A Secret in Oak Ridge : He was a star editor and writer. She’s a dedicated mother. Now, many in Tennessee and around the nation wonder whether they tried to kill her husband.
This town has always been a place of secrets. Half a century ago, the federal government swooped down, buy ing up property, bulldozing homes and raising great fences around a series of high-security laboratories.
Here, nestled amid the bucolic splendor of Southern Appalachia, the government produced uranium for the atomic bomb. And here, in the event of an accident, the ridges could theoretically contain the disaster.
As far as the rest of America knew, Oak Ridge, 22 miles west of Knoxville, did not exist. It was a “secret city,” off-limits to the public from its inception in 1942 until 1949, well after the war ended.
Oak Ridge still has its secrets, of course. And authorities say one of the most shocking was kept by Michael Frazier, a 32-year-old editor at the local newspaper.
A smart and sarcastic young man with a good sense of humor and a flair for writing, Frazier had come to the Oak Ridger in May, 1988. He started out as a part-time copy editor and obituary writer.
When he showed skill at writing and editing, he was put in charge of religion coverage. Later, he became entertainment editor. And in January, he was promoted to editor of Life & Style, the paper’s feature section.
Frazier was regarded by some of his colleagues as the best writer at the paper. This Friday, in fact, he was to have been presented with a prestigious Tennessee writing award for a touching, 1993 Mother’s Day story about the heartbreaks and triumphs of Lisa Whedbee, the mother of a 4-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome.
“He is a really solid employee,” said Oak Ridger Editor Jim Campbell. “He is creative, bright, just a good person to be around.”
But Frazier was more than just an exemplary employee. A graduate of Tennessee Wesleyan College with a degree in music, Frazier was the organist and choir director of Trinity United Methodist Church, where Whedbee was a member of the choir.
He was a productive citizen, with not even a speeding ticket to his name, local law-enforcement officials say. Married for two years. About the only negative thing anyone would say about him is that he is a heavy smoker.
Which is why, earlier this month, speculation about Michael Frazier’s secret blew this community away. And not even the ridges could contain the fallout.
At dawn on Wednesday, June 8, Michael David Frazier was arrested by sheriff’s deputies as he walked up his driveway.
“Well, don’t tell me my wife has filed another complaint against me,” he joked lamely, according to Knox County Sheriff Tim Hutchison.
His wife was out of town. Frazier was arrested on suspicion of attempted first-degree murder of Lisa Whedbee’s husband.
Lisa Outlaw Whedbee, 31, was already in custody, arrested hours earlier on suspicion of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder.
In an affidavit for a warrant to search Frazier’s home for a knife and surgical gloves, Sheriff’s Detective Dan Stewart said that Lisa Whedbee admitted that she and Frazier had been having an affair for the past year. But Frazier kept whatever secrets he had to himself; he refused to talk to investigators.
A day later, the story would captivate the national media. The tale told by authorities had all the makings of a sweeps-month miniseries: two families shattered in the instant it took to plunge a butcher knife toward the heart of a sleeping man, a community stunned into disbelief by the alleged actions of two upstanding citizens. Frazier’s wife and Whedbee’s husband plan to divorce their spouses. Lisa Whedbee, by all accounts a dedicated mother, has been denied access to her children, Justin, 8, and Brittany, the little girl with the great big needs.
Most compelling of all to the media was the notion that Frazier, the journalist, allegedly crossed the line that is supposed to separate reporters from their sources. Frazier’s attorney, Gregory Isaacs, attributed the interest to narcissism--the media sniffed a story of a “reporter gone bad.”
The 911 call came shortly after 1 a.m. that Wednesday.
The caller reported an intruder at a home in a subdivision of Northwest Knox County known as Camelot, near a highway between Oak Ridge and Knoxville. All authorities knew was that the homeowner had been stabbed.
When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they discovered John Robert (Rob) Whedbee, 33, standing outside the house with his neighbor, Bill Shinn.
“Mr. Whedbee was coherent, he was nervous, he was bleeding,” Sheriff Hutchison said. “He had already come to a conclusion about what had happened long before we pieced everything together.”
Rob Whedbee was not frightened, Hutchison said.
“He was mad.”
According to Sheriff’s Lt. Larry Johnson, Whedbee said he and Lisa had gone to sleep at about 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday, June 7. At about 1 a.m., Whedbee said, he was lying on his back asleep. Something--maybe movement of the covers--roused him. He wasn’t quite awake when he smelled the strong odor of cigarette smoke. No one in his home smokes.
“He had an eerie feeling that someone was standing over him,” Johnson said. “That is when he opened his eyes in time to see a butcher knife coming toward him.”
Whedbee threw up his arms. The knife glanced off his arms and cut his ear.
“And that,” Johnson said, “is when he got to wrastling with whoever it was.”
