Sin of a Preacher Man

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

Using a computer tracking program, Sergeant Givens ran across a Johnny Lee Riley who'd started a church in Tacoma, Washington, with his wife, Wanda. Reynolds called Doug Margeson, a detective in Tacoma, and Margeson located Wanda Riley. A few days after the Tovrea trial ended, Reynolds was on a plane to the Seattle-Tacoma airport. Riley's past was about to catch up with him.

Johnny Lee Riley was 7 years old the first time he saw a man die.
It is one of the first things Riley remembers when he tells the story of his life in an interview room in the Pierce County Jail. On a murky, gray day which matches the institution's walls, he talks about the distance he's traveled in the past 24 years. There's only one important piece missing: While Riley has denied he knew that Dale Sechrist had been shot and killed in the TraveLodge robbery, his attorney will no longer allow him to discuss any aspect of the case. Confession, Riley has learned, may be good for the soul, but it's lousy for your chances in court.

This is the story Riley tells:
He was born in rural Missouri. "I came up in the cotton fields," he says. But when he was 7, his mother and stepfather moved the family to Buckeye Road in Phoenix.

Buckeye Road was not the best part of town, even then. Taverns and rib joints and beauty parlors lined the street. At night, it was like an open-air honky-tonk with drunks wandering from bar to bar and prostitutes working the crowds.

Riley remembers his family gathered in the car, watching the drunks, the hookers, the dealers like they were all a part of some parade going by. People gambled. They fought. The family looked on like it was all some kind of show.

Most of the time, Riley says, his parents made sure they were out of the line of fire. But one summer night, Riley was sitting in his family car when a man emerged from a bar and started to make his staggering way home. Then, Riley recalls, he heard a "pop-pop" sound. The man began stumbling from something other than the drink. He fell about four feet away from the Rileys' car. Johnny Riley looked into his face as he died.

Riley's parents later heard that the man had insulted a woman, so she shot him. "I thought about that a lot," Riley says.

"Today, I think, what else would I have been?" he says. "What else could I have become, growing up in that environment?"

For a while, Riley dodged the bullet. He did well in high school, ran track, thought about becoming an electrical engineer. And then, about the time he was 17, that began to come apart.

He had two kids--one with Wanda, the woman he'd marry, and another son with another woman. Suddenly, he was a father. Suddenly, he was supposed to be a grown-up. It was more responsibility than he could handle.

He began drinking and using drugs. He got his GED and dropped out of school. "I just kind of gave up hope," he says.

His life became chaos. He pimped. He stole. He lived on the streets. He left his wife and kids for months at a time. He lived the life of a gangster. Other people respected and feared Johnny Lee Riley.

But Riley was afraid, too.
"It's a charade out there. I can say that from experience," Riley says. "A lot of times we have to portray an image to keep from being taken advantage of on the street. I guess a lot of people out there thought that I was hard . . . but I had to portray that image in order to protect myself. You can see I'm not a big person. So I had to use some kind of finesse, some type of intimidation to keep them from overpowering me, beating me up or taking advantage of me."

Riley created a mask, and then the mask became the only face he had--his life became just as hard and desperate as he had wanted people to believe. At night, he would look at what he'd become, and he'd weep.

"Often after being out drinking all night, or using drugs . . . I'd go home and cry. A lot of people thought that I was an insensitive gangbanger, and I'd go home and cry because I didn't desire to be any of those things."

Riley wanted to change, he says. But he didn't have the strength to do it on his own.

Four years after the TraveLodge robbery, in May 1977, Riley drifted back to the apartment he sometimes shared with Wanda and the kids. He'd been away for about three months. He thought the place had changed, somehow.

Riley asked Wanda if she'd gotten new furniture or redecorated. No, she told him.

"What have you done here?" he asked.
She said, We've been to church, and we've been saved.
Riley left the apartment.

He couldn't accept Wanda's answer. He called her on the phone, asked her, "Do you have another man now?"

Yes, she told him. His name is Jesus.
Riley thought, we'll see about that. He went to the apartment again that night. He happened in on a prayer meeting Wanda was having. He was drunk and mean, and he intended to break the place up, run the church people out.

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