Sin of a Preacher Man

New evidence in unsolved Phoenix murder leads to a Tacoma man of God

Reynolds tracked down the inmate's friends, about half of whom were in prison. They all had the same story.

Back in 1974, they were all young, black men, about high school age, all pretty much bad characters, hanging out together, getting into trouble. The inmate was the little brother of a guy in the group, and he hung out with them, too.

At police headquarters, Reynolds went downstairs into the records room. Opening the drawers of neatly filed microfiche, he combed the police reports, filed by date. By reading the reports filed for the day before and the day after the murder, he could see what else was going on in the Van Buren area 23 years ago.

There were eight more strong-arm robberies in a 12-hour period surrounding the murder, all committed by young black men. "There were some young black males in the housing projects near that neighborhood who were terrorizing that neighborhood," Reynolds says.

Reynolds figured he had enough to talk to the inmate. (Since he has not yet been charged with a crime, police have not released the inmate's name.)

On July 24, 1997, Reynolds drove to Florence in his departmental Chevy Cavalier. He sat down in the prison investigation office. The inmate was brought in, his chains taken off, and seated in a chair across from Reynolds. He was a slightly built black man, 5'10", 154 pounds. On his right cheek was a scar about the size of a dime. Another scar snaked seven inches down his left cheek to his neck, and several more small scars marked his left arm. Reynolds turned the tape recorder on and advised the scarred man of his rights.

"I went into the interview with the attitude, 'I know you did it. It's time for you to confess to it,'" Reynolds recalls.

"I'm a homicide detective. I investigate homicides that are very old. I'm here to talk to you about something that happened when you were a young man. What does that tell you?" Reynolds asked the scarred man.

At first, as Reynolds recounts the interview, the scarred man wasn't much help.

I have no idea why you're here to talk to me, the man replied.
Reynolds tried again. "Do you know anything about shootings from way back then?"

I didn't carry a gun, the scarred man countered. I wasn't involved in anything like that. I don't know what you're talking about.

Reynolds got serious. "Okay, why don't we quit playing games? You were shot. Why don't we talk about that? Why don't you tell me about when you were shot?"

That seemed to jog the man's memory. Oh, I know what you want to talk about, he said. It's this motel on East Van Buren.

With that, the details of the decades-old murder of Dale Sechrist started to pour from the man's memory. He talked about his friendship with a man named Johnny Riley, who was a friend of his brother's. How they were looking for girls so they stopped at a motel to get a room. And how he went in with Riley.

Then Riley pulled a gun and demanded that Sechrist open the safe. The scarred man was shocked; he had no idea Riley was going to do that.

At first, Sechrist refused. He said he couldn't open the safe; then he said, okay, I'm opening the safe. And then Sechrist turned around, a gun in his hand. Then the shooting started.

The first shot hit me in the face, and I hit the floor, the scarred man recalled.

The scarred man said he was bleeding right under the counter--which was, Reynolds noted, at the opposite end of the room from where the man claimed to be standing a few minutes earlier.

From the floor, he saw Riley run out the door, leaving him there. He got up and ran after Riley. He ran so fast he covered the two blocks to the car before Riley did.

The car ride was filled with blood and panic. Riley got on the highway and started driving to Mexico; the pair hatched a scheme to have a doctor across the border fix up the bullet wound, so they wouldn't get caught. They were both sure the scarred man was carrying a bullet around in his face. Then they calmed down a bit and looked more closely at the gash. Peering into the car's visor mirror, they saw it was just a flesh wound; the trip to Mexico was called off. Riley patched it up himself with some bandages he had at home.

After that, the scarred man didn't see much of Johnny Riley. They never spoke of the crime again. It never occurred to the scarred man that the clerk had been shot.

Reynolds will tell you that half his job is finding people. Often, he doesn't have much more to go on than a first name or a 20-year-old address.

Reynolds learned that in 1973, five months before the murder of Dale Sechrist, Riley robbed a Jack-in-the-Box on East Washington with a .22 caliber pistol. He was convicted and paroled not long after.

None of Riley's old associates had seen him in a long time, they told Reynolds. The last they heard, he and his wife Wanda had found God, moved out of state. The last address on record for Riley was in Berkeley, California.

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