Just when you think you know someone, they tend to surprise you. In this crime case, a very small town was shocked to discover that a man they believed to be a recluse who lived alone, was not quite what he seemed. His oddball behaviour already had tongues wagging about him. However the man’s double life would have them reeling for years to come.
Ringgold – 24 miles south of Chattanooga – Tennessee – population 2400. The town is a tribute to the Civil War, ornamented with old cannons and wagons. Bluegrass music and the Tigers High School football team provide local entertainment, along with the gossip mill. The close-knit community holds no secrets from neighbours. Everyone knows everyone else’s business.
There was one exception: “Crazy Alvin“, Alvin Ridley, a 55-year-old recluse who kept to himself in his isolated house. All that was known of Alvin was that he used to be the Zenith television man, expertly performing TV repairs. People thought he was an oddball and they regarded him with suspicion. Ridley had an antagonistic past, coupled with a cantankerous nature, blank stare and suspicious air.
Eventually Ridley’s business failed and the parents he lived with died, leaving him alone in a rather ramshackle house that was surrounded by a forbidding fence with several signs warning “Beware of Dog.” Ridley only ventured out on occasion in the afternoon to the local flea market.
Ridley wasn’t shy about talking to the locals. He often spoke of outlandish, paranoid theories. He believed that the Ringgold Police Department was out to get him. Although people shook their heads at Ridley’s oddball statements, later it would be discovered that he had good reason to be concerned about the police.
Ridley had always been known as an oddball. As a teenager, he placed a blow-up doll in his car and drove around town with it to convince people that he had a girlfriend. Ridley met 16-year-old Virginia Hickey in Rossville. Now he didn’t need to place a blow-up doll in his car. He had the real thing. Like Alvin, Virginia was a social outcast. She was obsessively shy partly as a result of severe epilepsy. The Hickey family liked Ridley. In 1966 the two were married but tensions arose between Ridley and Virginia’s family. He became more possessive of her. The Hickeys didn’t think Ridley was able to take care of Virginia’s epilepsy. Ridley kept them away.
Ridley stated that Virginia’s parents told people they didn’t trust Ridley and that it upset both him and Virginia. The Hickeys convinced a judge to produce Virginia in court, which he did. She told the judge, “I’m where I want to be. I’m with my husband.” There was nothing more the family could do to contact Virginia. The Ridleys became more isolated from the outside world. In the 1980s Virginia stopped taking her medication. She believed that “God would heal her.” However the seizures returned and Virginia stopped going out in public.
In 1984 Ridley brought a grievance against the Chief of Police, entering into a court battle which, predictably, Ridley lost. Ridley’s van was seized by the county and as a result his TV repair business failed. “It humiliated me,” Ridley stated years later, “I cried a lot for a year.” This was the beginning of Ridley’s mistrust in the Ringgold community and of the Ringgold police. Six weeks later the van was returned but Ridley stated he “wouldn’t accept it back.” For decades it sat rusting into the earth outside of his property. The Ridleys took refuge behind the walls of their dilapidated house. Apart from the lack of running water and their near-total isolation, their domestic life seems to have been oddly unremarkable.
On October 4, 1997, Ridley drove to a pay phone and called 9-1-1. “I think my wife passed out,” he stated. “She’s not breathing.” That alone was a shocker. Ridley had a wife? In all the years he’d lived in Ringgold, no one had ever known it. Emergency services arrived at Ridleys residence within 5 minutes of the peculiarly calm telephone call. The EMT worker noticed the musty, old smell of the immaculately neat house and the strong odour of cat urine. A 49-year-old woman, Virginia Ridley, was stretched out on a bed. Without a doubt Virginia Ridley was dead.
The county coroner was as shocked as everyone else to discover that Ridley had a wife. No one had ever seen the woman in town. Ridley and his parents had been seen hundreds of times in public but never his wife. When they were first married, Virginia was an incredibly pretty girl with blonde, 60’s styled hair and a sweet smile. Even in death, Virginia was reasonably attractive.
