'We let a wolf in': He seemed like the perfect preacher -- until his flock discovered his murder conviction.

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By Neely Tucker
Sunday, December 19, 2010

HARRISONBURG, Va. --

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.


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