Sin of a Preacher Man

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

He sat down and glared at Wanda, as if to tell her, after these people are gone, we'll see about this church stuff.

Wanda got the message. During the years she'd been with Johnny, police records show she'd taken the brunt of his anger.

In 1972, Johnny Riley had threatened the wife of a friend and beat Wanda with a revolver. Wanda did not prosecute.

In 1973, Riley fired a shot at Wanda during an argument. No charges were filed.

In 1975, while on parole for the Jack-in-the-Box robbery, Riley broke into Wanda's apartment and fired numerous shots at her. She declined to prosecute.

And just a few months before this night, Riley stabbed her with a steak knife and beat her with a chair. Still, she refused to prosecute.

But something happened that night that was different. By the end of the Bible class, Riley felt stone sober. He must have looked strange, because the evangelist asked him, "Brother Riley, what's wrong?"

Riley was looking at the Bible, Acts, Verse II, Chapter 10. He read the word "repent." Something about that particular Word of God caught Riley's eye.

"What's this mean, repent?" he asked.
She said, Repent and God will forgive you for all your sins, wash them away, it will be as though they never happened.

That sounded like a pretty good deal to Riley. "If it's that easy, I want to try this," he said. "I want to be baptized Thursday."

Something else, something stronger than Riley, took over. He was reborn in Christ on June 11, 1977. He went around the neighborhood giving away his drugs and liquor. He told his prostitutes he was quitting the pimp business. He told them, "I'm through, go your own way."

Everyone he knew thought he'd gone seriously crazy.
"That night, my whole life changed," he remembers. "These people, they came around and they thought they could bring me back out there. It's been 24 years now. I haven't gone back. That was my way out. I looked for it all my life."

Riley stayed in Phoenix. He ran a janitorial service and preached about his conversion. He eventually was ordained by the True Churches of Apostolic Faith and started a ministry. He traveled around the country, evangelizing.

Then, in 1983, a friend of his, Virgil Holifield, told him about Tacoma, Washington.

"This was what God had called him to do," Virgil Holifield remembers. "This way he could help others not to fall into the same traps he did."

Today, Holifield owns and operates Virgil's Christian Barbershop in Tacoma. Signs on the wall tell customers, "No Profanity" and "No Credit." He is still strong in his faith; TV preachers blare from a set in the shop, and Virgil will call upon the Spirit to help heal a friend over the phone.

Holifield was living in Phoenix when he first met Johnny Lee. He needed a job, and Riley hired him part-time for his janitorial business. Later, Virgil moved to Tacoma to be closer to his wife's family, and he encouraged Riley to visit and take a look.

Riley was an easy sell. When he saw the Northwest, he knew he'd found a home. Despite his travels, he didn't know people lived in a place without dust and heat.

Riley had never heard of the place before. "Whenever someone mentioned Washington, I always thought of Washington, D.C. . . . I came up to visit and I said, 'Wow. This is God's country,'" he recalls.

He and Wanda and the kids moved that year. He started a new ministry, eventually moving into a building in downtown Tacoma.

He and Wanda had more children. Most of his 17 kids remember a happy home life; the only sign of the devil left in Johnny Lee Riley came when he'd take a flashlight and put it under his chin. With the lights off, he'd run around the room, pretending to be Dracula, chasing the kids. He'd watch Clint Eastwood movies--the Westerns--with his sons.

He continued to preach all over the country, telling people about how his life had been changed by God, how he'd been turned around.

"It took Christ, it took religion, it took that power in order for me to put down the drugs, the alcohol, the prostitutes, the gambling. Just that. I tried prior to that. I couldn't stop," he says.

For a while, it seemed like that life was far behind him.

In November, more than two decades after Dale Sechrist died on the TraveLodge floor, Reynolds went with Detective Margeson to Wanda Riley's place in Tacoma.

Reynolds didn't find the same happy home the Rileys say they had just a few years earlier. By now, the Rileys had fallen on hard times--financially and otherwise.

In 1994, their church, the Bethesda Temple Ministries, was dissolved--they'd lost their building when the landlord changed, and then lost most of the congregation. The Rileys' oldest son, Johnny Lee Jr., was in prison on assault charges, after earlier run-ins with the law for burglary and possession. Their son Matthew had been severely beaten in a random assault in October; he spent two days in the hospital.

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