OPINION: ‘Zenith Man’ gets late-in-life hug from Ga. town that once feared him

Ringgold resident Alvin Ridley was found innocent in the 1997 death of his wife Virginia. Her own personal notes told the story of their misunderstood lives.
McCracken Poston (left) and Alvin Ridley earlier this year in a Ringgold coffee shop that once housed Ridley's TV repair business. Poston and Ridley formed a friendship 25 years ago when Poston  successfully defended Ridley on a murder charge.

Credit: McCracken Poston

Credit: McCracken Poston

McCracken Poston (left) and Alvin Ridley earlier this year in a Ringgold coffee shop that once housed Ridley's TV repair business. Poston and Ridley formed a friendship 25 years ago when Poston successfully defended Ridley on a murder charge.

In the end, the tale of Alvin Ridley, who died Monday, was one of redemption — of a man scorned and accused. Ultimately, he didn’t need to be redeemed. Because he had done nothing wrong at all but be himself.

But being himself always had been the problem.

Ridley was a lost soul and grieving husband when he became an accused killer. Of his beloved wife, Virginia.

Before her death in 1997, he had already staked a claim in the North Georgia town of Ringgold as local pariah and oddball, often compared to Boo Radley from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

He was an evasive, skulking and unwashed figure who had some run-ins with locals and who moved mysteriously between his ramshackle home and the rotting building downtown that once housed his TV repair shop. He fixed the once ubiquitous Zenith TVs that seemed to be in every living room. Until they weren’t.

That led to one of his nicknames: Zenith Man.

His elevation from eccentric to psycho started on Oct. 4, when he called 911 from a payphone, saying his wife “stopped breathing.”

A headline from the National Examiner concerning the case of Alvin Ridley, who was charged with murdering his wife, Virginia. A jury found he did not do it.

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

Ridley’s voice on the call had a flat affect, despite the emergency. Also, Ridley had passed a fire station, with an ambulance crew, to reach that payphone as Virginia Hickey Ridley lay dead in their home.

Kimberly Barnes, editor of the weekly Catoosa Tribune and a Ringgold native, remembers a voicemail on the newspaper tip line: “That crazy Alvin Ridley done murdered his wife.”


That was perhaps the most suspicious thing about a dead woman being found in Ridley’s home: Nobody in Ringgold knew that Ridley, a notorious loner, even had a wife.

In 1998, Ridley was charged with murder. Since no one had seen Virginia for nearly 30 years, the theory was that he had kept his feeble wife captive in their dank basement.

From this came the National Examiner headline: “Sicko Holds Wife Captive for 30 Years — Then Kills Her.”

Authorities believed she was smothered with a pillow because of the “petechial hemorrhages” around her eyes.

In the months before his arrest, Ridley built a rapport with McCracken Poston, Jr., a lawyer and former state rep who was nursing his wounds after running for Congress the previous year and getting stomped, even in his hometown.

Poston somehow got the murder suspect out on bond and set about building a case. He tried to get his client out in the community to humanize him and build sympathy. It was difficult, because Ridley usually greeted folks with a gruff, hard stare.

Ridley was a conspiracist who had waged lawsuits and believed that neighbors, family and the government were out to get him

McCracken Poston, left, and Alvin Ridley in court in 1999. Ridley was charged with murder in his wife's death. He was acquitted.

Credit: John Rawlston, Chattanooga Times Free Press

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Credit: John Rawlston, Chattanooga Times Free Press

.Poston aimed to refute the smothering theory by introducing evidence that the hemorrhaging around Virginia’s eyes came from one of her, as Ridley called it, “spells.” Virginia was epileptic and had, decades earlier, decided not to leave home for fear of having a seizure in public.

So they lived a reclusive life, especially after his TV repair business failed around 1980.

“His business fell apart and Alvin blamed everyone for it,” said Poston. “But it was the advent of solid-state circuitry that did him in.”

Poston tried to build a case but found his client, to put it mildly, uncooperative. For months, Ridley would not even let his lawyer in his house.

When he finally coaxed Ridley into letting him in, Poston was amazed. The drawers and walls were filled with scraps of paper, cardboard, receipts — anything you can write on. Poston estimates finding at least 15,000 scraps with Virginia’s scribblings. Many were dated.

There were thoughts about the moon landing, Bible verses, what they ate, what TV shows they watched ― she especially loved Ron Howard and the 1970s hit “Happy Days.” Wholesome shows.

They were a time-stamped roadmap of their reclusive life through the decades and played heavily in Alvin Ridley’s defense.

Barnes, the local editor, also somehow served as a juror in Alvin’s murder trial.

“It was very much Alvin and Virginia against the world,” she said. “It was very sad that all they had in the world was each other.”

The trial was a media-feeding frenzy with a German crew even making the trek to Ringgold.

Ridley refused to turn over Virginia’s writings to Poston — “That’s all I still have of her,” he said — so the defendant lugged two battered suitcases to court each day. When he opened them in court, cockroaches spilled out. Daily. Jurors tittered as Poston tried to surreptitiously squish them with his loafers.

The state’s case imploded, and the jury acquitted Ridley in two hours. He returned to life as a lonely figure.

A few years later, Poston started taking Ridley out to lunch. Later, the lawyer, a born raconteur, wrote a book about the journey, roaches and all. It’s called “Zenith Man: Death, Love and Redemption in a Georgia Courtroom,” released this year to some success.

Alvin and Virginia Ridley in 1966.

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

Also, Ridley was tested and found to be autistic, which explains much of his dealings and views of the world.

Ridley has accompanied Poston to several book presentations, including one at the Carter Center, where Ridley had the crowd laughing with some dead-pan one liners.

Ridley turned out be a good straight man. Or maybe Poston was the straight man.

But it’s been heartening to see Ridley had a happy ride this last few months and become somewhat of a local celebrity.

“It’s so sweet Alvin finally felt that love and validation,” said Barnes.

This week, his heart and kidneys gave out. He was 82.

Ridley will be buried next to his wife. He asked for a simple inscription on his gravestone: TV Repairman.