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Starting Small

The first chapter in the strange story of the Washitaw 'empress' took place in a tiny northern Louisiana town.

WINNSBORO, La. -- Sitting at a desk in her imperial residence, a suburban ranch-style house in rural Louisiana, Verdiacee Goston tells her story in a soft and frail drawl. She is by turns animated, evasive and, at times, incomprehensible.

The important parts of her tale, filled out with the memories of other residents, begin some three decades ago, when Goston showed up in the nearby community of Richwood, La., population 1,223.

For a time, Goston — who would one day describe herself as the powerful "empress" of a massive empire — was seen there by many of the oldest residents, the poor descendants of former slaves, as a kind of civil rights savior.

She circulated a petition and helped get the community incorporated as a town, paving the way to obtaining federal funding for a much-needed sewerage system and other basic infrastructure.

But the town's younger generation soon grew skeptical, particularly after she got herself appointed as Richwood's first mayor in 1975 and then battled to keep the post even after she lost the 1976 election to a man improbably named Governor Richardson.

In 1979, Mayor Richardson decided to run for reelection. In an interview, he said that Goston asked to meet him one night — but that he declined after his wife advised against it, worried because of Goston's well-known anger at losing the 1976 contest.

Some time later, on the night of May 11, 1979, 10 bullets were fired into Richardson's home. His wife was hit in the chin and required 160 stitches. The shooting was never solved, although Richardson says that he always felt it was related to the political confrontation between him and Goston. When the future empress won by a handful of votes, Richardson says he decided that he would not ask for a recount.

"It wasn't worth my life," he says now.

Hard Hats, Hammers and Brains in a Bowl
By all accounts, Goston was a most unusual mayor. She presided over town council meetings in a hard hat, using a hammer instead of a gavel. When the town's aldermen objected to her total control over the council agenda, she declared a "state of emergency" due to "unrest, fires of questionable origin, and the threat of a flood."

Claiming that her husband had been murdered and that the local sheriff was keeping his brains in a bowl on his desk, Goston obtained tiny Richwood's first-ever exhumation.

In 1984, Goston was indicted on four counts of public contract fraud, attempted felony theft and malfeasance. She was accused of stealing $150,000 in government money and making off with municipal goods including the town typewriter. But in the end, the charges were dropped.

The only thing she was ever found liable for was shooting two pigs foraging in a garden. "We cannot have pigs in Richwood," she said then.

So tumultuous was her passing through this tiny community, a blip along the side of the interstate, that a local newspaper ran a series: "A Town in Turmoil."

"They accused me of stealing $360,000 in HUD funds and $49,000 in revenue sharing funds," the empress told the Intelligence Report indignantly. "They knew it was a lie, because they themselves stole the records and took them to a laundromat. That money never actually got to me, and if it had, I'd be in jail, okay?"

There were other accusations, too. Helen Cleveland, wife of the police chief who served during Goston's tenure, claims that Goston talked a number of Richwood residents into giving her money after promising to double their investments.

Goston was finally ousted from office in the 1984 election. Ed Harris, the candidate who defeated her and still Richwood's mayor today, says that he inherited a mess.

"She left an empty trailer as the mayor's office, two beat-up police cars that weren't running and no records," Harris says.

Speaking to the empress today, there is a momentary sense that one could be in the presence of a wise old holy person.

But then Her Highness puts on two pairs of eyeglasses — simultaneously — to study a historical document that she's showing to an interviewer. She warns a photographer not to take a picture of her in this state "or I'll come over there and get ya."

Outside the imperial palace, a viscous green slime floats on the surface of the royal swimming pool. The garden is not doing too well either. A lone, scrawny grapefruit tree stands barely waist-high, doubled over with the weight of two ripe fruits.

In fact, there is little that's imperial about this empress. No large, jewel-encrusted rings. No heavy bracelets. She sips coffee with goat's milk in it, an elixir she swears by. She could be anybody's grandmother in her baby blue stockinged feet with little flowered cloth slippers sitting in front of her, endearing in her frumpiness.

Except that like many royals, the Empress Verdiacee "Tiari" Washitaw-Turner Goston El-Bey insists that her food be tasted before she touches it. "Little bitty fish hooks" and ground glass, she reports, have been found there before.