And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.
Romans 8:28 (KJV)

As we look out on the world around us and try to “make sense of it,” as our mind requires us to do, we find that while some of it does make sense there is another part of it that makes no sense at all, resisting every attempt we make to put it in any light in which it would make sense.
Geddes MacGregor
Introduction to Religious Philosophy

In the mid-1970s, I lived in an apartment in an old boarding house in Sevierville, where I worked as a reporter on the local paper. The apartment had a shotgun layout, and I slept on a single-bed mattress and box springs in the middle room, between the kitchen and living room.

My bed sat atop the shag on the floor, and beside it a battered black tin footlocker held my reading lamp, a clock radio, and a phone.

On July 4, 1975, a little before 4 a.m. the phone rang, waking me from a deep sleep. The conversation that followed went something like this:


Is this Bill Dockery?

It is.

This is Houser from the sheriff's department. The sheriff wants you to take some pictures at a crime scene. We've had the city police knocking on your door.

Sorry, I didn't hear them. What's up?

There’s been a horrible crime. We’ve had a murder down on Chapman Highway. I knew Houser, an older man who served as a reserve deputy. The way he emphasized “horrible,” I could imagine his jowls shaking as he rolled the Rs.

OK, I’ll have to go by the office and get my camera. What's so horrible about it?

A man killed his wife with an ax.

Oh. I’ll be right there.

I took down directions, pulled on some clothes and, after a five-minute stop to pick up camera and scratchpad, was on my way down Chapman toward the place where Ruby Rogers lay dead.

At the time, Chapman Highway was the primary route between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the rest of the world. To accommodate the hundreds of thousands of park visitors every year, it had been four-laned, but it still drove like a two-lane road, with hard turns and steep hills and unexpected dips that sometimes lured tourists and locals alike into spectacularly fatal crashes. That night in the hours before dawn on the busiest weekend of the year, I had it all to myself. I drove a hand-me-down blue ’66 Impala, and I pushed it as fast as the road would allow.

I was not, per se, a photographer. Like all the other reporters and ad salespeople, I carried a twin-lens box camera and a strobe flash, a foolproof setup that let the publisher avoid hiring a professional photographer. I had a pretty good eye and usually came back with a publishable image, but the quality that had made the sheriff send for me that night was much simpler—I made myself available.

The affluence of the ’70s had brought a new newspaper to Sevier County to compete with the one I worked for. To make sure that I had the inside on breaking cop stories, I had volunteered to come out any time anywhere to take evidentiary photos for the sheriff’s department and the city police department. The offer was popular because, like my publisher, the local sheriff wasn’t prepared to spend money on a pro. Over a couple of years, I had become the county’s most in-demand corpse photographer.

Truthfully, I didn’t relish the work. Many of the emergency personnel were what I came to know as adrenaline junkies: They flourished in a world of disaster and trauma. Without the possibility of a rescue or the threat of immediate death, they weren’t fully alive. Some of the young deputies were motivated by something darker: a morbid energy they gained from the odds and ends of car wrecks and murders, generated, I suspect, by some unconscious notion that the proximity of death made their own life somehow more real. The old hands—the coroner, the sheriff—had from long exposure developed emotional calluses; the coroner was infamous for lighting up a rancid cigar while inspecting a death scene.

For me, however, each new instance of violent death was a little harder than the last. This time, as I took the curves on Chapman, I wondered whether an ax murder would be more than I could bear.

A second motive drove me to this gruesome volunteer work. Even though state laws required that police records be open to public and press, in practice the authorities didn’t normally make their dispatch logs and blotters available unless they saw some immediate political benefit. A reporter who wasn’t present at the crime scene often found himself shut off from vital details of a case, unable to ask crucial questions that would help the reader make sense of the event. The circumstances produced a companionable mistrust on both sides, with neither officer nor journalists entirely comfortable conspiring with the enemy but both needing the products of that conspiracy for their own purposes.

