique Ortiz’ Baptist church, which was the only actual church in town. But there was a harmonious atmosphere in the hamlet, and all of them, irrespective of religious stripe, were excited about the “Yanquis” who were coming to visit. Gringos had descended upon them a couple of times before in the past four years, and the experience had always been a good one for them. Besides getting a new church building and school out of the deal, there was the comedy of watching the northerners’ strange ways. It was all in good fun, of course, and Pastor Ortiz had laid the groundwork for a good relationship with Building Love. This time, one of his most faithful elderly couples would get a new home out of the deal, so he had everything to gain and little to lose by inviting the white people back.
The vans pulled into Santa Dolores about 5:45 p.m., just in time for dinner, which was waiting for them. The last 30 minutes of the journey had been over a very bumpy dirt road, and all the team members were glad to have their feet on terra firma again. They put their backpacks in the school building, where they would be sleeping on the floor. Then they gathered for the evening meal which the village women had prepared. It was a hearty meal of black beans, rice with a tomato-pepper sauce, and grilled pork. Nobody went away hungry. The meal was eaten outside with most of the volunteers sitting on benches that the villagers had built out of jungle trees. They washed the meal down with bottled water and local pop, and then listened as the youth of the village put on a show for them. The girls were dressed in traditional Nicaraguan outfits, and danced as some of the boys played guitar and others sang. This lasted about 30 minutes and was thoroughly enjoyable. Everyone felt welcome and at home, and even more importantly, full. Harris thought how nice a cold beer would taste after that meal, but he quickly dismissed that illusion. The nearest beer was at least an hour away, and it did no good to torture himself with such thoughts.
Santa Dolores consisted of about 25 small, one-room houses made of materials gathered from the jungle and adobe-type bricks, plus whatever the locals could scrounge from construction sites nearby. Besides the houses, there were the church and school buildings built by Building Love near the center of the village. The villagers were subsistence farmers who had cleared areas in the surrounding jungle to plant gardens and tend goats and pigs. They did manage to sell enough of their excess produce in a market about an hour away to earn some income to buy corn, rice and other foodstuffs. Some of the women made pottery that was also a source of income. The village had no running water or electricity. The water source was a creek nearby, and they went out into the jungle to relieve themselves. Even though their lifestyle was primitive and simple, they considered it better than living in a Managuan slum or working for a large landowner. At least they were free.
The government sent a college student to live in the village for a year at a time, and that student taught the village children in the school. The government did not object to groups coming in to do construction projects in small villages, even if religion was involved. They needed all the help they could get in caring for their own people. Nicaragua had missed out on the economic blessings of neighboring Costa Rica, and Harris could not help but see the differences between this remote little village and the resorts that he had seen near Lola’s the previous winter. Santa Dolores seemed like the world had passed it by: no television, no cell phones, no internet – it was removed from civilization. But the people seemed fairly happy. Nobody is crucifying people here and leaving them by the side of the road. No terrorist would bother with this place. The powers that be in the world have their sights on larger prizes. Maybe this is what the meek inheriting the earth is all about, he thought.
By the time the youth-led musical show had finished and everyone had fellowshipped a little, it was getting dark and time to go to bed. With no electricity, this village rose with the sun and laid down at its setting. There weren’t even any gas lanterns, as the denizens used their meager resources on more important things. The only light tonight would be from the flashlights that the team members brought. They made their way to the school house and laid their mats and sleeping bags out on the floor. Mercifully, there weren’t too many bugs flying around. There were no screens on the windows, and they would have to stay open at night or the room would become unbearably hot and humid – not to mention stinky. The door would be closed to keep the snakes and larger lizards out, but insects would have an easy entrance. Tonight, however, that did not seem like it was going to be a problem. The long trip and large meal had put everyone in the mood for sleep, and it wasn’t long before the only sound was the inevitable snorer. Even he seemed to be too tired to keep it up, and after about 20 minutes of nose-noise, all was silent for the next eight hours. Harris didn’t even have to get up in the middle of the night for his traditional pee. Maybe the lack of alcohol was beneficial in that respect.
Morning was announced by the village gallo, who heralded the new day. The team members gradually arose and made their way outside to wash their faces. Pastor Ortiz and the women of the village had prepared coffee and a breakfast of bread, eggs and bacon, which was consumed rapidly. Even though it was Sunday, everyone knew they would have to work today in order to get the job done in a week. So during breakfast, Pastor Ortiz gave a short devotional consisting of a prayer, a scripture reading and a short exhortation. After breakfast, Henry Stabler, the team leader and foreman, gathered everyone together to show them the work site. The house was going to have a simple floorplan, rectangular in shape with one room and covered porch area, where the inhabitants could sit and cook. Since there would be no running water or bathroom, the one room would double as a living/dining area and bedroom. It would be better than what the elderly couple had before, which was a thatch hut. Their current home had deteriorated to the point that it was no longer livable, so Pastor Ortiz had made contact with Building Love to see if a team could come down and build them a new home. The organization had arranged for concrete and gasoline operated mixers, cinder blocks and tin for the roof, lumber and steel, and all the other necessary building materials, to be delivered to the site before the team arrived. The home would be 12 feet by 20 feet, and while small by American standards, would be the best home in the village. It would have one door and two windows, and would be the nicest living quarters that the couple had ever had. Their children had long ago left the village in search of a better life elsewhere, and now their only family was their church and community at Santa Dolores.
The men of the village had already built the rectangular foundation – a 3 inch steel-reinforced slab with rebar stems protruding vertically around the edges to connect to the rebar that would be inserted though the cinder blocks. The team could immediately begin to lay the cinder blocks for the walls, so Stabler put several people to work on the two gas-powered mixers, mixing the sand and cement. Others would use wheelbarrows to take the mixed concrete to the site, while still others would be the masons, placing the cinder blocks and rebar. Harris began by taking a turn with the wheelbarrows. His carpentry skills would not be needed until the walls were finished and the roof was ready to be built. The plan was to finish the walls and have the door and windows in by Wednesday. Then the roof was to be completed by Friday, in time for the team to get to bed early in preparation for the ride to the Managua airport early Saturday morning.
The work that morning was arduous but fruitful. Working together, the team was able to build the four walls of the structure to about one-quarter its planned height and set the door frame. It appeared that they would be able to meet their goal of having the walls completed by Wednesday. At lunch they took a break for sandwiches and fruit, and a well-deserved rest. The jungle heat and humidity was taking its toll, so everyone took the opportunity to down plenty of bottled water. During the break, Harris took the opportunity to practice some of his broken Spanish with Pastor Ortiz, who reciprocated by practicing his broken English.
“Would you mind showing me the church?” Harris asked the Pastor in Espanol, not certain if he had said the proper words.
“Come, I show you,” was the response, indicating that sufficient communication had taken place.
The two men walked over to the cinder-block church building, which was the largest building in the village, capable of accommodating every resident, although most of them would have to sit on blankets. “This church built in one month,” explained the Pastor. Harris was impressed. It was a substantially larger project than the one with which he was currently involved. The Pastor explained that there were over 30 team members that participated in the construction.
As Harris walked into the building, it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. As the inside began to come into view, his eyes were immediately drawn to the back left corner of the church, near Pastor Ortiz’ pulpit. He stopped dead in his tracks, and in thinking about the moment later, he was certain that his mouth was wide open. He stared, making sure that he was actually seeing what he thought he was seeing. There in the corner, to the right of the pulpit when the speaker was addressing the congregation, was a cross. But it was not just any cross – Harris could see clearly that it was an exact replica of the crosses of Falls County, upon which the four murder victims had been crucified. He had learned enough about those crosses over the past few months to memorize their structure and dimensions. It was as though the person who had placed those crosses had done the same thing in this little Nicaraguan church.
Harris slowly walked over to the cross to examine it. He had seen photographs of the crosses from the crime scenes back home, and knew how they were built. This cross was exactly the same. The similarity was confirmed especially by the manner in which the base was built. It was a reinforced square frame, sturdy enough to keep the cross erect even if it had the weight of a man on it. That was a strange fact, as there was obviously no intention to hang anything or anyone on this cross. It was just a religious symbol in a sanctuary, a fairly common sight even in evangelical churches. Why did it have such a solid base on it?
“Is beautiful cross, no?” said Pastor Ortiz, noticing Harris’ interest in it.
“Who built it?”
“His name, I do not know. He came with the brothers who built the church. He had the wood sent here, and built the cross here.”
“Four years ago?”
“Yes. He was good with the hands.”
“Has he returned since then?”
“No. That was only time I see him.”
“Was brother Stabler here on that trip?”
“Yes, maybe you ask him.”
Harris could think of nothing else at the moment. The possibility that the Falls County serial killer had actually been here overwhelmed him. Surely others had remembered that he built a cross. Surely they had noticed the similarities between this cross and the ones back home. Or maybe they had not. Not everyone had seen the photographs like he had, and crosses are such a common occurrence in churches that it was unlikely that anyone would put two and two together. Had Harris not been so recently involved in the events back home, he might not have noticed the similarity, either. Maybe Henry Stabler would remember the man’s name.
He left the church after thanking Pastor Ortiz for the tour and returned to the group to locate Stabler. People were getting ready to return to work, and Stabler was talking to the masons. Harris got his attention.
“Henry, you were here four years ago when the church was built, right?”
“Yes, that was one of our biggest projects. We were here for a month. Actually several teams came, with some people staying the whole time and other groups coming in for a week or two. We had about 30 working at a time, but at total of over 60 people were involved at various points. It was quite an ordeal.”
“You know the cross in the church? Do you remember who built it?”
“I remember the guy, but I don’t remember his name. He came for a week about half way through the project. He built that cross with materials he had shipped down here, and he also did some other carpentry work.”
“Did he come with a group?”
“As I recall, he wasn’t with any particular church. He just volunteered directly with the organization, sort of like you did.”
“Has he gone on any other trips?”
“Not that I’m aware of. That was the only time I saw him. He didn’t say much, he just worked and sort of kept to himself.”
“Does Building Love keep records of everyone who comes down?”
“If we bought his plane ticket we will have a record of it. But some people arrange their own flights, and I think that’s what he did. He came at the same time as one of the groups, but sort of on his own. Like I said, he had the materials for the cross shipped here, and he picked them up in Managua, so he was sort of doing his own thing.”
“Was the cross his idea, or was he asked to build it.”
“I can’t really remember, but it seems like it was his deal. The church was glad to accept the gift, however. They were very pleased.”
“Yeah, Pastor Ortiz seems to like it. Can you think of any other way to find out who he was?”
“Maybe ask our director when we get back. Why do you want to know, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I’d like to have him build one for my church.” Harris was slightly embarrassed that he was lying to Stabler, but that seemed the easiest way to get around the awkward moment. He sometimes worried that he found it so easy to lie at the drop of a hat. It had almost become a habit.
“Yeah, it’s a pretty sturdy structure.” Harris didn’t see any hint that Stabler had made a connection between the cross and the Falls County murders. He was from Waco, and even though it is right next to Falls County, enough had happened since the last murder that it had already become a distant memory for most people. People are exposed to so much information from all over the world that it’s easy to forget what happened last week, much less a few months ago.
“One more thing, Henry. Did a man from Falls County named Chris Bingham come on that trip?”
“No, that name does not ring a bell. I can usually recognize team members’ names if someone says it to me. If you told me the cross guy’s name, I’d recognize it, too. I just can’t pull it from my memory. But Chris Bingham does not seem familiar.”
That piece of information helped, Harris thought. It seemed less and less likely that Chris Bingham had anything to do with his brother’s death. He didn’t really seem like the kind of person who would go on a mission trip and build a cross for a church, anyway.
Harris was consumed with the idea that he might have stumbled across the identity of the Falls County serial killer. But here he was in Nicaragua, in a remote village with no telephone, no internet, no way to contact the outside world. He didn’t want to let anyone else in on his insight, mainly because he didn’t want to cause any commotion, especially since he might be totally wrong. But also because he wanted to think about the best way to handle this information. The possibility that the killer had actually been here in Santa Dolores on a mission trip four years ago, doing charitable work and building a cross to donate to these simple people, seemed so incongruous to what had happened to the four victims. Can such good and evil exist in the same person? Harris knew that it could, as human beings are complex beyond all description. But the idea intrigued him, and he pondered how to properly manage this gift of knowledge that had surprisingly been given to him.
