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Early Graves Is the Most Bizarre Love Story You’ll Ever Read

An Edgar Award-winning author tells the story of a serial killer couple. 

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  • Photo Credit: Peter Forster / Unsplash

When Alvin Neelley met Judith Ann Adams, he was 26 and she was 15, but that did not stop the couple from eloping one year later. After all, they say evil has a way of finding itself, and the passion between the two of them was undeniable. 

Soon after they married, the couple began committing crimes together. A life of crime was not new to Alvin, who had been stealing cars since he was a teenager, but it was all new to Judith. It began as more or less mean-spirited mischief, prank calls, and vandalism, but they soon expanded their oeuvre to robbing gas stations and convenience stores. Their first mistake came later in 1980 when they robbed a woman at gunpoint and were caught trying to cash her stolen checks. 

Alvin was sent to prison while Judith ended up at the Youth Development Center in Rome, Georgia where she gave birth to twins. She wrote to Alvin throughout her time there, spinning lies about how the staff at the center abused her in order to stoke Alvin’s anger. Once she was released in 1981, she moved to Tennessee and returned to robbing convenience stores while Alvin’s parents watched the children. By the time Alvin was released in 1982, he was set on revenge against the staff of the Youth Development Center.

Related: Til Death Do Us Part: 7 Romances That Ended in Murder

By September, they were back in Rome with much more violent aspirations than their first crime spree. On the 11th, they fired guns at the home of Ken Dooley, a YDC employee. The next day, they firebombed his co-worker Lisa Adair’s house with a Molotov cocktail. But it seems that their violent impulses weren’t satisfied. 

On September 25, they abducted 13-year-old Lisa Ann Millican from the Riverbend Mall in Rome. They took her to a motel in Scottsboro, Alabama where they tortured her for three days. On the 28th, Judith took Lisa to a remote canyon and injected her with liquid drain cleaner, apparently because Alvin had learned it was the best way to kill someone without leaving behind evidence. When it failed to poison her quickly enough, Judith shot her. 

Lisa Ann Millican was only the first of Alvin and Judith’s victims. In October, they kidnapped young engaged couple Janice Chatman and John Hancock. Hancock was shot and Chatman was brought to a motel where she was tortured and murdered. But Hancock survived his wounds and quickly identified the Neelleys as his abductors. 

Alvin and Judith Neelley were arrested just five days after they kidnapped Chatman and Hancock. In Early Graves, Edgar Award-winner Thomas H. Cook draws on police records and interviews to tell the story of the Neelley’s horrific crimes and passionate love that led to Judith becoming the youngest woman ever sentenced to death. 

Read an excerpt from Early Graves below and then purchase the book!

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Early Graves

By Thomas H. Cook

YEARS LATER, REMEMBERING it all again, Ken Dooley would find it hard to believe that so much horror could begin so mundanely, with no more dramatic fanfare than the ringing of his phone.

He answered it immediately, glanced at the clock, and unconsciously recorded the time: 7:00 P.M.

“Hello.”

The voice at the other end did not alarm him. It was a female voice, calm, precise, without a hint of nervousness, nothing to make him in the least suspicious.

“Is this Ken Dooley’s house?”

“Yes, it is.”

“My name’s Susan. I’m a friend of Cherie, your wife. From way back. When she lived in Kentucky.”

Dooley nodded dully, glanced about the dining room, his mind more on finishing the dinner he’d just made for himself than on the voice still holding him on the line.

“I’m going to be passing through Rome,” the woman said, “and I wanted to stop by and see Cherie.”

“Okay, that’s fine,” Dooley said.

“How do you get to your house?”

Dooley gave precise directions. “Well, once you get to Rome, get on Maple Street and come to Lindale, to the Daither Park Diner and take a right. After you take a right, we’re the third brick house on the left.”

Dooley waited for the woman to answer, and when she didn’t, he decided to make absolutely sure that she couldn’t miss his house.

“There’ll be a red Volkswagen in the driveway,” he told her matter-of-factly. “And a green and white Buick, too.”

The woman seemed satisfied that he had told her enough.

“Okay,” she said. “Well, you tell Cherie that I’ll see her when we get to Rome.”

“Okay,” Dooley answered. Then he hung up, finished his dinner, and stretched out in the den.

For the next few hours Dooley remained home alone. His wife and son were at the Rome Little Theater where Robby had been scheduled to audition for a part in one of the theater’s upcoming productions. But the solitude didn’t bother him. He needed the rest and relaxation. It had been a long day at the YDC, Rome’s Youth Development Center, where he taught the female juvenile offenders who’d been placed there. He liked some of them, joked with and counseled them. But there were others he didn’t care for at all. They were hard, cold, calculating, with as many different personalities as they needed to survive. He’d been around long enough to understand how important it was to know who you were dealing with at the YDC, because the one thing all the girls had in common was that in the end they’d be on the streets again, free to do the good or evil that was already in their hearts.

Cherie and Robby returned home at around nine in the evening. Robby was tired from the long day’s activities and trudged directly down the hallway to his room. Cherie sat down on the sofa in the den, and Ken stirred himself enough to ask how Robby had done at the audition. Outside he could hear the early-September winds as they rustled through the trees and shrubbery that formed a ragged, easily penetrable wall between his house and the street.

“By the way,” he said after a moment, “you got a call tonight.”

“Who from?”

Ken glanced outside. It was very dark except for the small area of grayish light that swam out from the den’s large, well-lighted window. “Some friend of yours from Kentucky,” he said. “She said she was coming through Rome and she wanted to stop and visit.”

“What was her name?”

“Susan.”

Cherie Dooley looked at her husband quizzically. “Susan?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s strange.”

Ken’s eyes drifted toward his wife. “What is?”