Just a couple of miles short of the Seymour community, I came on a collection of flashing blue and red lights. The emergency vehicles were collected in front of a country market and gas station on a straightaway before the four-lane dipped abruptly into a hollow and climbed the steepest hill on the route. I stopped along the shoulder far enough away so that my car wouldn’t be in the way and couldn’t be blocked in. Camera in hand, I approached a huddle of deputies.

General Schmutzer is looking for you, one of them said, pointing up a gravel driveway that went up the embankment on the right side of the road. I climbed the drive toward a modest ranch-style house that overlooked the highway. Schmutzer, the district attorney general, separated himself from another cluster of officers and approached me.

We’ll do the house first. He guided me into the garage, systematically pointing out details he wanted photos of. The bottom half of the door into the kitchen was wood; the top half was small panes of glass. The varnished wood near the handle was scored with several long shallow scratches. I focused the camera as best I could in the dim light and shot a couple of frames.

This is where the mother tried to get in to stop the fight. Schmutzer picked up a brush ax nearby. This is the murder weapon. The ax wasn’t the typical wood-chopping wedge. Mounted on an ax handle, the blade was of thin steel, maybe eight inches long and five wide, built to cut through undergrowth without getting lodged in a thick sapling the way a traditional ax would. I took more pictures of the blade.

Schmutzer led me past the kitchen to the bathroom. A hand mirror in a metal frame lay broken, and there were blood stains on it and around the lavatory. I shot photos, each shot punctuated by the whine of the strobe as it recharged for the next flash. We moved to the bedroom, which was in serious disarray. Here is where the fight apparently started.

We went out the back, where the screen on the bedroom was askew. The mother tried to get in here. Schmutzer turned. Now let’s go down to the road.

Ruby Rogers lay crumpled in the middle of Chapman Highway. I had steeled myself for a grisly scene, with detached body parts and unimaginable wounds; but on the dark pavement she looked little different from victims of car wrecks and other less horrific violence. She was wearing a nightie and step-ins, and her chubby flesh, where it wasn’t slashed, was an almost translucent white. The wounds in her arms and legs were deep, dark, red cuts that seemed to swallow light. Around her the asphalt was black with shiny, gelatinous blood. The flashing lights from the emergency vehicles increased the darkness through the viewfinder and, in order to focus the camera, I had to have Schmutzer train a flashlight on different parts of her body as I shot from a variety of angles, trying to render clinically accurate images of the scene.

The photos taken, I pulled out my scratchpad and pen and turned to a senior deputy.

Who did this?

Donald Rogers. Her husband. He’s in the cruiser.

I looked toward a nearby patrol car. A frail old man with wispy white hair sat blankly in the backseat, not looking around, as if he didn’t know what was happening to him.

The story the investigators pieced together was straightforward enough.

Donald and Ruby Rogers, both natives of the community, had lived quietly and apparently quite happily until that night. Donald, 70, had been a truck driver in Alcoa. He had a couple of grown children and had been widowed. By all accounts, he was known as a quiet, upstanding man. Ruby, an Ogle before she married him, was 49 and an inspector at Standard Knitting Mills in Knoxville. She had never been married before.

Sometime after they went to bed the night of July 3, a loud argument broke out. Ruby’s mother, who lived in a singlewide trailer in a corner of the yard, was awakened by the row and came around the hill to help her daughter. Apparently alarmed at what she was hearing, she picked up a bush ax somewhere and ran to the bedroom window. She took a couple of ineffectual swings at the aluminum screen, bending it but not gaining entry.

Blade in hand, she hurried back to the garage. The kitchen door was locked so she swung at it several times, again to no effect. She leaned the ax against the wall beside the door and started back to the bedroom window, but the Rogerses were moving in her direction.

Ruby burst out the door, followed closely by Donald, who reached out for the ax as if it had been placed there specifically for his use. The mother put herself between her daughter and her son-in-law in an attempt to stop the fight. Donald told her to move, that he wouldn’t hurt her if she got out of his way. When she did, Donald chased Ruby down the drive. He caught up with her in the middle of the highway and killed her. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, he was sitting passively on the steps of his small front porch. He had thrown the ax in the shrubs nearby.