He had to wait another six days to get back to civilization, and during that time he had an opportunity to formulate a plan. Knowledge is power, and Harris did not want to squander this chance. He decided to return home armed with as many facts as he could gather. After work was finished that day, he asked Pastor Ortiz’ permission to go inside the church and take some photographs during dinner. There would be a worship service later, so he had to do his work during dinner. He had brought a camera with him, since he assumed his I-Phone would be worthless. How antiquated a camera seemed. Nevertheless, he spent the next hour photographing the cross from every possible angle, taking measurements with a tape measure he borrowed from the building site, and even secretly taking a couple of splinters of wood from it. Perhaps forensic analysis back home could make a positive connection between this cross and the ones from the murders. He felt somewhat like a medieval pilgrim looking for religious relics – a piece of the “true cross.” The splinters were wrapped in aluminum foil and the measurements were systematically recorded in a notebook.
What to do with this information was another issue. The first thought that he had was about Chris Bingham. His investigation might establish both that Bingham had nothing to do with his brother’s murder, as well as shedding light on how and why Daniel died. That would prove valuable in and of itself. Second, this could be turned into a public relations bonanza. “Falls County attorney solves murder mystery while on mission trip.” Ka-ching. Book deals, movie rights, TV interviews – no need to do anymore advertising. Money in the bank.
But even beyond this, the idea of actually finding out who committed the crimes played to his ego. Instead of turning this information over to the authorities, he could do a little investigation himself, hire appropriate people, discover what perverse currents of human wickedness were coursing underground back home, out of the view of society. There had to be another angle to this whole affair. What was he going to discover? The mystery had the elements of religion, politics, law and psychology – Harris was infatuated by the entire scenario. He couldn’t wait to get back home see what he could do with the five loaves and two fishes he had in his hand. He loved a challenge.
Harris knew that the story wouldn’t come out as well if he appeared distracted and not dedicated to the construction project. In his mental narrative, he had to come off as a self-sacrificial attorney, dedicated to doing good works, and in the process solving serial killing mysteries. He gave himself to the work at Santa Dolores for the next six days, and the team’s efforts were rewarded with the satisfaction of a job well done. He had assisted in framing the roof, and the elderly couple’s joy with the finished product could not be concealed. Everyone was happy. The new home was blessed at a final worship service, and the team loaded up the next morning for the trip to Managua and the flight home. Harris felt like a boy anticipating Christmas morning. He couldn’t wait to get back home and see what gifts were waiting for him as a result of his newfound knowledge. As far as he could tell, nobody else on the mission team had associated the cross in the church with the killings back home. They were probably so used to seeing crosses in sanctuaries that they thought nothing of it. Different contexts can prevent the mind from making associations. The secret knowledge was his alone.
FIVE, SIX AND SEVEN
The flight from Mexico City to Austin arrived at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 2, 2012. Harris and the other travelers gathered their luggage and started home. Harris had parked in long term parking, and once he got in his car for the final leg of the journey he turned on the radio to hear the news. His cell phone was useless, as it hadn’t been charged for a week, so this was his first opportunity to catch up on what was happening in the world. He wondered what wars had started while he was gone.
There was no new war, but within a minute after he had turned on his radio he heard Falls County, Texas being mentioned on the national news. Details were sketchy, but he heard enough to learn that three more crucifixion victims had been found while he was gone. Apparently, they had all been found in various places that very morning. Victims five, six and seven were all found on crosses in the county, after a hiatus of over three months. Harris was shocked. This changed everything in his calculations. He felt that he really couldn’t consider sitting on the information he had, that he had to report it immediately to law enforcement. They needed to have all available information at their disposal, and he sensed that he held the key to the entire case. Some things are more important than personal gain.
On the other hand, there was no need for acting rashly. He would go home, find out more information about the three new murders, and respond accordingly. There was the possibility that with the new killings, law enforcement already had enough information to identify a suspect and act. In that case, the information he had obtained in Santa Dolores would be an interesting side note, and might even assist in a conviction. But it might not turn out to be the blockbuster he had imagined. He sensed that his stock was being devalued before his eyes. It might be time to “sell, sell, sell.”
He pulled up to his driveway in Marlin at 7:45 p.m. He figured that Judge Fisher was at home by then, as he usually spent summer Saturdays on his house boat on Lake Belton, fishing, drinking beer and barbecuing. His phone was charged up by that time, so he called and Fisher answered immediately.
“So, you’re back from Central America. Did you hear the news?”
“Yeah, I picked it up on the radio on the way home. What can you tell me about it?”
“Same scenario, only this time we had three at once. They had been dead for some time – frozen again. The killer apparently was just waiting for the right time to plant them. They were numbered – 5, 6 and 7. All males, one black, two white. Haley told me that 5, a white guy, was found north of Otto on County Road 171, right at the county line. Number 6, the black male, was found on Vitera Road at the southeast corner of the county. And get this, Number 7, another white male, was found on the courthouse square, right in the middle of Marlin.”
“You’re shitin’ me! What?”
“Yes, right downtown, across from your law office. As soon as he told me that, I came back home. This place is buzzing right now. Cops and media are swarming. It’s a circus.”
“So, let me get this straight. In one night, this guy deposited three corpses on crosses, all frozen, in three separate areas of the county, with the last one being right under our noses?”
“Yep. Pretty brazen, but I guess he figured that the heat had died down and nobody was watching. Guess he was right. As far as I know, nobody saw anything. We just woke up this morning to three more dead bodies.”
“There has to be some clue somewhere about who did this.”
“Well, I guess you have a rock-solid alibi.”
“Hell yeah. I was in the middle of a damn jungle for the past week. Got over a hundred witnesses. What about you?”
“I have to rely on my wife. That could be a problem, if she’s mad at me.”
“Where was the one at the courthouse?”
“Seriously, right across from your office. It, or he, was looking, or facing, your front door, but on the other side of the street.”
“I’ll see that image in my mind every time I walk out of my door now. They were all numbered like the last ones? ”
“Yes, and they all had the same three-pronged wound to the back. Each one had a separate wound in a different place, like the others. As I recall, 5 had a stab wound to the right eye, 6 to the stomach, and 7 to the heart. Same type of cross, same manner of hanging, everything.”
“And nobody saw anything?”
“Not that I know of. It rained a little last night, so it was overcast without much light.”
“So, if I understand correctly, one body was in the northeast corner of the county, one in the southeast, and one right in the center in Marlin.”
“Yep, you got it.”
“You see what that means? The killer has completely surrounded the county in sacrifices: one in each corner and one in the center on both the north and south boundaries, and finally number 7 is right in the heart of the county, and that one had a stab wound to the heart. The killer is sending a message, and it’s primarily religious in nature.”
“You would know more about that than I would. I stopped going to Sunday School 30 years ago, and only go to church in election years.”
“This is disturbing. I’ve got something I need to talk to you about tomorrow. It’s pretty clear to me that we have a local killer. I don’t know where he’s getting his victims, maybe among the homeless in Austin, but the FBI profile is right. There is a religious component to this, and I have a clue what it’s all about. Maybe my religious training is going to pay off.”
“Let’s do lunch tomorrow and talk about it. I’m interested in what you have to say.”
Harris trusted Fisher, and had no problem in telling him about what he found in Nicaragua. If Harris profited, Fisher profited, as Harris had become one of his most loyal campaign donors.
Harris and Fisher met at Adele’s Café for lunch the next day. Harris had a cheeseburger with all the fixin’s. A week in a Nicaraguan jungle had sharpened his appreciation for greasy American food. Fisher went the slightly more healthy route and ordered catfish and cole slaw.
“So, what do you think about all this?” the judge inquired.
“I think the killings are over. We’ve had seven victims. In biblical numerology, seven is a perfect number, a number of completion. That idea appears over and over in scripture. In addition, the killer has surrounded the county completely in crucified corpses, and added one in the middle for good measure. It seems like he is performing some ritual for purposes of completeness of some goal, and with seven sacrifices, he’s accomplished what he intended. Finally, he saved three corpses for one night. He knew that he had to wait for the public curiosity to die down, and that after this, the investigation would kick back up into high gear. He had to get it all done at once, so he killed his victims, froze them, and positioned them all at once. He’s done – he did what he set out to do.”
“What in the hell did he set out to do? What is he trying to prove?”
“I think I understand what he’s doing.”
“That’s a scary thought.”
“Yeah, I know. Sometimes I wonder how close I am to going over the edge. But this guy has a specific plan, and he gets it right out of the Bible. “
“So, this is a ‘faith-based’ operation? ‘God said it, I believe it, and that settles it’ type of thing? Biblically-based murder?”
“There’s a lot of killing in the Bible, and if you want inspiration, it’s there, especially in the Old Testament. And that’s where this guy’s plan is coming from. There is a passage in II Samuel that I think fits what he’s doing pretty well. I actually brought my Bible along to read it to you, if you want to hear it.”
“Why not? It’s Sunday, and I haven’t heard a sermon in quite some time.”
Harris read the entire passage from II Samuel 21:1-14 out of the King James Version.
21: Then there was a famine in the days of David three years, year after year; and David enquired of the Lord. And the Lord answered, It is for Saul, and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites.
2 And the king called the Gibeonites, and said unto them; (now the Gibeonites were not of the children of Israel, but of the remnant of the Amorites; and the children of Israel had sworn unto them: and Saul sought to slay them in his zeal to the children of Israel and Judah.)
3 Wherefore David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make the atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of the Lord?
4 And the Gibeonites said unto him, We will have no silver nor gold of Saul, nor of his house; neither for us shalt thou kill any man in Israel. And he said, What ye shall say, that will I do for you.
5 And they answered the king, The man that consumed us, and that devised against us that we should be destroyed from remaining in any of the coasts of Israel,
6 Let seven men of his sons be delivered unto us, and we will hang them up unto the Lord in Gibeah of Saul, whom the Lord did choose. And the king said, I will give them.
7 But the king spared Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan the son of Saul, because of the Lord's oath that was between them, between David and Jonathan the son of Saul.
8 But the king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bare unto Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Michal the daughter of Saul, whom she brought up for Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite:
9 And he delivered them into the hands of the Gibeonites, and they hanged them in the hill before the Lord: and they fell all seven together, and were put to death in the days of harvest, in the first days, in the beginning of barley harvest.
10 And Rizpah the daughter of Aiah took sackcloth, and spread it for her upon the rock, from the beginning of harvest until water dropped upon them out of heaven, and suffered neither the birds of the air to rest on them by day, nor the beasts of the field by night.
11 And it was told David what Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, the concubine of Saul, had done.
12 And David went and took the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son from the men of Jabeshgilead, which had stolen them from the street of Bethshan, where the Philistines had hanged them, when the Philistines had slain Saul in Gilboa:
13 And he brought up from thence the bones of Saul and the bones of Jonathan his son; and they gathered the bones of them that were hanged.
14 And the bones of Saul and Jonathan his son buried they in the country of Benjamin in Zelah, in the sepulchre of Kish his father: and they performed all that the king commanded. And after that God was intreated for the land.
“Amen. What the hell is that all about?” the judge chuckled.
“To make a long story short, Saul was a king of Israel. He attempted to unjustly exterminate a particular group of people in Israel called the Gibeonites. The Bible says that God rejected Saul as king, because of his disobedience, and chose David to be king instead. This is an over-simplified explanation, mind you. Anyway, after David became king, there was a famine. In their minds, a famine meant that God was punishing them for something.”
“You mean, sort of like the drought we had in Texas last year? That started right after we elected Rick Perry as Governor again. Was God punishing us for that?” They both laughed.
“Maybe. Hell, if we elect him for another four years, the earth might open up and swallow us whole. Anyway, David ‘inquired of the Lord,’ meaning that he went either to the high priest or to one of his prophets to determine what God was doing. He was informed that the famine was caused by God because of Saul’s injustice to the Gibeonites.”
“How did they know that?”
“Either the high priest consulted some special stones he had called the Urim and the Thummin, or a prophet had a dream or a vision of some sort.”
“Sort of like consulting an eight ball or a Chinese fortune cookie?”
“I don’t know, maybe something like that. You sound cynical. Anyway, David then goes to the Gibeonites and asks them what can be done to make things right. They say that they want seven descendants of Saul to be hanged. And they are going to hang them before the Lord, meaning that they are specifically being sacrificed to Yahweh, the God of Israel. David actually agrees with this (he didn’t like Saul, anyway), and chooses seven descendants. They are hanged, or sacrificed, and then they pray to God to end the famine. It’s sort of implied that God answered the prayer.”
