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A Secret in Oak Ridge : He was a star editor and writer. She's a dedicated mother. Now, many in Tennessee and around the nation wonder whether they tried to kill her husband.

June 22, 1994|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAK RIDGE, TENN. — This town has always been a place of secrets. Half a century ago, the federal government swooped down, buy ing up property, bulldozing homes and raising great fences around a series of high-security laboratories.

Here, nestled amid the bucolic splendor of Southern Appalachia, the government produced uranium for the atomic bomb. And here, in the event of an accident, the ridges could theoretically contain the disaster.

As far as the rest of America knew, Oak Ridge, 22 miles west of Knoxville, did not exist. It was a "secret city," off-limits to the public from its inception in 1942 until 1949, well after the war ended.

Oak Ridge still has its secrets, of course. And authorities say one of the most shocking was kept by Michael Frazier, a 32-year-old editor at the local newspaper.

A smart and sarcastic young man with a good sense of humor and a flair for writing, Frazier had come to the Oak Ridger in May, 1988. He started out as a part-time copy editor and obituary writer.

When he showed skill at writing and editing, he was put in charge of religion coverage. Later, he became entertainment editor. And in January, he was promoted to editor of Life & Style, the paper's feature section.

Frazier was regarded by some of his colleagues as the best writer at the paper. This Friday, in fact, he was to have been presented with a prestigious Tennessee writing award for a touching, 1993 Mother's Day story about the heartbreaks and triumphs of Lisa Whedbee, the mother of a 4-year-old girl with Down's syndrome.

"He is a really solid employee," said Oak Ridger Editor Jim Campbell. "He is creative, bright, just a good person to be around."

But Frazier was more than just an exemplary employee. A graduate of Tennessee Wesleyan College with a degree in music, Frazier was the organist and choir director of Trinity United Methodist Church, where Whedbee was a member of the choir.

He was a productive citizen, with not even a speeding ticket to his name, local law-enforcement officials say. Married for two years. About the only negative thing anyone would say about him is that he is a heavy smoker.

Which is why, earlier this month, speculation about Michael Frazier's secret blew this community away. And not even the ridges could contain the fallout.

*

At dawn on Wednesday, June 8, Michael David Frazier was arrested by sheriff's deputies as he walked up his driveway.

"Well, don't tell me my wife has filed another complaint against me," he joked lamely, according to Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison.

His wife was out of town. Frazier was arrested on suspicion of attempted first-degree murder of Lisa Whedbee's husband.

Lisa Outlaw Whedbee, 31, was already in custody, arrested hours earlier on suspicion of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.

In an affidavit for a warrant to search Frazier's home for a knife and surgical gloves, Sheriff's Detective Dan Stewart said that Lisa Whedbee admitted that she and Frazier had been having an affair for the past year. But Frazier kept whatever secrets he had to himself; he refused to talk to investigators.

A day later, the story would captivate the national media. The tale told by authorities had all the makings of a sweeps-month miniseries: two families shattered in the instant it took to plunge a butcher knife toward the heart of a sleeping man, a community stunned into disbelief by the alleged actions of two upstanding citizens. Frazier's wife and Whedbee's husband plan to divorce their spouses. Lisa Whedbee, by all accounts a dedicated mother, has been denied access to her children, Justin, 8, and Brittany, the little girl with the great big needs.

Most compelling of all to the media was the notion that Frazier, the journalist, allegedly crossed the line that is supposed to separate reporters from their sources. Frazier's attorney, Gregory Isaacs, attributed the interest to narcissism--the media sniffed a story of a "reporter gone bad."

*

The 911 call came shortly after 1 a.m. that Wednesday.

The caller reported an intruder at a home in a subdivision of Northwest Knox County known as Camelot, near a highway between Oak Ridge and Knoxville. All authorities knew was that the homeowner had been stabbed.

When sheriff's deputies arrived, they discovered John Robert (Rob) Whedbee, 33, standing outside the house with his neighbor, Bill Shinn.

"Mr. Whedbee was coherent, he was nervous, he was bleeding," Sheriff Hutchison said. "He had already come to a conclusion about what had happened long before we pieced everything together."

Rob Whedbee was not frightened, Hutchison said.

"He was mad."

According to Sheriff's Lt. Larry Johnson, Whedbee said he and Lisa had gone to sleep at about 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday, June 7. At about 1 a.m., Whedbee said, he was lying on his back asleep. Something--maybe movement of the covers--roused him. He wasn't quite awake when he smelled the strong odor of cigarette smoke. No one in his home smokes.

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