We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Where you headed?”
A sentry stands next to my car, which is idling at the entrance to Quantico Marine Corps Base. A cold March rain drips from his camouflage uniform. He’s one of two armed MPs guarding the gate—manned 24 hours a day—a few hundred yards past a minireplica of the Iwo Jima Monument. Barely old enough to shave, the MPs are empowered to do pretty much whatever the hell they want: stop, search, seize—anything short of firebombing suspicious vehicles. Mostly though, they politely direct visitors around the sprawling Potomac River base, 30 miles south of Washington in southern Prince William County, Va.
There are many answers I could give to the MP’s query: the Snipers’ School; the Drug Enforcement Administration; Marine Corps War
College; the FBI Academy, where Jodie Foster got her anti–serial killer training in The Silence of the Lambs; and the Wargaming and Combat Simulation Division, among many facilities on the 60,000-acre base.
A dozen lies cross my mind, and I’m tempted to blurt, “The Amphibious Warfare School snack bar, sir.” Instead, I tell him the truth,
He doesn’t inquire about the nature of my visit. The base and the town are completely separate, and Quantico town means nothing more to him than a place to drink a beer, cut his hair, or get his uniform cleaned. In fact, he seems almost amused, if that’s possible for an MP standing in the pouring rain. His rigid face remains expressionless, but as he waves me on I detect a slight condescension in his “Have a good day.”
My rearview mirror reverses the entrance gate’s huge, emblazoned Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis,” into some sort of foreboding hieroglyphic, and my chest tightens. Ahead, the road disappears into dense, dark woods, and the realization sinks in that I’m headed into the belly of the beast: the only town in the U.S. completely surrounded by a military base. “Swallowed” by the base is actually more accurate. The sheer vastness of the reservation—swaths of forest remain untouched except by military maneuvers and local wildlife—renders the town a mere blip on the base radar, no bigger than the ammo dump.
Off base, Quantico town simply doesn’t register at all: It’s not even mentioned on the I-95 and U.S. 1 highway exit signs, and even here, at the front gate, the single clue to its existence is a small roadside marker—“Town—3 miles” and an arrow to point the way through the woods. Not just another parasitic military town like Fort Bragg’s Fayetteville, N.C., Quantico is a place frozen in time and lost in space. And it is dogged by an identity problem: It has none.
The winding two-lane road, the sole land route to town from the outside world, meanders beside Quantico Creek, a snaking, watery ravine that serves as a boundary between the base and the county. Across the creek lie woods dotted with cinderblock apartments, dilapidated shacks, and decaying cars—the remnants of longtime locals. The base property, by contrast, features landscaped grounds, epitomized by the Medal of Honor golf course. I pass several Marines jogging along the road, their shaved heads held high in the drizzle; up ahead a decrepit, bearded drifter toils alone, hauling a garbage bag and half-heartedly hitchhiking. Despite the rain, no drivers dare stop for him: The speed limit is a strict 40 mph, and anyone straying too fast (or too slow) is subject to immediate arrest by MP patrols, lurking around every bend.
At 40 mph, the three-mile road seems
Finally, as the rain tapers to a trickle, I come to a clearing and a stoplight. Before me lies the spacious, old campus of the base—brick buildings, hangars, and airfields. This is official militarydom, Leatherneck heaven, Jarhead Valhalla, the so-called “Crossroads of the Marines,” where thousands of officers gather for intensive training. If I were to proceed through the intersection, I’d be violating base regulations and making myself eligible for arrest. So I hang a left and ease over the railroad tracks into the tiny town of Quantico.
I find myself entering a faded, torn postcard of a bygone America—not Norman Rockwell–quaint, but rather a run-down archaeological wonder. I was here several decades ago, when I was visiting a Marine uncle on the base, and little has apparently changed.
A square of just 12 blocks on each side, Quantico resembles a detention camp more than a town; it has no schools, no churches, no decent playgrounds for children. It is further cramped by strict boundaries in every direction, pinned by the river to the east and hemmed in by the base on the remaining sides. All that’s missing is a barbed-wire fence, but this is made up for by the armed MPs, who stop and question anyone coming to town.
Potomac Avenue, though, at first appears just as I remember it: Main Street, U.S.A. It’s an undeniably picturesque avenue from the past, its old ’40s-era storefronts boasting their original marquees. The only sign of modernity is a Domino’s Pizza.