Several of the deputies, including Houser’s son, Steve, lived in the surrounding community, and the consensus was that the old man was a good man, and that she was a good woman. No one had anything bad to say about him, just that he was unusually quiet, a man of few words. The prevailing theory that he had simply gone off, that arteries had imperceptibly hardened until he was no longer living in quite the same world as the rest of us. A couple of us pondered the irony that, in taking the bush ax to the door, the mother had provided her son-in-law with the weapon that killed her child. It was all the more ironic that, if gaining entry to the house would have helped anything, all the mother had to do was break the glass in the door, reach through, and unlock it.

I wrapped up my note-taking and reached into my pocket for some ammonia. I had made smelling salts a standard part of my gear after covering an exceptionally gruesome Corvette wreck on Highway 66 and almost fainting on the drive back to town. Normally, my squeamishness was amusing to other regulars at these macabre gatherings, but Sandy, one of the sheriff’s senior deputies, saw me pop and sniff the ampule. Sheepishly he held out his hand.

On the drive back to town, I decided not to go back to my apartment. I felt wrung out, convinced I should feel something but unsure what. With dawn close, I went to my parents’ house. I let myself in quietly and lay down in the bedroom that had been mine and my brother’s. I intended to sleep late, since it was a holiday, but was up at 7 a.m.

A 72-year-old man is being held by the Sevier County Sheriff’s Department after the body of his 49-year-old wife was found in the southbound lane of U.S. Highway 441...

The News-Record was published twice a week at that time. The Friday edition had published Thursday evening the night of the murder, so the Rogers story couldn’t run until the following Tuesday. In keeping with the publisher’s sensitivity to community mores, I underplayed the sensational details, and the story ran at the top of page three in the front section, trumped for page-one display by stories about the county school board’s financial plans, the sheriff’s seizure of 5,600 marijuana plants, a tentative property tax rate of $3.38, and the departure of a prominent physician from Gatlinburg.

Later that week, Donald Rogers appeared in the county’s trial justice court for a preliminary hearing to determine whether there was reason to hold him for trial. His sons had hired a crackerjack local lawyer to represent their father. Jerry Galyon had roots in the Knob Creek community and had known the various Rogerses most of his life. Prone to a pompadour and big-plaid sport coats, Galyon made a more-than-comfortable living in tort liability suits, and a savvier counselor didn’t often appear before the state bar.

Rogers wasn’t in the courtroom at first, as Trial Justice Judge Edwards ran through more mundane DUIs, misdemeanors, and minor felonies. When the case was finally called, deputies led him in. The old man was wearing slippers and light blue pajamas, possibly the pajamas he had been wearing the night of the murder, and his white hair was still tousled. Mentally I chalked a tick for Galyon—usually when defense counsel arranges for the client to be cleaned up and dressed presentably in slacks and a sport shirt, or even a suit. But Rogers showed little recognition that he knew he was sitting in a public courtroom in his nightclothes—or why.

The hearing was over quickly. Galyon didn’t try to argue that Rogers hadn’t killed his wife. Instead the lawyer asked for a psychiatric evaluation. Schmutzer, the attorney general, readily agreed to the need for the exam, and the judge ordered Rogers to Eastern State Psychiatric Hospital in Knoxville.

I caught up with Galyon after the hearing, knowing that he would have a version of events favorable to his client. I wasn’t disappointed. He thought someone was coming for her, Galyon said. You know how old men get. Someone turned around in their driveway about three o’clock, and he thought they were coming to pick her up. That’s what started it.

I can tell you the people who were in that car. I can tell you where they had been and where they were going next. They had nothing to do with it. He just went off. He thought someone was coming for her.

I left Galyon to visit the attorney general’s office and deliver a piece of bad news. The photos I had painstakingly shot had not turned out. One of the ad salespeople had messed with the synchronization on the camera I had used, so that the camera’s shutter and the flash weren’t working together. There was nothing of that night to see. Don’t worry, Schmutzer said. We’re not going to need them. Besides, we took some shots at the funeral home after the coroner got her cleaned up. We’re OK.

