EMPORIA, Kan. — Sandy Bird's death looked like a traffic accident. While driving down a winding gravel road late at night, she had missed the one-lane bridge and gone over an embankment into the water below.
Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper John Rule had it figured that way when he looked down into the Cottonwood River and saw an overturned white station wagon and the body of the new preacher's wife beside it.
But after an hour of working the case along the muggy river bottom, he says, "I started to feel hinky about the whole thing."
One problem was skid marks. There weren't any. She hadn't even tried to stop. Then there were the bloodstains on the bridge and on the trees below--far from the water's edge.
But when the coroner ruled it an accidental death that Sunday in 1983, the trooper didn't argue. Even he had trouble believing that anyone would kill Sandra Bird, 33, mother of three and wife of the Faith Lutheran Church pastor. Besides, good law officers in Kansas didn't poke around in the private lives of citizens because of a few unanswered questions.
Sandy Bird's death was no accident, however. A few months later, a father of four who attended the same church was killed in an apparent robbery that turned out not to be a robbery at all. His wife was Lorna Anderson, secretary to the widowed pastor, Thomas Bird.
For nearly three years, this small Kansas town watched in uneasy fascination as the minister and his secretary were exposed as adulterers and imprisoned for using the insurance money from one murder to make a down payment on a second.
In a town where the cleric's robe is as revered as the judicial robe, the secret affair and the murderous schemes--discussed in the church, of all places--were scandalous. But the whole thing had a certain magnetism, too. The most scurrilous gossip, the most implausible rumors were slowly becoming real.
Said Trooper Rule: "We don't have these type of people out here."
In some ways, however, the case wasn't unusual at all. At its root were motives as old as the Bible: Love. Money. Ambition.
The trouble had very ordinary beginnings, shortly after Tom and Sandy Bird and their children, ages 2, 3 and 5, left Arkansas and headed for Kansas in 1982.
Their assignment was to form a new congregation for the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, in this settlement of 25,000 people on a gentle ripple of eerily barren beauty known as the Flint Hills.
Faith Lutheran was a "mission parish," guided at first by an established church, and Bird seemed a good choice for the job. The son of a minister, he held master's degrees in sacred theology and divinity. Only 32, although his thinning hair made him appear older, he had been an associate pastor in Arkansas for six years.
Within a year, the vigorous new preacher had a brick church with its own day-care center, softball and volleyball teams and membership rolls full of young families.
Sandy Bird, an energetic woman with short brown hair, had a master's degree in mathematics and had been teaching at Emporia State University, where she was also working on a master's in computer math.
Three Met at Game
Her husband's passion was athletics. Whether playing Optimist Club basketball or first base on the church softball team, he was known as a fierce competitor. A distance runner in his college days, he still ran more than five miles each day.
Bird's interest in sports was shared by Marty Anderson, who ran the laboratory at Newman Hospital. Anderson and his wife, Lorna, met Bird at a softball game and later transferred their church membership to Faith Lutheran.
The Andersons had four daughters, ages 2 to 8, and a marriage on the rocks. Lorna's affairs were the subject of whispers. To some men, she was the picture of feminine vulnerability, with delicate features and a soft voice, quick to smile and quick to cry.
But she could be tough. Lorna surprised a friend in 1982 by asking if he knew of anyone who would kill her husband. The friend took it as a joke. Lorna also had an attorney prepare divorce papers, but, she says now, her husband talked her out it. She told people that Marty was rough with her and the children.
Lorna decided to take a job in January, 1983, and went to work as part-time secretary to Tom Bird at the church. "I had a real problem, not feeling good about myself," she says. "Tom was very supportive, very encouraging."
Trysted in Other Towns
By spring, she said in a recent prison interview with The Times, she and Tom were lovers. They would sneak away to the country or to small nearby towns where they could walk the streets holding hands without fear of discovery.
Bird was unhappy in his marriage too. His wife's career bothered him. What Bird wanted, he told Lorna, was someone who considered being a pastor's wife a full-time job.
"He told me that I was not what he needed in a wife, but that he could make me into what he needed," Lorna says.