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Like a priest, criminal defense attorney Deborah Caldwell-Bono protects secrets to serve a “higher power” – but in her case, that power is the law.
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A false rumor that Stephen Urick had murdered his ex-wife persisted for more than 20 years; he paid the price when friends and acquaintances shunned him.
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What’s the secret recipe? Chefs often don’t tell, but Wildflour Café’s Evie Robison, shown with her Better than Sex cake, says nobody can do it better.
To many, it was a classic story of love gone wrong, of justice failed: In 1985, the long-simmering rage of a bitter and disturbed ex-husband exploded. A beautiful 33-year-old woman named Audrey West was sexually assaulted and strangled to death in her Old Southwest neighborhood; a boy of just six was robbed of his mother. And the killer went free.
But it wasn’t true.
The man the rumor mill favored for the crime, West’s ex-husband Stephen Urick, was questioned by the police numerous times but was never implicated – not officially, anyway. (Keep in mind that this was before the widespread use of DNA testing.) An early blood analysis revealed that Urick’s blood type did not match material left at the scene. And a DNA test a decade later, in 1998, all but exonerated him. Nonetheless, it was clear to Urick that, partly because he was the one who found the body, many on the police force – and in the community – clung to their suspicions.
For more than two decades, that suspicion drove away Urick’s friends; parents clutched their children close in his presence. Acquaintances turned away from him in the grocery store and on the street. A relationship with one woman deteriorated after she was warned by coworkers to “stay away” from the presumed killer.
Urick remembers that one man withdrew his hand after being introduced to him: “He said, ‘I don’t shake hands with murderers.’”
Even the newspaper published a story – one of many reports surrounding the high-profile case over the years – that detailed the difficulties of the couple’s failed marriage.
But this past October, police announced that they had found a match: The DNA left at the scene belonged to a convicted sex offender named William Ray Hagy, Jr., who was already serving a 50-year sentence for the 1984 rape of a 14-year-old girl. DNA would also link Hagy to two other brutalities that occurred here in the mid-1980s: the death of 21-year-old Cindy McCray and the rape of a 17-year-old. Hagy was indicted in all three cases.
Is Urick’s nightmare finally over? Maybe. Social science (and experience) tell us it is difficult to throw a wrench into the rumor mill. When stakes are perceived as high, combating a rumor with the cold, hard facts alone may not be enough to lay it to rest.
Why We Love Rumors
Urick’s is just one tragic thread among the thousands that make up the rumor mill’s colorful tapestry. Psychology tells us that it is human nature to want to share information, and the juicier the tidbit, the more we itch to snitch it.
More than just unvetted tales, rumors are a byproduct of a basic social need to make sense out of uncertainty. It’s human nature to want to know why a young woman was assaulted and left for dead on her young son’s bed; in the absence of clear answers, the mind finds a channel for its anxiety surrounding death, sex and broken families, even in the wildest of tales. In the absence of hard information, we often invent a flimsy substitute.
And in a small community, whether it be the office, the neighborhood or a city of roughly 95,000, the grapevine is heavy with fruit ripe for the pickin’.
Consider the tales that circulated following the market building’s abrupt closing in September, or the whispers that rippled through Wachovia’s halls before Citibank (and later Wells Fargo) announced it would be stepping in to purchase some of the bank’s troubled assets.
The blogosphere thrives on what “really” happened in the latest closed-door session of city council, and we’ve all heard the one (right?) about the wife of that prominent businessman who keeps secret company with a lady friend who is more than just a friend.
Rumors in Politics
On the national front, one must only think back to the presidential election season and the rumors surrounding Barack Obama’s “secret” religious affiliation to underscore that rumors often thrive in the face of unmistakable fact.
Or reach a bit deeper into political history and consider John McCain’s loss to George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential primary in South Carolina. Many attribute the defeat to a race-baiting rumor that the senator had secretly fathered his adopted daughter – out of wedlock with a black woman – an accusation that was outrageous at best. Yet the success of such a rumor – the fact that so many people “bought it” – speaks to another insight of social science: that rumors serve as a window into the collective anxieties of a community, in this case those surrounding race and sex.
