The screeching howl of grinding metal resonated through Father Jerba’s two-story, one bedroom house that sat on the north end of campus. The crash and rumble startled him out of slumber. He rushed to the kitchen window, bracing himself on the shaking walls. Students from the seminary, who shared campus with the college preparatory, had already made their way outside and were nearing the fires. The aging clergyman tried to scream for the boys to stay back, but he burst into a coughing fit from the smoke. By the time he made it outside, the prep students had joined the crowd, and they were all, in Father Jerba’s opinion, too close to the wreckage. The Orchard Lake fire trucks tore onto the scene and began spraying the warped, hot steel, sending a volcano of steam through the trees and over the lake. The headmaster pulled up just as the FBI and the local Sheriff’s Department were announcing that no one was to leave the area and that everyone would be questioned. It was Tom Pebble, a fourteen year-old freshman who had spent most of the previous week nursing a cluster of bruises given to him during a hazing right known as ‘bagging and tagging,’ who first mentioned The Nine to Agent William Buefault.
All but four of the thirty-three freshmen of St. Mary’s Class of 1972, and nearly three quarters of the sophomore class, told the brass tact agent of The Nine. Their reputation around campus was well known, and their antics, which usually involved minor pranks on teachers, freshman hazing, and the occasional midnight party, were well documented in a thick manila folder that lay in Headmaster James Rewdeka’s top right-hand drawer. What were not in that folder, and what had become the sole focus of the third year Headmaster and, now, the second year Federal Agent, were the names of the notorious nine senior class members that made up this gang. Throughout the two years the name had been in circulation around the 125-acre campus, which once hosted The Michigan Military Academy and now laid ground to one of the premier Catholic College Preps in the country, the identities of The Nine had remained a seemingly impenetrable secret amongst the students.
The staff, of course, had their suspicions. Tommy Lis, the out-spoken captain of the Crew team, who had transferred to St. Mary’s during his sophomore year, had made his way onto their radar after one of The Nine’s earliest pranks. On a particularly cold Friday morning in December, while making his usual campus rounds, Dean of Discipline, Carl Wiestremski, discovered the life-size statues of Jesus and his twelve disciples had been moved from their rightful place behind the alter in Shrine Chapel to the baseball field, where Jesus was pitching and Judas was stuck in left field. Lis was suspected because one week prior, Father Jerba had seen him measuring the statues. Tommy said it was for a paper, and then found a clever way to work the information into his Theology homework the next day. Craig Martilla, Paul Wiescinski, Rick Wilson, and Scott Broden, the only red-head in the senior class, had earned their pages in the Headmaster’s folder after getting caught sneaking out of the dorms at three a.m. with a case of beer, a bundle of bottle rockets, and directions to a local brothel. A total of sixteen other boys had similar pages. In fact, only five seniors were not listed in the folder – Christopher Timmons, Geoffrey Ward, Mark Raggins, Lawrence Walder, and Scott Keener. Had the identities of The Nine ever been discovered, the Headmaster would’ve been embarrassed twice over.
The truth behind The Nine, at least, what can be known of it, is this: nearing the end of their junior year, five boys – Tommy Lis, Craig Martilla, Geoffrey Ward, Christopher Timmons, and Paul Wiescinski – set up an empty dorm room for an evening of ‘bagging and tagging.’ They blacked out the windows with blankets, laid mattresses across the floor, and turned the lights out. Each boy covered his face with a ski mask and waited. One by one, as the freshman entered the east hallway of Kolbe Hall, the soon to be seniors grabbed them, placed a bag over their heads and pulled them into room 16a, where the petrified freshmen were beaten with bags of oranges, broomsticks, and Ping-Pong paddles. After a few minutes of rigorous hazing, each freshman was warned to keep his mouth shut or The Nine would find him, then he was thrown back into the hallway and soaked with a large bowl of water. They hit twelve freshmen that day. By the start of the following school year, their reputation had been solidified as something for all underclassman to fear. Why they chose to call themselves The Nine came from the group’s fascination with The Supreme Court. They deemed themselves the ultimate judges and executioners of and for St. Mary’s. But only the original five members knew this. Everyone else just thought it sounded intimidating. “You’ve been hit by The Nine.” “Watch out or The Nine will come after you.” “Welcome to The Nine.” By the middle of their senior year, over half the senior class had, at one time or another, referred to themselves as The Nine. It became a name they used to drive fear into underclassman, to instill comradery amongst the class, and to maintain anonymity to the staff.
