It's June 26, 1988, and the members of Christian Faith Tabernacle Church have gathered for their annual "Pastor Appreciation Day." From the outside, the humble building in Middle River with its hand-painted sign and barren, gravelly lot doesn't seem like much.
But inside, the church is vibrating with music and laughter and good feelings. The members are putting on a "This is Your Life" kind of show for their pastor, the man many of them had followed out the door of a secure, established church for one with nothing -- neither building nor land nor denominational ties -- except sheer faith.
In God, and in Samuel Nathaniel Booth Jr.
One by one, Mr. Booth's family, his fellow ministers and his congregation step to the microphone to lavish praise and share affectionate, sometimes funny stories about him -- his lifelong mission to preach, his musical gifts, his fear of mice. Even his ex-wife turns up to declare her love for him. Through it all, the handsome, dark-haired Mr. Booth sits on a stool in front of his congregation, dabbing occasionally at his eyes, seemingly both
pleased and abashed by all the adulation.
"This type of thing humbles me. I'd rather be underneath this stool, behind the pulpit. I feel not embarrassed but shy, you know what I mean?" he is seen saying on a videotape of the day. "I don't feel I'm worthy of it, to be honest with you."
Today, some church members are reminding themselves of two lessons from the Bible: Judge not lest ye be judged. And man is flawed but God is forgiving.
How else to reconcile the love and faith they feel for their pastor even after a dark and hidden side to his life began emerging two months ago, when they found him stabbed to death in a trailer home behind the church, apparently after having smoked crack cocaine with his assailant?
"I don't think God would let all his labors of love go to waste," said Margaret Kumulides, a longtime member of Christian Faith Tabernacle Church. "I hope that at the last second, he could say, 'God, forgive me.' "
The last second of Mr. Booth's life came sometime in the late afternoon or early evening of Christmas Eve. If the 55-year-old minister called out to God in those last moments, no one but perhaps James Wood would know.
Mr. Wood, 24, has confessed to stabbing the pastor in the trailer behind the church, where 40 or so parishioners had gathered for 7 p.m. Christmas Eve services.
"He's never late," Jan Pharr recalls thinking when Mr. Booth still had not arrived five or 10 minutes after 7.
One member went to the trailer, found his body and ran back to tell the other members that he thought Mr. Booth was shot but still alive.
Ms. Pharr, a nurse, ran toward the trailer. "I was screaming, 'Sam, where are you?' My husband opened the trailer door, and I said, 'Oh, no. I can't helphim. He's already dead.' "
She and others were there until past midnight, as police arrived to question them and investigate the murder. And so during what is normally a season of joy for Christians, the small congregation instead was faced with burying their pastor.
But even as they were eulogizing Sam Booth as a devoted man of God who spent his life tirelessly helping others, a much different picture of his life was emerging.
Mr. Wood, who is being held without bail in the Baltimore County Detention Center, told police he killed the pastor after smoking crack cocaine with him over the course of a couple of days. An autopsy later would reveal traces of cocaine in Mr. Booth's body, used 24 to 48 hours before his death.
Soon, even more details of Mr. Booth's life surfaced: In 1993, police and federal drug enforcement agents raided his Bel Air home, where they found marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was arrested, but never brought to trial for dealing drugs. Additionally, long-standing rumors that he was homosexual -- a lifestyle unacceptable to the Assembly of God denomination that Mr. Booth had belonged to for most of his life -- were revived.
Some could only conclude that Sam Booth was living a double life. But perhaps it was not so much a double life as, ultimately, a complex one. That his life may have straddled both the sacred and the profane raises the question: Can someone do good even as they're doing bad?
A lifelong gift
People who have heard Sam Booth preach, even those who later grew disenchanted with him, say the same thing: He had "the gift."
"When he would preach, the hair on your neck would stand on its end," says Joe West, a minister in Grafton, W.Va., who had
known Mr. Booth for more than 20 years and was called on to lead his funeral services.
No one remembers Sam Booth ever wanting to be anything but a minister. Oft-repeated family lore has it that as a little boy in Edgewood in Harford County he would play preacher in an old chicken house.
