All I wanted was to research manmade earthquakes. I was pulling together ideas for a new novel about villains triggering an earthquake under a nuclear power plant. I had visions of them rubbing their hands together as they watched chaos unfold. But how could I research such a thing? Where would I go to find something as unlikely, as farfetched, and as absolutely insane as a nuclear power plant built on top of an earthquake fault? Well, lucky for me, there’s one in nearby Louisa County, Virginia.
The North Anna Nuclear Power Plant was announced in The Daily Progress in 1968 and a couple of years later, after clearing and excavation had begun, a geology professor named John W. Funkhouser discovered the earthquake fault. That was in February, 1970. I found many interesting articles about the building of the nuclear power plant and the discovery of the fault but one that really stuck out was a small piece about what happened to Funkhouser three years after he discovered the fault. He was murdered on December 3, 1974 via a single gunshot to the head.
Professor Funkhouser taught geology at John Tyler Community College in Chesterfield, Virginia. He was scheduled to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission (now called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) in early 1975, but his murder quashed that appearance. Twenty-four year old unemployed electrician Ray W. Cook, Jr. was convicted of his murder. The more I read, the more questions arose. What brought Funkhouser to the power plant’s construction site back in 1970? How did he uncover the fault? What happened after he told the Virginia Electric and Power Company?
I tried to return to researching for my novel. I found reports of certain human activities triggering earthquakes. Activities such as damming a river to create a massive lake on a previously quiet earthquake fault. This is what geologists call reservoir-induced earthquakes. The construction of Hoover Dam, for instance, created Lake Mead in a part of the country with no previous record of seismicity. Even before the lake was completely full, people reported feeling the ground shake. Another suspect is fracking. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, “wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing process can cause induced earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater wells.” I contacted geologists and a couple of engineers to ask about the plausibility of my villain’s dastardly scheme. Yes, they speculated, a lake on a fault line plus fracking might trigger an earthquake, so I was rather pleased with myself as I moved forward with writing the first few chapters.
But this man, this Professor John W. Funkhouser, the man who discovered the fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant and was murdered, kept surfacing in my mind.
Who was he? What was his background? I searched the internet and found articles about Funkhouser and about his murder, including a copy of his death certificate. I faced the fact that I had to set aside my fictional story. I had to investigate the real one. I printed out the death certificate. Funkhouser was murdered in his home at the Chester Town House Apartments in Chesterfield, Virginia. I searched online for Chester Town House Apartments but found nothing. Since the murder was back in 1974, the apartment complex could have changed its name or may have been torn down. That led me to contact the Chesterfield Planning Department and the Chesterfield Historical Society. Indeed, the name of the apartment complex had changed. I typed the new name into Google Maps. There it was. I typed in John Tyler Community College. The apartments were about eight miles from the campus. Professor Funkhouser was slowly becoming a real person. This was where he lived. This was where he taught. This was where he died. Each new discovery made me want to learn more.
I’d never asked for court records before. I’ve been on a jury but that was my only brush with the world of judges, prosecuting attorneys, and witnesses. I had to do a bit of research even to know where to start. I wanted detail about the trial of Ray W. Cook, Jr. Maybe trial transcripts would give me insight into why he shot Professor Funkhouser. I went to the Chesterfield County website and found what I needed. I contacted the Clerk of Court, The Honorable Wendy S. Hughes, via email and quickly received a polite reply from Karla Viar, Criminal Division Supervisor/Pre-Court, Chesterfield Circuit Court Clerk’s Office. She told me that they’d pulled the files from the murder trial and had them available for me. I emailed Karla. I’d be there the next afternoon.
The drive from my home in Charlottesville to the Chesterfield Circuit Court took a bit over an hour. I parked, grabbed my purse and notebook, and headed to the door. I didn’t know what to expect. Would they hand me a small file with one flimsy document? Would they have a thick file with stacks of evidence? My plan was to take photos of each page with my cell phone. That seemed the easiest. I stepped into the courthouse and was greeted by baggage scanners and armed guards. “No cell phones. No cameras of any sort allowed in the court house.” I returned to the car and dropped off my purse. I returned with only my keys, my notebook, and a pen. That’s all. This time, I made it through security.
Ms. Viar was good to her word. The file was waiting for me. I opened it and began writing. I wrote down every word. “Form No. 716 (REV) Virginia: In the Chesterfield General District Court January 29th, 1975, Commonwealth of Virginia V. Ray William Cook, Jr. Order This day came the Attorney for the Commonwealth, and ….” after writing a few full pages my hand began it cramp. The clerk assigned to sit with me while I had the file must have felt pity on me. “Um, you know we can make copies for you,” she said. “Fifty cents a page.”
