Meeting Grandpa & Sally!

As many of those in my home town know, I was adopted into the McCulley family at the age of seven.  I was the oldest of five children in a home where my natural father & mother were blind.  I was to later find out that I had two half-sisters that my mother had by a previous marriage. It had long been a desire of mine while growing up, to locate all of my natural brothers and sisters when I was a adult, a venture that I set out upon shortly after my marriage in 1974.

Shortly after my wedding,  my wife Becky and I went to the adoption agency and made inquiry of the whereabouts of my siblings.  I was told that due to current laws on adoption that the records were sealed and I would not be able to receive that information through the agency.  However, I was told that in the event that another family member would contact them expressing the same desire, I would be contacted and a meeting could be arranged.

In 1986 I was contacted through U.S. mail by the adoption agency and informed that a family member had come to their agency and inquired about the whereabouts of the children that had been adopted. I knew that one of us had been adopted by an aunt while the rest of us were taken to the American Home Finding Association in Ottumwa, IA and papers were signed giving them legal custody of us while adoption opportunities were pursued.  The letter was written on March 13, 1986 which happened to be the 60th birthday of my adopted dad, Kenneth McCulley(D).  Here is an excerpt of that letter:

“Dear Richard: Approximately 10 years ago, you came to the office and expressed some interest in learning about your younger siblings who were placed through the agency.  Recently, I was contacted by a grandparent who wanted to know if we had ever had any contact from your (sic) children. I indicated that if you were willing….”

WILLING was an understatement.  I had talked about this day ever since I was adopted in 1962!

Joyful Reunion!

On Thursday, March 27th, 1986 my wife Becky & daughter Jennifer made the 30 mile drive to Ottumwa, IA in anticipation of meeting the grandfather referenced in the letter that we had received, as well as anticipating what we would learn of the rest of my biological family.  We arrived around 4:00pm and made our way into the front room at the direction of the receptionist.   We had been there only a short time before an older couple entered the home through the back entrance. Upon seeing them ‘close up’ it didn’t require much imagination for me to recognize that the physical characteristics of the man bore a striking resemblance to those of mine (or so I thought).  I remembered a man bringing me a birthday cake and a youth style western billfold with a zipper closure for my 7th birthday, and I believed that this was the man I remembered seeing.

After strolling over to the picture window that provided a view of the back yard that I remember playing in, I returned to the sofa to sit with my wife & daughter.  It was then that the female spoke up to say something when I broke in and told them that I believe WE were the ones that they were waiting to meet.  I was overjoyed!  The man spoke up and identified himself as Lawrence Albertson and introduced us to his wife Virginia.  He later explained to me that Virginia was not my grandmother and that he had been divorced from my grandmother whose name was Doris.

After about 30 minutes of conversation Lawrence suggested that we go somewhere to get something to eat.  Before leaving we had a brief conversation with the director of the home (American Home Finding Association) who told us that legislation had narrowly failed in the Iowa Senate that would make it mandatory for adult adoptees to be able to get information on their adopted siblings if they so desired.  Unfortunately I did not record the contents of my conversation with Lawrence & Virginia during our meeting together.

What I DO REMEMBER was that he told me that my little sister ‘Sally’ lived in Ottumwa.  Everything from that point on was a blur, I WANTED TO GO SEE MY SISTER!  Somewhere around 9:00pm that very night Lawrence & Virginia took my wife, my daughter, and me to Sally’s rented apartment where I was able to meet  the little girl (3 years old at the time) that I had not seen in 23 years!  What a wonderful reunion that was.  We either called each other or went to see each other for three weeks straight, never missing a day.  I have saved ALL of the cards that I received from Sally from that day until the last day she spent on earth.

Reunited - March 27th, 1986

Tragedy Strikes!

On Thursday, May 29th (somehow I question this date, I think it was later than this), 1986 sometime around 9:00pm I rode my motorcycle from Oskaloosa, Ia where my home was to Ottumwa to visit Sally.  When I arrived at her apartment complex it became immediately apparent to me that she was no longer living in her apartment because it obviously had been vacated.  I saw a light on in the room that used to be her daughter Amiebrook’s room and saw that the room and the closet in her room was bare.  At that point I drove to Sally’s boyfriends residence which was located north of the Hormel packing plant and back to the east of it.  His place was just east of a mobile home park called the ‘Eagle’s Nest’.  As I pulled into the driveway of the residence I saw Sally’s pickup truck parked in front of Chris’s (her boyfriend).  Her license plate was unique because it said ‘Lil One’.  The conclusion that I drew from that was that Sally had possibly moved in with Chris.  I was quite sad over this revelation and from that point on our relationship became somewhat strained….

