By Les Carpenter
Sunday, May 25, 2008
THE DETECTIVE WITH THE KIND EYES AND GENTLE MANNER led Aaralyn Mills into a barren interrogation room at the Leesburg police station on a mid-autumn day in 2005. In the center of the room was a table, and on the table sat a telephone. The phone was attached to a tape recorder, which had a listening wire that the detective placed in his ear. In the stillness of the concrete walls, the implication of what Aaralyn was about to do was suddenly very clear. Slowly, she picked up the receiver and dialed her father's number.
She had been preparing for this call ever since she had walked into the station a few weeks before and told the Leesburg detective, Michael Amato, that her father, James Bevel, had molested her on countless occasions throughout her childhood. And that on one day in particular, about 12 or 13 years before, when she was about 15 years old, he'd had sexual intercourse with her in an apartment not more than 1,500 feet from where she now sat. Amato listened patiently, then asked if Aaralyn believed her father would admit to this. She said she was sure he would.
By now, Amato knew who Aaralyn's father was, having searched the Internet for the Rev. James Bevel. Bevel, the detective had learned, had been a crucial figure in the 1960s civil rights movement, the architect of some of its most significant moments. Now his daughter was trying to get him to admit to transgressions that could send him to jail for the rest of his life.
Even so, Aaralyn would later say that she did not feel guilty that day. She was not angry. She did not hate her father. After years of drinking and having thoughts of suicide, she had found peace in her life. Were it not for her 8-year-old half sister, she wouldn't even be here. But the girl -- the youngest of Bevel's 16 children with seven women -- was living with him and his fourth wife in Alabama. Aaralyn and some of her other siblings were worried about what might happen to this child if she continued to live with their father. If they were going to take their youngest sister away from him, Aaralyn had to do this.
As the wheels of the tape recorder rolled, Aaralyn, then 27, brought up a period of her life that she had longed to forget. She spoke in a cool, emotionless voice, her tone strong, her words firm.
"You don't consider yourself to be a pedophile?" she asked Bevel.
Her questions seemed to make her father, then 69, angry. He screamed and swore until it was hard to make out some of his words. All women, he shouted, are prostitutes until they reach a state where sex is only for procreation. He called himself a scientist who tried to teach his children the difference between perversion and procreation.
"What female," he raged, "produces a son that's worth a goddamn, that can stand on principles because his mother educated him early on to be principled, because she was principled? Where is one who is not a prostitute?"
None of it was new to Aaralyn, who'd heard such convoluted pseudo-philosophical outbursts so many times that she could repeat many of her father's theories herself.
"So, what you [are] saying [is] that all your sexual interactions with me were . . . scientific processes?" the daughter asked.
"Yes, ma'am," the father replied.
The detective listened impassively as Bevel bellowed and Aaralyn pressed. For 90 minutes, no matter where her father's rants went, she deftly turned the conversation back to that day in the apartment in Leesburg. And when it was over, police and prosecutors had the key piece of evidence they would need to charge an aging civil rights icon with incest.
A SUMMER SQUALL MOVES ACROSS THEAFTER-NOON, thunder rattling the windows of the brick-and-stone cottage that Aaralyn rents with her husband, Nathaniel Mills, in Takoma Park. The sky outside grows dark. Lightning flickers outside the windows, each flash a little brighter than the one before. But as Aaralyn sits at a table in a small dining nook, hands clasped before her, she barely notices, even as one blast of thunder feels as if it will pick up the house and throw it down the hill.
She often seems like this, tranquil and reflective, her voice never wavering, rarely yielding emotion. Her eyes are sharp, always appearing to absorb all around her; yet they also retreat inside as if she has compartmentalized much of her life and grabs each memory only when necessary.
For years, she hated her birth name, Jamese. James plus an e, as if she were a piece of him. For years, she wanted to be rid of it, to wipe it from her life, and a favorite hobby became standing for hours in bookstores as she sifted through name books, looking for the perfect replacement for James with an e. In her early 20s, she was married for a few years, which changed her last name from Bevel to Machado. That helped. But after she was divorced, she began to search in earnest for a new first name, settling at last on Aaralyn. It was airy and light. She found a definition for the name: "like a song."
