Joe shares the information he gleaned from Mark Cunningham with Rico. Back at his condo, he discovers a shocking surprise and a most unwelcome guest. The next day Joe returns to Cunningham’s ranch intent on pressing him for information about Sagebrush’s co-conspirator.
Excerpt from Episode 8
The sun had almost set. As I sat on the sectional in semidarkness, my mind returned to the conversation with Mark Cunningham. I didn’t see a next move for me. I sifted through the new data and cross-referenced it with everything else I’d learned, trying to find a loose end or a logic stream to pursue. I had just poured a second glass of wine when it occurred to me: I forgot to tell Rico about Oklahoma.
After a few beers one night, the bouncer Buddy Wantannabe had told Cunningham he came from a small town in Oklahoma. Earlier, I had gotten the impression from Johnson that he might have killed his own father. If so, he had escaped undetected.
I stepped to my desk and woke up the laptop; the white screen glowed in the otherwise darkened room. I typed a search into Google: “unsolved murders in Oklahoma”. A number of websites popped up, one organized by the state, a site for the Tulsa Police Department, and a long list of private sites.
I spent time on the state government site researching open cases with posted rewards but found nothing related to Johnson Sagebrush. The Tulsa site had summary facts of a number of cold cases, but nothing seemed to fit. A television news site from Norman had an old unsolved murder of a housewife. The subsequent Google hits seemed random: a media article on a single case, several missing-persons sites, and various crime-statistic sources.
But on the third page of the search I found a low-traffic true-crime site called UnsolvedHomicides.com. Ten minutes later I stared at a high school picture of Johnson Sagebrush.
Dewey Couple Found Murdered; Son Missing
On a warm spring morning in April of 1986, June Sprinkle walked to the Wannamakers’ house next door to borrow a cup of sugar. She could see her friend Olive’s car in the driveway and was surprised when no one answered the doorbell. After ringing twice June walked around to the backyard thinking she’d find Olive tending her garden. Once there she noticed the back door slightly ajar. She feared Olive might have fallen sick, so she walked up the steps to knock.
“Olive,” she called. No answer. June took three steps into the kitchen and screamed. Olive Wannamaker lay on the floor in a pool of her own blood, dead of multiple head wounds from a blunt instrument.
June continued screaming as she ran from the house, afraid for her life. The police found Brownie Wannamaker in the garage in a similar condition. They discovered the murder weapon, a crowbar, in a trash can in the garage. Two days later Brownie’s 1982 Dodge Ram D-150 was found in a Target parking lot in Tulsa, forty-five miles away.
The Wannamakers’ eighteen-year-old son, Charles, had gone missing. Initially the police believed the murderer had killed or abducted Charles, and an organized search of neighboring areas was conducted; however, other factors have led Charles to become a suspect.
For most of his senior year Charles Wannamaker had sexual relations with one of his schoolteachers, thirty-five-year-old Annabelle Poteet. A single woman, Ms. Poteet resigned her position soon after the affair became public knowledge. Apparently the Wannamaker couple had discovered the affair and reported it to school officials. Ms. Poteet has cooperated with police in the investigation but has refused to speak to anyone else about the matter.
Charles Wannamaker was considered a polite student by his classmates, always smiling, never offensive; however, he appears to have had no personal friends. In his junior year Charles was charged with a misdemeanor for public disturbance when an altercation initiated by two football players ended with both of them in the hospital.
The murder remains unsolved, and Charles Wannamaker has not been found. The state of Oklahoma offers a reward of ten thousand dollars for information leading to the arrest of a suspect.
I pushed back from the computer and closed my eyes.
Charles Wannamaker had become Buddy Wantannabe and then later changed into Johnson Sagebrush. Four years elapsed from when he abandoned the truck in Tulsa to when he met Cunningham in Houston. What had transpired in those four years? Were there other aliases? Were there other victims? I feared the stripper Marci’s life had come to a gruesome end. If so, Johnson had killed at least four people.
Johnson claimed that everyone acted only in his own self-interest. He saw the world as Sanjay’s primitive man: There was no right and wrong, only strength and weakness, primordial rules. The strong took what they could take, and the weak suffered the consequences.
I thought of his parents. What was his mother doing as he walked into the kitchen holding the crowbar? Perhaps she cooked pancakes, relieved that Brownie had not assaulted her that morning as he did so many other times. What had she done to earn her son’s brutal justice? Had she reported the affair with Annabelle Poteet to school officials? Had the affair with Annabelle been the one thing Charles cherished?
I imagined Charles swinging the crowbar as his mother screamed on the floor. My throat ran dry. A sinking sensation invaded my chest. Sanjay’s mention of Darfur came to mind. What had he said? Anytime the fabric of societal control frays, the strong take whatever they want. I shuddered at the thought of living in such a place, ruled by the instincts of primitive men.
I had much to tell Rico and had promised to call him, but before doing so I had to step outside to breathe fresh air, to shake those terrible notions from my head.
Standing up, I stretched and moved toward the balcony. My fingers flipped open the lock and I slid the door across. As I stepped over the threshold a gentle breeze blew and brought with it a rich, deep, earthy scent: sandalwood.
I instinctively stepped backward into the room, and a rushed movement flew through the spot where I had stood.
An object collided with the sliding door. Shattered glass fell.
I shuffled farther into the darkened room and almost tripped, my heart pounding. I gasped for air.
I saw him. His silhouette framed the doorway, his bald head dark, his solid frame heaving, and the crowbar hanging loose in his hand.
Episode 9 will be published on May 26.