Saturday, December 18, 2010

Pastor murderer
He seemed like the perfect preacher -- until his flock discovered his murder conviction.

William M. Drumheller III, who in January 2009 took the pulpit at the Harrisonburg Church of Christ, was involved in court hearings in October over who should govern the church. (Mike Olliver - For The Washington Post)

Robert Thomas was one of the two elders who hired Bill Drumheller as minister of the Harrisonburg church and becaome embroiled in controversy. (David Deal)

By summer, members of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ were divided into two camps: those who supported their minister and those who supported their elders. (David Deal)

On a late November afternoon, members of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ gathered to discuss a vote ordered by a judge on whether they wanted the elders to rule the church, or whether they wanted the old bylaws their minister said should govern.
By Neely Tucker
Sunday, December 19, 2010


The Harrisonburg Church of Christ is an unlikely setting for a bedtime horror story, the kind of Southern Gothic tale involving murder and mendacity and money and treachery and, by many accounts, the handiwork of Satan himself.

Nestled in a small town in the scenic Shenandoah Valley, the church situated on seven acres is a homey, one-story red-brick affair with a white steeple. There's a grassy yard perfect for hosting dinner on the grounds, a fellowship hall and a gravel parking lot. The people of the nondenominational church are few and mostly conservative and elderly.

In the fall of 2008, this modest assembly needed a new minister. Its governing elders -- Robert Thomas, a retired lieutenant from the Virginia Department of Corrections, and Gary Rexrode, a retired builder -- were delighted to find that a man such as William M. Drumheller III was eager to take the job at $600 a week with free housing in the parsonage.The 66-year-old Virginia native was an ordained minister, held a master's in divinity degree, had served in the U.S. Navy and had run his own medical supply business. Tall, trim and bespectacled, with closely cropped gray hair and a steady blue-eyed gaze, "Bill" appeared soft of voice but firm of religious conviction, quoting scripture and sprinkling his speech with biblical observations. He laughed readily and shook hands firmly, appearing if not gregarious, then highly personable.

The elders hired him immediately, and Drumheller and his wife, Joyce, moved from their North Carolina home into the church's parsonage. The new minister brought to the little congregation his gentle homilies, with titles such as "Overcoming Discouragement," and amusing, self-deprecating tales about his golf game and family life.

"We all loved him," said Cathy Thomas, the elder's wife. "He could sell snow to an Eskimo."

Then, early this summer, after a series of angry confrontations with the elders, sparked by scriptural interpretations about what becomes of the soul after death, Drumheller noticed that Robert Thomas and Rexrode had added their names to the list of trustees without a vote by the congregation. Drumheller notified the local court, secretly called a meeting of a few trusted church members and orchestrated a coup, stripping both elders of their positions. Drumheller and the new board moved the church's $30,000 of savings into new bank accounts. In a later interview, he referred to the elders as a "dictatorship" and accused them of having "coronated" Rexrode's wife, Gilda, as church treasurer.

Thomas and Rexrode were so stunned that they hired a private detective to check into Drumheller's business dealings.

The investigation unearthed a stunning revelation, which soon made headlines in the Daily News-Record, the local newspaper:

Drumheller -- never mind his seemingly genteel nature -- had beaten his girlfriend's 14-month-old son to death in 1970.

There was more, too, lots more, for William Drumheller was not at all the man he had presented himself to be.

"I felt physically ill," Thomas recalled late this summer, sitting at the kitchen table in his quiet country house a dozen miles outside of town, a cup of coffee and a plate of banana-nut muffins on the table. Rexrode, sitting across from Thomas, gazed out the window and drummed his fingers on the wooden table.

On that August day, with its brilliant sunshine still holding the promise of long, languorous afternoons, two things were clear. One, the Harrisonburg Church of Christ was in the hands of the mysterious stranger who had blown into town and enchanted them all. And two, this tale would have no easy, Sunday-school ending.

"We let a wolf into the church," Rexrode mused, "and now we can't get him out."


Drumheller's path from prison to the pulpit of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ was long and tumultuous, raising troubling questions about the nature of forgiveness and redemption.

The son of a railroad brakeman and the child of divorce, Drumheller was raised mostly by his fundamentalist Methodist grandparents in Clifton Forge, Va. He joined the Navy after high school and "explored the world and many of its opportunities," he said in an interview. He married at 19 and had two children, settling in Illinois. The marriage wasn't happy -- his wife complained to his father that he drank, couldn't keep a job and was "being cruel" to their children, his father said in a letter to the Illinois courts pleading for leniency for his son.

