Authors: Irene Pence
The old man sat in his red Chevrolet pickup watching the Coast Guard drag the lake. Every few minutes he’d reach up with a wrinkled handkerchief and blot a tear before it tumbled down his lined cheek. He stared at the dragging mechanism that looked like a big rake attached to a barge. The rake scooped down into the water, rumbled across the bottom, then picked up its findings and dumped them onto another barge. Pieces of old furniture, uprooted tree stumps, and all sorts of rubbish surfaced, but no body.
As the old man observed the Coast Guard’s efforts, he glanced toward Captain Blackburn’s search headquarters just as a red-and-white Silverado pulled up. His heart leaped when he saw Jimmy Don’s truck. He hurriedly sent up a prayer of thanks. Had Jimmy Don gone out of town without telling anyone? How would he explain his absence to all these people?
Then he saw a fluffed-up, perfumed Betty Beets open the driver’s door and place her foot on the curb. He doubled up his fist and hit the worn rim of his steering wheel.
“That damn woman,” he said aloud to the empty cab of his truck. “Jimmy Don ain’t in this lake. No, sir, that bitch of a woman has done something really bad to my son.”
As the frantic search continued, everyone had a constant reminder of Jimmy Don’s drowning. Motorists coming down Highway 175 from Dallas or Athens, or crossing the bridge on Highway 85 that spanned the blue waters could see the activity. Hordes of boats still cruised the lake while grappling hooks continued dragging the lake’s muddy depths.
Shorts- and T-shirt-clad parents loitered outside their houses, wringing their hands and staring at the water’s edge. They vowed not to let their children swim in the lake, even in water right by their own docks. Visions of a bloated corpse bobbing up around their offspring was a nightmare too horrible to contemplate.
JoAnn Blackburn wouldn’t soon forget the search. She had been planning a party for several friends and relatives to celebrate her twenty-five years of marriage to Captain Blackburn, but because of his role in the search, they had to cancel the party.
Officially, the search lasted thirteen days in the brain-burning heat. Captain Blackburn never missed one of those days, for his supervisor had relieved him of all his other duties to oversee the search personnel. He tried to put aside his personal feelings over the loss of a friend; however, he couldn’t help but experience a hollowness every time a boat crew returned with its report of finding nothing. The captain kept stuffing crafts with volunteers and the Red Cross mobile unit kept stuffing volunteers with nourishment.
With firemen working shifts of three days on, three off, Blackburn always had fresh recruits, and those who continued the quest were just as fervent to find Jimmy Don as everyone who had been there earlier.
Every now and then Betty Lou visited the search area to check on progress. Her presence particularly grated the tired, hardworking crews after they had finished probing their section of the lake. They’d drag their sunburned bodies ashore and see a cool-appearing, freshly dressed Betty Lou acting like she didn’t have a care in the world. The smile on her lips seemed out of place, and when she said, “I can’t thank y’all enough,” she sounded insincere.
Serious questions began bobbing to the surface like dead fish.
“This beats the hell out of me,” one experienced Coast Guard volunteer said. “The water’s not cold, and unless the body’s weighted down, the gases expanding the body should have brought it to the surface long before now.”
Captain Blackburn admitted that he had questioned the circumstances from the beginning. “I bet if we ever find him, he won’t have drowned in the lake,” he told fellow rescuers. “He could have been killed somewhere else and dropped here. Just like that boat. Looked like a setup to me. I went over there that first day. Something wasn’t right. The broken motor, those spilled pills. I noticed on that prescription that the pills were over two years old. And that business about the motor was just plain peculiar. Jimmy Don could make a motor out of a pile of scrap metal. A missing rotor blade wouldn’t give him a heart attack.”
As the official search wound down, Captain Blackburn wrote his report from the thorough records he had kept. Two hundred boats had been involved, two helicopters, four airplanes, and hundreds of volunteers. In all, he computed there had been 3,020 man hours logged into looking for Jimmy Don’s body.
After thirteen days, the official search ended, but unofficially people continued searching. They couldn’t get Beets off their minds. His friends still visited his favorite fishing spots, just in case. Whenever people were out on the lake they couldn’t help talking about him or looking for him—just in case.
Closure for Betty Beets came a little quicker. Two days after she reported her husband missing, she waltzed into a funeral home in Segoville, Texas, chose a white casket lined with blue satin, and picked out a cemetery plot. The next week, she asked that a memorial service be held for her late husband. His family dismissed the idea because they were still looking for his body.
In desperation, people turned to whatever means they could to find Captain Beets. One source was psychics. They more or less appeared, with no one taking credit for calling them. Although the sheriff’s office was blamed for hiring at least one, they firmly denied that they had.
One psychic, a four-hundred-pound woman in her sixties, began orchestrating her magic near the site where Jimmy Don’s boat had been found. She stood at the water’s edge with her eyes closed, inhaling the lake air. Then she asked to be driven to Glen Oaks, where Beets still owned a pretty, frame house painted robin’s egg blue. The pleasant three-bedroom, two-bath home had a “great room,” which consisted of a combined den, living room, and dining room, all braided together to form a large room where Jimmy Don had loved to entertain.
The home nestled under soaring oaks across the street from the lake, so after visiting the house, the psychic strolled over to neighbors fronting the lake. On the neighbor’s dock, she squeezed her massive frame into a chair near a spreading magnolia tree, and tried to sense Beets’s presence. After much deliberation, she declared that he was in the water with brown moss on his face. A current siege of Hydrilla, a greenish-brown, moss-type plant held areas of the lake hostage, and the newspapers ran continuous stories about the problem. Any psychic worth her salt could have learned that from the local press.