This, she thought, fit everything she was trying to be.
She had never seen herself as her father's daughter. For all their blood ties, for the way she carries her father's high forehead and his penchant for philosophizing, there is little emotional connection between them. No true affection and, oddly, no real hate. To Aaralyn, there is nothing remarkable about this. He was always so distant, she says, so detached, so uninterested in being a father to her or any of his children. They grew up calling him Jim or Rev, but never Dad.
As a result, father and daughter remained civil even after the intent of Aaralyn's taped phone call became clear on a spring day in 2007, when Bevel was extradited from Eutaw, Ala., to Leesburg to face trial for unlawful fornication. He'd been to Aaralyn's house once since then. He'd stopped by so that his current wife, Erica Bevel, could ask Aaralyn if the allegations she was making against her father were true. Aaralyn, who'd previously given Erica a typewritten affidavit detailing the allegations, patiently repeated them.
Her father, she says, didn't appear uncomfortable being in her house or seeing her. He seemed to regard the charges that she'd brought against him as a philosophical exercise. If any of his children felt an injustice had been committed against them, they should fight it, he'd always told them. Now that one of them had done just that, he appeared to admire it on some level.
"I think mainly, in his philosophy, emotions are not an element to be expressed," Aaralyn says. "Emotions were the lower self." His refusal to engage in anything other than an intellectual basis, she says, is "probably why he's been able to do some of the things he's done, because he's been pretty much emotionally detached. Whether it's violating his children or going straight up to confront Bull Connor [the much feared Birmingham police commissioner in 1963], just emotionally detached and looking at it from a strategic, scientific kind of way. And it's the way he's always been. It's why he's never been fatherly and want to know his kid and hold his baby."
AS A LITTLE GIRL, SHE HAD WHAT SHE CALLS HER "TRAUMA ROOM." It was in her grandparents' duplex on the South Side of Chicago. This is where her mother, Helen Bevel, a large, smiling woman, had moved from Cleveland with the five children she'd had with James. Sometimes Bevel would visit, though he did not live with them. He ran a program to help inner-city youth and lived in an apartment many blocks away.
The trauma room wasn't much of a room, but rather a small den just inside the front door that her mother had turned into a bedroom for Aaralyn. There was no door on the trauma room; she was exposed, open to the world that walked in the front door.
At first, Aaralyn says, she didn't understand the things her father was doing when he sometimes slipped into the house at night and walked straight into her room. He slid onto her bed fondling her, kissing her, rubbing himself against her. No one else in her family, not her mother, brothers, sisters or grandparents, said anything. None of them seemed to know. For a time, she assumed it was just something fathers did with their daughters.
She believed this until she was 9 and was home from school one day watching "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Suddenly, there was a girl just about her age on the screen, and the girl was telling a story just like hers -- about her own trauma room, about a father who slipped into her bed and did the same things as her own father. It was as if Aaralyn's life were playing out on "Oprah." At the show's end, Winfrey looked into the camera and said that if there were any girls out there watching who had similar stories, they needed to tell someone.
So, Aaralyn did. She wrote a letter to her mother telling her everything and placed it under her pillow. And after her mother read the letter, Aaralyn says, Helen Bevel looked at her and said: "You spelled molest wrong."
For years, Helen said she couldn't remember making that remark, though she acknowledges now that she probably did. She does recall setting up a meeting with her mother and all the women who, like her, followed Bevel from city to city and believed in the ideas he advocated, to discuss Aaralyn's allegations. This was how Bevel had taught her to deal with problems. She asked Aaralyn to stand before the women and tell them what she had written in the letter. Aaralyn, who remembers being suddenly filled with the thought that she did not want her grandmother to know, was silent.
Helen, now 57, says now that she couldn't comprehend what the letter was telling her. She had never been exposed to incest and found it impossible to believe it was happening to her daughter. She says neither she nor Aaralyn "had the language" to deal with the issue.