By 1970, Drumheller was working at a Shell station in the Chicago suburbs when he began an extramarital affair with Mary Breitweiser, a 22-year-old divorcee who worked nights on the assembly line at the Chicago Rawhide Co., he later told a prison psychiatrist. He left his family for Breitweiser and her 14-month-old son, David.

Three weeks later, Drumheller became angry when the child wouldn't come when called. He beat him to death. "I reached around in front of him and swung my hand (in a closed fist) and caught him in the stomach which jerked him off the floor up to me," he told the court in a written statement. David's "hands curled in and his legs drew up underneath him." He lapsed into convulsions and died.

The autopsy said the cause of death was "explosive rupture of the stomach." The child's lungs also had burst. He had deep bruises on his thighs and buttocks. He had severe brain damage from a blow to the head. Drumheller acknowledged to the court that he had "chronically" abused the child. He was particularly angered, he told the psychiatrist, because the child would not cry when spanked.

The psychiatrist's diagnosis: "Inadequate personality with strong anti-social features."

A jury convicted him of murder. It sentenced him to 70 to 125 years.

But once incarcerated at the Stateville Correctional Center, Drumheller began impressing nearly everyone he met as a sincere man who had made a horrific mistake, recalls Peter Bumpass, volunteer chaplain at the prison for nearly 30 years. "Everyone thought the world of Bill. ... it just seemed like a one-time incident that got out of hand."

An appellate panel reduced Drumheller's sentence, and with Bumpass's enthusiastic support, he was granted parole after 12 years. Drumheller joined Bumpass's church, got a job through Bumpass running a medical supply business, met a woman in the congregation, married and had two sons. His life, which had been condemned to the miseries of prison, seemed to have blossomed anew.

But by the late 1980s, this feel-good narrative collapsed. He had an another adulterous affair -- this time with a church friend's wife -- Bumpass and the woman's husband recalled in recent interviews. Both marriages ended. The congregation, which had believed in Drumheller's rebirth as evidence of the Christian power of forgiveness and redemption, was mortified, Bumpass remembers.

"We certainly felt betrayed," he said.

Drumheller left the church, divorced his wife, and married the woman with whom he was having an affair.

By 1989, he was running a Medicare scam, he acknowledged in a guilty plea in federal court. The case was so blatant that it was held up by the federal government as one of the nation's worst cases of Medicare fraud.

"Drumheller obtained names and health insurance claim numbers of nursing facility patients," June Gibbs Brown, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, testified to a congressional subcommittee. "He then forged physicians' signatures ... and filed claims for equipment ... which he never provided." Her statement said that former employees of Drumheller gave statements about "episodes of sexual misconduct and violence" by Drumheller.

He got a five-month prison term and an order to pay $59,000 in restitution.

Meanwhile, life at home was abusive, say Drumheller's son, Peter, his stepson, Brad Karas, and stepdaughter, Amanda Jones.

Peter Drumheller, 28, now works at a construction job in Chicago. Reached by phone, he said his father beat him, his brother and his mother. "I was so near to death with him so many times," he said, his voice shaking. "You'd just have to run and hope he didn't find you." He said he has been "on suicide watch" in hospitals because of childhood physical abuse by his father.

He hasn't seen or heard from his father in 17 years, Peter said.

Brad Karas said he did not live with his mother -- Drumheller's third wife -- and his stepfather but that the visits to them were often physically violent, even in his teenage years.

"I had so many fights with him. ... he punched me in the face," said Karas, now working at a resort hotel in Hawaii.

Jones, now living in southern Virginia, described the end of her mother's marriage to Drumheller: "He packed up his stuff one day while my mother was at work and left a note. ...I haven't seen him since."

Drumheller declined interview requests for two months before finally agreeing to talk in October. He said he had accepted personal responsibility for the death of David Breitweiser and had been forgiven by God for it. He declined further comment on the killing. He declined to comment on the fraud conviction and the inspector general's testimony. He said the incidents of abuse recounted by his son and stepson were "outright, blatant lies, unconscionable to even hear" and were fabricated by vindictive ex-wives.

"If you tell a child a story repeatedly, it's only a matter of time before they start to believe it," he said.

