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Easing the pain: court reporter's creative way to solve the mystery

By Darius White

Photos by Christian Patterson

Marsha Self’s profession often leads her to consider the question of who-done-it. As a court reporter she sits in a courtroom, transcribing the words spoken from the innocent and guilty alike. It’s a job she’s done for 32 years and one that defines her outlook on life.

“There’s nothing like going to court and listening to trials,” said Self, who brings an enthusiastic energy to her conversations, often punctuated by an infectious laugh.

The veteran observer of the judicial system has always been a fan of mysteries, the work of James Patterson being a favorite. Three years ago, she took her love of the genre to a new level by becoming the creative force behind a series of murder mysteries at Fern Valley Farms on Rollins Drive in Washington County, Va. Ticket holders come to the venue for a farm-to-table dinner prepared by Bill Bauer, who is chef and co-owner with his wife, Lynn, of Fern Valley Farms. After the meal, the guests, who arrived dressed for the theme of the evening, settle down to hear the clues and solve the mystery.

The idea for the murder mysteries came to her during court one day.

“I love people. In my job I don’t see a lot of people. I’m a court reporter and I sit by myself. I just thought how could we do something to get people together?” she said, her hands folded on the table in the empty Fern Valley dining room where on May 28 and 29 amateur investigators will once again uncover the culprit. This marks the first time she has been able to produce the shows since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Self started the mystery shows from her living room three years ago, inviting 28 people to join in on the “hunt” for a killer. The initial mystery was heavily inspired by the board game Clue, with everyone given a character to play for the night.

Since that first successful Murder Mystery, other themes originated from Self’s own imagination, with help from ideas she has gathered over her years as a court reporter. She also credited the influence of crime shows, of which she is a big fan.

“Murder interests me. I watch it on television a lot,” she said, as if admitting a guilty pleasure.

Bringing friends together for an evening’s fun is a throwback to Self’s childhood, when entertainment came from personal creative energy.

Self was born during a much simpler time in the small town of Dante, Virginia. For the first six years of her life, her family lived in a coal camp because her father worked for Clinchfield Coal Company.

“We had outdoor plumbing. No indoor plumbing. Took a bath in a little old silver pan that people hang on the back of their barn now,” said Self. She noted most necessities were purchased from the company store because that was where her father’s paychecks would go.

“Everybody was close. The families got together on payday, on every other Fridays, and baked a cake and we all shared it. That was our Friday snack.” Her family eventually moved to Castlewood, Virginia where she spent her later childhood and early adult life. Her father continued working for Clinchfield Coal Company and her mother became a substitute teacher. After graduating from Castlewood High School, she studied business at community college.

After graduating from college, she worked eight years for the United Mine Workers of America as a paralegal. After being laid off she moved to Washington D.C. to work as an administrative assistant for a program helping unemployed coal miners. She traveled back to Virginia every weekend to visit her husband, Randall, but spent her week in D.C alone. Self only worked in D.C for about a year before falling so ill she had to move back to Virginia. She was on disability for a short period, and it was during this time that she saw a car on a Bristol street with a registration tag that read “CRT RPT,” short for court reporter.

“I went home and got the Yellow Pages and contacted the lady who owned Appalachian Court Reporting. She took me under her wing and taught me all she knew. I bought my equipment and started court reporting.” Self would buy the company just three years later.

Transcribing court proceedings has been a good career, but not without its troubles. In court she sees the worst of mankind’s cruelty and spitefulness to one another. It’s a job that’s bound to overwhelm. That’s where she found herself several years ago before she came up with the murder mystery idea.

Self described this period in her life as depressing.

“Three years ago, I lost my dad. I lost my good friend. I had major surgery. I had knee replacement. I got depressed,” she said, speaking frankly about the impact her job was having on her personal life. She spoke about the sad nature of being a court reporter and how that impacted her.

“Being in a courtroom for 32 years and hearing what you hear, it makes you a different person. It’s something to be sitting beside a judge in a black robe sentencing someone to death. That’s my depressing days,” she said.

During a period of self-reflection, she realized the need to express her creativity.

“I’ve got to have an out,” she said.

This was the start of Self’s second company, Self-Made Creations, which includes hosting the murder mystery dinners and shows, as well as other community-oriented events. She said her events raises funds to help area youth and to help the homeless. In addition to her shows at Fern Valley Farms, she also produces events at Highland Farms in Lebanon and Abingdon Vineyards.

“My mind never shuts down. It’s creative all the time. It never stops. God’s given me the ability to put things together,” said Self.

Self uses the mystery dinners to fill a void in her life.

“It changed my life. It made me happy,” she said. “Murder mysteries are fun to me because my job is not.”

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