Beloved minister had a secret life that came to light after his murder THE LOST SHEPHERD

February 26, 1995|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Sun Staff Writer

It's June 26, 1988, and the members of Christian Faith Tabernacle Church have gathered for their annual "Pastor Appreciation Day." From the outside, the humble building in Middle River with its hand-painted sign and barren, gravelly lot doesn't seem like much.

But inside, the church is vibrating with music and laughter and good feelings. The members are putting on a "This is Your Life" kind of show for their pastor, the man many of them had followed out the door of a secure, established church for one with nothing -- neither building nor land nor denominational ties -- except sheer faith.

In God, and in Samuel Nathaniel Booth Jr.

One by one, Mr. Booth's family, his fellow ministers and his congregation step to the microphone to lavish praise and share affectionate, sometimes funny stories about him -- his lifelong mission to preach, his musical gifts, his fear of mice. Even his ex-wife turns up to declare her love for him. Through it all, the handsome, dark-haired Mr. Booth sits on a stool in front of his congregation, dabbing occasionally at his eyes, seemingly both

pleased and abashed by all the adulation.

"This type of thing humbles me. I'd rather be underneath this stool, behind the pulpit. I feel not embarrassed but shy, you know what I mean?" he is seen saying on a videotape of the day. "I don't feel I'm worthy of it, to be honest with you."

Today, some church members are reminding themselves of two lessons from the Bible: Judge not lest ye be judged. And man is flawed but God is forgiving.

How else to reconcile the love and faith they feel for their pastor even after a dark and hidden side to his life began emerging two months ago, when they found him stabbed to death in a trailer home behind the church, apparently after having smoked crack cocaine with his assailant?

"I don't think God would let all his labors of love go to waste," said Margaret Kumulides, a longtime member of Christian Faith Tabernacle Church. "I hope that at the last second, he could say, 'God, forgive me.' "

The last second of Mr. Booth's life came sometime in the late afternoon or early evening of Christmas Eve. If the 55-year-old minister called out to God in those last moments, no one but perhaps James Wood would know.

Mr. Wood, 24, has confessed to stabbing the pastor in the trailer behind the church, where 40 or so parishioners had gathered for 7 p.m. Christmas Eve services.

"He's never late," Jan Pharr recalls thinking when Mr. Booth still had not arrived five or 10 minutes after 7.

One member went to the trailer, found his body and ran back to tell the other members that he thought Mr. Booth was shot but still alive.

Ms. Pharr, a nurse, ran toward the trailer. "I was screaming, 'Sam, where are you?' My husband opened the trailer door, and I said, 'Oh, no. I can't helphim. He's already dead.' "

She and others were there until past midnight, as police arrived to question them and investigate the murder. And so during what is normally a season of joy for Christians, the small congregation instead was faced with burying their pastor.

But even as they were eulogizing Sam Booth as a devoted man of God who spent his life tirelessly helping others, a much different picture of his life was emerging.

Mr. Wood, who is being held without bail in the Baltimore County Detention Center, told police he killed the pastor after smoking crack cocaine with him over the course of a couple of days. An autopsy later would reveal traces of cocaine in Mr. Booth's body, used 24 to 48 hours before his death.

Soon, even more details of Mr. Booth's life surfaced: In 1993, police and federal drug enforcement agents raided his Bel Air home, where they found marijuana and drug paraphernalia. He was arrested, but never brought to trial for dealing drugs. Additionally, long-standing rumors that he was homosexual -- a lifestyle unacceptable to the Assembly of God denomination that Mr. Booth had belonged to for most of his life -- were revived.

Some could only conclude that Sam Booth was living a double life. But perhaps it was not so much a double life as, ultimately, a complex one. That his life may have straddled both the sacred and the profane raises the question: Can someone do good even as they're doing bad?

A lifelong gift

People who have heard Sam Booth preach, even those who later grew disenchanted with him, say the same thing: He had "the gift."

"When he would preach, the hair on your neck would stand on its end," says Joe West, a minister in Grafton, W.Va., who had

known Mr. Booth for more than 20 years and was called on to lead his funeral services.

No one remembers Sam Booth ever wanting to be anything but a minister. Oft-repeated family lore has it that as a little boy in Edgewood in Harford County he would play preacher in an old chicken house.

"I would lead the singing and Sam would preach," recalls Rosalie Frostad, one of his two sisters. "People would come and hear us."

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