The "taglight" Taylor was reportedly stopped for wasn't just out-- it was gone.
Randy Taylor's attorney Adam Rhea, right, with his client, says usually when clients tell him they're being framed, he doesn't believe it-- except in Taylor's case.
Every day brings fresh torment for Barbara Tinder.
"I keep expecting her to walk in the door," says the 37-year-old town of Orange resident, who has spent the last two years anguished over the disappearance of her teenaged daughter, Samantha Clarke, who was last seen in September 2010.
Meanwhile, Samantha's disappearance has devastated another person's life. 47-year-old Randy Allen Taylor claims police have singled him out as a suspect in Samantha's disappearance, and have harassed him by planting evidence and illegally tracking his whereabouts with GPS technology, even though he's told them he hardly knew her.
"The case needs to be solved," says Taylor, "but the way they're going about it is ridiculous."
It's not hard to understand, however, why police would have questions for Taylor. He called Samantha Clarke at least five times in the hours before she disappeared. And with Samantha unable to answer questions, Taylor's the only one who knows the exact nature of those conversations.
September 13, 2010, was an otherwise ordinary Monday night for Samantha Ann Clarke. The 19-year-old had graduated from Orange County High School three months earlier and had spent the summer hanging out with friends, posting and chatting on Facebook, and studying for her driver's license so she could get a job.
"She was getting herself together, trying to figure out what she wanted to do," says her mother.
Samantha and her then 13-year-old brother, Hunter, were home alone that evening in the apartment on Lindsay Drive, a quiet street about a half-mile south of historic downtown Orange, while their mother worked the night shift at Ridgid, a tool-manufacturing plant on Gordonsville Road.
At about 12:30am Tuesday, Tinder says, her cell phone received two calls from her home line. Tinder was not allowed to use her phone while on duty, but seeing the missed calls during a work break, she called home around 1:30am. Her son– an eighth grader asleep on a school night– answered and told her his older sister must have placed the calls, and that she'd yelled up the stairs of the two-story, two-bedroom apartment some time earlier to tell him she was going out.
"She told him, 'I'll be back,'" Tinder recalls.
The mother figured that Samantha had simply gone out with the new friends she'd made over the weekend. But when the next morning dawned with no word from her daughter, and then afternoon came and went, Tinder felt frantic. Mother and daughter shared a cell phone that was in Tinder's possession, so Tinder had no way to reach Samantha. By Tuesday afternoon, increasingly frantic, Tinder contacted law enforcement, who told her their hands were tied.
"They told me I had to wait 48 hours before I could report her missing since she was an adult," Tinder recalls. But she already had some concerns about those new friends.
A weekend of new friends
Life has not been easy for Barbara Tinder. She gave birth to Samantha, her first child, at age 16, dropped out of high school, and temporarily moved in with Samantha's father, who was in his 30s at the time, trying hard, she says, to take care of a baby as a teen mother. When Samantha was a toddler, Tinder says, her relationship with the man ended, and she went to live with family while Samantha spent her early childhood with her father, who'd moved to a little town near the Chesapeake Bay. When Samantha was around 12, she returned to Orange to live with Tinder's older sister, but in her early teens, she moved in with Tinder, who'd secured the apartment on Lindsay Drive.
"She was a good girl," recalls Samantha's aunt, Brenda Rhodes, who says their time together forged a lasting bond. "She was like a daughter to me."
Tinder, too, says even though there were struggles during Samantha's childhood, she and Samantha remained close and enjoyed spending time together. That was the plan on the Friday night before Samantha's disappearance when mother and daughter– both alums of Orange County High School– attended a football game at the school and then accepted an invitation from friends to go to the now defunct Northside Restaurant on U.S. 29 near Ruckersville.
"We were just going to hang out," says Tinder, who acknowledges her daughter was underage and should not have been at Northside. Although the establishment had a reputation for being rowdy with frequent fights outside– it would shut down in September 2011 after more than a dozen ABC violations– Tinder says neither she nor Samantha had ever been there, so she wasn't worried.
