wife describes her turbulent, faith-filled walk
The Derrick, 12/14/01 By LISA THOMPSON
thank you goes out to The Derrick for allowing this story to be posted
In a faded picture
snapped almost a quarter of a century ago, the newlyweds beam at the camera from
the red vinyl front seat of a low-slung coupe. Their faces together and turned
toward the camera, they're caught the moment before they embark on the
astounding ride they will have together.
Dressed in the delicate
lace of a homemade wedding gown, Mary leans against her new husband, the side of
her face resting against his. Her almond-shaped brown eyes calm, she smiles with
no trace of doubt.
Roger, his bangs brushed
sideways over his wide-set eyes, wears a more vulnerable expression. His hand
clasps hers in his lap. Maybe he's just wary of the camera. But he almost looks
as though he's wary of the happiness in his own half smile, afraid he might lose
it. Indeed, Mary says the only thing that marred the reception was her husband's
impatience to whisk her away.
They planned a two-week
backpacking honeymoon, alone together in the remote reaches of the Shenandoah
But the trip was cut
short by a marauding bear that crashed the camp as Mary was trying to cook
dinner. Their campsite ransacked and tent destroyed, the young couple abandoned
their makeshift home and climbed a 14-mile hike down mountain cliffs in the dark
with no light.
"We only made it
through with the Lord's grace," Mary said. "We always said it was some
way to start a marriage."
Her constancy. His
unrest. The wild domestic disruption and faith-filled walk together through the
dark, whether they knew it or not then, were all signs of the relationship that
was to come.
For months, a man known
as Clayton Lee Waagner has loomed large in the American imagination. This man
talked matter-of-factly about being on a murderous anti-abortion mission from
God. A bandit nearing folk-legend status, he outsmarted a spanking new prison
with a pocket comb and led federal authorities on a frustrating months-long
Clayton, after all,
didn't just disappear. He posted threatening messages for the world to read on
the Internet. He allegedly committed bank robberies in full view of surveillance
cameras with no attempt at disguise. He crashed a car loaded with a bomb and
pro-life propaganda and walked away before police arrived. Then police believe
he car-jacked another, later setting the driver free with payment for his
The television show
"America's Most Wanted" repeatedly broadcast his mug shot and alleged
criminal escapades nationwide, but still he eluded capture. And weeks before he
peacefully surrendered in a Cincinnati copy shop, he went to the home of a
high-profile anti-abortionist and allegedly admitted to mailing hundreds of hoax
threats at the height of a vulnerable nation's anthrax terror. He wanted
abortion clinic workers to know he'd targeted 43 of them for death if they
didn't walk away from their tasks.
The longer he was out
there, the more worried authorities became. The U.S. attorney general listed him
among the most dangerous fugitives in the country. The victims terrorized by his
alleged crimes likely agreed.
But that's something
that his family finds hard to reconcile with the man they know.
They make no excuses for
his alleged crimes, nor do they approve of or understand them, they say. But the
husband and father whom they know by his birth name, Roger, is not capable of
carrying out the threats he's made.
In family anecdotes and
snapshots, they provide a context to his actions that draws Clayton Lee Waagner,
outlaw, down out of the heady realm of the wanted posters plastered nationwide
and places him in the ordinary, recognizable context of a faded family Polaroid.
Theirs is not the
experience of the bank tellers or clinic workers traumatized by Waagner's
When seen through his
family's eyes, Clayton, while still being the enigmatic outlaw, is also
variously a revered and disappointing father, compelling and problematic
husband, and, to some extent, deeply wounded 45-year-old child. Technologically
gifted, impulsive, and extreme in his emotions, ideas and actions, both good and
bad, the Clayton Waagner his family describes continually sabotages his own best
intentions. Internal struggles they don't understand have driven him from one
end of the nation to the other and, in the end, may have separated him from
those who mean most to him.
His latest extraordinary
campaign to end abortion through terror did not occur in a vacuum. It came, his
family says, after a series of life shocks - the death of his estranged adoptive
father, the loss of his granddaughter through a premature birth. And it occurred
against the backdrop of his wife's lifelong struggle to come to terms with an
abortion she sought alone at the age of 19.
