‘I am Sara Brown’: The secret ravings of murderess Anjette Lyles’ alter ego

jkovac@macon.comJuly 7, 2013 

On the evening of Sept. 2, 1959, a Macon lawyer named Roy B. Rhodenhiser Jr. got a phone call from the Bibb County jail. It was going on 6 o’clock. Sheriff James I. Wood was on the line. Wood told Rhodenhiser he needed to come see his client, Anjette Donovan Lyles. Wood said Lyles, sentenced to die the previous fall for poisoning her 9-year-old daughter, was out of her head.

The jail was in the county courthouse. Lyles was locked away on the building’s top floor, one level below a majestic clock-tower dome.

Ten days earlier, she had spent her 34th birthday in a cell on death row in Reidsville, paces from the electric chair. She was famous by then, both pitied and vilified, for crimes that lent her international notoriety. Well-wishers mailed her birthday cards. Some sent cash.

But now her death sentence was under review. Doctors would decide whether she was sane. It didn’t matter that Lyles had been sane when she sprinkled Terro, an arsenic-based ant killer, into lemonade and other drinks she gave her little girl, Marcia. By law, the state couldn’t execute her if, post-conviction, she were deemed mentally ill.

While her case was considered, she was sent back to Macon, to the county jail.

Lyles believed in black magic. She predicted to anyone who’d listen that on Sept. 2 something bizarre would happen: The only people she would recognize were her three lawyers, a psychologist and a psychiatrist who specialized in hypnotherapy. The doctors were among the ones who would decide her fate.

On Sept. 2, as if on cue, Lyles’ memory failed.

By late afternoon, Sheriff Wood was fed up with his celebrity inmate’s antics. He called Rhodenhiser.

The sheriff met the lawyer on the courthouse square near the corner of Second and Mulberry streets. Wood told him Lyles had been acting strangely all day. The sheriff wondered if Lyles might be under the posthypnotic suggestion of one of her doctors.

Upstairs at the jail, Rhodenhiser waited in an office.

When Lyles was led in, she saw Rhodenhiser and said, “Hello, Roy.”

“Hello, Anjette,” he replied.

“I am not Anjette,” Lyles said. “I am Sara Brown.”

* * *

Lyles’ voice was monotone.

When she spoke as Sara Brown, she poked her left pinkie into the left corner of her mouth.

She told of having “lots of bad thoughts,” of wanting to “beat up the girls back in the cell.’’ She wished death on one of her brothers and a sister-in-law. She said she’d poisoned a man named Buddy. (Buddy was the nickname of Lyles’ dead second husband.)

She said she had done “a lot of bad things,” that she also forged a will. At trial, Lyles was accused of faking her first mother-in-law’s will in the weeks before her suspicious death.

Sara claimed she didn’t know what money was. She wanted some cigarettes and couldn’t get them because she didn’t have any money. She wondered why everyone in jail looked at her like she was nuts.

She asked Rhodenhiser to inform the jailer that she wasn’t crazy, which Rhodenhiser did after buying her a pack of cigarettes.

It appears to have been the lawyer’s first encounter with his client’s alter ego.

As he left the jail, Sara asked him his name. He reminded her and headed for his office.

He would return within the hour.

* * *

Along with killing Marcia, the eldest of her two girls, Lyles was implicated in the earlier murders of two husbands and her first spouse’s mother.

One at a time, Lyles, the convivial proprietor of Anjette’s Restaurant on Mulberry Street, had secretly served them meals and drinks laced with pesticide.

Ben F. Lyles Jr., her first husband, died in 1952, followed by her second husband, airline pilot Joe Neal “Buddy” Gabbert, in 1955. Two years after that, Julia Young Lyles, the mother of Lyles’ first husband, fell ill and died.

When each was exhumed, their corpses bore inordinate amounts of arsenic. Though they had died unusual and excruciating deaths, no one suspected they were poisoned, or that Lyles had killed them, until Marcia died.

More than half a century later, “the Lyles killings” as they are sometimes called, live on in local lore.

The case was as chilling as it was hometowny. In newspaper headlines, the buxom murderess, to use the parlance of the day, was often referred to by her first name: “Anjette Enters Hospital,” “Anjette’s Mother Avoiding Camera,” “Anjette Prosecutors Quit.”

But her attorneys’ battle to spare her life, waged from late 1958 into October 1959, is sometimes overlooked.

As is the question of her sanity: Was Lyles putting on a crazy act to avoid the electric chair?

Charles F. Adams, one of the prosecutors who sent her to death row, was certain she was. At the time, Adams told a reporter that Lyles’ theatrics “entitled (her) to receive the Academy Award as the best actress of 1959.”

That summer, when Lyles was about to be sent to death row, she got rid of some belongings. She sold her transistor radio to a young jailer for $8. The sheriff found out and made the jailer return it.

