To be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Raymond Stafford was born in 1935, too young for WWII and not called to fight in Korea by virtue of being the only son of an aged father who needed him to run the family farm. When his father died in 1960, the farm came to him and his sister received the home where they were raised. But having long since moved to Atlanta, Ray bought the home from her, got married and had a boy and a girl.
Unsatisfied with a purely bucolic existence, Ray leveraged skills he had put to use around the farm to become a home builder. However, finding a fair amount of competition already established locally, he instead gravitated toward the then undeveloped barrier islands on the Atlantic coast, not far from home, and available in large tracts for a modest cost.
Having established a beach home out of which to operate, Ray and his wife spent more and more time away, especially as the children grew older and more capable of handling the day to day business of running the farm. The kids enjoyed their new autonomy and it seemed a good arrangement for everyone.
In the early seventies, the owner of the Edenton Building Supply decided to retire and Ray joined a group of local developers and tradesmen in purchasing the business. This gave Ray access to construction materials at near wholesale prices and so he purchase a diesel tractor and several trailers with which to supply his thriving business on the coast.
Unfortunately, Ray was not the only person who had noticed the opportunities on the barrier islands. Nor did these folks fail to recognize that Ray’s construction sites were supplied by his own trucking outfit. Implicit to this circumstance was the fact that Ray’s trailers always returned to Edenton empty. Before long, Ray was approached discreetly and offered a deal he could not refuse.
Before emigrating to America early in the twentieth century, Angelo Bagheria’s family hailed from a small town on the northern coast of Sicily, just to the east of Palermo. His ancestors were fisherman and so when Angelo was forced to leave Philly after an unfortunate and deadly altercation with a member of MS-13, rather than return to the land of his people, he headed south on I-95 and stopped in a secluded part of Georgia, turned left and disappeared on one of the many barrier islands on the Atlantic coast.
Of course, having no skills as a fisherman and no real intention of taking up the trade when there were much easier, if illegal, ways of making a living, Angelo quietly put himself about locally until he could find a boat captain willing to enter into a lucrative partnership. Having done so, a phone call was made, a rendezvous at sea was arranged and Angelo found himself in possession of several hundred pounds of low grade marijuana. Another phone call gave him the address of a dealer in Macon, and after a making the trip, Angelo returned with the proceeds of the transaction, a part of which he split with the captain, another to his family up north, and they were in business.
After a few successful runs, the quality of the product improved as did the revenue. Angelo upgraded his rented apartment to something nicer on the water and began looking for other opportunities. Cruising the barrier islands, Angelo noticed one of the several developers putting up beach homes who used a tractor and trailer to deliver materials. A little research turned up the fact that the developer lived a considerable way up the road to Macon. By this time, Angelo had grown tired of the weekly trip and was looking for another way to move the goods.
So, one day Angelo walked up to the owner, introduced himself and made the poor man an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Like it or not, Ray Stafford suddenly had a way to profit from back hauling construction materials from Edenton. And his farm was the perfect place to exchange the “freight.” His tractor and trailer were a common sight and deliveries from Macon were to be expected. In fact, the dealer in Macon had a legit business with a truck already making regular deliveries to Edenton, so it was no trouble to drop by the farm and back haul the product.
James had no problems with the deal, given the extra money, and his sister stayed busy selling real estate, so she was never around. They kept it secret from Ray’s wife and simply added the weekly job to one of the many regular chores around the farm.
Unfortunately, the several bails of pot disguised in the trailer came no where near filling it up. And before long, Angelo made another phone call. A warehouse address in Savannah was provided and the driver, now substantially wealthier as a result of his new clandestine efforts, regularly stopped off in the city on his way back to Edenton.
There again, farm equipment was a normal sight at the Stafford farm and there was no way to tell that it might actually be stolen. However, this enterprise carried the added responsibility of sandblasting and repainting the equipment prior to leaving the farm. But James was a car enthusiast and it was no trouble at all to outfit one of the buildings with a couple of booths.
Dick Spalding was Edenton’s only attorney and so it was only natural that he handled the legal affairs for Ray Stafford’s farm and real estate development company. As the secretive aspects of the enterprises became more lucrative, Ray was forced to confide in Spalding and ask for advice on how to handle the proceeds. For a cut, Spalding was more than happy to suggest a local business that Stafford might buy and run to launder the money. And that is how Ray came to own the Edenton Drive-In, a BBQ joint offering curb service. Fortunately, the establishment was run by Spalding’s brother-in-law, Steve Beason, who had long ago tired of the task of running the place and having to worry about overhead. Beason was more than happy to sell out at a good price and continue as a well-paid employee.
