Walker Railey

L.A. is where you go to reinvent yourself—or at least you do if you're Walker Railey.

September 2001By Comments

It’s paradise, really. The Waverly Gardens Apartments sit at the crest of a hill in Silver Lake, California, one of those charming little Los Angeles neighborhoods full of bungalows that don’t match, deco patios, and outrageous growths of bougainvillea. The building itself is nothing special: light brown, four stories, with a garage and security gate. But it is surrounded by a lush landscape of multicolored flowers growing alongside deep green grass, sculpted bushes, and hundred-foot trees. The smells of jasmine and honeysuckle color the light breeze, and a man-made brook trickles through the grass near the front gate, where the names of the tenants are listed. One of them is “Railey.” From his window, the occupant can see for miles. On a clear day—that is, when his conscience allows—perhaps he can see all the way to Texas.

L.A. is a place you go to start over, to reinvent yourself. It happens in the movies all the time. It happens in real life too, and it happened to Walker Railey, who came to California in 1987, fleeing what had once been a perfect life in Dallas, where he was senior minister at First United Methodist Church. He had a pretty wife, Peggy, who played organ and sang in the church choir, and two children, Megan, two, and Ryan, five. And he was on the fast track to bishop. In a denomination not known for its color or flash, the liberal Railey provided plenty, and his passionate sermons energized a dwindling congregation. He was paid $100,000 a year, and he earned it.

In March 1987, though, Railey began receiving threatening letters, and on April 22, at 12:43 a.m., he called the police to say that "somebody [had] done something" to Peggy. Paramedics found her unconscious on the garage floor, her face bloated and her neck broken, obviously strangled. Yet there were no signs of a violent struggle—her glasses were on, and her hair was in place. Before following the ambulance to the hospital, Railey asked his friends John and Diane Yarrington to watch the children.

Over the next week, the police became suspicious of Railey. There were too many inconsistencies and omissions in his alibi—that he had been at the Southern Methodist University library—and evidence was beginning to surface of an affair he was having with Lucy Papillon, a beautiful blond psychologist. Eight days after the attack, when the police went to question Railey, they found him unconscious; he had swallowed three bottles of tranquilizers and left a suicide note. "There is a demon inside my soul," it read. "It has always been there. People have seen me as good. The truth is just the opposite. I am the baddest of the bad."

The police had no hard evidence to charge Railey; he gave up his license to preach, granted the Yarringtons temporary custody of his children, and moved to California, where Papillon had gone. This didn't stop Peggy's parents, Bill and Billie Jo Nicolai, from filing a civil suit against him for trying to kill their daughter, who lay brain-dead in a nursing home. Railey never showed up to contest it and lost an $18 million judgment. In 1992 investigators determined that Railey had written those threatening letters, and attempted murder charges were finally filed. The criminal trial, held in San Antonio, was notoriously mishandled by the prosecution (the two assistant DA's who tried the case hated each other and barely spoke for a month), and Railey was acquitted. The whole Railey chronology—a despondent, suicidal husband is the most obvious suspect in a horrible crime against his wife but then somehow goes free—would foreshadow the O. J. Simpson travesty one year later.

In California, Railey did what it took to make ends meet: He drove a forklift, worked as a telemarketer, delivered phone books, supervised security guards, and sold funeral insurance. He became friends with Kenneth Heaton, a Methodist minister in the city of Santa Ana, and even preached at his church one Sunday not long after leaving Texas. He got involved with Immanuel Presbyterian, an old church in downtown L.A., and eventually became its executive administrator, making more than $60,000 a year. He was forced out of his job after his 1992 arrest.

After his acquittal he was paid thousands of dollars to do an interview with Inside Edition, and he did some script reading for USA Networks. He gave up permanent custody of his children to the Yarringtons, who had moved to Arkansas, and he was ordered to pay them $400 a month in child support. By the end of 1996 Railey had split with Papillon and was dating a widow named Donna Berry, whose husband had been one of his congregants back in Dallas. He was also pressuring Peggy's attorneys for a divorce. They granted it and agreed to forget about the $18 million judgment in return for $337 a month in alimony, an amount based on his declaration of poverty (he had recently filed for bankruptcy). In April 1998 Railey and Berry were married, and he moved into her $3,000-a-month apartment on Wilshire Boulevard (though he kept an apartment in Silver Lake). He didn't invite his children, his mother, or his brother to the ceremony. He didn't even tell them about it. He was starting over.

Lately Railey seems to be reinventing himself again, working for the Union Rescue Mission in downtown L.A. Liz Mooradian, the mission's communications director, says he was hired within the past year as a donor relations representative. "He has a heart for the homeless," she says, adding that Railey is always at the mission during the holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas. He seems to be living at both his and Berry's addresses, though the Silver Lake apartment is listed as his home with the voter's registrar. (Calls to Railey were not returned.)

Railey has a circle of tight-lipped supporters. One man who has been his friend and pastor since the late eighties is Heaton, whose help I sought in getting an interview. According to Heaton, who now preaches at Norwalk United Methodist, Railey's reply was "Thanks, but no thanks." This was no surprise; Railey no longer talks to reporters. Heaton doesn't blame him: "He's been burned at every turn of the road. I've seen him so harassed that he has felt life is not worth living." Heaton is adamant about one thing: "If he did fall from grace, he's certainly been restored." When I pressed for details, he said he would respect his friend's "desire for anonymity."

Railey is a member of Heaton's congregation in Norwalk, which is about ten miles southeast of downtown L.A. One Sunday in July I went to services there. Railey didn't show up, though Heaton mentioned him from the pulpit as "my friend, Walker Railey." Another minister read from Galatians: "God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap." Too bad, I thought, that Railey wasn't there to hear that for the umpteenth time.

The children, Ryan and Megan, are in their teens now, and they live in Houston. They've changed their last name and have no contact with their father. Ryan is an Eagle Scout, while Megan, says John Yarrington, is a "first-class pianist and singer—she takes after her mom." And Peggy? "There's not been much change here," says her brother, Ted Nicolai, who watches over her in a Tyler nursing home. "She's in a persistent vegetative state. This is as good as she's going to get." Peggy has no control over her muscles, wears diapers, gets sustenance from tubes, and has to be bathed and dressed. Medicaid covers most of her care, and a small trust fund set up by friends in Dallas pays for the rest, such as foot splints to ease her pain (they were necessary after doctors, trying to alleviate her body's tendency to curl up, lengthened her Achilles tendons). "She has sleep and wake cycles, just like you and I do," says Nicolai. "She has enough brain activity to keep the vital signs going but no more—there's no communication whatsoever. She pretty much just exists."

A world away, her ex-husband sits in his garden and transforms himself whenever necessary. Peggy's stubborn presence in the world is a reminder that not all things can be reinvented.

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