From near-death to a new hope: Arcernitta Bryant: Coming to grips with an unsolved murder, facing adversity
Friday, 24 May 2013 09:28
by Margaret Chambers
This is Arcernitta Calloway Bryant’s story. Bryant grew up in Opelika and, aside from college and a couple of years in Atlanta, has lived here all her life.
The last 33 years have seen Arcernitta restricted to a wheel chair, cut down by a shotgun blast that was meant to kill her.
Several weeks ago, one of our regular readers, Ann Bennett, asked that we consider publishing Mrs. Bryant’s story for three reasons. First, Ann said, Mrs. Bryant is a fine person with a great testimony of triumph over extreme hardship.
Second, Bennett said, Bryant is paralyzed as the result of an attempted robbery/murder and the criminal has never been caught. She hoped that if the story was told again (it wasn’t told very well in the first place), that someone might come forward with new information that might result in solving the case.
And thirdly, Arcernitta wants to walk and, with recent advances in ambulatory devices (computerized mobility assistance devices in medical doublespeak), this is possible. She wants to walk because, even after 33 years in that wheelchair, Arcernitta Bryant wants a job, and she feels that businesses have been reluctant to hire her because she is wheelchair-bound.
These ambulatory devices are very expensive and Ann Bennett, and we, are in hopes that one of our civic clubs might take the lead in raising the money to help Arcernitta walk.
One of the first actions we took was to contact the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to see what information they had on this case, which we refer to as “White Castle.”
In spite of initial fears that information from this time period might be sparse or nonexistent (mainly because July 1980 was a period between the death of Sheriff Jim Pearson and the appointment of Sheriff Herman Chapman when Lee County didn’t really have a sheriff), Captain Van Jackson, head of LSO’s Investigative Division, was able to locate the case file.
Captain Jackson, after examining the file, states, “Enough documentation is present in the original case file that, even after 33 years, if someone can identify the person who committed this crime and an arrest can be made, that person can be prosecuted.”
So if you know anything at all about this terrible crime, please call Captain Van Jackson at (334) 737-7142 or Sheriff Jay Jones at (334) 749-5651.
The shotgun blast slammed her, face-down, to the restaurant floor. She heard the front door close, and then...silence...except the whisper of the air conditioner and the sound of her blood flowing from her body, “like water.” She thought of her little girl being without a mother. Until that July day in 1980, Arcernitta Calloway (now Bryant), then 29, had an active and productive life, filled with the experiences, hopes and goals of a healthy young woman.
Raised in Opelika, Arcernitta (Ark-er-nitta) graduated from J.W. Darden High School in 1969. In 1972, she worked as a clerk-typist in the chemical lab at Pepperell Mill. She went on to attend Alabama A&M University in Huntsville, graduating in 1976 with a BS degree in General Business. Armed with her degree, Arcernitta believed a good job would always be within her reach. Her first job, after college, was with Uniroyal, in Opelika, as a sales representative, in the “Miss Uniroyal” division, selling tires.
As so many are drawn to the bright lights of the big city, Arcernitta moved to Atlanta and worked as a clerk-typist at a business downtown. However, she says, “I’m a country girl, so Atlanta was a little too fast for me. I decided I’d come back home.”
Back in Opelika, a significant change took place in Arcernitta’s life. She says, with joy, “I gave my life over to Christ.” She explains, “I had always been in Sunday School and church, brought up as a child. I just got tired of the riff-raff, of running the streets, and partying, and stuff like that. I was a party girl. One Saturday night I was sitting in my living room....I was just tired...just tired of running around.
“My grandmother gave me a Bible, years ago, as a kid. Back then we went to Vacation Bible School, and stuff like that, and she just figured we needed a Bible.
“I was sitting down on that couch that Saturday night, and I said, ‘There’s got to be a better way....a better life...than this running around that I’m doing.’ And so I went back, and I got my Bible, and I looked through it, and I thought, I don’t know what to look for in here...after all those years of going to Sunday School and church. And so, there was a guy, Reverend Bandy; he was a preacher back then, and he lived over there, with his mom, in the projects where I was living, and he said, ‘I can see you’re looking in that Bible; what are you looking for?’
“I said, ‘Reverend, there’s got to be a better way. What do I do?’
“He said, ‘The first thing you’ve got to do is repent and give your life over to Christ.’ So he said, ‘When you get ready to go to bed tonight, just get on your knees, and just pray, and ask Him...and tell Him you’re tired.’
“And I did. I repented.”
Arcernitta applied for jobs in several places, in and around Opelika, including banks. She went to work at the White Castle Restaurant in Loachapoka, as a cashier, to fill the time and have an income, until a better job came along, working three days a week.
The restaurant, which sat against a peaceful background of trees beside Alabama Highway 14, was a small place to stop for gas, go inside and buy some snacks, pick up a pack of cigarettes, and maybe grab a hamburger or hot dog for lunch. There were game machines for customers to entertain themselves with.
One morning, about two or three weeks after starting her job at White Castle, Arcernitta went in to work, at about ten o’clock. Roosevelt Lee, Jr., who had moved to Alabama from Chicago, was to work with her that day. She found him playing with one of the game machines. No customers were there at that time. The door was closed against the summer heat and to hold in the air conditioning. She took her place near the register.
“He just came in so quick,” Arcernitta says of the muscular black man that suddenly appeared before her, wearing a stocking cap, holding a double-barrel shotgun down alongside his leg. “I looked at Roosevelt, and he looked over at me, and said, ‘Just stand still. I’ll come over there, and I’ll put the money in the bag,’” which he did, without hesitation.
The robber immediately raised the weapon and shot Roosevelt in the chest, point-blank. He was 31. Arcernitta says she could see the burns on Roosevelt’s shirt. She says, incredulously, “He gave him the money, and he still shot us!”
Arcernitta says, “I turned. I heard the voice of the Lord, and I ran. The Lord said, ‘You won’t get it as bad,’ and I got it in the back. As I laid there, I was wondering, Who’s going to find us?
“The meat man came, I don’t know how long it was...It seemed like just as soon as I thought about it...that he will be in today...he came in. I heard him say, ‘Lord have mercy, who did this?’ He went back out. You know, in those days, we had telephone booths, so I’m quite sure he went back out to use the phone.
“The paramedics came, and the policemen. They were showing me pictures and working on me at the same time. The paramedic kept saying, ‘I don’t think she’s going to make it,’ and I heard him say that, and I...not trying to curse..., but I cursed and said, ‘Yes, hell, I am!’”
Be sure to read next week’s Observer for Part Two of this story.