Evelyn Rust Wells was old and lonely and rarely left the three-room, white bungalow that has been her home for more than 30 years. Then several months ago a 16-year-old neighbor began visiting the reclusive 74-year-old widow who spent her days watching soap operas on a black-and-white television set.
"He was my little friend," recalled Wells, who has no children and was delighted by the boy's attention. "If I needed something from the store, he'd run and get it for me."
What began as an apparently innocent gesture of friendship soon mushroomed into a situation reminiscent of "A Clockwork Orange," the Anthony Burgess novel about a hedonistic, violent, youth gang that terrorizes a community. Police in this gritty industrial city 120 miles south of Washington say about 20 persons, most of them teen-agers, took over Wells' home for nearly two months, using it as an outlaw clubhouse and holding her a virtual prisoner.
Four of those charged in the case were relatives of the youth who initially befriended Wells, among them a 50-year-old man and his 60-year-old ex-wife. Police say members of the group extorted money from Wells, draining her life's savings estimated at $7,400. They smashed her cherished possessions and abused her, burning her back with cigarettes, spraying her with aerosol cans of air freshener and pouring glue in her long white hair.
As shocking as the abuse, say many in this city of 24,000, is that Wells' plight went unreported until two weeks ago, when a suspicious neighbor finally called police.
"There is a lot of concern that this thing went on as long as it did," said Bob Conroy, news director of WHAP-AM, Hopewell's only radio station. "People are wondering: Is Hopewell getting like New York City or Washington, D.C.?"
Since last week when police took Wells to the hospital and arrested seven of her assailants, including the 16-year-old, Hopewell has been the object of unwelcome publicity more befitting its turn-of-the-century reputation as "the toughest town north of hell" than its Chamber of Commerce billing as a blend of antebellum charm and New South progress.
Eight years ago, Hopewell achieved notoriety as the site of one of the worst environmental disasters on the East Coast when it was discovered that massive amounts of the deadly pesticide Kepone, produced by Allied Chemical Co., the city's largest employer, had been secretly dumped into the James River.
"I think this is more of a tragedy than Kepone," said Malcolm B. (Mac) Eubank, executive vice president of Hopewell's Chamber of Commerce, "because it illustrates man's inhumanity to a defenseless old lady."
News organizations ranging from The National Enquirer to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. have descended on Hopewell, and the city's Social Services Department has been swamped with calls from people around the country seeking to give money to Wells.
Here the case has prompted the city to establish a trust fund for Wells and furnish her with a social worker, a paid daytime companion and daily hot meals. Residents of the historic City Point neighborhood, an eclectic mix of expansive 19th century riverfront estates and deteriorating wooden bungalows have taken up a private collection, the proceeds of which will be used to buy Wells a color TV.
"Everybody here is pretty upset," said Steve Powell, a 31-year-old construction worker who lives down the street from Wells. "I'd surely hate for this to happen to my grandmother."
Others say Wells' plight has galvanized Hopewell. "Usually it's hard to get community involvement," said David Dickerson, the city's senior social worker, "but now everybody wants to help. Obviously this is a pretty dramatic case of someone being ripped off. But there are a lot of isolated people who withdraw from social contact as they get older. Her situation seems fairly extreme because she had no family, no friends, no neighbors."
Loneliness made Wells especially vulnerable, say acquaintances who claim she changed dramatically after her husband's death 13 years ago. "I still miss him so much and after he died I went a little bit berserk," said Wells. Until last week it had been more than a decade since she saw her only relative, a younger sister who lives in Front Royal.
"We'll never know the whole story of what really happened," said Capt. Rudy W. Davis, Hopewell's chief of detectives, "but I feel like she was much more tolerant than most of us would be."
Authorities say Wells has only a hazy recollection of aspects of her two-month ordeal. "She's blocked a lot of things out because she doesn't want to think about them," said Dianne Portwood, the police detective who investigated the case.
It is clear that sometime in the last year, neighbors stopped seeing Wells walk two blocks to the corner market, City Point Self Service, where she has had an account for years. Instead, owner Ollie Spence said, Wells "would call up and tell me what she wanted and I would have it sent over." Spence also frequently cashed her monthly Social Security checks.
In City Point, Wells' reclusiveness was not considered unusual. "The neighbors knew her, but they didn't bother her and she didn't bother them," said Detective Capt. Davis. "That's sort of typical. Hopewell is an industrial city and people do shift work, and they're so busy coming and going they don't notice too much."
Sometime last fall, police say, the 16-year-old youth began visiting Wells. He apparently told friends and family members about the elderly woman and they began visiting too. Initially, authorities said, Wells enjoyed the company and willingly gave them money and checks with which to buy food.
"But sometimes," she recalled, waving an emaciated wrist toward the plaid sofa that is one of the few remaining pieces of furniture in her living room, "they would just fall asleep there and I couldn't get them out, so I'd just go to bed."
In mid-November, authorities say, some members of the group began abusing Wells while others watched. "It just sort of evolved," said Davis. Once after Wells locked the gang out, some of them smashed the locks and forced their way in. After that, police say, Wells was never left alone and her telephone was disconnected.
"Some of them were glue sniffers," Davis said, and they abused Wells "for kicks." They smashed furniture, carved obscenities in her antique mahogany dining room table, tied her up, and poured glue in her hair. The group also threw pounds of butter, beer cans, liquor bottles and stomped-on, half-eaten fast food onto the back porch, creating a three-foot tall pile of fetid garbage.
When the toilet paper ran out, police say, members of the group used ripped bedsheets and towels and then discarded them in the bathtub. Because Wells could not then bathe, they sprayed her with aerosol cans of air freshener.
Police first learned something was wrong in early January when Portwood received a tip from a neighbor. Portwood went to Wells' home, where she heard people running out the back door. She found Wells sitting in a chair bewildered, moaning that she was hungry. Canceled checks were strewn nearby.
Shortly after police began investigating they received a call from Spence, who reported that the youths had come to his store five and six times a day to cash checks Wells had signed. "The phone started ringing," Portwood said. "People said they didn't want to make the original complaint. You know how people are. I think they were afraid of being victimized."
A week after she first discovered Wells, Portwood persuaded the elderly woman to go to the hospital for treatment of severe malnutrition and a thumb fracture Wells said she received "bopping a kid."
"She wouldn't go at first because she was afraid something might happen to her house if she left," Portwood said.
A day after Wells was admitted to the hospital, police arrested her former next-door neighbor, Wayne P. (Bubba) Humphries, 18, who is charged with extortion and maiming with intent to kill. Also arrested was James Anthony Harris, 19, of nearby Dinwiddie County, who is charged with extortion as are John Waters, 50, his 19-year-old son, Dennis John Waters, and his ex-wife, Madeline Waters, 60. The three Waters family members are also charged with unlawful detention.
Two juveniles, including the 16-year-old who befriended Wells and his 17-year-old sister, are charged with obtaining money under false pretenses. All are in jail in lieu of bond.
Police say they don't know what happened to the estimated $7,400 missing from Wells' bank account. They are investigating the suspects' life styles and purchases.
Last Thursday, Wells returned to her home after a week in the hospital. Her linoleum floors are still caked with grime and her yard is still littered with orange juice cartons, beer cans, towels and clothing, although social service workers spent several days shoveling out the house.
Despite the condition of her house, Wells is happy to be home. "I feel shocked in a way, but in another way, I think, well, this has happened to other people," she said, nibbling on a cookie, her blue nylon bathrobe wrapped tightly around her. "But I've been through hell."