Agent Buefault took his time with the seniors. Each fourth year St. Mary’s man was interrogated for hours, sometimes in one sitting, sometimes, as was with Scott Broden, they were brought in multiple times. While the stern browed agent did his best to read the eyes of Tommy Lis and Geoffrey Ward, Headmaster Rewdeka tore into Paul Wiescinski and Craig Martilla. No student was left alone during the two-day marathon. The staff, local law enforcement and Agent Buefault’s team took turns sleeping while the others kept the boys in constant rotation. “Where were you?” “Who were you with?” “Who else was studying in there?” “Who is The Nine?” “Do you know anything about the train or the crash?” “What time did you return to your dorm?” “When did you hear the crash?” “Where were you when the fire department showed up?” “What did Father Jerba scream when he came outside?” “Do you know much trouble you’re in?” “Do you know how much jail time you can get for derailing a Federal train?” “Do you know what this is going to cost your family?” “How do you think your father will react to this?” “We are going to find out who did this. And they will go to jail for what they’ve done.”
Occasionally the boys would see each other for a moment as they were shuffled passed each other in the hallways of Kolbe Hall, the same hallways that had birthed The Nine. They would make eye contact, sharing a moment of reprieve, knowing that the other would never say a thing. The boys had an answer for everything. Every time Agent Buefault or Sheriff Powers thought they had one of them, another group of seniors would swear that that classmate had been studying or hanging out with them. Seemingly, none of the boys had left the dorms that night. Each one was studying, sleeping, or hanging out with a minimum of two others. Not one of them had had time to set up the stack of logs with a sign atop reading “Blow Your Horn or Blow Your Mom, Either Way, Blow Something.” The sign was discovered two hours into the interrogation. Agent Buefault and other law enforcement officials were confused by the silly message. The staff realized immediately what it was – a senior prank. Had they not found the sign, it’s possible the students would’ve been treated with a bit less brutality and severity. They may have been released after those first two hours of questioning. But, after Bueafult heard about the last three senior pranks at St. Mary’s, he felt, with no wavering of doubt, that The Nine was responsible for the amazing crash, that they had set up a stack of logs on the tracks that ran behind campus and that they had derailed the cargo train carrying auto parts, iron ore, and construction equipment.
The truth is, it had never been the intention of the boys to derail the train. They had set up the sign next to the tracks as the first of many small humorous gags that would have eventually culminated in a symphony of chaos across the campus. Their senior prank was to be legendary, a culmination of all pranks before and a standard for all pranks to follow – hilarious but safe. They had to beat the Class of ’67, who had released an entire petting zoo into the Prep Building. And, they knew they could outshine the truly creative class of 1953, who, while the Bishop and the Archdiocese of Detroit were visiting campus, held an elaborate burlesque show in front of Shrine Chapel. As it turned out, because of that sign, which had not been appropriately anchored and fell across the tracks, the prank became legend in a very different way. It was more than just the act of derailing the train that made the story so epic, it was the mythos of the Class of 1968 maintaining their story, their lie, their ultimate secret under FBI interrogation. That made this tale more than legend.
Agent Buefault was forced to claim that falling trees caused the derailment. The sign was destroyed and never disclosed in any reports or statements. This was done to avoid the embarrassment of being outwitted by a group of high school seniors. Headmaster Rewdeka was forced to allow all twenty-seven seniors to walk at graduation three weeks later. Tommy Lis, Craig Martilla, Paul Wiescinski, Geoffrey Ward, and the other members of both the senior class and the infamous group called The Nine went on to college, graduate school, and, eventually, entered the job market. They became your boss, your friend, your local elected official, your best man, your Supreme Court justice, your neighbor, and your teller of this tale. We never wanted to hurt anyone, and thankfully, the only person on the train was the conductor, who walked away with a broken arm and a healthy settlement. We still speak often, the group of us. We meet once every year, in a two story, four-bedroom house at Number 9, Orchard Lake Trail. We are The Nine, but don’t tell anyone or we’ll have to come find you…