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Death seemed to be part of Garrett Wilson's life. Both of his parents had died by the time he was in his early 20s. So friends shrugged when sadly, an infant daughter, and then a son, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But after he divorced his wife and married another, his spurned ...
Death seemed to be part of Garrett Wilson's life. Both of his parents had died by the time he was in his early 20s. So friends shrugged when sadly, an infant daughter, and then a son, died from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. But after he divorced his wife and married another, his spurned spouse became convinced that their children's passing was anything but natural.
Her four-year investigation, his arrest and trial, and the stunning verdict in this medical murder mystery will keep readers guessing until the final pages. The author conducted sixteen in-person interviews with the accused and had total access to both the defense and the prosecution. The result is an unprecedented look at a murder investigation and a real-life medical thriller that stretched from Maryland to Texas and Florida.
About the Author:
Adrian Havill is the author of six books. He lives near Washington, D.C.
"A riveting read that I couldn't put down."—Robert K. Ressler
While Innocents Slept: A Story of Revenge, Murder, and SIDS
Like a city in dreams, the great white capital stretches along the placid river from Georgetown on the west to Anacostia on the east. It is a city of temporaries, a city of just arriveds and only-visitings, built on the shifting sand of politics, filled with people passing through.
ADVISE AND CONSENT
At first glance, it appeared to be some sort of parade. But it was only minutes past dawn, and on this Wednesday, May 13,1998, there were still two weeks before Memorial Day. So, where were those fourteen speeding police cars, strung out for nearly a quarter mile, headed?
There were black-and-whites and unmarked ones, too. They were from the Maryland State Police and three of its counties—Montgomery, Allegany, and Garrett. It was an all-American auto show. Heavy, top-of-the-line Fords and Chevrolets as far as an eye could see, cruising up Interstate 68, over the Eastern Continental Divide, and onto U.S. 40, the highway historians named The National Road. The old turnpike had been a route for motorized traffic since the turn of the century and still extended from Baltimore to St. Louis.
The odd-looking police procession was led by the police chief of Frostburg, Allegany’s second largest town. He had already guided the motorcade by most of the local tourist attractions in the Maryland panhandle. Here Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia converged with the far western sliver of the Old Line State. The motorcade passed a Christmas tree farm where five-year-old firs had been planted in the shape of a crucifix. The cop cars also filed by the tallest structure within miles, a four-story-high, rusting, iron frame skeleton that someday was supposed to replicate Noah’s Ark. A Pentecostal preacher in the area had been trying to get funding to complete the religious ruin for twenty-five years.
The Noah’s Ark homage and the Christmas tree farm were two of the premier attractions for this part of Maryland. Then the National Football League’s Washington Redskins decided to put their preseason training camp five miles up the road at Frostburg State University. Professional football, it could be argued, was also a religion for many of the men and women in the region.
The police drove by a local bar named the Wildwater Inn, where you could get Buffalo wings on Thursday nights for twenty-five cents each, past Kyle’s Towing, and then back down the hill that led to the bottom of Big Savage Mountain. The cavalcade turned right off U.S. 40 at the junction where the shuttered Green Lantern restaurant stood. The cops crossed back over I-68 on a narrow bridge until they reached Blocher Road.
The two-lane route was a three-mile ribbon of rolling hills. Next to the road more Christmas trees were planted—otherwise the land served as steep, forty-five-degree cow pastures. Blocher skirted the county line. It was just inside Garrett County with Allegany on its left as the law enforcement parade made its way down and into a hollow, the land rising to nearly vertical walls on both sides as the vehicle reached the end of its length. Despite being between the base of Big Savage and nearby Meadow Mountain, the citizens of Blocher Road were some two thousand feet above sea level.
The people who lived in this pastoral paradise had not known they were being watched. The local lawmen had been quiet in their surveillance of the rural neighborhood.
Near the corner of the two old roads, Ervin Wampler, a red-billed cap pulled tightly over his head, parked his pickup truck next to a jumbled cluster of postal boxes and plastic newspaper cubbyholes. He had stopped to grab his morning Cumberland Times-News and check for mail. When the caravan turned onto his road, he figured the cops were raiding one of the trailer homes that sat away from the road in the woods. Ervin had always wondered if something funny might be going down back there. Curious, he followed the police, tagging behind in his Ford truck.
Ervin was seventy-one and in need of more repair work on some of the arteries that pumped blood into his heart. His brown brick rambler, the last home on the left at the end of Blocher Road, was his retirement house. The dwelling was small. On the main level there were two bedrooms and a single bath. There was an unfinished basement below that, a deck out back, and a TV satellite dish next to the driveway. The attached two-car garage was nearly as big as the house itself. The place was far enough away from urban civilization that it was a rare day when deer failed to graze within sight of the front picture window. A bear had once appeared unannounced on his front doorstep and had to be shouted away.
The old man’s hair had faded to white. He was short, unimposing, but still sturdy, built rather like a fireplug. Ervin could be impressive while listening, fixing a gaze on you that rarely faltered. He was remembered as the kind of guy you might talk to for an hour and then tell people that “he didn’t look like he had a penny, but I bet he’s got millions socked away.”
The theory might have been true. Most of the land running up the hills in front of and behind his home was owned by the Wampler family patriarch. His father had once controlled more than two hundred acres of land in Garrett and Allegany counties. Over the years the property was divided among members of the Wampler clan. Ervin wound up with 110 acres on which he puttered about in his December years. He had a small haying operation, selling the wire-bound bales to nearby Holstein farmers. If the deal was right, Ervin might also sell off a few acres of timber rights, keeping the land. The earth was hard clay underneath, not good for much else—it was full of rocks. The soil’s chief virtue was that it held moisture well. That made it good for grass that grew high, perfect for hay.
