Friday, October 12, 2018

Murder Plot Foiled at VBS

I found this photograph last night while rummaging through other memories in search of a particular shot. It flooded my mind with stories associated with it. At least a thousand words.

It was taken at the First Baptist Church in Forrest City, Arkansas in February (Valentine's Day) of 1984. Back then Terri and I were often invited to banquets, Christian Social Parties, and Events for Teenagers. This was taken at a Valentine's Day Banquet for Teens. The Church had a huge Youth Department, so the banquet was well-attended. The Church Fellowship Hall was full and all of the rooms adjacent to the Hall were also crowded. The connecting hallways were filled with elbow to elbow traffic. Young people and many adult chaperones.

Pre-meal finger-foods were available. Sodas of every kind, and everyone was waiting their turn to stand in front of the Photographer to get a snap to memorialize the event.

Everyone was talking, some shouting, a loud buzz of happy mayhem that was intended to ramp up until we all sat at our places for the meal -- and then my presentation.

Sometimes Terri and I sang popular Christian songs (but not on that night), I would tell jokes, perform some sleight of hand or other magic tricks, and deliver a brief message that was prepared for the group at hand.

In the photo we both look healthy and happy (and young!), and we were -- for the most part. We had just had a terrible scare -- Terri was expecting our first child (Charise) and she had been so sick from morning nausea that she had become dangerously dehydrated and was admitted by her doctor into the hospital. She had only stayed a few days -- long enough to get her body fluids back up to normal and get her back on her feet and out of the bathroom.

We had been married for 8 years without being able to begin our family, and had only learned a little over a month before this banquet that our daughter was on the way!

Terri was so sick, and we were so afraid for her and the baby.

But as you can see (and as you might know), by Valentine's Day she was out of the hospital and feeling much better. And I had dragged her out into the public eye! But, I think that we both were happy to be there and were intent on having a good time. It was to be an interesting and eventful evening.

We had arrived a little early for the foray, but it was already pretty much the way I have already described. Add loud music to the laughter and hum of voices and you can kinda get the idea of the atmosphere.

We were dodging our way through the main hallway, looking for the Church Youth Leader and/or the Pastor. We were acquainted with both -- I had recently led in a weekend Youth Revival in the church and we had become friends with the leaders and many of the kids. We were talking with folks as we plowed our way through the throng (none of them knew that Terri had been sick and we would only announce at the banquet that we were going to be parents.

Bits and pieces of conversation as we moved slowly up the hall. During our progress we got separated, and I looked back to see if she was still behind me and that we were both still heading in the same direction.

We were about 20 feet apart, with 15 or 20 people in front of, behind, and between us. I could see her and noticed that she was in what appeared to be an intense conversation with a young woman.

The woman was a little younger than us, dressed appropriately for the banquet, 80's big hair and makeup. She was standing face-to-face (literally) with Terri, holding her by each shoulder. Terri's eyes were wide, her mouth was open but silent -- and her skin was as pale as her outfit.

I stood, watching from a distance and waiting. The kids flowed around me on the left and right. I didn't feel that I was needed in the conversation, but I also felt the need to wait and be near.

After a moment or two of apparent tension and serious conversation, they hugged each other, wiped tears and parted. Terri began working her way to me, still pale, and shaking a little.

"What was that about?" I asked with a smile.

"Don't you know who that was?"

"She looks familiar, but I can't place her. I don't think I've seen her here at First before."

She pressed close to me in the crowded hallway and said, "That was _____________!"

I turned white myself.

I looked back to where the meeting had taken place, then scanned the crowd for the woman. I didn't see her anywhere.

"Are you sure? That's impossible!"

"Yes! You don't think I'm sure?"

"What's she doing HERE? She's supposed to be in PRISON, not a a Youth Banquet!! Did she escape or something? Should we call the Police?"

"No," Terri said with her hand on my arm. "I think everything's Okay. Everything is alright. It's good. I'll tell you about it later."

