Editor’s note: News earlier this year that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Harper Lee would publish her second novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” in June has brought renewed attention to Alexander City and the book Lee researched in the area. This is the story behind “The Reverend” and Robert Burns the man who shot the man knows as the “Voodoo Preacher” to death in a local funeral home.
The small article at the bottom of the front page of the Aug. 6, 1970 issue of the Alexander City Outlook was tragic, but innocent enough.
Mary Lou Maxwell, a black woman, had been found dead in her 1968 Ford, which appeared to have struck a tree on Highway 22 near the Hillabee Bridge. The accident had been reported by Maxwell’s unnamed husband at 2:45 a.m. County and state authorities were investigating.
It seemed like little more than a fatal single-car accident. But it was the beginning of a bizarre tale of insurance fraud, voodoo, murder, post-traumatic stress disorder, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and revenge.
Robert Lewis Burns was born in Alexander City on January 25, 1941, the youngest of the six children of Marion and Ella Mae Burns. He attended Zana High School near Daviston, graduating in 1959, and after graduation, joined his brother and sister in Cleveland, where he worked industrial jobs and drove a truck. He left Cleveland for Chicago in 1967 and drove a bus for the Chicago Transit Authority before joining the U.S. Army.
Burns was a member of the Army’s Fourth Infantry, or Ivy Division, one of the most decorated in Vietnam. Almost 2,500 Ivy Division soldiers lost their lives in Vietnam and another 15,000 were wounded. Burns lost close friends and saw horrific action in places like Khe Sanh and Dak To.
While Burns was enduring the hellish war in the fields and villages of Vietnam, he had no idea a different kind of hell was taking place near his home on the other side of the globe.
Nor that he would be the one to put an end to it.
The man who alerted police to the accident on Highway 22 early that August morning was Will Maxwell, a pulpwooder who called the Coosa County community of Nixburg home, but spent his Sundays behind the pulpit at various churches in the area. People in the community who remember the handsome preacher recall him overseeing his pulpwooding crews while wearing a suit.
“I’d been knowing Will Maxwell for many, many years before (the murder) happened,” Burns said. “He used to come around my family a lot. My Daddy knew his family well. When I was a boy, I used to see him a lot.
“I never heard him preach. I talked to some people that had heard him preach and they said he was a real good preacher.”
But there were strange things about Will Maxwell that would eventually come to light. Strange and, some might say, evil.
People in the community became frightened of the man in the suit.
“The people over there in the projects on the north side – my mom lived there – they would be out on their porches, enjoying the afternoon and Will would ride through the projects and they’d get inside the house real quick and lock the doors and close the windows,” Burns said. “That’s the truth.”
Then word began to spread that Maxwell dabbled in voodoo. Supposedly, he was in some way connected to the Seven Sisters of New Orleans, also known as the Seven Sisters of Algiers, now little more than a brand that sells mystic oils and other concoctions on the Internet.
“Yeah, he had a voodoo room (in his house),” Burns said. “After I killed him, my oldest brother’s daughters went down to clean the house out that Ophelia and William was living in. I couldn’t hardly believe what they were telling me that they found in that house. All that kind of voodoo stuff. Had blood in jars. Had wrote on the jars ‘love,’ ‘hate,’ ‘friendship’ and ‘death.’ Yeah, that was a weird guy. He had pecan trees around his house. He used to take chickens and tie ‘em in the pecan trees and he said that would keep evil spirits away. And he would take the chicken blood and paint it on his doorsteps and he said that would keep people away.
“One of the seven sisters made the statement after I shot Will that if she would have been there, he wouldn’t have died. I thought, ‘Woman, you crazy. What you think a bullet would do to your head?’ If she was near me, I’d say ‘Do you think if I put a bullet in your head, you’d live, whatever kind of voodoo you believe in or whatever?’”
Will Maxwell was charged with murder in the death of his wife, Mary Lou. He hired former state senator and gifted attorney Tom Radney of Alexander City to defend him. The star witness in the trial was Maxwell’s neighbor, Dorcus Anderson, who provided the preacher with an alibi that lead to his aquittal – and to his collection of $90,000 in insurance money.
It wasn’t long after Maxwell’s acquittal in the death of Mary Lou that his brother, Columbus, was found dead beside the road near Nixburg, the apparent victim of alcohol poisoning.
No charges were ever brought in Columbus’ death, but people in the community weren’t convinced that he wasn’t the victim of foul play. People began to whisper that Will Maxwell was involved.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Will Maxwell killed his own brother,” Burns said. “I heard he forced him to drink a mixture of whiskey and embalming fluid.”
