By Susan M. Thigpen © 1990
Issue: February, 1990
This is not a traditional Valentine story, but it is one, none the less, that has a lot of love, determination and heart. It is a story about a terrible tragedy and a story of conquering almost overwhelming odds. It is the story about the lengths one man continues to struggle with to reunite his family.
In the fall, The Mountain Laurel received a letter from Mrs. Hazel Wade, the adopted grandmother of Tony Wade. In the letter, Mrs. Wade told Tony's story and sent a newspaper clipping from The Enterprise, a Stuart, Virginia newspaper dated July 6, 1988. Since then we have been in touch with Tony Wade and here is his story.
It all began in 1964, in Patrick County, Virginia. Tony's parents, Raymond and Zella Lee Leath were living in the Willis Gap section, in a four room house, with their eight children. The father, Raymond, was a welder and away from home most of the time, working where the jobs took him, to support the large family. Unfortunately, there was never enough money, and with such a large family, they were verging on real poverty.
On August 5, 1964, the tragedy happened at the breakfast table. Raymond Leath was working at Mocksville, North Carolina at the time. Elizabeth Jane Leath, the four year old daughter, was tiny for her age. She weighed less than 20 pounds and was malnourished. She refused to eat and her mother, probably frustrated with coping with everything, slapped her. Elizabeth Jane fell from her chair, struck her head and never regained consciousness. She died in a Galax hospital two days later.
The lives of the entire Leath family were disrupted forever. The mother was charged with murder by Patrick County authorities. She and her husband were also charged with neglect of the children because of general malnourishment. The children were immediately taken by social services and separated.
Eight months later a jury acquitted Zella Leath of the murder charge. Judge John D. Hooker had ruled that evidence didn't support a murder charge or voluntary manslaughter and gave the jury a choice of involuntary manslaughter, assault and battery or acquittal. Mrs. Leath testified that she loved her daughter and didn't mean to hurt her. She said after the child fell, she wrapped a warm blanket around her and tried to get her to drink some orange juice. When Elizabeth Jane failed to respond, Mrs. Leath testified, she drove down to North Carolina to get her husband. Raymond Leath took the child to the hospital.
Although Mrs. Leath was not convicted, the charge of child neglect resulted in six of her children being taken from her and placed in foster homes and orphanages throughout southwest Virginia. Tony (then Leath, now Wade) was five years old at the time.
Tony Wade was placed in two foster homes and an orphanage in Danville for the next two years. When he was about seven, he was adopted by a couple from Fieldale, Virginia. He grew up in Fieldale, attending school there and later went to Johnson Bible College in Knoxville, Tennessee. He received a B.S. in education and Bible studies and went on to earn an administrative credential, but things were not as they should be with Tony Wade. He suffered from terrifying nightmares. He could remember absolutely nothing of his first five years of life and did not even know that he had brothers and sisters.
In 1974, Tony took a year off between high school and college and decided to delve into his past. His search started with the Danville orphanage, where he found that he did have brothers and sisters, but could not find out their names or whereabouts at that time. Once Tony knew he had family, he was driven to find them. When he got no results in Henry and Pittsylvania Counties, his search spread out and took him back to Patrick County. A social worker in Patrick County remembered the case and he at least learned that his birth name was Leath. The next thing he did was to go to the newspaper office and search old copies from 1964. There he learned of the tragedy and of his mother's arrest. The article gave him leads - the names of his brothers and sisters, and he discovered that there were 12 children in the family. From there, Tony went to the courthouse and began to search marriage records. After 10 hours of searching, he found the name of his brother Billy, who had married a girl from Patrick Springs.
As the name of his sister-in-law's parents was listed, Tony was able to call them and got the phone number of his brother who was living in Galax, Virginia. Tony arranged to meet his newly-found brother in the parking lot at K-mart. Billy was the first member of his family Tony had found, and he remains the closest relationship today. When they met, Billy walked up to Tony and said, "Are you Tony?" and gave him a hug. A girl was with Billy and it was Tony's sister Tammy.
Billy was 15 in 1964. He refused to be taken from home when the authorities arrived, escaping from a bedroom window and riding his bike into a nearby town. Can you imagine how hard his life must have been at age 15? He found a job at a restaurant and slept out back at night. Billy had kept in touch with as many of the other brothers and sisters as he could and the following weekend, he introduced Tony to the three oldest sisters who were already married at the time of the tragedy (Carolyn, Patricia and Barbara). The next weekend, Billy took Tony to meet his father who was living with their brother Wade. The following weekend, Tony met his mother who was living in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Both of Tony's parents wept when they met him. They hugged and kissed him and told him that they had not given him up, that the welfare department came in and took the children.
There were two children in the family that Tony never got a chance to meet. Dale drowned in the James River trying to pull someone else out of the water. Michael died of injuries after being struck by a car.
To find this much family was wonderful, but there were still missing links, two which were not yet found. Tony is still searching for the remaining two, a brother and a sister, and will never give up hope of being reunited with them also.
I have included all of the information that is known about the remaining two Leath children to be found. Perhaps someone reading this will know a lead Tony can track down and discover once more the joy of a family's love.
Rebecca was a baby of 17 months in 1964. If she was born in March of 1963, she would now be 26 years old. Jonathan or Johnny, was two months old in 1964. If he was born in June of 1964, he would now be 25 year old. This is all the information Tony Wade has to go on.
Tony Wade is now a 30 year old administrator of a Christian elementary school in Long Beach, California. He and his wife, Sheri, a second grade teacher, have one child. Tony says he takes a Christian approach and has no room for hate or bitterness in his life. There is a strong bond with his family even though they are scattered throughout North Carolina and Virginia. All of the children visit their mother and father and stay close. He said it was true that they (the children) were neglected, but it was very hard on his mother too, taking care of eight children without much money and his father being gone much of the time.
If you have any information to share, his address is:
8627 Hollyoak Street
Buena Park, California 90620
Rebecca and Johnny Leath, where ever you are, you have a large, loving family looking for you.