Cherie shrugged lightly. “What she told you.”

“What’s strange about it?”

His wife’s answer was not enough to nudge Ken Dooley from the night’s deepening peacefulness. “I don’t have a friend from Kentucky named Susan,” she said.

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In the South, as in the rest of America, September is a busy month. With the summer at an end, schools reopen, and the resulting shift in schedules inevitably throws the general pace of life into a higher gear. In Rome, football season had already begun, and on Friday nights, the rural roads of the surrounding counties were dotted with bright yellow school buses on their way to and from the scores of regional intramural games. On the night of September 10, Ken Dooley traveled to Bremen, Georgia, with the team he coached and Robby managed. For the next few hours he rooted loudly from the rickety wooden stands while his team fought for every inch of the one-hundred-yard field. At the end of the game he was exhausted, and the long bus ride home, with the team shouting and laughing behind him, hardly served to ease the strain that had been steadily accumulating all day. It was a pleasure finally to reach his own house, and he smiled at the prospect of a hot shower followed by a long, deep sleep.

Cherie met him at the door. “You got a call tonight,” she said.

“Who from?” Dooley asked as he walked past her and made his way into the den, where he slouched down on the sofa by the window.

Cherie stood at the entrance to the den, her shoulder against its wooden frame. “I don’t know who it was,” she told him.

Dooley drew in a long, weary breath. “They didn’t say?”

“It was a girl, that’s all I know.”

Dooley thought of the YDC, the many girls he knew there. It was not uncommon for one of them to call him. “Well, what’d she want?” he asked.

“Just to know if you were home.”

Dooley’s eyes shifted over to his wife, suddenly struck by the oddity of the question. “To know if I was home?” he asked. “When was this?”

“Around nine,” Cherie said. “I told her you weren’t here but that you’d be in later. I think it was probably one of the people from the Center.”

Dooley nodded. “Could be.”

“Anyway, she said she’d call you back.”

Dooley looked at his watch. It was nearly eleven. “And she called just that one time?”

Cherie nodded.

“Okay,” Dooley said with a shrug. For a time he remained on the sofa, then he got up and headed down the hallway to his bedroom to prepare for bed. Far away, in the distant bedroom, he could hear the phone as it rang suddenly, then his wife’s voice as she answered it.

“It’s for you,” she called to him.

Dooley headed for the dining room.

“It’s that girl again,” his wife whispered as she handed him the receiver.

Dooley took the phone. “Hello.”

There was a moment of silence, then, to his surprise, he heard a male rather than a female voice.

“You’ve screwed the last girl you’re going to screw,” the man told him coldly. “And you’re going to pay.”

Dooley was thunderstruck. He had never heard a voice so threatening. “Who the hell is this?” he demanded.

The man hung up immediately, leaving Dooley standing motionlessly in his dining room, half-dazed by the threat.

“Who was it?” his wife asked as she came back into the room.

“I don’t know,” Dooley told her. He returned the phone to its cradle, then headed back to the bedroom.

Related: A Killer Calls: The Unsolved Murder of Dorothy Jane Scott

As he prepared for bed, Dooley continued to think about the voice, how hard it was, how threatening. He talked about it to his wife, then decided to get it off his mind by checking his closet to see if there was anything he might want to add to the various items Cherie had gathered together for the yard sale she was having the next day. On the way to the bedroom he looked in on his children. Both eleven-year-old Robby and three-year-old Carrie were sleeping soundly. Everything seemed normal, so he walked on down the hall to the bedroom and opened the closet.

The sounds came quickly, four of them, loud pops that at first seemed like nothing more than a flurry of backfiring from the street. Then he heard his wife screaming to him that someone was shooting into the house.

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He plunged down the corridor, through the dining room at the far end of the house, where he met Cherie, who was running toward him. He scrambled past her, hurled through the den and out the far end of the house. The front yard was completely silent. He glanced right and left, trying to make out any movement in the chilly darkness. Finally, he looked toward the road. Far down the street, he could see the red taillights of a speeding car. For an instant he thought of following it, but the car disappeared almost immediately. There was nothing to do but return to the house and call the police.

Related: The 8 Most Chilling 911 Calls

After making the call, Dooley walked through the house to check for damage. In the den he could see where two bullets had entered the house. One had come through the wall and hit the tan wicker shade of the swag lamp that hung above the sofa. A second shot had also come through the wall, then veered left and slammed into the bottom of the door. Two others had hit the roof above the window of the den, and later, as he stood outside, staring back toward the house, he realized that the gunman had been deadly serious, that he’d fired at the only lighted window in the house.

Patrolman Ray Logan of the Floyd County Police Department arrived a few minutes later. He gathered what evidence he could, then wrote up complaint number 82-09-00381.

“I’m sorry this happened to you,” he told Dooley before leaving. “And I wish we had more to go on.” But there were no witnesses, no identification of the car or its drivers, only two voices and a pair of taillights that had flickered briefly, then disappeared. “If I were you,” Logan added darkly, “I wouldn’t sleep at home tonight.”

But Dooley did remain at home that night. His children were still sleeping soundly, as they had through all of the events of the evening, and he decided not to wake them. Instead he simply returned to his bedroom and lay down, aware, as he remained all through the night, of the loaded pistol that rested on his closet shelf only a few feet away. It seemed like his best friend.

The next morning at the Rome YDC, Dooley told his supervisor about the incident. The supervisor listened carefully, then asked him to keep the whole matter under wraps, since such an event might frighten other people at the Center. Dooley did as he was asked. Throughout the day, he didn’t tell any of his students, or any of the staff, even the assistant director of the Youth Development Center itself, a tall blond woman whose name was Linda Adair.

Want to keep reading? Click below to get your own copy of Early Graves! 

Featured image: Peter Forster / Unsplash