"I would lead the singing and Sam would preach," recalls Rosalie Frostad, one of his two sisters. "People would come and hear us."
Mrs. Frostad, who is 18 months younger than her brother and lives in Washington state, says that even as a boy, Sam had already adopted a role that would define him the rest of his life: He was a caretaker.
Their mother, who divorced when Sam was about 7 years old, was often sick, so it fell on him to take charge of the household and his two younger sisters, Rosalie and Coralie.
"He took over, he was the man of the house," says his mother, Marion Green, who remarried a couple of years later and now lives in Bel Air.
The family attended the Edgewood Assembly of God Church, and they all worked at the Edgewood Diner. After graduating from Bel Air High School, he entered the Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God in Lakeland, Fla., in 1957. He studied there for a little more than two years, and then began ministering in Georgia.
He returned to Maryland in March 1965, when he was assigned to an Assembly of God church in Cresaptown, just south of Cumberland. In 1969, he was transferred to a church in Fairmont, W.Va.
By that time, Mr. Booth had married -- his wife Estelle was the daughter of a minister at Edgewood Assembly of God -- and had two young sons, Steve, now 32, and Sam, 29. The family moved back to Maryland in 1974 when Mr. Booth was named pastor of Middle River Assembly of God.
Several former parishioners there speak glowingly, even rapturously, of his ministry.
"My life has never been the same since that night," declares Della Straszynski, whose mother-in-law took her to Middle River Assembly of God one Sunday evening in the late 1970s. "There was such a beautiful, loving atmosphere of the Holy Spirit that night. There was a real worshiping of God. It's something you can't put into words. I sat there and just cried."
During services, Mr. Booth often played an accordion and he and Mrs. Booth would sing. His ministry extended beyond Sundays. He was a tireless visitor: If you were sick, in the hospital or otherwise in need of comfort, Mr. Booth was there.
Margaret Kumulides, who first met the pastor at Middle River Assembly of God, will always remember his visits during the past four years when she couldn't get out much, even to church, because she was caring for her mother, who had Alzheimer's disease. She died last year.
"They were both jokers. He would come and visit her, and she'd joke, 'Oh you're going to marry me, " says Mrs. Kumulides, whose husband George is currently chairman of the board of Christian Faith Tabernacle. "Once, he was supposed to come over and he was 45 minutes late. He had stopped to get my mom and me Valentine's candy. He did things like that."
Now, in retrospect, she and other parishioners are feeling twinges of regret that, when their pastor needed help himself, they weren't able to minister to him as he had to them.
"I knew there was a problem, something was wrong, but I didn't know what," says Mrs. Kumulides. "Had we known, we could have prayed with him, all night, until God brought deliverance. Maybe we let him down. We always had him to go to. If he had come to us . . ."
Cast from the church
For a time, Mr. Booth managed to keep all his plates spinning. It's hard to pinpoint when some of them started to crash to the ground. What is fact, what is speculation, what is revision has blurred over the years.
This much is known: On Dec. 19, 1980, six years into his tenure at the Middle River church, Mr. Booth was dismissed from the Assemblies of God, the Pentecostal religious organization that he had belonged to since childhood. Officials of the Assemblies of God will only say they dismissed him for "conduct unbecoming a minister."
Two parishioners who were at Middle River at the time say the conduct alleged was homosexuality. They say Estelle Booth, who declined to speak to The Sun for this story, told church members she believed her husband was gay. It was around this time that Sam and Estelle Booth separated, ultimately divorcing.
Others, however, say that while there might have been charges of homosexuality, they were never confirmed. Rather, they say, it was the Booths' separation and subsequent divorce that led to his dismissal as pastor. (Assemblies of God officials, though, say divorce alone does not prevent someone from serving as pastor, only remarriage after divorce. Besides, they say, Mr. Booth had already been dismissed when he divorced, and he never remarried.)
Despite the controversy, about two-thirds of the estimated 250-strong congregation walked out with him.
"It's not that I didn't believe [Mrs. Booth]," says Joyce Williams, who followed Mr. Booth from Middle River and was one of two parishioners willing to speak to The Sun about the controversy surrounding his departure. "I didn't want to believe her. We just didn't know how to react."