Everyone has a reason
for being the way they are, his wife says. Clayton has many.
Hearts and souls
The two met at the 700
Club, a Christian community and broadcast center led by evangelist Pat Robertson
in Virginia. Mary traveled there with her fiancÚ to celebrate her 24th
birthday. Clayton worked there. He was first employed in the broadcast office,
then as chauffeur and entertainment coordinator for guests of the 700 Club
television shows, Mary, 48, says.
Clayton made no attempt
to hide his interest. On their first meeting, he told her he was going to marry
her. Thinking him bold, Mary at first tried to conceal her interest. "But I
was thinking, 'Where have you been all my life?'" she says.
After their electric
first encounter, there was no turning back. Mary's former relationship ended and
she married Clayton in May 1977 in a United Methodist Church in Braceville,
Both had troubled pasts.
But both independently had been born again in their Christian faith the year
before, Mary says. They found acceptance in each other.
Clayton was born Roger
Alan Clay in North Dakota. While still a toddler, his mother Nancy's first
marriage broke up. Clayton was then raised in Georgia, South Carolina and
Florida by his mother and her second husband, Carl Waagner, whom Clayton
believed was his biological father, Mary says.
But when he was 8 years
old, he overheard a relative talking about him and learned that Waagner had
adopted him, Mary says. His biological father, he was told, was a Cherokee
Indian with the last name Clay. That man, however, never acknowledged him as his
son, even after Clayton as a young man sought him out in Chicago, Mary says.
Mary says Clayton kept
his birth name Roger until about 12 years ago, when in an apparent attempt to
make a connection with his biological father, he had his name legally changed to
Clayton Waagner. He also named his eldest son Clayton.
After learning he was
adopted, Clayton, formerly a straight-A elementary school student, failed, Mary
He continued to
struggle, until after two tries at the ninth grade, he quit school in Orlando,
Fla., and joined the U.S. Coast Guard. In the meantime, his mother married
again. And later, again, Mary says.
"He had four
fathers," she said. "Roger said my father had spent more time with him
in the first year of our marriage than all four of his dads."
"loved" the Coast Guard, Mary says. He told her he took part in
rescues and traveled. But he also found it difficult to follow orders, she says.
He was eventually discharged.
Christians at the 700
Club befriended him.
"They really took
him under their wing," she says. "You cannot hang around those people
long and not give your heart to the Lord."
Mary, meanwhile, was
undergoing her own conversion in Ohio.
The daughter of a
Methodist minister, she was raised under a strict moral code.
But when she was 19,
Mary became the victim of a date rape.
"I was raised of
course that you don't get into that mess before you get married...so much
importance was placed on that, it made me feel I didn't have anything left to
offer the world," she says. "Months later, I ended up pregnant."
Feeling, she says, as if
she were "worthless," she sought an abortion.
"I was two months
pregnant," she says. "(The abortion) it didn't even seem real to me.
there was a change. I felt like I had lost a part of myself."
A Pentecostal church
community in Mercer led by Vietnam vet Mike Warnke helped restore her feelings
About a year later, she
"When I met Roger
and we fell in love, I knew about his past and he knew about mine," she
"He didn't care
what I had walked through. I didn't care what he had walked through."
The ride begins
The two settled first in
Virginia. About a year and a half later, their first daughter Emily arrived. But
trouble was on its way, as well as a baby. During their first year of marriage,
police arrested Clayton for breaking and entering homes along a delivery route
that he worked, Mary says.
The news shocked her.
"When he got picked
up, I told the police, 'You've got the wrong man,'" she says.
encouraged Mary to leave Clayton after the arrest, telling her he was
"worthless." But Mary waited and worked, while her husband served 31/2
years in an Ohio prison for the burglaries. While there, he read every book
"he could lay his hands on" Mary says, and taught himself how to build
and program computers.
When he was released,
they used money she had earned in a floral business to buy a computer. The first
day in business he sold a program, she says.
