Death seemed to be part of Garrett Wilson's life. Both of his parents had died by the time he was in his early twenties. So friends shrugged when sadly, an infant daughter, and then a son, succumbed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Six years later, after he divorced his wife, Missy, and married another woman, his former spouse became convinced that their child's passing was anything but natural.
Was it cold-blooded murder by Garrett, or a quest for revenge by his ex-wife? Missy's own investigation that led to Garrett Wilson's arrest and eventual trial will keep the reader guessing until the final pages. Havill takes us through each stage of this intricate and chilling story all the way to the courtroom, where the jury's stunning verdict is given.
Acclaimed author Adrian Havill conducted nineteen in-person interviews with the accused both before and after his trial. He had full access to both the defense and prosecution teams. The result is an unprecedented look at a murder investigation and an edge-of-the-seat real-life medical thriller that stretches from Maryland to Texas and Florida.
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About the Author
Adrian Havill is the author of The Mother, The Son, And the Socialite: The True Story of a Mother-Son Crime. He has also written several biographies, including The Last Mogul: The Unauthorized Biography of Jack Kent Cooke, Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve, and contributed to Juice: The O.J. Simpson Tragedy. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Georgiana. They have two children.
Adrian Havill is the author of While Innocents Slept, Born Evil and The Mother, The Son, And the Socialite: The True Story of a Mother-Son Crime. He has also written several biographies, including The Last Mogul: The Unauthorized Biography of Jack Kent Cooke, Deep Truth: The Lives of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Man of Steel: The Career and Courage of Christopher Reeve, and contributed to Juice: The O.J. Simpson Tragedy. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Georgiana. They have two children.
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While Innocents Slept: A Story of Revenge, Murder, and SIDS
A Story of Revenge, Murder, and Sids
By Adrian Havill
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 Adrian Havill
All rights reserved.
A LONER IN FRIENDLY
When Ethel Mae Garrett wanted to impress people, she would tell them she was descended from the Garrett tobacco family of Virginia. The boast was only partly true. She was born in Pamplin, North Carolina, in 1921 while her father, Kendrick Garrett, worked for the Tar Heel State, building dams and bringing electricity to thousands. His family had once been the Garretts of Garrett Snuff, a branded brown dust manufactured in Lynchburg, the beginning of the Bible Belt in Virginia. One could choose to either tuck a pinch of the powder below the lower lip, hold it inside the cheek, or inhale the mixture into and through the nostrils before spitting the residue into the dirt. All three methods forced the nicotine to seep into wet exposed tissue, providing an addictive jolt of cheap pleasure.
Ethel was one of ten. Her mother, Araminta, specialized in popping out babies as if they were sugar peas fresh from the pod. She produced one child each year throughout the 1920s. Most were girls. By that time she truly could claim to be a Garrett of Virginia. Kendrick had moved the family to Burkeville in Nottoway County after the Great Depression began. This time he built dams and bridges for one of Franklin Roosevelt's creations — the Civilian Conservation Corps — out of a nearby army base called Camp Pickett.
Araminta and Kendrick's home was on South Agnew Street. It was a big, white, five-bedroom house with four columns in front, one of the largest homes in town. Black potbellied stoves heated it in the winter. In the summer, there were ceiling fans to move the hot, humid air.
Burkeville, population five hundred, was fifty-five miles southwest of Richmond. Outside the town, the land was justly famed for a loamy soil, which produced the highest grades of flue-cured, premium tobacco. Curing sheds, where temperatures shot up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer as workers stacked the harvested leaves inside them, dotted the rolling green fields of Nottoway County.
Araminta was an exotic moniker, but her son and daughters had plain, traditional names. The siblings were Mary, Edith, Faye, Lucie, Willard, Bobby, and Harriet. One girl, Virginia, was a victim of Down syndrome. Araminta lost another son giving birth.
Most of the Garrett brood had reached its teens by the time the world's financial markets crashed. Living in a farming village such as Burkeville cushioned the blow. The Garretts felt the effect of the Depression far less than the unfortunates of the big cities.
