On December 12, 1998, there were two big stories connected to high-school football in Birmingham.
Briarwood Christian had just won its first state championship, two days earlier. And Hoover High School was looking for a new coach after firing Gerald Gann in early November following a 4-6 season.
Did those two stories collide, starting a chain of events that would lead to massive legal headaches for yours truly--and lead to gross judicial corruption in Shelby County that prompted me to begin this blog? And more importantly, did one of those schools--Briarwood Christian--act in a reckless and negligent manner that caused significant financial and emotional harm to innocent parties (my wife and me)? And did Briarwood Christian take those hasty steps in an effort to secure its football coach (and two star players), keeping them from being lured away by an attractive suitor--Hoover High School?
Join me on a twisting journey, and let's see what answers we come up.
On the morning of December 12, 1998, I awoke to the sounds of a barking dog. Many of you probably live in neighborhoods much like mine. The houses are fairly close together, and a lot of folks have dogs. Most of the dogs bark occasionally, but it has never been bothersome. In fact, it has kind of become the background music to our lives. Until this morning, the only one I had ever really noticed much was a cocker spaniel who lived behind us named Rover (pretty creative name). He will sometimes let out this mournful, pining, wailing sound, kind of like something you'd hear in a country song. We usually say something like, "Rover's got the blues again," and it stops pretty soon.
But the sound on December 12 was different and unfamiliar. It was piercingly loud and grating, and it sounded like an unusual kind of dog--maybe a hunting dog. "Where in the heck is that coming from," I thought.
My wife could sleep through a Ted Nugent concert, so I knew she wasn't going to do anything about it. Murphy, our miniature schnauzer, was in her usual place--stretched out between us, with her head plopped between our two pillows. Schnauzers are a vigilant sort, and she usually was pretty good about checking out unusual sounds. In fact, we called her our director of security. But it was chilly in the house that morning, and she didn't seem interested in getting out from under the covers. She looked at me as if to say, "I'm toasty at the moment. Why don't you go check on it and report back to me."
(By the way, this blog is inspired by, and dedicated to, Murphy's memory. Without her, I don't think my wife and I would have maintained our sanity through this legal ordeal. In fact, I'm not sure we would even be alive. Anyone who ever has had and lost a beloved pet might be interested in a series of posts about Murphy, which begins here.)
So I padded downstairs on my own and looked out our back kitchen window, toward the house to our east. That's where a local celebrity now resided. Fred Yancey, football coach at Briarwood Christian High, had led the Lions to their first state championship two days earlier.
I was surprised to see the offending canine in Fred's backyard, howling at . . . well, I have no idea what the dog was howling at. I just knew I had never heard a howl quite like that before. And I was surprised to see a dog in Fred's yard. Fred had never seemed like much of an animal person to me. He seemed to be mostly into God and football, not necessarily in that order.
(One of the great things about having Fred as a neighbor was that he was almost as useless as I was when it came to handyman things. I never had to worry about him developing a prizewinning lawn or otherwise showing me up in the "honey-do" category. Fred was a coach, end of story. On the home-care front, he was lucky if he could get the lawnmower started. I like guys like that. The neighbor on the other side, at the time, was another story. He built a deck on his house--himself. And I had a workman tell me one time that it was the best-built deck he had ever seen. In fact, the workman told me he couldn't afford to build a deck of that quality. I hated that neighbor.)
As my ears tried to adjust to the dog's howling, I noticed something else: Fred had fenced his yard. That's strange, I thought. The Yanceys were always very considerate neighbors, and putting up a fence is usually the kind of thing you mention to a neighbor before you start--just to make sure the fence is in the right place, etc. I didn't have a problem with the fence, but I was surprised Fred hadn't mentioned it. And here's something else I couldn't figure: Fred had been in the midst of trying to win the first state championship in his school's history. Seemed like a strange time to suddenly get a dog and fence his yard.
My wife still was hibernating, but I was dying to get her thoughts on these events. So I went upstairs and cranked up one of my old Alice Cooper albums. (She can sleep through Ted Nugent, but nobody sleeps through Alice Cooper--heh, heh.)
Once my wife was out of her "morning comatose" state, she looked out the kitchen window and noticed something else. "Hey, there's a strange guy out there." She was right. A thin guy with a mustache was standing in Fred's backyard, with the dog howling at full force. We'd never seen this guy before. But Fred often had members of his coaching staff over to his house, so I figured this guy must be an assistant coach. The Yanceys had a "mother-in-law" apartment in their basement. We thought maybe this guy was a new staff member and was living in the basement apartment while he got settled in.
The guy had gone indoors when we went outside to check things out. We stood on the edge of the driveway, and the dog came to the side of the fence nearest us. He was a handsome fellow, and he quieted down once he had company. We talked with him a little, telling him how good looking he was, the way we did with Murphy. He seemed to like that.
Then we noticed the guy, standing above us, on the steps of the deck. We said hello and introduced ourselves. We said he had a good-looking dog. "He doesn't normally bark this much," the guy said. We hadn't said anything about his barking.
We asked what kind of dog he was. "A shepherd/coonhound mix," the guy said. The coonhound part would explain the piercing bark. (We're dog people, so it's ironic that this little tale starts with a dog issue. But it certainly was not the dog's fault. Coonhounds really are not pets; they are working dogs, and they are bred to hunt. Sticking them in a small backyard, with little exercise and nothing much to do, is just asking for problems. We would soon discover that these people had no clue how to handle a dog like this.)
The fellow said his name was Mike McGarity. An unfamiliar woman appeared briefly on the deck, but she didn't come out to visit. I asked McGarity if he worked with Fred at Briarwood. "No, I work at Blue Cross and Blue Shield."
Oh, I guess you're just staying with Fred awhile? "Oh no, we live here; this is our house."
Well, Herve Villechaize could have knocked me over. There had been no for-sale sign in the yard. The Yanceys hadn't said a word to us about moving.
"Where did Fred and Sharon go?" I said.
"They moved to a house on the Briarwood campus. The school has a house, and that's where they are going to live."
McGarity didn't seem interested in having a lengthy conversation, and we were too stunned to say much, so we chatted a little while longer before saying our goodbyes. I do remember that I was wearing a University of Missouri sweatshirt, and McGarity noticed and said something about Larry Smith, Mizzou's coach at the time. "Wow, if he knows who Missouri's coach is, he must be a serious sports fan," I thought. I figured we'd get along great.
As we went back into our garage, my wife said something I will never forget. "Something about him doesn't seem right."
I was stunned. I'd never heard her say that about anybody. And the guy seemed fine to me.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"I don't know; something just doesn't seem right," she said. "Didn't you think it was strange that he stayed on the stairs, above us, the whole time and didn't come down to where we were? And his wife didn't say a thing? Isn't that unusual?"
"Well, maybe a little. Maybe they're just stressed out from the move."
"That could be. But the whole thing just seems strange."
Well, I've heard of a "woman's intuition." But I had no idea just how sharp my wife's intuition would prove to be.