Sin of a Preacher Man

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

"You don't get a lot of clients in this business you actually like and respect," Dinwiddie says. "If he doesn't hire me, I hope he gets a real screamer."

Prosecutors could seek a death sentence; although abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1968, it was back on Arizona's books by the time of the 1974 murder. Prosecutors aren't saying yet if they'll ask for the ultimate penalty for the 24-year-old crime, but it's likely they'll do everything possible to see that Riley at least spends the rest of his natural life in prison.

For Ed Reynolds, that's the end of the trail. That's the aim of the cold-case squad and of homicide--to put the wrong things right. There is a quote hanging in the office of the Phoenix PD's homicide division from Vernon Gerberth, a veteran murder investigator. It reads, "Death investigation constitutes a heavy responsibility, and as such, let no man deter you from the truth. . . . Remember, you're working for God."

But the question everyone's asking is: Did Johnny Lee really not know he killed that motel clerk? How could he not have known? Wouldn't he have checked back, or watched the papers, to find out?

Reynolds says he doesn't really know. But he also says it doesn't really matter.

"All I can tell you is he hit that man, center-chest, with one bullet. In my opinion, that's not a warning shot. The clerk was firing at him, he was firing at the clerk," Reynolds says. He pauses for a long moment, then says, "He should have known."

Johnny Lee Riley swears he didn't know. Yet he's strangely calm for a man facing a trial for first-degree murder--and possibly execution.

The Lord, he will tell you, works in mysterious ways. Before the arrest, he says, the turmoil in his life had taken its toll. He had given up on preaching. He was losing his faith.

But the arrest turned around something inside him. Again, he says, he feels the presence of something stronger, directing his life. Riley believes his arrest and imprisonment are directions from God, and he says he will follow them wherever they lead--even if it means prison and death.

"God had told Jonah to go down to Nineveh, but Jonah decided he was going to go to Tarses. And the Bible says, God prepared a fish for Jonah, and then the fish swallowed him up and he was in misery," Riley explains.

"I think that this is a fish that God prepared for me, because I was getting away from what I was supposed to be doing. I was disillusioned, discouraged. I said, 'Away with this, I'm not going to preach anymore.' God had to prepare something for me, He had to say, 'What are you going to do?' I'm going to Nineveh now. I believe that I'm being drawn back to Arizona, because that's where I first started. I'm retracing my steps."

Contact Chris Farnsworth at his online address: cfarnsworth@newtimes.com

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