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The haunting

Michael Pezzulli wasn't terribly surprised when NBC called him two months ago looking for Walker Railey. After all, the Dallas civil trial lawyer has had his share of high-profile clients.

There was, for example, the time he represented Lee Harvey Oswald's widow in her quest to exhume her husband's body. A British author had come up with the rather unusual theory that a Soviet agent, not Oswald, was buried at Rose Hill Burial Park in Fort Worth. And though the Brit failed to get a judge to give him permission to check out his hunch, when Marina Oswald Porter subsequently took up the cause, her lawyer, Pezzulli, eventually got the go-ahead to dig.

Now that attracted some media attention.
Pezzulli says the whole 1981 episode was pretty unsavory. So much so that when he and the pathologists were standing around the metal gurney at Baylor University Medical Center surveying what was left of the man who had killed President John F. Kennedy, Pezzulli made the executive decision not to divulge all the gory details to the press. "I didn't want to gross anybody out," he says.

But what the heck. It has been 15 years. And, besides, it seems like a far more appropriate way to remember the guy.

"It was very bizarre," Pezzulli says. "The body was 80-percent skeletonized. You could literally reach over and scrape the flesh off his arm. It had turned to soap. We cut his head off at C-2--cervical vertebrae two--at the neck, so we could pull the jawbone out. All the nerves were still intact. Then we picked up all the teeth and glued the teeth back into his jaw with Elmer's Glue. So it was an Elmer's Glue deal."

Momentarily caught off guard by all this delicious, disgusting detail--this was, after all, coming from a lawyer, a typically cryptic breed--all I can think to ask next is: "So, how did it smell?"

"Oh, yeah," Pezzulli says. "It stunk." Then he thinks of something else. "His hair was still there. On a skeleton face."

But the strangest thing, Pezzulli says, was what was on one of Oswald's skeleton fingers. "He was wearing a ruby ring--a ruby stone." (Get it--ruby ring?) "Nobody knew why. I directed the pathologists not to discuss that. One story was that Marina put it on him. I never confirmed that, and I never asked."

Well, considering all that--considering what NBC in New York could have been calling about--it's certainly understandable why Pezzulli considered it almost a big yawn that some TV producer was interested in talking to Walker Railey. (To be honest, I caught myself thinking, talking to Pezzulli last week, that if Railey is ever dug up posthumously, there will be no chance of finding hair atop that skeleton face.)

Pezzulli is the lawyer who--for no fee, he says--helped Railey get divorced, file for bankruptcy, and execute various other attempts to avoid the stiff $18-million default judgment that his former in-laws obtained against him in 1989 for maiming their daughter, they say, while trying to kill her. Since that endeavor is still ongoing, NBC folks figured correctly that they could find Railey through Pezzulli. When they got Pezzulli on the phone, they told him that Dateline NBC wanted to do one of its hourlong shows about Railey's criminal trial.

Yeah, that's right--that 3-year-old, rarely-talked-about-anymore criminal trial of our rarely-talked-about-anymore former Dallas preacher with the big-breast-and-blonde-hair fixation that eventually got him indicted for trying to murder his plain-Jane wife.

You remember the story: Railey was a rising religious star--pastor of the 5,000-member First United Methodist Church in downtown Dallas. Married to an accomplished organist, and the father of two young children, Railey seemed to have it all--until his wife, Peggy, was found nearly choked to death in the garage of the couple's northeast Dallas home in April 1987, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state that she will never recover from.

Railey quickly became the main suspect--particularly when it was revealed to police that at the time of the attack he was having a torrid love affair with a luscious local psychologist and minister's daughter named Lucy Papillon. Five years after the attack--after Railey had dumped his kids, divorced his wife, and moved to California, where Papillon also moved--he was indicted for attempted murder. But thanks to a tough case that was absolutely mangled by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office, Railey was acquitted in a trial in San Antonio in April 1993.

Ancient history--or so we thought.
Perhaps NBC was intrigued by that O.J. thing--you know, high-profile guys who get busted for brutalizing their wives and then get away with it. Or perhaps New York is simply three years behind the curve on our stock in trade in Texas: titillating tales about extremely twisted people. Or maybe--and this would be any Dallasite's first guess--Railey initiated the story because he simply needed a healthy dose of money, or attention, or both.

 

Well, it's none of the above.
New Yorkers apparently just think the story of Walker Railey is exceptionally fascinating and--lucky for them--the most fascinating person in it is inexplicably willing to vomit up the whole, sordid, sickening mess of raw sewage that is the Walker Railey story.

"At this point, I think he can probably represent himself better in that fashion than anyone else around," says Doug Mulder, the Dallas criminal lawyer who successfully defended Railey in the criminal trial. "I didn't see the harm in it."

Perhaps not for Railey, who, I understand, is currently jobless and--as though this were a brand-new state of mind--feeling sorry for himself. But there's certainly plenty of harm--plenty of pain--in it for Railey's two kids, who are now 14 and 11 years old and still struggling to keep the ghosts of the past at bay. So, too, will it reopen wounds for his former parents-in-law, who just a month ago were moved into a nursing home--not far from their brain-damaged daughter's nursing home--to live out the rest of their days.

