The Unbelievers

For Bill Jones, it was the "biggest weakness" question that first had him wondering about job candidate James Simmons.

Simmons was interviewing to become the new senior pastor at the White Rock Community Church, and someone popped him the old job-interview standby. He answered, "I guess it's that I'm a workaholic," recalls Jones, a former deacon in the mostly gay and lesbian congregation. "My partner and I rolled our eyes and said to ourselves, 'Oh puh-leeze.' We do a lot of interviews in our regular jobs. When you hear that answer, red flags should be going up. This person is telling you they're a liar."

From the start, there was a lot to question. At a series of private meetings before Simmons was called to the pulpit in a congregational vote, he told church members a remarkable tale. Sixteen years ago, he had suffered a beating that left him with total amnesia, an event that cut him off from much of his past.

The story sounded fishy, Jones recalls, but several church leaders in charge of the vetting process assured him there was proof that the story checked out.

Well, not exactly.

The congregation and a fascinated public soon learned that the 49-year-old Simmons is actually Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances from a West Texas farm road in the summer of 1984. He had left behind a wife, a 6-month-old baby, and his position as a youth and family minister at an evangelical San Antonio church.

That Cox would re-emerge as Simmons is remarkable, but not nearly as startling as the fact that a personable, outwardly straight evangelical minister would vanish and reappear years later as a personable, openly gay evangelical minister.

It is astonishing now because Simmons is sticking to his amnesia story without being able to produce any evidence to back up its basic facts, and a considerable number of the 350 active members at White Rock appear to believe it. Many call it a "miracle" that Simmons has finally found his past.

With Simmons moving into the pulpit to deliver sermons the last two Sundays, the church is presenting a united front behind him, taking the unusual step of hiring a publicist to spin his story to a skeptical press. But behind that facade, a core of active members--at least 20, and as many as 40--say they have witnessed not a divine manifestation, but a poorly told, shifting tale they find impossible to believe.

The proof, they say, is ringing in their ears, in the story they heard Simmons tell in private meetings with the congregation in December and in the story he tells in public today. They shared their doubts about Simmons with the Dallas Observer, which is telling their stories for the first time.

Many first heard James Simmons' tale at a casual December 9 brunch attended by about 40 of White Rock's most active members, a meet-and-greet designed to introduce Simmons as the leading candidate to head the church. Over coffee and English muffins, Simmons outlined his fascinating past.

The congregation had been looking for almost a year and a half to fill its pulpit with an evangelical Christian in the theologically conservative Southern Baptist or Church of Christ mold. There was another requirement, too. The new head minister needed to be gay, or at least ready to lead a flock made up mainly of gays and lesbians who practice the born-again faith in which they were raised. In a world where those two paths seldom cross, the sharply dressed, subtly charismatic minister from Mill Valley, California, filled the bill.

At the brunch, hosted by architect Jeffrey Brown at his McKinney Avenue condo, Simmons told a story he had been telling for years. He recalled how he had been found in Memphis in the summer of 1984, the victim of a severe beating that left him without a trace of memory. Several children playing in a wrecking yard had found him, bloody and comatose, in the trunk of an abandoned car.

"He told us he had to be trained to walk, talk, and eat again," says Brian Orrell, a computer consultant who runs the church's Web site. After listening to Simmons, Orrell and others came away with the impression that he had worked with police, the FBI, and newspaper reporters in Tennessee and beyond to find his missing past. "He said he was angry and frustrated that his family hadn't been searching for him," recalls Jones, a business analyst who was born again at the church in 1995. "He sounded like it was their fault."

Simmons told his tale the next day at a general meeting of the church congregation, and he layered on another detail about the Memphis hospital where he supposedly awoke.

"It was kind of a lighthearted moment," recalls Bruce Ryrie, an investor and son of a noted Christian theologian. "Someone asked him if he was gay, and he said, 'Yes, I remember waking up the second day in the hospital, and I kind of had a crush on the male nurse.'

"We all laughed," Ryrie says. "I assumed it was a real memory."

The same day that Simmons was charming the White Rock faithful, who that day voted overwhelmingly to call him to lead the church, a 31-year-old truck driver from Canyon, Texas, emerged from Simmons' past.

Blaine Hufnagle, a chunky young man with a ponytail who was visiting the church, listened to Simmons at the congregational meeting and became certain he knew who was speaking. It was Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox, a youth and family minister from the MacArthur Park Church of Christ in San Antonio. "I was blown away," said Hufnagle, who remembered Cox as the director of a Bible camp he attended in northern New Mexico. "I thought I had seen a ghost."

