On April 28, 1984, Denice Haraway disappeared from her job at a convenience store on the outskirts of Ada, Oklahoma, and the sleepy town erupted. Tales spread of rape, mutilation, and murder, and the police set out on a relentless mission to bring someone to justice. Six months later, two local men—Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot—were arrested and brought to trial, even though they repudiated their “confessions,” no body had been found, no weapon had been produced, and no eyewitnesses had come forward. The Dreams of Ada is a story of politics and morality, of fear and obsession. It's the true, bewildering story of the nightmare of a small town obsessed with delivering justice, and the bizarre dream of a poor, uneducated man accused of murder—a case that chillingly parallels the one, occurring in the very same town, chronicled by John Grisham in The Innocent Man.
Half a block from Main Street in Ada, Oklahoma, less than fifty yards from the railroad tracks, stands a small white building that looks like a garage. Beside it on a metal pole is a black-and-white wooden sign, the letters faded, that says: PECAN CRACKER. Ada is, among other things, pecan country; on the outskirts are commercial pecan orchards; in the grassy yards of many houses are one or more pecan trees. In the fall, when the pecans are ripe, the adults knock them off the trees with long poles. The children gather the fallen ones from the ground. The nuts not intended for commercial use are taken to the pecan cracker. There, in the small white building, the pecans are dumped into the funnel-like tops of machines.
One by one the hard pecans fall into moving gears. The top set of gears cracks open the largest pecans. Smaller pecans fall through, untouched, to another set of gears. These mesh closer and crack apart the smaller pecans. Still some escape and fall again: to another set of gears. These gears mesh tighter still; like steel claws they crack apart even the smallest pecans. Few pecans are too small, few shells too hard, to be cracked and broken, and to tumble in pieces into unmarked paper sacks.
Ada (pronounced Aid-a) is a city of about 17,000 people, the county seat of Pontotoc County, ninety miles southeast of Oklahoma City. Well-known to crossword-puzzle addicts (“city in Oklahoma, three letters”), it was named after a dark-haired girl, Ada Reed, daughter of the town's founder, back when Oklahoma was Indian Territory. In a rural area of farms, rolling hills, thick woodlands, it is a small industrial hub.
This is quarter-horse country, where horses bred for quick bursts of speed are sold at periodic auctions. It is oil country, with scores of pumps grazing like metal horses in every direction. Oil money built most of the magnificent mansions on upper-crust Kings Road. It is also a factory town. The gray turrets of the Evergreen feed mill tower only a block from Main Street like the superstructure of a battleship. The Brockway factory, a few blocks away, forges 1.3 million bottles and jars a day for Coke, Pepsi, and Gerber Baby Foods, among others. Blue Bell jeans employs 175 local women to sew 45,000 pairs of Wranglers and Rustlers a week. Ideal cement is produced in the town, as are Solo plastic cups. The Burlington Northern Railroad track slices diagonally across Main Street, several freights a day shrieking to a halt in the innards of the feed mill.
Main Street dead-ends into East Central University, which makes Ada the modest cultural hub of the area. But Ada is perhaps most of all a religious town, mainly Baptist, where you can’t buy a mixed drink without an annual “club” membership. There are fifty churches in the town (forty-nine Protestant, one Catholic) and four movie screens.
On Saturday night, April 28, 1984, a few minutes after 8:30, just a few hours before the town would spring its clocks forward to daylight saving time, a car and a pickup truck pulled into the parking lot of McAnally’s, a convenience store that stands almost alone out on the highway at the eastern end of town. The car was being driven by Lenny Timmons, twenty-five years old, an X-ray technician. Beside him was his brother David, seventeen, a high school student. Both lived in Moore, Oklahoma, ninety miles away. Driving the pickup truck that pulled in with them was their uncle, Gene Whelchel, who lived just east of Ada, in a village called Love Lady. They were planning to play poker that evening, and they needed some change.
Lenny Timmons cut the engine and the lights of his car. Gene Whelchel did the same in his pickup. The night was dark already; the area around the two gas pumps in front of the store was illuminated by fluorescent lights. So, too, was the inside of the store, which they could see through the glass double doors, and through a plate-glass window. An old-model pickup truck was parked crosswise in front of the store, near an ice machine.
Lenny Timmons, tall and slim, with a neatly trimmed dark beard, got out of the car and walked toward the store. His brother remained in the car. Gene Whelchel, in his truck, puffed on a cigarette. As Timmons entered the store, he passed in the double doorway a young couple, who were leaving. The woman came out first, the man right behind her.
David Timmons, waiting in the car, saw the couple emerge from the store and walk toward the pickup. He noticed the man’s arm around the woman's waist. Gene Whelchel also glanced their way. They seemed to him like a pair of young lovers. The couple walked to the passenger side of the truck. The young man opened the door. The woman climbed in, and then the man beside her. After a few seconds the engine started, and the pickup drove off. Gene Whelchel puffed on his cigarette. David Timmons waited.