Whedbee told deputies that he screamed for Lisa, his wife of 12 years, as he struggled with his attacker.
She came to the darkened doorway of their bedroom, Whedbee said, holding a baseball bat.
Whedbee yelled at her to call 911, but, he told sheriff’s deputies, Lisa just stood there, frozen.
Whedbee’s attacker looked at Lisa and, according to authorities, said: “You’ve got to do it. Just do it now.”
Hutchison said Whedbee recognized the voice, but he couldn’t place it. “And then he said, again, ‘Call 911! Turn on the light!’ And she would do neither. And it was at that point that he became concerned with being safe from his wife also.”
Johnson said it occurred to Whedbee that he’d better make his move. He shoved his assailant, grabbed the bat and ran to the garage with the intruder in pursuit. “He hit the switch to raise the garage door, which turned on the light,” Johnson said. “And that is when they came face to face.”
Whedbee, police said, realized in a sickening flash that he knew his attacker and that the suspicions he had about his wife were probably true.
Wednesday, June 8, started as a routine workday at the Oak Ridger, an afternoon paper with an 11:30 a.m. deadline and a high quotient of early-morning energy. About 8 a.m., the police reporter was out making her rounds. Other reporters were arriving at their desks. City Hall reporter Will Fitzgerald first heard the story in his car radio on his drive in from Knoxville.
“Someone named Michael Frazier had been arrested in connection with an alleged attempted murder,” Fitzgerald said. “My first thought was, ‘Oh gee, that’s funny--someone has the same name as Michael. We can cut out the headline and tape it on his desk and he’ll think it’s hilarious.’ ”
Reporter Paul Sloca was sitting at his desk when his wife called to say she had heard something about Michael Frazier’s arrest.
“I said, ‘Well, it can’t be our Michael.’ So I went over to the TV and said let’s watch the 8:30 news. And it was him. He didn’t have his glasses on, but you could tell by his body type. He had his ‘Phantom of the Opera’ shirt on and that kind of tipped me off because he is into the arts and opera.”
Said Fitzgerald: “The entire staff (was) just kind of standing there with their mouths hanging open, going, ‘No way. This can’t be.’ ”
Editor Campbell called his staff together, assigned the story to Fitzgerald, and told him to “just play it straight, report what’s there.”
Campbell played the story as discreetly as possible, placing it under the fold of the front page with no photograph.
“We decided not to use the mug shot because it’s just not Michael,” Campbell said. “He didn’t have his glasses on.”
And he decided against file photographs of Frazier, he said, because they were taken after Frazier had won the writing award for his Mother’s Day story on Lisa Whedbee.
“They just didn’t fit,” he said.
The headline read: “Paper Employee Charged With Attempted Murder.”
A sheriff’s department spokesman said Lisa Whedbee had let Michael Frazier into the home before her husband arrived home at about 8 p.m., and that Frazier had hidden in the house until Rob Whedbee was asleep. Justin was away that night, and a phone in one of the children’s rooms had been taken off the hook.
Frazier spent two days in jail before being released on $50,000 bond. Lisa Whedbee, whose bond was also set at $50,000, was released after less than 24 hours in jail.
The pair, whose families had taken weekend trips together, will be tried in Knoxville. The prosecutor handling this case declined to comment “for ethical reasons” through a secretary.
But that--and the fact that none of the principals will talk to reporters--has done nothing to diminish national interest in the case. This week, calls were still coming in from around the country.
Sloca, who wrote a story about the extraordinary media interest two days after the arrests, had a feeling this story had legs.
“I knew the Associated Press was going to pick it up, and I always think, ‘How is the national press gonna spin it? . . . It has all the elements. . . . You have a news reporter (Frazier) who wrote a story about a person who is allegedly involved (in the crime). It also has the sexual aspect, the violence aspect. I mean, it’s just got everything--the tabloid television show sensationalistic type thing.”
In the days following the arrests of Michael Frazier and Lisa Whedbee, Oak Ridge and Knoxville experienced a minor invasion by reporters on the trail of a crime with an unusual twist: This time, one of the alleged criminals was one of their own.
A CNN crew arrived. Ditto People magazine. The Washington Post’s media writer called, as did reporters from the New York Post, USA Today and The Times. Producers from “Inside Edition,” “A Current Affair,” “Jerry Springer” and “Sally Jessy Raphael” also checked in. One Knoxville TV station called the case “a notorious love triangle murder conspiracy.”
The pastors of Trinity United Methodist Church were swamped with calls.
The day after the attack, the co-pastor, Brenda Carroll, told the Associated Press that Frazier is “an extremely talented musician and writer”; that Lisa Whedbee is “a very good mother,” and “a very loyal member of the church” and that her reaction was “one of sadness and grief.”
On the Sunday after Whedbee was attacked, according to a member of the congregation, the service was less a sermon and more an opportunity for church members to share their sense of bewilderment and shock.
