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What the Story of Alvin Ridley Can Teach Us About Snap Judgements

What the Story of Alvin Ridley Can Teach Us About Snap Judgements

· Alvin Ridley, a one-time TV repairman who had run a TV shop in downtown Ringgold, Georgia, was not someone I felt I would ever be associated with. I knew who he was—he had gone to school with my sister, and my father loved to do business with outsiders like Alvin. I remember the big console Zenith color TV that my father had purchased from him. When my sisters and I wore off the tuner knob by ripping around the three channels out of Chattanooga, Alvin had replaced it.

Over the years, Alvin had acquired several nicknames, and none of them were kind. He had trivial disputes with neighboring businesses and maintained that a fender-bender accident “killed” his father, who died of pancreatic cancer two years after the incident. When one of his many lawsuits got hit back with a countersuit, the county erroneously levied against his Chevrolet van. To Alvin, this was the ultimate insult. He ran for sheriff against the one whose deputy had seized the van. The vehicle was only gone for three weeks before it was returned, but to this day, forty years later, Alvin refuses to touch it for fear of triggering an imagined “statute of limitations” to bring yet another civil action..

On October 4, 1997, Alvin’s world changed. He drove past a fire station that had an ambulance at the ready, instead stopping at a pay phone where he tried to get a Chattanooga hospital to come get his wife, who, he reported, had “stopped breathing.” As instructed, he called 911. When he described his emergency in a flat monotone, his voice was recorded. It was later broadcast by news stations throughout the world.

Nobody had seen or heard of Alvin’s wife, Virginia Hickey Ridley, in almost three decades. Soon, the story spread that he had kept her locked in the basement of his small house on the edge of town. “Sicko Holds Wife Captive for 30 Years—Then Kills Her,” screamed the National Examiner. Its copies flew off the grocery store stands. Within days, I was being stalked on the street by this man. On the third day, I opened up a conversation with him.

At the time, I was perhaps the worst lawyer match for Alvin Ridley. Having just left a decade of politics and public service in the Georgia House of Representatives and suffered a humiliating loss in my bid for the U.S. Congress, I had associated with past, present, and future governors—and even a future President of the United States. Now, I was trying to deal with a man who declined to discuss the case I was supposedly advising him on. He refused to make appointments or even consider my schedule. He preferred that we discuss the ancient frivolous civil suits he had maintained for years against several officials in town. As I tried to present him more often to the public, he could not seem to help giving a cold, blank stare to anyone whose sympathy for him I was trying to win.

I am the son of an alcoholic parent. My dad was a wonderful man, and a great, loving father, but a life of trying to understand him and blaming myself—as a child does—had made me a neurotic micromanager. My behavior had cost me relationships. Now I was trying to manage the most mysterious and suspicious man in town. Alvin fought back, digging in and standing his ground in ways that served only to kneecap my defense efforts.

Alvin deeply distrusted local and state governments but maintained a countermeasure of hope for what he thought the federal government could do for him. When my former opponent, our congressman, called me and ordered me to keep Alvin away from his district office, my resolve to stay on the case was renewed. Now it was like another campaign. This time I swore to win it.

Our research uncovered the fact that Virginia Ridley had died from status epilepticus, a fatal seizure. At last, I had a defense strategy. At the trial’s conclusion, Alvin Ridley was acquitted of all charges.

Over two decades later, after our story had been told again and again on national true crime documentary programs, and later in the world of podcasts, I was haunted by the sense that something was missing. None of the media coverage had shown a clear understanding of Alvin. In 2001, a juror from the Ridley case reached out to me through a podcaster who had interviewed her. Now a nurse, she asked if I ever had Alvin tested for Autism Spectrum Disorder.

“Of course, he’s on the spectrum!” was my immediate reaction, which was confirmed by subsequent testing. The good news is that Alvin’s diagnosis has caused the entire community of Ringgold, Georgia to warm to him, and he has basked in his newfound acceptance.

Alvin’s case has challenged my thinking about every person who has ever inspired classic Southern Gothic eccentric characters. Perhaps Alvin in the book will trigger the memory of reading about him when people are dealing with a person with similar mannerisms and characteristics. Hopefully, they will remember Alvin, take a second look, and perhaps rethink their suspicions.

We all have unintentional bias, and we must constantly strive to fight it. Individuals with mental health issues and developmental disabilities endure many subtle and overt discriminations. On a cold statement on an police report, almost everyone sounds guilty. A person with developmental disabilities may not be processing those inquiries as a neurotypical person would, making them seem even more suspect.

Better awareness and understanding of neurodivergence in suspects and defendants for police, lawyers, and judges would be ideal.