A Dallas newspaper reported on another psychic, a short, matronly woman from Georgia who had coal-black hair. To see visions, she also closed her eyes and then gently rocked back and forth as she concentrated. After that, she returned to the lakeside search headquarters and stroked a photograph of Captain Beets. She saw him buried somewhere near a castle, adding that he had sand on his face.
The Coast Guard, eager to try anything to find Beets, slowly cruised the shoreline with her on board looking for a castle. They discovered one house on the lake built of stone with turrets at each end of the roof in castle fashion. The eager men docked their boat and went ashore to investigate the structure and its grounds. The puzzled owner let them examine her yard, but they found no freshly turned earth or any indication of a grave. With their attention directed on dwellings at the water’s edge, the Coast Guard overlooked Betty Beets’s wishing well that may have symbolized a castle.
Beets’s two nieces, Jackie Collins and Diane Hodges, piled into their car and drove to Arlington, Texas, just west of Dallas. They had heard about a psychic there, and found her in a small eerie house that smelled of incense. Her head was wrapped in a silk scarf, turban style.
Without their mentioning their uncle, the psychic said, “I see that you have a relative you’re worried about. It’s someone who’s lost that you’re trying to find.”
When they heard her accurate description, they immediately hauled the woman back to the lake. There she asked questions and walked through Beets’s home in Glen Oaks. She fingered his clothes and touched his comb and sunglasses. Then she walked to the water and for a long time stood staring at the lake.
Finally she revealed, “He’s not in the water.”
Diane and Jackie, thinking that meant their uncle was still alive, grinned enthusiastically, but their enthusiasm faded as the psychic continued.
“I see a young man in a white shirt. He’s in a struggle with a woman.” The psychic frowned and placed her fingers to her temple. “He’s near the water, but I’m afraid he’s in a grave.”
Diane and Jackie glanced at each other through tear-fogged eyes. After a few moments of digesting the psychic’s words, they swamped her with a stream of questions, but she could give them nothing specific about their uncle’s whereabouts. However, she did tell them something that later would send chills through their young bodies: “Mr. Beets will be found on July 8, 1985.” She had the day and year right, and only missed the month by one.
Roxboro, a village nestled on the green plains of North Carolina, lies in the heart of the tobacco-growing territory. Betty Lou, born there on March 12, 1937, came into the world at a time when the town of 5,000 was trying to pull itself up from the Great Depression. Almost everyone knew poverty, including her young parents, who struggled to make a living as sharecroppers on a tobacco farm. It was a meager beginning for someone who would later be known as Betty Dunevant Branson Lane Threlkeld Barker Beets.
Betty, the second child of James and Louise Dunevant, began life in a small pine cabin that had no electricity, no running water, and no glass in the windows. Rarely did the family have milk or fresh vegetables. They survived on salt pork, flour, and meal—a diet barely capable of nourishing Betty and her older brother, Dewey. Their only source of heat, a black coal stove, could have heated the small home, except that heat escaped through the broken windows, leaving colds and influenza as Betty’s constant companions.
When winter came and the tobacco crop had been harvested, Mrs. Dunevant had time to take on another job as a domestic, the occupation she listed on Betty’s birth certificate. She cleaned the homes of wealthy people, who had beautiful furnishings, heavily fringed drapes, and thick carpets. She’d return to her little house and describe the mansions to Betty, giving her daughter every glittering detail.
“Life’s gonna get better,” Betty’s mother promised her five-year-old daughter one day. With eager anticipation, Mrs. Dunevant and her husband packed the family’s meager belongings and moved twenty miles north to the more-industrial Danville, Virginia, sitting on the border between Virginia and North Carolina. There Betty’s parents found work in the cotton mills and placed the children in a communal day-care center. The young couple now happily provided more of life’s necessities for their children. They rented a snug little house that stayed warm in the winter, and the general health of the family improved thanks to plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, and red meat.
However, in that same year, Betty came down with measles. She suffered prolonged sore throats, hacking coughs, and a fever that sometimes reached 105 degrees and lasted for days. Her mother took off from work to care for her, and for hours sat in Betty’s small bedroom and sponged her thin body with cold water and placed ice-filled compresses on her forehead. Betty’s flaxen hair stuck to her moist scalp and her blue eyes looked dull and lifeless.
With many sleepless nights, and Betty’s high fever, her parents’ frustration mounted. “You should feel her skin,” her mother said to her husband one night. “It’s as hot as a frying pan.” She sank into a chair and began crying. “She’s so sick. I pray to God it doesn’t happen, but I’m afraid we’re gonna lose her.”
Their mood remained somber as Betty endured the long, tedious illness. Ear infections further complicated her convalescence and ultimately left her with a hearing loss. After she recovered and returned to her white clapboard school, she strained to hear her teacher. Learning became more difficult and she felt disconnected from the other students.
By the time she reached fourth grade, her teachers decided it would be best if Betty repeated the grade. Their judgment humiliated Betty, and her embarrassment grew when her former classmates saw her in the halls at school. They taunted her with chants, calling her stupid, and making her feel different. Keeping her head down, she said nothing as she hurried by, believing what they said.
After Betty turned eight, her mother gave birth to a son, Jimmy, and two years later, another daughter, Jackie.
Four years after that, and without any prior symptoms, one day at work her mother suffered what doctors labeled “a psychotic break with reality.” The mill summoned an ambulance to rush Mrs. Dunevant to a hospital, where she remained for a week. She came home pale and shaken. The doctor had given her medication, and frequently came by to visit. She suffered hallucinations with strange voices playing in her head. She became hysterical, pushing out her hands to ward off unseen demons.
Betty cowered to see her mother act so suddenly and strangely violent. Watching her mother’s strange behavior, she wondered if that condition could be inherited.