Ervin Wampler was now the caboose for the chain of cop cars. He was surprised when they bypassed the trailers and stopped in front of his house.
Outside of it, his daughter, Vicky Wampler Wilson and her husband of four years, Garrett, sat on a shaded, raised cement slab which served as a porch. The concrete had been covered over with brown outdoor carpeting that matched the brick exterior of Ervin’s house. They were dressed in T-shirts and shorts, their feet jutting out onto the Wampler lawn. In the early morning light, they appeared to not have a care in the world.
The two looked to be about forty years old. Garrett was bulky. Although the baby fat had never left his face, his muscular body was a result of a lifetime spent lifting barbells in gyms. His round countenance gave him the look of someone always ready for a practical joke or a night filled with fun. Vicky usually kept her short blond hair carefully coiffed, but at this early hour it was flat and uncombed. They had been taking turns playing fetch with her husband’s golden retriever, Sassy, a recent birthday gift. Garrett had named it after a dog he’d had as a boy. Vicky had bought the animal a year ago when they were living in a lakefront community near Forth Worth, Texas.
Ervin liked his new son-in-law, despite knowing of what he believed were long-ago crimes of theft, some womanizing, and a history of free spending compounded by hiding from creditors. He thought that was over, part of the past. His church had taught him forgiveness, and Ervin now thought Garrett was one of the most wonderful individuals he had ever met.
“Garrett’s heart is as big as my truck,” he once told a visitor, pointing up at the dusty, rusting hulk resting diagonally on the side of the road in front of his house. He drove it only for errands—there was a new Lincoln for Sunday and wear-a-suit social affairs.
Ervin liked to tell of the time Garrett had taken some trash to the dump, then tipped the workmen at the refuse center by bringing them fruit pies from a local Amish market. Oh, he thought his son-in-law was a winner for sure.
It was Garrett Wilson who first saw the police posse pull up in front of the house, slamming car doors so loudly the sounds echoed off the mountains. The first cop ran into the woods behind the house with a K-9 Corps dog on a leash. He had a shotgun. Garrett thought there had been an escape from Western Correctional Institution, a state prison that was just over the next hill. Eager to join the chase, he began walking toward Ervin’s garage. His father-in-law kept his weapons there, and Garrett envisioned grabbing a shotgun and joining the hunt for the convicts. He didn’t get the opportunity. The uniforms were instead moving swiftly toward him, surrounding the house and blocking his path.
A woman in her early thirties was a part of the group. She was dressed in civilian clothing, wearing a tight-fitting shirt tucked into long pants, which gave her the shape of a Coke bottle. A brass cop’s badge was fastened to her belt and a holstered Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter police special was on her hip. These two amulets announced her authority. Garrett recognized the law woman. She was Meredith Hemma Dominick, a Montgomery County detective who had shown up in Texas without warning three years ago to ask him questions about his son, Garrett Michael. His namesake had died at the age of five months, diagnosed with sudden infant death syndrome. Detective Dominick seemed to imply that he might have killed the baby.
Today she was sure.
“Garrett Eldred Wilson, you are under arrest. Put your hands on the car,” a lawman next to her shouted.
Garrett tried to look puzzled, though he suspected the charge had been coming for weeks.
“What for?” he asked.
“The homicide of your child.”
It gave Meredith Dominick an enormous degree of satisfaction to see the arrest being made. She went up to him and looked directly into his eyes.
“Mr. Wilson, do you remember who I am?” she asked. There was no immediate answer from her prey. This was going to be her day.
Garrett looked back at her. He was frightened.
“You do look familiar. How did you find me?”
“I’m very good at my job,” she answered.
“I’m not going to miss this for anything,” the female sleuth had told her friends in the homicide—sex crimes division before leaving home the day before. At the time, Dominick joked to her colleagues about needing an extra-large set of handcuffs because Garrett’s wrists were so big. She had spent the night at the Wisp Hotel, normally the centerpiece of a nearby winter ski resort. She got six hours of sleep before a morning briefing at a quarter to seven. Now, her mission was nearly complete.
A uniformed lawman from Montgomery County—one of six cops she had handpicked—shackled Garrett’s wrists behind his back as another drew his police special, pointing it in his direction just in case the suspect got crazy and tried to run away. At the perimeter of the property, a lanky, perpetually tanned prosecutor from Montgomery County watched the arrest. He was more than six feet tall and looked as if he could be a good basketball player, which, in fact, he had once been. His name was David Boynton. He was the assistant state’s attorney and had been an important part of the Garrett Wilson investigation team since 1994. This morning he, too, was reaping the fruit from his years of labor.
The small army of lawmen served six search warrants. This allowed them to explore Ervin Wampler’s house and just about anything else in the vicinity.
“Anyone else inside?” an officer asked Vicky Wilson.
“Just my mother.”
One of the cops had Vicky take him to the master bedroom where her mother was still sleeping. Thelma Wampler was seventy and wouldn’t have been fazed if a bomb had exploded behind her. She wore a hearing aid in each ear. Without them she was nearly deaf. Both of them were removed when she slept. Her hair was hidden inside the sateen cap she wore to preserve the hairdo she got every other week at a Frostburg beauty shop. Thelma did not hear the young officer’s demand.
“You have to wake up, ma’am. You have to get dressed.”
