The Flippin' Fish #4a

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Bonnie M. Wells


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Sunday October 13, 2002

Michael Flippo Seeks New Trial.

Request Opens Door To Ugly Past

By Susan Williams / STAFF WRITER

It was the first day of deer season, and members of the Nitro Fire Department were doubling up their shifts while some members took off for the annual ritual.

Ernie Hedrick, now the acting fire chief, was on the truck going to put out a fire at the Main Avenue Church of God on Nov. 21, 1988.

There was heavy, black, pungent smoke coming out from all four sides when we got there. It had an awfully good start for that time in the morning, he remembered. The fire was reported at about 8 a.m. {**Reminds me of the molten lava, volcano / Clue # 5}

The Rev. James Michael Flippo was pastor {**Clue # 10} of the church where the fire broke out. His late wife, Cheryl Flippo, was quoted in a newspaper article written days after the fire as saying her husband was in the church about 30 minutes before the fire broke out.

In the same article, the Rev. Flippo listed the items he always wished to have in a church, such as a large foyer, and he hoped to have them all in a new house of worship. Flippo also quotes exactly what the building was insured for, $240,000, and what the insurance company would pay for the fire, and what his parishioners would contribute to help build the new church.

In the article, he also explains they had a rebuilding fund set up in a Nitro bank.

Flippo managed to save some furniture from his church office, but every other room of the church was too badly damaged for anything to be salvaged.

In 1997, Flippo was convicted of his wife’s murder. The police officer who placed the handcuffs on him after the jury returned the verdict made a note to himself early in the murder investigation to check into the fires in Flippo’s past.

Flippo is now an inmate in the Mount Olive Correctional Complex, serving a sentence of life without mercy. But he wants a new trial because he believes police illegally searched his briefcase and used items they recovered in that briefcase to harm his reputation with the jury.

We had our suspicions about the fire at the time. But it’s hard to prove,” Hedrick said.

After the fire destroyed Flippo’s church, Hedrick and other firefighters learned of other fires at different places where Flippo lived. “That’s unusual, to say the least, to have that many fires,” Hedrick said.

After the murder conviction, Hedrick said they did not think about looking at the church fire again.

The building’s gone. The evidence is gone. What can you do?” Hedrick said.

‘We’ve Got To Get These Children Out!’

In 1978, Gina Jewell was a student at Bluefield State College, and she lived with her sister, Cheryl Jewell Flippo in Bluefield. Her sister and the Rev. Flippo had three small sons at the time.

Gina remembered her sister calling her to the phone after she had gone to bed. When she got up to take the phone call, she noticed the lights blinked on and off. But she did not think much about it at the time, she said.

About 45 minutes later, Gina was back in bed asleep, and her sister called to her again. This time, Cheryl Flippo told her: “The house is full of smoke. We’ve got to get these children out!”

There was snow and ice outside,” Gina recalled. “The boys were in their pajamas. I didn’t know where Michael [Flippo] was. I could hear wood crackling.”

Then she saw him come out of the smoke-filled house, she said.

The six of them got into a car. “Then flames just shot out of every window. It just exploded,” she said.

The house was the parsonage provided by the Church of God while Flippo was pastor of the church on Cumberland Road.

Investigators said faulty wiring caused the blaze.

A few years earlier, when Flippo was pastoring a church in Matewan, the parsonage where he and his family lived also burned.

The Matewan fire started between the living room and the oldest child’s bedroom. The house burned to the ground.

Another sister, Anita Jewell Pratt, was also living in the Bluefield area at the time of the Bluefield fire. She remembered her sisters and nephews arriving at her door in the middle of the night.

They had nothing, Anita remembered. “...There were rumors when the second fire happened. But no one said ‘arson,’ “Anita said.

The Jewell family also said Flippo’s parents’ mobile home burned, and a car Cheryl was driving caught on fire.

Before the church burned, he told us he wanted a bigger church,” Pratt said. “He showed us the lot where he wanted to build. Then after the church burned, they built a bigger church on the lot he wanted.”