All Aaralyn knew was that she had confided in her mother and had been dismissed. From then on, she no longer trusted her parents: not her father, who she now knew had done horrible things to her, and certainly not her mother who, she decided, was going to allow it to happen. She learned she would be on her own.
Not long after, Aaralyn came home from school one day to find her father inside the house. Nobody else was around. Now that she understood what had happened in the trauma room, she was frightened of him. In terror, she threw down her bag and ran. Her father pursued her. She dove under a bed, shrieking for him to go away. After a time, the house grew quiet.
Then suddenly he was in the room. She could hear him stomping across the floor, could see his feet from under the bed. That's when she saw the broom. It was a big brown broom with enormous strands of straw. And he shoved it under the bed, sweeping her into the open. The straws scratched her arms, her face.
"I couldn't wrap my arms around how he took a broom and swept a child out," she says. "Honestly, I don't remember what happened next. I just shut down . . . After that, I was just a comatose person. I couldn't really deal. It was serious. But the things that happened after that were probably the same."
OF THE CHARISMATIC MINISTERS WHO LED THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT, James Bevel could preach with the best of them. Even Ralph Abernathy. Even Fred Shuttlesworth. Even Martin Luther King Jr. Taylor Branch, who has written one of the most comprehensive histories of the movement, used to keep tapes of Bevel speaking in church and loved to listen to them, awed by the power of his words.
"He was a spitfire preacher, incredibly entertaining," says Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, the first of his trilogy on the civil rights movement.
Author David Halberstam also marveled at Bevel's passion in his 1998 book, The Children, describing "the sheer intensity of the man, the originality and force of mind when Bevel focused on one person."
As a result of those gifts, Bevel rose fast in the movement's early years. Though he was slight of build, no more than 5-foot-7, he possessed an unyielding will that drove the movement at crucial moments. When the push to end segregation stalled in Birmingham in 1963, it was Bevel who conceived a plan to use teenagers in a peaceful march against the forces of Connor, one of the South's most ardent segregationists. He envisioned wave upon wave of young people being arrested until the jails were so filled with black children that the rest of the country would have to take notice.
King was hesitant about using children, but finally yielded to Bevel. And when the first teenagers spilled across Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park that May and were arrested, they were followed by a river of youthful protesters, overwhelming Connor's minions. Connor called on the fire depart-ment to bring water cannons, which blasted the marchers across the ground like fallen leaves being blown from a sidewalk. And when still more children came, the police brought out dogs. The photographs of children being knocked to the ground with water cannons and chased by police dogs shocked the nation. Within weeks, Birmingham was on its way to desegregation.
Two years later, as Bevel and his first wife, Diane Nash, fought to register black voters in Alabama, King again held back, unsure if the time was right to confront Gov. George Wallace. But after a black man named Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot by police in Marion and left to die, Bevel was too enraged to listen to King's words of caution.
"He wanted to do something dramatic," Branch says. Bevel wanted to lead a march from Selma, near where Jackson was killed, to Montgomery, the state capital, about 50 miles away, then dump Jackson's body in Wallace's office.
King eventually agreed to a march from Selma to Montgomery, a walk that would wind through some of Alabama's most racist territory and end at the capitol building. Even after King granted permission, he continued to plead with Bevel to wait, Branch says. Bevel pushed ahead anyway. But before the marchers could leave Selma, they were confronted by state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and beaten in a now famous scene that again stunned much of the country. The ensuing outrage led to two more Selma-Montgomery marches and to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, outlawing the discriminatory practices that had disenfranchised black voters.
And yet as vital as Birmingham and Selma were to the movement and as significant a role as Bevel played in making these events
happen, his behavior worried some of his colleagues, says Andrew Young, a King lieu-tenant who later became mayor of Atlanta. They feared that Bevel was unstable.
Young recalls Bevel approaching him not long after the first Selma march with a strange story. Bevel said he had been doing laundry one night when Jesus suddenly appeared, sat down on the washing machine and told the young preacher that he needed to help stop the Vietnam War. "There is no doubt he marched to the tune of a different drummer," Young says.
