Widow's Work?

JACK WILSON, A WEALTHY OPHTHALMOLOGIST in Huntsville, Ala., was well loved by his patients. Those who couldn’t afford to pay him didn’t have to. And most people left his office laughing because of his unapologetically cornball sense of humor. He wore Christmas ties in the summer, and his prescription pad bore the inscription BEST EYE DOCTOR IN THE KNOWN UNIVERSE. Even the way Wilson concluded his will was meant to be funny. “To be used only if absolutely necessary, i.e., if I am dead,” he wrote. “Try real hard to revive me if I only look dead.”

Unfortunately, Wilson, 55, was quite beyond revival when police, following a 9:30 P.M. call from his wife, Betty, arrived at his home on May 22. She said she’d come home and found him in the upstairs hall; he had been beaten over the head with a baseball bat and stabbed in the abdomen. At first Wilson appeared to be the victim of a bungled burglary. But police soon discovered otherwise. Some days before the murder, James White, a 41-year-old handyman, bragged that he would make some money from a contract killing. Following a tip from an informant, police interrogated White four days after the murder. White quickly confessed—and, in turn, made a shocking accusation. He claimed he had been hired as a hit man by Betty, 47, and her twin, Peggy Lowe.

The arrest of the twins for murder—they have since become known as the Black Widows—promptly set Huntsville abuzz. “If somebody wants to make a movie of all this, they’ll have to temper it down to make it believable,” says District Attorney Mo Brooks.

People who knew the Wilsons well say Jack was extremely indulgent toward Betty, his second wife, during their 14-year marriage. “She got anything she wanted—cars, furs and emerald earrings,” says a former employee of Wilson’s. They lived in a gracious, three-story home in an exclusive neighborhood; she tooled around town in a Mercedes and a black BMW. Still Betty seemed to be constantly upbraiding the doctor for idiosyncrasies. At home and in the office he loved to take his shoes off and pad around in his socks. He ate peanut butter directly out of the family jar with a spoon. He picked his nose. He fell asleep at the opera. “Everyone loved my dad and thought that kind of stuff was funny,” says Steve Wilson, 26, one of the three sons from his previous marriage, which ended in divorce in 1977. (He married Betty 9 months later.) “But Betty was sick of him.”

To make things worse, Wilson had major intestinal surgery in 1982 and had to wear a colostomy bag. “Betty called him s—tbag,” says Steve. “She didn’t want him to go anywhere with her.”

Questioned by police, Betty made no secret of the fact that she and her husband slept in separate rooms. “She played around with other men and wouldn’t hesitate to say it,” Alisa West, owner of a boutique that Betty frequented, told a reporter. Why Wilson put up with his wife is a mystery. “Dad kept hoping that she would come around,” says Steve. “I think he just loved her.”

While Betty Wilson was brazen about her infidelities, her sister Peggy, a married, churchgoing schoolteacher, appeared to be the soul of propriety—until James White came along. They met a year ago, when he did carpentry work at her elementary school in, Vincent, Ala., 110 miles south of Huntsville. White told police that he became infatuated with Peggy and “we stole a few kisses here and there.” Eventually, White said, Peggy confided in him that she and her husband of 19 years, Wayne, a teacher at the same school, had not slept together in five years. “She told me she didn’t want to leave him. She just wished something would happen to him,” White told police. “Then in a joking way I said, ‘Well, that could be arranged.’ ”

Instead, White claimed, “[Peggy] told me that her sister Betty was the lady friend that had the problem that she wanted resolved.” Though he originally denied having sex with Peggy, in a second statement to police White said they went to bed together before she and Betty paid him $2,500 to commit the murder.

Attorneys for the twins are certain to question the credibility of White, a Vietnam combat veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has been taking the drug lithium for the past five years to combat manic depression.

Unlike White, a perennial loser, the twins were both attuned to success. As high school students in Gadsden, Ala., during the ’60s, Peggy won several beauty contests, while Betty had to content herself with being a member of the high school drama team. “Betty was always jealous of Peggy,” says a family friend. Following failed first marriages, the twins went through something of a role reversal. After settling down with Wayne in 1973, Peggy struggled to raise three children (including two from her first marriage) on their modest schoolteacher salaries.

Betty, meanwhile, realized her dream of social prominence in 1978 when she married Wilson, whom she met while working as a nurse at Huntsville’s Humana Hospital. “Her goal in life was to marry a doctor and have money,” says one family friend. Dr. Wilson’s estate, the bulk of which Betty expected to inherit, is worth $5 million.

Betty and Peggy, who have both pleaded not guilty to murder, are expected to be tried separately this fall. If convicted, they could be sentenced to the electric chair. The last such execution of a woman in Alabama took place in 1957. In return for his testimony against the twins, White has agreed to accept a life sentence.

Whatever the outcome of the sisters’ trials, Steve Wilson remains bereft. “My father thought he was going to live to 2050,” says Steve. “He wanted to live with my wife and me and eat peanut butter out of the jar.”

DAVID GROGAN

DON SIDER and PATRICIA DEDRICK in Huntsville

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