The inside of the store was bright to his eyes as Lenny Timmons entered. The shelves, lined up parallel to the entrance, were stacked with candy bars, paper products, cold remedies, tampons. In the glass-enclosed refrigerators were milk, soda pop, juice. Timmons, needing only change, saw the cash register and the checkout counter to his left. He approached the counter and waited for the clerk. There was none in sight. As he waited, he noticed, idly, an open beer can on the counter, a cigarette burning in an ashtray. Behind the counter he could see an open school book, a brown handbag.
A minute passed, perhaps two. The clerk did not appear. Timmons glanced impatiently among the rows of shelves. Perhaps the clerk was in the beer cooler, he thought, or in the rest room. He waited.
Growing more impatient, he went to the front door and opened and closed it several times. Each time he opened it a buzzer went off, a signal to the clerk on duty that someone had entered the store. There was no response.
He looked behind the counter. The drawer of the cash register was open. The money slots were empty, except for some coins.
Gene Whelchel looked at his watch. It was 8:40. He wondered what was taking Lenny so long. Then Timmons hurried out of the store, approached the pickup. He told his uncle, then his brother, that something was wrong. The three of them entered the store. They looked around, checked the walk-in cooler, the bathrooms. They could find no clerk. They were careful not to touch anything. There was a telephone on a wall of the store. They called the police.
Ada police headquarters is in the City Hall, a modern one-story brick building with basement offices, on Townsend Street. A young officer, Kyle Gibbs, was manning the dispatch unit that night. He took the call about a robbery at McAnally’s, jotted down the information. One of the officers on patrol duty was Sergeant Harvey Phillips, a tall, dark-haired, rugged-looking cop, fifteen years on the force. Gibbs dispatched Sergeant Phillips to what he assumed was the scene of the reported robbery—the McAnally's convenience store out on North Broadway, at the sparsely populated northern edge of town. Sergeant Phillips folded his long frame into a squad car, pistol secure in the holster on his hip, and headed out that way, crossing Main, passing the looming gray feed mill with a red warning light at its highest point, bumping over the railroad tracks as he did, passing the stores on Broadway, closed for the evening, crossing Fourth Street, speeding north toward where Broadway becomes one of the highways into town. Toward McAnally’s.
Moments after Sergeant Phillips sped away, Kyle Gibbs had second thoughts. McAnally’s is a small chain of convenience stores in the region. There are three in Ada: one out on North Broadway, one out on East Arlington, one close to downtown at Fourteenth and Mississippi. The caller hadn't said which one he was calling from. Gibbs telephoned the store on North Broadway, to make sure he had sent the patrol car to the right place.
No, the clerk at North Broadway said. There had been no robbery there. No trouble at all.
The dispatcher hung up. The robbery wouldn't have been downtown. The caller had said something about a highway. Gibbs radioed new instructions to Sergeant Phillips, who was just reaching Richardson Loop and North Broadway. Phillips swung the squad car around, headed east instead of north. He reached the scene of the robbery—the McAnally's out on East Arlington Boulevard—about ten minutes after leaving headquarters, about twice the time a direct route would have taken.
In a suburban-style house seven miles south of town, surrounded by two acres of lawn and a swimming pool, Detective Captain Dennis Smith of the Ada police force was at home with his wife, Sandi. They were planning to go to bed early, because they had to get up early the next morning. Though a veteran of eighteen years on the police force, the detective supplemented his income with a paper route. Every morning, seven days a week, he and Sandi, who worked as a building inspector for the city, started their day by driving around town delivering 650 copies of the Daily Oklahoman, out of Oklahoma City, the largest newspaper in the state. Sandi would drive the family car while the detective, a stocky, sturdily built man, bald almost in the manner of television's Kojak, hurled the rolled-up newspapers onto the lawns of subscribers. Getting up early wasn’t fun; tonight, because the clocks would be moved forward, they would get even less sleep than usual.
Tricia Wolf was at home that night, with her husband, Bud, and their three young children, in a graying frame house at 804 West Ninth Street, in a working-class section of town. After supper they watched television in the small, veneer-paneled living room dominated by a four-foot-high oil painting of Jesus; the painting had been done by Bud’s father, C. L. Wolf, an electrician and amateur artist; it was one of their proudest possessions. The children—Rhonda, nine; Buddy, six; and Laura Sue, five—took turns taking their Saturday-night baths, getting help from Bud or Tricia with their hair. It was a weekly ritual, so they would be fresh-scrubbed for church in the morning.