Three years later, Maxwell’s second wife, Dorcus – the same woman who had provided his alibi in Maxwell’s trial in the death of his first wife – was found dead in her car.
Dorcus’ husband had died shortly after Mary Lou Maxwell, making Dorcus and Will free to marry.
“Will killed Dorcus’ husband feeding him embalming fluid in his whiskey,” Burns said. “He got sick and was in a wheelchair and she had to take care of him. He killed that man and then married Dorcus and then he killed Dorcus.”
The official cause of Dorcus’ death was determined to be “acute asthmatic bronchitis,” although her autopsy noted a deep laceration on her forehead. Since the death was not ruled a murder, Maxwell again collected on an insurance policy – a cool $50,000.
Radney was helping Maxwell collect a lot of insurance money, some of which, in turn, was coming back to him in fees. Folks around Alex City started calling Radney’s new law offices “The Maxwell House.”
In February of 1976, a friend of Burns’ and a nephew of Maxwell’s, James Hicks, was found dead in his car in a single-car accident. There was no apparent trauma to Hicks and little damage to the vehicle, which come to rest in a stand of very small trees – much like Mary Lou Maxwell’s 1968 Ford.
“James Hicks and I were good friends,” Burns said. “We used to run around, me and James and Lee Russell. Lee Russell was my cousin. James was Will’s sister’s son. He used to work for William and Will killed him.”
Again, no charges were brought against Maxwell in Hicks’ death.
The next death made the Maxwell affair personal for Burns. Shirley Ann Ellington, just 16, was found dead underneath her car on July 11, 1977.
“My cousin (Amos Hearn) drove through there when he was putting her under the car and kicked the jack out from under the car like she was trying to change a flat tire or something and the car came down and killed her,” Burns said. “But she was already dead. Amos asked him said, ‘You need some help?’ And Will said, ‘Hell, no, and if you tell it, I’ll kill you.’”
Shirley was the adopted daughter of Burns’ brother’s ex-wife, who had since married Maxwell. In other words, she was Burns’ adopted niece and Maxwell’s adopted stepdaughter.
“My brother, Nathaniel, and Ophelia adopted Shell when she wasn’t but two years old, so she grew up in the family,” Burns said. “I spent a lot of time around Shell.”
As he had after Mary Lou’s death and other times when suspicion had been cast on him, Maxwell called Tom Radney.
This time Radney said no.
“I was out on the road in my truck and I had delivered a load in Maumee, Ohio,” Burns said. “I had another stop in Toledo, Ohio, and I got that off. When I got that part of the load off, I was empty and they were setting up to get me a load back to Birmingham.
“Dispatch called me and said call home. So I called home and (Vera, Burn’s wife) was telling me what had happened here to Shell. So I called dispatch and told them not to worry about the load back to Birmingham, because I was going to deadhead home from up there and I did. I got here on a Thursday and that Friday night we went to the wake and they had the funeral Saturday.
“I hadn’t been back long from Vietnam. I was suffering from PTSD, which I didn’t know what it was then. And they didn’t know what it was until some years later.
“I was real angry when I got dressed to go to the funeral that Saturday morning. I shouldn’t have gone to that funeral, but, anyway, I was real angry.”
Will Maxwell escorted his wife, Ophelia, through the crowded House of Hutcheson funeral home chapel. Burns couldn’t believe the preacher sat immediately behind him.
“I remember when they started to view the body, I got up to go view the body, come back, and I didn’t even know (Maxwell) was in the chapel there,” Burns recalled. “But he had come in and sat directly behind me. Right behind me. In the very next pew behind me. I was wondering why he did that.”
Burns slipped his hand into the pocket of his green suit. He felt the gunmetal of the 25-caliber Beretta, normally cool, but warm now from the heat of his pocket and the relentless sun in the June Alabama sky.
Already angry, Burns began to boil. He reached into his pocket for the Berretta, yanked it clear, wheeled around and jumped atop his pew, shooting Maxwell three times in the face at close range.
“I don’t know,” Burns said. “I guess I just lost it. I know I did. I lost it and I just started shooting him. I remember that much.”
A shocked crowd of 300 mourners bolted collectively for the exits. Burns’ brother, William, a Tallapoosa County deputy, went to his side. Maxwell dabbed his face with his handkerchief and died, the white cloth still clutched in his left hand.
“I tell you what they did to that man’s funeral home,” Burns said. “They tore it up getting out of there.”