Ridley alternated between grief and hysteria. In a monotone voice, Ridley told the coroner “I kept on hollering at her and she didn’t respond…she was cold.” Ridley informed the coroner that Virginia was a severe epileptic who often suffered seizures. The coroner felt Ridley was being evasive. Ridley insisted Virginia had the most violent seizure he’d ever seen that morning. He insisted there was no need for an autopsy, but an autopsy was held. Unfortunately, the coroner marked Virginia Ridley’s death as “suspicious.”
Virginia had been estranged from her family for 3 decades. Trixie LeCroy, her sister, had known that her sister lived with Ridley. They believed Ridley had killed her long ago yet strangely they’d never reported it. The medical examiner found broken blood vessels behind Virginia’s eyes known as subconjunctival hemorrhage, a sign of suffocation, as well as blood spots on her face. However this is also a sign of seizure and manual strangulation. Authorities decided Ridley had suffocated his wife. The pathologist agreed with this perspective and deemed Virginia’s wife a homicide. Detectives found it odd that Ridley spoke in a monotone when discussing his wife’s death.
About Virginia’s reclusive existence, Ridley insisted “she wouldn’t see nobody. She wouldn’t go nowhere. I couldn’t even get her to go to church or nowhere.” Ben McGaha, an elderly man known as “Salesman Sam” for no particular reason, a friend of Ridley’s, had known Virginia. The last time he had seen her alive was in the 1970s. The biggest suspicion about Ridley was that no one except Sam knew he’d had a wife. Rumours swirled. Crazy Alvin Ridley murdered is wife. “He’d had her chained to a bed, her hair was a mile long and her fingernails were curled.” Local and then national press wrote about Ridley’s supposed criminal confinement of Virginia Ridley for 20 years. The Ringgold coroner stated that Virginia had died of suffocation and concluded that Ridley had murdered his wife.
Ridley retained an attorney, McCracken Poston, to represent him. Poston told Ridley to “keep his mouth shut.” Medical authorities confirmed it was possible Virginia died from natural causes due to her epilepsy. Further, the few people who knew Ridley and Virginia knew he loved her very much. Poston was permitted inside the house to investigate the scene. “It smelled terrible,” he stated. “The windows were closed up.” He found hundreds of writings belonging to Virginia behind a sheet of wallpaper. They were a type of diary. She wrote about her contented marriage to Ridley, what they ate for dinner, and her suspicions of the world around her. It was discovered that Virginia had hypergraphia – the compulsion to write maniacally. Nowhere in the writing did Virginia write that she was being held against her will.
The trial was as strange as the case itself. It was as though someone had pulled a page out of Alice in Wonderland and her trial in the court of the King and Queen of Hearts. Curious characters included Dr. Frederick Hellman, “the suave and darkly handsome GBI pathologist who performed the autopsy on Virginia Ridley”, who responded to every question by swinging his chair to face the jury and deliver a lecture irrelevant to the question he’d been asked. During the trial, the pathologist, who had determined that Virginia Ridley was murdered, refused to admit that the hemhorrage found behind her eyes could be indicative of anything other than suffocation. including the epileptic death of famous athlete, Florence Griffith Joyner (FloJo). It took all day for the pathologist to grudgingly admit to the court that other possibilities including a epileptic seizure, could have caused Virginia’s death.
McGaha, also a witness in the trial, serving as Ridley’s eccentric court adviser, claiming to have a flawless memory, yet was frequently caught explaining errors with the claim that he’d forgotten some details.
Alvin Ridley was found not guilty in the death of Virginia Ridley. The court erupted in cheers and applause. The town of Ringgold had been sympathetic to the unhappy old man. Who knew? Naturally several of the town’s inhabitants insisted they “always knew he hadn’t killed Virginia.” For their part, the jury revealed that although nobody liked this man they couldn’t contrive a motive for Virginia’s murder. His wife was the only thing he had, so why kill her? Virginia Ridley also helped her husband’s acquittal. Her copious notes about her happy life with Ridley had saved him.
Alvin and Virginia Ridley were simply an odd, hermetic couple who were fiercely protective of their privacy. There was no forcible confinement inside the Ridley household. There was no murder. There was no actual mystery. Strange, yes, but sinister, no. Instead there was a gossip mill that got out of control and convicted a man long before he was wrongly forced to endure a criminal trial for an imaginary crime.