(Page 3 of 4)

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

Out of the dismissal and dramatic walkout, Christian Faith Tabernacle was born. After meeting wherever they could put a roof over their heads -- in schools, in a former drugstore -- they soon built their own church.

On Aug. 31, 1981, Christian Faith Tabernacle Inc. bought a parcel of land on Middle River Road for $350,000. Signing the mortgage papers for the church was not its pastor, Sam Booth, but its chairman of the board, Dudley Merwin Opie.

Mr. Booth's relationship with Mr. Opie was a source of gossip among church members. Mr. Opie was a 41-year-old teacher at Churchville Elementary School when he was charged with sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy he met at an Aberdeen adult bookstore in December 1982. He was found guilty in September 1983 of engaging in a perverted sex act, but the judgment was reversed two years later. Harford County officials later agreed not to retry the case if Mr. Opie agreed to forgo employment that involved minors, get treatment and pay court costs.

Mr. Opie, who at the time was married and had two children, has since moved to California. Reached at his home there, he refused to speak to The Sun.

"I know what the people are like, especially in that area. That's why I left. I'm living my own life," Mr. Opie said angrily. "I have no interest in their petty gossip and slander."

Starting anew

Members of Mr. Booth's new, unaffiliated church speak wistfully of the early years, when they followed their pastor to various makeshift quarters and prayed and learned and became a congregation.

"There was a deep sense of calling in his life," says Carolyn Hilker, who joined Christian Faith Tabernacle shortly after it was started.

Mr. Booth tended to his parishioners, performing weddings, baptisms and funerals, leading Sunday services and Wednesday evening Bible study sessions, visiting the sick and counseling the troubled.

It is a demanding life, ministers and parishioners alike agree, tending to people's spiritual and emotional needs. Many churchgoers are there precisely because they have unmet needs.

"We were a bunch of spoiled brats," Della Straszynski says flatly. "We would tell him he really needed to have other people helping him, with the visiting. But there were those who would call and would not accept anyone at their bedside but him."

Parishioners say Mr. Booth rarely took time off. And when he wasn't engaged in church duties, he was caring for several mentally disturbed men who lived in his home. As a provider for a state-funded program called Project Home from 1990 to 1993, Mr. Booth was licensed to take up to four mentally ill people into his house.

He initially lived with clients at his house on the 300 block of Catherine St. in Bel Air. He continued running the house as a residential home for them after he moved to the 600 block of Old Orchard, also in Bel Air.

Most of the clients he cared for had been hospitalized in the past, released, but unable to live entirely on their own. He would make sure they got three meals a day, took their medications and attended counseling or day-care programs that they were enrolled in. Providers like Mr. Booth are paid from $498 to $1,034 a month per client.

Project Home officials say they were pleased with the services Mr. Booth provided.

"He provided a good home for a very difficult kind of client," says Kathleen Ward, a social worker who monitored Mr. Booth's house for Project Home. "He had difficult people, so he was over there quite often, he would spend overnights there sometimes. He was a good provider."

Trouble with the law

As full as this life as a minister and care-giver may have been, Mr. Booth apparently had another life as well, one that he managed to keep secret from his church until June 22, 1993.

That was the day Bel Air police and federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents raided his home on Old Orchard and found marijuana, drug paraphernalia, scales, smoking devices and needles. One officer said they also found gay-oriented publications in the house.

Mr. Booth was arrested, posted the $8,000 bond and was released.

Bel Air Police Officer Keith Santagata says that he had been developing a case against Mr. Booth for a couple of years, since informants told him that they bought drugs from him. Mr. Booth would buy cocaine in Philadelphia, cook it down to crack at his home and resell it, Officer Santagata says.

At one time, he had a fairly sizable drug operation going, Officer ++ Santagata says. But, the officer believes, Mr. Booth developed a serious habit of his own.

"At one time, he sold a lot of crack. But I hooked up with him on the downside," he said. "He had a bad cocaine habit. The old saying, if you're going to sell, don't use it yourself. . ."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.