Burns was taken into custody for booking. William went to get Robert an attorney.
William, being in law enforcement, knew there was none better than Tom Radney.
“My brother talked to and retained Tom Radney,” Burns said. “Well, I’m gone tell you, I was asking myself, ‘Why did William go get Tom Radney and that was Will Maxwell’s man?’ You know? I was kind of worrying about that. Then I had people tell me, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re not going to go nowhere.’ But, yeah, I was really thinking about switching attorneys. I knew that he had turned Will down this time, but I knew that he had defended him three times before.”
As it happened, Burns made a wise decision. Radney, faced with the difficult task of defending a man who committed murder in front of some 300 people, argued that Burns was not guilty by reason of insanity. He had a psychiatrist examine Burns, who testified the Vietnam War veteran had had a flashback.
District Attorney Tom Young called Maxwell’s death “cold-blooded murder” and Burns a “one-man lynch mob.”
“We admit he shot him, we admit he killed him,” Radney argued back. “We admit he shot him three times wherever Mr. Young says he shot him – in the head, the stomach or wherever he says he shot him.”
After the case went to the jury, it came back in 20 minutes.
The jury agreed with Radney. Burns spent approximately five weeks in Bryce Hospital being further evaluated.
But he was yet a truly free man.
“It was devastating to him,” Burns’ wife Vera says of the murder. “He had nightmares at night. He woke up one night and grabbed his rifle and said Will Maxwell was after him, coming in the house. He got up and started going through the house with his gun and I had to get him to calm down.
“We had to watch him, because he was talking about committing suicide and all that. Being in the war and then coming home to that just really broke him down. He finally got treatment after we went to Ohio.”
It was during a 10-week stay at an Ohio Veterans’ Administration hospital that Burns was officially diagnosed as suffering from PTSD. After he was released, he spent approximately three years in outpatient treatment.
Burns remembers the little lady with the gray hair who visited him twice in the 1980s as “very nice.”
“She knew her stuff,” said Burns of Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” who spent months in Alexander City with Tom Radney and others doing research for a book she had planned on the Maxwell case. “She knew things that we didn’t know. One thing that I’ll always remember that she told us about Will Maxwell, she said, ‘Mr. Burns, you’d be surprised at the people that man’s taken out insurance policies on.’”
“(Lee) said she had got all the information together that she wanted to write the book with,” Burns said. The second time she came to my house, she said she might not be able to write the book because Big Tom (Radney) was married to someone in her family and it might incriminate him.”
Radney’s daughter, Ellen, and granddaughter, Madolyn, believe that Burns misunderstood and that Lee must have said her research had uncovered some unknown conflict of interest. There is, they say, no link between the Radney and Lee families.
Earlier this year, Lee’s publisher announced a June release of “Go Set a Watchman,” which is said to be something of a version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” told from a different age perspective. It will be Lee’s second book, though many believed that “The Reverend,” based on the Maxwell murders, would be Lee’s next work.
But “The Reverend” – or at least a portion of it – does exist. The Radney family found four pages of a handwritten Lee manuscript, including a closing paragraph, in Tom Radney’s papers. AUM professor Nancy Anderson said she’s heard Lee’s relatives discuss it.
Currently, the Radney family is embroiled with Lee and her attorney in an attempt to retrieve some of Tom Radney’s papers they say he let Lee borrow for her research.
“The interest that Harper Lee’s new book has created around this story is just incredible,” Ellen Price, Radney’s daughter, said. “We’ve had calls from the Los Angeles Times, from writers in Europe. It’s been amazing really.
“The good thing it has brought this story back to the spotlight. Whatever Miss Lee and her people decide to do, that is their thing. But it’s a great story that needs to be written. If she isn’t going to do it, we would just like to have Daddy’s papers back. Those were his and we’d like to have them. They mean something to us.”
Most times, Robert and Vera Burns can be found in their comfortable, tidy home outside Dadeville. If there’s a ballgame on, you can bet Burns is watching – particularly if it’s the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seattle Seahawks or Cleveland Cavaliers. At 74, Burns has a problem knee that keeps him from the deer, rabbit and wild turkey hunts he used to love.
For the most part, he’s put behind him his history with Will Maxwell, though he is intrigued about the possibility of a Harper Lee book on the case.
“I hope she writes it,” Burns said. “She’s got to be getting old. Is she in Monroeville still?”
Told that she is, Burns gazes out his window.
“She sure was a nice lady. I may have to drive down there and see if I can find her some day.”