“In the darkest part of night, probably dressed in dark clothes, dark men did a dark, dark deed, bringing us to this place today, leading to our loss, causing us to travel through the valley of the shadow of death,” is how the Irish Rev. Brian Anderson reminded us of death.
In the darkness, either in the middle of the night or in the early morning, unspeakable, cold-blooded violence crept through the Pike County homes of eight members of the Rhoden family, grimly reaping their last breaths, and then, just as quickly and silently drifted into the mist of the night.
Murder, always senseless and unconscionable, is not limited to the large city. Union Hill Road in Pike County winds through an isolated Appalachian region, where families openly shared their joys and sorrows with neighbors. The hills are a place where people thought they knew everybody’s business. Now, they are not so sure.
Last week I traveled to Pike County. It was foggy and damp as I drove past an elderly couple walking slowly in downtown Waverly. Although it was the middle of the day, I remembered the Raymond Chandler quote, “The streets were dark with something more than night.”
A Greyhound bus with “Detroit” displayed on the sign across its large, gleaming windshield sat at the stoplight. The word Detroit, the big city, seemed out of place in Waverly. The bus pulled away, its pace subdued, much like the slow shuffling of the people on the sidewalks.
There were some signs of business as usual. A woman was standing in front of the Walmart store with a sign telling everyone she would work for food. She waved and smiled as I passed.
I pulled into Diner 23, an old-fashioned diner like the one located on Washington Street in Sabina. I opened the door, walked toward a red and white stool, noticing how the two seasoned waitresses turned around and stared, as I took a seat at the counter.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before,” the dark-haired waitress said cautiously as she wiped the counter with a large, damp cloth.
“Nope. This is my first time,” I answered with a smile, as I attempted to put her at ease.
The fellow diners seemed quiet, downcast, speaking in hushed tones. There was intenseness across their faces. I heard one man say the words murder and sheriff.
I turned away not wanting to appear to be eavesdropping, but frankly, that is what I was doing, without trying to be obvious or rude.
“If you haven’t been through something like this, people won’t understand,” a man said to his female companion, a seat away from where I was sitting.
The comment made me recall a recent article I had read about tragedy, “with seven billion people on the planet, and thousands of years of recorded history, please trust that someone has been through your circumstances, and can provide perspective.”
This is what brought me to Waverly. I had realized I was one of a small group of individuals who could offer perspective. I didn’t go to offer technical advice, or stick my nose into the investigation. Mine was a humanitarian visit.
I didn’t know Sheriff Reader. I did know the look on his face. I knew the familiar bags under the eyes, from weeks of sleepless nights and constant worry. As sheriff, I knew the frustration of facing an unsolved crime of monumental proportions, the glare of the media, and the fear and confusion of the citizens of a small, farming community.
I wanted to encourage the sheriff, and let him know that he isn’t alone. I wanted him to know others understand what he was going through, and to know it isn’t the first time others had seen the sun rise as neighbors cried for help.
The sheriff’s personnel were friendly, but understandably suspicious of a stranger. Once introductions were made, they became more at ease, hearing I was a member of the law enforcement fraternity.
“The crazy thing is, we never locked our doors around here before last week,” the major said. His comment made me recall a quote a news commentator made during a similar investigation which occurred many years ago in Clinton County: “Tonight they began to lock their doors, as well as their hearts.”
Sheriff Reader was preparing for a news conference with Attorney General Mike DeWine. I was not going to interrupt him. I wrote him a message that reassured, “Sheriff, you will solve this case. It may not seem like it now, but you will,” I wrote. “It is important to pace yourself physically, and mentally withdraw from the investigation whenever possible.”
Scripture says, “The murderer arises at dawn; He kills the poor and the needy. And at night he is as a thief.”
The unthinkable happened in the darkness on Union Hill Road in Pike County, just as it did in our hometown.
Crimes are solved. Punishment is rendered. Yet people continue to kill in the darkness. And nobody knows why.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and served as Clinton County sheriff from 1980-1988.