But the town seems a tad too quiet. Still frozen in time, yes, but now somehow fallen as well—a veritable ghost town.
Several buildings are empty and dark. Others—weathered, wooden antiquities—desperately need a paint job. Further on, as the street dips toward the river, sits a wrecked trailer, its guts ripped out and left to rot. At the end of the street stands the burned-out husk of a three-story stone building, the apparent victim of a shell lobbed from the base.
Then, just as I start to get my bearings, the town suddenly ends at the Potomac River. Finis. Kaput. Barely a dozen blocks, and nowhere left to go but the water. Across the wide river, Maryland might as well be in the Old World. Along the muddy banks, a man chucks food to a flock of grimy geese, whose screeching honks are the only sounds I can hear.
I pull a U-turn and head back up Potomac Avenue for the 30-second drive through town.
Walking the empty streets, I can feel the town’s inertia even more. The side streets are crowded with Depression-era homes, tiny wooden houses that are falling apart like waterlogged boxes: Some have collapsed porches, caved-in roofs, rotting frames.
The residents are nowhere to be seen, and the town is nearly deserted. Along main street, a few Marines stride purposefully in and out of the half-dozen dry cleaners and barbershops, apparently the only surviving businesses of some sort of economic disaster. The only civilian besides myself is a street cleaner—a grizzled, wind-burned hermit with a ski cap crammed down nearly past his nose—who stubs out a cigarette and sweeps the smoldering butt into his wheeled trash can.
At a restaurant called Nikki’s Nook, a handwritten message is taped to the locked door: “Our beloved Mr. Sethi has passed away—closed for the day, regretfully.” Another diner, S&G, is closed as well. A campaign poster on its window proves the town still exists, at least politically: “Vote For a Reliable Experienced, Progressive Man. Re-Elect Howard Bolognese for Mayor. Your Support Is Appreciated.”
Across the street I see the Bolognese Marine Store—flashing one of the few neon signs in town—so I head over to meet Quantico’s Progressive Man.
The store’s display windows boast all sorts of Marine Corps–related gear and souvenirs: A gold-plated Marine putter; Marine Zippo lighters and official serpent-globe-’n’-laurel shot glasses; tubes of camouflage creme in three colors—mud brown, flat black, and leaf green; sweaters, jackets, and T-shirts, from the old-fashioned, unadorned olive drab to the most garishly decorated: “When It Absolutely, Positively Has To Be DESTROYED Overnight: United States Marine Corps.”
Inside, the place is jammed with uniforms, gear, and boots. Every wall is stacked with boxes nearly up to the ceiling. I look around but don’t see anyone. “Hello?” I venture, but no one answers.
Then comes an unmistakable creak, and I spot an aluminum ladder leaning against a wall. There, high on the rickety ladder, deftly blending into the background of boxes like some ancient tree-lizard, slouches a bent old man—perfectly still—holding a clipboard and apparently deep in thought.
I walk over to the ladder and repeat my greeting. Shuffling some boxes, the old man makes no response. I ask him if he’s Mayor Howard Bolognese. Still no response.
Then I decide to join in this game. I stand perfectly still, trying to blend my brown coat into a rack of camouflage pants behind me.
Minutes drag by during a loud, intense silence familiar to anyone who’s ever frequented a library’s rare-books reading room: I can actually hear his labored breathing. Finally, either impatient with my refusal to leave the store or satisfied that I’m an ineffectual chameleon, he turns his wrinkled head in a reptilian swivel to peer down in my vicinity. He has the same sour mug as his campaign poster: the classic constipated grimace—a failed attempt at a grin—common to Southern small-town politicians ever since Reconstruction.
Without actually looking at me, but rather in my general direction, he says coldly, “I’ve been mayor for eight terms—two years each at different times—I can’t remember the years.” Then he returns to his work, mumbling, “I thought you were a panhandler—why don’t you go get yourself a haircut at one of our barbershops here in town?”
“Where’s a good one?” I say, playing along yet again. But apparently he’s dead serious about the haircut: “There’s a pretty good one a few doors down,” he says. “We’ve got five or six here in town.”
