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Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Missing man found; amnesia victim learns identity after 16 years

By Loretta Fulton
Reporter-News Staff Writer

A month ago a slightly graying 49-year-old man stood in the pulpit of a church and told the congregation of his strange life, one that was blank prior to 1984.

<(Cox in 1984) The search for his identity, lost to amnesia, was part of the message he imparted to parishioners, for whom he was auditioning as a minister. Doctors had told him he would probably never recall his life before he was found in the trunk of a car in Memphis, Tenn., in late July 1984, nearly beaten to death and in a coma.

His story triggered the memory of one of the listeners. After the service, the man approached the speaker with a startling message.

"I think I know you," he said. "I met you years ago. You're Barre Cox."

Since that revelation on Dec. 10, Wesley Barrett "Barre" (pronounced "Barry") Cox, who turns 50 on Jan. 27, has been in seclusion at his California home, grappling with the reality that he is a different person from the one dubbed "James Doe" in a Memphis hospital 16 years ago.

At the time of his disappearance Cox and his wife, Beth, had recently moved to San Antonio, where he was employed as a family minister at MacArthur Park Church of Christ. They had met at Abilene Christian University, where both had been employed. He was an admissions counselor at ACU.

In the month since Cox was told his true identity, his wife, daughter, and former friends and associates have been trying to reconstruct his life.

At a press conference Monday, ACU's director of marketing and public relations, Michelle Morris, said Cox has been told about his wife and daughter, who live in Franklin, Tenn. His daughter, Talitha, turned 17 on Jan. 1, and received a call that day from her father.

"For her it was not so much a surprise as almost an answer to a prayer," Morris said.

The daughter, who was just more than 6 months old when her father disappeared, always believed he was alive, Morris said, even though Cox was officially declared dead seven years after his disappearance.

Cox has spoken with his daughter and wife, who never remarried, but they have not yet reunited. Morris said Cox, who also never remarried, is under the supervision of specialists and is not yet ready emotionally to see the family he does not recollect.

The mystery

Cox's life has taken some bizarre twists and turns since he was the subject of a massive manhunt and media attention in the summer of 1984.

Authorities have determined some children playing in a Memphis junkyard found Cox in the trunk of a car. He spent two weeks in a hospital there in a coma. When he awoke he didn't know who he was and had no recollection of his life to that point, Morris said.

Mike Middleton, who was Jones County sheriff at the time of the disappearance and helped with the investigation, said he filed a report with both state and national law enforcement agencies after Cox's disappearance, but never heard anything. He found it odd that no one made the connection between the man in the Memphis hospital and the missing Cox.

Middleton said officers speculated that Cox took off on a small motorbike that was in the trunk of his car and intentionally disappeared. The motorbike was never found. Middleton said that over the years, after all leads had been exhausted, he has not thought much about Cox.

"I'd like to sit down and talk to him," Middleton said.

Cox's 1976 Oldsmobile 98 was found abandoned and ransacked on July 12, 1984, on a farm road 3¤ miles north of Tuxedo in Jones County. He was en route from Lubbock, where he was completing work on a dissertation at Texas Tech University, to his home in San Antonio.

He planned to stop in Abilene to visit some of the many friends he and his wife made while employed at Abilene Christian University. He phoned his wife on the evening of July 11 to tell her he would be home on the 13th.

He planned to stop in Abilene and then drive to Junction to meet the head of his dissertation committee who was attending an art camp there. Instead, Cox's car was found in a remote stretch of Jones County. His wallet and its contents were strewn on the road but there was no blood at the scene.

A police officer and a convenience store clerk in Rotan saw Cox before the abandoned car was found.

The clerk said Cox walked into the Allsup's store at 3:45 a.m. July 12 with two empty antifreeze jugs to fill with gas. He told her his car had run out of gas outside of town and he was praying all the way in that a store would be open.

The clerk, Frances Bingham, described Cox as the perfect gentleman but said he acted oddly when he spoke of his wife. Cox got a cup of water and a 7-Up and told Bingham, "My wife likes 7-Up," implying that she was with him.

Bingham said Cox made several more references to his wife, insinuating that she was in the stranded car. He was given a lift back to his car by Rotan police officer Floyd Bankston, the last person known to have seen Cox alive.

Bankston said he noticed a small motorbike in the trunk of Cox's car and that Cox had told him he bought it for his wife. When the car was discovered later that day, the bike was missing. Several people later reported sighting a man fitting Cox's description riding the scooter.

But his wife discounted theories that her husband had intentionally disappeared and staged a fake robbery and kidnapping.
"His family and baby meant a lot to him," she said at the time. "I have a hard time imagining that he would give that up."
She could not be reached Monday.

Questions linger

After the incident, Beth Cox moved to California and finished her college degree at Pepperdine University, later relocating to Tennessee, where she lives to be near friends. She had had no contact or word of her husband since his strange disappearance in July 1984.

Unknown to any of his family or friends, Cox was lying in a Memphis hospital being tended by doctors and a family who became attached to him. They called him "James Doe" rather than the traditional "John Doe" because they were studying the book of James in the Bible, ACU's Morris said.

After he regained his health, Cox got a job as a busboy and began to realize he had some educational background. His new friends made contact with a Virginia senator they knew, and the senator helped Cox get a new identity and Social Security number.

ACU officials declined to give Cox's new name or location to protect his privacy.

Cox later got a job at a department store and worked his way up the career ladder. While attending church with his friends, he realized he could finish Bible verses whenever someone started one. Not knowing he already was a Church of Christ minister, Cox found himself drawn to the study of theology.

Psychological testing revealed he had intelligence and knowledge equal to at least a bachelor's degree and that his interests were in art, music and ministry.

Unknown to Cox, his bachelor's degree was in art education and his master's was in art and music. He was working on a doctorate in art education when he disappeared.

Seven years ago, Cox felt drawn to the ministry and applied to six seminaries across the country, ACU's Morris said. One school offered to let him attend for one semester to see if he could handle master's level work. He succeeded, eventually completing both a master's of theology and a master's of divinity degrees.

That calling back to the ministry eventually led Cox to the pulpit of a community church where he was seeking employment as its minister. After a man in the congregation identified Cox, an intense scrutiny began. ACU officials would not reveal the church where the revelation happened.

Family and friends were convinced they had found the missing Barre Cox. His wife had no doubt after talking to him on the phone and receiving a letter from him.

"His voice is the same and his handwriting is the same," Morris said Beth Cox told friends.

Cox also has visited his mother and a brother. He didn't know them, but something in his mother's home sparked some recognition.

"He saw a chair in her home and it made him cry," Morris said, "but he doesn't know why."

Morris said a reunion is planned between Cox, his wife and daughter in hopes that the remaining pieces of the puzzle can be pieced together. For many people involved in the mystery from the beginning, those pieces are numerous.

Jack Stewart, director of career services at ACU, was an elder at MacArthur Church of Christ in San Antonio when Cox disappeared. The young family minister was well loved by the church's congregation, Stewart said, and his disappearance prompted about 40 church members to head to West Texas to help with the search.

"We walked every cotton field, looked in every abandoned well and every barrow ditch," Stewart recalled Monday.

Sixteen years later, even with Cox's physical whereabouts known, Stewart acknowledged he knows little more than he did after that long, fruitless search.

"The only question that has been answered is that Barre has been found," Stewart said.

Contact staff writer Loretta Fulton at 676-6778 or fultonl@abinews.com. Check out our Web site at www.reporternews.com

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