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A True Story of Murder in North Carolina
By Lynn Chandler-Willis
Addicus Books, Inc.Copyright © 2000 Lynn Chandler-Willis
All rights reserved.
Who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword.
Hebrews 11: 33-34
October 9, 1995 8:40 P.M.
Richard Blakley took off his shoes and wiggled his toes. His feet were tired. They were always tired this time of night. Maintaining BP's fuel pumps was tiring enough, but the hour-and-a-half daily drive from Pleasant Garden, North Carolina, to Raleigh, the state's capital, wore him out.
Richard had just settled into his worn recliner when lights flashed through the window. He heard a truck engine running and waited for it to shut off, but it didn't.
His daughter-in-law, Kristy Blakley, burst through the back door. "You've got to come! Now!" she screamed. Her narrow cheeks were flushed and reddened with tears. "Hurry! There's no time."
"Kristy, what's the —"
"Hurry!" she screamed, all ninety pounds of her pushing Richard outside to the waiting truck.
"At least let me get my shoes." Richard turned back toward the house, but Kristy grabbed his arm.
"No! There's no time! We've got to go now!" Her words were clipped, escaping between gasps and sobs.
This wasn't like Kristy at all. She seldom let excitement, good or bad, overrule her quiet, reserved nature.
Richard slapped the seat belt around himself as the pickup gained momentum. He braced his hand across the roof of the truck since Kristy wasn't slowing for the potholes that canyoned the private road. "Honey, we're not going to be any good to anyone if we don't get there in one piece."
Kristy wiped the back of her small hand against her cheek but didn't respond.
"Kristy, please tell me what's the matter," Richard begged, his voice rising with fear.
Her knuckles were white from gripping the wheel, her eyes fixed on the gravel road ahead. As she turned off Branchwater Road onto Highway 22, she yanked the truck back into the right lane.
Dusk had already fallen. The acres of farmland and pasture along Highway 22 blended into the outline of trees and woods. The porch lights of neighbors' houses, people Richard had known all his life, glared like fireflies as the truck raced by.
"It's ... it's ... Patricia," Kristy finally stuttered. "There's a fire."
Richard's heart stopped. Fear clamped it like a vise, then gradually released its hold, allowing the fright to spread through his body like a fast-growing cancer.
"Patricia ..." It was the only word he could say as thoughts of his only daughter raced through his mind.
Even through the darkness, Richard could see ominous black smoke roiling from the chimney and seeping from the vents of his daughter's ranch-style home. He prayed it was all just a bad dream, that the smoke was really just a thick fog clouding his perception.
Richard's son, Reuben Blakley, rushed to meet them in the front yard. "I think Patricia's inside, Daddy. I think she's in there." Reuben bent over, gasping for breath, crying. Kristy grabbed her husband's hand and squeezed it tightly.
In his stocking feet, Richard ran from window to window of the gray-sided house, pounding on the white-hot glass, screaming his daughter's name.
Twenty-four-year-old Alan Fields buckled his helmet and leapt from the jump seat of the fire engine. An uneasy feeling gripped Alan, a six-year veteran of the Pleasant Garden Fire Department, when he heard dispatch's second call. Dispatch said someone may be trapped inside. Dispatch's first call had confirmed that it was Ted and Patricia Kimble's house. Theirs was the only house on Brandon Station Court. Now, as Alan eyed Patricia's car in the driveway, he feared the worst.
Alan knew Ted and Patricia well. He had gone to school with Ted; he had dated Patricia's cousin. At times like this, he wished he were a paid fireman assigned to another department. Maybe one not so close to home.
Thick smoke poured from the vents, growing blacker, more threatening. Alan grabbed the preconnect hose and jerked it into the carport. Two other firemen joined him on the line and waited as Alan tested the back door. Even through his gloves, the door was hot, almost scorching, but it pushed open easily.
Instantly, as Alan entered the house, searing heat and blinding smoke enveloped him. "Good God!" he yelled. Never in his career had Alan felt such intense heat.
Crouching, Alan and the two other firemen moved forward, struggling against the thick smoke as if it were quicksand. But the heat was just too much. Alan motioned the men backward, praying they could see him through the smoke.
Outside, Alan jerked his mask off and gulped fresh air. Sweat cascaded down his forehead and stung his eyes. "Smoke's too thick," he puffed. "We're gonna have to use the fans."
A large crowd began to gather on the front lawn. They huddled together near the street, uncertainty, panic, and horror etched into their faces. Several were members of Patricia's family. Others, like Alan, had gone to school with Ted or Patricia or knew them through church. Pleasant Garden was a tight-knit community. A community people seldom left. Those who did leave always came back, sooner or later.