By the end of the thirties, Kendrick was dead from a heart ailment and all of the younger Garretts were adults. With the exception of Virginia, they began streaming out of Burkeville. Most heeded the siren call from Washington. In the pages of National Geographic, they had lingered over the photos of the buildings and monuments in the great capital. Now it came to life before their eyes. On the banks of the great Potomac River, each of them sought a prize — the stability of a government job. Paychecks with a federal seal never bounced. When you reached sixty-five, you got a pension. What more could one want? Ethel Garrett, a five foot seven, handsome, round-faced woman who friends thought resembled Shelley Winters, had one of these coveted positions when she was eighteen. She was soon wed, and life seemed perfect.
But her modest fairy-tale beginning would have an unhappy ending. In later life, Ethel would claim that her first husband was "impotent" and that the wedding had been a sham from the start. After a decade in this near-sexless marriage that produced no children, the union was annulled.
Her closest confidante in Washington became Iris Young, who worked with Ethel at the Department of Agriculture. Iris had made her way to the nation's capital from West Virginia. The two women became so intertwined in each other's lives that when Ethel became engaged to Howard Eldred Wilson III and Iris to Carl Farley, the pair planned their weddings fourteen days apart so each could attend the other's nuptials.
Eldred — he never used his first name or the fancy Roman numerals — was considered handsome, a comer. His great-grandparents had arrived in Washington more than a century earlier from Scotland. Whether fact or fantasy, it was part of Wilson family lore that somewhere near Edinburgh was a castle in which their ancestors had once resided.
A native of the federal city, he had been a star tennis player in his youth and voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in 1926 by his class at Eastern High School. For a while he seemed to be headed for broadcast stardom. In the 1930s he was chosen to read the Sunday comics with Arthur Godfrey on a local radio station, long before the broadcaster began his CBS career.
When Eldred was a young man, his widowed mother acquired a stately home on McArthur Boulevard, a major thoroughfare in the far western corner of Washington. Eldred's sister, Eleanor, and her husband, Donald Ward, joined her in the large house. Eldred's mother would live to be ninety-eight. If genes were a factor, her son had every right to expect a long and healthy life.
Eldred had gone to a local business college named for Benjamin Franklin, which specialized in accounting and financial courses. He had parlayed this business education into a career at Lincoln National Bank, which later merged into the city's largest financial institution, Riggs Bank. In 1947, he learned that the U.S. House of Representatives wanted a professional banker to supervise its payroll inside the Sergeant at Arms office. Eldred, who was about to celebrate his fortieth birthday, jumped at the chance. He was immediately hired to the post, considered a plum position.
"I never understood why they want government desk jobs," remembered Carl Farley. The husband of Ethel's best friend managed a series of wholesale food warehouses. Farley's job allowed him to go from the inside of the building to the outside several times a day.
Ethel wed Eldred on August 11, 1951. Iris and Carl's ceremony was held on the twenty-fifth. None of their friends thought it peculiar that Eldred was forty-three, thirteen years older than his wife. Instead, they were happy that Ethel had found happiness after the disastrous first marriage. Eldred also carried personal history into the marriage. He had once fathered a child with a girlfriend and named the boy after himself. The two married for a short time, but when he divorced the woman, he failed to support her or his son. He had also married a second time, with that alliance quickly going sour. Ethel whispered these secrets to Iris, and the stories became common knowledge.
Ethel quit her nine-to-five government job. She was determined to spend the rest of her life as Eldred's wife and a mother of many children.
They newlyweds shared a love of bowling. Both became involved in recreational leagues, showing up at the local lanes until their health faltered. They also liked to play cards. There were no other joint activities.
Separately, Ethel attended meetings of the Eastern Star, the female branch of the Masonic Fraternity. Eldred's sport was baseball. As a teen, he had sold peanuts at Griffith Stadium, then the home of the American League's underachieving Washington Senators. During the long summers, so hot and humid that a foggy mist rose from the city's two rivers as morning dawned, he contented himself by listening to each Senators' game on WTOP, the home team's play-by-play radio voice.
The two women were so emotionally close to one another, it seemed natural that the first homes the Wilsons and Farleys purchased were less than two blocks apart. In the early 1950s, home ownership was a tangible sign of affluence. Their small starter homes were fifteen minutes from the Capitol, across the Anacostia River, up a hill from Bolling Air Force Base, and about a mile from the Maryland state line. The Farley's house on First Street Southwest wasn't that much different from the Wilson's home on Second Street.
"They had a brick house with some stonework in front and a concrete retaining wall," John Farley, the eldest of Carl and Iris Farley's three children, recalled. John, born in January of 1956, would be followed by Stephen and then Linda, all in the space of five years.
