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BACCA Writers

Haunted at a writing retreat.

I moved aside the wooden block holding up the ancient window and carefully lowered the heavy pane, not wanting to smash my fingers. I was in my bedroom at The Porches in Norwood, Virginia—an antebellum farmhouse lovingly transformed into a quiet, contemplative writers’ retreat.  I’d come to work on a difficult chapter in my nonfiction story about the murder of John W. Funkhouser, the geology professor who discovered the earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant back in 1970. With the heavy window closed, I turned on the air conditioner.  It was almost ninety degrees outside.  I opened my laptop and placed the binder with my files from the courthouse beside me. I clicked the only photo I had of the killer— from his senior high school yearbook.

Ray William Cook, Jr. was a good looking boy. Dark hair, sincere eyes, and perfect lips.  Hollywood lips.  Lips that could have been outlined by a professional makeup artist. I turned the page to the photocopy of his signed confession:

December 3, 1974

I, Ray William Cook, Jr., do make this statement to Det. H. M Shelton, Chesterfield County Police Dept., after having been advised of my constitutional rights and understanding these rights I make this statement freely and voluntarily…

I flipped page after page, recreating the crime. After a couple more hours with this murderer, it was time for dinner. A shared meal with three other writers followed by a settling stroll in the lush Virginia countryside. Weeks of rain had finally ended and the results were spectacular.  Colorful coneflowers, ubiquitous Virginia creeper, and trees competing for every inch of sunlight. I walked to a small church with a few gravestones. One or two cars passed by, the drivers waved and I waved back.

I returned to my room, to my computer, and to my binder. My chapter on Ray Cook’s family life, his physical and mental health, and his jumbled reasoning for shooting Dr. Funkhouser in the head was inching into existence.  Outside, the long June day finally gave in to the night.  The deeper I dove into the life and crimes of Ray Cook, Jr., the darker the windowpane became. Moths banged against the wavy glass. I dragged my fingers through my hair. His yearbook photo was still on my computer screen. My face was in the windowpane, lit by the screen. His face. My face.  I rubbed my arms.  It was too cool in here. I adjusted the temperature on the wall air condition.   Just a tad warmer, please.  I sat on the corner of my bed. The locked armoire beside the bed had a full length mirror.  I was tired and should have gotten some sleep, but I returned to my computer instead.

VIRGINIA:

IN THE CIRCUIT COURT OF THE COUNTY OF CHESTERFIELD COMMONWEALTH

VS.

RAY WILLIAM COOK

The defendant, Ray William Cook, having been charged in this court at the March term 1975, on two felony charges; to-wit: Armed Robbery and Murder, and pursuant to the Order of the Court, having been conveyed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia for observation and reported to the Court, at which said hospital he was received and the Superintendent of the said hospital having reported to the Court that the said Ray Willian Cook is not mentally ill, it is, therefore ORDERED that the Sheriff of Chesterfield do proceed to Central State Hospital at Petersburg, Virginia and take into his custody the said Ray William Cook and commit him to the Chesterfield County Jail, Chesterfield, Virginia to be there confined until he shall be ordered by this court to be produced before the Court for the trial of the crime of which he stands charged.

A deep quiet had settled over The Porches.  The other writers had gone to bed. Even the moths had stopped their suicidal banging. I had to get my mind off murder.   I showered, brushed my teeth, and changed into my nightgown. The brass bed was as soft as feathers with a half-dozen pillows.  I read for a while then took off my glasses and turned out the light.  The room glowed. I looked up.  I’d left my computer on. Mr. Cook’s high school yearbook photo was staring at me. I tried to ignore him. I built a fortress of pillows to block the light. But there he was.  I turned the light back on and walked to the desk. I closed the file and shut down the computer.  I returned to bed and turned off the lights.

It was too dark. It was too quiet.  I strained to hear anything beyond the rumble of the air conditioner. I couldn’t get Mr. Cook out of my head. Robbery. Murder. Prison.  Someone was watching me.  I sat up.  I switched on the light and grabbed my glasses. The mirror on the full-length armoire.  That’s all it was.  I stacked the pillows so I couldn’t see the mirror and turned off the light.

Mr. Cook was standing beside my bed.

Lights back on, glasses back on, I picked up my book and read until I heard the birds singing.  At breakfast, I told the other writers of my sleepless night. I returned to my room and my white binder, and wrote about a killer’s ghost stalking me in this lovely antebellum farmhouse.

Porches bedroom - legs
My bedroom at The Porches.  I should have put my robe over that mirror!

 

 

Carolyn O’Neal is a Charlottesville author.  She highly recommends The Porches writing retreat. This historic farmhouse built in 1854 on the James River offers a unique experience for authors and artists.

 

 

 

 

By Carolyn O'Neal

Researching history of earthquake fault under the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Louisa County and the people most affected by it, including Professor John W. Funkhouser, H. Spurgeon Moss, and June Allen. Please leave message on https://baccaliterary.com/carolyn-oneal/ if you have any information on this topic or these people. Thank you very much.

11 replies on “Haunted at a writing retreat.”

That’s a good question. According to Mr. Cook’s confession, Dr. Funkhouser and Mr. Cook spent the night drinking and this lead to misunderstandings that ended in murder. However, Dr. Funkhouser’s autopsy showed he didn’t have any alcohol in his system. Plus, Dr. Funkhouser was talking on the phone with friends when he was shot. The friends testified that Dr. F sounded normal and gave them no indication that he’d had a visitor the night before or had been drinking.
So this has lead me to search for other reasons. Mr. Cook died about 10 years ago so I can’t ask him but I have been able to speak with several of Dr. F’s students and they felt Mr. Cook was lying.
Any chance you knew Dr. Funkhouser or Mr. Cook? If so, I’d love to talk.