Meanwhile, the Oak Ridger passed out photocopies of Michael Frazier’s prize-winning story about Lisa and Brittany Whedbee.
Headlined “A Mother’s Nightmare, A Mother’s Dream,” it was a detailed account of Brittany’s health problems during the first three years of her life, and about Lisa Whedbee’s attempts to cope. Not only does Brittany have Down’s syndrome, but she also suffered from a heart defect that required surgery at 6 months. Just before Brittany’s second birthday, doctors diagnosed a rare disease that caused strokelike damage in the brain. The toddler underwent two brain surgeries within a week of each other.
The story does not contain any quotes from Brittany’s father, nor does he appear to have been interviewed for the piece. It did, however, include an idyllic family photograph, in which the smiling Rob and Lisa Whedbee are flanked by their smiling children.
It is hard to imagine them striking such a pose again.
Frazier and Lisa Whedbee each have hired private, high-profile criminal attorneys. Frazier’s lawyer is also defending a man he describes as “Knoxville’s only serial murderer,” an elephant trainer accused of killing four prostitutes who has been dubbed “Zoo Man” by the local press.
None of the lawyers came out swinging harder than Nelwyn Rhodes, the attorney for Rob Whedbee, who filed for divorce the day after he was attacked.
In fact, just as Frazier was entering the courthouse to be arraigned last Wednesday, Rob Whedbee was leaving, after a long interview with the prosecutor in charge of the case. Whedbee, who co-owns an insurance agency with his parents and brother, was on his way to a hospital to have stitches from cuts sustained in the attack removed from his hand.
Rhodes planted herself firmly between a reporter and Whedbee, and said her client would not be giving a statement.
“We are not letting him talk to anyone,” she said later. “Not because we fear the truth, but because we are concerned about the defense attorneys taking things he says out of context. We do not want to harm or jeopardize this case in any way.”
Rhodes said she did not want Rob Whedbee to discuss a restraining order, filed against him by Lisa Whedbee on May 17, in which she accused him of physically abusing her after she removed her wedding rings and forcing himself on her sexually on two occasions. In the request for the order, Lisa Whedbee also said that after she visited a lawyer to discuss “marital difficulties,” her husband threatened to kill her attorney and her best friend.
Nor did Rhodes want Rob Whedbee to talk about why--while not admitting anything--he signed the final order of protection on June 2, six days before he was attacked--agreeing not to abuse or threaten his wife on penalty of arrest and fine. The order did not require him to leave the home or keep a distance from his wife.
Rhodes said Whedbee signed the order, even though it was “a work of fiction” because he had no attorney at the time, because it was “the path of least resistance” and because the couple was working on the marriage.
Added Hutchison, the sheriff: “If she was that afraid of him . . . she could have sought and received an order of protection keeping him away from the residence and her. But she didn’t do that. To me, that is strange.”
In court documents, Rob Whedbee said he sought a divorce because his wife had committed adultery and had attempted to take his life “in concert with another.” Whedbee asked the court for custody of Justin and Brittany. He asked for all the real and personal property they own. And he requested that his wife be prohibited from any contact with either child.
The divorce is pending, but the court granted Whedbee’s request that Lisa have no contact with him and their children, and that she not be allowed in their home.
The day after she was released from jail, Lisa Whedbee was hospitalized, said her attorney, Tom Dillard. Although he would not elaborate, Dillard said, “Stress and grief is part of it. She is undergoing treatment.”
Last Wednesday, Michael Frazier resigned from the Oak Ridger. He is living with his parents in Kingsport, a town in the northeast corner of the state, assisting his attorney in the preparation of his defense.
“He had been a good, loyal employee,” said Oak Ridger Publisher Peter Esser. “Obviously, we didn’t want to lose him.” The paper, Esser said, has “left the door open” to the possibility of Frazier doing some work, on a special assignment basis.
Lisa Whedbee was released from the hospital Monday, her attorney said, after a stay of 11 days.
Not being able to see her children, Dillard said, “is absolutely devastating. She hopes she will be allowed to have contact as part of the divorce proceedings,” he said.
A court hearing has been scheduled in the case for July 7, when prosecutors will try to show there is enough evidence to bring the pair to trial, which could be as far off as a year and a half. If they are convicted, Frazier and Whedbee could face sentences of life in prison.
Hutchison said his office is investigating motives for the attack. Lately, speculation in the press has centered on the amount of life insurance carried by Rob Whedbee, reported to be as much as $1.5 million--although it is hardly surprising, as Frazier’s attorney points out, that a man in the insurance business is well insured.
Reams of questions remain unanswered.
Lisa Whedbee’s statement to investigators apparently provides some clues to the crime that shocked Oak Ridge.
The rest of the story, however, is still Michael Frazier’s secret.