“That’s some crazy stuff. So, what does that have to do with us. Was this guy sacrificing these people to end the drought? If so, seems like it sort of worked. We had a lot of rain this spring.” Harris couldn’t keep a straight face when the judge said this.
Harris continued with his dissertation on the scriptures. “Well, in the Bible, ‘hanging’ and crucifixion are equated. Jesus is said to have been hung on a tree, which connects his crucifixion to another passage about curses in the Torah. So, these seven descendants of Saul were ‘hung’ to remove a curse of God from the land. Our killer has now ‘hung’ or crucified seven people to do the same thing. I just don’t know what curse he’s trying to remove.”
“Did he go to some priest or prophet to find out?”
“Maybe, or maybe he’s just making these connections in his own depraved mind after reading the Bible or hearing a preacher.”
“Man, that’s some insane shit.”
“In case you didn’t know, judge, religion can drive you crazy.”
“I’ve always suspected that about you.”
“Guilty as charged. But the booze keeps me on an even keel.”
“So, do people take this stuff literally, as if it applies today?” The judge seemed incredulous.
“That’s the problem. There is a distinct rise in fundamentalist thinking, where people look at a religious text from 3000 years ago and think that it has to apply verbatim today. It’s one thing to say that the Ten Commandments apply to us, but if you say that the Ten Commandments apply, then maybe the entire Torah, or Old Testament law applies. It’s all the ‘Word of God,’ after all. It’s to be taken literally, just as it’s written. Of course, they forget that Jesus made a new covenant with believers that is all about grace and love. The Old Testament is chock full of killing and revenge, and that feeds into the anger and fear that many people are feeling today. Things are changing too fast for them, and they want something solid and secure. What better source for that than the Bible?”
“So, is this some sort of Tea Party extremist?”
“I’m not saying he has any particular political goals or affiliation, but I can tell you that today, in the pulpits of thousands of churches across America, sermons were preached that fed people’s hatred of ‘them,’ whoever it is that is causing what they see as the decline of American civilization. Whether from the left or the right, churches are politicized like never before. Black churches are preaching a message in support of the Democratic party, and white churches are supporting the GOP. A lot more politics is being preached than the simple gospel.”
“Damn. Sounds like we are headed for a religious civil war.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. But I’ve got something else that I think you will be interested in.”
Judge Fisher looked intently at Harris, as he continued. “When I was in Nicaragua, I visited a church that had been built by a mission organization from Waco a few years ago. In that church, I saw a cross that was an exact replica of the crosses that have been used in these crucifixions. I’ve got photos and measurements of it. I’ve even got a few splinters from it. The guy who built it went down there on one of these mission trips. I’m going to do a little digging, but I bet you that I can find out who it was within a week.”
“You’re kidding me! You think that you know who did this? You’ve got to tell the police.”
“Not yet. Please, trust me on this. I want to be sure that I’m right. I’m this close to solving this case.”
“Jim, you aren’t a private eye. Don’t start interfering with the police investigation. Tell them what you have and let them handle it.”
“Judge, I’m telling you this as a friend and colleague. Just let me look into this for one week. If I haven’t figured it out by next Sunday, I’ll turn all the information over to them. I just want to be sure that I’m right. You’ve got to promise me that you won’t say anything to anyone about this just yet.”
“Well, OK, but don’t sit on this too long. They may figure it all out, anyway. They’ve got three new bodies to be looking at. This can’t go on for long. They will come up with something soon. And now, after seven bodies in one little county, they are probably feeling humiliated. Some farmboy is outsmarting the FBI and the DPS.”
They paid their bill and started out the door. Right before they went their separate ways, the judge asked Harris, “By the way, what made you think of that passage out of the Bible?”
“I don’t know. After studying it for so long, sometimes my brain makes a connection between something I’ve read there and whatever is going on in my life. It’s just programmed into my mind, I guess.”
“Does it always inspire you to do the right thing?”
“It sure didn’t inspire our killer to do the right thing, now did it? Like anything else, it depends on the kind of person you are. I suppose you could use it for good or bad, and I’ve probably done both at various times in my life. You can justify just about anything by finding some passage in the Bible.”
“I envy you. I’ve got to look to other sources to justify what I do.” They laughed and said goodbye. Harris decided to go home and take a nap. He hadn’t fully recovered from traveling to Central America, and this would be a good day to catch up on some sleep.
As he walked to his car, he saw the media people and some people from the Sheriff’s Department gathered on the courthouse square, near where the seventh body was found. He would have time to catch up on all the news tomorrow, he needed rest now. But he sensed that the whole thing was going to come to a head pretty soon. With seven dead people in five months, there would be a lot of pressure on law enforcement to solve these crimes. This time they were taking it personally. By leaving a crucified victim right in the middle of town, the killer was thumbing his nose at the authorities. He wanted to show them that he could outsmart them, and they were embarrassed.
As Harris thought about the fact that three bodies were placed in one night, he wondered if more than one person was involved. The killer had placed one cross in the northeast corner of the county, another in the southeast, and the third in the middle of town. That would have taken him at least two hours to accomplish, and he would have had to have all three crosses and bodies in the same vehicle. Even if it was a van or a small truck, it would have been difficult to get them unloaded at each place. He had read in the newspaper that morning that the body in Marlin was found at 4:00 a.m. by a city policeman patrolling that night. The others were found at daybreak by local residents. That meant that the killer probably started placing the bodies before 2:00 a.m. that night. By placing three in one night, he risked having the first one found before he placed the other two. That would have alerted law enforcement and they would have been searching all over the county. But if he had a helper or two, one could do the more difficult task of placing the cross downtown while the other two were being placed in the rural areas. “We might be looking for more than one person,” he said to himself.
Harris slept for a couple of hours and then made himself a cup of coffee when he woke up. He thought again about the three bodies found the day before. The autopsies would be completed within a week, he thought, as they would be given priority. He assumed that identification of the victims would be done by that time, as well. Law enforcement would have all the information that they could glean from the victims themselves at that point. They were in the process of investigating the crime scenes right now, and would probably complete that task today. He felt that he needed to move swiftly if he wanted to identify the killer before the authorities got to him. He realized he was being selfish and probably un-American in some way in not reporting his Central America find to the police. But he had a strong desire to write himself into this drama in some way, to be the hero that cracked the case. Who knew what rewards could come from that?
The Sunday evening service at Brazos River Independent Baptist Church was coming to a close. Pastor Rick Johnson was giving the invitation as the congregation sang “Just As I Am.” He invited anyone who wanted to confess Jesus as savior to come forward to do it publicly. Of course, all of the 40 or so people who were present that night had been Christians for years, even decades. But Pastor Rick never wanted to be accused of not giving someone an opportunity to respond to the gospel. That was his duty as a preacher, in his mind.
The man on the last row listened intently. Would there come a time when he would confess publicly what he had done? He had accomplished God’s will, performed a service to the Lord. Shouldn’t the Lord’s work be made known? Otherwise, how would God get the glory? He knew that what was whispered in the ear would be shouted from the rooftops, and what was done in the darkness would be brought into the light. Scripture told him that much. Yet he hesitated to cast his pearls before swine. He knew that nobody would understand the necessity of what he had done. God had revealed His will to him, and that is where God wanted the information to stay. If anyone else was to know, God would reveal that Himself, just like He apparently did to the person who sacrificed the fourth man.
He wondered who his co-worker in ministry was. He was certain that this other man had understood precisely what was being done, as he had followed the pattern that God had shown to him almost perfectly. He prayed that God would bring them together, so that they could praise Him for what had been accomplished. The county had been saved from God’s wrath, shielded from the destruction that was sure to come upon this nation because of its wickedness and rebellion against God. His own obedience had provided atonement. He wanted very much to share this spiritual victory with someone. He prayed that God would lead him to the other person who participated in the sacrifices, and that he would understand the path he was to take.
He decided that, while he could not make a public confession, at least the people of Falls County needed to understand what had happened. He would let them know what God had done, but not reveal his connection to it. That way, people could assimilate the information for themselves and determine that God should get the glory for His salvation.
Harris arrived in his office at the stroke of 8:00 Monday morning, June 4, 2012. Jenny came in about the same time and welcomed him back from his trip. “Do you have any pictures? I always wanted to travel south. The culture interests me.”
“The village where I went is not really a tourist hot-spot. You would enjoy Costa Rica or maybe Antigua in Guatemala, but I wouldn’t advise going to Nicaragua. It’s not the best place for a vacation.”
“Still, I’ll bet it was exciting, and at least you did something worthwhile for people.”
“Oh, it was an adventure. But I’ve got that out of my system. Time to get back to the Lord’s work – practicing law.”
“You mean perverting justice? Amen, praise the Lord, brother!” Jenny raised her hands and started to dance. She was in rare form.
“You should come with me when I preach sometime. I think you’d be a real hit.”
“I’ll call myself ‘Sister Jenny, prophetess and apostle.’”
“Yeah, you’re an apostle of buying shoes, that’s for sure. “
“Hey, it’s God’s will that women have lots of shoes. That’s why He made shopping malls.”
“That’s what Eve was doing when she got us all into trouble – shopping. She stopped by that store called ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ and it’s been going downhill ever sense.”
“It’s just like a man to blame women for the world’s problems. If you guys had any self control nothing would have happened. You didn’t have to eat the apple.”
“There’s probably more truth to that than any of us are willing to admit. But for the record, it wasn’t an apple. In my opinion, it was a fig, for what it’s worth.” It’s not worth much, Harris thought to himself. He went into his office and sat down at his desk. His first order of business was to call the director of Building Love in Waco. Fortunately, Carl Schmidt was in the office that morning, and Harris was able to make contact with him immediately.
“This is Carl Schmidt.”
“Mr. Schmidt, my name is Jim Harris. I just came back from the mission trip to Nicaragua, and I wanted to tell you what a great experience it was. I was very impressed with Mr. Stabler’s leadership, and of the overall proficiency of your organization. You folks are doing a great work.”
“Well, thank you, Mr. Harris. We are just trying to do God’s work and help His people. I’m glad you had a positive experience.”
“Please, call me Jim.”
“Yes, Jim, and you can call me Carl. After all, we call Jesus ‘Jesus,’ so we ought to be on a first-name basis. I’m so glad that you had a good experience. I understand that the elderly couple whose home you built was very excited and appreciative.”
“Yeah, it was a wonderful time for everyone. I don’t think anyone had anything negative happen. Say, I was wondering if you could give me some information. When I was in Santa Dolores, I saw a cross that one of your previous volunteers had built for the church about four years ago. I’d like to contact him to see if he could build one for my church. Do you have his name and contact information?”
“When was that, back in 2008? That was a pretty big group, and we stayed there a total of about a month, if I recall. I actually went on that trip for a one-week stint.”
“Yes, I think that’s when it was. Mr. Stabler remembered the man and said he came alone. He may have purchased his own ticket instead of going through you.”
“I remember the guy. He was quiet and stayed to himself. Didn’t communicate a lot. But he was a good worker. He was actually present the week that I was there. If I remember correctly, he has a woodworking business some place close to Rosebud.”
Harris’ heart was racing. That bit of information by itself was probably enough to locate the man. He felt that he was right on the killer’s heels.
“Let me look on my computer and see if I have a record of him,” said Schmidt. “I’m sure he would like to hear from you about how things are going in Santa Dolores.”
“Yes, I’m sure he would like to talk to me. I’m really impressed with his work. He’s quite an artisan.”
“I’m looking on my records for that trip, and I do have a list of everyone who went. That was a big group, so it will take me just a minute to locate him. OK, here he is. His name is Joseph Marek. I have an address of 4121 FM 2027, Rosebud, Texas. I do not have a phone number for him, nor do I have the name of his shop. Does that help you?”
“Yes sir, that’s great. I’m sure I can locate him with that information. Say ‘hello’ to Mr. Stabler for me and let him know what a great time I had.”
“Will do. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.”
Harris felt a surge of excitement. He had a name and an address. No reason to wait any longer – he would try to make contact today. He could solve this crime on his own, and present his evidence to the FBI. He would be a hero. For a week or so, his name would be plastered all over the news media throughout the country. That would be enough for him to capitalize on this set of fortuitous circumstances. All his stars seemed to be in alignment.
