The good neighbor

Bombing suspect Bobby Frank Cherry's sordid past trailed him to the shores of Cedar Creek Lake

PAYNE SPRINGS--The tree-canopied blacktop roads wind endlessly along the shores of Cedar Creek Lake, past mobile home after mobile home in this out-of-the-way maze of communities with names like Payne Springs, Malakoff, Mabank, and Gun Barrel City. It is here that bass boat meets cattle trailer, gimme caps share fashion time with Nike running suits, and white flight rednecks neighbor with city folks who finally had all of the Dallas traffic and corporate pressures they could stand.

It is a region, a little more than an hour's drive south of Dallas, where there are flea markets and fruit stands galore, the fishing's good, the air's clean, and privacy is the coin of the realm. It is also a place of Gothic-like secrets; shared, if at all, in the most careful of whispers.

This is where the infamous Betty Lou Beets once lived, killing off her husbands and burying them in her back yard before the authorities finally arrested and convicted her and last February put her to death. Down the way, says longtime Henderson County Sheriff Howard "Slick" Alfred, there are a couple of guys who claim to hold high rank in the Republic of Texas movement. There are a few small militia groups around that are, he says, more talk than action.

Bobby Frank Cherry, a suspect in a 1963 Alabama church bombing, says he has "never handled a stick of dynamite."
AP/Wide World
Bobby Frank Cherry, a suspect in a 1963 Alabama church bombing, says he has "never handled a stick of dynamite."

"There's all kinds of folks over there," he says from his office in Athens. "We've got a lot of metroplex people coming down this way in search of nothing more than peace and quiet. Good folks." Then he leans back in his chair and nods. "We also got some who are running from something."

It is one of those who has been on the run--for almost four decades--that I'd come to ask about. A onetime Birmingham, Alabama, long-haul truck driver who moved his family to Grand Prairie in the '70s and opened a small carpet-cleaning business. And then, in 1988, he, too, headed for the quiet shores of Cedar Creek Lake. His name is Bobby Frank Cherry, a 69-year-old grandfather with diabetes, back problems, a bad heart, and a hate-filled past that has followed every step he's taken since an early September Sunday morning in 1963.

Last week he was arrested and charged with participating in one of the most horrific crimes marring the country's tension-filled civil rights battles. Along with former Ku Klux Klan partner Thomas Bolton Jr., 61, Cherry was indicted by an Alabama grand jury for the 1963 bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church that claimed the lives of four black girls. Triggered by 12 sticks of dynamite, it blew the face of Jesus out of a stained-glass window and left a crater 5 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Killed were youth choir members Cynthia Wesley, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; Carole Robertson, 14; and Denise McNair, 11.

In time the event would hold an infamous place in the American consciousness alongside the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Historians today point to it as a benchmark moment in the civil rights cause. In the same year the case was reopened, the bombing was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary by director Spike Lee, 4 Little Girls.

Yet for decades, an on-and-off investigation had resulted in but a single conviction. In 1977, Klansman Robert "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss was sent to prison for the murders and died eight years later while still behind bars. Herman Cash, another active Klan member and suspect, died before a case was ever made against him. For years the names of Cherry and Bolton had been mentioned as the other members who participated.

Within the lakeside community in Texas, it has been common knowledge that Cherry, the man neighbors called "Cowboy," had been a lifelong suspect in the Birmingham bombing. Yet it is difficult to find anyone who will talk candidly and allow his name to be used. Still, the stories they tell are plentiful:

··· Bobby Frank Cherry and members of his family, young and old, openly bragged about his involvement in the crime and of his days as a member of the Klan and later an anti-civil rights organization that called itself United Americans for Conservative Government.

··· A local shop owner tells of Cherry routinely refusing to enter his store if a black person was inside, or, if a black person entered while he was there, Cherry would leave immediately.

On the other hand, it is just as easy to find those who have nothing but good to say about "Cowboy" Cherry. Upon recently meeting a 30-something resident out biking and asking her for directions to Cherry's house, I was told, "You reporters have been terrible to that man. He's been a wonderful neighbor." She refused to point out his residence and suggested I go back to where I came from.

"The old man is as nice as he can be," observes a longtime neighbor. "There have been a few incidents where it was pretty obvious that he didn't like blacks, but he never did anything but walk away. To the best of my knowledge he never hurt anybody."

"We never had a bit of trouble out of him," says Sheriff Alfred. "The few times the FBI brought him here [to the Henderson County Sheriff's Department] to talk to him, we got along fine. I learned a long time ago not to pass judgment. You just can't tell about folks."

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