"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.