Bookshelf: ‘Zenith Man’ a wild ride of love, death and justice in small-town Georgia

McCracken Poston Jr. shares intimate knowledge of sensational case.
Criminal defense attorney McCracken Poston Jr. is the author of "Zenith Man."
Courtesy of James Curtis Barger

Credit: James Curtis Barger

Credit: James Curtis Barger

Criminal defense attorney McCracken Poston Jr. is the author of "Zenith Man." Courtesy of James Curtis Barger

Boo Radley remains one of the most enduring characters in Southern literature. A reclusive man of few words ridiculed for his peculiarities in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’s later revealed to be a timid, kind-hearted man with developmental disabilities.

Tenderly portrayed in both the book and the 1962 film, the character resonates in part because he represents the archetype of the town eccentric, a figure once commonly associated with small Southern towns but which grows outdated as we learn more about neurodiversity.

According to the nonfiction account “Zenith Man” (Citadel Books, $28), Alvin Ridley was Ringgold’s Boo Radley. Formerly a TV repairman of extraordinary skills, Ridley was an Army veteran who became reclusive and paranoid after his business folded. A minor wreck involving his father triggered Ridley’s ongoing battle with local law enforcement and his filing of frivolous lawsuits. He supported himself selling socks at the flea market and was occasionally spotted guarding his dilapidated repair shop from imagined threats.

Generally speaking, though, Ridley was perceived as a grouchy loner hepped up on conspiracy theories who was ultimately harmless — that is until one day in 1997 when he called Catoosa County 911 and reported the death of a wife no one knew he had. When autopsy results suggested Virginia Ridley was asphyxiated, rumors begin to swirl that Ridley held his wife captive for decades and then killed her.

Criminal defense attorney McCracken Poston Jr. is no Atticus Finch, but he is a raconteur of the first order and the perfect person to author the story of Ridley’s ordeal.

Courtesy of Citadel Books

Credit: Citadel Books

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Credit: Citadel Books

By the time Ridley was charged with murder in 1998, Poston was a former member of the state House of Representatives who had returned to Ringgold to resurrect his law practice after losing his bid for a seat in Congress to Nathan Deal. Concurrently, his wife was divorcing him and his father was in rehab for alcohol addiction. Poston had no idea when he took on Ridley’s case that he would be representing one of the most uncooperative and confounding clients of his career.

“The word is ordeal — because it was an ordeal,” said Poston, 64, speaking from Ringgold where he still works as a criminal defense attorney. “He and I fought. We screamed at each other. And only when he thought I was praying would he calm down and listen to me. Sure, that was manipulation, but it worked. Anything to get us to the end zone.”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks Poston encountered was Ridley’s refusal to allow his attorney inside his home. It took a plate of Thanksgiving leftovers to turn things around, and once inside Poston discovered a treasure trove of evidence that played a major role in the trial.

The case received national attention and the outcome in 1999 was well reported: Ridley was acquitted. But knowing the outcome does not detract a bit from this highly engaging read that combines the best parts of hard-boiled true crime with a host of colorful characters, a small-town Southern setting and Poston’s natural gift for gab. The results beg for an eight-part Netflix series.

After Ridley’s acquittal, Poston spent years trying to tell his client’s story and went through four co-writers in the process. But then he began working with a developmental editor, author Bonnie Hearn Hill, who helped him realize he could write the story himself with one caveat — he had to include himself as a character because he, too, was changed by this experience.

The kicker to the story is that about three years ago, Ridley was diagnosed on the spectrum, which cast a whole new light on things.

“It was like that scene in a movie where suddenly you’re realizing everything and all these thoughts are flashing by your mind of every way he was,” said Poston. “I don’t know why I had never thought of it before. I knew people who were autistic, but they were all younger. Nobody in 1997-98-99 was talking about adults with autism, they were just eccentric people. Now I had an explanation for Alvin.”

Today Poston and Ridley, 81, are friends who meet for lunch every week.

“When Alvin and I came out of that courthouse, I said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Alvin Ridley, a free man and an innocent man, and a man who’s ready to rehabilitate his reputation in this community,’ and I meant that,” said Poston. “That’s been my effort throughout all these TV shows, and now the book is the one that I hope does it.”

Poston insists he’s not the hero of this story, though.

“Alvin won that case,” he said. “I was just the guy who hung with it.”

A Cappella Books presents Poston in conversation with the AJC’s Bill Torpy 7 p.m. Feb. 20 at the Carter Library. For details go to or

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. You may contact her at