One of Drumheller's ex-wives could not be found, and two others did not return phone calls. The only one who would talk, briefly, was wife No. 4, Juanita Bowers. An administrative assistant in a medical business, Bowers said she met Drumheller at a Richmond bowling alley in 2000. She said they married in 2001, separated in 2003 and she divorced him in 2005.

Bowers summed up her reason: "He never told the truth about anything," she said.


Harrisonburg is a quiet town about a two-hour drive southwest from Washington. It's home to about 45,000 people and two universities, James Madison and Eastern Mennonite. There's a city square with an old brick courthouse at its center, a farmers market and Jess' Lunch, which locals swear serves the best hot dogs in the hemisphere. The Harrisonburg Church of Christ sits a mile or so from the city square, just off South Main Street, between the railroad tracks and an elementary school.

Churches, particularly small-town ones, are their own self-contained communities, replete with clans and cliques and power struggles, and the record shows that the 106-year-old Harrisonburg Church of Christ has not been an exception.

Pastors tend not to last long; and there are reports of members being kicked out as far back as the 1970s. Just prior to Drumheller's arrival, some parishioners had been chafing at the way Rexrode and Thomas seemed to run the place as if it were their personal property, said member Mike Harlow. The previous pastor, John Doughty, had anointed the two men as elders in 2006, a position of great authority in the Church of Christ. But in 2008, Thomas and Rexrode fired Doughty, saying he didn't keep office hours and his sermons were poorly prepared. Doughty left to start a new assembly across town but wrote an angry letter back to the congregation, saying the elders were guilty of "heresy" and were "impostors" as elders.

So, when he first took the pulpit in January 2009, Drumheller appeared a breath of fresh air to some in the church, which has perhaps 100 members, although an exact number is not kept. Shane Rickel, Rexrode's son-in-law, said he often complimented Drumheller on his sermons.

"I enjoyed him, and enjoyed playing golf with him," said Rickel, a home builder. When relationships began to fray in June, those who were suspicious of the elders quickly sided with their impressive new minister.

Drumheller had secretly videotaped an angry confrontation between himself, Rexrode and Thomas in a church office. It stemmed from a Sunday-school discussion about the fate of the soul after death. Drumheller wound up snapping "You're a liar!" at Rexrode, and the two talked about each other's wives, the tape shows.

"Be very careful," Rexrode warned the minister, jabbing a finger at him.
Drumheller retaliated a few days later, accusing the elders of ignoring a 1987 set of bylaws and falsely telling the local court that the church had voted them to serve as trustees. He also showed his allies an edited version of the confrontation between himself and the elders.

"For many years, this congregation has been held captive under the control of Gary and Robert as elders, and by their family hierarchy," Joan Knight, a church member would soon write to the court. "Finally our congregation has someone to fight for us and stand with us to restore our church to the order in which it was intended by Scripture. "

She referred to Thomas and Rexrode as carrying out the "work of Satan."

Thomas and Rexrode countered that Knight and Drumheller's other allies who were critical of them consisted of just a handful of church members, primarily newcomers, who had been unduly influenced by Drumheller.

The elders tried to explain to their fellow members that, according to their interpretation of scriptures, they alone were to manage church business. When the elders filed the court documents saying there had been a church "meeting" to vote in the new trustees, they meant only they had voted on the issue, not the congregation. Before they could explain this to the church, the elders said, Drumheller had them stripped of their positions and turned the church against them.

Thomas and Rexrode learned of the church coup when they discovered the church bank accounts had been cleared out. They frantically got the new bank to freeze the accounts, and fired Drumheller with a hand-delivered letter. But he ignored it, saying they had no authority, and stayed put in the parsonage.

It was midsummer, and Bill Drumheller held sway over the tiny church.


Events turned uglier the next week in the fellowship hall. Rickel stormed into a meeting Drumheller was holding with his new church board.

"I let them get about three words out, and I took over," Rickel said. "I was unruly. ... I started reeling off the murder charge, this fraud charge. I don't know if they heard what I said or just noticed the manner I said it. It's kind of forward to go in there and tell everyone that the minister is a convicted murderer. Jaws dropped."

Harlow, co-chair of the church board, was sitting beside Drumheller. Harlow was unfazed, he recalled in an interview. "I turned to Bill and said, 'Are you a man of repentant heart?' He replied, 'Yes.' I looked back at Shane and said, 'What's your problem?'" Harlow said the revelation was "nothing but a character tear-down" and had "nothing, nothing" to do with church business. Most of Drumheller's supporters, after their initial shock, agreed.

