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Swindled by the Church of Love, Mechanic Richard Martin Found Real Romance Through the U.S. Mail

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The bride wore a white crepe dress and a straw hat with faux flowers. The groom wore a tuxedo borrowed from his future father-in-law. A rooster crowed outside the small, redbrick Presbyterian Church in Burrows, Ind. (pop. 200 or so), while inside “Wedding Song” wafted from the organ. ” ‘Always remember that it was a miracle that brought the two of you together,” the Rev. Joan Stary told the couple.

Actually, it was something a little more prosaic. The groom, 30-year-old Richard Martin, was among the estimated 31,000 lonely men taken in by Col International, a/k/a the Church of Love, which solicited cash and gifts in exchange for love letters from wayward young women the organization claimed it was “revirginizing.” PEOPLE wrote about the scam in January 1989 and included a photo of the melancholy Martin, who had been swindled out of $5,000. “I live a cold, silent life,” the farm implement mechanic was quoted as saying. “They gave me a feeling of security, that someone really cared about me.”

Betsy Peelor of Bethel Park, a Pittsburgh suburb, read Martin’s story while sitting in her eye doctor’s office. A 1988 graduate of Indiana University of Pennsylvania who was working as a cook, Peelor, now 24, was so moved that she wrote him a letter.

“Dear Richard.” it read. “Please forgive me if this comes across as a bit strange. I read about you and I felt like I had to reach out to you…give you a hug or something. Just the few words that you spoke touched something inside of me, that if there was anything I could do to help, then I had to at least try. Maybe it’s enough right now to know that someone is thinking about you and hoping you feel better about yourself.”

It wasn’t the only letter Martin received in response to the article—18 other women wrote, and he briefly developed phone relationships with three of them. But it’ was Peelor who intrigued him. Last July she drove from Bethel Park to Burrows for a visit. “I just started talking a mile a minute,” she recalls of their first meeting. They stayed up until 6 A.M., and two days later she returned to Pennsylvania—in love. After one more trip to Burrows later that month, she moved in; last October they became engaged. “He asked and I answered,” Peelor recalls. ‘I think it was good the way we met, because we got to know each other without seeing each other, in relative safety.”

Martin says that before Peelor came along “there wasn’t anybody I ever wanted to marry.” One reason was his insistence that his bride agree to live in Burrows, where Martin’s family has lived for 150 years. But Betsy’s family doesn’t think she’ll have any problem with that. “She has always had a small-town mentality, “says her aunt Ann Peelor. “She is so open and naive that a place that is fulfilling to her has to be an intimate place.”

After moving in with Martin, Peelor took a part-time job as a cook at a senior citizen center in nearby Delphi. Although money is tight (“We’re lucky to get supper on the table,” says Martin, when asked if he’d bought Betsy an engagement ring), the couple is busy turning Martin’s simple frame house into a home. They installed carpet and cabinets and painted the trim electric blue, and Betsy painted saw blades with landscapes to adorn the walls.

After a one-night honeymoon in Indianapolis, the couple returned to Burrows, where they hope to raise a family. “I couldn’t feel better,” says Martin. “I can’t say I’m completely fulfilled, but I’ve taken a step in the right direction.”

—Cynthia Sanz, Grant Pick in Burrows, Ind.