Those of us who have spent the bulk of our lives in small towns are horrified when a murder occurs in our beloved community. Such was the case with the citizens of Covington, Virginia, in July of 1992.
My first wife and daughter (we had only one child at the time) moved to this small town in Alleghany County, Virginia, in 1982. The county itself is situated in the Allegheny Mountain range (no, the two different spellings are not typographical errors), and is roughly 50% national forest. Given that half the county is owned by the federal government, and half of the remainder is to be found on the sides of mountains, it isn't surprising to learn that the population is small. I suspect that the county's population then was somewhere in the ballpark of 13,000 to 14,000 people. The city of Covington is the only independent city in the county (and, by quirk of law, is thus not a part of the county, even though it is the county seat). My guess is its population was between 7,000 and 8,000 people: a nice, small town.
Esther Agnes “Aggie” Albert was youngest of the eight children of Francis J. and Nomnum Bertrus Albert. One brother, “Boodie” Albert, was a beloved football coach at the high school, and the high school stadium is named for him. At the time we lived in Covington, only three of the children were still alive: Lilly (born 1905), Rosalie (born 1918), and Aggie (born 1923). I believe the three sisters, who lived together, were of Lebanese ancestry. At any rate, they always brought absolutely delicious Lebanese food to the get-togethers at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, on Main Street.
The sisters were devout Catholics and devoted great time and energy to the church. On July 2, 1992, Aggie, retired from her position as a chemist at the local Mead-Westvaco paper mill, was working on a church fundraiser, “The Zany Follies.” Given her devotion to the church and the relative safety one feels in a small town, it was not surprising that she felt safe working at the church late into the evening. (The time that is most often given is around 10:30 PM, though I am not able to establish whether this was the time she left her home to go to the church, or the time she left the church to go home. Since there would be no witnesses to the latter, I assume the former.)
Her half-naked body was found in an alley next to the church on the morning of July 3. She was discovered by a man who had spent the night in jail, which was across the street from the crime scene, recovering from a bit too much booze. He was not a suspect in the murder. Aggie had been strangled and raped.
Her killer was never found.
That same night, a young man in town committed suicide (his body was discovered just a half-hour after Aggie's body was found), and there was some thought that perhaps he killed himself out of remorse for committing this heinous crime. The police ruled him out as a suspect, but did tie him to another, completely different, murder committed the month before.
Over the years, the local rumor mill has churned out a variety of suspects, but never with enough proof to result in an arrest, much less a conviction.
I had moved to Georgia in 1989, and my family (now including two children born while we were in Covington) moved in 1990, after finally selling the house. We learned of Aggie's death in what were, for us, the pre-internet days. This means that we didn't generally learn all the facts straightaway, and we picked up some confusing half-truths. One of the things we heard that caused considerable consternation was that the priest at Sacred Heart was a suspect.
I rejected that possibility outright. The priest that I knew was a good man, with a heart of gold. He had, after all, baptized two of my children. There was no way that I was that poor a judge of character.
But it turns out that the priest I knew had been transferred from the parish shortly after our family left Covington. The new priest was the suspect. The new priest, the Rev. Edward C. Moran, has faced allegations of sexual misconduct on at least two occasions, one of the occasions occurring at Sacred Heart Church in Covington, VA, the summer before Aggie's death. He was transferred from the Covington church in 1994, but once again, in 2005, was removed from a church in Virginia due to allegations of sexual misconduct.
The state did DNA testing in 2002, running the DNA found at the crime scene against known offenders, but did not turn up a match. It isn't clear whether this was due to the fact that there was no match to anyone in the system, or the DNA was too degraded to be of use.
This summer will mark the 27th anniversary of Aggie's death. Unless we have a deathbed confession from the perpetrator, it is very likely that this crime will never be solved.
All the Alberts of that generation are gone. Lilly died at the ripe old age of 92 in 1997, and Rosalie made it to the age of 86, passing away in 2004. The priest who, in my opinion, is the most likely suspect of those I've heard about, appears no longer to be the pastor of a church. There is a Rev. Edward Moran listed as a professor at St. Leo University in Langley, VA. I have no idea if this is the same fellow. All I can tell is that he is either an awesome or a terrible professor, depending upon which of the reviews you choose to believe on the website “rate my professors”.
There is very little good news to this story, but the closest I can find is that the parish priest who, without question, had absolutely nothing to do with this crime, the fellow who baptized two of my four children, did return to the Covington church. He retired from that position July 11, 2018, and apparently still helps out when needed. I knew folks who loved him, and folks who didn't, but he remains one bright point of light in a church that has had its share of darkness lately. So, Father Tom Collins, I salute you, and wish you a very happy retirement.