Vicky put a hand on her mother’s shoulder. The old woman awoke to a strange sight. She had never seen a cop in her bedroom before. The bewildered grandmother was startled. She stuck in her hearing aids while Vicky tried to tell her what was happening to the family.
There were police in every room now. They pulled open drawers and rifled through them, opened closets and peered into boxes. They weren’t being pretty or neat about it, either. Papers from Garrett’s briefcase were placed on a bed and photographed. The ransacked rooms soon looked like a war zone, Vicky said later. What seemed to interest the searchers the most were photos, particularly pictures of infant children. They also seized anything that appeared to be a document or looked like old credit cards with the suspect’s name on it.
The two things they missed were Ervin’s safe and the barn. The old man stubbornly refused to give them the combination. Eventually an officer shrugged and the corps of cops gave up without a fight. The barn, out of sight and stuffed with hay, was passed on. One could surmise the officers simply didn’t care or know of its existence.
Vicky’s sister, Kathy, who lived just down the road, had been told of the commotion. Garrett and Vicky’s daughter, Marysa, had slept over at Kathy’s, sharing a bedroom with Kathy’s daughter, Kelsey. Both children were nearly five. They arrived just in time to see Garrett taken away in handcuffs and put into the front seat of a Maryland state trooper’s squad car. Marysa, a cute little girl with bangs and brown hair that fell below her shoulders, looked just like her father. The child asked her mother what was happening.
“They said your daddy did something wrong and now he’s got to prove he didn’t do it,” Vicky told her.
“But he’s in the front seat,” the little girl said. “Good people sit in the front and the bad ones are put in the back.”
Vicky didn’t have an answer for that.
After ransacking Ervin’s house, the army of police changed direction. They headed for the $700-a-month rented house Vicky and Garrett had just moved into, some twenty-five miles away. The three-bedroom home, on Lake Shore Drive near the town of McHenry, was across the street from Deep Creek Lake. The 3,900-acre man-made body of water appeared to be much larger than its size because of its multitentacled shape. The shoreline had seventy-eight miles of coves and fingers around the perimeter and was a mecca for sportsmen. Though the house was well beyond Garrett’s means, the couple had laid out a $2,000 security deposit on it just a week before. The house had prestige, the kind of waterfront address that impressed people.
A rented moving van was in the driveway. This stopped the cops at first. They didn’t tell Vicky whether they had a warrant for the vehicle. It wasn’t necessary. When they asked her to open it, she did so without question. The van was empty. The cops had enough anyway. By the time they were finished, seventeen boxes had been collected and tagged as evidence.
On another part of the lake, in a windowless room at the Maryland State Police Barracks, Garrett Wilson was being interrogated, accused of murdering his infant son in 1987. He was told they also suspected him of killing his daughter, Brandi, in 1981. The two-month-old had also been diagnosed with SIDS. They said the death penalty would apply in each case. The questions would be fired at him nonstop for three hours.
“I’m not going to sit here and talk to you without a lawyer,” Garrett pleaded.
“You don’t need an attorney,” a cop shot back. “Just answer the questions.”
After two hours of questioning, Meredith Dominick received a letter by fax from Bill Saltysiak, a local lawyer hastily hired by the Wamplers. The message warned her that he was representing Garrett and his client was “asserting his right to remain silent.” The cops ignored the attorney.
“It’s the defendant who has to assert the right to remain silent, in my opinion,” a detective told Saltysiak.
His interrogators showed Garrett the charges a second time. The death penalty did apply, they reminded him once again. So Garrett talked. And talked. David Boynton had thought he would. The Montgomery County prosecutor’s view of Garrett Wilson was that he was one smooth, slick salesman who felt he could worm his way out of any predicament.
At four in the afternoon, their suspect was put in the back of a squad car for the 135-mile drive to the Montgomery County Detention Center. Meredith Dominick’s cuffs cut so tightly into his wrists there was soon a crimson circle around them, with Garrett in danger of bleeding. The cops noticed the rawness thirty miles down the road, just after passing Cumberland, the Allegany county seat. They stopped the vehicle by the Rocky Gap State Park exit next to the interstate and recuffed their prisoner, this time allowing him to place his hands in front of his body. He was also switched from the backseat to a more comfortable position next to the driver. His captors were determined to handle him humanely.
“I guess it’s been a long time since you’ve been to Montgomery County,” Dominick said as they sped east on the hilly freeway.
Her suspect disagreed. He told her he had just been in the Washington area to show Vicky the neighborhood where he’d grown up. He had also recently driven his father-in-law to a District of Columbia hospital for surgery. Garrett chatted with the detective until he tired. Soon he nodded off and slept like a baby the rest of the way.
As the captured Garrett Wilson was being sped toward the Detention Center, his accuser, Mary “Missy” Anastasi, was summoned to the Montgomery County Judicial Center. Until 1993, the blonde, whose best feature was her large green eyes, had been Garrett’s wife. After he divorced her and married Vicky, she had lobbied the police to charge her former husband with killing their son. She wondered why she had been asked to report to the courthouse once again. Missy was tired, angry and frustrated with the lack of action by the local legal authorities. A woman offered her a soft drink as she seated herself at the head of a long table.
“I know you think we haven’t been working on your case, but in fact we have for years,” a prosecutor at the other end told her. “Garrett Wilson was arrested this morning in Frostburg, Maryland.”
Missy Anastasi began sobbing. She hugged her cousin, a Montgomery County police sergeant, who had accompanied her to the offices.
“We did it,” she cried. “We finally did it.”
Her cousin telephoned her mother. He said Missy was a hero.