Another pattern Pratt can see now, she said, is if Flippo wanted a better house or a better church, he got one after the older one burned.

‘There Was 24 Cents In The Account’

In 1976, Rick McFaddin was a 14-year-old dialysis patient who needed a kidney transplant. McFaddin was one of 13 children living in a small Virginia town.

His older sister attended Flippo’s church in Bluefield. When Flippo and another church member learned that McFaddin needed an organ transplant, they agreed to help raise money.

McFaddin remembers donation boxes were placed everywhere. “I helped pick up some of the boxes, and I know checks were mailed in.”

At one point, the bank account dedicated to his kidney transplant fund swelled to $8,000.

Then my father went to check on it, and there was 24 cents in the account,” McFaddin recalled.

His family never confronted Flippo or the other church member.

When I became an adult, I said someone needs to confront him,” McFaddin said.

As an adult, McFaddin said he learned that if the account had been reduced to zero, someone would have had to sign papers to close out the account. McFaddin believes the 24 cents remained in the account to prevent anyone from asking questions.

Fast-Forward To 1995.

The Raymond Schuman family faced a crisis with their daughter who needed liver and pancreas transplants. Raymond’s father was an active member of the Landmark Church of God in Nitro, and he helped to build the new church after the earlier one was destroyed by fire.

People rallied around the family and poured in donations to help the sick child.

On Nov. 1, 1995, Raymond Schuman met with Flippo and signed the papers to set up the Christy Schuman Fund. Flippo signed the document, which was typed in an elaborate script that looked official, Schuman said. He still has a copy.

Schuman left the church thinking he had done the right thing for his daughter. Flippo left the church and opened an account in his name.

Neither Schuman nor any of the hundreds of people who donated to the transplant fund knew there was only one name on the account until they learned that Cheryl Flippo had been killed.

After the news of her death broke, Schuman said he got concerned. “I called the bank, and they told me my name was not on the account. That was the first time I knew,” he said.

After Flippo was indicted, the Schumans said Flippo called them. “He never said, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Schuman said. But with the murder charges pending, he told them, ‘This looks bad.’ ”

Cheryl Flippo died April 29, 1996, in Babcock State Park. When police combed Cabin 13, where the Flippos were staying, they found a note in a pair of pants Flippo brought to the cabin. The writing on the paper explained that he had called Raymond Schuman April 28, 1996. The note also mentions it was an interest-bearing account, keep interest for use.

When Flippo went to trial on the murder charges, his lawyer told the judge that Flippo’s family replaced $13,199 missing from the Schuman fund.

After Cheryl died, a committee of Church of God members also sat down and looked at all the accounts at the church. They compiled a report that detailed the financial status of the Landmark Church of God as of May 9, 1996. {** May 9th is my dad's birthday.}

They learned that Flippo alone had his name on many church accounts at several banks.

When church members examined the Schuman fund, they found a $1,499 check written to Sam’s Club from the account and two separate checks for $1,000 each written to a Darlene Feldhouse. Members of the Schuman family said they do not know Feldhouse.

Several checks from the account were written to the Church of God. Also, in the police cabin search, they found checks for the church among the items Flippo brought to the cabin.

In their report, church members wrote we discussed the problems with the Schuman fund and listed the checks that were written to withdraw money. We are very concerned about this situation.”

The report also includes this question: What was done with the money? {**Remember how I said my pink ticket had numbers on it, but I couldn't remember what they were? This showed that there would be a question about "numbers." Those numbers would eventually be shown as money that Flippo had access to, and that had mysteriously disappeared.}

But no member of the committee interviewed for this article considered asking for a prosecution for any missing funds.

Flippo could have written checks from the Schuman account to his church to pump up other accounts.

For example, the church committee wrote that the housing fund account was badly overwritten. Mike Flippo’s parents made a $10,000 deposit into it specifically for their son which was consequently eaten up by his bad checks.”

In the report, they also described one account at Bank One as a mystery account.