The origins of rumors are slippery – which is one source of their power. An enemy that has no face is difficult to combat. In the political realm, rumors are often skillfully wielded political weapons. In the McCain case of 2000, folks claiming to be “pollsters” placed phone calls to South Carolinian voters. The “pollster” then asked whether voters would be more or less likely to support the candidate if they knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child (no matter that absolutely no evidence existed that he had).
“In the conservative, race-conscious South, that’s not a minor charge,” writes Richard H. Davis, McCain’s 2000 campaign manager, in “The Anatomy of a Smear Campaign,” published in The Boston Globe in 2004. “We had no idea who made the phone calls, who paid for them, or how many calls were made. Effective and anonymous: the perfect smear campaign.”
Rumors as Levelers
Several months ago, I was eating lunch with a business associate in downtown Roanoke. As it happened, we were engaged in a discussion of the pervasiveness of the Roanoke rumor mill when a mutual acquaintance, a gentleman in his early sixties, approached our table.
“Did you hear the latest tall tale?” our friend asked. “Last night I was arrested with so-and-so and so-and-so for cocaine possession!” The gentleman in question, a businessman with longstanding ties to the community, has no arrest record; not only does he not use drugs, he does not even drink alcohol. But for whatever reason, Mr. E. – as we’ll call him – has been the target of several nasty rumors throughout the years.
The truth is much less sexy than lurid tales of drug-trafficking: Mr. E. started and sold a software business; he had the common sense and good fortune to invest his earnings wisely. There will always be some who try to bring down those on top by starting rumors.
‘God Says to Forgive’
And what of Stephen Urick, who lived with rumor’s devastating effects for so many years? He simply hopes that, with the indictment of another man, his credibility as a father, professional and citizen will be restored. He hopes that his son, who is now a grown man with a child of his own, can find some peace. He wishes the same for Audrey West’s family, who were devastated by their sudden and senseless loss.
As for his own pain, a mischievous sense of humor helps. He’s always been a jokester, Urick says, but since his ex-wife’s death, humor has been one way that he has shielded himself from the pain of ostracism. Occasionally he swaggers up to those who once condemned him, muttering to himself and faking insanity. Maybe that will help folks understand what he’s been through, he says with a wink.
And while he is trying to move on, he admits he sometimes feels bitter about the way some folks treated him. “But God says to forgive people, right?” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
William Hagy, Jr.’s secret – a terrible crime he allegedly committed more than two decades ago – fueled the rumors about Stephen Urick. Yet in other settings secrets can actually be sacred, a token of trust between man and man, man and law, or in some cases, man and God.
In the Catholic faith, passing secrets between the faithful is a way of restoring and strengthening one’s relationship with the divine.
“Confession is a sacramental setting where people bare their souls,” says Monsignor Tom Miller, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church, the grand, twin-spiraled landmark overlooking Roanoke from North Jefferson Street. And while prayer is important in Christianity, transmitting our worries to others “opens our hearts to healing in a way that goes beyond our personal, private prayer life,” he says.
It’s God’s gift to us; a way meet our needs, not His. After all, “God already knows” our secrets, says Miller.
“And by the way,” he adds with a smile, “we’re not the only ones who use confession in healing. In any of the 12-step programs, unburdening yourself to others is an essential part” of restoring one’s mental and emotional well-being.
Whether the secret is great or small, the priest who is privy to a penitent’s secrets in the confessional setting is bound to keep them – without exception. Perhaps that’s why the act is depicted in countless film and television scenes; it still tickles the popular imagination that even in the age of Too Much Information, there exists a setting that remains impervious to prying eyes and ears.
A serial killer steps into the booth and, to a priest’s horror, recounts disturbing and intimate tales of his crimes. “I must have seen that in a hundred movies and television shows,” says Miller with a laugh.
But when asked if he’s ever heard anything truly terrible, truly unsettling – the likes of which destroyed a family in Old Southwest 23 years ago, perhaps – Miller responds with candor and humility.
“Well, c’mon,” he says with a laugh. “Haven’t you ever thought – gosh, my life would be so much better if only this person wasn’t around?
“In truth, I’ve never heard anything … that either I haven’t done myself or couldn’t have done [myself]. I’m as human as the next person … The whole ability to be effective as a minister in that setting is to realize that I am as human and as vulnerable as anyone who comes to me.”