I looked into her face -- the color was returning -- she was calm and at ease -- so, I followed her lead and we restarted our journey down the hall, to have our picture taken, and continue with the festivities of the night.


In June of the previous year our little Church launched its annual week-long Summer Vacation Bible School. Terri and I had moved to the little Arkansas Church about three and a half years earlier and were happy to be among people who loved us and always tried to make us feel at home. This was important because neither of us had ever been this far away from our Moms and Dads, our whole family.

Arkansas was like traveling to a different planet for us. Our new friends and family seemed just like Alabamians and they would with us -- and us with them through some of the most formative and important times of our early lives and ministry.

This year was our third VBS together as pastoral family and people -- and we discovered that our little church had as great a passion for the school and all of its possibilities as we. Lots of kids, tons of fun, and lasting impressions on little hearts and minds.

Terri and I had always loved children. Terri kept kids as a babysitter when she was a teen. I began doing magic tricks and teaching the Bible through children's Sunday School and "Lamb Service" from my own teen years. Terri's little cousins, Brett and Susie, thoroughly convinced us that little girls were lots of fun and neat to have around -- so we had a good beginning -- early training -- good practice.

When we arrived at Vanndale in 1980 every young woman in the church started having babies. Sometimes I would glance over from the pulpit into the choir to my left and see five or six expectant women. At first I was afraid that Terri might catch what they all had -- but in the long run we became concerned that she might not. I began insisting that she sit in the middle of all of them and drink after them at the water fountain.

We had a Church full of little children! And when we had Vacation Bible School all of the other kids who lived nearby were present, too.

We were so enthusiastic about having as many children in the school as we could -- that we actually had no age limit -- at the bottom, or the top.  No one was too young -- and no one was too old!

This turned out to be a tactical mistake -- and a great learning experience.

You see, everyone doesn't have pure motives when dealing with little ones. And there are some people out there who think that a church activity every morning from 9 to Noon is a great way to get rid of their annoying brats with free childcare for a while!

From this particular experience (which I will explain) we learned that you can focus better if you limit your school to just the first through sixth grades in public school.  We still have a nursery and a pre-school departments -- but we don't advertise them or work to populate them. We have leaders, and volunteers and teachers for those age children particularly for the children of our other workers in the school. We try to never turn a child away . . . but we learned that there are safety and security issues that even outweigh our spiritual mandate. You'll soon see what I mean.

About midway through our 1984 VBS and the mayhem was going swell . . . a young woman that no one in our church knew showed up with twin little boys. Cute little fellas -- about a year old.

Their mother looked like she was just a kid herself. She looked frazzled and bedraggled.

I met her as she was getting her boys out of her car in parking lot. I helped with one of the boys and grabbed the diaper bag for her.

I saw a stranger who probably needed to be in Church, someone who needed some good Christian friends, and probably needed the Lord. I was happy to see them. The boys -- nor their mother, looked happy at all.

Wherever we have served Terri has always offered herself as a worker, or if needed, the leader of our Church Children's Departments. She is gifted with working with the kids and also with their parents. She is such a blessing and I've never known anyone who was better suited for this work. In this capacity (and in many others) she is the best addition to my pastoral ministry that I could wish, or pray for.

So, I took this young lady and her children to the nursery to introduce her to our VBS Nursery Director.

I had a million VBS pastor things to do, so I made introductions, passed off the kids, the mom and the bag and disappeared into my other duties.

I learn later that after I excused myself -- the mother of the two boys introduced her sons to Terri, showed her the contents of the diaper bag and explained about the milk bottles that were prepared. One of the babies, she said, was sick and the doctor had given her some medicine to put in the formula for him. This bottle is for this baby -- and this bottle is for this one.  Terri made notes and made sure that she had her instructions down clearly.

Here is another lesson -- and Terri later set down several new rules from this experience. Never administer medicine that you know nothing about to children that you do not know, from adults that you just met. There are lots of rules that come out of that statement.

