The Unbelievers

Minister James Simmons says he awoke from a coma one day to find himself a gay amnesiac. Some of his Dallas parishioners aren't buying it.

"My first memory came hitchhiking across Tennessee," he said, saying he has no memory of anything at the hospital. No memories of that hunky nurse. "All I remember was what was in my mind as I was hitchhiking across America."

Using vague phrases and an indirect manner of speech, he said: "The facts had been given to me by word and by very foggy memory...I had been told I had been found in the trunk of a car near Memphis. I don't know if that was east of the Mississippi or west of the Mississippi...I was told that it had been a private clinic, that the authorities had worked with me concerning my identity, and also that they were concerned about the people who had done this to me."

Simmons did not specify who told him these details, and this new, once-removed account presumes there were people who knew him in Memphis, and later knew him and told him things after he hitchhiked east to Virginia, where he took up residence for the next seven years. Neither Simmons, nor Craig McDaniel, a publicist and former city councilman retained by the church, could specify who those people are. Said McDaniel, "I don't know."

More amnesia? James Simmons told a fuzzy tale to the press and congregation after his hidden past was revealed.
AP/Wide World Photo
More amnesia? James Simmons told a fuzzy tale to the press and congregation after his hidden past was revealed.

In 1993, a story about Simmons ran in the Pacific Sun, a 42,000-circulation community weekly in Marin County, California. It is the only known article published about him during his 16-year "search." A one-source piece that appears to take Simmons' word as fact, it related his amnesia story and a few personal details, such as Simmons' observation: "I love soap. I love to be clean."

He recalled in the story that he had studied the Bible with the family that found him, and that he was taught at some point how to "walk and talk again." When he left the hospital, he told the paper, he set out with "a small cash allowance" provided by the hospital that cared for him.

Pressed for those same details at the news conference--about the hospital, its massive outpouring of free care, and the road allowance--Simmons said: "I always said it was a clinic, a private clinic. I said it was possible they gave me a small bag and money, but that was only from a private collection. I don't know what institution that was. I said my first memory came hitchhiking across Tennessee."

Answers such as that make the disbelievers boil.

"The more and more the days go by, the more and more his story doesn't add up. It makes less and less sense," says Orrell. "His story is becoming more of a moving target as people try to pin it down."

At the closed-door congregational meeting, according to five people who were there, some of the toughest questions came from members in the medical and psychological professions. They were more than skeptical of Simmons' claim of total amnesia, which is usually accompanied by severe physical disability because of the massive brain damage involved.

Blanket amnesia is common in soap-opera plots, but in the real world, it is very rare.

Moreover, the congregation's medical members said they were confident that hospital and treatment records in his case should be easily retrieved.

"The medical people [in the congregation] don't believe that part," says Arlene Robbins, a Simmons supporter and member of the church's pastor search committee.

Scott Blackwell, a 32-year-old hotel-restaurant manager and Ford's partner, says the second big hole--the Social Security card story--strongly suggests to him Simmons is not telling the truth.

Shortly after the news broke about Simmons' past life, the San Antonio Express-News reported that a rancher from Clarendon endured two IRS audits because the former Barre Cox had been using his name, date of birth, and Social Security number in the mid-1980s. The man and Simmons both went to Texas Tech; Cox was working on a doctoral degree in education at the Lubbock university when he disappeared.

"He claims he took the last name Simmons from a hardware-store billboard and the name James from the Bible," says Blackwell, recalling a story Simmons repeated several times to the congregation in December. "He never told us that he improperly obtained the name, Social Security number, and birth date of someone else and used them to acquire work."

At his news conference, Simmons had an explanation for this, too, although it takes some work to follow it, and it doesn't cover all the bases.

Simmons says that once he landed in Charlottesville, Virginia, his landlady took it upon herself to call, of all places, Texas Tech. The woman somehow got the university to give her the Social Security number and birth date of someone who shared his new, made-up name, Simmons claims.

At the news conference, which was set up by the church, only a small number of reporters asked the kind of detailed questions that might poke holes in such tales. He did answer a question about whether he knew he was using fake ID. "I accepted them [the ID] so I could get a job," Simmons said, giving at least a partial admission that he carried on a three- or four-year identity theft.

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