King didn't always know what to make of Bevel, Young says, but he valued Bevel's fearlessness and creativity in the struggle for equal rights. "Dr. King used to say we were all maladjusted," Young says, with a laugh. "He said you had to be maladjusted to take on the whole social order as it was." Bevel remained a prominent leader in the movement until King's murder in 1968. He was standing in the parking lot, just below the second-floor balcony of Memphis's Lorraine Motel, when King was shot.
In the assassination's chaotic aftermath, Bevel's behavior grew more erratic. To the consternation of civil rights leaders, he took up the case of King's admitted killer, James Earl Ray, going as far as to visit Ray in jail and proclaim his innocence. He called for Ray to be given a trial even though Ray had already pleaded guilty. Two years later, according to Halberstam's book, Bevel went on a nonstop, three-day preaching binge that ended with Young taking him to the psychiatric ward of an Atlanta hospital. Within days, Bevel was pushed out of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Out of the hospital and gone from the movement, he moved around the country, trailed by followers who lived together in what his children describe as communes. He worked for a time with the Unification Church's Rev. Sun Myung Moon, ran unsuccessfully for Congress as a Republican in Illinois and, in 1992, was the running mate of perennial fringe presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche Jr. In 1995, Bevel collaborated with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan on what became the Million Man March in Washington.
Throughout the odd twists and turns of his career, Bevel advocated a philosophy built on what he describes as six "institutions" -- church, government, business, clinic, home, school -- that Aaralyn says he discovered by "decoding" the Lord's Prayer. He lists them constantly for people, connecting the words with a big figure eight. They are the basis for almost all of his current teachings, including his beliefs about the "science" of sex and marriage. He preaches that there is a distinction between what he calls "romantic love" and "constitutional intimacy." The latter is the desired state in which sex is used for procreation and not pleasure. Anything else is "a pimp-whore" relationship. Fathers, he maintains, are the best ones to train or "sexually orientate" their daughters.
When asked about his older brother, Charles Bevel, an actor and musician who lives in New Jersey, stumbles for a moment, trying to find the right words. He has so many thoughts on the subject, he says, that he typed them into a computer a few years ago and the document rolled on for 30 single-spaced pages. He says his emotions about his brother "have roller-coastered from peaks of anger towards his arrogance to valleys of pity and compassion for his weakness and illness." He traces the problem to their childhood in Itta Bena, Miss., where they were two of 17 children born to a mother who left them bewildered sexually. Raped by her stepfather at age 13, she flew into rages at the mention of anything sexual. Once, Charles remembers, she beat their 2-year-old brother so violently with a leather strap when the child appeared to be rubbing himself against a chair that she drew blood.
Charles is convinced that the root of his brother's problems lies with their mother. Never fully able to grasp her visceral reactions to sex, James threw himself into sexual trysts with grown women when he was only 12 or 13, his brother says. "There are no emotional underpinnings with his relationships," Charles says. Then again, there were few emotional underpinnings in their entire family, which Charles noticed as he grew into his teens and saw how other families hugged, spent time together and seemed connected to one another. This was not the case for the Bevels. Their father was a sharecropper with a philosophical bent who was more interested in ideas than people; their mother was a woman who beat the slightest impure thought from their minds. James, it seemed to Charles, took something from each of them.
GROWING UP, AARALYN ONLY REALLY KNEW HER IMMEDIATE BROTHERS AND SISTERS, the ones Helen had with James Bevel. Bevel's other offspring might pass through her life once every few years, but those sightings were brief, and few relationships were ever built. So, Aaralyn didn't know that her older half sister Chevara Orrin, who lived in Memphis, had accused their father of molesting her one night when she was 10. Or that Chevara's younger sister Bacardi Jackson, then 8, had had to take Chevara into the bathroom to wash the ejaculate off her leg, not even understanding what it was. Nor did any of them know the things that had happened to other sisters, some of whom are still reluctant to share details.
