Waagner's wife describes her turbulent, faith-filled walk
The Derrick, 12/14/01 By LISA THOMPSON

A special 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 Mountains

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 nationwide manhunt.

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 trouble.

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 alleged crimes.

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, Ohio.

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 says.

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."

Clayton "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.

"But afterward, 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 of self-worth.

About a year later, she encountered Clayton.

"When I met Roger and we fell in love, I knew about his past and he knew about mine," she says.

"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.

Clayton mother's 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 believes.

"He'd become bored and the challenge was gone," she says. "He'd want to get on and do something else."

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, she says.

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, Mary says.

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.

Trying again

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.

"You wouldn't 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 property.

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 meltdown.

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.

Gone again

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 well."

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.

Throughout their marriage, Mary says her husband would periodically withdraw to a place she could not reach.

"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.

"Something 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 killed everyday.

"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 run.

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.

"Everyone keeps asking, 'What flipped his trigger?'" she says.

It may have been her grief.

Mary says that after every one of their children was born, she again mourned for the child that might have been.

"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 he says.

"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 dark.

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.

Once, late in their marriage, Mary says, her husband, like a smitten teen, declared his love on an area landmark.

"Mary Forever," he wrote in bold letters, enclosing his wife's name in a large, crookedly drawn, black-painted heart.