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Sin of a Preacher Man

Johnny Lee Riley spent his 48th birthday in court, charged with a crime he thought he'd run away from 24 years earlier.

Armed robbery. Burglary. And, a big surprise to Riley, first-degree murder.
It wasn't that he was trying to hide his past. A minister for the past 13 years, Riley sometimes talked about his own long-ago life of crime when he'd lecture his congregation on the pitfalls of bad moral choices. Occasionally, he'd even tell the story of a night, 24 years ago, when he was so far gone that he robbed a motel clerk in Phoenix.

Only Johnny Lee Riley says he never knew the clerk had died in the brief gunbattle that followed.

Riley later found God, became a preacher and moved to Tacoma, Washington. He was raising 17 kids and working construction when Phoenix detectives knocked on his door a few months ago, asking about an old armed robbery. New technology and old fingerprints had led them to the Pacific Northwest.

Riley says police never told him he was also a murder suspect; he found out later from his family.

Then he got a lawyer.
Now, Riley is spending his days in the Pierce County Jail, while his lawyers fight to keep him from being extradited to Phoenix. They'll probably lose that argument; a decision is expected later this month. Within the year, he can expect to be on trial, possibly for his life.

But a few weeks ago, Riley spent part of his birthday sitting politely in his jail-issued gray jumpsuit in a county courthouse. His family members, filling three rows of the hearing room, were decked out in their Sunday best. They sat quietly through the brief hearing, while the lawyers and judge dealt with scheduling another time to decide whether Johnny Lee would return to Phoenix to face charges of first-degree murder.

The hearing over, Riley stood to go back to his cell. He turned and smiled at the ranks of sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. For a moment, the family broke its silence and pure emotion radiated like heat toward him. The kids waved and said "I love you" and "Happy birthday" to the figure already retreating behind the glassed-in walls.

In front of the TV cameras, Riley's son Kenneth, who has assumed the role of unofficial spokesman for the family, criticized the police for dealing unfairly with his father.

"The way they approached him was wrong," Kenneth says. "It was unjust. If there was so much to this, why couldn't they just say what they had to say? Why couldn't they tell him?"

The police say Riley is finally facing the consequences of his actions. His family is defending the only father it's ever known.

Between the two of them, Riley is being pulled through time, as if a hole has opened beneath his feet and he's slid back into 1974. Despite the distance he's covered in the years since, he's coming back to Arizona to confront his past life. Twenty-four years later, Johnny Riley's ghosts are coming back to haunt him.

When Daisy Sechrist called it a night at 2 a.m. on March 29, 1974, Patty Hearst was still in the hands of her kidnapers, most of Nixon's cabinet had just been indicted in Watergate and her husband, Dale, was still alive.

It had been a quiet night for the Sechrists. She and Dale managed the TraveLodge on Ninth Street and Van Buren. Business had been slow for months. The strip of little motels depended on winter travelers on annual road trips. They had been hit hard by the gasoline shortage, which was especially severe in Arizona.

Dale, who'd grown up in Colorado, liked the warm weather, and the job gave him and his wife a place to live. In the summer, he could change jobs and head back to Colorado without too much trouble. They'd only been in Phoenix for about nine months. It seemed a good way to wile away retirement.

Of course, there was an element of risk that came with the job, and the Sechrists knew that. In 1966, a previous manager of the same motel and his wife had been bound and gagged at gunpoint by a robber named Donald Gene Boag. Boag had jammed a knife into the manager's eye, and circled it around to punctuate his demands for cash. In a kind of rough justice, when the police caught up with Boag, he'd lost an eye of his own in a fight. He got 163 years for the TraveLodge robbery.

Dale wasn't interested in an eye for an eye; he wanted to be safe. He bought a pair of Smith and Wesson .38 caliber revolvers, one for him and one for Daisy. He told a friend, "Nobody is going to get any money off me. I'll shoot the son of a bitch."

 

They were watching late-night TV in their small apartment behind the office until Daisy decided to go to sleep. Dale stayed up, wearing his maroon slippers and his plaid bathrobe. Around 2:30, Daisy was awakened by the night bell. The door was locked at night--customers had to be buzzed in by the desk clerk. Daisy saw Dale get up from his chair and go into the office.

