2 Killings, Retiree's Arrest Leave Quiet Town Reeling

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was no missing Betty Jean Angeline. She was the boisterous grandmother at the bingo hall--loud voice, louder outfits, flirting like a teenager at a county fair. In a small Appalachian town where human foibles are hard to hide, her blaring personality was unlikely cover for an accused murderer.

A newcomer from Delaware, Angeline was eager to please, just like many of the retirees who flock to the southern Virginia hill country to escape city life. The 58-year-old worked hard at fitting in.

Soon after she and her husband, John, settled in Independence in 1997, she joined right up with local service groups. She baked pies for raffles and charity events. When the town's children gathered for the annual Christmas parade, Angeline, dressed in a bright red holiday outfit, gave away dolls from the prized collection of figurines that dominated every room of her rural ranch house.

It was in perfect keeping for her to sympathize when two Independence ladies died alone earlier this year under mysterious circumstances. Both Linda McKnight, 59, and Glenda Jenkins, 62, were gunned down in their homes--violent crimes that stunned this county of 17,000 and conjured up fears of emerging urban terror.

"How awful!" a sad-voiced Angeline told neighbor Travis Brown when they met March 24 on a country road near Jenkins' house, according to police--the day after police found the victim's body slumped at her kitchen table.

But it was Angeline whom Grayson County sheriff's deputies arrested five days later, Angeline who stands charged with killing McKnight last January and then Jenkins in a second killing staged to look like suicide.

'They're Not Your Usual Victims'

The widespread shock that greeted Angeline's arrest was predictable, homicide being rare in these parts. But the ages and prior friendship of the suspect and victims is what haunts in Independence--a baffling strangeness heightened by authorities' reluctance to talk in detail about the case.

"It's hard to imagine a 58-year-old grandmother having the horsepower to commit killings like these," said Jonathan Venzie, one of Angeline's two defense counsels. "They're not your usual victims, either. These are Geritol murders."

The vitamin tonic is a fitting reference in a rural county that long has been a magnet for retirees. More than 20% of its population is over 62. Independence, a mountainside county seat of nearly 1,000, offers the "kind of quiet life that older people prefer," said Shirley Gordon, a county supervisor who met Angeline through their volunteer work for a Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliary.

The idea that the same woman who ran the lodge's canteen and dished out cakes at Tuesday night raffles now faces a possible death penalty trial "is hard to believe," Gordon said. Under Virginia law, a defendant accused of committing multiple, separate murders within three years can face death by injection. The last woman executed in Virginia was hanged in 1912.

"Murder's not something we get a lot of," said Sheriff Jerry Wilson, whose county contends with "no more than a half dozen or so most years." In 1997, residents were left aghast by the case of a black man who was beheaded and his body burned by two whites after a bar argument. "It would've shocked people anywhere it happened," Wilson said.

That same year, Betty Jean Angeline moved into a house on Klondike Road, a county lane that winds along farm fields 10 miles north of the North Carolina line. Pinioned by the fog-capped knolls of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the county is dotted by cattle farms and the shells of textile factories that have been shutting down in recent years.

Angeline Brought Her 2nd Husband

Angeline was no stranger. She was raised in Grayson County. Her father lived and died here. "He always wanted her to come back," Venzie said. When she did, she brought her second husband, a retired Delaware auto worker who stayed home, busy with woodworking.

More outgoing, Angeline threw herself into good works and shopping. She joined the local Rescue Squad's auxiliary. She picked through yard sales, filling her home with antique tobacco tins and ceramics. There were dolls and porcelain figurines everywhere, clustered on tables, peeking out from shelves.

She dashed around town in alarming outfits--Western wear with matching cowboy hats and gaudily hued satin blouses. She grated on some people.

"Image was important to Betty Jean," said Debbie Phipps, who lived down the road. "It got to be a little much."

In November 1999, rumors circulated that she was suspected in the disappearance of $550 from the Rescue Squad Thanksgiving fund. Asked to take a polygraph test, "she said she'd only do it if everyone else had to do it," Phipps said.

McKnight and Jenkins were among the ladies on the auxiliary--McKnight was a past president. Soon after the killings, residents speculated that Angeline might have targeted the two women out of lingering bitterness. Wilson and Venzie discount the possibility.

"Nothing to it," Wilson said of that explanation. McKnight even "stood up and supported" Angeline after the money was stolen, Venzie said.

Connections among the three women were thin beyond their Rescue Squad work. McKnight and her husband liked to host fish fries at their place, three miles from the Angelines'. Jenkins, a retired nurse and widowed farmer who lived on Angeline's block, traipsed the area with a cocker spaniel in tow. Angeline sometimes visited both women, residents said.

On Jan. 31, Joe Paul McKnight returned from his factory job to find his wife lying at the foot of the stairs. Linda McKnight had been shot several times at close range.

There was no sign of forced entry. But as word spread, town residents seized up. "We have a lot of elderly ladies living alone. They wanted reassurance," Wilson said. "We knew it had to be someone she knew, but that didn't convince too many people."

The morning after the shooting, Angeline called Phipps, who was at home, pregnant, about to deliver. "Who would do something like that?" the older woman mused. Then, according to Phipps, Angeline cautioned: "Keep your doors locked."

Angeline often phoned neighbors with news about finds at yard sales and gossip about acquaintances. But when she called neighbors Jerry and Joyce Cox on the night of March 23, she seemed oddly worried. She had been unable to reach Jenkins by phone, Angeline told them. She suggested they check on her.

The neighbors found Jenkins slumped in a kitchen chair. She had been shot once in the temple. There was a suicide note on the table and a .22-caliber handgun in her lap. But within an hour, Wilson said, "we knew it was homicide"--convinced by interviews with neighbors and undisclosed physical evidence.

Suspicious Statements Reportedly Made

Police quickly narrowed their suspect list to Angeline. Phipps told investigators about suspicious statements she reportedly had made hours after the shooting. And quickly after Angeline's arrest on March 29, police wrung confessions from her at a Virginia State Police barracks in nearby Wytheville.

Venzie said he likely will challenge the confessions. Wilson insists they will hold up in court. Both men decline to discuss motive, citing fears that excessive publicity could taint a county jury. Without a clear understanding of the case, Gordon said, "some people are still worried about their safety."

Venzie won a judge's order recently to have Angeline examined at a mental care facility. She reportedly was seeing a psychiatrist in Delaware and had been taking prescribed antipsychotic medication. A pretrial hearing scheduled for next week may be delayed pending the examination.

Betty Jean Angeline wears a canary yellow prison jumpsuit now. When she was led, handcuffed, from her house--where her stunned husband waited behind--she had only one request of police.

She wanted a comb. Wilson told her she would get one in jail.

"She wanted to fit in real bad," Wilson said later. "Maybe a little too much."

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