“Do you take credit cards?”
I ran back to my car for my wallet. It took an hour or so for her to make and compile all the copies. She copied over fifty pages, most letter length but a few legal papers. There was also a brown envelope taped closed in the file. “What’s that?” I asked.
“What do I have to do to get a look inside?”
“You need approval from the judge.”
I wrote down that name. The information I had in my hands was already pretty incendiary. The copies I held contained details of the crime, a handwritten confession, and a photo; I could only imagine what the sealed documents might hold. Looks like I had some more legal research ahead of me. How to request a judge to unseal court documents? I’d work on that when I got home.
I still had a couple hours of daylight left so I drove over to the John Tyler Community College campus, where Professor Funkhouser had taught. It was winter break. I asked a guard where the geology building was and he sent me in the right direction. I had researched enough about John W. Funkhouser to know he was a brilliant man. Magna Cum Laude at Washington and Lee and a scholarship to Stanford University for his PhD where he was an Atomic Energy Fellow. After graduation, he was hired by Carter Oil (part of Esso/Standard Oil) and was sent on expedition to South America where he revolutionized the field of paleopalynology. In the mid 1960’s, he left big oil for small academia. Peeking through the windows into the dark and empty classrooms I couldn’t help but be struck by the loss.
I still had one more stop before heading back to Charlottesville. I wanted to see the old Chester Townhouse Apartments. I wanted to see where Professor Funkhouser had lived and where he had died. At the very least, I wanted to drive the route he’d taken when he left work at John Tyler Community College and headed home on that final day in 1974.
The apartment complex was laid out like a tree with a road down the middle and cul-de-sacs branching out on either side. I drove down the first cul-de-sac. Some of the two-story townhouses were larger than others, perhaps an extra bedroom. I wanted to take a photo so I’d remember. I didn’t want people or cars in the photo so I found a quiet townhouse and snapped my cell phone camera. I drove to the next cul-de-sac and saw a sign for the apartment complex’s office.
The young woman who greeted me wasn’t even born when Professor Funkhouser died. The office was a converted townhome, a showroom for potential renters to see before they sign. I asked when the complex was built and she guessed in the 70’s or 80’s. I asked if I could look around. She encouraged it. I wandered through the kitchen as if it were Professor Funkhouser’s, touching the surfaces as if he had touched them. He was shot in his kitchen. I’d seen the photo in the court records. He was killed at 4:30 in the afternoon, dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, his pocket protector neatly in his breast pocket, still filled with pencils and pens. I returned to my car and drove to the next cul-de-sac and to the next one after that. Up and down the streets, not knowing what I was looking for. Clues to which townhouse was his, I guess. Something that looked different from the rest, something that would say a genius once lived here.
I was ready to set my GPS for home when it dawned on me that somewhere buried in the court records had to be his apartment number. Yes, the name of the apartment complex had changed and maybe the numbering had too, but I had to give it a try. I found his address in the Virginia Uniform Traffic Summons, a report filled out by the detective who arrested Mr. Cook. The number was there. Five digits. I started reading the townhouse addresses. They fit the same five digit pattern. I retraced my steps, winding back through the apartment complex, carefully reading the addresses until I returned to where I had begun at the very first cul-de-sac. I looked at each number. Not that one. Not that one. Then I found it. There it was. The address was on the front door. I rechecked the summons. Yes, it was the same number. Wait a minute. I checked my cell phone. There was something familiar with that particular townhouse. I opened up the photo gallery. I enlarged the photo I’d taken when I first arrived. Could this be Dr. Funkhouser’s townhouse? There must have been forty or fifty townhomes in the complex, how did I happen to take a photo of his? What were the odds? I reread the number on the front door and immediately felt a connection. All the time I had spent searching for Dr. Funkhouser and he had found me.
Carolyn O’Neal is continuing her research on the life and death of Professor John W. Funkhouser. She wrote Judge Hauler of Chesterfield County and did indeed receive permission to open the sealed files. From those files, she was able to track down a witness and interview him face-to-face. She has also interviewed (via phone) Dr. Funkhouser’s daughter and one of his John Tyler Community College students. Carolyn would like to connect with anyone who had worked at the North Anna Power Plant when it was under construction or lived nearby. She would also like to find anyone involved with the North Anna Environmental Coalition. And of course, she would like to talk to anyone who knew Dr. John W. Funkhouser. Contact Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org