Then, a few moments later, Daisy was jolted fully awake by the sound of gunshots. A lot of them.

She got her pistol from the nightstand and rushed from their bedroom into the office.

Dale was standing by the door, holding his own five-shot .38 snub-nose. He said to her, "They went down by the pool, honey, go kill them."

Daisy ran out the door, gun in hand, saw no one by the pool. She went back inside and saw her husband dying in a cruel reenactment of a Wild West scene. Dale was still on his feet, bleeding from a chest wound. He staggered into the living room. He said to her, "I think I'm going," and fell to the floor.

Daisy called the police, who were already answering the silent alarm Dale had triggered a minute before.

Two patrolmen, Officer Donald Amenson and Officer E.B. Paulson, arrived first. The front door was locked, and they went around to the side. Daisy scrambled to let them in. Dale was face down on the floor, a small amount of vomit trailing from his mouth. Paulson picked up a faint pulse. Five minutes later, Dale's breathing stopped. He was pronounced dead on arrival at St. Luke's Hospital at 3 a.m. The fatal .22 caliber bullet struck him one inch above the sternum and one inch to the left.

He had turned 66 just 10 days before.
Detectives Robert Calleo and Jon Sellers got the call to go to the TraveLodge about 4 a.m. Officers Ameson and Paulson stood guard out front while the detectives worked.

The first thing Calleo and Sellers noticed was the blood. A spot the size of a TV screen had soaked into the motel carpet just inside the door of the office.

Drops of blood marked the door and door handle. Outside, more blood was smeared on a pole supporting the motel's canopy.

Sechrist had never gotten that far. Most of his blood had pooled beneath him as he lay dying in the living room, leaving a stain about as big as a dinner plate. The detectives figured this other bloodstain belonged to one of the bandits.

Money--$110 in bills--was stacked neatly on the counter. The motel's owner, Patrick Smith, said the amount was what ordinarily would've been in the register. And, Smith told the detectives, no money was missing from the bank bag under the counter, either.

Bullets had ricocheted all over the scene, almost all from Sechrist's five-shot .38. Slugs were pulled out of the wall, a chair, and the front of the counter. The only one that wasn't from Sechrist's gun was the .22 caliber bullet lodged in the counter; it matched the .22 bullet the medical examiner would pull from Sechrist's chest.

Calleo and Sellers decided that Sechrist had opened the door to the robbers--there was probably more than one guy, since Daisy Sechrist said her husband told her to get "them." When they demanded the cash, he'd gotten the bills out and tripped the silent alarm. Then he'd come up with his gun and started firing.

One robber was hit, his blood staining the walls. The other fired back and took off, leaving one bullet in the counter, one bullet in Dale Sechrist and the money just sitting there.

The Sechrist murder remained unsolved. In the papers, the story died almost as quickly as Sechrist. The killing held the interest of the Phoenix PD longer; detectives pursued leads until March of 1975, but came up empty. The case was finally put on a shelf.

Daisy Sechrist died a few years ago in a nursing home. One of Dale's only surviving relatives, his sister Marion Douglas, is 92 now. She cannot remember many details about the days after her brother's death. She remembers that it was hot. She remembers the funeral parlor was close enough to walk. And she remembers her brother as a gentle man.

"He had written me that he was tired of being held up and he had bought a gun," she says. She wrote a letter back, asking him to get rid of the weapon. "I remember saying, 'You wouldn't want to shoot anybody, and besides, you'll probably get shot yourself.'"

 

The Phoenix detectives told Douglas that they found her letter to her brother in the apartment, unopened.

As it turned out, Dale Sechrist had been right. No son of a bitch took any money off him.

The Sechrist murder gathered dust for 20 years, until Detective Ed Reynolds picked it up again.

There's a rule of thumb in homicide: If a case isn't solved in the first 48 hours, generally it won't be solved at all. Reynolds spends his working life beating his head against that rule. He's on the Phoenix Police Department's cold-case squad--a group of detectives who do nothing but follow up on unsolved homicides, some 20 to 30 years old.

Reynolds is a big man, with a gruff voice and the standard cop-issue haircut and mustache. In 1974, he was a year out of high school, working in the Midwest. He never expected to be a homicide detective in Phoenix. But despite his lack of a college education, the PPD gave him a chance. He made homicide after 12 years on the force. And in 1992, he was one of the first cops to join the PPD's new experiment in cold cases.

