Gruesome death answered a nickel Waco phone call from a devout spinster wearing a new $100 suit.
Rich-looking, elegant was that black tailored wool gabardine suit. It was probably the first, certainly the last, extravagance of usually thrifty Miss Lillian Euphemia Schliefer, 70.
That phone call sewed together — much as Miss Schliefer’s small savings from a California pension were sewn to her undergarments — a fantastic tangled web of international mystery, deceit, religion, sex, horror, and a taxicab with wanderlust.
Dedicated Miss Schliefer telephoned from a Waco bus station to the Mount Carmel world headquarters of the Davidian Seventh Day Adventists on Feb. 16. All she wanted was a ride out to the mountain religious retreat she had watched grow for some 16 years.
She was happy to break a cross-country bus trip from California to Florida on one of her periodic visits to her native Jamaica in the West Indies. Often before had she renewed her intimate friendships at Mount Carmel.
But this time, Death rode to town in a black nine-passenger Cadillac that had recently been a taxi in Alaska.
At the wheel was a desperate young blonde, so broke that she had just sold three dishes with Mexican pattern to a Waco café to raise one dollar in cash.
A virtual stranger at Mount Carmel, no member of that religious cult, her background was vague, mysterious. Offered shelter there in the name of a compassionate God, the long and forbidden arm of coincidence had put her on stage at the beautiful mountain settlement when Miss Schliefer’s nickel fell into the phone coin box. She offered to meet the traveler, driver to Mount Carmel.
A few days later in this incredible script there awaited this California lady a brutal bludgeoning, three bullets in her breast, a bloody shroud of a tablecloth, and a bed in an Alabama lake.
Mrs. Bystrom, 38, and James Lee McGraw, 29, held in Birmingham, Ala., on first degree charges of murdering Mss Schliefer, Saturday steadfastly denied guilt. McGraw told officers he had met Mrs. Bystrom when he was discharged from the Army in Alaska in 1947, had driven the big, fatally-black Cadillac for her in Alaska in a combination taxi-tourist service.
Both had been arrested in Memphis, Tenn., this week after the big car had been traded for a Chevrolet in Augusta, Ga. This car was then traced, according to police.
Sam Fuller, Waco police identification officer, was credited coast to coast for his work in linking the disappearance of Miss Schliefer with information about Mrs. Bystrom received from Mrs. Ross Green at Mt. Carmel.
The package Fuller put together led to identification of the frightfully-battered body of the traveling church worker. Nude except for stockings, shoes and eyeglasses, with arms and legs bound in undergarments, the body was pulled from Martin Lake near Alexander City, Ala., last Feb. 24, and buried then as unknown. Tip-off on discovery of the body had been a bloodied tablecloth and burning flashlight found by a boy fisherman on a bridge over the lake.
In Birmingham, Mrs. Bystrom, divorced three years ago, said the Waco Davidian Seventh Day Adventists had asked her to drive Miss Schliefer to Miami. She said they had left Waco on Feb. 20, that the last she had seen of Miss Schliefer was at a bus station in Birmingham on Feb. 22. Because the Cadillac had broken down, Miss Schliefer planned to continue her trip by bus, Mrs. Bystrom told police.
“If I had only told Sister Schliefer to go by bus, and not with this stranger, I would not today be helping to get her grave ready in our cemetery,” said slight, spectacled sect leader Victor Houteff Friday.
He stood in the driveway leading to modern buildings snuggled on a hilltop, looking toward a fabulous view of the McLennan countryside. He had just left the freshly-dug grave which awaits the torn, decomposed, battered remains of his murdered follower.
“But,” said Houteff, “I had no reason to be too suspicious. When Mrs. Bystrom and Sister Schliefer got here from the bus station that ill-fated day, they had already made tentative plans for their trip to Florida. I thought driving there in a big Cadillac would be nicer for Sister Schliefer than the tedious bus trip. She wanted to pay the costs, and I knew that Mrs. Bystrom had no funds. It seemed a convenient arrangement.”
Houteff looked at the packed dirt road, his tie and thinning gray hair blowing in the wind.
“I am so sorry it happened,” he said. “I just didn’t have any idea such a thing could be done.