I ask him how his town is doing in the offhand manner in which one inquires about the weather. A distinct whiff of paranoia drifts through the store, as distinct as the dusty odor of the place. Again, his reply comes only after a long, protracted pause as he continues checking his stock. “It’s slow everywhere right now, not just in Quantico. But we’re doing pretty good.”
He takes down a box, peers inside, and puts it back; he repeats this ritual with a half-dozen boxes, fooling with all sorts of medallions, pins, and Marine mementos. An inventory hound of the old school, no doubt.
“This town’s going to be OK,” the mayor gravely announces to his wall of boxes. “We’re going to improve it the best we can, get the residents to upgrade their properties so we can bring better residents into town”—and then, for the first and only time he looks me directly in the eyes—“you know, a better quality of people.”
He slowly climbs down from the ladder and scuttles away from me, evidently terminating our discussion. Speaking toward his stooped back, I tell him I’m interested in the history of Quantico and the store. Without turning, he says his father, Angelo, was a tailor and haberdasher. “We’ve been here since 1918,” he says, ruffling through stacks near the bulky old cash register. “Didn’t you get a brochure on Quantico?” He holds out a yellow folded paper. “Here’s a good history. This will help you more than I can.”
Bolognese maneuvers his way to a cluttered desk in the back corner of the store; it’s obvious he’s got nothing more to say. I glance at the “Welcome!” brochure: “Like lively ghosts from the yellowed pages of our dusty past, the names and places of our history romp through our memories as we tour the Historic Town of Quantico….” Nothing about how the town died.
As I leave the store, the old man’s on the phone, wheeling and dealing: “Hey, it’s Bolognese. How ya doing, buddy? I need a couple items from the catalog.”
I duck into a souvenir shop a few doors down. It has a huge poster for military dog tags: “‘Property of a U.S. Marine’—Give your girlfriend her own set!” I receive the same icy treatment: “Wanna know about the town?” asks the manager, stacking a pile of Marine T-shirts that say, “Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body.” “There’s brochures over by the cash register.”
Next to the railroad tracks, I spot a small, brick office marked by a wooden placard, “Quantico Treasurer-Clerk,” the nearest thing to a public building that I’ve seen. At a desk inside sits a petite woman, town treasurer Georgia Raftelis. Curt but civil, she gives me a brochure. From a back room appears her husband, Mitchel Raftelis, an old-timer like Bolognese but a good deal more pleasant. He too was born in Quantico; the accountant and realtor has been a town councilman for decades.
Raftelis provides a quick history: Though its origins stretch back centuries as a logging and fishing port, modern Quantico was settled by Greek tailors back in the ’20s, after the Marine Corps bought the surrounding land for its training base. Raftelis’ father ran a corner restaurant, the Star Cafe; he proudly shows me a moldy menu. The town’s heyday came before and after World War II, when Quantico enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the base. The office walls are crammed with photos of military parades—triumphant Marines returning from Nicaragua in ’33, and one depicting President Truman loping down Potomac Avenue.
In recent decades, the base has continued to grow; the home of the Marine Corps Development and Education Command now has its own shopping centers and fast-food restaurants; meanwhile, the town has remained stagnant, losing business not only to the expanded base, but to malls in the outlying suburbs, where many military personnel now live.
Fewer than 700 people remain in Quantico town, mostly residents who can’t afford to live anywhere else in Prince William County.
The problem, claims Raftelis, is that people don’t know about Quantico town. He has tried to remedy that with the road marker at the base entrance, and a “Welcome to Quantico” sign at the railroad tracks: “We need to let people know we’re here,” he says, “that we’re a nice little town to come visit.”
Raftelis points to another framed photo, as if to prove that somebody famous hasn’t forgotten about Quantico town. It’s an autographed snapshot of Wheel of Fortune’s smiling duo, Pat Sajak and Vanna White, waving from an Amtrak train passing through town. “They stopped by to see us,’’ says Raftelis proudly. “Now we’ve got 300 commuters a day that catch the train here.”
I take another brochure and head back out on the street to catch the afternoon rush hour. The lone police patrol circles the town for the umpteenth time. Then a train—the Virginia Railway Express—eases into the station on the edge of town. A load of commuters pours out and heads to the cars in the parking lot. Not one crosses the tracks into Quantico town.
hat evening, at a Potomac Avenue watering hole, I overhear a couple at the bar.