"The attitude was, 'You're just a troublemaker,'" Rickel said.

Rexrode and Thomas were aghast. Drumheller, as if by magic, actually had more support than before.

The elders thought the treatment they had received was even more galling because the private investigation had revealed that the murder conviction was apparently only the biggest of Drumheller's transgressions.

It turned out that the new pastor's résumé was pocked with omissions and half-truths -- leading the elders and their supporters to believe that Drumheller was not just a man who had tragically once lost his temper and repented, but a man of poor character through and through.

There was the fraud conviction and the alleged extramarital affairs. Drumheller's résumé stated that he had left Bumpass's church in Chicago over a theological dispute about playing instruments during worship services. When told that the minister -- the man who'd helped him get out of prison -- said it was over an adulterous affair, Drumheller responded. "That's his story." When later told that Jim Karas, the woman's husband, also had said it was over the affair, Drumheller declined to comment.

The résumé also listed that Drumheller had received his master's in divinity degree from "Rochville University" in "Rockville, Maryland." Drumheller, in an interview, said he thought it was a legitimate online institution. But Rochville -- with no campus in Rockville or anywhere else -- is widely regarded as a diploma mill and is not accredited by the U.S. Education Department.

Vicky Phillips, chief executive of, a watchdog agency, tested the school's standards last year when she sent $499 and the name of her pooch, Chester Ludlow, to Rochville. "Chester got full transcripts express mailed to him from a post office box in Dubai," she said of the stunt, which gained national publicity. "It said he graduated with distinction in finance. He had a certificate of participation in student body government. He even got a car decal."

A man reached by phone who identified himself as Allen Bradford, a "student adviser" at Rochville, said "no one else was available" to discuss the school's standards. He defended their practice of giving academic degrees based on "life experience." He said the Chester incident was unfortunate but understandable because, "We never knew he was a dog."


Armed with their findings, the elders and their supporters began leaving flyers and packets of information about Drumheller on their fellow congregants' cars, even calling them at home. Shirley McInturff, who sided with Drumheller, told other church members that someone came to her house and scrawled "Hi" in her driveway, which she took as a threat. In turn, some who supported the elders said they were frightened to come to church, lest Drumheller assault them. Thomas shut down the church's Web site, replacing it with an ominous warning: "The Church is under Satan's attack."

Drumheller didn't wait long for revenge.

On July 13, two days after delivering a sermon titled "Truth and Love: Walking Together," he led his followers to excommunicate the two elders, their families and several of their supporters in a blistering, eight-page letter, replete with more than 50 scriptural references.

"There has been a vicious attack against members of this assembly ... motivated out of what is clearly anger, hatred, malice and vengeance," the notice read. "The sheer magnitude of sinful conduct is reprehensible, unconscionable and foremost violently opposed to the teachings of Christ."

The excommunicated were sent no-trespass orders by the church.

Jesse Mace, one of the former trustees, thought it was a bluff. The following Sunday, as he and his teenage children walked across the gravel parking lot, several men saw him and closed the church doors, he said.

Drumheller "was talking to me through a crack in the door and wouldn't let me in. I told him, 'Jesus didn't put no -trespass notices on his church! Jesus didn't put locks on his church!'"

Someone called the police. When the officers saw that Mace had a gun in his glove compartment (he had a permit, he said), he was arrested. The charges were later dropped.

"They put the handcuffs on me," Mace said later, sitting in a coffee shop about a mile from the church. "They put me in the back of the car. In front of my kids. I had to go sit in a cell and post bail. ... His goal is clear. He wants to steal the church's money. The property, it's worth a lot. The man is a complete psychopath."

By August, Drumheller had been the pastor for 20 months. His congregation was in complete upheaval.


The fall turned into a series of court hearings concerning church governance and whether the old bylaws or the new elders should dominate. Drumheller's past record was deemed not admissible. Neither a judge nor a specially appointed commissioner could determine who was in charge of the church, what laws governed it or even how many members the church had.

Commissioner Jay Litten, a lawyer in town, ruled in September that "it is my judgment that the people of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ have adopted no model of self-governance which remains in effect today." He ruled against the elders' idea that they ran the church because "the evidence fails to establish that the congregation knowingly turned over governance of the church to the Elders."

It was a victory for Drumheller.