During the next 10
years, the couple traveled the country, as one after the other, on almost a
yearly basis, their other eight children arrived, Clay, Rebecca, Kelly, Luke,
Jane, Cody, Colt and Hope.
In their 24-year
marriage, the couple has moved 39 times, Mary says. A lot of that moving came
during those years. She and the older children rattle off the states and towns
they occupied. Greenville, Pa., and nearby Masury, Ohio. For a time, they ran a
commercial fishing boat in Alaska. They lived in town after town in Georgia -
Blue Ridge, Atlanta and Dahlonega, to name a few. They lived in Orlando, Fla.,
California and Virginia.
Clayton was in the
computer programming business and, at times, experienced great success,
according to Mary. She says one year he sold a program to a nationwide insurance
company. With that income, they bought a motor home, loaded up the children and
toured the country for six months.
But her husband was
restless. Success usually spelled the end of whatever he was working on, she
"He'd become bored
and the challenge was gone," she says. "He'd want to get on and do
Mary says that if her
husband was committing crimes during this era, she wasn't aware of it. But the
nomadic period ended, nevertheless, with another arrest.
Mary says her husband
returned from a computer show with a mountain of equipment. When he told her how
much he paid for it, she suspected something wasn't right. Authorities thought
so, too. They pulled him over with a warrant for transporting stolen property,
The charge itself might
have earned him only about a year in jail. But Clayton had a handgun in his
vehicle, and with his prior conviction, that meant prison time. He was sentenced
to serve a year on the transport charge, five years for the weapons possession,
While he sat in a
federal prison in Bradford, Mary settled in Sharon.
Clayton, she says, had
kept the family not only in constant motion, but also in isolation. In Sharon,
she was able for the first time in years to form lasting friendships with
members of a Christian community.
When her husband was
released from prison in 1998, they looked for a home in this area and found the
plot north of Clintonville.
"When our feet
first hit the ground, we felt, 'This is it, this is home,'" she says.
Mary thought their
trials were at an end. She dreamed of establishing a home, then building other
homes on the 19-acre property so their children could come and visit or live
there when they grew up.
"I thought we're
finally going to put the family back together. I'd found my dream property. I
thought we were finally going to put some roots down," she says.
And for a time they did.
believe the cool memories we have here," she says.
In addition to being
what eldest daughter Emily smilingly refers to as a "computer geek,"
Clayton enjoyed games, reading and hiking. The family played volleyball, shot
target practice, took walks in the hundreds of wooded acres that abut the
But the new millenium,
with its specter of a computer-triggered cataclysm was fast approaching. At the
same time, devastating personal losses struck.
For Clayton, with his
stark biblical worldview and broken past, the convergence apparently proved to
be an undoing.
Mary says he became Y2K
obsessed. They planned a compound on their property where friends and relatives
could stay should the modern world give way to chaos because of a computer
She helped plan. But she
also argued with him. She felt that if disaster struck at the dawn of 2000, God
would provide. Clayton, she said, felt he needed to prepare for a war.
Then in the midst of
this apocalyptic anticipation came a series of life shocks that apparently
deeply affected her husband, though no one at the time realized to what extent.
Carl Waagner, the
adoptive father whom Clayton most identified with among his mother's four
husbands, died in late 1998, Mary said.
But Clayton learned of
his death two weeks after services were over. The family told him they didn't
notify him because they didn't want him there, Mary says.
She'd rarely seen her
husband cry. But when he received that news, he stood at the phone with tears
streaming down his cheeks.
But he quickly converted
the grief to rage.
"He switched modes.
He was angry that he was robbed again of a family situation," she says.
"He just didn't do
A few months later,
another death. The couple's oldest daughter bore a baby girl after carrying her
for more than five months, but the child died after birth.
The infant's death
silenced the normally irrepressible Clayton, Mary says.
He sat in the hospital
room holding the deceased baby and stroking her hand.
"His face was
tormented," she says.
marriage, Mary says her husband would periodically withdraw to a place she could
"I would tell him
'You're like a little boy sitting on a chair in a dark room with a brick wall
all around you.' He would only let me in so far and no farther," she says.