Hufnagle contacted Jeffrey Brown, the past chairman of the deacon board who was unofficially leading the search for a new pastor. Behind the scenes, Simmons was reintroduced to his family, who recognized him immediately, although he says he does not recognize them.

A full month went by before the Cox-Simmons story was released to the press, and it did not come out as the account of a long-lost man being happily reunited with wife and child. Beth Cox, who had her marriage annulled nine years ago, asked Abilene Christian University, where the couple had met, to announce on January 8 that he had finally reappeared.

In newspapers across Texas, and in the national media beyond, Simmons was big news, although the validity of his amnesia story was handled with delicate skepticism. "Very strange," NBC Today show host Katie Couric cooed after an airing of the story last week. Co-host Matt Lauer chimed in, "Lots of unanswered questions...and strange circumstances." Even Al Roker, the amiable weatherman, contributed a skeptical "Mmm-hmm."

Simmons soldiered on with a somewhat revised version of his story at a private meeting attended by about 120 congregants at White Rock on January 19 and then at a news conference the next day.

"I know that you want the details, I know that you want documentation," said Simmons at the news conference, with TV lights picking up the brown highlights he's put in his graying hair. "I know that many of you do not believe and that there are skeptics out there. And that's what you'll have to deal with."

The next day, church leaders told the congregation that an overwhelming majority of the deacon board continued to support Simmons as the congregation's new leader. Many said, as they filed out of the church, that nothing short of a miracle had transpired at the plain-Jane, Georgian-style brick sanctuary on Garland Road.

"I've seen all kinds of miracles in life," said Robert Pickett, a hairdresser, after hearing Simmons' sermon that morning on Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. "He was searching for his family for all those years."

"We live our lives by faith," said Jeffrey Brown, who Simmons had appointed as "ambassador" to break the ice with his 80-year-old mother, his sister, brother, ex-wife, and 17-year-old daughter. "We believe that it was God's will that James was called to our church to be our senior pastor. As far as the credibility of his story, we have faith that God led him here and that we basically have witnessed a miracle."

Some of the disbelievers stepped forward in on-the-record interviews over the past week. Others, who would speak only on background, say they are holding their voices, biding time, and praying that a church they care for deeply has not made a horrible mistake.

If you don't believe Simmons' story, they agree, you are left with some pretty disturbing thoughts about the new pastor. The doubters use words such as "pathological liar," "false teacher," and "a very sad and troubled man."

"I don't want a spiritual leader who can't even tell the simple story of his life," says Brad Ford, who leads the church's men's ministry. "The story has so many holes in it, it makes me ask, 'Is he lying? Is he mentally unstable?' This is not the person you want leading you in a job, in a church, in anything. What kind of man would desert his only child?"

Says Jones, "Just think of everyone, his family and friends, who didn't know for years if he was kidnapped or maybe murdered. If you find his story's a lie, then he's a fraud who has left a wake of destruction in his life."

Between the time Simmons first told his story in December and his news conference five weeks later, one of two big holes that so trouble Jones and others opened in Memphis as reporters began checking the pastor's account.

Police there say they have no record of a man turning up in a car trunk, no missing persons search, no hint of anything resembling Simmons' account.

"We've searched microfilm, records, everything...for all of 1984," says Memphis police spokeswoman Latanya Able. "We cannot substantiate anything he has alleged."

When Simmons faced the congregation and the press, seated on the dais before a silver cross, he had no hospital records, police reports, or any documentation about the first few weeks or months after he supposedly awoke from his coma. He did, however, have an account of that period that was fuzzier than the one he shared with the congregation a month earlier.

"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."

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.

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.

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.

Robbins says she did not ask Simmons for proof of the amnesia story, which fell to other members of the selection committee. It appears that nobody at the church demanded strict proof of a story that had receded into the past.

If anything, Robbins says, Simmons won over the selection committee and others at the church with his personality.

Struggling to define its qualities, she finds an analogy in her avocation as a pet rescuer. "Did you ever have a dog? Well, if he were a dog, he'd be a golden retriever. Very outgoing. Very loving and sweet and caring. Everyone is his friend."

The dissidents at the church agree. Simmons' low-key charisma, combined with a highly emotional style, has won him considerable support at White Rock. "He can convince you the color red is blue and vice versa. He has the power to do that," says Blackwell.

At Simmons' private meeting with the congregation, many parishioners passed up their chance to paste him with questions. Instead, they poured out stories of trouble and challenges in their own lives.

