December 21, 1998 12:00 PM

As far as Daniel Crocker is concerned, there is nothing mysterious about what he has done. “I’m just trying to walk with the Lord,” says Crocker, sitting in the visiting room of the Johnson County jail in Olathe, Kans. A slightly built, immaculately groomed man, he politely asks if he can read a passage from his hefty Bible, marked with yellow Post-it notes. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper,” he reads from the Book of Proverbs, “but he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion.” He sets the Bible down and smiles. “People don’t understand,” he says. “I needed to do this so I could have a closer relationship with the Lord.”

But for whatever he has gained spiritually, he is paying a very dear price. On Sept. 22, after saying goodbye in Chantilly, Va., to his family—wife Nicolette, 36, and children Isaac, 9, and Analiese, 8—Crocker, 38, a devoutly Christian warehouse supervisor with no criminal record, boarded a plane and flew to the Kansas City, Kans., airport. There he confessed to police that one night 19 years ago, while on drugs, he had killed a young woman, 19-year-old Tracy Fresquez, during a failed rape attempt after meeting her at a convenience store in nearby Shawnee. Now facing 20 years in prison for murder following a plea agreement, Crocker is seen as unusual even by his lawyer, Tom Bath, who says he has never “seen anybody willing to risk so much to take responsibility for what he’s done.”

Certainly there is little chance the crime would ever have been solved without Crocker’s confession. Crocker refuses to talk about the murder except to say that he had been high for three days on LSD and marijuana. According to Bath, his client has admitted to police that on the night of Oct. 6, 1979, after a chance meeting at a 7-Eleven, he had taken Fresquez home. Returning later, he let himself into her apartment, tried to rape her, then smothered her with a pillow when she screamed. “I didn’t know the girl,” Crocker says. “I didn’t know her name. All I knew is that I had done something terrible.” The only clue police found was a thumbprint on a beer can, and they were never able to match it with a suspect.

Aghast at the turn his life had taken, Crocker resolved to turn it around. “I did repent truly in my heart,” he says. “I got off drugs and went on with my life.” More to the point, he decided his only chance for salvation was to return to the teachings of his evangelical parents, who clean houses for a living. Crocker became active in an evangelical church in a suburb of Kansas City, and after a brief failed marriage he met Nicolette, who worked for a greeting card company, at a church study group. The attraction was immediate. A few months later, at Thanksgiving in 1986, Crocker sat her down and confessed he was harboring a terrible secret—except that, by his account, the death of Tracy Fresquez had been a dreadful drug-related accident for which he felt responsible. “I was numb,” says Nicolette. Even so, the news didn’t change her feelings about Crocker. “I had already fallen in love with him,” she says. That night he asked her to marry him; eight months later they were wed at the Full Faith House of Love, West, near Kansas City.

The couple eventually moved to Fairfax County, Va., where they got by on Daniel’s warehouse salary, most recently living in a used mobile home. Their modest life was a matter of design—so that Nicolette wouldn’t have to hold down a job and could home-school Isaac and Analiese. They went to church two or three times a week, and Daniel even joined a men’s accountability group. Yet Nicolette never shook a sense of unease over what her husband had told her. “I wondered who the young woman was,” she says. “What did her family think? How were they doing? Was it truly settled with the law? Would it come back into our lives at some point?”

This past summer that last question was answered. The Crockers, through their church, had met a man named Ron Burke, with whom they both became friendly. Burke, 61, had a nephew in prison to whom the three began ministering. As Nicolette watched Daniel talking to the convict, encouraging the man in his faith, she sensed he was being a hypocrite. “I asked him, out of love, ‘How can you do this when you have something unresolved in your own past?’ ” she says. “He changed the subject, like he’d done other times over the years. But he began to think about it.”

More than that, in fact. Without telling his wife, Crocker asked Burke, who was knowledgeable about computers, to research whether the Fresquez case was still open. When he learned that it was and that the killer was still being sought, he found himself facing a crisis of conscience. “There was no question what I had to do,” he says. “I couldn’t live with myself any other way.”

Nicolette fully supported his determination to turn himself in, still believing the death he had caused had been accidental. In mid-September, Daniel quit his job and put his affairs in order. He saved the hardest part—telling the children—for last. “I didn’t want them to suffer,” he says. But Isaac burst into tears and cried, “What will I do for a daddy?” Daniel then boarded a plane and flew to Kansas City, where he had already arranged to meet with prosecutors.

The Fresquez family’s reaction to his coming forward was mixed. The victim’s brother Jay, 36, while welcoming the prison term, expressed concern for Crocker’s children. “I feel horrible for them, losing their dad,” he says. But Tracy’s father, Louis Fresquez, 58, who says he “fell apart” (and was hospitalized) after his daughter’s murder and even felt police suspected him of the crime, declared he had no sympathy for any of the Crockers: “He had no right to start a family, knowing what he had done.” The Fresquezes also voiced anger at Nicolette for harboring a killer for so long. But she insists that until the news accounts following Daniel’s surrender, she had no idea what had really happened. “If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to the authorities,” she says.

In an odd twist, there was more controversy involving Nicolette in the weeks after Crocker’s surrender. In a recent article in The Washington Post, Ron Burke, whose wife left him last year, was quoted as urging Nicolette, “Forget about Daniel. Follow my vision. Complete me.” Dismissing the notion of any romantic interest, Nicolette claims that she and Burke were misquoted in the story—an assertion the Post reporter flatly denies.

Still, Nicolette sounds cautious when it comes to her future with Daniel, who must serve at least 10 years of his sentence before he will be eligible for parole. On the one hand, she is hoping that he can eventually be sent to a prison in Virginia so that she and the children can visit him regularly. Yet she also says, “I am committed to my marriage. But who knows what the future will bring?” Meanwhile, Daniel sounds preternaturally serene in his belief that redemption is never easy and shouldn’t be. “It is hard for me and my wife and our children, but it is the right thing to do,” he says. “We all understand that.”

Bill Hewitt

Margaret Nelson in Olathe

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