Two decades ago, on a warm summer night, the wife of a minister and mother of three died under heartbreaking circumstances. Her station wagon ran off a gravel country road and overturned in the Cottonwood River outside Emporia, Kansas. Early Sunday morning hikers came upon the body, floating in shallow water.
But the death of Sandy Bird wasn't an accident. During the next two years, residents of that tranquil Midwest town watched an absorbing gothic tale unfold--a tale of adultery and religion, of murder and money. It ended with the first-degree murder conviction of her husband, the Rev. Tom Bird.
Bird has fought unsuccessfully for a new trial. Serving a life sentence, he has a record as an exemplary inmate, but he was turned down for parole in 2001, partly because, the board said, "he denies responsibility for the crime."
I wrote about the case for the Los Angeles Times in 1986. When my article appeared on the front page, it generated a buzz in Hollywood. By 1987, the case of the homicidal Kansas preacher was a two-part CBS miniseries, "Murder Ordained," which survives today on cable.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 06, 2004 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
The article "Who Killed Sandy Bird?" (May 2) about the murder of a preacher's wife in Kansas 21 years ago implied that she died "the night of July 17, 1983." In fact, her body was found the morning of July 17.
Not long ago, the Rev. Kenneth Kothe, a friend of Bird's from their days at a Lutheran seminary, sent me an e-mail from his home in Burnsville, Minn. Kothe argued that the movie, and its regular reruns, was helping keep the prison door closed, and unfairly. He urged me to take another look at the case, "given that yours was the article that triggered the making of 'Murder Ordained.' "
At first, I was unmoved. It's not exactly rare for a felon, or a defrocked preacher, to proclaim his innocence.
On the other hand, I wondered why Bird still refused to accept responsibility, especially when it might help him win parole. The case against him had seemed strong but I remembered it also being largely circumstantial. Was it possible? Had an Emporia jury put an innocent man in jail for life? Had Hollywood's dramatization kept him there?
So I wrote a letter to Inmate No. 41458, who has never done an interview with a reporter. He wrote back, agreeing to see me. On a Friday afternoon, I arrived at the Lansing Correctional Facility, a razor-wire-encircled stone compound sprawled on rolling grazing land in northeastern Kansas. Passing through a metal detector and two heavy iron gates, I entered a room teeming with inmates and their families. A balding man of 53 in jeans and a blue work shirt rose from a plastic chair, smiled and raised his hand.
Today, I hope to find out, once and for all, what happened the night of July 17, 1983.
Sandy and Tom Bird moved to Kansas from Arkansas in 1982. Bird's assignment was to lead a congregation for the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. Bird, the 32-year-old son of a minister, had two master's degrees in theology and abundant charisma and energy. Within a year, he had the church pulsing with activity--a new day-care center, softball and volleyball teams, and new families coming every Sunday.
Sandy was a small, high-energy 32-year-old with short brown hair. She also had a master's degree, in mathematics, and she began teaching and working on a second degree in computer math at Emporia State University.
Her husband's passion was sports. A distance runner in his college days, he still ran more than five miles a day. He also was a fierce competitor on the Optimist Club basketball team and the church softball team. That interest in sports was shared by Marty and Lorna Anderson, whom Tom Bird met at a softball game.
The Andersons had four young daughters and a troubled marriage; Lorna's many affairs were a poorly guarded secret in town. A femme fatale with a soft voice, she seemed to have a way of getting men to do her bidding. She joked to friends about killing her husband and once asked an attorney to prepare divorce papers. When Bird hired her as a part-time secretary, she sought out his shoulder.
"I had a real problem, not feeling good about myself," Lorna told me in an interview after the trials. "Tom was very supportive, very encouraging." She also said that by the spring of 1983, she and the pastor were lovers. "He told me that I was not what he needed in a wife, but that he could make me into what he needed."
The Birds' marriage also was strained by the demands of two careers and three young children. Bird was frustrated by his wife's job, her friends said. Sandy told a friend that she was afraid her husband "doesn't love me anymore."
During that summer, Sandy learned she was being promoted and would have extra classes to teach in the fall. She and Tom went out to a dinner and a movie to celebrate. They returned home that Saturday at 9:30 p.m., and Sandy ran inside to grab a bottle of Cold Duck from the refrigerator for herself and a bottle of whiskey for her husband. She told the baby sitter they'd be back by 10:30.