The time after his
granddaughter's death was like that, only worse.
transformed in his brain," she says. "He really pulled back."
"I asked him
(later) how he was doing with it," she says.
"He said when he
was holding her it did something to him. All he could think was that they didn't
want to lose this baby and little boys and girls farther along than this are
"That's all he
said. I had no clue what else was in his mind," she says.
Several months later, in
May 1999, she got a better idea.
Her husband and a
neighbor, Jason Matthew Miller, left for what Mary thought was a computer demo.
But they didn't come
home that night. And soon police arrived to tell Mary that the pair was
suspected of stealing a sport utility vehicle in Reno and fleeing the county.
Miller was caught after
a hold-up in Lexington, Ky.
Clayton remained on the
Mary believed he was
making a desperate attempt to get the things they still needed for Y2K. But when
police later found lists of abortion providers in one of the vehicles he had
abandoned, his purpose became clearer.
Mary saw her husband
again only briefly. He appeared in the house while he was still on the lam and
ordered the family to go with him. Mary thinks he was worried about leaving them
alone at the dawn of the new year. But the family's flight lasted only days.
Clayton was arrested after the motor home in which they were traveling broke
down in Illinois.
The rest is well known.
Clayton testified in court in Illinois that during his time alone on the run he
stalked abortion clinic workers because God told him to. He would have killed
them, he said, but he couldn't bring himself to pull the trigger. He was
convicted, only to escape and embark on what he believed was a divinely ordained
nine-month campaign of terror.
Mary thinks it is
possible God was working through her husband.
"I don't discount
the idea," she says.
But Clayton's actions
also make her recall his years-long struggle with her efforts to recover from
her experience of abortion.
asking, 'What flipped his trigger?'" she says.
It may have been her
Mary says that after
every one of their children was born, she again mourned for the child that might
"I would be in
trauma, wondering what the child looked like, who the little one was and wishing
I could go back," she says. "He had years of walking through that with
me, trying to get me healed."
"He was in a
situation where the love of his life has gone through, as far as I'm concerned,
a trauma. That did something to him," she says.
One time, she says, she
even told Clayton she just wished the doctor had not been able to show up at the
clinic the day of the procedure.
"But I wasn't
thinking of killing him," she says.
And in the end, she
doesn't think that's really what her husband was thinking either, no matter what
"People see a
terrorist with no compassion...I don't know all he's done, I don't want to
know," she says. "But I do know he loves children...He would do
everything possible to talk women out of abortions."
"Roger does not
have murder in his heart, it is just not there," she says.
"I just know that
man could never take a life."
What the future holds
Her constancy. His
unrest. The wild domestic disruption and faith-filled walk together through the
Even now, nearly 25
years later, Mary Waagner still smiles with no trace of doubt when talking of
her husband. And she still finds herself praying in the dark, hoping that one
day they can somehow establish a stable home, safe from disruption.
In 1977, she vowed to
love, honor and obey the tall, charismatic young man from Georgia who offered
hope for a shared, healed future. Despite all that's happened, it is clear that,
for now, she plans to do that still.
"I have walked
through almost 25 years of ups and downs and it's almost like I feel, why would
I quit now?" she says. "I love my husband."
"When I got
married, I got married for life," she says. "I am committed to him and
to God. I don't have any reason not to be."
She knows that Clayton
likely faces life in prison if convicted of all his alleged crimes. But she
still hopes for a miracle. In the meantime, she's praying that God will help her
make something positive out of her husband's campaign, possibly by carrying on
her own anti-abortion work.
She doesn't allow
herself to dwell on her grief or love, too often. It costs too much.
But sometimes, she sits
with a cup of coffee on the front porch that they never finished and remembers
the times they sat there making plans and looking at the stars.
Without speaking to him,
it's difficult for an outsider to read her husband's heart. His alleged behavior
sends too many conflicting messages.
But for the family, he
may have left a sign.
late in their marriage, Mary says, her husband, like a smitten teen, declared
his love on an area landmark.
Forever," he wrote in bold letters, enclosing his wife's name in a large,
crookedly drawn, black-painted heart.