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.

"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."

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."

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