Every Friday night for as long as anyone here can remember there has been a poker game at Sidney and John M. Ashley's real estate office on Commerce Street in this small Eastern Shore town. It's a friendly, high stakes game that regularly attracts the movers and shakers in the good ol' boy network that runs Queen Anne's Country.
Nobody has ever paid much attention to the game. Jack Ashley, after all, is a county commisioner, a rich landholder and one of the county's most influential political figures. Besides, explained County Sheriff George Sharp, "It's an affluent class that plays. Most everybody there can afford to lose that kind of money without hurting anything."
But a bizarre-incident just outside the poker game room last month has resulted in an unusual grand jury investigation that offers an intriguing glimpse of how an old, Southern-like town eals with controversy.
The situation includes a cast of characters be fitting a soap opera.
It began in the wee hours of Feb. 5 when Glenn Pippin, a well-known local businessman and political figure, tumpled down the staircase leading to the game room and fractured his skull. Pippin, a former state policeman and director of the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Board, hovered ner death in a comma for seven weeks and is still hospitalized.
Pippin's fall was an accident and the incident probably would have ended there if it hadn't been for an alleged attempt to cover up details, which outraged outspoken local author and gadfly William Rodgers.
The key element in the alleged cover-up was location of the incident - the staircase leading to the basement game room in the Ashley office building. Although a county magistrate, a deputy sheriff, the city police chief and another police officer were on the scene, no police report was written. Local newspaper reporters were initially told it occured at an unspecified "local residence."
But as the days passed Rodgers; James Redsecker, a former U.S. Treasury Department investigator, and Douglas Anderson, another new Centreville resident, heard rumors about the incident and began asking question.
Rodgers, long an outspoken critic of Ashley, and the county government, emerged as the chief protagonist when he wrote a widely circulated letter accusing local officials and newpapers of covering up "a shocking tragedy" with their "conspiratorial and complicitus silence."
The letter, mailed five weeks after the accident, laid out rumors Rodgers said he had heard about "a predawn festival of drinking and gambling" in a place without a liquor or gambling license. He accused authorities of "wanton dereiction of duty" for not conducting an investigation to lay to rest "wild and damaging gossip" about the incident.
The affair, he declared in equally colorful prose, showed the county political system "is corrupt, manipulated and does not function. Every policeman and authority is muzzled . . . The bookie joint character of our government has never been more clear."
The letter achieved its purpose and more. Judge B. Hackett Turner Jr. recalled the county grand jury, which normally meets only twice annually, State's Attorney John T. Clark III launched an investigation. And Rodgers found himself at the center of a simmering lcoal controversy as a backlash has developed against him.
The Queen Anne's Journal has declared the investigation "a waste of time and money" and said it results from nothing more than "a personal vendetta between William Rodgers and Jack Ashley, a county commissioner who Rodgers is always seeking to embarass."
Pippin's family has complained that Rodgers should mind his own business. "You don't know what my daughter and granddaughter have gone through these last weeks," said Pippin's mother-in-law, Permelia D. Nelson, who runs a local liquor store. "I wish he'd leave us alone. This just adds to the misery."
Rodgers now fears the investigation has focused more on his actions than on the incident itself, a fear reinforced when only three persons - Rodgers, his friend Douglas Anderson and a state's attorney investigator - were summoned to appear before the grand jury when it meets Monday. "I feel like I've been invited to my own hanging," he said last week.
Why were'nt any of the persons who witnessed the incident, or any of the poker players called to appear?
"Those people will all be around," said State's attorney Clark. "The grand jury will know how to find them if they want to."
Clark, who was elected on the same ticket as Ashley, said his investigation looked only into the Pippin fall and not gambling allegations. he said he found no evidence of wrongdoing. It is just a case of a man "tripping down the stairs," he added.
Meanwhile, Centreville, a town of about 2,000 has suddenly fallen mum on the issue.
It's hard to find anyone in the town to talk on the record about Ashley, Rodgers or the Pippin incident.
Centreville is a picturesque little town with impressive old homes, on the fringe of commuting distance from Washington and Baltimore. It boasts Maryland's oldest courthouse, and like most Eastern Shore communities, its pace of life is slow, its politics conservative.
"People around here are probably not very community-minded. They mind their own business and expect others to do the same," said Sheriff moved out here don't understand our slow way of life. They want to change it."
The Friday night poker game is part of the tradition, he said. "I've been invited four or five times over the years. But I never went myself. I came up the hard way, and I never figured I had that kind of money to gamble away."
Rodgers, a former reporter on the New York Herald-Tribune, and his wife, and artist, moved into a small wood row house on the edge of town about six years ago. "My last book had been a commercial success, and for awhile I was treated as local celebrity."
But then he made a speech before the local Rotart Club, sharply criticizing then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon. "That really killed me around here. Then I started making comparisons of the local to the national scene and, of course, it wasn't very welcome.The upshot was tric. I became famous for my letters to the editor.
"Now everyone is saying I'm doing (this) for some ulterior motive," he added. "But there's no personal gain in it for me. It costs me time. It costs me money. It makes me hated.