Two weeks later a tornado descended near Blocher Road, destroying twenty-nine houses, knocking down trees, and bending steel poles. It was the first twister anyone could remember in the western Maryland highlands. For the Wilson family, the disaster felt like an omen. The life they knew had changed for the worst. With her husband in jail and charged with murder, Vicky and her family’s world was filled with black clouds.
Garrett’s current wife began smoking again, though she knew he hated her habit, sucking on the Salem 100s cigarettes as if each time she inhaled might be her last. In the months that followed, friends often asked Vicky about her husband’s status.
“It’s all in God’s hands now,” she told them. She believed Garrett was innocent, framed by Missy, the spurned wife who had lost him to her five years before.
A LONER IN FRIENDLY
When Ethel Mae Garrett wanted to impress people, she would tell them she was descended from the Garrett tobacco family of Virginia. The boast was only partly true. She was born in Pamplin, North Carolina, in 1921 while her father, Kendrick Garrett, worked for the Tar Heel State, building dams and bringing electricity to thousands. His family had once been the Garretts of Garrett Snuff, a branded brown dust manufactured in Lynchburg, the beginning of the Bible Belt in Virginia. One could choose to either tuck a pinch of the powder below the lower lip, hold it inside the cheek, or inhale the mixture into and through the nostrils before spitting the residue into the dirt. All three methods forced the nicotine to seep into wet exposed tissue, providing an addictive jolt of cheap pleasure.
Ethel was one of ten. Her mother, Araminta, specialized in popping out babies as if they were sugar peas fresh from the pod. She produced one child each year throughout the 1920s. Most were girls. By that time she truly could claim to be a Garrett of Virginia. Kendrick had moved the family to Burkeville in Nottoway County after the Great Depression began. This time he built dams and bridges for one of Franklin Roosevelt’s creations—the Civilian Conservation Corps—out of a nearby army base called Camp Pickett.
Araminta and Kendrick’s home was on South Agnew Street. It was a big, white, five-bedroom house with four columns in front, one of the largest homes in town. Black potbellied stoves heated it in the winter. In the summer, there were ceiling fans to move the hot, humid air.
Burkeville, population five hundred, was fifty-five miles southwest of Richmond. Outside the town, the land was justly famed for a loamy soil, which produced the highest grades of flue-cured, premium tobacco. Curing sheds, where temperatures shot up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer as workers stacked the harvested leaves inside them, dotted the rolling green fields of Nottoway County.
Araminta was an exotic moniker, but her son and daughters had plain, traditional names. The siblings were Mary, Edith, Faye, Lucie, Willard, Bobby, and Harriet. One girl, Virginia, was a victim of Down syndrome. Araminta lost another son giving birth.
Most of the Garrett brood had reached its teens by the time the world’s financial markets crashed. Living in a farming village such as Burkeville cushioned the blow. The Garretts felt the effect of the Depression far less than the unfortunates of the big cities.
By the end of the thirties, Kendrick was dead from a heart ailment and all of the younger Garretts were adults. With the exception of Virginia, they began streaming out of Burkeville. Most heeded the siren call from Washington. In the pages of National Geographic, they had lingered over the photos of the buildings and monuments in the great capital. Now it came to life before their eyes. On the banks of the great Potomac River, each of them sought a prize—the stability of a government job. Paychecks with a federal seal never bounced. When you reached sixty-five, you got a pension. What more could one want? Ethel Garrett, a five foot seven, handsome, round-faced woman who friends thought resembled Shelley Winters, had one of these coveted positions when she was eighteen. She was soon wed, and life seemed perfect.
But her modest fairy-tale beginning would have an unhappy ending. In later life, Ethel would claim that her first husband was “impotent” and that the wedding had been a sham from the start. After a decade in this nearsexless marriage that produced no children, the union was annulled.
Her closest confidante in Washington became Iris Young, who worked with Ethel at the Department of Agriculture. Iris had made her way to the nation’s capital from West Virginia. The two women became so intertwined in each other’s lives that when Ethel became engaged to Howard Eldred Wilson III and Iris to Carl Farley, the pair planned their weddings fourteen days apart so each could attend the other’s nuptials.
Eldred—he never used his first name or the fancy Roman numerals—was considered handsome, a comer. His great-grandparents had arrived in Washington more than a century earlier from Scotland. Whether fact or fantasy, it was part of Wilson family lore that somewhere near Edinburgh was a castle in which their ancestors had once resided.
A native of the federal city, he had been a star tennis player in his youth and voted “Most Likely to Succeed” in 1926 by his class at Eastern High School. For a while he seemed to be headed for broadcast stardom. In the 1930s he was chosen to read the Sunday comics with Arthur Godfrey on a local radio station, long before the broadcaster began his CBS career.
When Eldred was a young man, his widowed mother acquired a stately home on McArthur Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the far western corner of Washington. Eldred’s sister, Eleanor, and her husband, Donald Ward, joined her in the large house. Eldred’s mother would live to be ninety-eight. If genes were a factor, her son had every right to expect a long and healthy life.
Eldred had gone to a local business college named for Benjamin Franklin, which specialized in accounting and financial courses. He had parlayed this business education into a career at Lincoln National Bank, which later merged into the city’s largest financial institution, Riggs Bank. In 1947, he learned that the U.S. House of Representatives wanted a professional banker to supervise its payroll inside the Sergeant at Arms office. Eldred, who was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday, jumped at the chance. He was immediately hired to the post, considered a plum position.
“I never understood why they want government desk jobs,” remembered Carl Farley. The husband of Ethel’s best friend managed a series of wholesale food warehouses. Farley’s job allowed him to go from the inside of the building to the outside several times a day.