“Never got my $8 back,” says the jailer, Robbie Johnson, who became sheriff himself three decades later. “I don’t think she was crazy.”

A book about the Lyles case published in 1999 includes a passage about Lyles’ state of mind while her death sentence hung in the balance:

“Anjette understood that behaving well would earn her nothing. From what she’d gathered from her attorneys, being considered insane was to her advantage. So she amused herself by being deliberately difficult, acting as if she didn’t understand what was going on.”

One day when a psychiatrist examining Lyles took a lunch break, Lyles sat down for a meal with the jailer’s wife. Back then, the head jailer and his family lived in an apartment at the lockup.

According to the 1999 book, “Whisper to the Black Candle,” the jailer’s wife asked Lyles how things were going.

“I’m fine, but that psychiatrist has just about had it with me,” Lyles said, laughing. “By this afternoon when I get through with her, she’ll be crazy as hell!”

The book’s author, Jaclyn Weldon White, thinks Lyles “was out to convince people that she was crazy.”

“I’m not surprised that she would have tried that,” White says. “I don’t think she was crazy by any legal standards. ... Now, I don’t think she was normal.”

Back then Lyles insisted to an interviewer that she wasn’t putting on for the shrinks.

“I haven’t acted any part of it,” she said. “I just sat right there in the chair and talked to those doctors just like I’d talk to anybody else.”

Lyles added, “I don’t think I’m crazy.”

But at least one of her defense attorneys, the late Jack Gautier, sensed she was.

“That’s why he didn’t want her to die,” says Gautier’s daughter, Alice Fincher. “He classified it that she had two faces. ... It was always, in my household, thought that she was mentally ill.”

Gautier died in 1972. Some of his possessions were handed down to Fincher.

Several weeks ago when her husband died, Fincher, 65, was digging through an antique end table. She pulled out a sheaf of her father’s old papers.

Gautier had been district attorney at the time of his death, but the papers were from years before. They’d been lodged in one of the end table’s drawers. Fincher had never looked at them.

The papers, bound with a rusting staple, contain confidential, typewritten notes from a meeting Gautier and Rhodenhiser had with Lyles in the county jail.

The date on the paperwork: Sept. 2, 1959.

This story is based on those notes.

* * *

Rhodenhiser was back at the jail about 7:30 p.m.

This time, Gautier was with him.

Lyles, in her Sara Brown persona, recognized Gautier as she stepped into a meeting room.

Her voice was again monotone, her left pinkie still jabbing the side of her mouth when she talked.

Sara was still having “lots of bad thoughts.”

Sara claimed to know both of the husbands Lyles was suspected of poisoning.

But Sara said it was Lyles’ mother-in-law Julia who had slipped them the arsenic.

Like Anjette, Sara said that she, too, had a daughter named Marcia, but that she didn’t know who the father was.

Then Sara mentioned Anjette’s mother, Jetta Donovan.

One afternoon in April 1958, Sara said, Jetta had handed Sara a glass of ginger ale. Sara didn’t drink it. Instead, she gave the ginger ale to Marcia when the girl asked for it. Then Marcia got sick and died.

Sara wished Jetta were there now so she could “shake her and shake her and shake her.”

Jetta was mean, Sara said, and was the one responsible for Marcia’s death.

The lawyers sat rapt, if not baffled, as their client’s mysterious personality prattled on. She was granting them a front-row seat to either her lunacy or her cunning. Or perhaps some of both.

Sara told of knowing Anjette Lyles.

“Anjette was a good girl,” Sara said. “Anjette drinks a little, but she is a good girl. ... Sara drinks beer and liquor and is a bad girl.”

Sara also recalled the burials of three of the people Lyles was accused of killing: Lyles’ first husband, his mother and Lyles’ own daughter.

“No funeral is pretty,” Sara said. “They are sad.”

* * *

Sara claimed that she’d had ants at her house.

She said she bought two bottles of Terro, which she later handed over to the local medical examiner, Dr. Leonard Campbell.

Lyles, under investigative scrutiny, had done the same thing. Before her arrest, she turned over some Terro to Campbell as an apparent show of good faith.

Lyles tried to explain away suspicion that she had poisoned her daughter, suggesting that Marcia must have ingested the pesticide while playing with friends.

Lyles considered Campbell a friend. At least until Campbell came to be among those who unearthed Lyles’ deadly secrets.

It was Campbell who took tissue samples from Marcia Lyles after she died and passed them along to investigators. His efforts helped convict Lyles. The samples tested positive for arsenic.

Sara Brown, talking to attorneys Gautier and Rhodenhiser, said Campbell was her friend, too, but declared that if he were there she would “slap his face.”

Meanwhile, her attorneys did their best to capture a clear account of their client’s scattershot ramblings.