Ethel and Eldred finally had a son of their own on June fourteenth, but having children had not been easy. In the first five years of marriage the Wilsons had seen three chances at parenthood go bad. The first baby was stillborn, and the other two infants died from undiagnosed illnesses during the first three months of life.
Ethel was determined to succeed. After Eldred impregnated her a fourth time, she decided to give birth alone. As soon as her labor began, she marched three blocks to a bus stop at the corner of South Capital Street in blistering summer heat, took the transit vehicle to Doctor's Hospital, and checked herself in while Eldred continued to do the work of the nation at the U.S. Capitol. She told nobody about the impending delivery.
"My mother was thirty-five at the time. She already had the first signs of glaucoma. She had gone through two heart attacks, and early arthritis was making her fingers curl like a hawk's claws. The doctors told her it would be risky to give her a lot of drugs, so I was born by cesarean. I don't think there was any anesthesia. Mom was partly propped up so she could see herself giving birth," her son explained to an interviewer.
Determined to pass on her ancestor's name, and knowing this might be her last chance to do so, Ethel named the boy Garrett Eldred. The tobacco family lineage was safely perpetuated for one more generation.
But Garrett and Ethel were close, perhaps too close. "Why, my God, she breast-fed him until he was four," confided an amazed Jackie Sandoe, who married Eldred's nephew.
Ethel teased him about it when he got older. She said she was trying to beat the record of one of Eldred's relatives who had nursed her baby until the boy was five. Her tasteless remarks in front of family friends embarrassed him as he grew older.
"You did chin-ups on my boobs forever," she would say.
After their baby was brought home from the hospital, his father purchased a female boxer dog and named it Kris. The animal was trained to protect the child from harm. It sat at the top of the stairs near the entrance of their son's nursery. When anyone other than the parents approached his crib, the canine would bark loudly.
The Wilsons and the Farleys expected Garrett and John to be friends, and they were, becoming inseparable. The green woods in front of the Wilson house was their after-school playground.
Access to power has always been the road to success in Washington. Eldred became firmly ensconced in the Sergeant at Arms office and soon began to associate with the power congressmen of the era. Framed pictures with Sam Rayburn, Carl Albert, and Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill were displayed in his office. Ethel was equally proud of a photo of her waltzing at the White House with Harry Truman. Promotion followed promotion. This allowed Eldred and Ethel to buy a much larger house in 1967. Their new home was east of the Capitol in an unincorporated suburban Maryland town. The signs said Friendly, but the name was meaningless. There was no government, no city center, no sense of belonging to a community. And if you told someone a few miles away you were from Friendly, you would be asked this question: Where is that?
Prince George's County, which surrounded Friendly, was (and still is) Washington's only bordering suburb that can be called determinedly working class. In the 1960s, the county's population was 400,000. (It is nearly double that today.) Eldred wore a suit and tie to Capitol Hill, but in truth, he was resolutely blue collar and knew it. Eldred rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the nation each day, but he knew the pecking order and where he stood, which was closer to the bottom than to the top. Any resentment he had was pacified by daily doses of hard liquor, a habit that grew into an incurable dependency.
Eldred decided on the show model in a development called Caltor Manor. The Wilson family's home was the first one on Caltor Lane, a string of houses much like their own that stretched down the hilly street for nearly a mile. Eldred and Ethel's residence was a white brick split level placed diagonally on a quarter-acre lot. The home came complete with a carport and features known as "builder's extras."
The architect for the project trimmed the front of the Wilson's house with columns of black wrought iron, giving it a faux New Orleans feeling. Ethel, Eldred, and Garrett moved into the house in May of 1967. It was remembered as an awkward time for their son, who spent the last month of the fifth grade in an unfamiliar elementary school.
For demonstration purposes, the sales force for Caltor Manor had equipped Eldred's house with a pair of kitchens. The second one remained even after they moved in. The extra refrigerator and stove in the basement would have been costly to rip out, and the Wilsons decided to keep their little bonus. As Garrett became older, the self-contained basement became his domain. Unlike most boys, he had a virtual apartment within the family home before he was a teenager.
It was expected that the Farleys would follow the Wilsons into Maryland. They did, but moved to New Carrollton, about fifteen miles away. Their new address was closer to Carl's job. John, now in a different school district, was separated from his friend during the school week. Garrett never formed close friendships with other boys, by high school gaining a reputation as a bit of a loner, according to the neighbors who remembered the family.