Alan looked back at the smoldering house, the hellhole from which he had come. If Patricia was inside, there was no way in heaven she could still be alive. Tragedies like this weren't supposed to happen in Pleasant Garden. Especially to someone as good as Patricia Blakley Kimble.
On the front side of the house, another fireman smashed the window of the master bedroom with a metal rod and reached through the shattered glass. He groped anything his hand landed upon, hoping a body might be within his reach.
Suddenly, he saw a red-orange glow through the smoke in the hallway, just beyond the bedroom. "We've got flames!" he shouted. He knocked the remaining shards of glass from the window and crawled through, pulling the hose with him.
While a two-man crew went through the window, Alan and his line crew pushed their way into the kitchen. The fans had vented little of the smoke but enough to let them enter.
Although slight of build, Alan had no trouble wrestling the heavy hose and its explosive power as the pressurized water blasted relief to the peeling walls. He pulled the line through the kitchen, the living room, into the hallway. Smoke-grayed insulation and disintegrating Sheetrock littered the floor.
The flames seen earlier were already extinguished. But the smoke was still so thick, Alan could only see inches ahead. All of a sudden, the floor was no longer there. He had come upon the hole so quickly, all he could do was fall.
A four-foot hole had burned through the flooring, dumping a mound of smoldering debris into the crawl space beneath the house. Alan rolled off the heated mound and brushed pieces of the debris aside. But the bulk of it didn't move.
It was too hard to be insulation. Too soft to be a floor joist.
"Oh no," Alan mumbled. Fighting to keep his composure, he yelled up to the others. "We've got a body!"CHAPTER 2
On October 9, 1995, Detective Jim Church was working an off-duty uniform assignment at the Southern Auto Auction when he received the page. The managers of the auction had known beforehand that Church was on call. They also knew his responsibilities to the Major Crimes Unit of the Guilford County Sheriff's Department came first.
Although a fifteen-year veteran, Church had come to the Sheriff's Department later in life than most. Now, at forty-nine, his sand-brown hair had begun to show flecks of gray around his temples. He fretted about the thought of an expanding waistline despite his well-trimmed six-foot frame.
Church hailed from North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains and carried the slow, easy manner with him when he uprooted and headed for Guilford County, located in the north-central part of the state. He was a meticulous thinker, choosing to fully evaluate a situation before acting or even speaking. He spoke in soft words accented by a thick Southern drawl.
Church scribbled down the address from Communications. Pleasant Garden? Not much in the way of serious crimes ever happened in Pleasant Garden. He cranked the engine of the Chevrolet Lumina and headed south.
The address sounded familiar: 2104 Brandon Station Court. But in his fifteen years with the department, he had heard a lot of addresses. Still, the fact he was headed toward Pleasant Garden bothered him.
Pleasant Garden just wasn't known for its crimes. It had its share of occasional burglaries, a property crime now and then, but serious crimes just weren't part of its character. Tucked into the southeast corner of Guilford County, the small rural community was better known for its churches and championship little league baseball teams.
The 4,000 residents of Pleasant Garden were a diverse lot. Farmers whose ancestors helped to settle the area lived next door to transplanted northern business executives who wanted their children raised in a back-to-basics environment. The town lay about five miles south of Greensboro, a city whose expanding population brimmed at well over 100,000.
Greensboro, the county seat, had in the past been quick to annex areas with a promising tax base. Fearing the loss of their village-like atmosphere, rumbles of incorporation spread through Pleasant Garden, dominating barber shop conversations. The folks of Pleasant Garden liked their simple way of life just fine. They didn't need, nor want, big-city conveniences or the trouble that often came with them.
Church saw the glow of lights above the treetops as he neared Brandon Station Court. Suddenly, he remembered. He had investigated a burglary at the address a few years ago. He remembered the house because it was the only house on the small court, almost an afterthought in a new subdivision. He couldn't, however, remember the homeowner's name. She was a young girl, much younger than most homeowners. She was sweet, too. Baker? Blake? It would come to him eventually.
He carefully navigated his car through the fire trucks and the crowd of people lining the street. Yellow tape corralled off most of the yard, keeping the spectators at a distance. Some of the firemen were already securing their equipment, their soot-covered faces long and downcast.
Church's supervisor, Detective Sergeant David DeBerry, was standing near a gazebo in the front yard. A small crowd of people gathered around him. Only forty-four, DeBerry had been with the Guilford County Sheriff's Department twenty-four years. He had spent only a few short years as a patrol officer before exchanging his uniform for the coat and tie of a detective.
Tall and handsome with a head of auburn curls he kept cut short, DeBerry's cockeyed grin could charm the sergeant into, or out of, most any situation. His interview skills unmatched, he had been called not only by his peers, but also by prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, one of, if not the, best homicide investigators in the state.