The shock of my life came on Monday, November 3rd, 1986 when I was contacted by the Oskaloosa Police dispatcher (I was an Oskaloosa Police Officer) and requested to go by my residence.  Once inside of my home I was met by my wife who told me that my maternal grandfather, Lawrence Albertson had called and told her that Sally had been KILLED in an explosion and fire at Chris York’s place.  I was told that Amiebrook had spent the weekend with her biological father and apparently was not home at the time of the explosion.  Sally’s remains were reportedly found in the debri and her body was taken to Des Moines, IA for an autopsy.  Identification was made through dental records and the body was confirmed to be that of my little sister.

I immediately called Lawrence who confirmed everything that my wife had told me about the incident. He told me that Monday, November 3rd was Sally’s last day at Hormel and that she was going to be laid off.  She apparently had planned to go to St. Louis with a girlfriend and look for work there.  The reason that she did not go was not clear.  The investigation of the explosion and resulting fire immediately became a criminal investigation because of the nature of the fire and the magnitude of the explosion which was reportedly heard 4 miles away in the little community of Agency, IA.


My wife and I watched the news coverage of the event on Channel 3 (KTVO Kirksville) after the Monday night football game around 11:00pm.  According to the news, the explosion occurred sometime around 9:40PM on Sunday, November 2nd, 1986.  Lawrence had told me that in the apartment complex that Sally was living there were four apartments. Apparently three of them were vacant and Sally was the only one at home within that time frame.

Sally’s Funeral

On Wednesday, November 7th, 1986 I attended the funeral of the little sister that I had just met only eight months prior after being separated from her for 23 years.  It was a sad day to say the least.  Now as I look back I get a little angry.  Look what she has missed out on.  She has robbed Shirley & John from ever having the opportunity of meeting her.  They only know ‘about’ her due to the short document that I wrote near the time of her death that outlined our brief meeting and time spent together.

After standing over her closed casket and browsing through the floral arrangements I spoke briefly with Lawrence and Virginia.  Lawrence knew even less than I did about Sally moving in with Chris.  She was very secretive according to him.  I also spoke with Bud Robinson who apparently was injured in the explosion according to a published report in the Ottumwa Courier.  Mr Robinson told me that he had seen Sally in her front yard earlier in the day on Sunday, November 2nd but that he had not seen anything further of her that day prior to the explosion.  He said that he was very concerned because Sally was a very punctual person and that her normal routine on weekends when Amiebrook had visitation with her father was to go pick her up EXACTLY on time.  That time was was normally at 6:00pm.  He said that he noticed that her truck remained at the apartment when he believed that she normally would have been gone.  Mr. Robinson stated that he was in the north-most apartment when the explosion occurred and that the ceiling fell on him but that he was able to get out of the apartment with only minor injuries.  His feet, which were bare at the time, were injured and there were a few stitches above his right eye.

After the graveside ceremony I met and spoke with the owner of a Motel complex that was located just east of the apartments that were destroyed. Karen told me that Sally had been over to her house on Halloween night and that all she could talk about was her brother Richard.  She told her how that she had found her brother and how much she loved his wife and children.  Karen said Sally then became very serious and told her that “I’m going to lose my job!”.

After the funeral I took my family to look at the scene of the explosion.  The area was still a crime scene and security continued to be tight due to the ongoing investigation that was being conducted by the State Fire Marshall’s office along with the Wapello County Sheriff’s Office. I spoke there with one of the investigators from the State Fire Marshall’s office who told me that there was absolutely no doubt that that was a criminal act.  At that point he could not tell me whether Sally was a victim or accomplice.  He told me that Chris York was currently in jail in Missouri and was being held as a material witness.  A news report later in the evening indicated the York was refusing to sign extradition papers to be brought back to Iowa.

At some point within this week or two of activity I was advised by the Wapello County Attorney’s office that Sally was an accomplice in the arson fire and that apparently she was in the process of spreading the flammable liquids at the time of the explosion that took her life.

As I end this section I want to make clear that I loved my little sister and I was deeply dismayed by this entire situation.  But, knowing where we all had come from and the instability that was evident in all of our lives, I cannot be too surprised.  Life is about choices that we make and in Sally’s case the poor choices that she made caused her to have two failed marriages and finally a serious error in judgment which would result in her premature death.  She was only 27 years old at the time of her death.  What cannot ever be taken away from me is the memories that I had of her and Amiebrook.  I secretly had hoped that someday Amiebrook would call or somehow show up on my doorstep…… just to say ‘hello’ – I haven’t forgotten you, if nothing else.

For those of you reading this that have been adopted, this should probably come as no surprise to you.  But I have always been mystified by the lack of concern by the two siblings in my adopted home.  When I told them that I had found Sally, it was an ‘oh, that’s nice’ type of response that I received from one of them.  I was so happy about finding a lost sibling, but they most certainly didn’t share in my joy.