"It was amazing to me," Orrell says. "I've never seen people so quickly wooed. People were just ready to commit their lives. It was a little scary."

"He has a very magnetic personality," says one parishioner who was close to the selection process. "The only way to describe it is, in his presence you are in love with him. You are in awe of him, and a lot of people are. I've seen it in myself. I've had to guard myself, because in my heart of hearts, I don't believe him."

Jones, the former deacon, says Simmons likes to weave the good works and kind hearts of others into his life story, which helps blur its improbable facts. "He's very clever, very skilled at taking people through this emotional roller coaster," Jones says. "He will throw out a bunch of facts [about his life], and when he gets to a point where you might start doubting him, he throws in this heart-wrenching, tear-jerking part that has no relevance whatsoever."

That sounded a lot like the approach Simmons used at his news conference, where he peppered his story with thanks and praise for those who helped him during his amnesiac odyssey, including his "four mothers" and "two fathers."

"I want to thank the two who found me [in the junkyard]; I've never met them, but I want to thank them now," Simmons said after opening the session with a Bible verse about a man blind from birth who is put on the earth so God could be revealed through him.

"I want to thank Pastor Brown from West Virginia, who took me under his care in the late summer of '84, Miss Goff from Charlottesville, who took care of me for the first few years of my life..."

As he wrapped things up, he said, "I'm sure there will be questions for the rest of my life about what happened, what will happen, how much [memory] I retained, how much I will get back. I would appreciate your prayers as I go through this next few weeks and months."

If the media didn't get the message they should be praying rather than picking apart his story, Simmons gave them a brief statement the next day, after his first Sunday sermon: "The spirit of the Lord was here. I pray you will continue to pray for me as I make adjustments with my wife and daughter and extended family."

Given the congregation's widespread support for Simmons, opposition is a delicate matter, the dissenters say.

"It pleases me my congregation is so loving and compassionate, but I don't think they see the reality," says Jones, who has been a member since 1995. "The fact is, he is our new pastor, and people are rallying around. It is difficult to question him without questioning people's faith."

Jones and others says the dissenters are waiting for Simmons to present clear evidence, or for new revelations to emerge that might further discredit his story. With no new proof to offer, Simmons has been trying to schedule meetings with known doubters, attempting to bring them around one by one, several sources say.

At present, no criminal or civil legal actions--such as a lawsuit for missed child support--have emerged that would force Simmons to make his case outside the church. Last week, the Social Security Administration said it had conducted a brief investigation into the theft of the rancher's identity and will take no action against Simmons.

Wes Davis, an agency spokesman in Dallas, said the agency has problems with Simmons' story, but the statute of limitations has passed on issues of falsifying records, and a law against identity theft was enacted only two years ago and is not applicable to this case.

Davis said it would be up to the rancher whose tax returns were audited to make a criminal complaint, and he has said he wants to let the matter drop. The spokesman also said the agency would help Beth Cox obtain an "equity and good conscience" waiver to the requirement that she repay the $400- to $600-a-month death benefit she and her daughter collected after Cox was declared dead.

"Nobody is after him," says Craig McDaniel, the public relations consultant.

Beth Cox, who now lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and her attorney did not return calls for comment. Simmons, Jeffrey Brown, and Sharon Blair, the current head of the deacon board, declined requests for interviews.

Church sources say Simmons flew to Tennessee for a brief visit with his ex-wife and daughter last weekend. It would have been the first time he met his former family, people he claims he does not know.

Meanwhile, church sources say Simmons was busy moving into a modest house in East Dallas--a 1,250 square-foot 1950s bungalow--and settling into a job for which the church budgeted a salary of roughly $40,000 to $50,000 a year.

If Simmons stays put, several dissenters say they will have no choice but to withdraw from the church, a decision that would leave them with few places to go. There are no other evangelical churches in Dallas where they would be accepted with open arms, and other gay and lesbian congregations practice a more liberal theology than White Rock. Orrell referred to it as "that Mother God stuff." The White Rock church was formed in 1991 by a splinter movement from the Cathedral of Hope, Dallas' largest gay congregation.

"It would be nice if we could go to the nearest Baptist Church and sit together and not worry about people staring and making comments," Blackwell says. "But that's what we'll do, as long as they're teaching God's word. There is a name for Mr. Simmons or Mr. Cox or whatever he is calling himself. He is what is called a false teacher. In God's church, people should never sit under a false teacher."


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