The indictment came as a footnote, almost an afterthought, preceding by only 48 hours a CBS miniseries called Murder Ordained, based on the killings of a small-town minister’s wife and the husband of the clergyman’s lover. The preacher, Tom Bird, already stood convicted for the death of his wife, Sandra. Then, early last month, Bird’s lover, Kansas housewife Lorna Anderson, was formally charged with the murder of her husband, Martin, in 1983. It was not an occasion for celebration. “We’re four years into this,” the victim’s brother, Stephen, observed quietly. “Who knows how many more years it will last?”
It began on July 17, 1983, when a canoeist glided around a bend in the Cottonwood River just south of Emporia, Kans. and came upon a car upside down in the water. Beside it was the body of a woman, her head bobbing lifelessly in the rippling stream. Highway Patrolman John Rule was called to the scene and was immediately suspicious. “It didn’t look right,” says Rule, now 40, who called at once for Lyon County Sheriff Dan Andrews.
The victim was identified as Sandra Bird, 33, mother of three and the wife of one of Emporia’s leading ministers, Pastor Tom Bird of the Faith Lutheran Church. The accident appeared to have happened the previous night, but there were some troubling inconsistencies. For one thing, Rule discovered dried blood on the bridge. There was also blood on the bridge railing and a trail of blood beneath the bridge to the car. Curiously, there were no skid marks, the car itself was barely damaged and the lights had been turned off. Rule pointed out the problems to Sheriff Andrews, who showed little interest. “Looked like a traffic accident to me,” he explains. “We had a preacher’s wife dead, and there was no proof it wasn’t an accident.” That, in heartland Emporia, a city of 26,000 with more than 50 churches, seemed as good as pronouncing “case closed.”
But it was not, as CBS’ Murder Ordained would attest. Sandra Bird was returned to her native Little Rock, Ark. and buried; her husband wept convincingly at the funeral. A few weeks later, Tom Bird, 36, was called in for questioning by Rule and Special Agent J. Vernon Humphrey of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. “The good reverend couldn’t understand why he was there,” Rule recalls. “He said his wife often went for drives late at night, but that’s about all he said.” Rule was puzzled by Bird’s dispassionate calm, but Humphrey admits he was impressed. “He didn’t act unusual,” he says. “I realized there were a lot of things that didn’t look right, but I don’t like to jump to conclusions.”
So it was over, Sandra Bird’s death officially written off as an accident. Still, Rule couldn’t get it out of his mind. Then, one day later that summer, a woman told him she had seen Bird and his secretary in a doctor’s office together, behaving in a manner that might give rise to gossip. “They were playing grab-ass,” Rule says bluntly. The secretary, Lorna Anderson, then 32, was married—to Martin Anderson, 34, chief medical technician at an Emporia hospital. Anderson, the father of four girls, had sponsored Tom Bird for membership in the local Optimists Club. His passion, Rule later discovered, was baseball, and he often brought Lorna and the girls to watch him play for the Optimists. But there was something else: Rule also learned that the other wives called Lorna the “game burrito.” “Whatever guy played best got her after the game,” says Bobbi Birk, a reporter for the Emporia Gazette who, with associate Nancy Horst, began looking into Lorna’s background after a second surprising death—the bizarre murder of Martin Anderson on Nov. 4, nearly four months after Sandra Bird’s “accident.”
According to Lorna, the Anderson family had spent the day in Manhattan, Kans., while Martin, an Army reservist, checked in at nearby Fort Riley. On the way back Lorna was driving, she said, when she became ill after drinking a milk shake. She told police she had stopped the family van on a lonely stretch of highway, had got out to walk around and had dropped the car keys by the side of the road. When her husband came to help look for them, she claimed, a masked gunman appeared and demanded that Marty give up his wallet. Then he shot him four times in the head before vanishing into the night. It was an incredible story, relying on a belief in coincidence that police didn’t share. “I was thinking grab-ass as soon as I heard about it,” says John Rule. KBI Agent Humphrey was equally skeptical. “I thought, ‘Oh hell, we got a problem,’ ” he says, “because suddenly Reverend Bird’s story starts looking like bull.”
Martin Anderson’s funeral was held at Faith Lutheran Church, with fellow Optimist Tom Bird presiding. Afterward the mourners went to Lorna’s place for cookies and cake. Martin Anderson’s brother, a music professor at the University of Kansas, found the scene a little strange. “It was very tense,” he says. “[Afterward] I noticed that Tom Bird was always around. Every time I was there, Tom was there. Every time I called, Tom was there.”
Soon events began moving quickly. First, investigators discovered that Lorna Anderson had taken out about $370,000 in life insurance on her husband shortly before his death. Then police questioned Danny Carter, a former Emporia hairdresser who claimed to have been Lorna’s lover. He told them that in August Lorna had given him $5,000 to kill her husband. He hadn’t done it, he hastened to add, but had simply passed the money along to a friend, who passed it on to another friend, who decided to keep it. Less than three weeks after Martin Anderson’s death, his widow was charged with conspiring to murder him. By that time she was living in Hutchinson, two hours from Emporia, and Vern Humphrey drove over with the arrest warrant. “She was on the phone and acted all pissed off and said we were harassing her,” he remembers. But she didn’t say a word on the trip back to Emporia.
Danny Carter’s brother, Darrel, an Emporia contractor, then provided the details of a second plot. He told police Tom Bird had been in on arrangements to get rid of Martin, and that Lorna and the minister had discussed the possibility of staging an accident on a bridge. Sandra Bird’s body was promptly exhumed, and a second autopsy revealed injuries that led pathologists to conclude she’d been murdered. Already convicted of criminal solicitation to kill Martin Anderson, Bird was indicted, tried and convicted of his wife’s murder. Though until last month no one had been charged with Anderson’s shooting—despite the fact that Lorna had led police to the gun, in a pond near the deserted highway where he died—his wife eventually admitted that she and Bird had plotted the killing. Today, married to Charles “Randy” Eldridge, a carpenter and born-again Christian, she is serving five-and-a-half to 18 years in the Kansas Correctional Institution at Lansing, which sits on a hill overlooking the Kansas State Penitentiary, where Tom Bird has been sentenced to life.
There are still those in Emporia who refuse to believe that their minister was also a murderer. Some even refuse to believe he was involved with Lorna Anderson. These are not, after all, the sorts of things a flock wants to believe of its shepherd. And if there is a lesson to be learned, it should not be confined to Emporia. “No one wanted to rat on the preacher,” says Vern Humphrey. “He thought of himself as a rising evangelist, like those jerks on TV. He had charisma and he charmed people. This could have happened anywhere in the country.”