The Victim of a Savage Attack, a Minister's Wife Is Condemned to a Long Death in Life

UPDATED 01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/16/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

For Peggy Railey, the pointless hours seem to pass uncomprehended, as indistinguishable as the days, weeks and months. Beside her bed a radio plays classical music, but the silent patient never responds. Her unblinking blue eyes stare blankly at the wall—at pictures less than two years old of herself smiling with her children, Ryan, now 6, and Megan, 3.

For Peggy, death-in-life began on April 22, 1987, the night someone strangled her in the garage of the comfortable Dallas home she shared with her husband, the Reverend Walker Railey, a highly regarded minister whose powerful sermons drew packed crowds to the city's First United Methodist Church. The crime was sensational, and it scandalized the city, stunned the church, sundered her family and destroyed her husband's career. No arrest has been made—there were no witnesses to the attack and no physical evidence—but suspicion has settled on her husband. Once a supremely ambitious, fast-rising cleric who seemed destined to be named a Methodist bishop, Railey has resigned from the ministry and left Texas. He is believed to be living in San Francisco.

With every passing month, the crime slips further from I public consciousness, yet for Peggy Railey, her children and her parents, a tragedy of enormous scope is still unfolding. Her windpipe was crushed in the near-fatal attack, and Peggy's brain was starved of oxygen for more than two hours as she lay on the garage floor. She exists now in what her doctors call a "constant vegetative state." They cannot say how much Peggy sees, what she hears, what she does or does not feel. They do know that she will never recover to any meaningful degree.

Unwilling to give up, Peggy's parents, Bill and Billie Jo Nicolai, are looking after their 40-year-old daughter as if she were an infant. "Good morning, Peggy," chirps Billie Jo, 67, arriving in Room 216 at the Clairmont Nursing Home in Tyler, Texas. "How's my baby today?" She snaps off the radio and kisses Peggy's forehead, then pulls back the curtains, letting the sun shine in. "It's cool out this morning, honey," she croons. Billie Jo checks Peggy's diaper, then begins a daily routine that will keep her busy past nightfall. "Caring for Peggy is a privilege we're glad we have time for," she says.

Aside from Billie Jo's cheerful voice, the only sound is an occasional sputter from the bed, where Peggy breathes through a tube inserted into her throat. She is fed through a tube in her stomach, and her hands, which once charmed music from the organ and piano, lie drawn in a tight fetal position against her chest, useless and clawlike. For hours on end she barely moves. Her body lives on, but the daughter the Nicolais remember no longer exists.

Dallas police have never identified Peggy Railey's attacker. But last month, in an unusual judgment, a Texas civil court judge found Walker Railey liable for $18 million in damages. Months before, the same judge had ruled that by refusing to respond to the Nicolais' lawsuit, Railey had, in effect, admitted assaulting his wife with the intention of killing her. Railey will not discuss the matter. Meanwhile, the Railey children are living with Diane Yarrington, a friend with whom Peggy had long ago made a pact that if anything ever happened to either, the other would raise the children.

From the beginning of their life together, Walker and Peggy Railey seemed the perfect minister-and-wife team. They met as graduate students at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. While Peggy studied in the music department, Walker earned a reputation at the divinity school for polished, inspiring sermons. Married in 1971, the young preacher and his bride served at several Texas churches, where Walker polished his skills in the pulpit, becoming an outspoken advocate of civil rights and social justice.

Then in 1980 the Raileys got the call they had dreamed of. Walker was named senior minister at the 5,300-member First United Methodist Church in Dallas, among the largest Methodist congregations in the United States. At 33, he took control of a $2 million budget and a staff of 65. He proved more than equal to the task, delivering sermons that attracted 600 new church members. With the post came a $100,000 salary, a car and generous travel privileges. Walker's energy was as unbridled as his ambitions; he drove himself at a tireless pace. His staff knew him as a perfectionist who had a tendency to explode when things didn't go right.

In March 1987 there was trouble. Walker called police to report that, after a sermon on racial harmony, he had received a threatening letter. Other notes followed. "Easter is when Christ arose," read one, "but you are going down." Authorities posted a guard at the Railey home, but Walker refused to be intimidated. He delivered a mesmerizing Easter sermon as usual. His only concession was to wear a bulletproof vest under his robes.

Walker survived that Sunday, and the letters stopped. At his request, the police withdrew their guards. Two days later, sometime between 10 P.M. and midnight, Peggy walked from her kitchen into the attached garage. As she stood near the freezer, among her children's toys, someone whipped a cord around her neck and held her as she struggled, lost consciousness and went into convulsions.