“Jenny, do I have anything on my calendar for today?” Harris yelled.
“If you would keep it all on your computer you wouldn’t have to shout like that. You have an uncontested divorce hearing at 10:00 a.m. for Katie Sheldon. That’s all today.”
“Thanks. Maybe you can show me how to set up my calendar later this week.”
“Yeah, sure, like that’s going to happen.”
Harris decided to drive to Rosebud after the hearing. He did not know what to expect, and certainly did not intend to confront Marek about the murders. He just wanted to mention the cross in Nicaragua and watch the reaction on his face. He wanted Marek to know that he knew something, and hoped to be able to glean enough information to discern if he had the right man or not. If he was satisfied that Marek was the one, he would immediately go to the authorities. That would be enough to insure his place in the history of this sordid tale.
The divorce hearing took about five minutes. Harris was first on the docket that morning, and Judge Fisher started right on time. As soon as he had informed his client of the necessary information about her divorce, he left the courthouse and traveled south. He crossed the Brazos River on FM 712 and turned left on FM 2027 going toward the small community of Cedar Springs. He watched the addresses on the mailboxes and figured that Marek lived a little after Cedar Springs, before Pleasant Grove. All of this area had a Rosebud address, as none of these little communities had post offices. Just after Cedar Springs he saw a sign for the Brazos River Independent Baptist Church. The sign told him everything he needed to know about that church, and he doubted he would ever be preaching there. Too fundamental and literal. “Probably the type of church Marek goes to,” he thought.
A short distance down the road he saw Marek’s mailbox on the left. Marek lived on a farm, and his house was about a quarter mile back from FM 2027. A gravel road led from the gate to the house. The gate was open and Harris did not see any “no trespassing” signs, so he drove slowly up the road. The house had a brick veneer and looked to be about 2000 square feet in size. There was a red wooden barn behind the house, with some farm implements visible outside. Corn was growing in the fields, and from the looks of it Marek appeared to have a decent crop. Harris wondered if Marek farmed his own land or had it under lease. If he had a woodworking shop, that would take up most of his time.
Harris parked his car, and a couple of dogs came out to greet him. They appeared pretty friendly, so Harris slowly got out of the car, let the dogs sniff his leg and hand, and then slowly proceeded toward the house. The dogs apparently sensed no danger, and other than announcing Harris’ presence with some loud barks, they made no menacing gestures. Harris did not see or hear anyone. He knocked three times on the door and waited for a response, but no one came. He knocked a second time, and was about to turn and go to his car when he heard a firm voice from someone coming around the corner of the house from the direction of the barn.
“Can I help you?”
Harris looked up and saw a man about his age, dressed in overalls with a straw hat. He had a stern, weather-beaten face, and was a couple of inches taller than Harris, with a lean build and strong hands. The look on his face was cautious and inquisitive, but not threatening. Harris initially felt startled, but quickly gained his composure and felt a sense of relief.
“Yes sir. My name is Jim Harris. I’m from Marlin and I’m looking for a carpenter named Joseph Marek. Might that be you?”
“I’m Joseph Marek. What do you need?”
“Well, let me explain. I was just down in Central American on a mission trip, in a place called Santa Dolores, Nicaragua.”
Harris noted a change in the man’s face, which became slightly less guarded.
“I went with a group called Building Love, and we constructed a small house for an elderly couple there. While I was there, I saw a cross in the village church that really impressed me. They told me that you had built it when you were down there a few years ago, so I decided to look you up to see if you would build one like that for me. I’d like to put one in the church I attend.”
Marek was looking directly into Harris’ eyes. “Where do you go to church?”
“First Baptist Marlin.” Of course, he didn’t go there often, and had no intention of presenting them with a cross. He wondered if Marek could tell he was lying.
“I built that cross for that little church because they didn’t have much else. I haven’t built another one since, and really don’t intend to.” Harris noted that Marek was adament about not having built any more crosses. He took that to be significant.
“Well, I’d be willing to pay you for it, of course.”
“When I do something for the Lord, I don’t accept payment.”
“Well, I understand that.” Harris felt a twinge of guilt about the money he accepted when he preached at churches around the county. “I was just hoping that you would be willing to make one for us like you did for them.”
“I don’t reckon that First Baptist Marlin is anything like the church in Santa Dolores. You probably have enough to get whatever you want.”
Harris decided to push the envelope a little. “Well, I suppose I can get someone else to build one. I just liked the way you put that one together. It had a very sturdy base, looked like it could stand up just about anywhere. I took some photos and measurements of it. I suppose I could give those to someone.”
In one brief moment, Harris received the confirmation he was seeking. When he mentioned the photographs and measurements, Marek’s eyes widened slightly, and he shifted his stance, making him appear slightly uncomfortable. He said nothing, but continued to look right at Harris.
“Well, I don’t mean to take up anymore of your time. I’m sorry to have bothered you. Looks like you are going to have a good crop this year,” he said as he started to return to his car. “Do you farm it yourself or lease it out?”
“I lease it,” Marek tersely replied.
“I understand you have a woodworking business,” Harris said as he continued to make his way to his vehicle, with Marek and his dogs following him.
The conversation was getting uncomfortable, so Harris decided to leave as quickly as possible. “Well, I appreciate your time,” he said as he opened his car door. “The folks down in Santa Dolores truly appreciate that cross.”
“Glad they do.”
“Well, have a good day.” Harris started his car, turned around and headed back out by way of the gravel road. He looked in his rear-view mirror and saw Marek staring at him briefly, then turning away and walking back toward his barn. Marek’s dogs followed him to the gate, barking all the way.
Harris felt relieved once he got back out on FM 2027. He decided that he would try to find Marek’s woodworking shop, just so he would have the information. Perhaps that is where Marek built the crosses to crucify the people he killed. He was positive it was Marek. The look he saw on his face when he mentioned the photographs told him everything he needed to know. Besides that, it was simply too much of a coincidence that this man from Falls County built exactly the same type of cross in Nicaragua that was used in the killings. Marek was probably kicking himself right now. He had probably forgotten that he had built that exact same cross four years earlier. He probably never realized that the Nicaraguan cross would connect him to the killings.
Harris called Jenny on his cell phone. “Can you get on the internet and see if you can find any listings for woodworking shops or carpentry shops in Rosebud? I can’t get anything on my I-Phone out here.”
“Why? You thinking about building me something?”
“Yeah, a coffin.”
“Well have one built for yourself, too. You need a place to sleep.” She laughed. “OK, I’ll call you back in a few minutes.”
Harris continued on toward Rosebud. He guessed that the woodworking shop would be on Highway 77, which passed through the town. It was getting close to lunch, too, and Harris knew of a good barbecue place there. “Right on the verge of solving an internationally famous serial killing, and I’m thinking about food,” he thought to himself. “And you can’t have barbecue without a cold beer.” He realized he hadn’t had anything to drink since returning from Nicaragua. Over a week without alcohol – that was a record for him. Maybe he should get involved in solving more murder mysteries.
Jenny called him back right as he could first see Rosebud on the horizon. “There is one listing for carpentry/woodworking in Rosebud – “The Carpenter’s Son” on Highway 77, just south of town.” “That’s fitting,” thought Harris. This guy makes crosses and sees himself as being like Jesus. Only he sacrifices others instead of himself.
“OK, thanks, Jenny. I’m going to go there and then get a bite to eat. I’ll be back a little after 1:00.”
Harris came into Rosebud and turned left on Highway 77. He passed the barbecue place on his right going out of town, traveling toward Cameron. About a mile down the road he saw the woodworking shop, a small building with a gravel parking lot. He signaled his turn, waited for an 18-wheeler going north to pass, and pulled in to park. The shop was open, so he assumed that Marek must have some help. There were no other cars in the parking area, but he saw a pickup truck parked in back.
Harris went inside and was greeted by a woman with gray hair who appeared to be in her late 60’s. “Hello,” she said. “How can I help you?”
“Is this Joseph Marek’s shop?”
“Yes it is, but he’s not here right now. He had to go back home for awhile. I’m a member of his church and I sometimes watch the shop while he’s away.”
“My name is Jim Harris. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Olga Schroeder. God bless you.”
Harris looked around and saw some of Marek’s handiwork on the walls. There were smaller crosses and other religious-themed items. There were also bird houses and feeders, mail boxes, and other assorted household items. “Does Mr. Marek make everything he sells here?”
“Yes, he does. This is all his work.”
“He’s quite talented. I like these little crosses here.” Harris looked at some miniature wooden crosses on a table. There were about a dozen of them. Being an evangelical, Marek would never have made a crucifix with the dead Jesus on it, only simple crosses. Evangelicals criticize Catholics for still having Jesus on the cross. Harris briefly thought how stupid some religious issues really are.
“How much are these little wooden crosses?”
“Those are $7.50 each,” said Mrs. Schroeder.
“I’ll take seven of them.”
“Goodness, that’s more than anyone else has purchased in a long time,” she said with obvious excitement in her voice.
“Yes, when Mr. Marek returns, please tell him that Jim Harris from Marlin dropped by and purchased seven crosses. I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear that.”
“So you do know him.”
“I only recently made his acquaintance, but look forward to getting to know him better in the future.”
“Very well. That will be $56.88 with tax. Let me put those in a bag for you.”
“Thanks. Here’s $60.00. You can keep the change as a donation to your church. What church is that, by the way?”
“Brazos River Independent Baptist Church,” replied Olga Schroeder. Harris nodded.
“Who’s the pastor there?”
“Brother Rick Johnson. He’s a wonderful preacher,” she said. She obviously adored her pastor, which was quite common.
Harris pushed a little further. “What’s he been preaching on lately? Maybe I’ll come out to hear him.”
“Oh, he’s been talking for months about some of the wonderful stories in the Old Testament about God’s judgment on wickedness.”
“Perhaps he’s mentioned the story about David sacrificing seven of Saul’s descendants. That’s one of my favorites.” Harris couldn’t even believe he had said that.
“Why, yes! I believe that he did preach about that several months ago. It was very inspiring. I have all of his sermons on tape – 15 years of them. If you would like, I could send you a couple of them to listen to. I think you’ll like him.”
“If you have the one about Saul’s descendants, I’d like to hear that one. That is a very interesting topic to me. Here’s my business card. Let me know how much the tape is.”
“Oh, I see that you are a lawyer. Well, I’ll just send you one for free. I don’t want to accept anything for distributing the Word of God.” Harris felt ashamed of what he was doing with this lady, who was genuine in her beliefs and love for her church. He wished he still had a faith like that, but then again, he could see what it had done in Joseph Marek.
“Thank you. That’s a wonderful sentiment. Please send it to my office, and please tell Mr. Marek that I stopped by.”
Harris left the shop and headed back to the barbecue restaurant. He was ready for that cold beer. He felt slightly devious for what he was doing. He was toying with Marek, and wanted to see his reaction. He knew that purchasing seven crosses from his shop would send him the message that he knew everything. He wanted to find out a little more about this man, and decided that he would use some of his contacts in law enforcement to dig up a little history. He knew that he had promised Judge Fisher that he would go to the police by the end of the week, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to play private eye a little longer. He felt extremely proud of himself for having found Marek. Once the story came out, he would be famous. He was enjoying contemplating all the financial and social rewards that would come from this. How things had changed for him. For the first 59 years of his life, he was average. Now, beginning with the Gutierrez settlement, his thriving practice, and the crucifixions, he was in high gear. He was making his fortune, even though it came at the expense of the suffering of others. What irony, he thought. Others experienced torment and death, and he had found a way to profit. Even though he did not cause that evil, was his gain in some way entangling him in those wrongs?
These thoughts were interrupted by the waitress arriving with his brisket and sausage plate, and a cold Shiner Bock. Not his favorite beer, but the best you would find in a town like Rosebud. He would rather have an IPA, but he would have to go to Waco for that. At least the Shiner was very cold. This June promised to be a hot one.
Harris let the time get away from him, and before he knew it, he had downed four beers and it was 2:00 p.m. He asked for the check and paid up, leaving a generous tip. He felt slightly tipsy as he walked to his car, but felt that since he had eaten a big lunch, he probably wouldn’t appear to be over the limit. He backed up, being more careful than usual, and eased out onto Highway 77. He knew that the Rosebud police would be patrolling the area, so he made certain he stayed below the speed limit going through town. He stayed on 77 until he came to the road that veers off toward Marlin, and by that time he felt that he was in good shape. No DWI today.