Ethel wed Eldred on August 11, 1951. Iris and Carl’s ceremony was held on the twenty-fifth. None of their friends thought it peculiar that Eldred was forty-three, thirteen years older than his wife. Instead, they were happy that Ethel had found happiness after the disastrous first marriage. Eldred also carried personal history into the marriage. He had once fathered a child with a girlfriend and named the boy after himself. The two married for a short time, but when he divorced the woman, he failed to support her or his son. He had also married a second time, with that alliance quickly going sour. Ethel whispered these secrets to Iris, and the stories became common knowledge.
Ethel quit her nine-to-five government job. She was determined to spend the rest of her life as Eldred’s wife and a mother of many children.
They newlyweds shared a love of bowling. Both became involved in recreational leagues, showing up at the local lanes until their health faltered. They also liked to play cards. There were no other joint activities.
Separately, Ethel attended meetings of the Eastern Star, the female branch of the Masonic Fraternity. Eldred’s sport was baseball. As a teen, he had sold peanuts at Griffith Stadium, then the home of the American League’s underachieving Washington Senators. During the long summers, so hot and humid that a foggy mist rose from the city’s two rivers as morning dawned, he contented himself by listening to each Senators’ game on WTOP, the home team’s play-by-play radio voice.
The two women were so emotionally close to one another, it seemed natural that the first homes the Wilsons and Farleys purchased were less than two blocks apart. In the early 1950s, home ownership was a tangible sign of affluence. Their small starter homes were fifteen minutes from the Capitol, across the Anacostia River, up a hill from Bolling Air Force Base, and about a mile from the Maryland state line. The Farley’s house on First Street Southwest wasn’t that much different from the Wilson’s home on Second Street.
“They had a brick house with some stonework in front and a concrete retaining wall,” John Farley, the eldest of Carl and Iris Farley’s three children, recalled. John, born in January of 1956, would be followed by Stephen and then Linda, all in the space of five years.
Ethel and Eldred finally had a son of their own on June fourteenth, but having children had not been easy. In the first five years of marriage the Wilsons had seen three chances at parenthood go bad. The first baby was stillborn, and the other two infants died from undiagnosed illnesses during the first three months of life.
Ethel was determined to succeed. After Eldred impregnated her a fourth time, she decided to give birth alone. As soon as her labor began, she marched three blocks to a bus stop at the corner of South Capital Street in blistering summer heat, took the transit vehicle to Doctor’s Hospital, and checked herself in while Eldred continued to do the work of the nation at the U.S. Capitol. She told nobody about the impending delivery.
“My mother was thirty-five at the time. She already had the first signs of glaucoma. She had gone through two heart attacks, and early arthritis was making her fingers curl like a hawk’s claws. The doctors told her it would be risky to give her a lot of drugs, so I was born by cesarean. I don’t think there was any anesthesia. Mom was partly propped up so she could see herself giving birth,” her son explained to an interviewer.
Determined to pass on her ancestor’s name, and knowing this might be her last chance to do so, Ethel named the boy Garrett Eldred. The tobacco family lineage was safely perpetuated for one more generation.
But Garrett and Ethel were close, perhaps too close. “Why, my God, she breast-fed him until he was four,” confided an amazed Jackie Sandoe, who married Eldred’s nephew.
Ethel teased him about it when he got older. She said she was trying to beat the record of one of Eldred’s relatives who had nursed her baby until the boy was five. Her tasteless remarks in front of family friends embarrassed him as he grew older.
“You did chin-ups on my boobs forever,” she would say.
After their baby was brought home from the hospital, his father purchased a female boxer dog and named it Kris. The animal was trained to protect the child from harm. It sat at the top of the stairs near the entrance of their son’s nursery. When anyone other than the parents approached his crib, the canine would bark loudly.
The Wilsons and the Farleys expected Garrett and John to be friends, and they were, becoming inseparable. The green woods in front of the Wilson house was their after-school playground.
Access to power has always been the road to success in Washington. Eldred became firmly ensconced in the Sergeant at Arms office and soon began to associate with the power congressmen of the era. Framed pictures with Sam Rayburn, Carl Albert, and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill were displayed in his office. Ethel was equally proud of a photo of her waltzing at the White House with Harry Truman. Promotion followed promotion. This allowed Eldred and Ethel to buy a much larger house in 1967. Their new home was east of the Capitol in an unincorporated suburban Maryland town. The signs said Friendly, but the name was meaningless. There was no government, no city center, no sense of belonging to a community. And if you told someone a few miles away you were from Friendly, you would be asked this question: Where is that?
Prince George’s County, which surrounded Friendly, was (and still is) Washington’s only bordering suburb that can be called determinedly working class. In the 1960s, the county’s population was 400,000. (It is nearly double that today.) Eldred wore a suit and tie to Capitol Hill, but in truth, he was resolutely blue collar and knew it. Eldred rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the nation each day, but he knew the pecking order and where he stood, which was closer to the bottom than to the top. Any resentment he had was pacified by daily doses of hard liquor, a habit that grew into an incurable dependency.
Eldred decided on the show model in a development called Caltor Manor. The Wilson family’s home was the first one on Caltor Lane, a string of houses much like their own that stretched down the hilly street for nearly a mile. Eldred and Ethel’s residence was a white brick split level placed diagonally on a quarter-acre lot. The home came complete with a carport and features known as “builder’s extras.”
The architect for the project trimmed the front of the Wilson’s house with columns of black wrought iron, giving it a faux New Orleans feeling. Ethel, Eldred, and Garrett moved into the house in May of 1967. It was remembered as an awkward time for their son, who spent the last month of the fifth grade in an unfamiliar elementary school.