1980 was a good year for Angelo Bagheria. The loads were coming in regularly at sea and from I-95. The Staffords had shown themselves to be capable and industrious partners. Pot and stolen farm equipment made its way to Macon and on to Atlanta for distribution by his family, who always got a generous cut of the action.
In Edenton, the Stafford farm had become one just for show, as criminal activity now took up most of the time and generated much of the profit. As a result, the Edenton Drive-In gleamed like a new penny after a complete renovation. Dick Spalding and his brother-in-law Steve Beason took up playing a round of golf every Wednesday afternoon.
There’s no telling how long the setup might have continued, if not for a flat tire on I-95 and an inquisitive highway patrolman. As a result of hauling obviously stolen farm equipment, the driver was arrested. Unfortunately, upon being threatened with many years of imprisonment, he gave up the location of the warehouse in Savannah. Given a heads up, the PD staked out the location and in no time at all, a tractor trailer from Stafford Construction showed up. To their surprise, the trailer contained a dozen bails of high grade marijuana.
Within hours, all manner of LEOs having jurisdiction converged on the Stafford farm, just outside of Edenton. They found no evidence of drugs, but a couple of stolen farm implements in the process of being sandblasted and repainted remained in the booths. To the horror of his mother, Jim Stafford was taken away in handcuffs.
Normally, members of the family who get pinched never talk. But this was a young kid far from home who got rattled. It didn’t help that he didn’t actually know that he was hauling stolen goods. Unaccustomed to the tender mercies of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, he said what little he did know before he realized what had happened.
A phone call was made to the FBI, who were very interested in a network of stolen farm equipment. In no time, the unfortunate truck driver left the state with federal agents as a material witness.
The first Angelo Bagheria heard of it was a phone call from Ray Stafford, after having to explain a few indelicate things to his hysterical wife. Naturally, his next move was to call the family in New Jersey, which precipitated all manner of activity there, ending with an attorney on the next flight to Hartsfield, with an especially unpleasant individual having entirely different responsibilities in tow.
By the time the family’s attorney and henchman arrived at the county courthouse the next day, Dick Spalding had pulled what few strings he couldd, and arranged bail for Jim Stafford as a limited flight risk. The family’s attorney made Spalding and Staffords’ acquaintance, took rooms in a local hotel and waited to begin the necessary process of damage control.
That afternoon, Ray Stafford surrendered to authorities, made bail and did the same for his driver, who had exhibited the good sense to keep his mouth shut.
At this point, no one had yet uttered Angelo Bagheria’s name and the family’s attorney was there to make sure no one did. His first impulse was to have the henchman kill Dick Spalding to send a message. But with feds now lurking everywhere, it would be disastrous to assassinate an officer of the court. And yet, someone appropriate must be found.
Upon taking rooms at a local hotel, the family’s attorney engaged the services of the county’s only private detective. Meeting with him, the detective earned his per diem in the first five minutes by disclosing that Ray Stafford had purchased the Edenton Drive-In from Dick Spalding’s brother-in-law.
Farmers, rather than expect their wives to rise at the crack of dawn to prepare breakfast, had for years instead repaired to the Edenton Drive-In. Anxious to accommodate them, it was customary for Steve Beason to arrive at 3:30 am to get the coffee started and warm up the grill. It was also his custom to carry the bank deposit bag, and therefore a nickel-plated snub nose .38 revolver. But it was a terrible surprise to the dairy farmer who arrived at 4:00 am and found Beason lying on the pavement in front of the entrance, suffering from a gunshot to the head.
The family’s henchman was in Atlanta by 8:00 am and back in New Jersey by noon. Steve Beason was in the intensive care ward at the local hospital that afternoon, having endured hours of surgery, during which skull fragments and frontal lobe matter were debrided.
Dick Spalding received the intended message immediately, but indicated to everyone who would listen that Beason had been very depressed since selling his business and that such an eventuality, while regrettable, was not entirely unexpected.
Later that day, James and Ray Stafford began keeping guns around the farm. After their obligatory felony convictions, they could no longer legally own weapons, but still kept them out of sight and close at hand.
Eventually, Steve Beason recovered completely from his terrible wound. Completely unaware of why he’d been shot, he retired to a beach house he’d been able to purchase after selling the restaurant. He spent the remainder of his long life at leisure, usually in a small boat on the sound, fishing. He became a sort of local celebrity for acting completely normal, and indeed quite cheerful, while having a massive dent where his forehead should have been.