Later I talked to the radio newsman who had shot the coroner’s pictures. On the slab, Ruby Rogers had not looked like just another wreck victim. The ax had damaged her much more than was apparent on the dimly-lit roadway. One blow had virtually cut off the top of her head a couple of inches above the eyebrows.

With no one seriously doubting the appropriateness of an insanity defense, the case quickly faded from legal and public attention. Rogers was sent off to Nashville’s Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. After another year, I abandoned chasing police cars and went to Nashville, too, fading from East Tennessee journalism into a better-paying editorial position on a United Methodist devotional magazine. But the residue of that Independence Day remained with me—not in the physical horror of the butchery I had witnessed—but as a fundamental challenge to the way I understood the world. I had grown up in Sevierville’s First Baptist Church, where I had breathed in a piety that put God at the center of all history, the ultimate sparrow-watcher whose purpose was present, if not evident, in even the most trivial incident.

By the time I was leaving high school, my devotion had begun to fray around the edges. At the Southern Baptist college I attended, I was forced to confront some of the contradictions inherent in a literal approach to Scripture. I was growing out of a denomination that, at its most literal, believed neither in dinosaurs nor in dancing.

I had already begun to question, at least in theory, the notion that everything works together for good. I had seen and railed against the injustices of the Vietnam War and was growing more aware of the six million Jews systematically killed by the Nazis in World War II. Still, on an emotional level, I think I still clung to the Sunday school notion of traumatic events—that for every overwhelming event there was some understanding of it that would redeem it for the people who survived it, some arcane knowledge or circumnavigation of logic that would make it just another instance of God’s positive intervention in life.

Ruby Rogers’ death made that approach untenable. It was difficult to imagine anything, anything, that might redeem for Ruby those moments when she ran screaming into the middle of a highway in her nightdress, a step ahead of a husband she thought she knew who was swinging an ax at her head. And there wasn’t any more favorable interpretation of events that would comfort her family or her demented husband or his sons.

Oddly, the term that came to my mind soon after the murder was one I had learned in a philosophy course at the Baptist college. The Rogers event was nothing less than a dysteleological surd, a concept from “Introduction to Religious Philosophy,” by Geddes MacGregor. A Scotsman, MacGregor was less a philosopher than a Christian apologist, someone we liberal undergraduates dismissed scornfully as less than rigorous.

But the term fit. “Dysteleological” meant “meaningless” or “without purpose,” and a surd was an irreducible point, something which couldn’t be parsed or dissected. There was no way my former Baptist brethren could explain away the suffering of the Rogerses that made it meaningful. The murder was a black hole of meaning, sucking in any explanatory moves toward redemption. I was free of the notion that all things work together for good. Hell, I wasn’t even sure all things work together.

The murder also dealt another, although by no means the final, blow to my intrinsic trust of consciousness and rationality. In my life as a Baptist, I had lived confident that, if you knew the right, you could invariably do it. Once you had made a decision for Christ, once you were saved, all you had to do to live a righteous life was make the right decisions. It was easy. All the major decisions were open to conscious inspection and rational choice.

I had also spent some time in therapy, so I knew that neither the world nor the people in it were rational and that consciousness does not guarantee true seeing. Yet invariably I slipped back into the self-deceit that, if I didn’t control the world, at least I controlled my self. The little drama played out between Ruby and Donald reminded me once more that I might be proceeding in my nice, orderly life, making wise choices and planning for the future, and still kill somebody.

Nature, it turns out, abhors a dysteleological surd. What first appears irreducibly meaningless will accrete significance the way a gravestone collects lichen. Thus, my first ax murder has stayed with me, reminding me every time I pass a certain spot on Chapman Highway how very little I control.

I visited Zion Hill Baptist Church on a recent Saturday in February, a blustery afternoon that blew hot or cold, depending on how often swatches of clouds blotted out the sun. The staff of Sevier County Public Library’s genealogy department had pointed me to the cemetery of the church where both Donald and Ruby Ogle Rogers were buried, and I had come to pay my final respects.

