Fourth of July, 2013, meant to me was this. It marked the 30th anniversary of the strangest story I’ve ever covered.
Not the biggest, not the most important, just the strangest.
The Fourth of July, 1983, was on a Monday. The next morning, Central Texas arose to discover several churches had been “fire-bombed,” including four in Milam County.
I headed out to the closest church to Rockdale— and by far the most badly damaged, it burned to the ground—on a rural gravel road between Gause and the Brazos River.
There wasn’t much left of the church but a slab and some still smoking remains. There almost wasn’t anything to take a picture of. I wished someone would come by so I could put a human figure in the photo and give it some scale.
Right on cue, a pickup rattled into the driveway off the dusty road. Two men got out and we began to chat.
Just over a day later that man was arrested and charged with all the bombings.
That would have been bizarre enough but the weirdness had just begun.
The fire-bomber turned out to be a used car salesman from Houston with connections to Milam County.
But he didn’t own up to that. In fact at various times in the booking process he claimed to be Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar. He signed his arrest papers “Frederick Barbarossa” and then wrote “Caesar” after it.
(Frederick Barbarossa was a medieval emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.)
Also, he kept trying to communicate with Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan and said he believed one, or both, were on the way to Texas to free him. They didn’t show up.
Fortunately, nobody had been hurt in the middle-of-the-night bombings and, obviously, the suspect had mental problems.
It turned out several members of his family had died under horrific circumstances and he had pretty obviously just lost it.
For years he was in and out of state institutions, was finally judged competent to stand trial and drew a prison term.
We never heard from him again. Hopefully he got treatment and medication and became a functioning member of society.
GOLD BARS—A number of years later a somewhat disheveled and almost breathless man, minus his shoes, literally ran into The Reporter saying he had a story for us.
He certainly did. It was quite a story. However, none of it was true.
It concerned buried gold bars from a Spanish galleon on a ranch that straddled the Milam- Burleson line, a shootout and a murder. Eventually he would involve law enforcement which would result in a helicopter search of the place.
Which, of course, found nothing. No gold bars, no body.
But you had to give him credit for style points. Why was he shoeless? He had conned a retired judge from Georgia into believing his story and the judge, his bodyguard and our visitor had come to Milam County to search for the gold. The judge took his shoes so he wouldn’t run away.
(The bodyguard, by the way, was a nice guy who eventually told me “I just want to go home; get me away from these two loonies!”)
Our Looney No. 1 at times used a fancy British name which, of course turned out to be authentic, it just wasn’t him.
And he had a crazy scheme about selling rocking chairs endorsed by celebrities. For years he would write us long, handwritten letters from all over the country describing his zany enterprises.
His stationery came from hotels and at least once from jail!
He wasn’t really a con man in the commonly used sense of the word because, as far as we could tell, he didn’t really make any money from his deceptions.
All we could ever figure out was that he just plain enjoyed them.