In the weeks since the accident that killed six people near here, R.L. Jenks has seen his three sons harassed at school and received so many threatening letters that he makes sure he gets to the mailbox before his wife. He went sleepless for a while, and even now there are the dreams: the glass glittering on the roadway in the beams from his own headlights, the mangled metal, the mangled bodies.
Jenks, a retired D.C. policeman and now Wardensville's one and only officer, doesn't understand why he's being blamed, or his own feelings of guilt. He thought he was just doing his job.
He had been operating a radar instrument here on Main Street that night six weeks ago when he noticed a Ford LTD without tags. He followed the Ford into an alley behind the White Star restaurant, he says, then tapped his siren and put on his lights. The Ford took off like a hornet. Jenks followed.
They were out of Wardensville in seconds, Jenks pushing his squad car to 100 m.p.h., tires squealing. Left fist gripping the wheel, right the radio microphone, he chased the Ford's tail lights over dips and through hairpin curves, 20 miles up Rte. 259 toward the Virginia state line.
Around a hairpin turn, Jenks was thinking, "This is not for me, this is getting hairy, this is getting real." He slowed to 55 at the border and watched the Ford's red tail lights fade into the moonless night. He thought about turning back, going home, but that bothered him, the idea that his man would get away. He had pride, and he had a feeling, a sense that police get after 25 years out there. He followed.
Five miles down the road, Jenks found the Ford smashed against a tree. The driver had a broken leg. Tests later would fix the alcohol level in 22-year-old Daniel Chafin's blood at .38. Legal intoxication in Virginia is .1. A reading of .4, said a Frederick County court official, indicates a "state of coma or near death." In the center of the highway was an old Volkswagen, completely demolished, its six occupants scattered on the road, all of them dead.
Now, six weeks after the crash, with Chafin convicted of drunken driving and now facing six counts of involuntary manslaughter, a lot of people here are holding Jenks, 46, responsible for what happened. The memory of the deaths, swift and violent and senseless as they were on that November night, lingers in this somnolent hollow of 500 people.
R.L. Jenks feels it, and you can see it in the way his mouth behaves when he tries to smile, how it curves up only with effort, and then for not very long.
"Maybe if I hadn't pursued him at all it wouldn't have happened," said Jenks, tall and meaty and pretty much bald, with a fold of chin that drapes over the collar of his blue shirt. "Maybe if I'd kept after him, those people in the Volkswagen could have seen my lights and gotten out of the way. Maybe . . . " His voice dies and a sigh comes instead, a hard long sigh delivered through the gap between his two front teeth.
"It's hard to describe how I feel. About a week ago a man and woman at the gas station said someone had run them off the road and my first reaction was, 'Oh, God, not again.' It's a lasting kind of thing."
Though Jenks understands the ways of a small town, knows how stories get altered and grow tall like corn in the rich bottom land soil, the whole idea of people having any doubts about what he was duty-bound to do bothers him. "I was just doing the only job I ever known how to do, being a dedicated cop."
Up to now, dedication always had its rewards for Jenks. For one, it got him in the papers. He was written up six times in his 23 years with the District of Columbia police force, a couple of them full-fledged feature stories, not just a mention of his name. In 1961, he nabbed more than 15 percent of all the people arrested in Washington for driving on revoked licenses. He would stuff names and license numbers into his photographic memory and go out hunting for violators. Even on days off he'd "see how many I could spot for kicks."
Mayor Walter Washington cited him for merit in 1970 for foiling a bank robbery, and over the years Jenks says he received more than 60 other citations for merit. In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on a search-and-seizure test case. That case is written up in Modern Criminal Procedures, a police textbook. Jenks is "mentioned in every paragraph, from page 319 to page 329."
Even in 1976, when he retired from the District force and moved about 90 miles west of Washington to Wardensville "to rest on my laurels, I guess you could say," he continued to excel. In 14 months as a detective at the nearby Zayre's Department Store in Winchester, he arrested 100 shoplifters in 14 months, "better police work than they'd ever seen."
He had not expected to go back to police work. But in September 1980, he was mowing the front lawn of his 100-acre homestead, on which stands a 92-foot brick ranch house that has a view over the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Virginia state line, when the town mayor offered him the police chief's job.
"I'm the kind of guy," Jenks said, "who hits his thumb instead of the nail with a hammer. I took the job."
The job wasn't the toughest he'd ever done, but last year he arrested six violators on his turf, which pretty much lies between Main Street and Back Alley, Trout Run Road and Carpenter Avenue, for burglary and vandalism. The worst vandal of 1981 was a youth who tore up the grass at Wardensville Elementary School with his souped-up car.
Jenks tried to bring a little class to his department. He traded in the old chief's khaki shirt and gray pants ("it made you look like a prison guard") for a blue uniform modeled along the lines of ones worn by the D.C. police, though he traded the billed cap for a cowboy-style sheriff's model and the .38 he carried in Washington for a more powerful .357 Smith & Wesson Trooper that'll "do the job."
A lot of the residents here appreciate Jenks' efforts. In the White Star restaurant, where songs like "Red Neckin' Love Makin' Night" by Conway Twitty and "Leave Your Love A'Smokin' " by Billy (Crash) Craddock filter across the hardwood floor from the juke box, the poll goes 50-50, and even then with a few caveats to be considered.
White Star owner Jeannette Perry thinks Jenks "had absolutely no business chasing that guy . . . I've heard his story change four times." On the other hand, Town Council member Elmo Orndorff thinks Jenks "did exactly what he was supposed to do." He cautions that Perry got pretty mad at Jenks last Halloween when Jenks picked up her two boys for throwing eggs.
Angie Farrell, the town barber and beautician, ["You can't call yourself a hair stylist 'cause around here no one understands unisex"] says she believes in law and order. Her husband used to be "the town cop" and she said she knows "the crazy kind of harassment and prank calls you can get . . . It's just a bad situation for everybody."
Today, that bad situation is marked by a pending court trial for Chafin and a 6-foot wooden cross, decorated with a wreath of colorful flowers and pine cones, that stands on a bank near the spot where six people died instantly.
That night in November was to have been a happy time, a birthday celebration for Lottie Bays, 17, who had moved several years earlier to Gore from Herndon. Tracy Mentzer, 19, Sandy Wheeler, 19, and Barbara Thomas, 17, all from Herndon, and Tim Boyd, 19, from Sterling, had driven to Gore for Lottie's party at a local restaurant. Lottie's mother Janice had gone along, too. Now they were all dead after their car was struck by the Ford driven by a man who is said to have consumed the equivalent of nine 12-ounce cans of beer in two hours to reach the apparent state of drunkenness he was in. "You know," says Jenks, leaning forward and twirling one side of his blond moustache, "they should make driving while intoxicated and fleeing from police a felony. In foreign countries, they cut off your arm when you steal a loaf of bread. You don't see many loaves of bread being stolen in those places, now do you?"