“I was a little puzzled when Mrs. Bystrom, who had told me she was bound for Alaska, where she used her nine-passenger car as a taxi, now wanted to go to Miami. When I asked her why she had suddenly decided to drive Sister Schliefer to Florida, still farther from her home in Fairbanks, she told me:
“’Well, Florida is as good a place as Alaska to get a job, and I need the money’.”
Houteff said that Mrs. Bystrom had come to Mount Carmel with a convincing story that she needed food and shelter, that she was temporarily out of funds. She professed great interest in religious study.
“Once before, in July,” said Houteff, “this woman, accompanied by McGraw, had visited us. At that time, we asked them to have dinner with us. Mrs. Bystrom said she had read some of our literature, was interested, and would like to become acquainted with us.
“On that July visit, Mrs. Bystrom told me she and McGraw were to be married. They left after dinner, I have no idea where they went.
“You see,” explained Houteff, “We have occasional visitors, and are glad to have them come. When someone asks us for help, we give it to them, if we possibly can. We do not delve into their lives.
“It is a terrible thing, this murder.”
Houteff, himself, is a native of Bulgaria, now a naturalized American citizen, who still speaks with a noticeable accent. He is married, about 50 years old, has a sunburned complexion, and weighs about 155 pounds. He is about 5 feet, 6 inches tall.
Mrs. Ross Green, member of the church and secretary to Houteff, recalled that Miss Schliefer always dressed neatly, wore good clothes, but thought that maybe her elegant new suit had something to do with the horrible murder in Alabama.
“Maybe,” said Mrs. Green, “it was because of the new $100 suit. She always dressed neatly, well, but this suit was quite rich looking, and perhaps Mrs. Bystrom thought Sister Schliefer was wealthy. Actually, though, her sole source of income was a small California pension. She was quite thrifty, however, and saved as much as she could. Enough to take her on periodic trips to Jamaica where she was born.”
Mrs. Green, about 32, is a friendly, attractive woman, whose father was Filipino, her mother American. She was born in California, and has been in Waco since 1936, the whole time with the Davidians.
As she talked, she held her 5-month-old baby girl in her arms in the attractive living room of their native stone home on the center’s grounds.
“Sister Schliefer wasn’t really a missionary,” said Mrs. Green. “She just liked people, and wanted to tell them about our religion. The church never had to help her with the expenses of these trips.”
Mrs. Green put the baby down in its crib as she moved to the door to have her picture taken.
“Mrs. Bystrom was rather coarse looking,” she said. “Her eyes were noticeably wide apart. Some said she had a scar on her nose between her eyes, but I’m not sure. I know that I did not believe her story that she was a beautician. She just didn’t look like one.
“While she was here, she kept busy writing and phoning, trying to raise some money, I think. She didn’t do any religious study, though. I know she didn’t have any money, because she was trying to sell little personal things she had with her. A juice-squeezer, plates, odds and ends. She didn’t have any luck selling them,” said Mrs. Green.
Actually there is never any U.S. currency at the center. All that they receive, from the sale of produce from their 400 acres over Lake Waco, and from any other source, is deposited daily in a Waco bank. All money needs of 100 or so vegetarians who live at the center are met with their own exchange script, printed there.
Mrs. Green’s husband is a contractor and builder at Waco when he is not building for the center.
The center is largely supported by contributions from its church membership, and is world headquarters for its branch of the Adventist sect. Literature of the religion is printed at the center, and distributed from there. It has a mailing list of 50,000.
About 20 children are in the community, and all of them are sent to public schools in and near Waco. Each night at the center, they are given instruction in the Bible.
All the residents eat in a communal mess hall, give whatever they can in work and money to the church, and are provided for by it.
Perhaps the best way to explain its basic principle is to quote the Bible itself, Acts 3:44:
“And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
“And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.”
Mrs. Green explained that all the members of the church are insured by it in the sense that the church may provide burial for those who die. In case of Mrs. Schliefer, said Mrs. Green, the family made no move, but approved an offer by the Davidians to provide the final resting place for this sister who had been so closely associated with the church and Mt. Carmel for more than 16 years.
“Sister Schliefer would want to be buried here,” said Houteff, simply.