HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- If it were not for the magnolias in bloom on Whitesburg Drive, a visitor to this northern Alabama city might suspect that he had left the South entirely.
But the recent arrest of twin sisters in what prosecutors charge was the murder-for-hire of one of their husbands, a prominent Huntsville ophthalmologist, draws the the visitor into a world that he would expect to find only in Southern Gothic novels and Tennessee Williams plays.
Almost everybody in Huntsville seems to have been born someplace someplace else, lured by the Marshall Space Flight Center and hundreds of high-technology companies.
Dr. Jack W. Wilson, originally from Chicago, was one of those immigrants. Co-workers say he embodied the finer side of the Huntsville character. He did not ask for money from patients who could not afford to pay. He prayed with them before surgery. None of his colleagues thought the gentle doctor had any enemies.
But on May 22, Dr. Wilson returned home after work to discover an intruder. There was a struggle. The intruder beat him with an aluminum baseball bat and, according to the police, stabbed him twice.
The 55-year-old doctor died at the scene, and his killing first appeared to be the result of a bungled robbery attempt. Five days later, the police arrested James D. White, 41, a carpenter from Vincent, Ala., 150 miles to the south.
Then came the unexpected twist. On May 28, the police arrested Dr. Wilson's wife, Betty, 46, and her twin sister, Peggy Lowe, from Talladega, Ala., and charged them, along with Mr. White, with capital murder.
A Huntsville police investigator, Micky Brantley, testified yesterday at a preliminary hearing that Mrs. Wilson believed that she was the primary beneficiary and sole executor of her husband's estate, valued at more than a million dollars. Mr. Brantley said that Mrs. Wilson had told him in an interview that she and her husband had slept in separate bedrooms while she carried on numerous affairs.
Mr. Brantley read the transcript of a taped interview with Mr. White, on May 27. In it, Mr. White confessed, saying that that Mrs. Wilson's sister had paid him $2,500 to commit the crime with the promise of another $2,500 afterward. He said that Mrs. Wilson had given him $300 in expense money and that the sisters had given him Mrs. Wilson's .38-caliber pistol, which he did not use.
Mr. White said he had been driven to commit the crime not by money, but by love. And not by love for Mrs. Wilson, but for her twin sister, a former high school homecoming queen whom he met at a school in Vincent, where she taught first grade.
He said the feeling was mutual, but he added that Mrs. Lowe told him that she did not want to leave her husband. "She just wished something would happen to him," he said. "In a jokingly way I said, 'Well, that could be arranged.' "
Instead, Mr. White said, Mrs. Lowe told him of a friend with a similar problem, and she pressed him to help. Mr. White says the friend was her twin sister, the problem an unhappy marriage, the solution murder, according to the transcript.
Betty Wilson and Peggy Lowe spent their teen-age years in Gadsden, a somber mill city at the foot of the Appalachians in northeastern Alabama. The twins were popular in high school. Both married right out of high school, divorced and remarried.
But there were also differences. Marc Sandlin, the lawyer who represented both sisters early on and will continue to represent Mrs. Wilson if indictments are returned early next month by a county grand jury, said: "Peggy Lowe's real straight, real religious. Betty Wilson's more of a searcher, a seeker."
He suggested that Mrs. Wilson tried to fill a void in her life with alcohol and money before sobering up five years ago. But he denied that she could have been involved in her husband's murder. "Betty and Jack got along fine," he said.
Others who know Mrs. Wilson are less charitable. "She played around with other men and wouldn't hesitate to say it," said Alisa West, the owner of a boutique that Mrs. Wilson went for manicures. "And she'd brag about how smart she was and show off her furs, her burgundy Mercedes convertible and her diamond rings."
Mrs. Lowe appears to have led a less flamboyant life. She received a great deal of support from friends and acquaintances after her arrest. She was released from jail on a $150,000 bond raised by friends at the First Baptist Church in Vincent.
Mr. Sandlin denies that Mrs. Lowe had a romantic relationship with Mr. White, whom he called "a nut, a Vietnam veteran who's spent 20 years in and out of psychiatric hospitals." Mr. White's lawyer, Roy Miller, confirmed his client's history of hospitalization.
Although Mr. Sandlin insists that neither sister is guilty, he acknowledged that he would be representing only Mrs. Wilson and not Mrs. Lowe if the case went to trial. "We can't sacrifice Peggy for Betty's benefit," he said. "We've got a potential conflict there."