"We were together," says Tinder, "so I figured it was safe."
While there, Tinder says, Samantha struck up a conversation with two men at the bar, who, she says, appeared to be in their early 20s. It didn't seem unusual or risky, her mother says.
"She was just having a good time," says Tinder.
Randy Taylor says he was also there that night with those two younger men, although Tinder says she doesn't recall seeing him. Taylor says Samantha seemed interested in one of his younger companions and, later that night, that young man returned with Samantha and her mother to their apartment, where he spent the night and went home the next day.
After the late night on Friday night, Tinder says that on Saturday, September 11, Samantha stayed home with her mother and younger brother but spent much of the day and evening chatting on the internet and phone with the young man. On Sunday, her mother says, the romantic dynamic changed. The second young man from the Northside invited Samantha to ride along on a truck repossession expedition to Louisa County, with Taylor as part of the entourage. Samantha accepted the invitation, her mother says, and soon was expressing romantic interest in the second young man, age 23.
"She told me he was her boyfriend," says her mother, who spoke with Samantha on that fateful Monday, when the teen arrived home mid-afternoon after spending the night out, first on the repo ride and then, her mother says, at a brick house at the corner of Route 33 and Albano Road in Orange County where the two young men lived.
While Samantha seemed excited about the prospect of the relationship, her mother says there were already problems. The second young man had another girlfriend, and Samantha told her mother that the other woman was so angry that Samantha was intruding on the relationship that there had been some sort of confrontation between the two women.
"Samantha told me they jumped her," says Tinder, who didn't see any injuries on her daughter and says Samantha was reluctant to provide any details of the alleged assault, which she believes occurred Monday morning or early afternoon.
It was that allegedly tense dynamic, Taylor says, that prompted his multiple calls to Samantha on Monday, the night she disappeared.
"I heard [the girlfriend] saying she wanted to 'beat her ass,'" Taylor recalls, claiming that the second man told his angry girlfriend "he'd help."
Taylor says he also overheard the couple badmouthing Samantha for switching her affections from the first man to the second man, calling Samantha a "tramp." Although he didn't know Samantha well, Taylor says he was so concerned that the young woman was headed into an ambush that he decided to warn her.
He asked the first young man for Samantha's number, and says he sent a text message to the cell phone number the man provided. (Those texts were received by Tinder, who had the phone at work, and didn't respond.) Taylor says he next tried the home number. Samantha answered.
"I just told her, 'Stay away from [the second man],'" Taylor recalls, warning her of the potential threat and noting now that the second man has a criminal history including a conviction for breaking and entering with intent to commit assault and battery, a charge that has resulted in a present day probation violation for which he is currently wanted. The Hook is not revealing the identities of the first or second man or the other girlfriend because none have been named suspects in the Clarke case and the Hook has been unable to reach any of them. According to the second man's mother, whom the Hook did reach, he does not possess a phone, and his whereabouts are unknown.
In the first conversation, Taylor says, Samantha dismissed any concern for her safety and then cut the call short but asked him to call her right back. Taylor says she interrupted the call because someone was at the door, then when he called back, he could hear a male voice in the background.
"It didn't sound like a kid," Taylor says, voicing doubts that it could have been her teenaged brother.
The two spoke several times in rapid succession, says Taylor, explaining that Samantha kept telling him to call her back. Tinder confirms that Samantha could not have returned Taylor's calls because the home phone did not have long-distance calling capability, and Taylor's cell phone had a different area code. Still, Tinder doubts Taylor's version of events, since Samantha had told her mother she might go on another repo ride that night and considers Taylor would have been the most likely driver.
Taylor, however, insists he was at home 30 minutes away, making the phone calls while his young son slept. "I would never leave him alone," says Taylor, acknowledging there's no one to verify his story.
"Why was a 40-something-year-old man calling my daughter so late at night?" asks a skeptical Tinder.