“This town died the day that a corporal could afford his own car and drive off base,” says a man swigging a beer. “And that was a helluva long time ago.”
His companion nods and adds bitterly, “Nothing’s gonna change around here until those old bastards who run everything all die off. All them sons of bitches dead and gone and then we’ll get some new blood in here.”
But a testy reply ends the conversation: “That wouldn’t change anything. Who’s gonna come in here? What’s here to come to, anyway?”
I lean over and ask them what seems to me an innocent question about the mayor’s military ties; most residents have some sort of connection with the Marines.
“Hell no, he was never in the Marines or any branch of the military,” glares the man, a retired Marine sergeant. “Do you know how Bolognese and his brother got out of serving in World War II? They crawled around out on the White House lawn eating goddamn grass.”
This is the sort of groundless rumor—more outrageous with each passing year—that runs rampant in any small town worth its gossip. True or no, though, I like the image of the mayor grazing to weasel his way out of the Last Good War.
Nearby, a woman listens and tries to laugh, but she’s nearly in tears. It’s been a bad day, she sighs, plopping a couple of cherries into her mug of beer.
First of all, she had to go buy her own cherries. At her usual hangout, Nikki’s Nook, they always had a personal supply for her stashed behind the bar. At closing time, the plump, beer-soaked cherries served as a refreshing nightcap. But Nikki’s Nook has been closed since its owner, Mr. Sethi, died of a heart attack. So now she’s nursing her concoction at this cozy corner bar called Sam’s Inn, which is packed with Marines from the base.
Yeah, it’s been a rotten day. The same old shit, really, but just so damn much of it: The night before, a vandal ransacked her car, apparently the same juvenile delinquent who’s made a hobby of harassing her. A divorcée, Cathy lives alone and makes an easy, mostly defenseless target. She relishes the punishment once meted out to this punk’s mentor: “Somebody broke his arm and threw him in the river.” But the new kid is running wild, and she can’t do anything about it.
Then today at work, Cathy was reprimanded for playfully using the word “orgasm” to describe co-workers’ crowing over some new computer hardware. Her boss told her it wasn’t appropriate language for the office, especially not at the Command and Staff College on base, where she works.
Afterward she’d walked by the darkened, empty Nikki’s Nook: It’s a family business, and there’s no telling when it’s going to be open again. The only town merchant who bothered to attend Mr. Sethi’s Hindu funeral, she says, was Sam, a Palestinian who has run his own bar in Quantico for 21 years. She raises her glass to him: “You’re a good man, Sam.”
It’s been tough lately, she continues, but hell, the whole winter’s been a real pisser.
In late January, Cathy testified for the defense at the murder trial of the town’s own serial killer, Melvin Shifflett. He was convicted of strangling a Q-town woman and dumping her (still alive) in the Potomac: “She made a perfect bobber,” Shifflett reportedly said of his victim, a 39-year-old mother he’d escorted from Nikki’s Nook to her home on Potomac Avenue the night of the murder. Shifflett, an affable regular, has also been convicted of other heinous crimes against women.
“He was a such nice, sweet guy, always helping with my car,” Cathy tells me, “and here he turns out to be a mass murderer.”
Cathy first came to Quantico with her Marine husband; after their divorce, he and their young son shipped out to Guam, and she stayed put: “I got trapped here,” she says matter-of-factly. “Still, I’m independent, and have a good job, and I feel pretty secure here except for that juvenile delinquent.” Nevertheless, Quantico isn’t her idea of a place to retire: “Someday, I’ll get out of here,” she muses. “If this isn’t the edge of the world, it’s pretty damn close.”
Outside Sam’s, the streets of Quantico are nearly deserted, even though it’s long before midnight, when the bars here close down. The only people out are leashed to pay telephones: Many residents here don’t have phones in their homes.
I head back down Potomac Avenue toward the railroad tracks. Except for the handful of bars, the entire stretch of main street is dark, resembling a shabby stage set for a ’40s B-movie. I walk slowly, hoping a train might rumble by—there’s one about every half-hour, usually—but something catches my eye in a cracked, dirty window: Amid the clutter of a shop with a painted plywood sign announcing, “Liming’s Dept. Store,” it’s a faded beacon of faded glory, dulled by countless hours of afternoon sunlight, dusty but real as the glass against which I press my hand: an official Dukes of Hazzard thermos bottle.
