A troubled past forgotten at wedding

Published Feb. 22, 1995|Updated Oct. 3, 2005

Waiting for the bride, the groom had time to list the reasons he loves his wife-to-be.

"A lot of girls, I meet them and say, "Hi, I'm Jeff Crouch,' and pffft, they're gone."

But Cheri Kendrick didn't run. "She believes in me," said Crouch.

On Tuesday afternoon, in a lakeside ceremony before a small crowd of friends and relatives, Jeff Crouch got married again.

Cheri's father, Joe Gilling, presented the bride, resplendent in a plum gown and a veil she beaded herself. The groom wore a suit and tie and was sweating despite the steady wind. He took off his mirrored sunglasses for the ceremony.

Notary Marge Hitt administered the traditional vows, asking the couple if they promised to love, honor and cherish each other "as long as you both shall live."

As a wedding sign said, it was Jeff and Cheri's day. There was no reason to speak the name of Jean Crouch, Jeff's first wife _ the reason the other women were afraid of Jeff Crouch.

In 1987, he was charged with raping and strangling Jean and leaving her body on Green Key Beach. Detectives said he confessed, but a judge said the statements were coerced and would not be allowed. Crouch has maintained his innocence.

Prosecutors freed Crouch in 1988, after 18 months in jail. But it was only the beginning of Crouch's time in court.

In 1991 he sued the Sheriff's Office for wrongful arrest and won a settlement of $225,000. But he lost a 1993 court battle over the custody of two daughters, who now live with Jean Crouch's sister in Massachusetts.

Crouch was arrested the day before Valentine's Day and charged with beating Cheri. She said it was her fault, that she was drinking. "Jeff's my best friend," she said.

That arrest led to their marriage, Crouch said. He decided to make Cheri's dream come true and proposed to her after he got out of jail on bail. "She's been happy as a lark," he said, cupping his hand like a nest. "She's been singin' like a little birdie."

With all the bad publicity he has gotten, Crouch said, he figured he could use some good. So he invited a reporter and photographer to his wedding beside Orange Lake.

Cameras clicked as they finished their vows, and the couple kissed deeply. The crowd clapped and hooted.

"Mr. and Mrs. Crouch," called Suzanne Hughes, the maid of honor.

Before they vanished to the honeymoon suite at Hudson Beach's Inn on the Gulf, it was time for cake and champagne. The couple had cranberry punch.

Cheri fed Jeff a piece of cake, smearing icing in his mustache. Then it was his turn.

Jeff Crouch held a piece of cake in his hand as the onlookers called for sweet revenge. Cheri grabbed his wrist.

"Trust me," he said. "Trust me."

She didn't, at first. Then she said: "I believe in you," and let go.

The cake vanished down her throat without a smear.

The onlookers laughed. "And they all lived happily ever after," said one.