In this episode, we unravel the complex story of Alvin Ridley, the "Zenith Man," a television repairman from a small town in Georgia who was accused of murdering his wife in 1997. Despite his eccentric behavior and a town's suspicion, the truth revealed a different narrative. Join Orlando Montoya and Peter Biello as they discuss the new book, "Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom," written by McCracken Poston Jr., the lawyer who defended Alvin Ridley. This episode explores the unique life of Ridley, his struggles with autism, and the courtroom drama that ultimately led to his acquittal.

Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom by McCracken Poston Jr.

Published by: Kensington


Peter Biello:  Coming up in this episode.

Orlando Montoya: In 1997, he's just the town weirdo.

McCracken Poston Jr.: He knew the community was out to get him. That's why he didn't stop at the ambulance station when he was looking for a working payphone.

Peter Biello: What about it made prosecutors think that it was a murder?

Orlando Montoya: This podcast from Georgia Public Broadcasting highlights books with Georgia connections. Hosted by two of your favorite public radio book nerds, who also happen to be your hosts of All Things Considered on GPB radio. I'm Orlando Montoya.

Peter Biello: And I'm Peter Biello. Thanks for joining us as we introduce you to authors, their writings, and the insights behind the stories — mixed with our own thoughts and ideas on just what gives these works the Narrative Edge. All right, Orlando, another episode, another book. What do you have today?

Orlando Montoya: Today I have the true story of an infamous Georgia case of a wrongly accused man, how everything went wrong and how he cleared his name. The book is called Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom by McCracken Poston.

Peter Biello: Okay, so many questions. First of which, who is the titular zenith man? Is this Zenith like the TV?

Orlando Montoya: Exactly.

Orlando Montoya: The Zenith man is Alvin Ridley. He is a television repairman from Ringgold up in Northwest Georgia near Chattanooga. And in 1997, he was accused of murdering his wife by smothering her with a pillow after having kept her locked up in their home for decades. It was a sensational case, as you might imagine. It made all the national papers. The only thing was: He didn't do it.

Peter Biello: He didn't do it. So, okay, take me to the beginning of the story. Where does the book start?

Orlando Montoya: Well, the book starts with the alleged crime, Virginia's death, headlines from 1997, and how McCracken Poston, a lawyer and a former state lawmaker from Ringgold, comes to represent Alvin. But one thing I like about the book is that it takes you back in time. Over the course of 22 chapters, little by little, unfurling fact by fact. And it really explains how we get to those headlines. So the book starts in '97, but the story begins much earlier.

Peter Biello: So take me back even earlier. How how much do I need to know before 1997?

Orlando Montoya: Well, I think the most important thing to know from before the alleged crime is just how atypical these two people, Alvin and his wife, Virginia, were. They married in the 1960s, and both of them were strange but made for each other. Alvin was paranoid, eccentric, the town weirdo. But he was good at repairing TVs.  And Virginia was reclusive. She kept meticulous diaries: everything she ate, everything she watched on TV, she wrote it down and squirreled away. And shortly after marrying Alvin, she disconnected from her family, disconnected from church, and basically didn't leave Alvin's side. Didn't have a driver's license, didn't vote, didn't go anywhere. There was no record of her, really. Her family thought she was missing and put up ads in the paper looking for her. And in Poston's telling, this story should have really ended back then, in 1970.

Peter Biello: What you're describing there, it sounds like that could have been something of a domestic abuse situation. But is that part of the book or is that just kind of like: She chose to do all this; it wasn't imposed by Alvin.

Orlando Montoya: She chose to do this. This is a love story. Not a crime story.

Peter Biello: Okay. Well, what happened in 1970?

Orlando Montoya: They were both living in public housing at the time. And I'll let McCracken pick up the story. McCracken represented Alvin in his murder trial. And of course, he's the author of the book.

McCracken Poston Jr.: They were being evicted, and Alvin took it to a jury trial, which does not surprise me at all, because he's so litigious and difficult. The judge at the time, Judge Paul Painter, stopped the proceedings and said, "Mr. Ridley, get somebody to bring your wife here." Alvin's father went and got Virginia. They went back into chambers with the judge and her parents. When they emerged, she went back with Alvin. They — they settled in his parents home. And her parents really never put any more ads in the newspaper or anything. So it should have been settled then.