For demonstration purposes, the sales force for Caltor Manor had equipped Eldred’s house with a pair of kitchens. The second one remained even after they moved in. The extra refrigerator and stove in the basement would have been costly to rip out, and the Wilsons decided to keep their little bonus. As Garrett became older, the self-contained basement became his domain. Unlike most boys, he had a virtual apartment within the family home before he was a teenager.
It was expected that the Farleys would follow the Wilsons into Maryland. They did, but moved to New Carrollton, about fifteen miles away. Their new address was closer to Carl’s job. John, now in a different school district, was separated from his friend during the school week. Garrett never formed close friendships with other boys, by high school gaining a reputation as a bit of a loner, according to the neighbors who remembered the family.
As an only child, Garrett was closer to his parents than most children. Fortunately, he failed to inherit their worst habits. Though short in stature, Eldred was considered good looking by his Caltor Lane neighbors until drink began distorting his features. By the end of the 1960s he had become a barrel-chested, three-pack-per-day smoker and a confirmed double-measure scotch and water drinker, good for several shots each evening. The drinking increased as he aged. Carrying a whisky nightcap to bed became a tradition. By any standard, he was an alcoholic and a frequent drunk. Ethel was a smoker until she quit in her forties. And while she joined her husband for cocktails at five, Ethel never became bound to liquor as her husband did.
“He held court every afternoon with a happy hour when he came home from Capitol Hill,” John Farley recalled. “Eldred had his bar just behind the dining room table and he’d walk back and forth to the kitchen to get the water for his drinks. He began with beer and usually switched to the scotch by nine.”
John remembered a truck pulling up to the Wilson’s house twice each week. A man with a cart on wheels would deliver boxes of beer. “It was a real cheap brand called Hal’s. He was usually good for two or three cases.”
Eldred kept a television set in the dining room and a small radio to listen to the baseball games on during the summer. He installed a small sofa next to the table, and the room became his kingdom.
As he grew older, Garrett would join his parents in these evening drinking sessions. But he never took up smoking, rarely drank spirits, and only occasionally sipped a beer. Garrett Wilson said liquor gave him headaches and made him wake up the next day feeling sick. Nor did he ever experiment with drugs. His one vice was food—all the wrong kind. Garrett would put down glass after glass of rich whole milk while eating unlimited double slices of baloney, the brand impregnated with cheese chunks. By the time he was ten he had begun to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy.
On Sundays, Garrett was a regular at the First Baptist Church of Friendly. He was considered a gifted baritone, able to lead the choir with his voice. Garrett’s mother was usually in church by her son’s side. The two didn’t seem to miss Eldred. A nominal Episcopalian, Eldred wasn’t much of a churchgoer. Still, he took part in Ethel’s nightly Bible lessons at the dining room table, albeit with a beer and a cigarette in his hand. Eldred was more than willing to bow his head or say grace before each meal, another ritual Ethel insisted on. Despite his lack of attendance in houses of worship, Eldred could quote Scripture better than any traveling evangelist.
At ten, Garrett was able to replace the Sunday morning church pianist if needed. He had begun to play the instrument just a year before.
“When I was nine I was walking by a local piano chain, Jordan Kitt’s, with my mother,” Garrett recalled. “I went into their showroom, sat down at the piano, and played ‘The Marine Hymn.’ My mother was totally surprised. She didn’t know I could play at all.”
Garrett was precocious. He had taught himself the tune while staying at an aunt’s house the previous week. Ethel thought she had a young Mozart on her hands and immediately hired a music tutor to give him lessons. But after a couple of sessions, Garrett quit.
“My teacher, Mrs. Galloway, wanted me to play one type of music, and I wanted to play another. Except for a few lessons on the organ when I was fourteen, those were the only ones I ever had,” Garrett said.
Most people would say Garrett was spoiled. His indulgent parents refused to command a classic musical discipline for him and never found a mentor who might have made his talent bloom to the fullest. They had problems of their own. Ethel’s health was growing more precarious. Eldred’s lifelong dependency on nicotine and booze was beginning to take its toll. He was often short of breath, experiencing the first signs of what would be diagnosed as emphysema.
Garrett certainly had enough talent to make others take notice. He could listen to any melody on the radio and usually duplicate the tune within an hour. He played Chopin without difficulty, but instead chose to learn the pop melodies of the day—bland soft rock offerings by the likes of John Denver or Neil Diamond. Garrett’s interpretations were more than passable, yet after reaching this middle plateau, he seemed to be satisfied. He made no effort to take his considerable skills to higher levels.
At times Eldred could be a disciplinarian. Until he was eleven Garrett was beaten with his dad’s belt whenever he got out of line. His father’s other method of punishment was to creep into the bathroom when his son was showering and whack him on the back with the flat of the hand. The pain was magnified by the contact with the wet skin.
“He would have the belt out as soon as he walked through the door from work. It was usually because I had argued with my mother. The beatings never lasted long. He was always in a hurry to open up the liquor cabinet and have his first drink,” Garrett said.
By high school, Garrett was grossly overweight. He had grown to his final height, five foot ten, and his weight was above 250 pounds. In his early teens, he had tried to toughen up by working a summer construction job, but the baby fat that filled his cheeks would never leave. He tried out for, and made, Friendly High School’s varsity wrestling squad, but he was just average. His mediocre record inspired him to begin lifting free weights in an attempt to become more successful at the sport.