Hello. My late brother used to talk about Dr. Funkhouser. He only mentioned that as a geologist, Dr. Funkhouser once encountered a “diamond in the rough” so to speak, it was an emerald in its natural state. Oddly enough, it got my brother interested in rock tumbling and he went out and bought a rock tumbler that was so noisy (while tumbling rocks) that he rarely used the tumbler. Unfortunately my brother died in May of 2012, but my brother knew Dr. Funkhouser at John Tyler college, or at least knew of his work. My brother worked at the college for a period of time, but I believe my brother also took classes at the college as well. I was 13 at the time of Dr. Funkhouser’s death, but I can remember my brother talking about Dr. Funkhouser’s death at our home. It scared me, at the time, to know my brother knew someone who had been murdered.

That sounds like Dr. Funkhouser. He was remembered fondly by several students that I interviewed. No one ever mentioned any objectionable behavior. Some speculate that Mr. Cook was working for VEPCO and was hired to kill Dr. F. Mr. Cook was an electrician and had been employed by electrical subcontractors that worked on the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant project. That whole project shut down for a while before the murder because an earthquake fault was found in the pit dug for the 3rd nuclear reactor. You may know that Dr. Funkhouser found an earthquake fault way back in 1970 in the first pit dug for a nuclear reactor but VEPCO denied it and covered it up. Mr. Cook may have blamed Dr. F for the shutdown. Also, there were rumors that Dr. F was gay so it could have been prejudice. Either way, Mr. Cook robbed the world of a brilliant and beloved educator.
Any chance your brother’s family has any old yearbooks from his time at John Tyler Community College? The JTCC library doesn’t have records from the 1970s. They had a fire or something like that and many records were destroyed. Please keep in touch!
Carolyn

Hello again! Yes, I also heard a rumor about Dr. Funkhouser possibly being gay, but from an unreliable source, I think it’s odd that type of rumor being started. What sort of evidence of homosexuality did anyone have to, decades later, have that information fall onto my ears? Vicious rumors can do a lot of damage. My brother was not gay and he spoke fondly of Dr. Funkhouser; I believe the professor was well-liked on the John Tyler campus. The only explanation I had at the time, and I was 13 in 1974, was the opinion about the murder was due to the timing of the VEPCO (now Va. Power) plans for a nuclear reactor. I’ll bet someone in the VEPCO inner circle took that information with them to their grave, after all these decades. Cover-ups as big as a murder would only exist in the world of the inner circle of the nuclear plant power brokers (just guessing), and in the mid-1970’s the idea of building a nuclear power plant was a colossal idea! I was always worried that Lake Anna could contain nuclear waster even in very small quantities. I’m sure the nuclear plant is highly monitored and is quite aware that Virginians are watching for errors. Recall that the Three Mile Island nuclear leak in Pennsylvania was also in the 1970’s.
My late brother died in 2012. His wife’s son, (not my brother’s child), pillaged ALL of my brother’s belongings and denied access to ANY of my brother’s things after my brother’s untimely death. Vehicles and other belongings were sold to benefit the “thief” who wouldn’t let me anywhere near my brother’s things. I wasn’t even allowed to have my parents’ wedding portrait, by my brother’s stepson. The greed was unbelievable and all part of a larger plan – I’ve had to let that negativity go over the nearly 9 years since my brother died. I also wonder how many people knew about the artifacts Dr. Funkhouser obtained over the years and where the artifacts were stored. Emeralds are in scarce supply these days. If my brother knew any negative information regarding Dr. Funkhouser’s death, he certainly didn’t share anything negative with me. I would have picked up on conversations about this subject within the household had they relayed any other information than the going theory about the murder. Carolyn I am also reticent to type information In this post that is publicly viewed information.

The only person I have found who publicly stated Dr. Funkhouser was gay in any sort of official capacity was his killer. Hardly reliable but it was a very public trial so this claim traveled like wildfire throughout the community. One of his friends told me that Dr. F. considered himself bi-sexual but this was just in casual conversation. Several students have stated how extremely honest and helpful Dr. F. was to them, never expecting anything in return other than friendship. But in the mid 1970s, even a hint of being gay was a scandal.

Hello Carolyn,
I don’t think Mr. Cook would have killed Dr. F. for any reason other than the Virginia Power thing, if that was indeed the reason for Dr. F.’s murder – I don’t think this was the motivation for Dr. F’s murder nor do I feel that Dr. F’s sexual preference was involved. I did some recollecting into the day’s of my 1970’s. My late brother worked at the college where Mr. F. taught and in the same era as Dr. F. My brother thought well of Dr. F., and never mentioned anything about rumors of bisexuality… At the time of the murder, EVERYONE in my surroundings though the motive for the murder was Dr. F’s upcoming (or continuing) battle with the powers governing North and South Anna nuclear plant(s). Looking back, I think that assumption could only be half true.
I must connect with you via e-mail for further thoughts.
-Elaine Puricelli

Yes, it is fact. I am researching the life of the man who discovered the earthquake fault under local nuclear power plant and was murdered a few weeks before he was to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission.

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