I vow to return tomorrow when the store’s open.
The next morning, I hole up inside Liming’s. My hosts are an elderly couple, a modern-day Baucis and Philemon named Ruby and Gene, who’ve run the store for a half-century.
“Did you smell that terrible and peculiar odor out on the street?” asks Gene, an irrepressible prankster, as he ushers me into the store. “That’s the town—it just died.”
“No, Gene,” says Ruby, as if she’s heard the gag too many times. “The town died back in ’72 when they moved the gate to the front of the base. Ever since then, people are scared to come in here.”
“This town used to have 35 beer joints and 20 barbershops,” brags Gene.
“And two grocery stores and a pharmacy,” chimes in Ruby. “And when you couldn’t find something anywhere else, Liming’s was the place to go. We had everything from soup to nuts.”
Throughout the day, with nary a customer to bother us, we watch the streets outside, and nothing escapes our prying eyes.
Down the Potomac Avenue sidewalk strolls a town matron, the wife of a Quantico elder; she’s on her way to the town’s lone bank—just some dull midday errand—but she prances as if she’s the Queen of England.
“She thinks she’s shit on a stick,” snorts Gene.
“But she’s only a fart on a splinter,” quips Ruby.
The two burst into a fit of cackling; they often finish each other’s sentences, even when they’re arguing. Gene, always in a bolo tie and sport coat, spends the day doing word puzzles. Ruby works the counter, as she’s done for 50 years.
Nearly lifelong companions, they are the survivors of their own busted marriage and a bizarre love triangle.
One winter day in 1942, Army Pvt. Gene Davidson walked into the store on main street; stationed at the base, he’d come to Quantico town to buy some lye to clean the latrines. Back then, the store was a combination hardware/dry goods store and filling station. The Muskogee, Okla., native struck up a conversation with Ruby, the 20-year-old daughter of store owner J.W. Liming; they chatted while warming themselves at the wood stove, and Gene soon forgot about the lye.
Gene visited her every day before he was shipped overseas; during his 38-month tour, from North Africa and Europe he sent her daily V-Mails, elaborate epistles featuring masterful drawings—erotic and otherwise—and love poems. For any interested visitor, Ruby shows samples of the microfilmed Victory Mail copies that she keeps in a tattered, bound book: One features a self-portrait of Gene marching “from the hills of French Morocco to the sidewalks of Quantico.” “Quantico or Bust” reads the cartoon bubble above him, a vow that he fulfilled.
No matter what, Gene signed every letter to Ruby, “Forever Yours.”
After the war, the couple married, had two sons, and ran the store together for 20 years until their 1968 divorce. Already a quart-a-day bourbon drinker (the main reason Ruby left him, she says), Gene hit the bottle even harder. Ruby married a retired Marine sergeant, who replaced Gene not only at home but at the store. The two men had several scraps, and after one drunken spree in which he threatened to burn down the store, Gene was temporarily barred from town.
After being diagnosed with hepatitis and cirrhosis in 1976, Gene quit booze for good. In 1982, after the death of her second husband and a subsequent fire that nearly destroyed the store, Ruby invited her ex back to help her out. Though not remarried, the couple have stayed together ever since. “She divorced me, I never divorced her,” explains Gene, whose Buick Century sedan sports the bumper sticker, “Have Teepee, Need Squaw.”
Their store is a gold mine of the past, a treasure chest of lost items, but it is by no means a pawn shop. Nearly every item is brand new and still in its original package, however dusty: It just hasn’t been sold yet. There are butter spreaders, cordless electric letter openers, pumpkin carvers, sock savers, shower squeegees, ox-blood vinyl TV Guide covers, peacock-feather earrings, drain pipes, hammers, and tweezers. Most of the stock consists of an amazing array of vintage women’s clothing from the ’50s (“Marilyn Monroe–style dresses,” says Ruby) and pill-box hats and Poll Parrot leather shoes in their original boxes, some of which are charred from the ’82 fire.
Behind the counter hangs a T-shirt that depicts a map of the Old Dominion and the message, “Yes Virginia, There Is a Town of Quantico.” Ruby says it’s the last one she has in stock.