The rotund teen was more successful in his high school choir. As a senior he was an “All County” selection. And though he had few male buddies save for his steady friend, John Farley, he more than made up for it with the girls. Garrett Wilson’s greatest success was as a teen Romeo, given to smooth compliments and extravagant romantic gestures. His gifts would wow scores of impressionable young women.
“He could talk the fleas off a dog,” remembered John Farley.
A typical Garrett romance was Jane Edmunds, a girl who lived next door, the daughter of the minister of the Baptist Church he and his mother attended. In her sophomore yearbook he would write,
You’re a crazy girl (sometimes). But you can be as sweet as sugar. I love the privaledge [sic] of living next to you for several years???? Ha! Ha! Well Sis, Good luck in the future with the boys.
The next year, at the age of seventeen, he proposed.
“He asked me to marry him in the eleventh grade,” the preacher’s daughter recalled. “He once sent me several dozen roses, and when he popped the question he had a diamond ring with him. We hadn’t gone out that much, but I have to say, he certainly was a ladies’ man. I suppose that was surprising, considering what he had to work with.”
He didn’t have a fancy car. Though Garrett bought a clunker at age sixteen, he continued to catch the school bus to and from Friendly High, sometimes walking the one-mile distance by taking a shortcut through the woods. His dates were simple. They usually consisted of inviting a girl to his family’s home and into the basement, where he would serenade her with music, sometimes singing along to a hit tune of the day. Eldred Wilson’s 1970 Chevy Monte Carlo was available, but it wasn’t Garrett’s first line of romantic offense when it came to comely young girls and affairs of the heart.
He was a talker, as smooth as silk. His personality was enough to get Virginia Fort, a blonde in the drama club described as “the prettiest girl at Friendly High,” to go to the senior prom with him. Though it was a coup and cause for envy, he remembered it as a platonic night out. The two were buddies only. Eldred had just purchased a new 1974 Chevy Impala, and let Garrett borrow it for the event, held at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
The other high point of his high school years came when his Spanish class made an Easter week journey to Mexico City. Garrett was a fifteen-year-old sophomore when the trip was announced, and both parents balked at letting him loose in what Eldred called a “Third World country.”
“On Christmas day they put a camera and some pesos in my stocking. At the bottom, near the toe, was a card that read ONE TRIP TO MEXICO CITY, with a copy of the two-hundred-fifty-dollar check they had written as a down payment for the plane fare,” Garrett said.
The Mexican adventure was not without mishaps. Garrett went out alone and promptly became lost, his Spanish not quite good enough to assure his quick return. He was also seduced by an older senior girl who then conned him into lending her his last seventy dollars. When he came home, he told his parents about the money. Eldred became so incensed he went to the girl’s house and made her father pay the money back. Later, Eldred gave Garrett some fatherly advice about women that his son took to heart.
“There are lots of them. And sometimes, if they don’t want you, they don’t want you.”
The Wilson family made two out-of-town journeys each year. The first was a regular Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Burkeville. Araminta, who lived into her nineties, would preside over the holiday feast. Garrett’s uncle Willard would always drive over from Lynchburg, and some of Ethel’s sisters would make an appearance. The holiday get-togethers were as close as the Wilsons ever came to sibling reunions.
The other holiday was a weeklong summer vacation trip to Piney Point, on Route 5 in southern Maryland. The three Wilsons would rent a waterfront cottage near the mouth of the Potomac River, just before it joined the Chesapeake Bay. There they would play long card games—canasta and pinochle—or their favorite board game, Scrabble.
“The Potomac is five miles wide at that point and we’d go fishing. But I would have to catch him early, before he got drunk,” Eldred’s son explained.
His father was a formal, pretentious man. He wore a different suit each day and wouldn’t take it off until his bedtime. At one time he owned nearly fifty such costumes, filling several closets. Dinners were a ritual. Eldred expected three-course meals, and the one in the evening was expected to be the likes of a pot roast, or a whole stuffed chicken. Ethel spoiled him as she did her son, giving him just what he wanted.
After his graduation from Friendly High School, on June 30, 1974, Garrett drifted. Surprisingly, his parents, who always said their son would be a doctor when he reached adulthood, had given him no education plan or real push in any scholarly direction insofar as what he should become. Eldred and Ethel never drove him to visit a university campus. Grades, remembered as mostly A and B marks, and SAT scores between 1200 and 1300 were good enough to get him admitted to most colleges. His parents never even encouraged him to apply. Eventually, Garrett took a couple of business courses at a local community college and that became the extent of his higher education. Instead he became good at golf, played piano on weekends at Lyle’s (a steak restaurant near his house), and, with Eldred’s help, got some short-term menial jobs in the government. They were usually at the U.S. Capitol, where he toiled as a $3.15-per-hour carpenter’s helper, and later, as an elevator operator for five dollars an hour.
Garrett’s father also found him his first steady employment. In November of 1975, he pushed his son into taking a position in the computer division of Riggs Bank at the corner of 9th and F Streets in Washington, one block from FBI headquarters. The salary was $240 a week. Since Eldred had jump-started his own career at Riggs, it was assumed Garrett would surely want to follow in Eldred’s footsteps. The job was far from glamorous. The bank started him out on the midnight-to-dawn shift in an interior room.
A year out of high school, Garrett had become, at best, a weekend piano player and a graveyard-shift banking clerk. Did he want more? If he had higher dreams and ambitions, they were not evident to those who knew him well.
His parents seemed happy to drift. Eldred was forced to retire from his job at the U.S. House of Representatives within days of Garrett’s high school graduation. After twenty-eight years of government service, his health had been poisoned from a lifetime of too much liquor and far too many cigarettes.