Secrets that Protect Rights
A criminal defense attorney like Deborah Caldwell-Bono protects the secrets of her clients for another “higher power”: the law.
She’s cognizant of the sleazy stereotype that many attach to those in her line of work – the perception that they help “guilty people go free.” And although that sometimes happens, Caldwell-Bono admits, she sees her role as protector of something nobler: every citizen’s right to fair representation, which is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
An essential part of that role is confidentiality, or secret-keeping; it’s part of the attorney-client privilege, a legal concept that is one of the strongest under law. It remains protected even after a client’s death.
And contrary to popular opinion, Caldwell-Bono is strictly prohibited from putting a person on the stand whom she knows is going to lie. If a client admits to Caldwell-Bono in private that he is guilty of the crime with which he is charged, she cannot then allow him to protest his innocence in the courtroom. It’s for that reason that attorneys tend to fall into two camps, says Caldwell-Bono.
“Some attorneys will say they don’t want to know the truth. Some say they want to know the truth, because they want to avoid any potential landmines.”
Yet if someone comes to Caldwell-Bono seeking representation – whether she takes on the client or not – the admission of any other crime, no matter the magnitude, is strictly protected. It may seem unsettling to some, but courts have determined that only a vigorously guarded relationship of absolute privacy between lawyer and client ensures fair, uninhibited representation.
Does she ever wrestle with those secrets morally? It’s a part of the job that is sometimes difficult, but ultimately, her silence – like that of every attorney – is recognized as being in the best interest of every citizen. “As lawyers, I’m sure many of us take secrets to the grave that are very troubling … but it’s the oath we took.”
Secrets of the Mind
Most of us know him as a member of Roanoke’s City Council, where since 2006 Dr. David Trinkle has juggled the numerous demands of political life: attending meetings that can (and sometimes do) last up to six hours at a time, fielding citizen concerns, and keeping up with his blog, davetrinkle.com.
But Trinkle is also a practicing geriatric psychiatrist at Carilion Clinic’s Center for Healthy Aging. He sits on a number of area boards, and is a successful restaurateur to boot, taking care of business at his popular South Roanoke eatery, Fork in the Alley.
Trinkle slides among these different worlds with apparent ease. But if you think about it, keeping secrets safe and sorting fact from fiction are two important elements in each of his areas of endeavor.
When he is exercising his role as psychiatrist, what his patients tell him – whether it be truthful or not – is sacred; it may only be revealed to outside parties if the doctor believes the patient is in danger of hurting herself or others.
When he is acting as a member of city council, information that is shared in closed-door sessions must remain behind those doors until Trinkle is told otherwise.
In his role as a businessman – in any of these roles, in fact – Trinkle must remove himself from any situation in which he receives “too much information” that might affect any of his other endeavors. That means being prepared to walk out of a council meeting if a Carilion issue comes up, or, as sometimes happens, if the city is embarking on a deal with a patient’s close relative, for example – someone known from a clinical setting.
And while it’s a lot to keep straight, some overlaps are useful. “The humor is that one might say anyone in politics needs therapy,” Trinkle jokes. But seriously, decisions in business, in the doctor’s office or in council chambers all require similar mental tools.
“You have to take [each problem] seriously, be prepared, listen, weigh all the information you’ve been given, and then come to a game plan,” says Trinkle. “In therapy, sometimes within an hour I can figure out what the game plan is … it’s much slower with city council, and sometimes that’s frustrating.”
Keeping secrets from the public is another tricky area. “It’s something we’ve all taken issue with – the so-called closed meeting,” he says. “But there is some information that, if it were public, could hurt the city’s ability to negotiate in the citizens’ best interest.”
Information from patients’ loved ones is an essential part of his clinical detective work – but Trinkle can’t ask for it; that would be breaking confidentiality. Often it comes to him in the form of letters or phone calls from concerned relatives, and “sometimes it’s nonsense; sometimes it’s relevant. A relative might call and say ‘what did you think about so-and-so?’” He can soak in any information offered, but he can’t respond in a way that would divulge what happens in sessions. In most cases, he can’t even confirm or deny whether the person is indeed his patient.
At least his work is never dull: “Especially with older patients, they all have such amazing stories to tell; they all have secrets and stories that are so very interesting.”
