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.

In Jones County, where beef, wheat, and cotton rule the rolling plains, former county Sheriff Mike Middleton is the expert on the 16-year-old missing persons case of Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox.

"The number of volunteers from San Antonio and Abilene coming to look for him was tremendous, 200, 300 a day. We had people walking, on horseback, guys in helicopters, a couple of planes. It was massive," recalls Middleton of the search following the discovery of Cox's 1976 Oldsmobile on Farm Road 1661, near the small town of Tuxedo, on July 12, 1984.

At 33, Cox had been a high-school honors student in his hometown of Canyon, a county seat just south of Amarillo. He had bachelor's and master's degrees in art from a tiny Tennessee college and had worked on the staff at Abilene Christian University. He met his wife there in 1981. Two years later, the couple moved to San Antonio with their infant daughter.

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.

From the start of the investigation, Middleton says there were questions of whether foul play was involved.

Cox's wife had reported he phoned her in San Antonio from Lubbock the night before his disappearance. He said he had dropped off his doctoral dissertation at Texas Tech and would be driving from Lubbock to Abilene, and then south to home.

Around 3:30 a.m. on the day Cox's car was found, a local police officer spotted him at a convenience store in Rotan, about 100 miles southeast of Lubbock and off the route one would normally take to go from Lubbock to Abilene. The officer drove Cox, who had run out of gas, back to his stranded car, where he noticed a motorbike in the trunk.

The abandoned, vandalized sedan was found about 35 miles further east. The motorbike was gone.

"I've always leaned more to him disappearing on his own," says Middleton, who left the sheriff's job in 1996 and is now police chief in Hamlin. "There were no signs of struggle in the dirt around the car, no blood in the car. If someone got a hold of you, and in the struggle the windows were knocked out, there should have been."

Beyond that, there was at least one sighting of Cox on a motor scooter, reported by a woman at a convenience store near Tuxedo, "that we were never able to discount," says Middleton.

When he heard earlier this month that Cox had been found, he pulled up a bulletin that he entered back in 1984 on the National Crime Information Center database. "It was still there," he said. The file included a physical description and coded dental records, which would have been available to law enforcement agencies nationwide working to identify an amnesia victim. With the dental records, "anything close should produce a hit," he said.

Middleton says he heard from time to time from Cox's father, Wesley, a well-to-do rancher-oilman and Church of Christ elder who hired a private investigator and searched for his son until his death. He told reporters he had traveled more than 10,000 miles looking for his son.

George Cox, Simmons' brother, told a San Antonio reporter back in 1984 that there was a chance his brother could have vanished on purpose. "He and Beth had a baby six months earlier. His folks had pressured him into getting a doctorate, which he didn't really want to do. They had just moved to San Antonio, he'd just started a new job. It was a textbook case," said the brother, who now is standing by Simmons' abduction/amnesia story.

Middleton says Simmons' outward change from straight to gay seems to provide the last piece of the puzzle, the motive for why he would purposely disappear.

"His story is so full of holes...When you take this alternative lifestyle together with all we know, maybe this is what he wants," says Middleton. "That's strictly theory...I don't know a lot about that. I'm just a country boy."

Arlene Robbins, a 54-year-old technical writer and member of the five-member search committee that brought Simmons to White Rock, says finding a minister for her church was no easy task.

"It's very difficult to find an evangelical Christian who is qualified and who is willing to pastor our church," she says. When Simmons found the church's want ad on an Internet site last fall and applied, he seemed heaven-sent.

Officials at the Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, just north of San Francisco, had only good things to say about Simmons, who told them he didn't know his past when he applied for admission in 1991. He also didn't tell them he was gay, believing the school would reject him if it knew. Coming out of the closet only in December, he now describes himself as celibate and gay.

At the seminary, Simmons earned master's degrees in divinity and theology and was elected student body president. He had been hired by the school in 1994 as its housing director and was a seminary instructor at the time he applied at the church in Dallas.

His résumé lists volunteer work as a hospital chaplain and AIDS counselor, in addition to work in prison, senior citizen, youth, and singles ministries going back to his appearance in Charlottesville in 1984. He managed 190 people in catalog and credit departments for J.C. Penney in Charlottesville and Richmond, according to his résumé. It says he won a sales award at the retailer in 1989.

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