Harris pulled into his office parking space at the back of the building. Jenny heard him coming in the back door and ran to meet him. “Big news. The Marlin Democrat received a letter from someone claiming to be the killer. They notified Sheriff Haley, and when my sister found out, she called me.”
“What did the letter say?”
“She told me over the phone and I wrote it down.” Jenny handed Harris a type-written note printed from her computer. Harris read it out loud.
God’s wrath has been averted. The seven sacrifices have been made. Atonement has been accomplished. Hear the Word of the Lord. The land is surrounded by a hedge that Satan cannot penetrate. Yet the nation is on the verge of judgment, which will be swift and sure, unless there is true repentance. The Lord has provided a covering for you, but for the rest of the land there will be weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is His chosen land, a lighthouse for the lost. From the destruction that is coming, the nation will be rebuilt in righteousness.
“Geez. Well, that settles it. We have a religious fanatic on our hands. He’s sacrificing people like they did in the Old Testament.”
“That’s creepy, isn’t it?” said Jenny. Anyway, the law and the media are in high gear now. Haley is giving a press conference at 5:00 p.m., and the DPS and FBI will have representatives there. The media is back in full force.”
Harris looked out the window and could see the square was buzzing with reporters, photographers and the curious. Marlin was once again the center of the universe. And Harris held the key to it all. He thought about how he needed to play his next card. He needed a little more information so that his revelation would have its maximum impact when he presented the evidence. He decided to let Jenny in on the deal.
“Jenny, can I have your absolute promise and assurance that you will not tell anyone what I am about to tell you?”
“Of course you have that, Jim. What are you talking about?”
“I know who the killer is.”
Jenny looked astonished, then incredulous. “Jim, what did you drink at lunch?”
“Four Shiner Bocks, very cold, but that has nothing to do with what I’m about to tell you. When I was in Nicaragua, I saw a cross in the little village church that was exactly the same as the crosses that were used in the seven crucifixions. This morning, I found out the identity of the man who built that cross in the church, and I went to see him. He lives outside of Rosebud. Suffice it to say that, having spoken to him, I’m absolutely certain that he is the killer.”
“Does this have anything to do with the woodwork shop I found for you in Rosebud?”
“Yes, he owns it. He’s a carpenter, and he lives on a farm a few miles from Rosebud. And by now, I suspect that he knows that I know who he is.”
“Shit, Jim, he killed seven people. If he knows that you know, what’s to stop him from killing you?”
“That’s why we have to act fast. I’m going to tell the authorities what I know tomorrow. I want to wait until Haley has given his press conference, so they can confirm that as of yet, they don’t know who the killer is. Then, I’m going to let them know what I know, and I want to give them as much information as I can. I’m going to hand them the proof they need to nab this guy, and I want you to help me do it. I need your skills on the internet. Tell me, how did the letter get delivered to the Democrat?”
“My sister told me that the letter was dropped through the opening in the front door of the newspaper office this morning. When they opened at 8:00, they found it.”
“So, that’s why he wasn’t at his shop this morning. He brought the letter to Marlin, came back home, and is now planning his next move.”
“Who is he, Jim?”
“His name is Joseph Marek. He’s about my age. I’m going to give you every bit of information I have on him, and I’m going to ask you to stay after work tonight and find out everything you can about him. I’ll pay you triple time. I just need as much data as I can get before I go to the law tomorrow. I want to give them the roadmap to a conviction.”
“Jim, you don’t have to pay me anything. This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with. But I’m keeping my gun loaded at my desk. Just sayin’.”
“I’ve got mine loaded, too. His hammer is no match for our bullets. We’ll keep the doors locked and I’ll order some pizza. Pardon the pun, but I want to nail this son of a bitch.”
Jenny laughed. “OK, give me what you’ve got, cowboy. I’m going to work.”
Jenny had every computer program that was legal to get information on people. Plus for the next couple of hours, until closing time, she had her sister in the Sheriff’s Department. Armed with those weapons, she would be able to get a complete dossier on Joseph Marek. The CIA wouldn’t know as much about him as she was going to know by 8:00 p.m. tonight. Harris felt that he was on the verge of greatness. He couldn’t really justify what he was doing ethically or morally, or even rationally, but he was stoked and pumped to the max, and was hell-bent on doing it his way. Jenny got to work at her desk, and Harris started making phone calls to everyone he knew that might know something about Joseph Marek, about The Carpenter’s Son, and about the Brazos River Independent Baptist Church.
A SURPRISE AND A DILEMMA
Harris made contact with various Falls County Baptist pastors, to see what he could find out about Rick Johnson and the Brazos River Independent Baptist Church. From the discussions he had, he learned that Pastor Johnson was pretty much a maverick. Even the fundamentalists considered him a fundamentalist. He was a biblical literalist to the extreme. One pastor who knew him related that when the Apostle Paul wrote that he had a “thorn in the flesh,” Johnson interpreted that to mean that he literally had been stuck by a physical thorn. Apparently, symbolism and metaphor were not part of Johnson’s world. He was politically active, a Tea Party devotee, and believed that the right government for America was a theocracy, with Jesus Christ literally being stated as being “King.” In his view, the country should be overseen by preachers, who would act sort of as a Supreme Court with veto power to override anything that was enacted by Congress or introduced by the President that was contrary to Scripture. In short, he was in favor of essentially scrapping the current Constitution and imposing a new one that declared that the Bible was the Supreme Law Of The Land. Harris couldn’t help associating these views with those of the Iranian Imams. He wondered if Johnson had ever read John 6, where Jesus refused to be made king.
Johnson had a relatively small congregation compared to other Falls County churches, and since it was rural, it had little impact. But Harris could see how a preacher with these extreme views could inspire someone in his congregation to do what Marek had done. He remembered his meeting with Olga Schroeder earlier that day, and how she appeared to idolize Johnson. The idea that the Bible is the absolute, literal, inerrant Word of God has the potential to move people to extreme positions, whether for good or for bad.
The Carpenter’s Son woodshop had been in operation for about 20 years. A friend that Harris had in Rosebud knew Joseph Marek, and described him as a quietly intense man. He was good with his hands, and was a Vietnam veteran. Harris’ friend informed him that Marek had been in Vietnam from 1970 to 1972, and had been a sniper. That piece of information sent a chill down Harris’ spine, since it meant that Marek was an expert with firearms. While his mode of murder had been with hammer and nails, he was experienced in the art of killing people with firepower. Vietnam experiences often manifest themselves in violent behavior because of post traumatic stress disorder, and Harris knew that if pressed, Marek could explode. While Marek had apparently found a foundation and purpose for living at his church, that could all unravel in a moment if he was exposed. Harris’ encounter with Marek at his farm confirmed that underneath the quiet façade, there was a seething pot of turmoil. It probably wouldn’t take much to set him off.
Jenny was hard at work getting the skinny on Marek himself. She learned that he graduated from Rosebud high school in 1969. If he was the crucifier, he wouldn’t be the first murderer from Rosebud. Kenneth McDuff, another famous Texas psychopathic serial killer, was from that town. Jenny wondered what it was about a sleepy farming community that could produce such monsters. As Harris had also discovered, Marek joined the Army after high school, and did three tours of duty in Vietnam. He was a sniper, and was credited with over twenty kills. His hunting experience growing up in Rosebud gave him a leg up on other draftees, and he was found to be a natural marksman. He was honorably discharged in late 1972 and returned to Rosebud. After a difficult period of post-war adjustment, including several DWI’s, public intoxication charges, and arrests for assault and battery, he finally found solid ground at the Brazos River Independent Baptist Church. The pastor before Rick Johnson, an elderly minister who faithfully proclaimed a gospel of redemption, took Marek under his wing and convinced him to channel his angst through woodwork. Marek already had some carpentry skills from growing up on a farm, building barns and out-buildings with his father, and his pastor encouraged him to use those talents to do something productive with his life. This turned out to be a life-saver for Marek, as it enabled him to not only make a living, but to contribute something to what he perceived to be a greater good – the Kingdom of God. Now he was part of a work greater than himself, something he could give himself to and escape the war demons that haunted him.
When that pastor retired, Rick Johnson was called to replace him. Marek was a solid member of the church by that time, established in his business since 1990, and a faithful tither. He was a silent presence, never a leader, but he was committed. His former mentor had saved him, had given him a reason to live. He would show his gratitude by being faithful to his church until he died.
Johnson’s sermons were different than the previous pastor’s. Marek’s mentor had emphasized grace and forgiveness, which was what Marek needed at the time. Johnson focused on sin and righteousness. It was a different message, but Marek was anchored in this faith community by this time. The new preacher had tapped into a growing concern among the congregation – that the nation was going to hell in a hand basket. Over the next 15 years, the church watched society change from the white Christian dominance that formerly held sway to the advent of gay marriage, open atheism, multiculturalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the seemingly never-ending parade of change. It was too much for these simple, rural folk. Something had to be done to stop the national descent into hell and destruction, and Johnson had the answer. His theology focused on the Old Testament, with the judgment of God being a primary theme. The Old Testament was replete with stories of war and conquest as methods of advancing the Kingdom of God. If God was the same yesterday, today and forever, then He still felt the same way he did when He destroyed the world with a flood, when he sent the plagues on the Egyptians, and when he commanded the Israelites to totally annihilate city after city in Canaan. This was the wrathful version of God, the God who brings unmitigated judgment on sinners, who sends whole nations to damnation. “The wicked shall be turned into hell and all the nations that forget God,” proclaimed Psalms 9:17 in the King James Version.
Gradually, Marek bought into this new theme. The anger from his Vietnam experience began to surface again. He began to see the truth in what Johnson was preaching. He had put his life on the line to save this Republic from Communism, and now it was being eroded from within by liberalism and secularism. These ideas were opening the doors to our enemies, allowing the country’s Christian foundation to be eroded, its biblical roots to be corrupted. Once a person settles upon a foundation for his life, any attack on that foundation must be countered. Otherwise, the entire edifice is in danger of collapse. Marek could not allow that to happen. He had invested too much of his life in another vision for America. Something decisive had to be done. All the words must lead to action, and Marek felt that God had spoken to him through Pastor Johnson.
Much of what Harris and Jenny surmised was speculation on their part. They were attempting to put the pieces of the puzzle together, to connect the dots. Jenny’s background research and Harris’ personal encounter with Marek, plus his understanding of the fundamentalist religious mind, helped them to create a rational picture of what might be happening in the brain of a man from rural Falls County, Texas. Then, at about 4:45 p.m. that afternoon, the telephone rang.
“It’s Chris Bingham,” said Jenny.
“OK, I’ll take it in my office.”
Harris picked up the phone. “Jim, this is Chris Bingham. I need to have a word with you this afternoon, if you don’t mind.”
“Well, Chris, we’ll be here late tonight. Come on in.”
“I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”
Harris thought how strange it was that Bingham wanted to speak with him right at this time, right when the whole mystery was about to be solved. Bingham’s brother was part of the play, part of the plot, a victim and a sacrifice. Perhaps it was fitting that he should come to talk to Harris now. More and more, it seemed like a Shakespearean tragedy being played out in Marlin, Texas.
Bingham came at 5:00 p.m., just as Sheriff Haley was about to start his press conference across the street at the courthouse. Harris sent Jenny to the press conference, to see what the authorities would reveal about their knowledge. Harris suspected that they didn’t have a clue, but wanted Jenny to be there in person to hear what was said. Of course, they knew that the press conference would not reveal the full extent of law enforcement’s knowledge.
Chris Bingham came into Harris’ office and closed the door behind him. Harris sat down behind his desk and Bingham positioned himself in one of the chairs in front. “Jim, I won’t be long, and I appreciate you meeting with me. I need to have a very serious conversation with you, but before I do, I want to make absolutely certain that we are on the same page.”
Harris wondered what Bingham was getting at. “OK, Chris, what’s on your mind?”
“You are both my attorney and my minister, right? I came to you on that basis, knowing that I need someone to confide in, someone to talk to, someone to lay it all on the table with so I can figure out where I am and what I need to do. Right?”