Peter Biello: So what was he talking about there? What should have been settled?

Orlando Montoya: That Virginia wasn't missing, that she wanted to be with Alvin in his home. But this apparently caused some estrangement between Virginia and her family, estrangement that later, when Virginia died, would be turned against Alvin.

Peter Biello: Wow. Okay, so you're setting me up here.

Orlando Montoya: It's a — it's a piece in the puzzle.

Peter Biello: Okay. Pieces of puzzle. What other puzzle pieces need to be explained before we get to 1997?

Orlando Montoya: Well, let's talk more about Alvin's paranoia. Alvin thought the government was out to get him. And not just any government, the state and local governments. He had faith in the federal government, like Congress and the federal courts. But the folks in town, he did not trust them at all.

Peter Biello: Why not? What was his beef with state and local officials?

Orlando Montoya: What wasn't his beef with state and local officials? He had so many controversies with local officials. And in his mind, it all seemed to blow up when they tried to seize his van. This would have been around 1982. The van was involved in some accident with a concrete truck and this led to years of litigation. He never stops talking about it. And when Virginia died and they accused him of killing her, he is constantly telling his lawyer, McCracken Poston, to investigate the 1982 attempted van seizure — which was only temporary, even. I mean, they'd — they gave him his van back. So this is clearly not typical behavior.

Peter Biello: Okay. It strikes me that he's the type of guy who goes to all the city or county commission meetings. Is was is that accurate?

Orlando Montoya: He was a bit of a town crank. He ran for sheriff once, unsuccessfully. But that was after this, this van incident.

Peter Biello: Okay, well, the paranoia thing makes me feel like he's not completely mentally healthy, right? Where — where does he fall on the mental health spectrum, here? Where is he?

Orlando Montoya: Well, he has autism, but we did not know that in 1997. In 1997, he's just the town weirdo. He talks funny. He has a weird look. A cold stare. People make up stories around him. Sort of a boogeyman of sorts. And so when his wife dies in her bed — and no spoiler here, it was an epileptic seizure, by the way. When his wife dies, he's emotionally flat. He doesn't do the typical things that people might do in that situation. And his behavior, to people blessed with typical brains like you and I, are suspicious. Hmhm, but perfectly explainable. If you know Alvin like McCracken does and got to know him in this case.

McCracken Poston Jr.: Alvin is paranoid. That was one of the diagnoses that the state did catch. But it was — he knew the community was out to get him. That's why he didn't stop at the ambulance station when he was looking for a working payphone. And — and that's why he tried to call the hospital in Chattanooga before he called 911. And he was instructed to call 911. But the rumors were out there that he tried to call a funeral home first to come get the body. Well, that did not play out on the phone records from that phone stand. And so it — we had to deal with a lot of of rumors and speculation in the case, but very clearly, Alvin was not of the mental state that a neurotypical mind would expect when your wife just died. But Alvin was always worried that this was something that —

Orlando Montoya: They were out to get him.

McCracken Poston Jr.: — government was going to get him for.

Orlando Montoya: In the end, he was acquitted. The government did not get him. But we don't know that as the book is unfolding and as you're reading it, it's a very gripping courtroom drama. Another story like the last one that I just finished very quickly because I wanted to keep on reading. I wanted to know how it ended.

Peter Biello: Can I ask you more about Virginia's death? I mean, she died of an epileptic seizure, but what about it made prosecutors think that it was a murder?

Orlando Montoya: Well, a few things. But mostly the autopsy report which ruled the death a homicide. We learn in the book about things called petechial hemorrhages and their relationship to seizures. But I think one major turning point in this case is the coroner's report. At least when I was reading it, this was sort of a turning point. The coroner is one of those people in town who had a confrontation with Alvin many years before. It's a small town. People — people know each other. And this confrontation involved, if I remember correctly, a broom in an alleyway, nothing serious.

Peter Biello: Like like a broom levied as a weapon?