During the sentencing phase of Flippo’s murder trial, the prosecutor also told the jury that church members discovered the paving for the church parking that they thought had long since been paid for was still unpaid.

In 1996, someone managed to get inside Flippo’s Nitro home and leave a threatening message. Someone mangled the waterbed where Flippo slept with his wife.

Someone left a message on the answering machine: It was seven days to the end.”

Church members prayed for their pastor, who believed his life was threatened. They took turns staying with the Filippo's in their home to watch over them.

He turned to Nitro Police and filed complaints. Police could never confirm any evidence of the person who became known as the stalker.{**Clue # 18}

But Flippo felt safe enough to book a cabin with no phone at a state park that was closed for the season.

Like a plot in a bad TV movie, he reserved Cabin 13, the last cabin in a row of them at Fayette County’s Babcock State Park. Cabin 13 is adjacent to acres of uninhabited woods.{** Clue # 7}

Flippo wanted to give his wife a break from being under the terror of the stalker, he told one of his sisters-in-law. He recreated a youthful escapade for them that even included a Beach Boys tape for them to play in the car on the way to Babcock.

He borrowed a friend’s red convertible for the trip to throw the stalker off the trail.{**Lava was red hot, cooled, and converted to tracks about the size of automobile tracks./ {** Clue # 6}

The Filippo's brought a Bible, a book called In Honest Love, a briefcase, a deck of cards, some food, some letters and other items.

But instead of a romantic getaway, Flippo said the stalker succeeded in finding them.

Although police found no evidence of forced entry or any evidence that anyone else was in the cabin with them, {**Clue # 15} Flippo told police he awakened to find a masked man who smelled of cigarettes sitting on top of him, cutting on his legs with a knife.

Flippo said he passed out after he was struck on the head.

When he awoke, he made his way to a pay phone and at 2:11 a.m., called the 911 center for help. At first, according to the transcribed telephone call, he told the 911 operator he could not remember his name. He had been hit on the head, he said. But, eventually, he said, I’m a preacher. I know who I am. I’m a preacher.

The stalker inflicted minor wounds on the preacher. But the stalker smashed Mrs. Flippo’s head,{** Clue # 9} so that her blood and brain matter splattered all over the cabin walls.

After police began to investigate, they learned that Flippo had called two days earlier and specifically asked to reserve Cabin 13. They also learned that he had been in the park the day before with his friend Joel Boggess, the man who switched cars with Flippo to throw off the stalker.

A park employee remembered seeing the same red convertible nine days earlier, too. Boggess was driving the car in Babcock with another man who identified himself as Tim Arnott. The park employee asked them to leave because Boggess had been driving at a high rate of speed. {**The train whizzing along shows there would be reference to "speed" within the park area.

Police found a black briefcase on the table in the cabin where the Filippo's also left food and books. Inside the briefcase, they found pictures of Boggess that Flippo had picked up just before coming to the cabin.

In his appeal, Flippo and his lawyers said police had no right to open the briefcase without getting a search warrant.

Police and prosecutors argued that if they examine a crime scene, they are entitled to look at everything that might be evidence. The closed briefcase was on a table a few feet away from the body.

Fayette County Deputy Steve Kessler obtained a warrant for Flippo’s arrest. In his narrative to the magistrate, Kessler wrote that Flippo’s story about what happened was without credibility.

On Sept. 11, 1996, Kessler and Joel Boggess testified before a grand jury that produced a murder indictment for Flippo.

Boggess works at a trucking company in Nitro whose property borders the lawn of Flippo’s former church. Boggess declined to be interviewed.

The Quest Begins For A New Trial

After police responded to the Cabin 13 call, Flippo was taken to an Oak Hill hospital to be treated for his injuries, but an emergency room doctor decided they were superficial.

Later, retired state Medical Examiner Irwin Sopher would testify at trial, There is no question in my mind that Rev. Flippo’s injuries were self-inflicted. He also said it appeared to him the marks on Flippo’s legs were made in the opposite direction from what someone straddling him would make.{** train approaching from the opposite direction, coming head on .... indicates there would be something of importance involving the "opposite direction."