That said, reading their notes and keeping track of who is spouting the chatter -- Lyles or Sara Brown -- is at times as perplexing as the tales are outlandish.

No one can be sure, but the inherent confusion may have been, on Lyles’ part anyway, by design.

It is also possible that Lyles, were she pretending, got lost in the lies.

Either way, Sara seemed dead set on bad-mouthing anyone who had helped put Lyles away.

The more Sara talked, the more vindictive she became.

She aimed her ire at a Macon businessman who’d played a role, albeit a small one, in sealing Lyles’ fate.

Sara said the man had once picked her up in front of her restaurant -- yes, Lyles’ Sara Brown persona also ran an eatery -- and driven her out a country road. Sara said the fellow exposed himself and “tried to make her have relations with him in an unnatural manner,” her attorneys noted.

Sara slapped the man and broke his glasses. Only then did he return her downtown.

The lawyers asked Sara about sex.

She said she “never particularly liked sex with men ... (and) that she had never had any sex relations with women.”

Sara’s grandmother had always told her sex was bad.

Sara loved her brothers, Bill and Dole -- the names of Lyles’ brothers -- but “they don’t love her,” her lawyers wrote. “No one loved her.”

Sara recounted a troubling incident from her childhood.

Some boys in her neighborhood “tried to make her have sex relations with a little colored boy called ‘Monkey’ when she was 6 or 7 years old,” her attorneys wrote. “They did not succeed.”

Sara blamed her mother, who was never home.

“She was always playing bridge and there was no one ... to look after her,” the attorneys noted, “and that was why these things happened.”

When Sara married a man she called Little Ben -- the nickname Lyles’ first husband went by -- she got pregnant right away.

“Her mother told her she ought to be ashamed,” the lawyers noted, “that everyone would know what she had been doing.”

* * *

Sara Brown dreamed of fields of flowers.

She didn’t tell her attorneys what kind, just that she’d be standing in the middle of them and she wouldn’t be as fat as she was in real life. In her dreams, she was smaller, with long, flowing hair.

News accounts at the time said the platinum-haired Lyles had gotten chubby in jail.

The lawyers changed the subject.

They asked Sara where Anjette was.

“On death row for something she didn’t do,” Sara said.

From there the conversation vaulted even further off the rails.

Sara hopscotched subject to subject.

She said her little girl, Marcia, had liked Lyles.

Lyles, Sara said, often visited and stayed over at her house.

Sara couldn’t read and wasn’t sure she’d ever been to school. Sara didn’t know what clothes were or why she was in jail. She wanted to have sex with her psychiatrist because “he is just my type.”

Sara’s mother, Jetta -- the name of Lyles’ mother -- tried to lord over her. She said Jetta had poisoned her daddy’s oyster stew, but that Sara never told anyone because she didn’t want Jetta to get in trouble.

Sara said she spoke to Anjette Lyles a good bit. She said a lot of people mistook her for Anjette, but that her name was Sara.

Sara claimed one of Lyles’ prosecutors used to visit Sara at the restaurant Sara owned. He’d bring her moonshine.

“After they had a couple of drinks,” the lawyers noted, “(the prosecutor) would try to put his hands where he didn’t have any business putting them.”

Sara said another man -- one who figured prominently in the case against Lyles -- once took her to a shooting range east of town and tried to rape her.

Sara then remembered how she’d once toyed with a young man’s heart.

He was a sissy, she said, because he never tried to have sex with her.

He gave her a ring.

She threw it back at him.

He scrambled all over the floor looking for it.

Sara thought that was hilarious.

* * *

The attorneys wrapped up their interview with Sara Brown.

Their notes would be included in a report for Lyles’ state-appointed psychiatrists. The doctors, who’d examined Lyles repeatedly, would then deliver their medical opinions to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

After that, officials would render their decision on whether Lyles was mentally fit to be executed.

Before lawyers Rhodenhiser and Gautier bid their client farewell that September night nearly 54 years ago, Lyles served up parting jabs to the two men who had helped defend her, men now trying to save her life.

Her Sara Brown persona wasn’t about to let them escape her scorn.

Sara told Gautier she wanted to slap him. She informed Rhodenhiser she wanted “to stomp (him) through the floor.”

When the lawyers asked her to sign some paperwork, there was a problem.

“She did not know how to write her name,” the attorneys noted. “But upon being informed as how to spell it, she wrote the name attached to this report.”

It isn’t known which name she wrote, Anjette Lyles or Sara Brown. The typed notes don’t include her signature, but the paperwork was forwarded to Lyles’ doctors “for use in their ... diagnosis of the subject, Anjette D. Lyles, alias Sara Brown.”

Three weeks later, on Sept. 24, a state panel agreed with the doctors’ conclusions.

Anjette Lyles was “hopelessly insane.”

There would be no execution.

She was sent away to Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, where she died in 1977.

Telegraph archives contributed to this story. To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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