As an only child, Garrett was closer to his parents than most children. Fortunately, he failed to inherit their worst habits. Though short in stature, Eldred was considered good looking by his Caltor Lane neighbors until drink began distorting his features. By the end of the 1960s he had become a barrel-chested, three-pack-per-day smoker and a confirmed double-measure scotch and water drinker, good for several shots each evening. The drinking increased as he aged. Carrying a whisky nightcap to bed became a tradition. By any standard, he was an alcoholic and a frequent drunk. Ethel was a smoker until she quit in her forties. And while she joined her husband for cocktails at five, Ethel never became bound to liquor as her husband did.
"He held court every afternoon with a happy hour when he came home from Capitol Hill," John Farley recalled. "Eldred had his bar just behind the dining room table and he'd walk back and forth to the kitchen to get the water for his drinks. He began with beer and usually switched to the scotch by nine."
John remembered a truck pulling up to the Wilson's house twice each week. A man with a cart on wheels would deliver boxes of beer. "It was a real cheap brand called Hal's. He was usually good for two or three cases."
Eldred kept a television set in the dining room and a small radio to listen to the baseball games on during the summer. He installed a small sofa next to the table, and the room became his kingdom.
As he grew older, Garrett would join his parents in these evening drinking sessions. But he never took up smoking, rarely drank spirits, and only occasionally sipped a beer. Garrett Wilson said liquor gave him headaches and made him wake up the next day feeling sick. Nor did he ever experiment with drugs. His one vice was food — all the wrong kind. Garrett would put down glass after glass of rich whole milk while eating unlimited double slices of baloney, the brand impregnated with cheese chunks. By the time he was ten he had begun to resemble the Pillsbury Doughboy.
On Sundays, Garrett was a regular at the First Baptist Church of Friendly. He was considered a gifted baritone, able to lead the choir with his voice. Garrett's mother was usually in church by her son's side. The two didn't seem to miss Eldred. A nominal Episcopalian, Eldred wasn't much of a churchgoer. Still, he took part in Ethel's nightly Bible lessons at the dining room table, albeit with a beer and a cigarette in his hand. Eldred was more than willing to bow his head or say grace before each meal, another ritual Ethel insisted on. Despite his lack of attendance in houses of worship, Eldred could quote Scripture better than any traveling evangelist.
At ten, Garrett was able to replace the Sunday morning church pianist if needed. He had begun to play the instrument just a year before.
"When I was nine I was walking by a local piano chain, Jordan Kitt's, with my mother," Garrett recalled. "I went into their showroom, sat down at the piano, and played 'The Marine Hymn.' My mother was totally surprised. She didn't know I could play at all."
Garrett was precocious. He had taught himself the tune while staying at an aunt's house the previous week. Ethel thought she had a young Mozart on her hands and immediately hired a music tutor to give him lessons. But after a couple of sessions, Garrett quit.
Excerpted from While Innocents Slept: A Story of Revenge, Murder, and SIDS by Adrian Havill. Copyright © 2001 Adrian Havill. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ONE - A LONER IN FRIENDLY,
TWO - ROBBERY ON THE HILL,
THREE - BABY BRANDI IS DEAD,
FOUR - HARD-BODIED LADIES' MAN,
FIVE - A CLASSIC SIDS CASE,
SIX - A DIVORCE IN FLORIDA,
SEVEN - THE PROUD PANHANDLE PEOPLE,
EIGHT - LIKE A LAST BREATH?,
NINE - AND THEN HE WAS DEAD,
TEN - A ONE-WOMAN CRUSADE,
ELEVEN - AN AUTOPSY IS CHANGED,
TWELVE - MURDER ONE IN MONTGOMERY,
THIRTEEN - THE FACE OF AMERICA,
FOURTEEN - HE DID THE UNTHINKABLE,
FIFTEEN - JUST A BUNCH OF STUFF,
SIXTEEN - YOU THINK HE KILLED BRANDI?,
SEVENTEEN - HE REALLY DID IT!,
EIGHTEEN - BATTLE OF THE EXPERTS,
NINETEEN - A DECISION IN ROCKVILLE,
NOTES ON SOURCES AND ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
ALSO BY ADRIAN HAVILL,