For years people in Ringgold, Ga., wondered what secrets lay behind the boarded-up basement windows of the dilapidated clapboard house on Inman Street. Every so often its reclusive owner, former TV repairman Alvin Ridley, would emerge to take care of business—sometimes to peddle bric-a-brac at a local flea market—and just as silently retreat, without as much as a nod to his neighbors. So it came as a shock on Oct. 4, 1997, when word spread through Ringgold’s three-stoplight downtown that EMTs called to the Ridley home had found the body of a tiny 49-year-old woman—the wife most townspeople didn’t even know Ridley had.
Compared with the discovery of Virginia Ridley, who hadn’t been seen in public for nearly three decades, her husband’s arrest for murder eight months later seemed almost anticlimactic. By then, rumors were rife concerning what might have transpired not only on the day of Virginia’s death—when Ridley, 57, claimed he woke to discover the lifelong epileptic “just laying there” in the bed they shared—but over the course of their 31-year marriage. “There were all kinds of tales,” says Stella Turner, 81, a friend of Virginia Ridley’s family, the Hickeys of nearby Rossville. People speculated about just “how she might have suffered during all those years she’d lived with him,” says Turner. “They tried to imagine what it would be like to be locked in a house for 31 years.”
Townsfolk were finally able to slake their curiosity this past January at the Catoosa County courthouse. During an eight-day trial, glimpses of the couple’s hermetic existence emerged—along with a goodly number of cockroaches—from the two suitcases Ridley, free on $30,000 bond, brought with him from home every day. There, on hundreds of notes and scraps of paper squirreled away over the years, was Virginia Ridley’s record of their life together. The story they told was astonishing. From her meticulously detailed accounts, it became clear that Virginia had been captive only of the paranoid worldview she shared with her husband, exacerbated by the fear, sometimes found among epileptics, of suffering a seizure in public. Theirs, it seemed, had been a love story, albeit a profoundly strange one. And its revelation invited inevitable comparisons between Alvin and To Kill a Mockingbird’s reclusive Boo Radley.
“Me and my wife lived a private life, and that contributed to the charges against me,” says Ridley, whom a court-appointed psychologist found paranoid but competent to stand trial. “It’s different. People just don’t understand it, and so they jump to conclusions.”
The Ridleys’ life together started ordinarily enough, with their wedding in July 1966. Alvin, the only child of a Ringgold stonemason and his mill-worker wife, both now deceased, was making a reputation for himself as one of the town’s best TV repairmen. His 18-year-old bride, one of four children of devout, churchgoing parents, “was a little quiet, but she was friendly and always had a big smile,” says Stella Turner. Adds Ridley: “She was a good housewife and a great cook. I thought she was a real nice, sweet person.”
Curiously, within a year, the couple had an acrimonious falling-out with Virginia’s family, because of what Ridley maintains was his wife’s displeasure with their intrusiveness; her relatives blame Ridley for the rift. By 1970, the Ridleys had been evicted from a public housing unit, under circumstances that remain unclear, and were forced to move into the two-bedroom home on Inman Street with Alvin’s parents. Then, in April 1981, Ridley’s father, Bill, was involved in a minor traffic accident. Though no one was seriously injured, Alvin Ridley to this day blames the collision—and not the pancreatic cancer cited on his father’s death certificate—for Bill’s demise 18 months later.
Ridley promptly filed a lawsuit against several parties, which eventually led to the temporary seizure of his van to satisfy a judgment against him in a countersuit. “I cried every day for a year or two,” says Ridley, who claims that losing the van caused the collapse of his business in 1984. “I was humiliated and discouraged.”
Convinced there was a conspiracy against them, the couple sought refuge in the one place they felt safe: their house. Apart from the lack of running water and their near-total isolation, their domestic life seems to have been, in some respects, oddly unremarkable. Virginia “wore out three or four Bibles,” says her husband, and watched her favorite TV shows, including The Waltons. She also scribbled furiously, writing notes railing against those she believed had “victimized” her and her husband, penning the occasional poem to Alvin (“I do love you as the birds love the flowers…”) and keeping a record of each day’s activities. A typical entry: “For dinner had black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, greens & cornbread. Put cats picture on my coffee cup. Watched Elvis Presley.” Though Virginia stopped taking antiseizure drugs around 1984—in the belief, Ridley says, that God would heal her—her attacks grew more severe only in the months before her death.
During the trial, District Attorney Buzz Franklin argued that Ridley had murdered his spouse by smothering and/or “soft” strangulation, as suggested by the autopsy findings of tiny blood spots on her face. But defense witness Dr. Braxton Wannamaker, an expert on seizure disorders, countered that such spotting is not uncommon after a severe epileptic convulsion. The six-man, six-woman jury apparently-found his testimony persuasive, especially in the absence of the prosecution’s offering any motive to explain, in defense counsel McCracken Poston’s words, “why would Alvin kill…his only friend in the world?” After only two hours the panel returned a verdict of not guilty.
Although some locals still believe Ridley killed his wife, the acquittal seems to have changed many minds. “It made me upset to think that just because a man didn’t act like everyone else and stayed to himself, he was put on trial for murder,” says homemaker Janice Howard, 55, who began leaving home-cooked meals at Ridley’s door (which he gratefully accepted).
Despite his relief at the verdict, Ridley—whose only companions now are his cats, 19-year-old Kitty and 8-year-old Meowy—misses Virginia terribly. “I cherished her for 31 years,” he says simply. Yet he finds some solace in the fact that, as he sees it, Virginia was returned to him for the eight days of the trial. “It’s like she was there,” says Ridley, referring to the notes and musings his wife left behind. “It was like she testified for me and set me free.”
Fannie Weinstein in Ringgold