We were young, not entirely inexperienced, but there was a great deal that we had never seen or heard before. Our enthusiasm and good intentions were not enough. If not for Terri's good sense and listening to the prompting of the Lord -- this event could have ended tragically.

Everyone left the VBS joint worship service, went to their classes, and the building quieted down and the commotion settled.

After less than an hour one of Terri's helpers in the nursery came to get me and asked me to come and see something.

When I arrived at the nursery she met me at the door and had a very concerned look on her face.

She had a baby bottle in her hand.

As soon as I walked into the nursery she approached me and removed the nipple-top from the plastic nursing bottle that she held in her hand. She handed the open bottle (apparently filled with milk or baby formula) to me and said, "Smell this."

I took the bottle, looked it it, and at her -- then gingerly held the mouth of the open bottle up to my nose and took a whiff.

I removed the bottle violently from my face after only a slight smell.

"What IS that? Is it spoiled?" I carefully moved the bottle back within smelling range to get a less surprised sample.

"That is NOT spoiled milk -- or bad formula!" Terri declared with certainty.

I still held the bottle in my hand. I looked at my wife and also at our friend who always helped in the nursery. Her face was stern, too. She said that she thought she knew what it smelled like. She told me.

I took another guarded sniff.

I looked at the contents of the bottle through the open top and through the clear plastic sides of the container. Some viscous liquid was swirling around inside what may have been milk or formula -- and I knew after our friends suggestion that it did smell very much like cleaning fluid. Ammonia.

Now I know enough chemistry to realize that there are a number of naturally occurring states of ammonia. Ammonia gas can be created naturally when different organic elements spoil or break down.

But this was not what I smelled. This was raw, household cleaning strength, commercial level liquid.


"How many bottles are there?" I asked.

"Just these two. The other one is fine."

I saw that the bottles were labeled with masking tape. The boys names were written on the bottle intended for them.

"So, the mother was very clear that a particular boy was to get this special bottle?"

"Yes," Terri said, and she indicated one of the boys who was sitting up in a nearby baby bed. She called him by the name that the mother had given.

I looked at the boy -- and then at his brother. Two cute boys. Both apparently clean and undamaged. But the little guy for whom the bad bottle was intended clearly looked pale and his eyes were not clear. He obviously did not feel well. His brother looked perfectly fine and happy.

"They began to get a little fussy after their Mom dropped them off," Terri explained. "She said that the bottles were fresh and that the boys had not had any breakfast before leaving the house. She went though the whole thing about which one should get which bottle and then left."

"We both took a baby and started to feed them to see if it would settle them down and maybe they would just go to sleep. I took _________," she said, indicating the sickly child.

"His brother took the bottle fine and began to get sleepy," _________ wouldn't take his bottle and became even more agitated the more I tried.  I placed him in the crib, took the top off the bottle to check to see if the formula was bad. That is what I smelled."

I put the lid back on the bottle and stood thinking for a minute.

"I'm going to run this up to Brad and let him take a look at it." I said. Brad lived in our Church neighborhood and he was the local Pharmacist in Wynne, our county-seat town.

I did that immediately. The little boy had not actually taken any of the awful drink and he did not seem to be in any immediate danger. I knew that he didn't feel well but he was not deathly ill and I wanted to get to the bottom of this without jumping to any wrong conclusions without another opinion.  I left both of the boys in Terri's care while I headed to town.

Brad, of course, did not have any advanced testing equipment -- but he did have a respectable knowledge of and experience with medical substances and chemicals of all kinds. He was a little taken aback when I entered the pharmacy and asked him to speak with me privately.

He was able to do that and I quickly told him my story (it was getting on to be about 10:30 or 11:00 and the VBS day would be over at 12:00) and asked him to examine the bottle and its contents.