None of which apparently bothers Walker Railey a bit. Still, the big question remains: Why now?

"It's a weird thing," says Sharon Isaak, the 27-year-old Dateline NBC producer who was assigned the Walker Railey story. "Because it's not like there was some news event that brought this to our attention now."

To the contrary: A Dateline NBC producer was watching a bunch of old Court TV tapes for a series that Dateline was doing on the legal system. One of the tapes he came across was of the 1993 Walker Railey trial in San Antonio, Isaak says. "As one of our producers in New York was watching one of the Railey tapes. He said, 'This is just fascinating--what a great story,'" says Isaak. "He thought it should be done as its own show, so he brought it to our executive producer, and we decided we should give it the hour."

What they liked is, I suppose, what we lived through: The unfolding of an almost surreal tale--worse than any B-movie you could make--of a fabulously successful, extremely intelligent preacher who succumbs to that ol' devil lust, and then gets indicted for trying to off his wife. "I think that it had so many different aspects to it," says Isaak. "When you look at the way the case kind of unfolded--you had these answering machine messages, witnesses saying different things, this love affair, the part about whether the son witnessed this attack, and Railey himself who is a very compelling personality."

The first thing Dateline did, of course, was call Michael Pezzulli in the hopes of booking the star himself. "When they called, they said, 'We're doing this whether or not he talks,'" Pezzulli remembers. "Basically it came down to 'Do you want to give it up, Walker, and talk--or do you want it all to be attributed to other people, with other people saying whatever they want to about you?'"

Although Isaak insists that, indeed, the show would have been done with or without Railey's participation, that's awfully hard to believe. (Isaak is equally firm that Railey wasn't paid for the five-hour interview he endured in her Los Angeles hotel room in mid-September, and that I can believe. After all, this story is neither hot nor timely, and Dateline NBC is a more reputable program than, say, Inside Edition, which paid Railey for an interview shortly after his 1993 acquittal.)

But I would argue that if Railey had not agreed to be interviewed, Dateline NBC would have had no meat on the bone--nothing to hold a show together. Railey's children, who haven't lived with their father since the night of the attack on their mother, have never been interviewed by the media. John and Diane Yarrington, who have permanent custody of the children, have--to their credit--absolutely zero interest in participating in a national TV show that will humiliate, burden, and aggrieve two children, each of whom already has experienced quite enough humiliation and grief for one lifetime.

"When the verdict was announced in Walker's trial three years ago, I had reporters camped out on my doorstep for three days," says Diane Yarrington, whose family lives out of state. "Then, when Walker got on national TV and did that interview, the children were enormously upset that Walker showed their pictures on TV--current pictures that he had of them. They were embarrassed in front of all their friends. I remember the day after that show ran. I heard the children coming home from school before I even saw them; they cried all the way home from the bus stop."

 

I don't know what Railey told NBC reporter Keith Morrison--who, by the way, seems to do his homework and is good at getting to the heart of a matter--during the course of five hours of conversation. Railey is not returning my phone calls. But I assume it's a lot more icing on that "poor, poor pitiful me" cake that he served up down in San Antonio, where he had the nerve--you gotta admit, the guy is shameless--to start sobbing and dry-heaving all over the witness stand.

But I do know this. The man will say on Dateline NBC--which will be broadcast to millions of people who do not know what a con and a charmer this man is--that he hasn't seen his children for four years because the Yarringtons won't let him.

Which is a lie.
Railey's children won't see him because they do not want to see him. Period.
This newspaper has written in great detail about the egregious handling of this case by our own Dallas County District Attorney John Vance--who, by the way, has not been seen alive by this reporter or many others for several years now, though we understand he still is making cameo appearances at his cush job when he isn't doing his midafternoon, heart-healthy laps around Prestonwood Mall. Vance, who was ill and clueless at the time of the Railey trial, sent two shrubs to San Antonio to lose the case.

One of the most egregious things these two assistant district attorneys--who hated each other and didn't speak during the four-week trial--did involved Ryan Railey. Ryan was 5 years old at the time of the attack, and he claimed on several occasions--in an extremely convincing way in words and drawings--that his father strangled his mother in the kitchen and then coached him, over and over again, that "a bad man" did it instead.

This newspaper wrote about how Ryan had to see a pediatrician the day after the attack because he had tiny broken blood vessels all over his face and in the whites of his eyes--caused by severe oxygen deprivation, the doctor concluded. Ryan also had five very distinct marks on his neck--from somebody's thumb and four fingers. "Whoever did that to Peggy did it to Ryan, also," the doctor told Diane Yarrington that day.

Nobody from Vance's office ever interviewed Ryan Railey as a possible witness in the trial. People who worked on the case say Assistant District Attorney Cecil Emerson, who was the lead prosecutor on the case, just didn't have the stomach to deal with the boy.