But I head for the Dukes of Hazzard thermos in the window. I pick up the precious relic, now seemingly as old as the store’s other stock, and examine its fine, if faded, condition. It has an air-brushed illustration of the General Lee. The price tag—a piece of masking tape hand-scrawled at $3.98—reveals an incredible bargain, but I can’t bring myself to buy it. I figure there must have been a reason it survived the fire.
Ruby seems disappointed that I’m not interested in the purchase.
Later that day, a group of adolescent Canadian military-school students storm the store; they are visiting the base as part of an exchange program. One of the uniformed lads—spilling Canadian coins on the floor—buys a bag of plastic miniature soldiers for $1. A local woman gets a box of safety pins for a buck. A fellow merchant needs a roll of packing tape: $2. Things are looking good.
Then, trouble comes our way.
Gene has stationed his Buick in front of the store, but hasn’t bothered to feed the parking meter. Down the street, Quantico Chief of Police Leo Rodriguez is making the rounds on foot, handing out tickets. One merchant wakes up from a nap in his van just as Rodriguez writes him up. As if on cue, Gene scampers out to put in money, but he’s too late. Rodriguez wordlessly writes a ticket as Gene fumes beside the meter, quarter in his clenched fist.
“He was going to put the money in, Leo!” shrieks Ruby, grabbing the $5 ticket from the windshield. “That’s more than we’ve taken in all day. How are we supposed to stay in business? What kind of town is this?”
(Later, I catch up with Rodriguez at the doughnut shop near the railroad tracks. The Texas native sports a Dallas Cowboy ring on one of his stubby fingers. “This is a Cowboys town,” declares the 15-year veteran. All winter, Rodriguez let people park for free, he explains, but sometimes even merchants have to pay, if they’re going to use the prime Potomac Avenue parking spots. “Gene knows the drill,” says Rodriguez, getting into his cruiser for the three-block ride back to the brick municipal building that serves as police headquarters and, in the former jail in back, as sleeping quarters for the town’s street cleaner.)
“Rodriguez acts like it’s his town,” grouses Gene. By now a small crowd has gathered outside the store, as Gene and Ruby re-enact the events: Gene standing at the meter, quarter in hand, dumbfounded look on his face; Ruby meanwhile blasting the sheer injustice of it all, and complaining about the hardships of doing business in Quantico.
A bystander gets riled up, himself. The ruddy-faced, rugged man—pushing 60 but still wielding tree-trunk arms—came here three years ago from Winchester, looking for work; but recently bad weather has hampered his job as a heavy-equipment operator. Deep in debt, he and his wife rent a $500-per-month apartment, and now he can’t escape Quantico.
“As quick as I can get a couple of good paychecks, I’m out of here—this town’s like a penitentiary,” he says, chomping a 3 Musketeers bar and chain-smoking unfiltered Pall Malls. “Hell, you can get in and out of Richmond penitentiary easier than you can here. If I’m off from work a coupla days, everybody wants to know why I’m not working. If I go to take a shit, they want to know what time I went and took a shit. Bunch of nosy sons of a bitches….”
“Jesus Christ, anything’s better than Quantico,” he says, pointing his calloused hand across the street at one of the unpainted stores. “Hell, I’ve seen outhouses in West Virginia that look better than that.”
I ask him if there’s anything he does like about his town. He takes off his soiled cap and dramatically scratches his head. He can’t think of anything; after all, he hasn’t even spoken to his landlord for more than a year. As a longshot, I ask him if he knew Shifflett, Quantico’s serial killer.
“Hell, yeah, I knew Mel,” he says. “He was a helluva decent guy. I loaded up his truck one time at a job up in Manassas. I’d never guess he’d do that—that’s terrible what he did.”
In the spring of ’94, a town resident was fishing off the pier at the end of Potomac Avenue. It was about 1 a.m.; he often took these late-night excursions in the warm months, trying to catch rockfish and anything else he could hook for cheap dinners. On this solo angler’s jaunt, he snagged what at first felt like a whopper, but what he reeled in—hook snagged on a pant leg—turned out to be the dead body of Debbie Emerey, a longtime town resident.