Truthfully, I was hoping that he would just tell me that the bottle had a common baby medicine in it, a prescription that he often filled. But he didn't. His face paled and he put the lid on the awful bottle. He went to one of the shelves in the back room of the store, retrieved a plastic bag container and placed the bottle inside of it.

"What should we do?" I asked.

"I think we have to call the Police."

"What if we're wrong? This is a VERY serious accusation." I said.

"'We don't know," Brad said, "and we can't make that decision. We have to turn this over to someone who will investigate. I'll back you up on your suspicions. We might be wrong, but we have to do this."

I knew that he was right. We made the call. I was told to meet the authorities back at the Church.

Two policemen were at the Church when I arrived back, they were waiting in the nursery with Terri. They had parked their cruiser around in the back, behind the building.

The officers had been very discreet. We had not alarmed anyone else in the school, not even Church leaders. They would not know of this incident until the day was over.

When the boys' mother showed up at our Church at a little after noon that day, she was handcuffed and placed into the back of the patrol car. They read her her Miranda rights and sent a radio call to DHR. They stayed onsite until the children were taken away, then they took the young woman to jail.

I do not recall her crying -- or even protesting. It almost looked like she was glad that she had been caught, and that whatever was going on -- was over.

The children were removed from her home and the District Attorney brought charges of attempted murder and reckless endangerment against her.

Terri was later issued a subpoena and she was required to testify in court.

In the proceedings of the trial it was expressed by the woman's Defense Attorney that the woman suffered from Post Partum Depression. Two babies at one time were just too much for her, but she thought that she could handle one. So, she had decided that one of the boys would have to die. Her plan was for our Church members to administer the poisoned liquid. Household cleaning fluid.

It always makes me tremble when I reflect on how this story could have been different.

God saved that little boy. He saved us from accidentally ending his life.

Terri bravely testified in court. Then she left and we went back to our work and tried to forget the incident completely.

We had finished Bible School at the time of the crime without a hitch. Very few people knew about the averted tragedy. We were not being secretive or illusive, only quiet.

Terri was used as an Angel of God in this story.

It didn't seem to be a happy ending at all -- we heard that the mother pleaded guilty by reason of insanity and that she was sent away -- to a mental health facility or a prison -- we did not know the details.  We had no knowledge of what became of the boys, or anything about their father or other family members. We did not pursue the matter. We had been so frightened that we all chose just to get past the terrible incident and move on.

For us -- the story was over. Just a bad memory.

Then -- the mother showed up out of the clear blue at that Valentine Banquet!!

She recognized Terri as soon as she saw us enter the building that night. She made a bee-line for her as soon as she saw her.

She had received treatment for many months before being released. She was still in regular therapy and had become involved in the Church there in Forrest City. She had given her life to Christ and was doing everything that she could to grow in her faith and to get her life together.

She did not have custody of her boys, but they were both healthy and strong and she got to visit with them on one day of each week. She loved them, and she said that they loved her. She was working toward that day when she would be well enough be to their mother again.

In that crowded hallway she hugged Terri and cried.

She thanked her for saving her sons. And for saving her.

She was happy that Terri had discovered that the bottle was bad. She said that she was happy that she had failed in her plan. She had no hard feelings about Terri's role in her discovery, capture, judgment, and sentencing.

Terri had no doubt that the girl was sincere. She was convinced that God had truly worked something marvelous. I believe that she was correct.

We never heard anything about the woman or her boys again. To this day we do not know what has become of them.  We trust that they are well and that they are still under the watchful and gracious care of our Father.

If we had not been in the middle of this drama I would never have believed that something like this could truly happen. We were already excited about being parents, about having our own child. This near tragedy deepened our awareness of our responsibility and the charge that would soon be our own.

How could a mother take the life of her own child?!

And yet it happens every day. Many times before the baby is even born. It is impossible for us to comprehend. Mothers AND Fathers who can cast away life's greatest treasures.

I thank God for our children and our grand children. And thank God for their Mother and Grand Mother who is and always has been -- a life-saver.

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