Bevel was challenged about his behavior a few times. When Bacardi was a student at Yale Law School in 1996, she wrote her father a scorching letter, accusing him of molesting Chevara. In response, he suggested that the three of them hold a mock trial to see if his daughters could prove that he'd done anything wrong. Bacardi and Chevara decided to participate, but the "trial" fell apart when Bevel spent an hour challenging them on their definition of the word "rape." Charles Bevel also remembers questioning his brother about his behavior twice, once in the mid-1980s, after hearing Chevara and Bacardi's story, and later in the mid-1990s, after hearing rumors about Aaralyn and one of her sisters. Each time, James Bevel thundered his denials.
It wasn't until 2004, when Charles shared his suspicions with Douglass Bevel, the son of James and his first wife, fellow civil rights leader Diane Nash, that the children began to collectively confront their secrets. At the time, Douglass says, he had just met Erica Bevel and his half sister. Immediately, Douglass loved the little girl. She had such bright eyes and laughed so easily. Now he began to worry: Had anything happened to her?
He called Aaralyn, asked to visit and then bought a plane ticket to Washington. They met in her apartment in Silver Spring, where Aaralyn was living at the time. Over the next few days, her story spilled out. Douglass called the other sisters and heard similar stories.
Douglass told them about the sweet little girl living with Bevel. They had to get her out, he said. A series of conference calls were arranged that involved 14 of Bevel's 16 children, along with Charles, Nash and Chevara and Bacardi's mother, Susanne Jackson. For many of the women, it was the first time they had discussed their abuse with other family members. The calls were emotional. They debated for weeks what to do about their little sister before deciding to directly confront Bevel in Alabama. Bacardi, now a practicing attorney, suggested each sister write an affidavit detailing the abuse. Then, after presenting them to Bevel, they would insist that he and Erica relinquish custody of their daughter to Erica's mother in New Jersey. They also wanted their father to promise to seek counseling.
They chose a weekend and made arrangements to fly to Alabama, only to discover that they had picked the very night that Bevel was being honored with a plaque at the National Voting Rights Museum & Institute, just feet away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. It was an awkward moment, but the children sat through the ceremony.
The next day, they presented their affidavits, challenging Bevel about his incest as a group for the first time. He read the written accounts and then said, according to those present, "I don't contest these charges."
They asked him to give up custody of their little sister. He refused. "You would have needed a huge knife to cut through the tension in that room," Chevara says. "Everyone was sobbing."
Eventually, Bevel stood up, left the room and came back with a chalkboard. It was time for a lesson, he said. And he began drawing the familiar figure eight connecting the six institutions: church, government, business . . .
A few weeks later, they tried again, this time with Bernard Lafayette, one of Bevel's best friends from the civil rights movement, mediating the meeting. Lafayette says he was brokenhearted to hear about the allegations and wanted to broker a resolution in which Bevel would seek help. "He had some psycho-logical problems. It's obvious," Lafayette says.
When that attempt also failed, some of Bevel's children hired an attorney to try to get their sister removed themselves. Not all the siblings agreed to participate.
Douglass's sister Sherrylynn Bevel, who has spent a great deal of time working on projects with her father, says she was uncomfortable with the anger being expressed by some of her sisters. "I became very concerned, concerned for everybody in our family," Sherrylynn says, describing the operating motive as: "I want to hurt you, and I want to humiliate you. I couldn't work with anyone like that."
Even Aaralyn's brother Enoch Bevel, who lived with Aaralyn while he was in high school and is now a student at Georgetown University, had reservations. He says he adored his father growing up and has fond memories of the meals his father cooked for him and the Frisbee games they played. He still finds it hard to reconcile the hero of Birmingham and Selma with the man accused of molesting his sister.
But Bacardi, Chevara and some of Bevel's other daughters refused to back down. To bolster their custody petition, they began researching where they could file charges of their own against Bevel. But each state they approached had a statute of limi-tations for felonies such as child molestation. Then someone discovered Virginia had no such restrictions, and they turned to Aaralyn. She would have to be the one to file charges and confront their father in court.