What happened next is as odd as it is disturbing, something right out of Twin Peaks. Emerey’s body floated in the Potomac for five hours while authorities squabbled over who had jurisdiction over the case. There they were: the Quantico police, the Naval Investigative Service, the FBI, the Marine police—and a dead woman face down and bobbing in the dark river.
Emerey had left Nikki’s Nook earlier that night with Shifflett, a 42-year-old townie who drove a log-hauling truck. He later told police they were both drunk and he wanted to see her home. Shifflett was married, but he often escorted women from bars to make sure they got home safe.
A pal of the local police, Shiflett was a popular guy around town. He apparently hadn’t told anyone that he’d already served 10 years in prison for maiming and sodomizing a Woodbridge woman.
“Mel told me he killed a man but he said he’d done his time, so I didn’t pursue it,” says a 20-year-old Quantico woman who befriended Shifflett. “He always listened to my problems and gave me great advice.”
Shifflett crushed every bone in Emerey’s neck before throwing her into the river. Then he took $15 and her pager, and headed home, which was just a couple blocks away. The autopsy report showed that Emerey was still alive when she hit the water: She died of a combination of strangling and drowning. But there was barely a scrap of physical evidence to link Shifflett to the crime—Emerey’s waterlogged body didn’t yield many clues. It took more than a year for a grand jury to indict Shifflett for the murder. In the meantime, he raped a woman and tortured her for five hours in nearby Triangle. Shifflett was serving 85 years for that crime when he was convicted of the Emerey murder in January. According to authorities, a grand jury will next week indict Shifflett for the ’78 slaying of a Fairfax woman he escorted from a Tyson’s Corner bar.
If most of the town seems to have recovered from the Emerey murder, Iris Tharp has not. Tharp’s house overlooks the water, and she says she saw Emerey walking in a shoreside park—the probable scene of the murder—the night of the slaying. Tharp’s testimony at the Shifflett trial conflicted with the time frame established by authorities; she says she was humiliated.
The widow of a navy officer, Tharp was born and raised in Quantico; her Greek grandmother, Anastasia Poleris, ran the Riverview Hotel for decades. The place was later converted into an apartment house, and Emerey was renting a room there with her teenage daughter when she was murdered. Shortly afterward, the building burned, and its abandoned stone shell is next door to Tharp’s tidy, lavender-trimmed home. A dumpster sits near her front yard, filled with rubble from the gutted apartment building.
For Tharp, the hotel is no longer a pleasant reminder of her family’s past but a ghostly monument not only to Quantico’s infamous murder but to the town’s failure to clean up its own mess.
Perhaps most insulting of all, a flock of Canadian geese has been camped near Tharp’s house since last September, making a mess of the park and her back yard. Tharp says that local miscreants, including mayoral candidate and neighbor Al Gasser, have been luring the geese from their proper migration route by feeding them.
Tharp has had enough. She draped nautical distress flags around her house to attract attention from the local media: All she got were concerned calls from the Coast Guard. Some elders in the Greek community, she says, claim she was trying to cast an evil spell on her enemies. “They said I was trying to put a curse on the town, and I said, ‘Why would I bother? There’s been a curse on this town for a long time.’”
“The town is at its lowest point ever,” says Tharp, who’s running for mayor this May. If elected, she’ll be the first female mayor in the history of Quantico. After years holed up in her house caring for her invalid mother, Tharp now walks the streets handing out green ballpoint pens and refrigerator magnets declaring, “Iris For Mayor.”
Longtime residents, even those who like her, say Tharp hasn’t got a chance.
A week later, I’m back in Quantico, spending an afternoon in the parked taxi of the town’s only cabdriver; things are so quiet that I fall asleep. When I wake up, we’re in Woodbridge, 10 miles north on Jefferson Davis Highway; the cabbie picked up a woman and her two children who had phoned from outside the gates. “Most of my customers are Marines and folks from the outside,” explains the cabbie. “[Townspeople] don’t have any money for fare.”
A county bus does come through Quantico several times a day, but for the most part residents stay put, trapped in their own town; they sit on porches as Marine helicopters buzz overhead and the trains roll by.
I drop by Liming’s. I ask how business has been, and Ruby looks in her ledger, in which she diligently records—in pencil—every item sold. “Let’s see now,” she says. “Not so good. We sold another roll of tape for $1. That’s about it….I don’t know how we’d make it without social security and the pension.”