The church is a solid-looking red brick structure on a knoll above the creek bottom with two terraced asphalt parking lots in a semicircle below it. A substantial flight of steps leads to the front door, and to one side an equally substantial but more recent concrete-and-brick ramp gives handicap access to the sanctuary.

The burying ground further up the hill predates the current church building by at least a century and a half. The older part, near the church, is dominated by a couple of tall cedars and an oak or two. Spread around them are the final resting places for whole lineages of Ogles and Galyons, Rogerses and Ballards, with an occasional Cutshaw thrown in for good measure. The birthdates range from the early 1800s forward, the more recent the birth, the farther from the church.

Donald Rogers lies just inside the gravel road that circles the older part of the cemetery. His rock is highly polished blue-gray granite with the customary scrollwork and flourishes that mark modern gravestones. He died on January 24, 1984, the stone says, and information from funeral records indicates that he died at Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in Knoxville. Beside him on his right hand lies Zack Ogle, evidently his first wife, who died in the late 1950s. Nothing marks the burial as different from any of the other graves around it. Whatever demons drove Donald Rogers are at rest with him.

There’s no sign of Ruby Rogers’ stone, and genealogists at the library indicate that she may be buried nearby in an unmarked grave.

Leaving the cemetery, I decided to visit the scene of the crime once more. I followed the same route I’d taken more than a quarter century before and soon came to the house and the small market across the road. More small houses and mobile homes dotted nearby hillsides and I gingerly pulled up the steep driveway, hoping not to have to explain myself to an owner or neighbor.

The structure was pretty much as I remembered it. The brick had been painted cream and an ell had been added on the back that enclosed a patio. The porch on the front had been screened in. The one-car garage door was still there, as was the door beside it. I shot a couple of digital photos and started to leave.

Are you lost? Can I help you? A woman waved at me from the patio. Her voice had a Midwestern twang, the dialect that puts “CAHN” in the pronunciation of Wisconsin.

I put on the emergency brake and got out of the truck, keeping my hands in view. No. I used to know some people who lived here. They were Rogerses. They lived here in the ’70s.

I’ve just been here five years. I heard there was a Rogers family. The place was in bad shape when I bought it. Are you a real estate agent?

No, Ma’am. I was just seeing what the place looked like after all these years. I knew the people who lived here once.

If you were a real estate agent, I’d run you off. The real estate agents are always stopping by. They want to sell it for me. You’re welcome if you are not a real estate agent.

I got back in the truck and rolled backward down the drive. At the bottom, I crossed traffic precariously to pull into the market parking lot. A nearby house had been turned into obviously unprofitable retail space, but the market looked pretty much the same.

I stepped to the edge of the four-lane and snapped off a couple of more shots. Nothing about the spot indicated the events that had gone on a quarter century ago. The red clay embankment below the house had become overgrown with trash shrubs and undergrowth.

I was getting back into the truck, when a man started stepping toward me purposefully. Thinking I was about to face another barrage of questions about my picture-taking, I got half way out of the truck.

Buddy, I just spent my last sixty dollars fixing my truck and my family’s got a place to stay if I can get them to Maryville. His twang echoed that of the home owner on the other side of the road. Can you spare me a little money to help me get them there?

Marveling for a moment that I had just been panhandled by a guy from Michigan at a country store in Sevier County, I found a dollar bill in my pocket and handed it to him, grateful that peace came so cheap. Then I got back in the truck and pulled out onto the highway toward Knoxville, driving over the spot where Donald Rogers killed Ruby Rogers.

Bill Dockery edits “Scientia,” the University of Tennessee's research magazine, and coordinates research information at UT. He has held various editorial and writing positions at the daily “Knoxville News Sentinel,” the “Metro Pulse” alternative weekly, and the Mountain Press newspapers. He and Dolly Parton marched together in the Sevier County High School band’s drum line in the mid-1960s.

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