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."

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Chris Farnsworth