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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

The raid and arrest shocked his parishioners. But Mr. Booth reportedly told them the drugs and paraphernalia didn't belong to him, but to one of the men he had been helping. Officer !B Santagata said the pastor claimed he had confiscated the stuff from a Project Home client living in the Catherine Street house and brought it to his own residence on Old Orchard.

"I said, wait a minute, you brought all this stuff into your house, and you didn't do anything with it?" Officer Santagata says. "It was all a denial game."

The next day, Project Home shut down Mr. Booth's residential home. At the time, two men were living in the Catherine Street home under his care, and one refused to leave him. He chose to stay with Mr. Booth, and Project Home couldn't force him to leave. He was, however, cut off from the program and no more funds were provided for his care. (Project Home would not release the names of the clients living with Mr. Booth at the time, citing confidentiality rules.)

The charges against Mr. Booth ultimately were dropped. Police thought they might be able to get a bigger case, a conspiracy charge, involving bigger dealers above him. Besides, says H. Scott Lewis, then a Harford County prosecutor and now with the state attorney general's office, the case against Mr. Booth wasn't very strong in his opinion.

"There were other people who were in the house, how do you tie the paraphernalia to Booth rather than to them?" he says. "It was a marginal case."

The minister moved out of Bel Air after the raid. As far as Bel Air police were concerned the matter settled itself.

As for his church, some members apparently accepted his version of the raid.

"He was Mr. Clean on Sunday," Officer Santagata said, "and doing whatever else the rest of the week."

A pastor's turmoil

Doubts were beginning to gnaw, however, on the minds of some of the church members, especially after the raid.

Carolyn Hilker says Mr. Booth grew increasingly aloof and began arriving late or missing services. She began hearing about the circumstances under which he left Middle River Assembly of God church, and the rumors that he was gay. About a year ago, she and about 20 other parishioners decided to leave the church.

Some of those who remained attribute her departure to a power struggle -- Ms. Hilker had become a minister herself and wanted more control of Christian Faith Tabernacle, they say. She denies that, saying instead that she believed Mr. Booth was living a double life incompatible with Christian teachings. She says she has no proof that he was homosexual, but believes those who have told her that he was.

Whatever was plaguing Mr. Booth, the last years of his life were beset with troubles. Parishioners say he suffered painful medical problems -- kidney stones and migraines -- and they were wearing on him. There were serious illnesses in his family, his father died and one of his sisters was hospitalized. And when his ex-wife remarried, some parishioners say, he was devastated.

He had started telling people, including his sister Rosalie and his friend Joe West, that he wanted to retire.

Beginning of the end

Some church members have said they saw James Wood at the church once, but he did not regularly attend. Some say Mr.

Booth said he was helping the young man with a drug problem and had asked his congregation to pray for him.

At the time of his arrest, Mr. Wood's parents, Jack and Joyce Lee Wood, said they had been trying for six years to get him away from Mr. Booth, whom they accused of supplying drugs to their son and other young men. They said they had put him in a rehabilitation program, he'd gotten off drugs, but eventually fell back in with Mr. Booth. The Woods have since declined interviews.

Jim Gentry, the assistant state's attorney for Baltimore County who will be prosecuting the case, said Mr. Wood and Mr. Booth are believed to have smoked crack together off and on for a couple of days before the murder. Sometime in the late afternoon or evening of Christmas Eve, a fight broke out between the two men in the trailer behind the church.

The next morning, Christmas Day, James Wood called police and confessed to the murder. He said he had robbed the pastor of about $78 and some crack after killing him. Police found two crack pipes in the trailer.

Mr. Wood is charged with first-degree murder and armed robbery. He pleaded not guilty, and a trial date has not been set.

Several days after the murder, Mr. Booth's congregation gathered in their little church to hold a funeral service for their lost leader. As on Pastor Appreciation Day, music and memories and genuine love filled the church.

But this time, there was no Mr. Booth at the microphone, or leading the songs, or hugging them goodbye. Instead, there were a lot of tears, a long motorcade to Gardens of Faith in Rosedale, and burial in an unmarked, donated grave.

The congregation is looking for a new pastor. But there will never be another first pastor, another Sam Booth.

"We've decided we're going to go on," Ms. Straszynski says. "We will pray God will send us a shepherd. But Sam's shoes will be impossible to fill."

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