When police questioned Flippo, he asked them to bring his epilepsy medicine from his briefcase at the cabin. They did, and they also brought some clothes he asked for from the cabin.

When police turned from considering him a victim to a suspect, Flippo’s lawyers believe everything should have come to a halt.

It is legally impossible to infer that a person has consented to a search when no actual consent has been given, Ira Mickenberg and George Castelle wrote in their reply brief before the state Supreme Court.

Just by calling in the police, people do not give consent to have their homes searched, they wrote.

Besides the medicine, the briefcase contained envelopes with pictures. Even after the briefcase was open, the envelopes were closed, and the pictures were not in plain view, the defense noted. The photos are of Boggess, and Flippo believes the photos prejudiced the jury against him. In the murder trial, Flippo’s lawyer said they were pictures of Boggess from a baptism.

Mickenberg and Castelle, Flippo’s appointed public defenders, want the high court to reverse the conviction, grant their motion to suppress evidence and give Flippo a new trial.

In 1999, the case also went as far as the United States Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Fayette County Circuit Court Judge John Hatcher for review.

Hatcher concluded there was so much evidence against Flippo that even if police had not opened the briefcase, the jury would have had enough evidence to convict.

Silas Taylor, senior deputy attorney general, is handling the appeal that will be argued before the court Nov. 6. Taylor wrote that other items the police found in Cabin 13 justified looking in the briefcase.

Police also found letters in the cabin that the Filippo's wrote to each other. The letters included references to Mrs. Flippo’s unhappiness with her husband’s friendship with Boggess. {**Clue # 31}

Police also learned about the life insurance policy. Where would one be likely to find financial records relevant to motive? Again, the briefcase, Taylor wrote.

A Group Health Plan, Minus One

Before the Filippo's drove to Babcock State Park, the Rev. Flippo had taken out a life insurance policy for his wife. The $100,000 policy that took effect on April Fool’s Day named him as a beneficiary.

After Cheryl died, people who examined the finances at Landmark Church discovered he had written the check for the insurance policy from church funds.

The examining committee, made up of members of the Landmark Church and the state office of the Church of God, tried to piece together financial records at the church. During that review, the committee learned Flippo bought a group health insurance plan for himself, his three sons, the church secretary and Boggess.

The group also noted in its report the church clerk expressed concern about the group health insurance. They are required to have six people in the group. But Cheryl Flippo was not one of the people named on the health policy.

Church members did not authorize paying for Boggess’ health insurance, the report states.

‘He Lost Everything. He Had An Ideal Family life.’

In 1950, Cheryl Jewell was born into a close-knit family in Gary, McDowell County. Flippo was born in Alabama in 1948, but his family moved next door to the Jewell family when his father went to work for U.S. Steel.

They married young, and Flippo went on to graduate from Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., in 1967. He served his first church in New Mexico.

I wish we could have saved her,” the victim’s brother, Rick Jewell, said. She would have stood by him forever.

The family hopes there will be no second trial. Each family member interviewed for this story said the trauma of listening to what happened to Cheryl was excruciating.

The siblings said Cheryl took her marital vows seriously, and she believed in her role as a pastor’s wife. But they also said she was constantly worrying about her husband spending more money than they had income. She cut up credit cards.

When Flippo’s case came to trial, his lawyer called only Flippo’s sons to the stand. The sons testified about him as a father.

Defense lawyer David Schles offered no physical evidence and called no other witnesses.

Many people still believe Flippo is innocent. Some believe Schles did a bum job, as James Dillo, a church member, said.

Dillo said he first met the Flippos when Flippo was 18 and Cheryl was 15.

Dillo said he could have testified that the church approved a life insurance policy for Cheryl, but no one asked him to testify.

At trial, an insurance agent testified the Rev. Flippo wrote a check for $313 for the insurance premium on a church check.

Dillo, who still corresponds with Flippo, said until Flippo tells him he killed his wife, Dillo will not believe he did it. “All he had to live for was his wife, his family and his church. He lost everything. He had an ideal family life as far as I’m concerned,” Dillo said.

