By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
It was in the summer of 1997, after Attorney General Janet Reno and the FBI reopened the Birmingham bombing investigation, when Cherry's history became common knowledge to his Texas neighbors. That was when word got out that Alabama authorities were again talking to him. That was also when The New York Times reported the existence of an old memo to then FBI director J. Edgar Hoover that provided the names of those involved in the bombing. In the memo, it was speculated that Cherry had planted the bomb in the church while the others waited outside.
In a book titled Long Time Coming: An Insider's Story of the Birmingham Church Bombings, Elizabeth Cobbs, niece of convicted murderer Robert Chambliss, wrote that Cherry had been given a polygraph exam by the FBI and results indicated that he not only knew of the church bombing but had bombed a house in the past. According to her book, Cherry also admitted to agents that "he would kill a [black] if a [black] bothered him."
With the new flurry of attention, Cherry hired Athens lawyer Gil Hargrave and demanded that he call a news conference. "They have been trying to arrest me for 15 years," Cherry told members of the media. "I don't know anything about that bombing." On the evening the bomb was reportedly put in place, he said, he was at a Birmingham sign shop, helping to make Confederate flags and political posters arguing against integration of schools.
He insisted there was not a single word of truth in the Cobbs book. "I have never handled a stick of dynamite in my life, and I've never been on the grounds of that church," he said. "I'll say this: I have sure been hunted by this stuff...but I've never been haunted by it."
What must haunt him now is the fact that his own flesh and blood has provided the information that led to his recent indictment. One by one, since the reopening of the investigation, subpoenaed members of the Cherry clan have told incriminating stories to investigators.
Willadean Brogdon, the third of Cherry's five wives, testified before the Birmingham grand jury then stood on the courthouse steps afterward and said, "He admitted it. He bragged about it. Bob told me he didn't put the bomb together. He said, 'I lit it.'"
She said that Cherry also talked with her brother about the bombing. "Bob would talk," she said, "and he'd get to crying and say he never intended to kill those little girls."
George Ferris, a nephew of one of Cherry's other former wives, told reporters last fall that "I overheard him say he was the driver of the car. He said that the worst thing about the bombing was that the church wasn't full."
During her grand jury testimony, Cherry's 39-year-old stepdaughter, Gloria Ladow, mentioned that he had sexually molested her when she was 9. Based on information she provided, Cherry was arrested and charged with sexual abuse (for which Alabama has no statute of limitations). He was being held without bond on that charge when he was arrested for the Birmingham church bombing. A granddaughter, Teresa Stacy, 24, of Fort Worth, earlier told the grand jury that she had "been fondled, touched, and stuff like that" by Cherry when she was 12 years old.
Stacy, according to news reports, also told the grand jury of overhearing her grandfather say "he helped bomb a church back in the '60s and kill a bunch of black folks."
And, while he will not discuss his grand jury testimony, Cherry's son, who lives only a stone's throw away on Cedar Creek Lake, has become estranged from his father. Despite the fact that they are next-door neighbors, Thomas Cherry, 47, has not spoken with Bobby Frank Cherry since the investigation into the bombing was reopened in '97.
If convicted, the elder Cherry will doubtless spend his remaining years in prison. He and Blanton are each charged with eight counts of murder--two counts for each of the four children killed in the bombing. One count is for intentional murder and the second falls under the "universal malice" statute, as the bomb was placed where it could have claimed the lives of any number of people.
"It needs to be settled for those families," Thomas Cherry recently told Time magazine reporter Hilary Hylton. "Whether Dad did it or not, it needs to be finalized."