Chase Clark Church, 28, was alone at his family's home in Bethesda a week ago last Friday night when three Maryland State Police officers arrested him on charges of growing hallucinogenic mushrooms in Pennsylvania.
Later that night, Bethine Church, the widow of the late senator Frank F. Church, received a phone call from her son, who was locked up in the Rockville detention center. That conversation signaled the latest heartache for the family, which has been respected and liked in the community for 30 years and which 10 years ago was in the national spotlight and hoping to move into the White House.
But Frank Church, who was a powerful voice on foreign affairs and intelligence matters in the Senate, failed in his bid for the 1976 Democratic nomination for the presidency. And in 1980, after serving 24 years as a U.S. senator from Idaho, the liberal Church was defeated for reelection in the Reagan landslide. Church died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 59, leaving Bethine and their two sons, Forrester, now 37 and the minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan's Upper East Side, and Chase, who has been operating a Bethesda-based kitchen renovation business.
"There isn't much we can say at this point," Bethine Church said last week in response to questions about the charges against Chase Church.
"It's the sort of thing that every mother hopes will never happen," she said. "He has never had any problem before, and I am giving him all the support I can."
Bethine Church said that the case against Chase Church "looks at the moment bigger than it is."
Chase Church could not be reached for comment, and his lawyer, Philip Margulius, declined to be interviewed about the case.
The arrest of Chase Church has stunned neighbors and friends, who say the allegations are out of character with what they know about him and his family.
"It was a shock to me," said Irma Sweetser, who has lived next door to the Church family on Pemberton Street for 30 years. "I can't believe there is anything to the charges . . . . The Churches are fine people, known for their honesty, and he Frank Church is a hero in this neighborhood."
Since his father's death, Chase Church has worked at various times as a clerk at a local home improvement store and as a kitchen renovator, Sweetser said.
This year, Sweetser said, Chase Church invested in a mushroom business in Chester County, Pa.
But Chester County officials charge that the mushrooms that Church had started to grow were of a type known as psilocybin, which can be processed to produce a drug similar to LSD.
James MacElree, district attorney for Chester County, said that Chase Church began growing mushrooms commercially near the community of West Grove, Pa., in March.
A few weeks ago, MacElree said, Church took a mushroom sample to a West Grove plant pathologist, Claude Fordyce, and asked for a report on how the mushroom crop was doing.
Fordyce identified the Church mushroom sample as a psilocybin and reported his finding to local police, MacElree said. He said that investigators checked the Church crop and concluded that all of the mushrooms being grown in the Church mushroom house were the illegal psilocybin, and a warrant was issued for Church's arrest. The crop had the potential to produce 2,000 pounds of dried mushrooms with a street value of $5 million, MacElree said.
Church is the only person charged in the case, MacElree said. Church is free after posting a $100,000 cash bond.
Those close to the family credit Bethine Church with helping the family through its series of crises.
Bethine Church is "a role model for how to handle yourself in a crisis," said Sherley Koteen, a close family friend. "From the beginning, from the time when Frank developed cancer the first time as a young man in 1949 , he credited Bethine with pulling him through."
Frank Church survived that bout with cancer as a result of a treatment that included surgery and heavy doses of X-ray treatments. But, according to a book written by his son, Forrester, the exposure to the X-rays left Frank Church sterile.
In his book, "Father & Son," Forrester Church said that his parents decided in the early 1950s to adopt a second child, Chase.
Forrester Church said his brother proved "by nature and temperament to be an outdoorsman." Chase Church was a "natural in everything having to do with the outdoors: rods and guns, tents and backpacks, horses and trails, woods and streams."
In an effort to give Chase Church the outdoors he loved, the family rented a Pennsylvania cabin in the early 1970s, the book said. That cabin, near Gettysburg, is about a 100-mile drive from the rural area near the town of West Grove where Chase Church is charged with growing illegal mushrooms.