Church ducked under the tape and headed toward the house. The usually crisp October air was heavy with an acrid stench. A volunteer fireman himself, Church was used to the smell of a burnt structure. Even the putrid smell of burnt flesh.
He gave his name to the accountability officer and entered the house. "Good gosh," Church said, waving his hand in the smothering heat as if he could shoo it away like a bothersome fly.
The kitchen was in shambles. Utensils, silverware, broken dishes were strewn about the flooded floor. What remained of the buckled walls was smoked black.
The living room had fared little better. Distorted photographs of a beautiful, brown-haired young woman smiled through warped and melted picture frames. Framed words of inspiration and cross-stitched Bible verses lay scattered on the floor.
The click-click of the Crime Lab's camera came in a steady, staccato rhythm as the technician moved from one room to another. Investigators with the Fire Marshall's office grouped together and evaluated the scene. A handful of firemen milled about, waiting for direction from the fire marshall. Thin, smoky gray outlines circled their faces where their face masks had been but did little to conceal their weariness.
It's going to be a long night, Church thought.
DeBerry approached from behind, his loafers sloshing through the water that saturated the carpet. "What do you think?" he asked Church.
Church pointed to the kitchen, then followed an obvious trail with his finger. The burn pattern began in the kitchen, snaked its way into the living room over the back of the sofa, and continued into the hallway. He had seen enough fires to recognize a blatant pour pattern when he saw one.
DeBerry had seen the same thing. "Yep. One of the firemen found a gas can in the kitchen."
"Odd place to keep a gas can."
"Wonder the damn thing didn't melt." DeBerry wiped a stream of sweat from his brow and tugged at his tie. The heat inside the house was still stifling.
A commotion outside the living-room window drew the detectives' attention. A heavyset woman fell to the ground and wailed uncontrollably. A young man bent over her, locked his arms underneath hers, and struggled to hoist the woman up.
"That's the husband, Ted Kimble, and his mother Edna," said DeBerry.
Church watched as the young man tried desperately to lead his mother to a waiting car. The woman resisted, crying out, reaching toward the house, her face twisted in disbelief.
"I asked the family to gather at their church," DeBerry said. "I want to keep as many as we can away from the scene."
"Have you talked to them yet?"
"A little bit. I told them we'd come down to the church in a few minutes."
"Who called 911?" Church asked, turning away from the scene outside.
"The brother of the woman who lived here. His name's Reuben Blakley."
Blakley. Church was almost certain that was the name of the young girl he had met a few years ago. "Where was the husband?"
"Work." DeBerry walked into the hallway and lifted a ladder that had been used to bridge the burned-out hole. Church followed. Both detectives stooped beside the gaping hole to get a better look.
"The fire was so hot it burned a hole around the body, and the body fell through to the crawl space." DeBerry said.
"It didn't burn this hot anywhere else?"
DeBerry shook his head. "Nope. Whoever that is, they were doused pretty good."
The body was face down, completely charred, the left foot and lower right leg burnt completely away. The arms were raised above the head. A small patch of fabric clung to the left arm.
Church studied the arms for a moment. When death by fire is imminent, the body's natural instinct is to draw itself into a fetal position. Whoever this victim was, fire wasn't the killer.
"We're going to be here awhile on this one," DeBerry said as he stood. He replaced the ladder across the hole and shimmied over it. "Come look at the bedroom."
The master bedroom was ransacked. Still, it wasn't difficult to tell what disarray was the firemen's doings and what wasn't. The firemen had left no obvious pattern.
Dresser drawers had been pulled out and stacked neatly one on top of the other. A twenty dollar bill sat atop a stack of other untouched bills in the corner of the top drawer. Bits and pieces of jewelry were equally undisturbed.
"Someone did a piss-poor job of staging this, didn't they?" Church said. Unlike the previous burglary he had investigated at the residence, this one obviously wasn't real. Burglars seldom took the time to neatly stack dresser drawers, nor did they often leave behind visible cash.
Maybe the victim had walked in on a burglary? No, Church thought, if the victim was the same girl who lived here before, she would have never entered the house if she suspected something wasn't right. She had been much too frightened, too cautious. "The girl that lived here, what was her name?" Church asked DeBerry as memories of his conversations with the young woman ran through this mind.
"Hey, you guys ready to remove the body?" the fire marshall called into the bedroom.
"You got everything you need?" DeBerry asked one of the Crime Lab techs hovering over the dresser drawers. The tech waved the sergeant on indicating he had all the pictures of the hallway he needed.
Excerpted from Unholy Covenant by Lynn Chandler-Willis. Copyright © 2000 Lynn Chandler-Willis. Excerpted by permission of Addicus Books, Inc..
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