Missing Minister Mystery Solved

James Simmons, The Early Show, 010115
A Texas minister who vanished in 1984 has recently resurfaced in California with a new name, a new life and questions about the circumstances surrounding his disappearance, reports CBS News Correspondent Hattie Kauffman.

George Cox is still grappling with the news his brother Barre is back.

"After 16½ years, I finally heard the words I wanted to hear," he said. "He is alive."

Wesley Barrett "Barre" Cox was a 31-year-old divinity student when, in 1984, while driving from Lubbock to Abilene, Texas, he vanished. Police found his car vandalized.

"It looked like if somebody had taken a baseball bat and beaten on the roof of his car and fenders," George told CBS News.

It was a puzzle. Had the young husband and father been killed? Kidnapped? Or had he deliberately run away?

"I always thought he was alive," said George.

"You never gave up hope?" asked Kauffman

"I never have given it a second thought."

The pieces of the puzzle seemed to come together in the White Rock Community Church of Dallas, when the congregation was wowed by a guest sermon from a minister with an incredible story.

Now calling himself James Simmons, he said he was found brutally beaten in the trunk of a car in Memphis, Tennessee, and suffering amnesia — he couldn't remember anything prior to 1984. But police in Memphis say they have no record of someone found beaten with memory loss.

After the sermon, reports The Dallas Morning News, a member recalled a disappearance that occurred about the same time. Church members relayed the information to Simmons, saying he might be the missing man.

The church that has offered Pastor Simmons a job serves a predominantly gay and lesbian congregation. Since his disappearance, he's earned two divinity degrees from this school in California.

"I still believe in my heart that James Simmons is the man God has brought to us to lead us as our senior pastor," said church representative Jeffrey Brown.

Barre Cox — or James Simmons — hasn't spoken to any reporters. He has seen his brother.

"When he hugged me, I said 'Well, Barre's back," reported George. "And it was, it was, it was wonderful. It was really wonderful."

Did he recognize his brother? George isn't sure.

"Maybe I wanted him to, but it seemed like maybe he did but..."

Skeptics may wonder if Barre faked this whole thing.

"I'll tell you what, I understand the skepticism," admitted George. "Is this really true? Could this really have happened? Well, I think it did, and I believe in him."

But George can't offer an explanation.

"I don't know, I don't know," he said.

When Barre Cox vanished 16 years ago, his daughter, Talitha, was six months old. He called her two weeks ago, on her 17th birthday.

"Talking to my father was the most grand experince I could experience, especially on my birthday," Talitha told Kauffman. "It was a wish come true."

his wife, Beth, thought she was a widow.

"After 16-and-a-half years, I felt like he was dead, I truly did," she said.

Said George, "to make up 16½ years is pretty well impossible."

The brothers who grew up so close now have a decade and a half gap to fill. Their father died during Barre's absence.

"When we lost him, I wanted so badly for Barre to be there," remembered George. "And I know that Barre will regret not being at his dad's funeral."

They have a lot of catching up to do.

"There's going to be crying and some laughing and carrying on, but there will be a lot of Barre stories to tell, and that makes it all worth it."

James Simmons is now driving from California to Texas, where he'll preach his first sermon next Sunday.

He says the name "James" came from the book in the Bible, "Simmons" from a sign he saw in a store window, but it so happens there is a Texas rancher with not only the same name, but also the same birth date and Social Security number he was using.

The Clarendon rancher James Simmons, who goes by the name of "Jem," told the San Antonio Express-News that the IRS audited him in 1987 and 1989 and that he got calls from the FBI. He said he was told to put a notice in his credit file explaining that someone was using his Social Security number.

Pastor Simmons said he was given a new Social Security number about 10 years ago after he submitted his fingerprints to the FBI and told his story of amnesia.

According to The Dallas Morning News, it's not expected that any charges will be brought against the pastor, because, says the local sheriff, the rancher suffered no financial loss.

"The man never messed up Mr. Simmons' credit or anything, at least not that we know about," said Donley County Sheriff Butch Blackburn.

You can see there are still some unanswered questions.

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