“Absolutely, Chris. You are my client, and you are my ‘parishioner,’ so to speak, so you can tell me anything in absolute confidence. Beyond that, you’re my friend, I think, so if you have something to get off your chest, let me hear it.” Harris felt very uneasy as he uttered these last words. Bingham was not really his friend, but he had bought into Bingham’s theme of confidentiality, so he had decided to ride that pony to the finish line, whatever the consequences.
“I killed Daniel,” Bingham said bluntly. He breathed a heavy sigh and then looked at Harris with an expressionless face, waiting to measure the reaction.
Harris stared at Bingham for a few seconds, not really certain that he had heard him correctly. Then, as the reality of what he said began to set in, he realized that the novel that he had constructed in his mind over the past few days had some serious flaws in it.
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Harris blurted out, with obvious annoyance.
“I killed my brother. And I want you to know, I have no intention of ever doing this again, that no one else is in danger, that I have no plans of harming anyone else, and that this is an event that is in the past and will never be repeated. As my attorney and minister, I need to seek your advice on what to do. I am confessing my sin to you, and declaring to you that I am repenting of that sin, and will never kill again. Things are heating up with respect to the crucifixions, and I need to know what to do. I need your legal and spiritual advice.” Bingham sounded like he was quoting a memorized script.
Harris felt that he was having a bad dream. The morning had begun with him making a call to a charity organization in Waco. Then, he had discovered the identity of the person he thought was the internationally famous serial killer. Next, he had confronted that person, and he had satisfied himself that he had the right man. He had eaten barbecue and drank cold beer in Rosebud, Texas. He had learned of the letter sent to the newspaper. He had begun an investigation into the life of the suspect whom he was certain was the murderer. Now he was hearing his own client confess to at least one of the seven killings.
It was not clear to him how many minutes passed before he said anything. He felt that he had been set up, deceived. Chris Bingham had outsmarted him. He had established not only an attorney-client relationship, but also a ‘priest-penitent’ relationship. He could freely confess anything that he wanted to Harris, and Harris couldn’t say a goddamned thing to anyone about it. There was no indication that he was about commit another murder. Harris could clearly see that he had killed his brother to gain control over his portion of his mother’s estate. Pretty damned clever. Bingham took advantage of Marek’s murders to improvise one of his own, all to his financial advantage. The brief thought crossed Harris’ mind that he wasn’t that different from Bingham, or from Marek for that matter. Right now, he felt like crucifying Chris Bingham.
Harris finally zoomed back in on the reality of the moment. “So, Chris, you are telling me that you killed Daniel. I have some questions. First of all, why are you telling me this now?”
“Whoever murdered the other six people is bound to be discovered soon. The heat is on, so to speak. I need to make certain that I have at least one person on my side. Whatever you do from this point forward, my best interests have to be at the forefront of your decisions.”
“Damn. This guy really did see me coming,” thought Harris. “I’m a chump, a patsy. How can I go to the authorities with all my information about Marek when I now know that he didn’t kill at least one of the victims? Maybe I’m wrong about all of them. If I can be deceived to this degree by Chris Bingham, maybe I can be deceived about the whole damn thing.” Harris felt his spirit wilt inside.
“Are we on the same page, Jim?” Bingham asked.
“Sure, Chris, we’re on the same page. What the hell? Were you setting me up the whole time?”
“Everyone looks out for their own interests, Jim. I look out for mine. What’s the big deal? You aren’t invested in this case, are you? Why should you care? I killed my brother. All you have to do is not say anything. You have your money and I have my secrets.”
Harris came face to face with his own hypocrisy. He was attempting to profit off of this crime spree, so why should he object if someone else was trying to do the same? He was just like Bingham, an opportunist, looking for ways to gain from whatever circumstances occurred. Harris felt like shooting himself. What a scumbag he was.
“Yeah, Chris, you have your secrets. I’ll take them to the grave with me, along with all my other sins. Anything else you want to tell me?”
“No, Jim, that’s it. But your reaction to this has piqued my curiosity. Do you know anything else?”
“I have my curiosity, as well, Chris. Do you know who committed the other six murders?”
“No, I haven’t a clue.”
“Daniel’s murder seemed to be the same as the others. How did you fake it?”
“I have my own source in the Sheriff’s Department. He gave me photos, measurements, the works. I’m a pretty good carpenter, and I was able to duplicate the previous murders with Daniel.”
Harris had no idea that Bingham was handy with hammer and nails. “How did you kill him?” he inquired.
“He was stoned one night at his home. It was pretty easy. I built a template for the stab wounds in the back, according to the measurements my source in the Sheriff’s Department had given me. I just put the mechanism on his back and slammed it with my fist. It created three perfect puncture wounds in his spine and apparently killed him instantly. Then I just copied the other killer’s actions from the information my informant had given me, and placed his cross where he was found.”
“I’m sure that surprised the other killer.”
“Yeah, but apparently he played along. Daniel was number 4, and the newest victims were 5, 6 and 7. He’s rolling with the punches, so to speak.”
“And you’ve had no contact with him?”
“None whatsoever. I have no idea who he is. But he provided me with the perfect cover for getting rid of my worthless brother. I feel bad about that, in a way, but Daniel was a blight on society. In my view, he had forfeited his right to live.”
“Well, your secret is safe with me. As disgusting as it is, I’ll never reveal it.”
“That’s what I expected. Whatever happens from this point forward, remember your obligations to me. I’m your client and you are my minister, for better or for worse.”
“Sure, Chris, I’ll remember. I’m an attorney. I’m a minister. You had me pegged. Good job.”
“That minister part is the most important to me. Pray for me, brother,” Bingham replied, reaching across the table to touch Harris’ hand, with a sarcastic twinkling look in his eyes.
Harris ushered Bingham out the door, feeling sick to his stomach. He had to think about what this all meant to his plan. He was still convinced that Marek was the killer, but now this new revelation from Bingham threw a monkey wrench into the works. If he turned in his evidence against Marek, Marek’s attorney (whoever he/she might be) would raise issues about Daniel Bingham’s killing. Harris could not accept an appointment to be Marek’s attorney, since he was about to produce evidence against him and since his primary obligation now was to Bingham. So there would be another attorney digging around for evidence of Marek’s innocence, and the possibility that Bingham’s name would surface with respect to Daniel’s death would complicate the whole matter. A good attorney could at least raise the possibility of Chris Bingham killing his own brother, and that would possibly create reasonable doubt about Marek’s involvement in any of the killings. Harris’s plans were beginning to fall apart.
Jenny appeared at Harris’ office door. “What was that all about?”
Harris decided not to tell Jenny about Bingham’s confession. He had learned long ago that it was easier to conceal something and later reveal it than to reveal and then try to conceal. “He’s having some problems with the family estate. It’s not a big deal, but I just don’t want to be bothered by anything right now. It’s an inconvenience.”
“Yeah, we’ve got seven murders on our hands – can’t be bothered by money matters. Haley told the press that they do not have a suspect yet, but that they do continue to believe that the FBI profile that was previously constructed is essentially correct.. I believe him, since my sister tells me nobody has a clue. You’re da’ man, Jim. You alone know the truth.”
“If only you knew,” thought Harris. “Let’s keep working,” he said to Jenny. She returned to her computer to try to find out more about Marek. Harris thought that if he could build a good enough case against Marek, it would protect Bingham, and any allegations by Marek’s future attorney would be overwhelmed by the proof he had assembled. They were about to receive more proof than they had bargained for.
AN UNWELCOMED VISITOR
Harris and Jenny continued working through the evening. Jenny was compiling more information about Joseph Marek from her internet research, and Harris was taking that information and assembling an organized presentation of evidence to law enforcement, to be delivered the next morning. He had already taken the revelation from Chris Bingham and rationalized his response in his own mental narrative. Now he justified everything he did from the standpoint of protecting Chris Bingham, to whom he owed the dual duties of confidentiality, not only from the attorney-client privilege, but also as Bingham’s minister. He alternated between conceiving of himself as a principled, ethical professional and a total whore. It was difficult for him to maintain the illusion that he was doing something meaningful and helpful for society as a whole or anything else that was worthwhile. By 7:30 p.m. he thoroughly despised himself and everything he stood for.
Jenny had continued to dig, oblivious to Harris’ internal ordeal. She was just enjoying the hunt. Other than Marek’s indiscretions after the war, he really didn’t have any black marks against him. He had never been married, had no children, and had no run-ins with the law other than what resulted from his consistent drunkenness for the first 15 years after he got out of the military. He inherited his parents’ 200 acre farm after their deaths in an automobile accident in 1986. He was an only child, and had lived with them until their deaths. That, along with the elder pastor’s intervention, seemed to basically sober him up, and by the early 1990’s he was a productive citizen. He had no debt, no bankrupcies, no law suits, no tax problems, nothing out of the ordinary from that time forward.
He was a member of the NRA, and apparently continued to develop his sharpshooting skills at local target ranges. He voted Republican for the most part, although he was known to support some local Democratic candidates that he knew personally. He leased his land to a local farmer and enjoyed some income from the crops, mainly corn. He inherited a little money from his mom and dad, but besides that he made his living from his woodworking business. Besides the items that he sold in his store, he also did some remodeling work on houses around the area.
Jenny also found that Marek had been seen by a psychiatrist at the VA Hospital in Temple (she had a contact there who was not concerned about the HIPAA privacy violations), and that he had been diagnosed with post-tramautic stress disorder. This was pretty common for Vietnam vets, so it was not much of a surprise. But it did confirm the basic profile that was emerging. Marek was a man that had issues, and even though they were buried pretty deeply and covered by a façade of respectability, it probably wouldn’t take much to make them surface.
By 7:45 p.m. Harris and Jenny were getting pretty tired, and Harris felt that he had enough information to present to the Sheriff’s Department in the morning. They decided to call it an evening and go home. Harris made a final visit to the restroom while Jenny cleaned up her desk.
Just as Harris flushed the toilet he heard a loud noise that made him think of an explosion. He opened the door just in time to see a man dressed in camouflage with a blackened face barreling down the hallway with a pistol in his hand. It was obvious that he had broken the locked back door to gain entry. Jenny was standing to Harris’ left as he came out of the bathroom, and the man was running toward them from the right. The sound of the pistol firing shocked both of them, and after that everything was a slow-motion blur. The first shot hit the door frame of the restroom, and Harris felt the splinters fly into his neck. The next shot hit Jenny in the left shoulder, and Harris later remembered seeing the blood and flesh fly through her blouse and splatter on the wall. The third and fourth shots hit Harris in his right thigh and right side, and he crumbled to the ground. That was the last thing he remembered. Neither Harris nor Jenny had had a chance to get a shot off. Their loaded guns sat silently in their desk drawers.
Harris awoke in the Emergency Room of Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. All he could remember was physicians and nurses working frantically around him. He tried to speak, but in a moment he lost consciousness again. When he awoke the second time, he was in the Intensive Care Unit. The surgeons had taken two shell fragments out of him, from his thigh and side. The gunman had also apparently shot him in the head sometime after he lost consciousness, but fortunately, perhaps miraculously for Harris, the bullet had not penetrated his skull. It had traveled between the cranium and the skin just above his right ear, and exited at the back of his head. It left a lot of blood and a nasty cut, but was not lethal.
Harris soon learned that Jenny was not so lucky. After she had been shot in the shoulder she had collapsed. After the gunman had shot Harris in the head, he did the same to Jenny, but the bullet penetrated her forehead and killed her instantly. She had died next to her desk, where she was gathering information on Marek. Judge Fisher had visited Harris and told him what happened. Harris could listen, but not respond.
Fisher told him that before the gunman left Harris’ office, he had smashed all the computers. A police officer who was with Fisher as he informed Harris of all this asked him if he knew who had done this. Harris could not respond. He understood what Fisher and the officer were saying, but the trauma from his head wound had temporarily incapacitated him and he could not speak. He had a concussion from the bullet, and his head was swollen to the point that he could barely move his lips. He felt in his heart that the gunman was Marek, but he could not identify him positively, and even if he could have, he could not say anything. The gunman did not specifically look like Marek, but who else could it have been? The Marek he had met was dressed in overalls and looked like a farmer. The man who shot him and Jenny was dressed in camouflage and had blackened his face to conceal his identity. He looked like a commando, a special forces member. Harris felt that Marek had assumed his old Vietnam identity for that occasion, but everything had happened so quickly that he could not positively identify the gunman as Marek. It made sense, but he could not guarantee that he had seen the carpenter.