Walker Railey called the family's answering machine—instead of the phone Peggy would have picked up—and left a message that he was driving from one Southern Methodist library to another to do research. He would claim later that he arrived home just after 12:40 A.M. and found Peggy's body. Paramedics rushed her to the hospital, but her brain had been irreparably damaged. The immediate assumption was that the threatening-letter writer had struck. Yet police turned up few clues. A neighbor said he had heard rustling in some bushes near the Railey house that evening. A jogger reported a man in a business suit running through the neighborhood. Little else came to light.

But before the month was out, police had some questions for Walker. They had located the typewriter on which the threatening notes had been written—it was kept in a locked room at his church. Moreover, Walker's account of his movements on the night of the attempted slaying proved false. Telephone company records showed that the call he had made to the Raileys' answering machine, announcing his whereabouts, had been made at 12:03 A.M., not 10:30 P.M. as he had said on the tape. Police scheduled a meeting with him for May 1.

Early that morning, before detectives arrived at the hospital, where he had been staying to be near his wife, Walker bolted the door to his room and swallowed a handful of tranquilizers. Guards broke down the door and rushed him to an emergency room, where his stomach was pumped. He regained consciousness and a few days later checked out of the hospital and entered a local private psychiatric facility. He refused further cooperation with police, who had obtained the note he had written before his apparent suicide attempt. It read, in part, "There is a demon inside my soul. For almost 40 years God has been struggling with my demons. My demon has finally gotten the upper hand. I am the baddest of the bad. I am the lowest of the low."

With that, Walker Railey became the prime suspect in the assault on his wife. Shortly afterward he was discovered to have been carrying on an affair for about a year with Lucy Papillon, 47, a twice-divorced Dallas psychologist. They had met when she appeared on his religious TV show, Faith Focus, and soon began having thrice-weekly "intimate relations," as Papillon testified. She also said that on the night Peggy was strangled, Walker Railey had spent nearly an hour at her home when he was supposedly at the library. In the past, Papillon continued, Railey had discussed divorcing Peggy so that he could marry her. Holding him back was the fear that a divorced man would have trouble becoming a bishop.

Walker continued to deny any involvement in the assault on Peggy. When he was summoned before the grand jury, he took the Fifth Amendment 43 times. Shortly thereafter, as Methodist elders prepared a church hearing that might have defrocked him, Walker resigned his ministerial post and moved to California.

Bill Nicolai slowly pushes Peggy's wheelchair toward Room 216. He has spent hours wheeling her around the nursing home grounds, talking to her about the times they went horseback riding, the trips they made to museums, the year he taught her to drive. Through it all, Peggy sits impassive, her head drooped on one shoulder. "I don't know what she knows," says Bill, 71. "I think maybe she's just listening to my voice and doesn't comprehend. At least that's what the doctors tell us."

At around 4:30 P.M., Billie Jo sweeps into the room. "Hi, Peggy," she says. "Was it nice outside today?"

"It was nice," says Bill.

Billie Jo tends to Peggy most mornings, then Bill relieves her after lunch. Peggy's mother comes back to put her daughter to bed each evening. Their constant attention helps reduce the costs of Peggy's care, but her church-paid insurance runs out in September, and already her medical bills are approaching $250,000. The Nicolais must live on their social security and Bill's pension from a brewery job in Milwaukee. Last month's court decision awarding Peggy $18 million included $4.3 million for medical care, which would be required to keep her institutionalized for the 20 to 30 years that doctors expect her to live. But the Nicolais sued Walker seeking justice, not money; by all accounts, the former preacher is broke. The Nicolais have set up a trust fund for Peggy at the NorthPark National Bank in Dallas and hope that the kindness of friends—and strangers—will ultimately see her through.

"He was so ambitious," says Billie Jo of her son-in-law. "He had the world by the tail. But his ego began to take him over. He changed. There's no doubt in my mind Walker was involved in some way. But I try not to hate him. Hate would consume me if I let it." In fact, she prays for him.

At bedtime, Billie Jo washes and moisturizes Peggy's face and brushes her teeth. Bill wrestles her from the wheelchair to the bed, then heads for home. Billie Jo adjusts the volume on Peggy's radio. She covers her daughter's feet with a comforter and turns down the light. She removes her daughter's glasses and leans over the bed so that their foreheads touch. "Dear God," she prays, "this is Peggy and her momma asking that You, in Your mercy, free Peggy from her physical, mental and spiritual bondage. Please do this, in your way, in your time." Billie Jo gathers her things and leaves. Peggy's eyelids droop, but never quite close.

—Jacob Young, and Kent Demaret in Tyler

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