For Alan Gell, a wedding that could have happened long ago

Gell leaving the Bertie County Courthouse in 2002 with his sister Frankie Johnson, left, and mother Jeanette Johnson after being found not guilty in the 1995 murder of Allen Ray Jenkins.
Gell leaving the Bertie County Courthouse in 2002 with his sister Frankie Johnson, left, and mother Jeanette Johnson after being found not guilty in the 1995 murder of Allen Ray Jenkins. 2002 News & Observer file photo

In the annals of love and courtship handed down over the ages, Angel Wilson wielded one of the better I-Told-You-So warnings that a bride-to-be ever uttered.

“Remember what happened last time you cheated on me?”

Could Alan Gell ever forget?

Gell’s two-timing in 1995 somehow led to a bogus murder conviction, nine years behind bars and five on death row. His mother spent hundreds of sleepless and tearful nights; 23 of Gell’s peers were executed while he was at Central Prison, some as close as brothers.

Those 20 years saw Gell journey from Death Row to exoneration. Freed, his case reshaped North Carolina’s criminal law, and then Gell crashed, crumbled and returned to prison.

After his release, Gell and Wilson started anew. They became best friends and built a house. They parent each others’ children and share a passion for World Wrestling Entertainment.

On Valentine’s Day, they wed at the Juniper Chapel Free Will Baptist Church.

Gell walked in to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” Angel to a more traditional “Here Comes the Bride.” The newly blended family joined in, as the five children exchanged vows to new siblings and new parents.

Jeanette Johnson, Gell’s mother, had to pinch herself.

“I’m so happy I’m on fire,” she said. “Years ago, I could never imagine this.”

‘I’m Alan’s girlfriend’

Angel Wilson met Gell in December of 1994. She was 14, a studious 8th grader at Southwest Bertie Middle School, good at math and sheltered from the world by a strict mother. Gell stopped by her home one day to check out her brother’s pet python; Angel said she immediately developed a huge crush.

The 20-year-old Gell had a blond mullet, a bashful smile and a goofy sense of humor. He favored blue jeans and flannel shirts and blasted West Coast rap as he crisscrossed Bertie and Hertford counties in his Suzuki Samurai.

They started dating, Angel surreptitiously out on weekend evenings at a friend’s house, but in reality on double dates with Gell and a friend. Gell soon lent Angel his Timex watch, whose broad leather band and big silvery bevel sent the message that Angel had a man in her life

Angel had no clue about Gell’s other life: He was a daily pot smoker who dabbled in cocaine and sold drugs to support his habit. When Angel had a hard time finding Gell at home, she called a phone number Gell had left her.

Asked who was calling, Angel said, “I’m Alan’s girlfriend.”

A crude torrent erupted from the phone. It was Shanna Hall, a hard-partying 15-year-old whom Gell had begun seeing.

Hall laughed and cursed at Angel and began describing her and Gell’s bedroom activities. Angel could hear Gell giggling in the background. Stunned, she hung up. When Gell sent word that he wanted his Timex back, Wilson went with a brother to Gell’s trailer in Lewiston. She placed the watch on a cinder block on the steps, took a hammer and pounded the Timex into a neat pile of glass and brass, careful not to let a single shard or gear fall to the ground.

When friends clued her in about Gell’s drug dealing, she made an anonymous call to the Bertie County sheriff, saying his trailer was full of drugs.

Exoneration, at last

Gell spent the next months partying with Hall and her inseparable best friend, Crystal Morris.

In April 1995, a retired truck driver with a sexual fixation on adolescent girls was murdered in the small town of Aulander. Police questioned Morris, a friend and frequent visitor.

Morris and Hall pinned the crime on Gell, pleaded guilty to second degree murder and served nine years. Gell’s protestation of innocence went unheeded; the jury sentenced him to death.

Gell’s new lawyers dug up proof that Gell was in jail when the murder occurred. Prosecutors had withheld much of the evidence.

Gell was awarded a new trial. A jury quickly acquitted him.

Out of prison, Gell traveled widely, giving anti-death penalty lectures, lobbying the General Assembly and appearing on Larry King Live.