‘Snubbing’ to Keep a Secret
If you’re his patient, don’t be surprised if the otherwise charming Dr. Enrique Silberblatt ignores you in public. It’s not a snub. He’s just waiting for you to make the first move.
That’s because Silberblatt is a plastic surgeon. As a doctor, he’s bound by confidentiality not to tell anyone you’ve visited his office, but in his particular field, it’s even trickier. A simple “hello, how are you?” from Silberblatt in the grocery line might give away a connection you’d rather others not wonder about.
Silberblatt expects the same of his staff. The first time a staff member breaks confidentiality – even via a friendly, unsolicited wave to a patient on the street – the employee gets a warning. The second time he or she is let go.
“There’s no leniency when it comes to confidentiality,” says Silberblatt, who has been in the business for more than 20 years.
It’s a strictness that is born of necessity. Besides a sterling professional reputation, Silberblatt offers patients privacy. If patients don’t go the extra mile by traveling to an out-of-town-facility, a local choice like Silberblatt’s small, cozy office (with a waiting room that seats only a handful) offers similar reassurance.
“Patients feel it’s less likely that they’ll run into neighbor Jones or neighbor Smith here,” says the good doctor. The same procedures – breast implants, facelifts, lipoplasty and liposuction – can be taken care of at a local hospital, but with hundreds of visitors a day, there’s a greater chance of being spotted.
Silberblatt understands that some patients feel a particular “guilt” surrounding what takes place behind the surgical curtain in his office – especially in a small, somewhat conservative city like Roanoke: “People might be OK telling others they’ve had a procedure related to a disease like diabetes or cancer, but cosmetic procedures are seen as ‘vain.’”
That’s why he remains particularly attuned to those who might be trying to penetrate his office’s veil of secrecy. “I might get someone in my office who says, ‘Oh, my friend so-and-so had her breasts done here – you did such a lovely job!’” It might be an innocent comment, but Silberblatt isn’t biting. “It could be [another patient’s] best friend – or it could be someone who suspects someone has had a procedure and is fishing for information.”
Salivating Over Secrets
Some secrets are sinful, some are sacred, and others are plain delicious. Just ask Evie Robison, who along with her husband Doug has been in the food business for nearly four decades. Their current family venture is the Wildflour Café at 1212 4th Street, snuggled into the eclectic residential neighborhood of historic Old Southwest. It’s a bit of a jaunt from the downtown dining scene, but no matter. Wildflour is always a cheerful cacophony of diners who have trotted from near and far for the café’s extensive menu of “comfort foods” with a healthy, gourmet twist.
Another reason the restaurant has become such a destination is because of Evie’s sinful desserts. Peer through the cool glass of the bakery shelves to feast your eyes on cakes galore: lemon, coconut, oatmeal, carrot (“…The best carrot cake in North America … maybe the world! How is that for modesty!” says Evie), and yes, the “Better than Sex” cake.
Chefs are infamous for guarding their secrets, but the Robisons are not as protective as some. For it’s the art aspect of the art and science of food that cannot be replicated. Chefs regularly borrow ideas and glean inspiration from the work of others; combined with their own discoveries, an original dish is born.
“You see a recipe that looks good and you try it,” says Evie. “A friend serves you a delicious meal and you ask how they made it. You eat delicious fruit at its optimal ripening stage, and you think, ‘This is incredible … I have to make a pie out of this.’ Then comes the chaos, the attempts and the re-attempts … the tweaking and the finesse … and definitely the subjectivity.”
Customers will gush over a cake and Evie might grab a napkin to jot down an ingredient list on the spot: “A recipe’s success all comes down to seasoning and finesse, and training your staff to accomplish the recipe correctly. So, I’m not really afraid of giving out certain recipes. I’m confident that…no one is going to make them better than we do, especially in a commercial restaurant environment.”
And besides, if pressed, Evie’s generosity has limits. No artist, no magician, no baker or chef is willing to give it all away. While she’ll tell you that the richness of the coconut cake icing comes from the careful addition of sour cream, she gets a little vague when discussing that mind-blowing carrot cake. Evie first found inspiration from a newspaper recipe published in the late ’80s, she admits.
“It was from a woman who owned the Bee Bum Cafe in Salem. I have doctored the recipe over the years … replaced the black walnuts with regular walnuts, changed the frosting … and a couple other trade secrets!”