Judge James V. Lane ruled that the church would have an election. Anyone claiming to have been a member with "significant" contact with the church over the past two years could participate. Lane said he hoped that people would remember that "they are Christians" and not attempt any shenanigans.

"I hope I never hear another case like this while I'm on the bench," he said.

The fate of the church would come down to a matter of faith. Whom did the worshipers believe -- Drumheller or the elders?


On an afternoon in late October, with the vote a few weeks away, Drumheller, in a suit and tie, and Mike Harlow, co-chair of the church board, escorted a reporter down the center aisle and past the pews. About a dozen members were seated down front. Drumheller turned on a video camera and sat in a folding chair before the pulpit.

He was ready to share his side of the story, but he had a few conditions, which he had set forth in an earlier e-mail. The interview would be taped, and the congregants would be present "in quiet testimony and support of all who presently attend here," he wrote.

Now, seated in his chair, Drumheller seemed confident, at ease and pleasant. He produced a packet of information that he said buttressed his case. It included a videotape of that meeting he had taped in early summer with Thomas and Rexrode. (He volunteered that he had taped it secretly, without their consent, explaining that it was "well held in the ministry" that all meetings with congregants and church leaders should be taped, even without their knowledge.)

He referred to the elders as "thugs." He said they had taken power in 2006 and had since put in place a self-appointed "dictatorship," exemplified when Rexrode and Thomas had made themselves trustees and then submitted court paperwork saying the church had voted them in, he said.

"It was absolute tyrannical control over this church building and monies and everything," Drumheller said. "The fact that they would never allow the people a voice to speak, it just flies in the face of what the scriptures teach."

Tears came to his eyes when recounting how he had regained his faith after he killed David Breitweiser. On "that first night where I was quietly sitting in that jail cell ... I determined then and there, in recognition of the error of my ways, to turn my life around.

"There is literally never a day that I don't in some manner recall or have remorse or regret my actions."

But when asked why he had not told the truth about his past on his résumé, or in his job interview, he began to chuckle.

"Really?" he said. "You cannot be that naive. I apologize for being forthright [in saying this]. But you cannot be that naive."

It was foolish to believe anyone, even a church, would ever look past child homicide, he said. Nor was the rest of his past relevant.

He gave an example. A church member had once told him that he confided everything in his wife. Drumheller said he replied, "You've got to be kidding me, right?" It was absurd for someone to tell his spouse of his "previous escapades," he said, and likewise for his job application in this case.

He said Rickel's informing the church about his criminal past "was disgraceful. It was egregious. It was absolutely despicable." He said the news media and the elders had "joined forces" to destroy his career and reputation.

The packet that Drumheller put together included a four-page, single-spaced statement that he said summed up his life and career.

"It is now 39 years since I yielded my life to serving God," it read. "In that I do not boast or speak with pride seeing that it is not what I have done. Rather, it is what God has done and continues to do in and for me."


The final vote came on a lovely fall afternoon in late November, the leaves gone from the trees, the air brisk, an afternoon so different from the humid summer day when all the drama began.

The gravel parking lot was full and the fellowship hall was packed. More than 80 people sat in folding chairs or at tables, or stood in the kitchen. Two state police officers stood in the hallway to make sure things didn't get out of hand. The first ballot would settle everything, for it asked the congregants to vote on whether they wanted the elders to rule the church, or whether they wanted the old bylaws Drumheller said should govern.

Litten, the special commissioner, explained the rules, and then everyone voted.

It was not close: Elders, 60; Drumheller's bylaws, 21.

Shane Rickel led them all in prayer, saying the church had been reduced to a "heap of ashes." He prayed that the two sides would rebuild and, possibly, even reconcile. Then the members of the Harrisonburg Church of Christ walked outside into the late afternoon sunshine, gravel crunching beneath their feet.

Bill Drumheller was not among them.

He had resigned the week before. He and his wife had packed up their belongings and left town, leaving the people of the little red-brick church to wonder what spiritual lessons the Lord wanted them to glean from their time with the mysterious stranger who had come into their lives, dwelt and prayed among them, and then vanished.

1 comment:

myonusrecordsltd said...

i think, but not sure. I am the son of William Michael Drumheller. I was hidden from him when I was a mere 1 -1/2 years old. I talked to him once, when I turned 18. Never since. Im am 42 years old. Sad; I never had a father. Happy; I am who I am.