Police also had doubts about Taylor's story.
Neither rural Orange County nor the small town of Orange, with fewer than 5,000 souls, are hotbeds of violent crime. But homicide does happen, even in the most bucolic of settings. The 2006 killing of Justine Swartz Abshire, whose body was found on a rural Orange County road, the apparent victim of a hit and run, prompted a five-year investigation by Virginia State Police that eventually resulted in a first degree murder conviction of her widower, Eric Dee Abshire, sentenced to life in prison.
But Samantha remains a missing person There's no body and no crime scene, so police in the town of Orange have little physical evidence to investigate. It's not stopping them from working hard, they say, to find out what happened to the missing woman and to bring to justice the person or persons responsible.
"It's an active investigation," says Orange Police Chief James Fenwick, who declines comment on the details of the case but says his department is receiving support from other investigative agencies and remains dedicated to solving the mystery.
Taylor, however, says police too quickly zeroed in on him as a possible culprit, ignored his explanations, and then harassed him to the point that he's lost his job, his home, and even the custody of his son. A court recently agreed that police violated his rights in their surveillance tactics.
Taylor says that recent court ruling barely scratches the surface of the aggressive tactics that have been arrayed against him.
Crossing the line?
In their zeal to find the person responsible for Samantha Clarke's disappearance, did police plant evidence and conduct illegal searches to intimidate the man they believe is her murderer?
That's what Taylor claims, and a judge seemed to agree that police officers' stories simply didn't add up concerning the night in April 2011 when Taylor was pulled over after leaving a convenience store in Ruckersville and charged with being a felon in possession of a gun– a gun that Taylor says he didn't own and had never seen before.
Taylor had just pulled out of the Sheetz store lot onto Route 29 when he saw flashing lights behind him. He says he was told by the Greene County deputy who stopped him that he had a license tag light out. A simple infraction quickly escalated, however, and, after a back-up officer with a canine unit arrived, Taylor was arrested and charged with driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license, which he says he didn't know was suspended, carrying a concealed weapon, and the aforementioned charge of being a gun-toting felon.
Taylor insists that the stop– and, in particular, the gun charge– was simply more evidence that police were harassing him, and he believes it shows how far they're willing to go.
In the 1990s, Taylor concedes he was convicted of being an accessory to burglary. After serving five years in prison, he says he would never carry a gun and risk a return to prison. "I've always been an upstanding citizen," he says. "I'm trying to raise my son."
But if he was mystified by the officers' claim that they'd discovered a gun in his car, his concerns only grew when he was released from jail the day after his arrest and took a look at his car. At first concerned only about a malfunctioning tag light, he made a startling discovery.
He first noticed his car was "torn apart" with seats, door panels, and headliner ripped and his stereo speakers pulled out. Then Taylor says he discovered that the tag light, the alleged reason he was pulled over, was not just out of order. It was totally gone, as were the housing and the two screws that held the light in place.
"I had been under the car the week before," says Taylor, who notes that he's pretty fastidious about his 1993 Mercury Grand Marquis. When he examined the license plate more closely, "I noticed that the wire to the tag light had been cut," he says. And he noticed one more unusual thing underneath his car: a GPS, or global positioning system, unit.
Police, he learned, had been tracking him without his knowledge, and, as would later be revealed in court, without a warrant to put the device in place.
After photographing the GPS, he removed the device, took the batteries out, and, with permission from his employer, stored it in an office safe. It seems police quickly noticed the unit had been disabled.
"In less than 24 hours, 10 cops showed up at my workplace," says Taylor, who was then working at Drive Away Motors, a used car lot in Ruckersville.
"They never said they were law enforcement," Taylor recalls. "One walked up to me and said, 'Where is it?'"
Aggressive police tactics didn't end there, Taylor asserts, because another man, this one with a ponytail, allegedly threatened, "We should charge him with destruction of state property– that's a $3,800 unit."
"I thought they were bull-sh***ing," says Taylor. "They didn't look like cops."