Picking up on an idea from the Metro-Dade Police Department in Florida, Phoenix decided to form its own homicide detail devoted to clearing unsolved murders from the department's files. Sergeant Jim Givens was placed in charge of the squad, and selected Reynolds and another detective to work as its investigators.

Reynolds discovered his calling on the cold-case squad. His biggest success came on one of Phoenix's most notorious mysteries, the Jeanne Tovrea case. Tovrea was the widow and heiress to the multimillion-dollar fortune of cattle baron Edward Tovrea. The case remained unsolved for years after Jeanne Tovrea's execution-style 1988 slaying. Reynolds took on the basically dormant case in 1992, and struck pay dirt two years later after an anonymous tip led him to identify James "Butch" Harrod as the hired hit man.

The biggest enemies in cold-case work are frustration and impatience.
"Homicide detectives like that good feeling they get when they arrest the bad guy in the case. For the most part, they like to do that once a month," Givens says. "If you expect to do that in cold cases, you're not going to last very long. The cases average a year, some go two to five years. You don't get that good feeling of putting somebody behind bars a month after you start the case. A lot of times, a month after you start the case, you've just gotten through all the documents . . . and you haven't even found everybody you need to talk to yet."

Reynolds arms himself against impatience with discipline and preparation. He organizes his cases in methodically neat three-ring binders. He simply doesn't quit.

"Ed's been able to get into this and just dig and dig and dig and never give up," Givens says.

On the Tovrea case, Reynolds once worked a lead for a year before he learned it was worthless. He was ready to give up at that point, to simply chuck it all and move on. Then Reynolds remembered a box of evidence the previous detective on the case had left behind. He'd always meant to look through that box, but had never gotten around to it. So he figured, before he gave up, what the hell, he might as well check it out.

The first thing he came across in the box were phone records which listed a series of calls right up to the day of the murder, and then abruptly stopped. Those calls led Reynolds to Butch Harrod, who was convicted of Tovrea's murder last year and is now awaiting sentencing.

"A lot of times, it just comes down to your last straw. It's always the thing you do last," Reynolds says. "Now I try to figure out what I'd do last and then do that first."

Since 1992, the cold-case squad has resolved some 40 of the 400 unsolved murders in the department's files.

But the cold-case squad isn't just about solving crimes. It's also about sending a message. Murder is the only crime for which there is no statute of limitations. The cold-case squad tells everyone that the Phoenix Police Department does not forgive and will not forget.

"For years, bad guys thought that they skated for a murder they did if, after so many years, they didn't get caught," Reynolds says. Reynolds recalls a murder he cracked where the accused told the judge at his sentencing, "Judge, it just isn't fair that they could go back and dig up stuff that you did 27 years ago and then charge you with it."

 

Reynolds still smiles at that; it makes him happy to think of a killer whining in front of the judge. "Now they know that there's a squad that, even if you've skated for 20 years, we're going to make sure you spend your last 20 years in prison," he says.

The Phoenix Police Department didn't forget the Sechrist murder, either. Reynolds took it on in 1994, but set it aside at first, partly because he was wrapped up in the Tovrea case.

Last year, though, as the Tovrea case was winding its way toward trial, Reynolds took another look at the Sechrist murder.

The police had picked up six usable fingerprints from the scene in 1974, all from various places on the motel door. At the time, comparing fingerprints was a time-consuming, tedious process. Every print taken from the scene would have to be viewed with the fingerprint cards already on file--one by one, by hand. Back then, for most cases, the common practice was to match fingerprints against a limited number of suspects. To compare a set of prints against every other set on file would be near impossible.

But in 1997, to run the Sechrist murder prints against every fingerprint in Arizona was only a matter of a few keystrokes. Reynolds sent the prints to Anne Wamsley, a PPD technician who plugged them into the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System, a computer-stored record of every print on file in Arizona. In a matter of minutes, AFIS had a match.

The prints belonged to those of an inmate serving time for fraud at the Arizona State Prison in Florence. He also had a scar on his right cheek. Reynolds remembered that Sechrist had shot one of the robbers. He started doing a little digging.