Jenny was dead. Harris lay in the ICU bed, wrestling with the knowledge that he had caused her death. His selfishness in wanting to be the hero and getting more information on the killer, instead of just telling law enforcement what he knew, had resulted in an innocent woman losing her life. He felt that he had pushed Marek to the brink. He had toyed with him until his inner demons erupted in deadly violence. Harris had even left his calling card at Marek’s store, an invitation to come confront him. Then he had asked Jenny to stay there after hours, until Marek came looking to kill them both. “What a piece of shit you are, Jim Harris,” he thought. He wanted to die. He wished that Marek had killed him instead of Jenny. He deserved to pay the price, but not her, not a good-hearted innocent girl.
Harris lay in the bed confined to his own personal hell, capable of thinking but not capable of ending his own life. There was no justice here. God had not saved Falls County, Texas from wrath. He had allowed it to plunge into the depths of Gehenna. Seven people were crucified, one by Harris’ own client just to get his portion of the family estate. Not for any righteous purpose. An innocent woman, a mother and wife, was now dead. Harris lay immobilized in a hospital bed. Marek was sure to be found and arrested soon, as soon as Harris could talk. He should have said something much earlier. If he had gone to the police that morning, Jenny would have been alive that evening and Marek would be in jail. What a difference just a few hours makes. But the truth would come out. Marek’s church and pastor would be dragged through the mud, with the whole world ridiculing them for their antiquated ways. Rosebud would be the home town of another serial killer. Falls County would be looked upon as the primitive backwater that it really is. Harris could see a mental image of the whole area sinking into the abyss, with him right at the center of the spectacle. What a fool he had been.
It would take another two days before Harris was capable of speaking. He decided to keep his knowledge to himself. While he felt that Marek was the killer, he now took the matter personally. This man had killed a good woman and had almost killed him. Harris was in no mood to practice Christian forgiveness. He wanted some good old-fashioned Old Testament wrath and vengeance to be visited upon this slimebag.
Judge Fisher was the first to visit Harris in the hospital after he regained the ability to speak. “Jim, who did this to you? Was it the man who you think was responsible for the crucifixions? Who did this to you and Jenny?”
Harris mustered all the strength he could find in himself and responded. “I don’t know who it was. I’ve never seen the man before. I have no idea what this is all about.” Harris had gone past the point where shame, guilt, morals, ethics and civic responsibility make a difference. He was lying to his best friend because he had another agenda – he was going to bring this bastard to justice himself.
Fisher continued. “It has to be the guy you suspect to be the serial killer, Jim. Why else would anyone do this? He killed Jenny, probably thought he had killed you, and destroyed your computers. There’s only one explanation for that, Jim – he thought you were on to him and were about to expose him. Who is this guy, Jim? Tell me his name. You promised you would turn this over to law enforcement.”
Harris responded. “Mike, I don’t have any evidence now to give to law enforcement. Everything was on those computers. I understand that they were smashed to pieces. I have nothing else. If I say anything now, I have nothing to back it up with. Besides, I don’t know if the gunman was the same guy. I can’t identify him.”
“Jim, you have to let me help you here. Just tell me what you think and let me tell the FBI. All they need is the key to this puzzle and they can unlock it. You hold the key, Jim, but I can’t help you if you won’t let me know what that key is.”
Harris just shook his head and closed his eyes. Judge Fisher couldn’t understand his attitude, but he took that as a sign that the conversation was over. He quietly left the hospital room, wondering what it was that kept Harris from telling him what he knew. But the chaos that had descended upon his county was bigger than Harris or his friendship with him. He decided to tell Sheriff Haley everything that he knew.
Jack Haley was eager to hear what Judge Fisher had to tell him. He was as anxious as anyone else to find out what the truth was, and his office had been embarrassed by its seeming incompetence at finding a killer who left crucified victims on the courthouse square in the middle of the night. And now, a vicious murder had occurred in an attorney’s office right across the street from that some courthouse. Law enforcement in Falls County was starting to sound like a joke. The shooter in Harris’ office had succeeded in getting away without a trace, and Harris’ own inability to give any evidence about what happened was frustrating for everyone. Judge Fisher decided that something had to be done, and Sheriff Haley was happy to hear what he had to say.
“Jack, I’ve just been at the hospital visiting Jim Harris. He thinks he knows who the serial killer is, and I think it’s probably the same person who killed his legal assistant and almost killed him. That’s why his computers were destroyed – the killer knew Harris was on to him, and he figured that any evidence he had was stored there. Harris is damned fortunate that he didn’t get killed, as well, although right now he may be wishing he was dead, given all the pain he’s caused by playing like he was some kind of a super-cop.”
“I’ve got to know everything he knows. This is getting serious. I going up to Waco right now and I’m going to take a Texas Ranger and an FBI agent with me if that’s what it takes to get Harris to spill his guts. I’m sorry about how he feels, but we’ve got to put an end to this now.”
“I couldn’t agree more. He’s my friend, but he has to put it all on the table now.”
Haley arrived at the hospital with a full entourage of law enforcement, including DPS and FBI personnel. They didn’t waste any time once they were shown to Harris’ room.
“Jim, you need to tell us everything you know, and right now. If I think you are holding back anything, I will not hesitate to arrest you for obstruction of justice and anything else I can think of. You know something that we need to know. Tell us now, right now.”
Harris could see that his fantasy had come crashing to the ground, so he started telling Haley and friends the whole truth. “The killer is Joseph Marek. He lives outside of Rosebud and has a woodworking shop there called The Carpenter’s Son. He built the crosses, and I’m assuming that he hung the dead people on them. I don’t know exactly what he was doing it for, but I think it has to do with a biblical story about sacrificing people to avert the wrath of God. I found out about him when I happened to see a cross that he made that was in a little church in Nicaragua. The cross is pretty much identical to the ones that were used in the killings. I had photographs and other information about it stored on my computer, but that’s all gone now. I don’t think I saved the data remotely once I put it on the computer. Anyway, I met him once, and he knows that I know. I couldn’t identify the man who killed Jenny and shot me, but I’d bet everything that I have that it was him. He was a sniper in Viet Nam, and knows how to use a weapon.”
An FBI agent then spoke. “We are going to leave someone here to get all the details that you know. We are going to get Marek. Tell us where you think he is.”
Harris gave them the address for Marek’s home and business. But they wouldn’t find Marek there. He was busy making preparations for Armageddon.
Joseph Marek knew that his time had come. He was aware that there would be a backlash against his sacrifices from Babylon the Great, the evil system that reigned over the world. This much he knew from scripture. He also knew that those who opposed the wickedness in this age would suffer persecution for it. He was prepared for this, and was ready to fight the good fight until the very end. It would be fought on his terms, and at the place of his choosing. He chose to make his last stand on holy ground – at his church, the Brazos Valley Independent Baptist Church.
The church building was not exactly the best place to defend against a consolidated law enforcement operation. It was a 40 year-old wood frame building, hardly capable of withstanding the firepower of the FBI and the DPS, and whatever other agencies might be involved. They could essentially mow the place down in 60 seconds. But Marek was not planning on actually winning this battle in the here and now. He knew that he would die, but he would die a martyr. Perhaps no one else would understand this – or at least they would not admit that they understood this – but Marek intended for his death to be a statement, the testimony of a devout believer. In his mind, his actions in Falls County would reverberate throughout the nation and world, and inspire other likeminded believers to radical action against the ungodliness that pervaded society.
The church was empty when Marek drove up to it in his van. Pastor Rick was away at a conference, and the church secretary was taking the week off. They were the only people who would normally have been there. Marek’s plan was to occupy the church, and if anyone friendly happened to come by he would simply send them away. They would then tell law enforcement where he was, and that would bring the matter to a head. He had learned from the news that Harris had survived, and he assumed that eventually he would inform officials what he knew. He had intended to kill Harris, but since that didn’t happen, he took it as a sign from God that it was time to precipitate a crisis. This is how God apparently wanted to glorify himself, and Marek was a willing worshiper.
Marek had decided to go down in a conflagration, like other martyrs before him. David Koresh was an inspiration for him, but unlike Koresh he would not take innocent children to the grave with him. The only ones to die besides him would be the minions of the Anti-Christ, the evil defenders of the corrupt system that denied God and empowered the immoral to thumb their noses at divine law. Their blood would add to the sacrifices he had already made, and further ensure that Falls County would be cleansed of wickedness and protected from judgment. Without the shedding of blood, there is no atonement for sin.
Marek had enough food and water to last for a week, although he didn’t think it would take that long. He had night-vision scopes and goggles, a 50-millimeter Barrett M82 rifle, an AK-47, a couple of pistols, and enough ammunition to kill 2000 people. He barricaded himself behind sand bags and steel plates in the sanctuary. His plan was to start shooting as soon as he saw the first peace officer. He cut a circle out of two stained-glass panes on the side of the sanctuary that faced the road, and secured the two doors that lead into the building. He knew he could not stop an all-out assault by ground troops or the use of any type of artillery, but he could hallow the ground with enough death to give his name a place of glory among the heroes of anti-government resistance. To further ensure that this place would be considered consecrated territory, in the middle of the sanctuary he placed his last work of art – another cross, just like the ones used in the sacrifices.
His testament had been left at his home a short distance away. The full account of what he had done and why he had done it was waiting there for discovery. He knew it would be published in detail and distributed world-wide. If you want your message to get out, kill a bunch of people in a dramatic manner. That will ensure sufficient coverage, and even if people recoil at the brutality of your actions, they will remember what you said.
FBI and DPS agents had already visited Marek’s home and business, and had found Marek’s diary. They had learned from Olga Schroeder that Marek belonged to Brazos Valley Independent Baptist Church, and that nobody was there during the week. Given previous experience with the Branch Davidians in Waco, it did not take long for them to suspect that he might be found there. There was nothing in Marek’s diary about the church or about his final intentions, but the full explanation of what he had done with the crosses was there for all to see. It was clear to law enforcement that this was not going to end well. With caution, they proceeded to the church. There were four FBI agents, 10 members of the DPS, including a Texas Ranger, Jack Haley and several of his deputies from the Sheriff’s Department, and three Rosebud police officers. They were hopeful that this show of force would convince Marek to surrender peacefully. This was not to be.
As they entered the gate to the church property, they noticed Marek’s van parked in front of the church, blocking their sight of the main entrance. They did not know it was Marek’s van, but they assumed that it was. At least they knew someone was there. They arrayed their vehicles in such a way as to provide them some defense, and then one of the FBI agents announced their presence with a megaphone, telling Marek to come out. They were about 200 yards away from the church.
Mareks’ first shot hit Jack Haley in the forehead and took off the top half of his head. Blood, brains and bone sprayed everyone nearby and brought everyone to the ground. Marek began to pepper the vehicles with fire from his 50 mm., and the agents and officers returned fire as they were able. Marek’s bullets were going all the way through the vehicles, making it almost impossible for anyone to take cover. Marek was firing one round after another, shattering windows and disabling two vehicles with hits on their engines. One of the vehicles erupted in flames when its fuel tank was penetrated. They clearly had not expected this type of firepower, and they retreated to the bar ditch by the entrance to the property. As they ran, a second officer was hit in the back and killed instantly. The scene was one of total chaos. Marek turned his wrath on the vehicles, and by the time he stopped firing, three of them were in flames and the others all had their tires blown out. Round one clearly went to him.
There was no discussion of a multi-week standoff here. This was war, and it appeared that there was only one person in the church. A few calls in to the appropriate people, and within minutes two AH-64 Apache attack helicopters from the Texas National Guard were in route to the scene from the nearest armory in Gatesville, Texas. In less than one hour the sound of 30mm gunfire raining down on the tiny church was heard for miles around. The shells penetrated the wood frame building, shattering the stained glass windows and cutting the supporting studs in pieces. After 10 minutes of continuous fire the building collapsed and started to burn. Firemen from Rosebud quickly put out the flames and began searching the wreckage. Joseph Marek’s body, or what was left of it, was found in the debris. His dream of dying in a conflagration had come to pass. Now his name would live forever – in infamy or admiration, depending upon the person reflecting upon it.