Jim McLaughlin drove up to the house, got out of his car, walked to the door and knocked. When it opened, Shirley Spalding expressed pleasant surprise. Somehow, he’d managed to get the key to her house again.
Shirley worked for her husband, Dick Spalding, the local attorney, and had watched income from the Stafford Farm turn Edenton into a town of monsters, drunk yet bored, and sealing their unholy alliance by sleeping with each other’s wives.
Dick had come to Jim a couple of years ago, aware the funeral home business wasn’t what it once was, and with a fantastic offer. All Jim had to do was look the other way. Unfortunately, that also included occasional dismemberment and disposal of bodies from his new friends.
Jim and Shirley were two of Edenton’s most attractive people. They were also appalled at what they had become. They’d each debauched themselves with these “friends” and were desperate for a way out. As had become their custom, they spent the night speaking quietly of their plan to escape.
When Dick Spalding took on the Stafford Farm criminal enterprise, it was only natural that his wife assist in distribution of the proceeds. What had at first begun as a retirement fund, Shirley’s regular diversion of a few percent each month had grown to a sizable sum. Now that mendacity had transformed her husband into someone she hardly knew, that secret account provided her way out, perhaps with a similarly desperate partner.
They had begun meeting when convenient for months to make the arrangements. Bodies similar to theirs had been acquired by the funeral home and put in a freezer. At the appropriate time, a fiery car crash would be discovered with those bodies inside and their getaway would be assured.
The arrest and conviction of Ray and Jim Stafford, preceded by the shooting of Steve Beason, had turned those complicit into haunted animals capable of anything. So, that night they agreed to meet the next week, travel into the mountains, stage the accident and make their way to Europe.
Since the shooting of Steve Beason, subsequent to arrest of the Staffords, their attorney, Dick Spalding, had felt like a hunted animal, and more so his clients. So a call was placed and a plea for mercy was made. Shortly, a reply was received. Bagheria would remain as the bag man and the Staffords would go legit. After some thought, an antiques festival, in Spring and Fall, would be held with the majority of the proceeds to be paid in perpetuity, or else.
Suddenly, on Wednesday, Dick Spalding finally calmed down sufficiently for Shirley to run to the house, pack her bags and catch a cab. She met Jim McLaughlin behind the funeral home and they headed out in his car for the mountains. On a secluded back road south of West Jefferson, they got out, removed their doppelgangers from the trunk, placed them, lit a cloth fuse to the gas tank and pushed Jim’s car over a ledge. The car crashed into a deep ravine and made a perfect ball of flame.
Jim used his GPS to hike back to a nearby storage facility, where another car, recently bought for cash in another name, waited. By daylight, Jim and Shirley were on their way to the nearest airport, making connections to Rome. And since they would be considered dead, no one would be looking for them.
Unfortunately, the sudden disappearance of Jim and Shirley struck terror in the hearts of Edenton, savaged as it already was with suspicion. But too much attention was focused on Spalding and the Staffords for the family to act. An uneasy standoff existed until several weeks later, when hunters discovered a burned wreck in the mountains south of West Jefferson. Unable to prove anything, Bagheria was dispatched abroad during Summer and Winter, in case they might be hiding. That is how he found them, some years later and without their knowledge.
Jim and Shirley found themselves enchanted by Instanbul, gateway to the East and had been living near the Bosphorus when Bagheria finally located Americans fitting their descriptions traveling under assumed names. His first contact come from rifling their rooms when they were out one morning. Receipts indicated Shirley was using credit cards issued in Nevis, a favorite place to hide assets. After some unpleasantness, the family need merely assume control of the account to retrieve their money.
Jim McLaughlin may have run a funeral home, but he was no fool. In the years since disappearing, he was always careful to remain anonymous and left tells on the doors when they went out. So, when they returned to their apartment around noon, he immediately say the tell disturbed, silently motioned to Shirley, they turned, ran and never looked back. Bagheria never had a chance and lost them, but was able to report that they were alive and had money.
Whereas organized crime is designed to anticipate disappointment, instances like this were not allowed to continue and so Bagheria’s situation was escalated with resources. Appropriate criminals elements were paid to assist in apprehension of the Americans. Likewise, Jim knew their best chance of going to ground was in large English speaking countries and that us why they flew to Perth, Australia, literally the end of the world.