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Sam and Grace and Me

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Editor's note: In the 1970s, Thomas Dybdahl wrote some of the first investigative journalism focused on Adventist institutions for Spectrum. After a career pursuing justice, he kindly returns to write a monthly essay for us. We're honored to have him back under the Spectrum banner.


St. Paul had his life-changing epiphany on the Damascus Road. I had mine on Tulip Avenue in Loma Linda.

My parents, probably like many of yours, were strong supporters of the Faith for Today TV program. In thanks for their donations, Pastor William A. Fagal would periodically mail out small booklets: maybe several sermons, or some Biblical commentary related to recent events, or a collection of short devotionals.

In 1957 he sent out a booklet titled “By God’s Grace, Sam.” I saw it on a small table in our living room. As soon as I started reading it, I was hooked.

It told the life story of a man named Sam Tannyhill. He had a difficult and chaotic childhood. In his teens he became a troublemaker, and then an active thief. After committing a series of crimes, he spent the first half of his 20s serving prison time in Missouri.

Back home in Fremont, Ohio, Sam resumed his criminal career. He decided to rob a restaurant called The Hut. The place was open all night and employed just one person, a local woman named Shirley Bradford, as both cook and waitress.

In the early hours of May 2, 1955, Sam entered the restaurant, threatened Ms. Bradford with his gun, and took all the money in the cash register. His plan was to drive her to a remote spot and leave her. She’d have to walk back to town to call the police, and by then he’d be long gone.

But things went quickly awry. In the car Ms. Bradford called Sam by name and told him she knew his sister well. He realized his chances of getting away in the long run were now nil. When they reached a secluded place, Sam ordered Ms. Bradford out of the car. It’s not clear exactly what happened next. At his trial he testified that she reached for his gun, which had slipped out of his pocket. Fearing for his life, he said, he picked up the jack from the floor of the car and hit her with it.

Ms. Bradford’s badly mutilated body was found the next day. Sam was arrested in Kansas a few weeks later and brought back to Ohio, where he quickly confessed to the killing.

* * *

Sam’s story fascinated me. I was eleven. I’d lived all my life in Loma Linda. Everyone I knew was an Adventist. I had minimal experience of the world and none with crime. We’d only recently gotten a TV, and I’d never seen a police show. The tale of Sam’s misdeeds was unlike anything I had ever read. The details of his life and crimes were both thrilling and horrifying to me. I couldn’t stop until I read the booklet all the way through.

The climax was inevitable. The jurors didn’t buy Sam’s self-defense claim. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. While he was awaiting execution, two local Adventist men visited him in prison and enrolled him in the Faith for Today Bible correspondence course. Though he had never set foot in a church, he was converted. Fagal became his pastor and came to see him several times. 

Having found Jesus, Sam hoped that his life might be spared so he could share his faith. But he would receive no such gift. Fagal was with Sam on November 26, 1956, when he was electrocuted at the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus.

The point of the booklet, of course, was to show how the Faith for Today ministry supported the church’s evangelical mission. But to me, its redemption storyline was already quite familiar. What I took from that little book was something very different.

Though there was nothing in it about the ethics of the death penalty or any of the moral issues related to crime and punishment, I was deeply troubled by the ending. I understood why Sam had been convicted of murder. What I didn’t understand was this: now that he was an Adventist like everybody else in Loma Linda, now that he had repented of his sins, and now that he had become a godly Sabbath-keeper, why should he be executed? Why couldn’t we find some way for him to use his life to help and bless others, even behind bars, instead of just killing him? 

I’m still wondering. And that disquiet led me to a life-long engagement with our criminal legal system: as a Mennonite volunteer, as a prison visitor, as a public defender, as a writer.

In his last months, Sam Tannyhill signed his letters “By God’s grace, Sam.” The gospel had transformed his life. And Sam’s story transformed mine.

 


Thomas Dybdahl, who has degrees in theology, journalism, and law, is a former Spectrum journalist, Adventist pastor, and former staff attorney at the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, where he worked in both the trial and appellate divisions and tried twenty-five homicide cases. His book, When Innocence Is Not Enough: Hidden Evidence and the Failed Promise of the Brady Rule (The New Press, 2023), tells gripping tales of crime and the wrongs done to the falsely accused when prosecutors don’t share evidence.

Title image by Spectrum / photos: William and Virginia Fagal (Faith for Today), Thomas Dybdahl, and PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay.

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