"Most of the people couldn't believe it. They still don't," says Linda Magsamen, who initially walked out with Mr. Booth, but eventually returned to Middle River.
Out of the dismissal and dramatic walkout, Christian Faith Tabernacle was born. After meeting wherever they could put a roof over their heads -- in schools, in a former drugstore -- they soon built their own church.
On Aug. 31, 1981, Christian Faith Tabernacle Inc. bought a parcel of land on Middle River Road for $350,000. Signing the mortgage papers for the church was not its pastor, Sam Booth, but its chairman of the board, Dudley Merwin Opie.
Mr. Booth's relationship with Mr. Opie was a source of gossip among church members. Mr. Opie was a 41-year-old teacher at Churchville Elementary School when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy he met at an Aberdeen adult bookstore in December 1982. He was found guilty in September 1983 of engaging in a perverted sex act, but the judgment was reversed two years later. Harford County officials later agreed not to retry the case if Mr. Opie agreed to forgo employment that involved minors, get treatment and pay court costs.
Mr. Opie, who at the time was married and had two children, has since moved to California. Reached at his home there, he refused to speak to The Sun.
"I know what the people are like, especially in that area. That's why I left. I'm living my own life," Mr. Opie said angrily. "I have no interest in their petty gossip and slander."
Members of Mr. Booth's new, unaffiliated church speak wistfully of the early years, when they followed their pastor to various makeshift quarters and prayed and learned and became a congregation.
"There was a deep sense of calling in his life," says Carolyn Hilker, who joined Christian Faith Tabernacle shortly after it was started.
Mr. Booth tended to his parishioners, performing weddings, baptisms and funerals, leading Sunday services and Wednesday evening Bible study sessions, visiting the sick and counseling the troubled.
It is a demanding life, ministers and parishioners alike agree, tending to people's spiritual and emotional needs. Many churchgoers are there precisely because they have unmet needs.
"We were a bunch of spoiled brats," Della Straszynski says flatly. "We would tell him he really needed to have other people helping him, with the visiting. But there were those who would call and would not accept anyone at their bedside but him."
Parishioners say Mr. Booth rarely took time off. And when he wasn't engaged in church duties, he was caring for several mentally disturbed men who lived in his home. As a provider for a state-funded program called Project Home from 1990 to 1993, Mr. Booth was licensed to take up to four mentally ill people into his house.
He initially lived with clients at his house on the 300 block of Catherine St. in Bel Air. He continued running the house as a residential home for them after he moved to the 600 block of Old Orchard, also in Bel Air.
Most of the clients he cared for had been hospitalized in the past, released, but unable to live entirely on their own. He would make sure they got three meals a day, took their medications and attended counseling or day-care programs that they were enrolled in. Providers like Mr. Booth are paid from $498 to $1,034 a month per client.
Project Home officials say they were pleased with the services Mr. Booth provided.
"He provided a good home for a very difficult kind of client," says Kathleen Ward, a social worker who monitored Mr. Booth's house for Project Home. "He had difficult people, so he was over there quite often, he would spend overnights there sometimes. He was a good provider."
Trouble with the law
As full as this life as a minister and care-giver may have been, Mr. Booth apparently had another life as well, one that he managed to keep secret from his church until June 22, 1993.
That was the day Bel Air police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home on Old Orchard and found marijuana, drug paraphernalia, scales, smoking devices and needles. One officer said they also found gay-oriented publications in the house.
Mr. Booth was arrested, posted the $8,000 bond and was released.
Bel Air Police Officer Keith Santagata says that he had been developing a case against Mr. Booth for a couple of years, since informants told him that they bought drugs from him. Mr. Booth would buy cocaine in Philadelphia, cook it down to crack at his home and resell it, Officer Santagata says.
At one time, he had a fairly sizable drug operation going, Officer ++ Santagata says. But, the officer believes, Mr. Booth developed a serious habit of his own.
"At one time, he sold a lot of crack. But I hooked up with him on the downside," he said. "He had a bad cocaine habit. The old saying, if you're going to sell, don't use it yourself. . ."