After consulting with an attorney, Taylor agreed to return the GPS unit if the taker would sign a receipt for it.
"They didn't want to sign for it," recounts Taylor. An officer snatched the device from one of Taylor's coworkers, who then called 911. After a stand-off, says Taylor, a then major in the Greene County Sheriff's Office, Randy Snead, confirmed that the man taking the tracker was a police officer but refused to sign a receipt.
"They didn't leave a paper trail," says attorney Adam Rhea, who represented Taylor by filing a motion to suppress the evidence in the charges against Taylor based on the alleged illegality of the April search of his vehicle. On June 12, Rhea prevailed. The Greene County Circuit Court, despite the testimony of two Greene County Sheriff's deputies and Town of Orange Police Detective Evans Oakerson that there was probable cause to stop Taylor, ruled otherwise.
"It, from the court's judgment, is a case in which no matter how one evaluates the testimony, there really isn't any credible evidence to support the warrantless search and seizure," declared Judge Daniel Bouton, according to a trial transcript.
The problem, according to Bouton, was that the officers provided "three different versions of what happened here, and they really don't add up."
Compounding the problem for law enforcement was the U.S. Supreme Court's January 23 ruling, in United States v. Jones, that planting a GPS requires a warrant. That ruling, however, was still nine months away when Taylor was pulled over and charged.
"There was nothing saying they couldn't do it," says Hook legal analyst David Heilberg, who notes that before the Supreme Court ruling, police didn't need a warrant to use GPS, but that it still would have been more prudent to obtain a warrant if they'd wanted charges to stick.
"It would have been a little more work and a little less convenient," Heilberg says, "but would have been absolutely certain."
As it was, without a warrant authorizing the GPS, Judge Bouton dropped all the charges against Taylor.
As for the gun allegedly found in Taylor's car, attorney Rhea says other than police officer's word that it was found in his car, there was nothing to link it to Taylor.
"I requested an ATF trace," Rhea says. "There's ridiculously little information. Apparently, it hasn't had fingerprints on it since 1972, when it was purchased in Chicago."
According to Taylor, police scrutiny of him began long before he was arrested that night, seven months after Samantha Clarke disappeared. He says Orange Detective Oakerson has shown up at his house and his workplace multiple times in one day.
Officers showed up at Taylor's residence allegedly with a search warrant– the Hook has been unable to locate a copy, but Orange Police Chief James Fenwick says it is sealed as part of the Clarke investigation– and tore his house apart, says Taylor.
"A guy runs out with this tiny piece of marijuana and says it's enough to field test," says Taylor, who denies having any pot in his house.
"I had six officers all on me saying that if I sign a piece of paper saying they found it in my house, they wouldn't arrest me," says Taylor. Under duress, he says, he did sign; and, 362 days later, he was served with an arrest warrant for a pot charge.
Taylor says he would be pulled over multiple times for alleged driving infractions and told that his license was suspended, even after getting it reinstated.
"It got to the point of harassment," says Taylor, alleging that Detective Oakerson has told his employers and women he has dated that he's a murder suspect.
"I was sitting in a restaurant in Charlottesville on a date, and Oakerson walks in," says Taylor. "It's intimidating."
Detective Oakerson refers a reporter's phone call to Chief Fenwick, who says the GPS incident, "A lot of that was Greene County." He also said that if Taylor is going to take legal action, "Detective Oakerson would be a fool to say anything."
Greene County Sheriff Steven S. Smith declined to comment on the case because Taylor's arrest and the use of GPS occurred prior to his taking office last December.
As for Taylor's allegation that he's been intimidated and harassed by Oakerson, says Fenwick, "I have complete faith in Detective Oakerson's moral compass." "And," he adds, "if either Taylor or his attorney make a formal complaint about misconduct, I would welcome an investigation."
Taylor's attorney says he's typically a skeptic when it comes to claims of police misconduct.