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.

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.

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.

Johnny Lee also had a rough time making ends meet after he stopped ministering full-time; he started Riley and Riley, a handyman/construction business with his sons. But he was still racking up debts. A group of church members got together with his old friend Virgil Holifield, under the supervision of a local bishop, Eugene Montgomery, to talk with Riley about the money he owed them.

And Riley and Wanda were separated again. There had been another report of domestic violence in 1992--Wanda Riley claimed Johnny hit her, and requested an order of protection. She later dropped the request, and Johnny says that the incident was nothing serious, really. (Police records show that, aside from the domestic-violence complaints, Riley's only violations of the law were traffic tickets since the Jack-in-the-Box robbery in 1973.)

But when Reynolds visited Wanda in November, Riley was living down the street in his shop. He still ate meals with the family and saw his kids every day.

 

Reynolds asked Wanda if she remembered anything about a motel holdup in Phoenix back in the bad old days. Wanda told him it sounded like something Johnny Lee once testified about before the congregation. There was a robbery, it went bad, shooting started, and by the grace of God, Johnny lived to preach about it. Wanda even brought one of her daughters in to talk to Reynolds who also remembered her father telling the story.

For Reynolds, the clincher was that Riley even referred to the scarred man--by name--as the person he was with that night. Reynolds told Wanda he was investigating a homicide and he'd like to talk to Riley.

He asked her to call Johnny Lee. She did, and told her husband that the police wanted to talk to him. She didn't mention the homicide.

Reynolds got on the phone and asked Riley if they could talk about a robbery that had taken place back in 1974.

At first, Riley denied he knew anything about any robberies.
"Let me refresh your memory," Reynolds said. "This is the incident you preached to your congregation. Your parishioners have heard this over and over again. You ministered to them about this. This is what I want to talk to you about."

Riley paused, then told Reynolds he'd talk to him.
The two detectives went down the street to Riley's shop. Reynolds turned on the tape recorder, and read Riley his rights. Then they talked about the robbery. Riley still hadn't been told anything about a homicide.

Riley won't talk about the robbery now since he's being charged with murder. But according to Reynolds, Riley told him a story of the botched holdup that was almost identical to the scarred man's tale.

But it wasn't an impulsive decision, Reynolds says. Riley, he says, told him it was a planned stickup.

Riley wanted to know if he was going to be arrested.
Washington requires out-of-state police officers to get an arrest warrant before they can take someone into custody. And Reynolds didn't have a warrant yet.

So he told Riley he wasn't going to arrest him right then, but he couldn't say what the future held. They promised to talk again the next morning.

After the detectives left, Riley found out from his sons just what they were looking for. Wanda had told the boys that the police were investigating a homicide.

Riley decided it was time to find a lawyer.
The next morning, about an hour after he was supposed to meet with the detectives again, Riley was sitting in the offices of Tacoma attorney Thomas Dinwiddie, trying to figure out what he could do. Dinwiddie told him to turn himself in.

When he arrived at the station, Riley told Reynolds, "Detective, if I had known 23 years ago that that guy died, I would have turned myself in back then."

Thomas Dinwiddie is one of those hold-the-bar-spellbound-with-blarney kind of guys; he's got a story for everything, writes novels in his spare time. But he's a brawler, as well. In one case, he contested the prosecutor's jurisdiction. When it came time for trial, he moved for dismissal. His client was being charged with a violation of state law, and it was a city court.

The prosecutor complained that Dinwiddie had never told anyone it was the wrong venue until trial, and then it was too late. Dinwiddie said, Hey, this isn't law school, I'm not a professor.

Case dismissed. He's not there to make things easier.
Dinwiddie's advice to Riley to turn himself in is the only way in which he's cooperated with Arizona's desire to have Riley back within its borders. He's held up Riley's extradition, usually a routine matter. He's filed a writ of habeas corpus to have Riley released on the grounds that since the statute of limitations for robbery has expired, Riley can't be charged with that crime.

Dinwiddie admits it's a long shot, but he's not the kind of guy to make things easy. Despite Dinwiddie's best efforts, Riley likely will be coming back to Phoenix to face his past life.

But Dinwiddie probably won't be making the trip with him; Riley can't afford an out-of-state lawyer.

"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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