The raid and arrest shocked his parishioners. But Mr. Booth reportedly told them the drugs and paraphernalia didn't belong to him, but to one of the men he had been helping. Officer !B Santagata said the pastor claimed he had confiscated the stuff from a Project Home client living in the Catherine Street house and brought it to his own residence on Old Orchard.
"I said, wait a minute, you brought all this stuff into your house, and you didn't do anything with it?" Officer Santagata says. "It was all a denial game."
The next day, Project Home shut down Mr. Booth's residential home. At the time, two men were living in the Catherine Street home under his care, and one refused to leave him. He chose to stay with Mr. Booth, and Project Home couldn't force him to leave. He was, however, cut off from the program and no more funds were provided for his care. (Project Home would not release the names of the clients living with Mr. Booth at the time, citing confidentiality rules.)
The charges against Mr. Booth ultimately were dropped. Police thought they might be able to get a bigger case, a conspiracy charge, involving bigger dealers above him. Besides, says H. Scott Lewis, then a Harford County prosecutor and now with the state attorney general's office, the case against Mr. Booth wasn't very strong in his opinion.
"There were other people who were in the house, how do you tie the paraphernalia to Booth rather than to them?" he says. "It was a marginal case."
The minister moved out of Bel Air after the raid. As far as Bel Air police were concerned the matter settled itself.
As for his church, some members apparently accepted his version of the raid.
"He was Mr. Clean on Sunday," Officer Santagata said, "and doing whatever else the rest of the week."
A pastor's turmoil
Doubts were beginning to gnaw, however, on the minds of some of the church members, especially after the raid.
Carolyn Hilker says Mr. Booth grew increasingly aloof and began arriving late or missing services. She began hearing about the circumstances under which he left Middle River Assembly of God church, and the rumors that he was gay. About a year ago, she and about 20 other parishioners decided to leave the church.
Some of those who remained attribute her departure to a power struggle -- Ms. Hilker had become a minister herself and wanted more control of Christian Faith Tabernacle, they say. She denies that, saying instead that she believed Mr. Booth was living a double life incompatible with Christian teachings. She says she has no proof that he was homosexual, but believes those who have told her that he was.
Whatever was plaguing Mr. Booth, the last years of his life were beset with troubles. Parishioners say he suffered painful medical problems -- kidney stones and migraines -- and they were wearing on him. There were serious illnesses in his family, his father died and one of his sisters was hospitalized. And when his ex-wife remarried, some parishioners say, he was devastated.
He had started telling people, including his sister Rosalie and his friend Joe West, that he wanted to retire.
Beginning of the end
Some church members have said they saw James Wood at the church once, but he did not regularly attend. Some say Mr.
Booth said he was helping the young man with a drug problem and had asked his congregation to pray for him.
At the time of his arrest, Mr. Wood's parents, Jack and Joyce Lee Wood, said they had been trying for six years to get him away from Mr. Booth, whom they accused of supplying drugs to their son and other young men. They said they had put him in a rehabilitation program, he'd gotten off drugs, but eventually fell back in with Mr. Booth. The Woods have since declined interviews.
Jim Gentry, the assistant state's attorney for Baltimore County who will be prosecuting the case, said Mr. Wood and Mr. Booth are believed to have smoked crack together off and on for a couple of days before the murder. Sometime in the late afternoon or evening of Christmas Eve, a fight broke out between the two men in the trailer behind the church.
The next morning, Christmas Day, James Wood called police and confessed to the murder. He said he had robbed the pastor of about $78 and some crack after killing him. Police found two crack pipes in the trailer.
Mr. Wood is charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery. He pleaded not guilty, and a trial date has not been set.
Several days after the murder, Mr. Booth's congregation gathered in their little church to hold a funeral service for their lost leader. As on Pastor Appreciation Day, music and memories and genuine love filled the church.
But this time, there was no Mr. Booth at the microphone, or leading the songs, or hugging them goodbye. Instead, there were a lot of tears, a long motorcade to Gardens of Faith in Rosedale, and burial in an unmarked, donated grave.
The congregation is looking for a new pastor. But there will never be another first pastor, another Sam Booth.
"We've decided we're going to go on," Ms. Straszynski says. "We will pray God will send us a shepherd. But Sam's shoes will be impossible to fill."