Ex-minister Turns Jailhouse Poet.

While in Mount Olive, Flippo wrote a 112-page book of poems called A Collection From Creation that his mother paid to have published.

The poems were written about observations from nature, viewed from the small window of his cell, the book cover states.

Each poem is followed by a related verse quoted from the Bible.

Flippo no longer has a license to be a minister for the Church of God. But his biography on the back of the book notes he counsels other inmates.

The pastor who followed Flippo into that pulpit said the congregation is doing well. The name of the church changed after it burned, and it changed again after Flippo went to prison.

One poem called Frost calls up the memories Flippo had when his grandmother would make cake frosting and let him lick the bowl. He goes on to write that his wife would save the frosting bowl for him, too, but he wrote that she infrequently gave him this treat.{** What a pathetic, stupid statement for a grown man to make.}

He concludes the book with a poem called Fog. He wrote, The dense, overpowering fog reminded me of many experiences of my past, when foggy tears and pain rushed in to hide the spiritual landmarks of the Creator. {** Yeah, but God has a way of uncovering those spiritual landmarks .... even ahead of time.....to reveal those who profess lies in his name, honor him with their lips while their hands do wickedness.}

He ends that poem with a verse from Luke. No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.{** How true.}

{** Flippo obviously got by with a lot of underhanded, unethical and perhaps even several illegal things in his life. But when he chose his own wife as the means for gaining even more money, so that the treachery could continue .... he chose the wrong "ticket."

Between the dream and the reality, I'm almost inclined to say that had he chosen "the other ticket" .... the orange one .... his "male" friend that he'd added to the life insurance policy ..... he may have been successful once again! His wife was a "Jewell" .... in far more ways than one. She did not deserve the treatment he doled out to her. I never knew either one, but I recognized Cheryl Jewell-Flippo when the case occurred and I stood not in silence .... not before the world .... not before God who had given me the knowledge.

2007 NOTE: A year or so ago, someone wrote to me and asked if I would consider trying to 'show the system' that Michael Flippo was 'an innocent man who had been wrongfully convicted.'

I had to chuckle to myself, because it was one of two things. Either the person who wrote had not read my pages, and seen how much work I'd done to show that Michael Flippo was in fact very guilty -- and had said this 'before' he was ever arrested and charged -- way ahead of everyone else:

Or, it was some smart assed cop trying to see if I'd 'go against the system' simply because they had never answered any of my letters; never said a word of thanks; never acknowledged anything that I had given them; never admitted that I was right on the money from day one -- in fact, before day one!

Well, whichever it was doesn't matter to me. I do not oppose anyone if I know they are right. I am not some bleeding heart idiot who's trying to get all the convicts in the world turned loose.

In my opinion -- and from the work I've done on the Flippo case, I believe that Michael Flippo is a guilty man, and I believe he's exactly where he belongs. In fact, he should thank God every night that I'm not 'in charge' because he would have been executed a long time ago.

This in no way changes my mind about a couple of other cases though. In these cases, my work and evidence strongly indicates that a mistake was made and the wrong men were convicted. I continue to work those cases .... not because I'm a trouble maker and just want to go against the system. I never was that type of person - even back in the 60's when it was 'fashionable and acceptable to many,' I always stood on the side of law and order.

But, right is right and wrong is wrong. No matter how much I like a person [or dislike them] I will not lie or take part in a lie just to get what I want. I wanted the cops of Fayetteville, West Virginia to stand up and admit that they had been helped by 'psychic work,' .... however, that was not to be. I guess they have no more courage or integrity than most of the others I've encountered.

In fact, had these West Virginia cops stepped forward in April of 1996, things might have been considerably different in September of 1996. Instead, their negligence caused some other cops to make a very bad mistake.

Doesn't matter to me. I simply go where God sends me .... he takes care of me --- and those who do me wrong. So be it. They have chosen their own path. I have chosen mine.

The Flippin' Fish-#4b / More Flippo News

Bonnie M. Wells

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