Gene wants me to meet the barber across the street, who Gene swears is really former televangelist Jim Bakker’s long-lost twin.
In a chair, getting his gray hair dyed brown, Jack Scott cheerfully declares that business is booming: “The Marines are great people to work with. They know what they want, we know what they want, and we give it to them.” Scott, a part-time Pentecostal preacher, does bear a striking resemblance to Bakker; he’s had a full chair at the Quantico Barber Shop since 1970: “If it weren’t for the military, this town would close. Ain’t nobody here in this town would exist if it weren’t for the Marines. Anyone here that tells you otherwise knows they’re lying.”
Later, I head for the Command Post Pub, an armory-type brick monolith modeled after the Alamo, and the tallest building in town. The first floor is open for business, while the two top floors—pocked by artillery portals that will later feature authentic cannons—are still under construction. Above the front door flutters the Stars and Stripes and a Marine Corps flag near a plastic banner that says, “Welcome Marine and Armed Forces Wrestlers.”
This imposing edifice is the brainchild of Al Gasser, long-time resident, landlord, entrepreneur, retired Marine major, and former Quantico mayor. Gasser is running for office again.
We meet at the bar, which is festooned with gigantic American flags and framed Marine slogans: “Nobody Ever Drowned In Sweat”; “Do Something: Either Lead, Follow, Or Get The Hell Out Of The Way”; and “To Err Is Human and To Forgive Divine—Neither Of Which Is Marine Corps Policy.”
Gasser says that residents who feel imprisoned in Q-Town have the wrong attitude. For the Brooklyn native, the armed gate and sentries are amenities. They provide a security that the wealthy are willing pay for in their walled communities. His home overlooks the Potomac River, and he enjoys the view: “When I’m looking out the front window, I could be anywhere in the world,” he says. “I could be in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
Similarly, the terminally optimistic Gasser looks around the near-empty Command Post—whose only present customer is the town lush, who is counting out pennies for a draft beer—and declares: “I don’t consider this a bar, I consider this an entertainment facility where Marines and others can gather. I’ve got very strict regulations on my staff. People do not get drunk in here. It’s a disservice to them and I don’t allow it.”
I ask Gasser about Iris Tharp’s charge that he’s feeding the wild geese that have made Quantico their permanent home. “Yes, we feed them cracked corn,” he says, exasperated by the accusation. “They’re obviously stranded here. They stayed too late in the year, and I didn’t want to see them die. There’s only 50 of them, I counted. But don’t starve ’em to death just because they were unfortunate enough to have gotten caught down here when the bad weather came.”
Gasser scoffs when he hears that Tharp is handing out free pens and refrigerator magnets. From behind the bar, he pulls out his own campaign freebie: a neon-green plastic snack-bag clamp: “This will keep their potato chips fresh,” he says.
We head to the top of the Command Post, which boasts a panoramic view of the town and the river. Gasser spreads out his arms and takes it all in. By this summer, he says, this will be a packed rooftop terrace: “When I started this project, everybody said, ‘Why are you doing that? You’re crazy!’ Well, I’m planning for the future and they’re living in the past.”
Later that evening, across the street at Roman’s Pub, a 22-year-old Marine private from Louisiana tells me that Quantico town is the loneliest place he’s seen on his several tours of the world.
“There’s no quality of life here,” he says, knocking back black coffee. “It’s just flat-out boring.”
It’s a Friday night and the place has barely a dozen customers. He tells me this is as crowded as it will get. A fellow Marine slumps in his chair, not drunk but utterly destroyed by ennui. He stares at a bar TV that blasts an episode of MTV’s “Spring Break Special,” the Crotch Cam zooming
in on bikinied beach bunnies. He doesn’t even blink.
Later that night, before I leave Quantico, I return to the Command Post. Gasser is nowhere to be seen.
At the bar, a group of young Marines—out of uniform and rowdy as hell—are talking sports, cracking jokes, spitting tobacco juice, and ragging on Canadian beer.
After a while, all language ceases, and they merely imitate the famous frogs from the Budweiser beer commercials. “Bud-Wei-Zerrrrrrrrrr.” Over and over. Ad nauseam. The Command Post is really partying now.
The mantra follows me out the door and echoes in the empty street—the only sign of life in Quantico.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.