Bacardi prepared her for what would follow: the testimony she would have to give, the embarrassing questions that would be asked. She might be attacked, scorned, perhaps even derided as a traitor to her race. Aaralyn thought about all those things and then shrugged. She had already endured far worse. She needed to do this for her little sister, she says she decided.
Before she went to the police, she took a long hike with a friend -- someone she had confided in about her father -- to go over the story, to be sure she could repeat it in an orderly fashion. Then she drove to the station in Leesburg.
AARALYN'S CHILDHOOD WAS A BLUR OF CITIES. For years, her mother followed Bevel around the country, from Cleveland to Chicago to Washington, to Omaha and Memphis, taking her children with her.
Aaralyn says she grew up with very little adult supervision. In Washington, she remembers, she and her mother stayed in an apartment with Georgetown students. She told the students she was a senior in high school so that she could attend their parties. She was 12. In Memphis, at 14, she dated both a drug dealer and a football player who had just been picked in the NFL draft. She says she smoked pot and drank constantly. By the middle of high school, she considered herself an alcoholic.
Helen Bevel remembers her daughter being impossible to control at that time. Aaralyn recalls her mother as oblivious to what was going on. Then, suddenly, they were no longer welcome at the Memphis house where they'd been staying, and Helen told the children they had to find other places to live. With nowhere else to go, Aaralyn chose to move in with her father in Leesburg, which is where he'd moved to work with LaRouche.
Despite what had happened in Chicago, this seemed like the best idea. It had been years since the day Bevel had come after her with a broom. She was older, more aware, had been with men. She was smarter. Plus, the apartment promised stability, which she desperately wanted after so many years of moving from city to city, house to house. When she arrived, they talked: father and daughter. She asked him why he had touched her, and he told her he had been abused as a child himself. He apologized.
Then it started happening again.
"I look back, and I see I fully didn't understand, I was just really a kid," Aaralyn says. "I thought I was older, and I thought I was more mature, and I had all this exposure and could handle things. Now I see I wasn't able to deal with him and his manipulation and stuff. He started playing on this idea [that] because I cared about him -- I didn't hate him or anything -- that 'Oh I need you,' and I'm the only person who can understand him . . .
"And the abuse started up again on the basis of I was helping get rid of the pains he had in his heart. He had all these weird habits, screaming at night, all because of the pains in his heart, the trauma from when he was being abused. And I bought it wholesale."
In the summer of 1993, her sister Bacardi came to Washington as part of an internship and stopped by the apartment for a visit. Bevel told her that Aaralyn loved to write poetry and asked Aaralyn to read one of her poems. Aaralyn fetched her notebook and began to read a morose poem about a tear. As Bacardi listened, she was struck by the sadness she saw in her sister. She wishes now that she had asked questions. But her life was consumed with school, her internship and her own anger with their father. She left it alone.
"On reflection, she was going through a lot with him," Bacardi says. "He was being her tormentor, and he was also being a monster. She is the daughter of James Bevel the most. She experienced him the most and perceived him as the monster the most."
The case against Bevel rested on a single day in the Leesburg apartment. Told in court, it was more than a single day, of course. It was something that had been building, from the trauma room to the broom under the bed, to the howls of anguish, to the manipulative pleas to his daughter, James plus an e, that only she could make him right again if she would do this one little thing for him: if she would let him penetrate her as a husband would do his wife. He read from the Bible. He told her that Lot slept with his daughters. He told her that God wanted this. After weeks of his persuasion, she finally relented.
When it was done, he sent her to the bathroom where he had already assembled a douche, an old-fashioned one, she recalls, a big red bag with tubes. He told her she had to use it, she had to clean herself out. Once she had, she realized how duped she had been.
"It was premeditated," Aaralyn says with disgust. "It was him knowing exactly what he was going to do."
On the tape made in the Leesburg police station, she asked her father about this:
Aaralyn: "I mean what was the motivation behind you, you know, having sex with me and then, you know, rushing me up to go and douche? What was the motivation behind that?"
