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The Bodies of Walton County: Paradise Falls

This is the first in a series by the author of the popular WTH? Athens column from 2012–13, who now lives in North High Shoals, about 20 miles southwest of Athens. 

I came home to find 80 cops, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the sheriffs of three counties on my neighbor’s land. I eased the minivan past the K9 units and media trucks and pulled into my driveway. I got out, strapped the kids to me and walked over to investigate.

The sheriffs of Gwinnett, Oconee and Walton counties stood in my neighbor’s driveway, watching as uniformed men wearing blue plastic gloves struggled with the kudzu. Here’s the conversation we had, according to the notes I wrote down later that evening:

“What are you looking for?” I asked, walking up to the sheriffs.

“Wells,” said Joe Chapman, the sheriff of Walton, my county.

“You’re looking for a body,” I said.

“Yes,” said the sheriff.

“Well, you’ll probably find one,” I said. “I heard there’s bodies everywhere out here.”

“What?” The other two sheriffs walked away. I started telling him about the time I was cleaning out a rental house on Stokes Street, in Monroe, and…

“What are ​you​ doing on Stokes Street?” he said, interrupting me.

“I was cleaning out a rental house. The neighbor came over to meet me. I remember it clearly,” I told the sheriff, “because it was 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, and she had a solo cup and a cigarette. She was drunk and still drinking. I was jealous. It had been years since I’d been drunk on a Tuesday. She asked me where I lived.

“‘Oh, High Shoals,’ she said fondly. ‘I had my first ever job out in High Shoals. Paradise Falls.’ She was quiet for a minute, remembering, then: ‘They used to give me a quarter for every one I found.’

“‘Every one what?’ I said.

“She leaned in toward me, lowering her voice. ‘Bodies,’ she said.”

The sheriff was looking at me more intently than I liked. “Who was this person? When was this?”

“Uh, it was a year ago, when I was pregnant with my youngest.” I pointed at the baby strapped to my front. “And anyway, she was drunk. She probably meant ‘bottles.’ A quarter per body doesn’t make any sense.”

The sheriff nodded. “That’s true,” he said. “Plus, the lady we’re talking to for this case was in jail then.” He started telling me the details of the woman, who was in jail again for a different crime, and who said she knew where a body was hidden. It’s in a well, she said, somewhere right around here. A helicopter flew overhead as the sheriff continued talking about the woman and how she ran around with so and so and such and such, people he assumed I knew, but didn’t.

“Should he be telling me all this?” I thought, taking a closer look at the sheriff of Walton County, a handsome fellow who would soon be charged with fighting in a pool hall in Carrabelle, FL. He seemed unconcerned.

“I’ll tell you,” he said. “What I’m worried about is finding something out here that we’re not looking for.”

“There’s no telling what you’ll find. Paradise Falls was pretty wild, I hear.”

Paradise Falls was a local river hangout in the 1970s. It was owned by a shrewd Floridian who once ran for mayor of High Shoals on the platform of disbanding the town. He put the front end and engine of a ’72 Pontiac in the middle of the pond, attached a ski rope to it and charged people a few bucks a go-round.

“Someone told me the owner would come down here with an automatic rifle and demand that everyone pay,” I said.

“Yep,” said the sheriff. “I was down here one time when I was 17, and that gang, the Dixie Choppers, was fighting. The guy who was the sheriff of Walton County back then came out and told them they had to leave, but one of the gang members laid down in the road. ‘You’re gonna have to run me over,’ he said.”

“Wow,” I said. The current sheriff of Walton County sure was fun to talk to. “What happened?”

“He ran him over,” said the sheriff.

“Aww,” I said, “and then ​you​ grew up to be the sheriff. How funny.”

“It is funny,” he said. “But, you know, things have really changed around here since that guy moved in.” He waved his hand in the direction of my house, but I knew he didn’t mean my husband.

“Yeah,” I said. “He’s my neighbor.” My neighbor on the other side lives on a lot of land and had planned to turn his acreage into an intentional Christian community, where people could come to read, pray, think and talk. A bunch of people from his church, including my husband, moved down here with him in the early 2000s, buying up several of the old mill houses in the community. The new folks weren’t interested in a go-round on the tow rope, and when they moved in, things started to change.

“When they got here, the liquor store turned into a costume shop.” The sheriff pointed across the two-lane blacktop at a building that used to be a package store, but now was a shop run by one of the church people, a talented seamstress who sewed costumes for theater productions in Athens. From where we stood, we could see gowns hung up, teal sequins glinting behind the dusty windows.

“It did change when he got here,” I said. “It was kind of like a struggle between two opposing forces.”

“Yep.” The sheriff pointed at my 2-year-old, who had wandered off to stare at an old car half-eaten by kudzu.  

“Watch your daughter,” he said. “There’s wells out here everywhere.”