Because the entire event took place so quickly, there was no media coverage. All that was left was the smoldering ruins of the little church building. Marek’s body was in several pieces, each of which was burned beyond recognition. He had been shredded by gunfire before being burned by the fire started from damaged electrical wires. Some would later question whether this amounted to overkill, but with two law enforcement officers killed without provocation, nobody in Falls County was mourning Marek’s death. A few months later, the state of Texas offered to give funds to rebuild the church that had been leveled, so the congregation actually profited from the destruction. None of Marek’s crosses would grace the new sanctuary, however, and the state specifically required in its offer that there would be no memorial to Marek on the church property. In that sense, there would be a separation of church and state. The congregation agreed to this stipulation. They wanted to forget about the entire incident as soon as possible and get back to normal. Soon Joseph Marek would fade from their collective memory.
For a few weeks the incident commanded the attention of the world. Every possible opinion from either extreme was given about religion, politics, law enforcement, the Constitution, civil rights, the economy and global warming. But eventually, other shocking events in other parts of the country and world took place, and everyone forgot about Falls County, Texas and its crosses on the road. It settled back down to the place it was by nature – a quiet, rural county where people farmed and raised livestock, and went about their daily lives as best they could. Its Armageddon was very brief, and did not signal the end.
Jim Harris eventually recovered from his wounds and came home to Marlin. He had decided to retire from the practice of law and move away from central Texas. He could not bear to go back to his law office where Jenny had been brutally murdered, and the thought of hiring someone else to take her place was inconceivable to him. There was no fire left in him. He had no desire to represent people in their silly and inconsequential disputes, and he certainly did not want to go back to preaching. His own actions in the Marek affair had disgusted him and had removed any last bits of self-respect that he had. James Allen Harris was not a qualified minister of the Gospel any longer – let there be no doubt. His selfishness and self-centeredness over the past few months was, to him, unforgiveable. He could never forget the devastation that he had helped cause by trying to make himself the hero of the book.
He had spent a couple of weeks in the hospital as a result of the shooting, and that gave him plenty of time to reflect. He had enough money to retire, so he decided to sell his home and his law office, and travel a little. No more meddling in things that were none of his business. No more striving to try to be the man of the hour. From this point forward, he would lead a simple life and stay below the radar. He did not have what it took to be a man of gravitas, of import. He didn’t need to be in the limelight.
Joseph Marek’s diary had been analyzed and published in detail. It did confirm that Harris was right about Marek’s motivation for killing the crucified victims (or at least six of them). Marek specifically mentioned the sacrifices of the kinsmen of King Saul, and revealed that his purpose in placing his victims where he was to surround the county with protection from God’s wrath. The last victim was placed in the center of the county seat to symbolize that Falls’ County’s heart had been covered with the blood of atonement. In Marek’s crazed mind, he was doing God’s will by saving the county from certain destruction.
Marek revealed that he had chosen his victims from among the homeless in Austin after giving them a ride in his van. He never indicated that he had not been responsible for Daniel Bingham’s death. Harris suspected that he chose to allow whoever did that to claim responsibility for himself. Harris knew that Chris Bingham would never do that, and wondered how Marek would have felt if he knew that his “work for the Lord” was used by a greedy man as a cover for murdering his own brother.
The method of killing the victims was gruesome. He had designed and built a device that he attached to the back of the passenger seat in his van. When activated by Marek from the driver’s seat, the device would pneumatically power three knife blades through openings in the seat with sufficient force to penetrate several inches into the back of anyone sitting there. The result would be almost instant death for the victim. Marek would then take the victims back to his farm and either mount them on preconstructed crosses or store them in his freezer for future display. He would then clean the blood out of the van and reset the stabbing device for its next use. The back of the van was large enough to hold a cross with a human mounted on it, so all Marek had to do was drive to his selected location, back the van up, unload the cross and tilt it to the upright position, and then drive off. He was physically strong enough to do this on his own, so no other person was necessary for the operation. The details that were contained in his diary on this point were confirmed by the FBI’s inspection of his van, which had been parked at the church and had escaped the destruction wreaked by the Apache helicopters.
Marek’s purpose in the variously placed stab wounds on the victims was intriguing. Each of the victims represented a particular type of perversion, in Marek’s world view. The first victim was stabbed in the chest, similar to Jesus’s spear wound, thus indicating that this was a sacrificial death along biblical lines. The second victim’s wound was in the genital area, signifying sexual impurity, while the third was in the calf, which for Marek meant “walking” in the wrong path of life. Marek actually interpreted Daniel Bingham’s wound, even though he wasn’t responsible for it. He said that the wound to the right hand, which Marek said meant punishment for “idle hands,” or a worthless life. The wound to victim 5’s eye related to looking at the temptations of the world. The next victim’s stomach wound focused on insatiable appetites, and the wound in the last sacrifice focused on society’s evil heart. While Marek’s mind was obviously sick, his actions did follow a certain twisted logic, given the context of his philosophy and religious background.
Harris soaked in all of the details that he learned about in the news. While he was no fundamentalist, he realized that this man came out of the same general world that he himself was raised in. In that world, the Bible was the Word of God, inspired, infallible and inerrant. It was to be taken seriously and applied to one’s life. Harris realized that Marek had done exactly that. He had taken a literal biblical story and had literally applied it to his life, followed its example almost to a T. Certainly, it could be argued that he misinterpreted the scripture, that he missed the “spirit” of the passage. But, in fact, he had followed the Bible’s example. He had killed to avert the wrath of God. How was what he did different than what David did, than what Abraham almost did, than what God Himself actually did do with Jesus? The Bible, especially the Old Testament, was full of stories of people killing people at the command of God, or of God killing them Himself. The same Bible that is preached from thousands of pulpits every Sunday all across America. The same Bible that was used by the Southern Baptists of the mid-1800’s to justify enslaving blacks. The same Bible that is quoted by the Westboro Baptist Church when they proclaim that “God hates America” and “God loves dead soldiers.” At some point, does Christianity have to take responsibility for what is done in the name of and at the direction of its own scriptures?
Jim Harris was tired, exhausted, defeated. He had nothing else to say to anyone, no advice to give, no counsel to share. He was utterly disgusted with himself. And to add to all his internal turmoil, he had to live with the fact that he knew that one of the murders was not done by Joseph Marek. Nobody else had any reason to believe that another person was responsible. Marek had taken credit for that murder himself, perhaps because of his own arrogance, perhaps out of some sense of loyalty to the unknown person who was partnering with him in performing God’s will. Whatever the reason, nobody was on the scent of Chris Bingham. He apparently had gotten away with the perfect murder. And he had forced this knowledge on Harris by deceiving him. Why had he done that? Perhaps he wanted someone to know how clever he had been, so he picked a person who couldn’t tell anyone on two professional levels – legal and ministerial. Harris hated Bingham, but knew what his ethical responsibilities were. Harris was not really feeling too ethical now, however.
Over the next few months Harris began to close down his law practice. He put his building up for sale, along with his home. He started referring as many of his cases out to other attorneys as he could, and finished up any work on the remaining files. By the end of the year he had completed the process. His building sold for over $200,000.00 and his home for $350,000.00. He owed nothing on either of them, so added to the money that he already had invested, he was doing OK. He could live simply but comfortably on the road for the rest of his life, or at least as long as his health held up. He purchased a small trailer he could hitch to the back of his pickup, and readied himself for his departure from Falls County, Texas. He turned in his law license to the State Bar of Texas, having made the irrevocable decision to never step foot in a courtroom again.
Before leaving town, Harris made one last lunch date with Judge Michael Fisher at Adele’s. Fisher was his best friend, and even though he forced Harris’ hand in revealing what he knew about Marek, Harris knew that Fisher had his best interests at heart. He had done the right thing. Not only that, but he had used all his influence to convince the powers that be not to go after Harris for obstruction of justice. He reasoned with them that Harris could not have come to them any sooner because he wanted to make sure that he was right before turning Marek in. That, coupled with the facts that law enforcement considered that Harris had suffered enough and that they had killed Marek, was enough to persuade them not to pursue the unfortunate attorney. This case was closed, and no one really wanted to have anything more to do with Falls County. Harris would soon be forgotten.
At Adele’s Harris ordered one last chicken fried steak, while Judge Fisher decided on a chef’s salad with blue cheese dressing. After revealing all his future plans to his friend, Harris changed the subject. “You know, Mike, I was never really sure about Daniel Bingham’s murder.”
“Why not?” responded Fisher.
“Well, he was the only local boy among the victims. All the others were homeless people from Austin. And Daniel Bingham was actually found fairly near his family’s farm. Don’t you think that’s sort of strange? What are the odds that Marek picked up a guy in Austin, and happened to plant him in his own county, near his own home?”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Oh, nothing. I’m no longer a lawyer or a minister, and after today, I won’t even be a resident of this county anymore. I’m not inclined to delve into the matter.”
“So, do you think someone else was responsible for that one?”
“I’m not saying that. But just for fun, if someone else was responsible, what would you look for?”
“I suppose I’d want to know who had a motive, who would profit from his death.”
“Yeah, and I suppose that’s where it would all fall apart. After all, who would profit from the death of a worthless drunk like Daniel Bingham. Just forget I ever said anything.” Harris took a drink of iced tea, and cast a glance at Fisher over the rim of his glass. Fisher looked him intently, not saying anything. Harris lowered his glass, smiled slightly, and savored the moment. “Well, I’ve enjoyed the final get-together. Hope you guys clean up this county and keep it safe for folks. You’ve got a tough job.”
“I’ll miss you, Jim. I wish you well in your travels. If you’re ever back this way, stop by. We’ll see what we can do to keep this place safe.”
Harris and Fisher shook hands and went their separate ways. Harris’ pickup and trailer were parked in the parking lot, ready to hit the road. He had no specific plans except that he intended to start traveling west. A few weeks in the Trans-Pecos would probably give him the time he needed to plot his course. Maybe the white Pacific sands at Lola’s lay in his near future. Life could be much worse. But for now, he would just wander aimlessly for awhile. Somewhere in Terlingua a bar was waiting for him, and the mountainous deserts of the Big Bend seemed to call him.
He felt fairly certain that Fisher had understood the clues he dropped about Daniel Bingham’s death. It wouldn’t surprise him if he read in the news in the next month or so that an investigation of Chris Bingham had begun. Of course, he wouldn’t say anything outright. But he would shed no tears or lose any sleep if his former client ended up being prosecuted for his brother’s death.
On the way out of Marlin he stopped briefly at the cemetery to pay his respects to Jenny. The dirt on her grave was still heaped high. He had not been able to attend her funeral because he had been in the hospital recovering from his own wounds, but not a day had gone by without her cheerful face haunting him. He doubted that he would ever recover from the realization that he had effectively cost Jenny her life, not to mention the loss that her family had to endure. Her memorial stone was simple – “Jenny Starnes, February 19, 1980 – June 4, 2012: A cherished daughter, faithful wife, loving mother, eternal friend.” Harris couldn’t keep the water from his eyes. He hadn’t just wrecked her life, he had brought misery into the lives of untold numbers of people. Maybe even the deaths at the church could have been avoided if he had acted quicker. But his ego drove him to the wrong decision, a decision that impacted the lives of others permanently. Marlin was probably as glad to see him leave as he was to go. It would take a long time to bury this nightmare.
Harris drove slowly out of the cemetery, heading west on Highway 7. He would turn south on Interstate 35, then go west again at Highway 29 at Georgetown. From there he would pick his way to the Big Bend country, and try to forget the misery of the past few months in the cold, starry skies of the Chihuahuan desert. He would be facing this heartache alone, but he did not dare bring anyone else into his private hell. Perhaps he would be able to feel the presence of God once again in the wilderness, like John the Baptist. But he did not believe that he could ever again open the pages of the Old Testament, not after knowing what it caused John Marek to do. He would never again preach, fearing what his words may inspire someone to conceive. He would never again practice law, avoiding the possibility that he would be ever again be involved in something as sordid as the Chris Bingham matter, or make money off of anyone else’s sorrow. From now on his clients would be bartenders, and his congregation fellow drunks. He would dispense his wisdom at various oases all over the country, even the world. He would do little harm in his anonymity. The world didn’t need him anymore.
It was Monday, December 10, 2012. It felt good to be on the road. The weather was clear and crisp, and no wind was blowing. A deer ran across the highway in front of him and lept with easy grace over a barbed wire fence. As Harris drove past the Falls County line on his way to his new life, his eyes were attracted by a patch of color on the right side of the road. As he drew near, he realized that the color came from artificial flowers that had been placed at the site of someone’s death in an automobile accident, and underneath it all, supporting the floral arrangement, was a small, white cross.