In one of the town’s better restaurants, District Attorney Bill Peterson and his wife, Dean, were enjoying a meal out. This was somewhat unusual; they generally preferred to spend their evenings at home. It was not for lack of money. Bill Peterson’s grandfather, P. A. Norris, had been one of the wealthiest men in the region, had owned the First National Bank on Main Street, had donated the land for the football stadium at the college, which bears his name: Norris Field. Some of this wealth had been passed along to his grandson, William Norris Peterson. But this night was special: April 28 was Mrs. Peterson’s birthday.
Don Wyatt, in his large, comfortable house on Mayfair Way, had much on his mind that night. He was one of the town's leading attorneys, was getting wealthy by winning a lot of accident and personal-injury cases for the people of the area against insurance companies, and had been planning to expand his staff. But on February 9, his offices in a building he owned on Main Street had burned. Thousands of files had been scorched or destroyed. For weeks the staff had been trying to reconstruct them, working in small rented offices on Twelfth Street, while Wyatt bought a plot of land out on Arlington Boulevard, and personally designed a lavish new office building, and watched impatiently, hauling away the trash himself on weekends, as the spacious new building began to take shape. It was both a frustrating and a forward-looking time.
In a small apartment downtown at Fourteenth and Rennie, above his father’s dental practice, Steve Haraway was looking ahead, too. Though in his mid-twenties, he was a senior at the local college, having taken a couple of years off to work. He was due to graduate in less than a month. His pretty bride of eight months, Denice, was also a senior, would finish up in August. Both were working their way through school. Denice had been student teaching; they’d talked about possibly moving to Tulsa or Oklahoma City after graduation.
Steve had gone to work at 10:30 that morning at the We-Pak-Um convenience store on Arlington. When he got off work around seven, he went home to the apartment to study for final exams. He expected Denice, a clerk at McAnally’s, home from her job around eleven.
The red, white, and blue lights atop his navy blue squad car were revolving as Sergeant Phillips swung to his right off the highway, at the very spot where four-lane Arlington Boulevard narrowed to a two-lane road out into the countryside, and pulled up in front of the store. The light flickered across his face as he unbent from the car and strode, long–legged, toward the door. The Timmons brothers and Gene Whelchel were waiting. They showed him the open and nearly empty cash drawer, described the light–colored, old-model pickup they had seen. They told him that on leaving it had headed east, away from town. Phillips returned to the squad car, radioed a description of the pickup to Kyle Gibbs at headquarters. It went out over the police frequency. In Ada, the police, the sheriff's department, the highway patrol, and the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation all use the same frequency, which is changed periodically. Any law enforcement officer in the area who had his radio on would hear the description, could give chase if he happened to see the pickup. The people in it would be wanted for questioning in the apparent robbery of McAnally’s.
Other people could hear it, too. Many Ada residents have scanners in their homes. They can be useful in times of emergency—to keep track of tornado warnings in the area. They can also be cheap entertainment on a quiet evening if there is nothing good on television.
When he’d sent out the description, Sergeant Phillips went to look for the clerk. He saw a car, a 1969 Pontiac Sunbird, parked beside the building. There was no one in it. He checked the bathrooms and the cooler. There was no one in them. In the store he talked again with Whelchel, who told him of the couple they’d seen. Phillips picked up the brown purse behind the counter, looked inside it. He pulled out a driver’s license. It had a picture on it, of an attractive young woman with dark blond hair. At first, sitting in his pickup truck watching the couple leave, Gene Whelchel had not made a connection. Now, knowing the clerk was missing, he did. He lived out this way; he used to stop in the store fairly often, would chat sometimes with the clerk while making his purchases. The woman they'd seen leaving, he told Phillips, was the clerk.
The name on the driver's license was Donna Denice Haraway.
Sergeant Phillips returned to the squad car. He sent out her name and description. The store manager, Monroe Atkeson, who lived nearby, was called. He arrived in a few minutes. He was told what had transpired by Phillips and by Whelchel, whom he knew slightly; they had gone to school together.
Atkeson locked the front door, closing the store for the evening, though closing time on Saturdays was eleven. He checked the tape on the cash register, and counted up the money on hand. There was $500 in a locked safe. There was $400 under the counter, ready to be put in the safe. There was $150 under the cash drawer. He estimated from the tape that the amount of money missing from the bill slots in the drawer was $167. The last item rung up on the tape was for 75 cents. His best guess was that that was for the can of beer now sitting open on the counter.
As the men waited for a detective to arrive, the manager put the money away, closed the cash register. He tossed the beer can into the trash. He emptied the ashtray with a single butt in it, so the store would be clean and ready for business when it opened the following morning.
Nobody stopped him. Nobody gave a thought to fingerprints.
Excerpted from The Dreams of Ada by Robert Mayer Copyright © 2006 by Robert Mayer. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.