His case prodded the legislature to pass a law that affects every felony case in North Carolina: Prosecutors must share their entire file with defendants, a change designed to prevent the misconduct that put Gell on death row.

But behind the celebrity mask Gell was struggling. He ran up debt, dropped out of community college and cycled through messy relationships.

He entered affairs – often with married women – as if to reinforce a belief that all women were like Hall and Morris and couldn’t be trusted. When he impregnated a 15-year-old girlfriend, law enforcement pounced and arrested the 31-year-old Gell, charging him with 31 felonies, including 14 counts of statutory rape. Each could carry a life sentence.

Together again

For her part, Angel Wilson was on a steadily upward trajectory. She earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in accounting. She married, had four children and raised them with a strict hand. After a divorce, she maintained primary custody and a full-time job.

She worked through a series of jobs, the current one as the accountant for a large construction supply company in Greenville. And she kept a side bookkeeping and tax business. Clients included Gell’s mother and stepfather and Olivia Harris, mother of Gell’s son.

Harris and Gell tried and failed to make a go of things when he got out of prison in 2011. Gell’s sister then urged Angel to go on a date with him.

Angel was leery: a dozen years in prison probably caused some lasting damage. She was reluctant to date an ex-convict. But she agreed to exchange a few texts.

Texting led to emails, and then to actual phone conversations. She finally agreed to a date. Gell was still on curfew, so she went to his apartment to watch World Wrestling Entertainment. The TV was on all evening but she doesn’t remember a thing about the wrestling. They talked like teenagers.

As they spent more and more time together, Gell tried to interest her in his longtime love of motorcycles. Angel didn’t care for them and refused to sit on the back.

“I need to be in control,” she said.

Gell turned to mudding: four-wheeling through farms and forests, preferably with monster puddles. Angel cottoned to it, but insisted on her own four-wheeler.

It was an awkward courtship at times, with the curfews and travel restrictions. Gell could be alone with his son, Sean, but no other children. Gell consulted lawyers to make sure the entire family could move into his house once his parole ended.

Angel said obstacles were nothing; she had met her best friend.

“He is the easiest man in the world to talk to,” she said.

Two families united

They’ve moved into a routine of school and band and wrestling and homework. Their oldest son attends a regional biotech high school where he’ll graduate with two years of college credit. They fit in mudding on some weekends. Sunday mornings are for church; Sunday nights usually see friends and family over for a big meal and wrestling on pay per view.

Gell said he finally matured during the second trip through prison. He ticks off the different Alan Gells he’s known: from hippie haired punk to scared boy in jail to an innocent man on Death Row to a confused 30-year-old teenager messing up his life while trying to change the justice system. Now he’s a father of five and committed to supporting them with the $3 million settlement he won from the state.

The wedding was for Feb. 14. The maids of honor wore black, the men in the wedding party wore deep red shirts for Valentines Day, but also the color that Death Row inmates wear.

Gell’s stepfather, Joel Johnson, sang an a capella version of “God Gave Me You.” Johnson halted several times when tears on his eyeglasses obscured the words on the paper, but he finished with a flourish: “You’ll always be love’s great martyr/ I’ll be the flattered fool/ and I need you.”

After the couple exchanged vows, Angel and her four children – Blake, Dylan, Brooke and Trinity – and Gell and his son, Sean, each poured cups of differently colored sand into a large glass bowl – individuals joining a 21st century blended family.

The wedding day was entirely normal. An interminable photo session was followed by a reception in the church fellowship hall, with trays of butter beans, hush puppies, fried chicken and barbeque from Bunn’s in Windsor. Guests pelted the couple with birdseed as they tried to make their way into Angel’s Ram Charger, slathered in shaving cream, vaseline and ribboned and stuffed with toilet paper.

As the couple left the Baptist Church for drinks at a hotel Karaoke bar, Joel Johnson marveled at how his stepson had finally made it.

“A few years ago we thought he was history,” Johnson said. “But he’s doing real well with his new family, and we want to thank God for this.”