Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Peggy Railey's 25-Year-Long Death

Peggy Railey has died.

Twenty-five years ago next April, Peggy was attacked in the garage of her comfortable Dallas home, and strangled so severely that she remained in a vegetative state until her death.*

Twenty.  Five.  Years ago.

During that time, naturally, many of us Texans let the memory of Peggy's horrific ordeal slip from our consciousness.  But as news began to surface yesterday about her final passing, it's been hard to avoid the waves of disbelief, disgust, and anger that revisit our minds upon hearing that last name.

That name she shared with the man we all think tried to kill her:  her husband, the Reverend Doctor Walker Railey.

Railey.  Railey.  Railey!  What images of evil that name can still conjure.

Twenty-five years ago, Walker Railey was the young, ambitious senior pastor at Dallas' historic First United Methodist Church downtown.  With thousands of members, a venerable building, and a prestigious reputation, First Methodist downtown was a plum pastoral assignment within Methodism.  Would somebody sophisticated enough to command its pulpit be stupid enough to try and kill their spouse?

As the city and church quickly became embroiled in the details of Peggy's attack, suspicion began answering that question, trumping disbelief that Walker would give up so much just so he could keep his secret girlfriend.

After all, that was the motive, right?

Walker, Texas Faker?

He must not have anticipated the incongruity the public would sense in his plan.  To us, it just didn't add up.  If it wasn't Walker, how else could a demure North Dallas mom, an organist, and the wife of a respected pastor in a liberal denomination, be almost killed?  Yes, Dallas has its violent streets, but murder in this fashionable neighborhood was extremely rare.  How could Peggy possibly have such ruthless enemies?

Banking on festering scars from Dallas' sordid abuses of civil rights, Walker clumsily floated the idea that he and his family were a target of skinheads unhappy with his advocacy of racial unity.  He left an unconvincing trail of phone messages to his wife in which he tutored her on personal safety.  Anonymous notes with mysterious threats appeared, and he had his church pay for a mobile phone to be installed in his car - a novel amenity at the time - ostensibly for security reasons.  But no angry skinheads ever surfaced, and police eventually deduced that the "security" messages from his car phone were all hoaxes.

Several years later, after still more allegations piled up against him, Walker took the Fifth Amendment 43 times in front of a grand jury convened to indict him.

Forty.  Three.  Times! 

Basically, Walker refused to say anything officially about the attack on his wife.  And the only reason we know he was having an affair with Lucy Papillon, the twice-divorced psychologist daughter of a former Methodist bishop, is because she admitted it without batting a false eyelash.

The two of them moved to California, where it's believed they still live today, albeit not together.  The Railey's two children grew up with their protective guardians in an undisclosed place outside of Texas, and have not been heard from in years.

Peggy's parents, who had retired from Wisconsin and moved to east Texas before she was attacked, arranged for her care at a nursing home near Tyler.  They visited her every day until they succumbed themselves to Alzheimer's and diabetes.  Peggy's brother quit his job, sold his house, and moved to Tyler to help care for all three of them.  He's the one making the private arrangements for her funeral, 25 years after everything but her breath was stolen from her.

Indeed, this story is as breath-taking as it is morose.  A beloved pastor's wife from a high-profile church and her husband with the free-spirited mistress.  Throw in a bizarre suicide attempt by the husband, a botched prosecution of his case which let him go free, and nary a visit by him to his vegetative wife's bedside in 25 years.  Not that she was still his wife - he divorced her before too long, and got out of having to pay any alimony by declaring personal bankruptcy.  Even their own kids thought their father had done it, and would practically freak out on the rare occasions he tried to visit them in their new home.

Then to cap off this miserable tale, Peggy dies on the day after Christmas,* 2011.  Alone, except for her brother, after being a prisoner of her own incapacitated body for a quarter of a century.  Being in a vegetative state, but not comatose, leaves open the possibility that for the past 25 years, Peggy could cognitively interpret what was going on around her, yet she physically could not respond to any of it.  How utterly horrible a scenario.

Reporters from the Dallas media have identified Walker as being on FaceBook, currently with 265 friends.  Nobody seems to know where he's working, although it's been said that he served on staff for a while at a Nazarene church in Pasadena.  Papillon apparently practices some combination of psychology and spirituality out of an office on Beverly Hills' posh Wilshire Boulevard, and has her own website.

Is it mean-spirited of me to not be glad they've been able to move on with their lives?

Are Methodists Like Birds of a Feather?

A former co-worker of mine, back in college when I sold mens' clothing at Jas. K. Wilson, had been hired by Walker at First Methodist Dallas shortly before Peggy's attack.  G.W. was a good ol' boy's good ol' boy, a bow-legged giant of a man who smoked a pipe on our store's selling floor and had been, years before, senior pastor of a large Methodist church in suburban Dallas.  That is, until his wife caught him having an affair with his church secretary.

But G.W. wasn't like Walker - he didn't try to hide much.  G.W. divorced his wife to marry the younger secretary, and left the ministry to work in retail.  At least, until Walker, who I presume was an acquaintance from Southern Methodist University, their mutual alma-mater, invited G.W. to serve as First Methodist Dallas' pastor to senior adults.

I can't remember why, but one morning in the early days of the Railey travesty, before Walker left Texas, and years before his criminal trial, I found myself driving past First Methodist's imposing edifice on Ross Avenue.  And I recalled that G.W. had extended to me an open invitation to stop by and visit him anytime.  I'd never been close to G.W., but now having him be a connection with the sinister goings-on ripping First Methodist apart, I figured now was as good a time as any to exercise his invite.  I found a place to park and ambled inside.

Somewhat to my amazement, G.W. was pleased to see me and wasted no time in giving me a tour of the church's grand, horseshoe-shaped sanctuary.  I'm sure he knew why I was there, and it wasn't long before we were talking about the Raileys.  G.W. insisted that he believed in Walker and his innocence, not only because Railey had generously offered him a relatively prestigious job despite his personal history as a pastor, but because only a fool would try using murder to cover up something as, well... relatively benign as an affair.

And I figured G.W. had enough expertise in that last subject to know what he was talking about.  At the time, since Railey had yet to practically trumpet his guilt by pleading the Fifth 43 times, and he'd yet to divorce his wife, or run off to California with a bleached blonde, I suppose I was willing enough to give Railey the benefit of the doubt.

After all, G.W. got caught cheating on his wife, and the Methodists didn't hold it against him forever.

Today, though, looking back through a jaded lens of memory, in which overwhelming circumstantial evidence usually proves to be terribly accurate, I think good ol' G.W. was snookered by Railey.

Just as Texas' legal system was. Although Peggy's family won a civil lawsuit against him, inexplicably, at Walker's criminal trial, the prosecutors from Dallas County never bothered introducing the bit about the Railey's son telling cops he saw his dad strangling his mom in their kitchen.  The poor kid was only five at the time.  Do 5-year-olds make up that kind of stuff?

At least for the sake of Peggy, who met her Maker on December 26,* Walker will one day meet his, too.  According to Hebrews 9:27, "it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment." 

I'm thinking Walker's repentance now, before he gets there, could make a big difference in how that celestial meeting will go.

*Note:  This essay was written with information gleaned from multiple news sources stating Mrs. Railey died on Sunday, December 25.  It has since been reported that her actual date of death was December 26, 2011.

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