Orlando Montoya: I believe so, sort of. It was a — it was a — it was a frightening incident for the woman. Nothing serious. Like I said, it was not a violent episode, but, you know, you're confronted by the town weirdo in an alleyway with a broom. It was very frightening for her. So she years later, as the coroner, with this prior experience, had heard these rumors of Alvin's wife, Virginia, locked in a basement, not seen for 15, 20 years. And so she wrote those rumors on her report, which got repeated in the autopsy, which the prosecutors saw: Woman held captive for 15 years. I mean, if you're the prosecutor and you see that in the autopsy report, what are you going to do? So, I mean, when you're misunderstood, when you're not typical, people are going to think bad things. They're going to write bad things. It can go very badly. And that's one lesson that I get coming out of this book.

Peter Biello: Is that why McCracken wanted to tell the story? Did he have an interest in mental illness overall?

Orlando Montoya: I think he just has a great story, period. I mean, how do you go from this reviled person in town — accused murderer — to someone who elicits empathy? It's just remarkable; a story very well told. And that's saying something for this writer who I think just because of his position in politics and the courtroom, he probably has a lot of stories to tell. And so I asked him, you know, of all the stories he has:

Orlando Montoya: Why a book for this one?

McCracken Poston Jr.: I really saw that quote by Maya Angelou, that "The agony of bearing an untold story in you." I really felt that. And and I gave it away for years, even before I knew the full story. Different TV, true crime shows. A lot of the listeners will be familiar with this case from, Forensic Files or American Justice or on NPR's Snap Judgment even. But those were all before the final piece of the puzzle was found about Alvin Ridley, just three years ago.

Peter Biello: Just three years ago. What was what was the final piece?

Orlando Montoya: Alvin's autism.

Peter Biello: Oh.

Orlando Montoya: He was diagnosed just three years ago.

Peter Biello: Formally diagnosed. Okay. And is he still alive? If so, how is he doing?

Orlando Montoya: He is still alive and I have his signature on — on the book.

Peter Biello: Oh, wow. Okay.

McCracken Poston Jr.: Alvin just turned 82. When we left that courthouse, 25 years ago in a few weeks, I just, off the cuff, I said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alvin Ridley, a free man and an innocent man." But then I said, "and a man ready to basically restore his name in this community." And all through the years of giving this story away to different TV shows, we never could explain Alvin.

Orlando Montoya: And you two continue to meet and he is in good health and —

McCracken Poston Jr.: Twice-a-week lunch rigidly per his instructions. We got him a VA ramp built at his house, and I was told it was like because of the strange topography of his house and his yard, and this is the house his dad built back in the '50s.

Orlando Montoya: So he still lives in the same house?

McCracken Poston Jr.: Oh yeah, not much changes. And the van that he was always obsessed with and always wanted to talk about and wanted me to investigate. It still sits rusting away in his yard. He hasn't touched it.

Orlando Montoya: My goodness.

McCracken Poston Jr.: Since 1984 when the county returned it.

Peter Biello: Well, what gives the book the narrative edge for you?

Orlando Montoya: Well, it's a story of hope, the underdog wins. Also a cautionary tale. Justice came very close to not prevailing in this case. And for many in our society, unfortunately, it does not prevail. But the book also makes me think of the love that Alvin and Virginia must have had. I mean, think of it living in their own little North Georgia cocoon, for each other. The way many people feel if they're isolated from the world. Marginalized, but together. They're together in that home. And the way it's written, it's like nothing is taken for granted. I guarantee, even though, you know the ending in this book, Peter, it's going to keep you reading, late at night, because how it gets to the end is a great story.

Peter Biello: All right. Love a good courtroom drama. The book is called Zenith Man: Death, Love, and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom by McCracken Poston. Thanks, Orlando.

Orlando Montoya: Thanks for listening to Narrative Edge. We'll be back in two weeks with a brand-new episode. This podcast is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Find us online at

Peter Biello: You can also catch us on the daily GPB News podcast Georgia Today for a concise update on the latest news in Georgia. For more on that and all of our podcasts, go to