"I've had a lot of people tell me they've been framed by police, and usually it's a crock," says Rhea, an attorney so concerned with civil rights that he excoriated his government in a decade-later, Hook-published look at the alleged clampdown that followed the 2001 terror attacks: "9/11 reflections: 3,000 dead and freedom too." Rhea says he became convinced that Taylor was telling the truth.
"Everything Randy has told me fit," says Rhea. "They wanted to get him for anything. What worries me is they're going so overboard, if they can't find a crime, they'll invent one."
Anguished mother, anguished suspect
Two years after her first child disappeared, Barbara Tinder says she's barely hanging on. She still lives in the same modest apartment, where framed pictures of Samantha cover the painted cinderblock walls and where the living room window bears a painted message for passersby: "Still Missing."
"They don't tell me anything," says Tinder, bouncing a baby on her lap, lamenting that police don't keep her apprised of what she fears is an investigation gone cold.
The day after Samantha's disappearance, Tinder says, she called Taylor on the number he'd texted her from, looking for Samantha. She says he told her he'd wanted to warn Samantha to stay away from the second man and his girlfriend. After that conversation with Taylor, Tinder made contact with the second man and his girlfriend, who took her and her sister, Rhodes, to see a lakefront community where Taylor kept a camper, and where they said he would sometimes hold parties. While the couple didn't say Taylor had harmed Samantha, the implication, Tinder feels, was that Taylor played a part in Samantha's disappearance.
"I figured her body was in that lake," says Tinder.
In the months following Samantha's disappearance, news reports revealed investigators searched the Greene Acres subdivision and had divers search its lake on multiple occasions, but if they found anything to suggest Samantha had been there, they're not saying. Taylor says that to the best of his knowledge, Samantha had never been there. But the second man and his girlfriend were familiar with it, says Taylor, who contends the duo know far more about Samantha's whereabouts than they've told investigators.
Frozen in time
If life froze for Barbara Tinder when Samantha disappeared two years ago, in other ways time marches on.
A year after Samantha went missing, Tinder became pregnant despite, she says, doctors telling her in her 20s that she would be unable to have more children. Neither the relationship that produced now five-month-old Matthew nor a subsequent brief marriage worked out, and Tinder, who is now disabled due to a medical condition, says she spends her days at home, caring for a new baby and wondering what happened to her first one.
"I think Samantha sent him to me," says Tinder, bouncing the pink-cheeked boy on her knee as he grabs at a framed photo of his missing sister.
"I just want to know where she is," Tinder says softly.
Taylor says he, too, would like to know what happened to Samantha. He lists the losses he's also experienced in the wake of her disappearance: custody of his son, who went to live with his mother after police allegedly warned him his arrest was imminent; his job, a loss he attributes to police visits to his employer; even his home in the Eheart's Corner trailer park on Ridge Road in Orange County. Unemployed and unable to make rent, he says he was recently evicted. And he fears the scrutiny will never stop.
"I'm worried about what's going to happen next," says Taylor, reiterating the pain that Samantha's family feels. "I know they need this solved," he says.
Samantha's aunt says the pain and frustration of not knowing what happened, or who's responsible, may be worst of all.
"I want to find my niece, one way or the other," Rhodes says. "I want her at home, but if she is not alive, then at least we can have some kind of peace of mind knowing that she's not out there somewhere."
On October 3, Taylor gave an extensive interview at the Hook office with his attorney, Adam Rhea, present. He provided a phone number for follow-up questions, but calls and texts sent to him beginning the following day seeking additional details went unreturned. At presstime, Rhea says he has also been unable to reach his client.
–With additional reporting by Lisa Provence
–Clarification: Barbara Tinder first contacted Greene County Sheriff's Department to report Samantha missing on Tuesday, September 14. She says a deputy told her that because Samantha was an adult, she needed to wait 48 hours before reporting the disappearance to Town of Orange Police, the jurisdiction from which Samantha went missing. She first contacted that department on Wednesday, September 15.