Read an Excerpt
The door shouldn’t have been unlocked.
Judy Zellner slipped her key into the side door at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, but the door fell open before she could turn it. She looked down at the doorknob, surprised and more than a little annoyed. This door is always supposed to be locked, everybody in the church knows that. Even out here in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, the door has to be locked.
Whoever’s in here is going to get a piece of my mind, Judy thought, slipping the key back into her purse and stepping into the hallway. She was glad to get out of the cold on this winter day of January 23, 2008.
The door to the church office was shut, but through the large interior window Judy could see the light was on. She hadn’t expected anybody to be there that Wednesday afternoon, when she came on her twice-weekly routine to clean the church. She glanced briefly through the window, but nobody was sitting behind the desk inside the small office. Perhaps, she thought, Pastor Shreaves is upstairs somewhere.
But first things first. Judy walked straight past the office, dropped her purse and coat onto the table in the narthex, and headed for the bathroom.
The sixty-year-old grandmother of six had been faithfully attending Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church for the last twenty-six years. Even after she moved from nearby Wassergass to Allentown, the largest city in the Lehigh Valley region, she continued to call this church her own, and encouraged her three children to regularly attend with her. Judy’s home in Allentown was twelve miles away, and she had to pass by several closer churches on her way to this one, but she never once considered going somewhere else. She loved her church family here at this small parish. She loved singing in the choir and being involved with everybody’s lives.
The church sits along Route 212, a winding country road that serves as a major thoroughfare in Springfield Township. The town of about five thousand residents rests five miles southeast of the Allentown and Bethlehem metropolitan area, and about forty miles north of Philadelphia. Bucks County grows far more suburban as it borders Philadelphia on its southern end, but here in the northern end of the county, Springfield Township remains an example of the area’s rural heritage.
At over thirty square miles, Springfield Township is the county’s second largest municipality in terms of land area, and about half of it remains undeveloped, preserved as agricultural open space or completely vacant land. More than 44 percent of the township consists of heavy woodlands, and much of the land is characterized by large rocky hills cut by valley streams and creeks.
And that’s just fine with the residents of Springfield Township. Most of the township’s residents—98 percent of which are white—fall between ages forty-five and sixty-four, and are perfectly content to drive outside the area for goods, services, and places of employment if it means maintaining Springfield’s rural character. In a survey, when asked what types of stores, businesses and professional services were needed most in the township, 51 percent responded, “none needed.”
Judy passed the church office again on her way up to the pastor’s office, where she found his door was locked. Judy was surprised. Since he joined the church nearly three years ago in March 2005, Pastor Gregory Shreaves was almost always here. Judy hadn’t yet met the new secretary, Megan, who was hired a few days ago. Maybe she’s here somewhere, she thought.
Judy grabbed her cleaning supplies from the closet down the hall and went back downstairs to the church office. Nobody was behind the desk, so Judy started walking toward the cubbyhole of file cabinets in the corner of the room.
“Megan?” Judy called, tilting her head to see if anybody was in the corner. “Megan, are you back there?”
As she passed the corner of the desk, Judy froze as something caught her eye. Crumpled behind the desk lay the body of a woman, her legs folded at the knees, her head and upper body curled forward, pointing toward the ceiling.
There was a great deal of blood. The woman’s head was soaked in a crimson puddle, strands of her long brown hair flowing outward in all directions. Judy looked at the woman’s chest and found it motionless. Then her eyes drifted to the wound on the right side of the woman’s head.
Judy’s thoughts immediately turned to her many hours spent watching CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on television. Don’t touch the body, she thought.
She froze. What if the person who did this was still in the church? Oh my God, she thought. Somebody could kill me.
Judy grabbed the cordless phone sitting on the desk and ran outside. Fumbling with it, she dialed 911.
“911, where is the emergency?” an operator said.
Judy screamed into the phone: a primal, fearful sound that was impossible to decipher. The operator tried to calm her down and instructed her to stop screaming, calming Judy long enough to find out the address she was calling from.
“Okay, what’s the problem?” the operator asked.
“There’s a girl murdered in our office!” Judy said, her voice loud, nearly hysterical.
“There’s a girl what?” the operator asked.
“Murdered!” Judy shouted back, breathing long, panicked breaths.
“Ma’am, listen, calm down,” the operator said. “What do you mean? What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s lying behind the desk, full of blood!” Judy said, her voice growing higher, her breaths getting so heavy she started to gasp between phrases. “I’m the cleaning lady at the church … and I just got here.…”
“Is she awake and able to talk to you?”
“No, it looks like she’s dead!” Judy said. “There’s blood all over her head and around her head! Oh my God!”
“Okay. And ma’am, you don’t want to go near her?” the operator asked.
“I don’t know if somebody else is in there! It’s a big church!”
After asking for Judy’s name, the operator continued, “All right Judy. Just breathe for a sec, okay? Don’t touch anything, okay?”
