- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

DALLAS A Dallas minister who mysteriously disappeared for 17 years asked reporters and several dozen parishioners to pray for him as he tries to straighten out his life.

Before a stunned congregation on Saturday, the Rev. Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox, 49, told parishioners and reporters he had absolutely no memory of how he came to disappear in West Texas, July 12, 1984.

"I still have so many questions myself," he said.

Saying that he is a celibate homosexual, Mr. Cox insists he knows nothing about his previous life.

Mr. Cox, then married and the father of a 6-month-old daughter, disappeared without a trace that day. He was last seen after his car ran out of gas in a West Texas town.

He had telephoned his wife, Beth, and told her he was traveling from Lubbock to Abilene, Texas, where he planned to spend the night with a friend before heading home to San Antonio, where he had just accepted a job with a Church of Christ congregation.

Mr. Cox's automobile was found abandoned and ransacked on a farm road north of Abilene. Investigators used dogs, helicopters and volunteer crews for days, but found no trace of the preacher.

Mr. Cox's marriage was dissolved several years later and neither spouse remarried.

Mrs. Cox, now living with her daughter, Talitha, 17, in Franklin, Tenn., has talked with her ex-husband on several occasions in recent days. She says she wants to believe his story of having suffered amnesia regarding his prior life with Mrs. Cox.

"I don't have any reason not to," she said last weekend.

The mustachioed minister who faced a firestorm of controversy the past six weeks since he told members of the White Rock Community Church he did not recall his existence before he suffered a "vicious attack" in 1984 explained how and why he became "James Simmons" and built a new identity.

He told the story of being found in a coma and near death in the trunk of a car in Memphis, Tenn. After his recovery, Mr. Cox later hitchhiked through Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia until a minister took him under his wing, leading him toward Christianity and helping him get a Social Security card "so I could get a job."

After a series of jobs ranging from restaurant busboy to day-care center supervisor to mid-level credit department jobs at JC Penney stores in Charlottesville and Richmond, Mr. Cox said that he traveled to California, where he earned two masters degrees from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley.

After 10 years at Golden Gate, Mr. Cox said he wanted to minister his own church, coming to Dallas to apply for the vacant senior pastor's position at the predominately homosexual church.

It was there that a truck driver, Blaine Hufnagle who had grown up in the same small town as Mr. Cox in Canyon, Texas got what he called "this terrifying feeling."

After Mr. Cox, known to his parishioners as the Rev. James Simmons, told the congregation he had suffered amnesia from a near-fatal attack in 1984, Mr. Hufnagle said: "It hit me like a brick wall. I didn't know what to do. I wanted to be sure, but … ."

He said he left the church that day, Dec. 10, "shaking so hard I could hardly handle my motorcycle."

Mr. Hufnagle said he remembered the minister as a camp counselor at a church camp called Blue Haven in Las Vegas, and then phoned Jeffrey Brown, head of the pastor search committee, to inform him of Mr. Cox's real identity, "and things went from there."

However, as the story has unfolded during the last few days, new evidence has come to light that casts doubt on Mr. Cox's story.

Reporters in Amarillo, San Antonio and Abilene discovered that a rancher, James Simmons of Clarendon, had been in touch with the Internal Revenue Service and Social Security officials as far back as 1987, when he learned somebody was using his identification numbers.

Mr. Cox said yesterday he took the name of James Simmons because the family he was living with at the time was reading the Bible's Book of James and that he picked the name "Simmons" from a hardware store sign in Charlottesville.

The birth date, March 21, he said he chose because it was the first day of spring and International Day of Remembrance. The Texas rancher's birthday is March 21.

Mr. Cox also said that one of his early benefactors telephoned Texas Tech University to see if a former student had been named James Simmons and to verify his Social Security number. That is how he came to use the farmer's number, he explained.

Texas Tech registrar Don Wickard said yesterday the university had a long-standing rule against divulging such information.

"I don't think it would have been that simple," said Mr. Wickard.

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