“I remember my mother appearing at the end of Friendly High School’s stadium in the fall of 1973,” Garrett remembered. “I was running track after a wrestling practice. She was petrified with fear. My father had collapsed at the Capitol and we had to go to pick him up. It was an emphysema attack. He couldn’t function anymore.”
Eldred received 80 percent of his salary, and was guaranteed yearly cost-of-living increases after he ended his career. He appeared to be financially set for the rest of his life.
It was doomed to be a short and unhappy retirement. His health was failing badly. By now he needed to clamp an oxygen mask over his face several times each day. Ethel’s condition was worse. Her clogged heart was severely damaged. The arteries that provided blood to the life-giving organ had been partially blocked for years.
In 1970, Ethel walked outside the house to saw down some tree limbs in the backyard. After the chore, she felt a burning inside her breast. Ethel thought she had torn a chest muscle. A few days later, when she went to her doctor, he told her that besides the injury, she had also suffered a third coronary. Her heart had been damaged further because of her stoic refusal to seek medical attention for the pain.
Whatever status Eldred had once enjoyed on Capitol Hill quickly evaporated. When he tried to return to the hallowed U.S. House of Representatives, he was embarrassed.
“I went with Dad when he attempted to go back to the Sergeant at Arms office for a visit after he retired,” Garrett recalled. “He was wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt, some funny-colored slacks, and moccasins. The clothing was totally out of character for him. When he tried to get on the elevator he had been whisked up in every day he worked there, the operator didn’t recognize him. He argued with my father about whether he should let him get on. Dad never went back.”
Neither Ethel nor Eldred had any wants left. Experiencing the joys of world travel or attempting something new during their senior years was not part of their personalities. They were content enough just to drink, smoke, and occasionally indulge themselves with a night out at a booze-and-beef chain restaurant until the end of their days. With no urgency in their lives, they felt no need to take risks or take on challenges. Their health was now in steep decline and became their primary concern. These frequent medical traumas, combined with Eldred’s ever-increasing expenditures on liquor and cigarettes, also prevented them from partaking of luxuries.
“Yeah, I did have good grades—a 3.2 high school average,” Garrett recalled. “The reason I never made a commitment to go further in school is because there was always a crisis of some kind at home. Every time I tried to focus on a career, something would happen to their health. I think I always had the idea in my mind of becoming some sort of performer, but that never worked out.”
By the end of 1975, his father’s alcoholism had progressed to a point where on most nights he would drink himself into a liquor-induced coma. Eldred often fell down or stumbled badly as he made his way up to his bedroom. On one occasion, a drunken fall fractured a bone in the lower part of his spine, immobilizing him for months. The cigarettes and the scotch had exacted a severe price. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1970. A year later, a diseased kidney was removed, followed by the gall bladder, with the final signs of emphysema beginning to painfully immobilize his body. He had to take medicine to keep his pancreas functioning.
Eldred’s once handsome face now appeared unhealthy, a beet-red mass of inflamed broken blood vessels. He began to gasp with each step, unable to walk more than a few feet at a time. Garrett became both the family bookkeeper and the parental caretaker while barely out of his teens. None of these medical nightmares put any damper on his father’s drinking and smoking, though. Stubborn to the end, Eldred did make the concession of switching to low tar and nicotine cigarettes, but immediately neutralized any benefit by upping the number he smoked by a pack a day.
“My mother would come down after he was asleep and talk with me about ways we could get him to cut back. But my dad would never consider any of this for a moment.”
Garrett Wilson said he knew both of his parents were slowly dying before his eyes. He always thought his dad would go first.
Garrett’s reign as the Casanova of Caltor Manor eventually got him into trouble. In the mid-1970s, he met an eighteen-year-old brunette named Shelly at a Baptist Church in nearby Camp Springs, Maryland. Shelly had been a year behind Garrett in school and was a senior at Friendly’s sports nemesis, Crossland High.
Both must have slept through the normal fire-and-brimstone Baptist Church sermons. They quickly became intimate, and within months Shelly was with child in the most biblical sense of the phrase. Garrett promised to marry her so the child wouldn’t be labeled a bastard, and he did that, on March 17, 1976, at a courthouse ceremony in Upper Marlboro, the Prince George’s county seat. Shelly was seven months pregnant at the time the ceremony was performed. Both of them were still in their teens. Still, Garrett lived up to his rakish reputation by secretly dating one of Shelly’s rivals, a blonde looker named Kim, before and after the short-lived wedding. The day after the ceremony, Shelly announced they were separated. The news was given in writing to the courts by her just-hired divorce lawyer, Gary Alexander.
A boy, whom Shelly named Billy Alan, was born on May 16, 1976. Garrett would never take part in the infant’s care, and after Shelly fulfilled the state’s requirement of a year’s separation, she filed for divorce on the first day of April in 1977.
After the divorce complaint was filed, Garrett denied he was the father of the boy in an attempt to avoid paying child support. When he filed a financial statement showing he had a negative net worth, Shelly’s demand for child support was tabled by the divorce court judge. Her plea for financial aid was not presented again.
Eldred managed to keep the squalid affair so quiet even Ethel didn’t find out. Few of their neighbors ever knew Garrett had married, fathered a boy, separated, and gotten divorced, all in the space of less than two years. Shelly moved to California and remarried. She tried to forget the youthful error.
“Shelly? I never knew about that one,” said Garrett’s best friend, John Farley, when asked about the relationship.
WHILE INNOCENTS SLEPT. Copyright © 2001 by Adrian Havill. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.