“I didn’t, I didn’t,” Judy said, sobbing. She was starting to find it difficult to say anything at all. “I … I … ah…”
“Okay, where do you see the blood on her?” the operator asked.
“It’s all over her!”
“All over her?”
“Yes, it’s all over the floor!” Judy said, crying even harder. “She must be dead!”
“All right Judy, just try to calm down. I know it’s not something pleasant to see. Does she look like she’s breathing at all? Does she look pale? Does she look blue?”
“She looks blue,” Judy responded. She explained that a new secretary was recently hired, but that Judy didn’t know what she looks like, and didn’t know if the woman inside the church is her or not.
“Okay, all right Judy, listen. We have someone on the way, okay?”
* * *
Matthew Compton and Michael Maguire were just finishing a late breakfast around 1 o’clock at the local diner, Vera’s Country Cafe, when they received a call on their pager. “Possible expiration,” the page read. An unresponsive female had been found in a puddle of blood.
The two paramedics with Upper Bucks Regional Emergency Medical Services rushed out to their ambulance, Maguire taking the wheel. Fortunately the church was just a tenth of a mile up the road.
Probably an elderly woman who took a spill and hit her head, Maguire thought. If this were the nearby city of Bethlehem, where he also worked as a paramedic, he might have been expecting something more serious, but little ever happens in Springfield Township. In his fourteen years as a paramedic, most of his calls from Upper Bucks have been limited to medical situations or traffic accidents from motorists unaccustomed to the winding country roads.
Back in the late 1980s, when Interstate 78 was expanded into the area, it was thought Springfield Township’s vast open space would become subject to extensive growth and turn into a bedroom community of sorts for residents who traveled to New York City or Harrisburg. This prediction proved false. While neighboring towns like Richland, Milford, Williams, and Lower Saucon Townships all experienced significant growth, Springfield Township generally saw a few new single-family homes on a couple acres of land. In fact, it was the only municipality among its neighbors to actually see a decrease in its population.
So as its neighbors saw the rise of brand-new large-lot residential subdivisions, Springfield Township continued to maintain the character of an earlier time, with numerous farms, inns, historic villages, and even a covered bridge still intact. Perhaps the township’s biggest claim to fame is the old home of Eric Knight, author of the 1940 book Lassie Come-Home. Knight wrote the book right there in Springfield, and his family dog, Toots, on whom the famous fictional collie was based, is buried on the property in what was the dog’s favorite hill.
The ambulance pulled into the church parking lot, and Compton and Maguire stepped out and rushed toward the church. A gray-haired man wearing a blue sweater, alerted by the sirens, greeted them as they approached the door.
“Can I help you?” the man asked confusedly.
“Somebody called for an ambulance?” Maguire asked.
“No,” the man shook his head. “I’m the only one here. Nobody called.”
Maguire pulled out his pager and read off the call with the church address: “Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church at 2170 Route 212.”
“That’s the other church,” the man responded, pointing to a sign that read “Trinity United Church of Christ,” at 1990 Route 212. “Happens all the time.”
The other church was a half mile up the road, and Maguire and Compton pulled in just a few minutes later. As they arrived, Judy Zellner stood waving at the bottom of a small stairway leading up to the side door. “She’s inside!”
The paramedics stepped inside with Judy in tow. She pointed toward the office and Maguire peered inside, but didn’t see anything out of sorts. “Where?” he asked.
“She’s behind the desk,” Judy replied. “She has a lot of blood on her. I think she’s dead. I don’t know what happened.”
As Maguire stepped further into the office, he saw the woman on the floor, and he could immediately hear that she was still breathing. The high-pitched gurgling reminded him of the sound of a brewing pot of coffee.
“She’s still alive,” Maguire said to Judy. “Stay in the hall.”
It was immediately clear the woman had been shot. Most of the blood appeared to have come from the right side of her head, and Maguire spotted what appeared to be a bullet wound just above her ear. Compton felt for a pulse and found one, but the woman was otherwise nonresponsive. Maguire grabbed his radio and contacted Bucks County dispatch, calling for a state trooper to respond to the scene.
As Maguire finished the call, Compton pointed toward a shiny piece of metal on the floor that appeared to be a bullet fragment. A quick scan of the room turned up no weapons. Compton took off his ball cap and placed it over the bullet so police could quickly find it later.
When Compton went outside for a backboard, Maguire grabbed a black Magic Marker from atop the desk. He knew he had to move the woman, but he also wanted to leave the crime scene as intact as possible for police. After outlining the body on the floor, he and Compton lifted the woman and placed her onto the backboard.
As the two men lifted the board, the woman’s head tilted to the side, facing Judy as she watched from the other side of the office window. Judy gasped at the blood-streaked face of a woman she had seen so many times before.
“Oh my God,” Judy said. “That’s my friend Rhonda!”
Copyright © 2012 by Colin McEvoy and Lynn Olanoff