It took him a moment to answer.
Bevel: "Because I had no interest in getting you pregnant."
LAST SUMMER, A FEW WEEKS AFTER HIS ARREST, Bevel appeared on a Monday morning at the Loudoun County Courthouse to request a court-appointed attorney. He cast a regal figure as he ascended the stairs to the second floor in a black minister's shirt and jacket with an African prince's hat on his head. His beard looked even grayer in the morning light.
Despite having just turned down an interview request at the end of the previous week -- something he would repeatedly do, always citing his lawyer's advice even when he didn't appear to have a lawyer -- he nonetheless was delighted to be recognized and immediately led a reporter into the courtroom and sat down on a bench.
He talked about Tolstoy and Gandhi. He talked about Myles Horton, the educator who mentored King and Rosa Parks, and said this was the man who had introduced him to nonviolence.
After he'd talked for a while, Bevel was asked why he would request a public defender for such an important case. He waved his hand. "You only need an expensive lawyer if you are trying to stay out of jail," he said.
But wouldn't that be the point? He was, after all, facing the real possibility of going to prison for the rest of his life. Wouldn't an attorney with more time, more staff to work up the best defense possible be better than someone who is burdened all day by pleading out petty robbery cases?
He shook his head.
"Have you ever been to jail?" he asked. "Jail isn't that bad; it's just a place with a lot of guys who need educating."
Then he offered that he welcomed a trial. There are many kinds of sex, he said, and "if I'm unable to convince a jury of my peers of that, then I deserve to go to jail."
ON A MARCH NIGHT IN 1995, Aaralyn sat outside a motel in Selma and wondered how she should kill herself. She had a friend back in Virginia with a gun collection. Maybe she could slip into his house when he was not around, pull a gun out of its case and fire a bullet into her skull. A more likely possibility was to step out into the middle of the street just as a truck came barreling into town. However she did it, it had to be quick. It had to be fatal.
Earlier that day, at a celebration for the 30th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, she'd met Selma's mayor, Joseph Smitherman, who had also been the mayor in 1965. She was standing with her father when the old adversaries came face to face. The mayor told her that of all the civil rights leaders, her father had scared them the most, far more than King. It was supposed to be a compliment, but his words sent a chill through Aaralyn. Until that moment, she'd always thought of her father as crazy, a genius with mental problems. Then, standing with the mayor, he seemed to her like something else. Something sinister.
She had nowhere to go. Her mother's home in Chicago, where she'd returned soon after that day in the Leesburg apartment, was no longer an option. The neighborhood where Helen lived was violent. One time, a group of young men had jumped Aaralyn, pushed her to the ground and beaten her with their fists. Afterward, she'd returned to Leesburg out of desperation. But in Virginia, she had to fend off her father's sexual advances. There seemed no way out.
Yet in that very moment of despair, Aaralyn says, a man appeared outside the motel where she was sitting. She does not know what he was doing in Selma or even who he was, just a white man who said he was from the Washington area. He saw the gloom in her face and told her he had a daughter about the same age as she was. Aaralyn was fortunate, he said. Her life still stretched out before her. Though she didn't tell him about her father, she took comfort in his concern for her. She thinks he saved her that night, this man whose name she never learned. She did not run in front of a truck or go in search of a gun. Instead she went to bed and dreamed of her escape.
It came in the strangest of places: in western Pennsylvania on the grounds of a pacifist religious community known as the Bruderhof. She moved there a few months after the Selma celebration when she met several Bruderhof members at one of her father's peace events in Philadelphia. For a time, it was the perfect place to reinvent herself.
The Bruderhof was a pacifist community founded in Germany. Its members fled to the United States after refusing to fight for Hitler's army. It was a calm place, Aaralyn says, and though the group was nearly all white, she didn't mind. She took on the typical role of an unmarried woman in the Bruderhof, serving as a sort of nanny for a large family. The tensions of the previous years disappeared the first night when she stood outside and stared into a sky of stars.