I do not know what 14-year-old Ryan Railey recalls today about that incredibly awful night nine-and-a-half years ago. Diane and John Yarrington, who desperately love Ryan and his sister, Megan, are not about to ask. They have been the children's parents since the night of the attack when Walker Railey asked them to take care of his kids for a few days while he focused on his poor, hospitalized wife. Incredibly, he never went back to pick them up. Instead, he moved to California and had his lawyer call the Yarringtons' lawyer to get them to sign papers granting them temporary, and subsequently permanent, custody.

"Before we left Dallas, we asked him if he would let us change the names legally, and he agreed to it," says Diane Yarrington. "But when we mailed him the papers, he wouldn't sign them."

No, the Yarringtons would never dream of asking Ryan, who has long called himself Ryan Yarrington, to rehash those awful days. They are better left forgotten.

But the Yarringtons do know this: Ever since the attack, Ryan and Megan have not wanted to be with their biological father. Walker Railey's visits have been erratic at best--he once went four months without so much as a phone call. And when he did see them--the last visit in June 1992 was a good example--he whiled away the visitation talking on the phone while his kids watched TV in a cheap motel room. Each time he came to visit, Megan sobbed uncontrollably. Ryan stuttered. They feared what Railey would do to them: hurt them; take them. They feared what Railey would do to their foster mother, Diane Yarrington. And they did not want to go on the visit with their father.

Diane Yarrington--fierce protectress of two children she did not birth but that she raised without hesitation along with her own--will not dignify Walker Railey's accusations with a nationally broadcast response that will destroy her children's dignity and privacy.

But this is the truth, as she has told me consistently for three years: "Not seeing Walker has been their choice," Diane Yarrington says. "When he called them after the trial--several weeks after the verdict--Ryan took the phone and he said, "We don't want to see you again. We don't want to talk to you." And Walker replied, "You're not old enough to make that decision." And Ryan said, "Oh, yes, I am." (Ryan was 11 years old at the time.)

 

Interestingly enough--tragically enough--Megan Yarrington recently has been asking her parents if she can see a picture of Peggy Railey, the woman who once wrapped her in an orange-and-brown crocheted quilt and held her close. Today, unbeknownst to either of them, that quilt covers Peggy's stiff, arthritic body as she lies, badly brain-damaged and alone, in an East Texas nursing home.

But if the Yarringtons are greatly dismayed at the thought of Walker Railey baring his tortured soul on national TV, Peggy Railey's brother, Ted Nicolai, is downright incensed about it.

He, too, refuses to get into a war of words with his former brother-in-law, whom he hasn't talked to in years and hasn't seen since the criminal trial.

"I am not going to get in a pissing match with him--or air my dirty laundry on national TV," says Nicolai. "I won't do that to our family just so he can do a show."

Eleven years ago, Ted Nicolai's dad, Bill--perhaps the nicest, most unassuming man I have ever met--retired after 30 years with the Schlitz brewing company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bill and his wife, Billie Jo, moved to a modest home on a sleepy East Texas lake to be near their son, Ted, and daughter, Peggy, both of whom were married and raising children and living in the Dallas area. The elder Nicolais were healthy. They had a good pension. They planned to play with grandchildren and gaze at the lake and travel.

Instead, two years later, their 44-year-old daughter was attacked and crippled, their son-in-law moved to California, and their daughter's two children moved out of state. All their retirement dreams vanished. From 1987 to the end of 1993, they spent every single day driving from the lake, where they also were caring for Billie Jo's ninetysomething mother, to the East Texas nursing home where their daughter was being taken care of. They brushed her teeth, combed her hair, showed her pictures of her children, and wheeled her around the halls of a place filled with sick and dying people. Through it all, they fought their son-in-law in civil and criminal court--trying to make him pay, to take responsibility for what had happened to Peggy. They never succeeded.

Then their health began to fail. Bill began a slow descent into Alzheimer's. Billie Jo had severe diabetes and suffered a series of small strokes--all of which she put second to her daughter's needs. Seeing what was happening to his parents, their son, Ted, retired from his job in the electronics business, sold his house in Arlington, and moved to their East Texas lake to take care of his family. Each day, he drove his ailing parents to that nursing home--until they were too sick to go anymore. Then, last month, he was forced to place Bill and Billie Jo, both in their late 70s, in a nursing home located not far from his sister's.

When he thinks of Walker Railey--and he tries really hard not to--he thinks of what has become of his family. "They were to a point in their lives where they wanted to start going places and doing things," he says, recalling when his parents moved to Texas. "And then their whole lives just stopped. They literally wore themselves out--killed themselves--going over there everyday to that nursing home. Mom wouldn't take her insulin when she was supposed to. She wouldn't take it seriously. Now they're in a nursing home. Now it's ruined."

Sometime in the near future--most likely in December, after NBC has had a chance to return to Dallas for a second time to conduct more interviews--Walker Railey, tears welling up in his eyes, will tell the entire nation why it's so darn hard to be Walker Railey.

Out there in the darkness of television viewing land, a few people will know better.


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