"It's like you are in this horrible place in your mind . . . and you are in this situation where you see no way out at all, no light at the end of the tunnel, and then there is a way out," Aaralyn remembers. "It's this instant where you say, 'Whoaaa, this works!' . . . It was a whole new world, a different life."
When she left the Bruderhof more than a year later, so much of the past had become a distant memory, she says. She even moved back to the Leesburg apartment. Her father wasn't there. He was off with another group, pursuing some new cause. In a whirlwind, things happened. She moved to Washington, found a job as a waitress in a bar, fell in love with one of her co-workers. They married, moved to the Maryland suburbs and had a baby boy. And then, as the normal arguments of marriage became daily occurrences, they fell out of love and divorced.
That's when she met Nathaniel. And, like everything else in her life, falling for him seemed so incongruous. Nathaniel Mills was an elite speed skater who'd made three U.S. Olympic teams. Afterward, he'd sailed through Georgetown Law School, passing the D.C. bar on his first try. But instead of practicing law, he wanted to teach peace education. For a while, Aaralyn says, they were just friends. She trusted him enough to tell him about her father, a story she almost never shared with anyone outside her family.
Nathaniel was working as a teacher and running a skating club for underprivileged children in Southeast Washington. In the summer of 2006, he was asked to go to Abu Dhabi to teach peace education to the royal family of the United Arab Emirates. While he was gone, he needed someone to run an event for his skating club that featured the speed skating star of the 2006 Olympics, Shani Davis. Aaralyn agreed to help. And somewhere in the planning for the Davis appearance, they fell for each other. Neither can really explain it. Aaralyn calls it "a spark." One day, while in the United Arab Emirates, Nathaniel sent her an e-mail with the words "We are marrying." She immediately replied, "Yes!"
Two months later, they were wed. Last month, they had their first child together, a little girl. They called her Athena. The Greek goddess of wisdom, war, the arts, industry, skill and justice.
TWO WEEKS AFTER GIVING BIRTH, Aaralyn, sits on the witness chair in a Loudoun County Circuit courtroom and tells her story. She talks about the nights in Chicago, the letter to her mother, the broom under the bed and, finally, the day in the apartment in Leesburg. She describes all this in the same soft, detached voice that she has told it in the past. Several times, the judge instructs her to lean into the microphone so the jury can hear her. Prosecutor Nicole Wittmann will say later that Aaralyn is one of the best witnesses she has ever had in a case like this.
And when she is done, Aaralyn steps down and waits in the hallway outside with her baby and seven family members for a verdict.
Her father watches her testify with an expressionless gaze, using a pen to trace the outlines of his beard over and over again. But when Wittmann plays the tape of Aaralyn's phone call, and the jury listens for an hour and a half to Bevel's raging and swearing, Wittmann steals a few glances at the defendant. He appears to be smiling.
Bevel spends much of his day on the stand explaining his unconventional views on sex and education. He acknowledges being what he calls a recovering sex addict. But he denies that he ever penetrated Aaralyn and suggests that he is the victim of a conspiracy. "Someone has plotted to destroy my reputation, my being," he tells the jury.
In the end, he cannot escape his own words on the tape. His comment about not wanting to get Aaralyn pregnant dangles in the air. After only three hours of deliberation, the jury finds James Bevel guilty of unlawful fornication.
In those first few moments after her father's conviction, Aaralyn is called back to the stand to describe the impact of Bevel's crime before the jury hands down its sentence. And the woman whose voice has never wavered, who has never seemed angry or sad, who has never expressed hate toward her father, does something she has never done in telling her story.
Her shoulders rock. She dabs at the tears that roll from beneath her glasses. She says that all she wants now is to be a good mother and wife. "The hardest part is I love my father, and I wish he loved me as much as I love him and had the humility to put some effort into understanding that."
Bevel, who is about to be sentenced to 15 years, simply stares at the daughter who is sending him to prison. It is as if she is a stranger. Not his child at all.
Les Carpenter is a writer for The Post Sports section. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at noon.