Trail of death follows doctor; Did our medical institutions go mum?

By Joshua Benton and Michael D. Sallah
Blade Staff Writers

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It’s likely the Adams County, Ill., courthouse had never housed a scene more surreal than it did on Aug. 23, 1985. Everything seemed inverted: a doctor accused of poisoning people, and his boss saying he didn’t mind.

On that day, Dr. Michael Swango, the young physician with an All-America smile, stood in court to await sentencing. A few months earlier, he had been convicted of slipping ant poison into the food and drinks of five paramedics to see how their bodies would react. Several were hospitalized, and all fell violently ill.

Judge Dennis Cashman had heard some bizarre testimony: stories of Swango’s obsession with gory accident scenes, his admiration for serial killers such as Ted Bundy, and his interest in poisons that are difficult to trace.

But perhaps the most chilling witness was Swango’s employer. Robert Haller, the vice president of Toledo-based National Emergency Services, had hired Swango almost a year earlier to be an emergency room doctor in two northwest Ohio hospitals.

Swango’s attorney asked Mr. Haller if, in view of the paramedic poisonings, he would have any concerns about hiring the doctor to work in Ohio hospitals again.

“I would have no problem at all,” he said.

Surprised, prosecutor Chet Vahle stood up and cross-examined Mr. Haller: “Even though he has been convicted, you would rehire him?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Based on what he did for the company, the patients that he treated, if it were up to me, I would.”

The testimony seemed bizarre to Judge Cashman, who recently called it “the most preposterous thing I’ve ever heard in court.” The judge ended up disregarding the testimony and sentencing Swango to five years in prison.

But Mr. Haller’s words take on a more menacing edge today, now that Swango is suspected of killing as many as 60 people around the world – most of them after that 1985 court appearance. Mr. Haller’s testimony was one of the first public symptoms of the medical establishment’s willingness to look past troubling actions.

Despite a stint in prison and a trail of suspicious deaths, Swango went on to work as a doctor in hospitals in South Dakota, Virginia, New York, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. Time after time, the blond, blue-eyed physician poisoned and killed, authorities say, and time after time, he kept moving on: from hospital to hospital, state to state, victim to victim. But he has never been convicted of murder.

That may change. In July, a federal grand jury indicted Swango on three counts of murder stemming from his days as a resident at a New York hospital. Officials in Zimbabwe have issued a warrant for his arrest on more murder charges.

And Ohio officials are following the federal case closely because of several suspicious deaths in Columbus.

“You can bet we have more than a passing interest in this case,” said Edward Morgan, a Franklin County assistant prosecutor who has been investigating Swango since 1985. “This is by far the most frustrating case of my career.”

The question everyone from patients to police is asking: How did Michael Swango, now 45, convicted of poisonings 15 years ago, keep finding work in hospitals, as recently as 1997?

For Judge Cashman, the trail begins at the Ohio State University Medical Center, where Swango began his medical career in the early 1980s. It was there the young, handsome doctor was first linked to a suspicious death, and many blame OSU for being more concerned with protecting its own image than in finding out whether one of its physicians might be a killer.

“I think they’re more culpable than anyone else in this entire thing,” Judge Cashman said. “They tried to keep the police out.”

At first glance, the young Michael Swango looked nothing like the popular image of a serial killer.

With his goofy, boy-next-door grin, gentle charm, and obvious intelligence, Swango seemed destined for success. He was valedictorian of his Quincy, Ill., high school class and ranked in the 97th percentile on his college boards.

Growing up, he spent his spare time reading true-crime books and looking for bizarre crime stories in newspapers. The habits did not seem outrageous at the time.

He attended Milliken University, a private liberal-arts college in Decatur, for two years on a music scholarship; he had been one of the state’s best clarinetists in high school. But despite excellent grades, he decided to drop out after his sophomore year and join the Marines.

After an honorable discharge in 1976, he enrolled at small Quincy College, in his hometown. Again, he had outstanding grades: a 3.89 grade point average with a double major in chemistry and biology.

In 1979, he was accepted into the Southern Illinois University medical school, and he quickly began to stand out in the student body. He wore his Marine fatigues and had a fanatical devotion to physical fitness. He earned the nickname “Double-0-Swango” from classmates after several patients seemingly on their way to recovery died unexpectedly after Swango saw them. The nickname jokingly referred to James Bond, Agent 007, who had a “license to kill.”

Despite a few academic problems at SIU, he graduated in 1983 and was accepted into the prestigious neurosurgical residency program at Ohio State. He was the only student offered a spot in the program out of 60 applicants.

Six months after beginning his studies, a series of events occurred that would cast a shadow over the medical center, the crown jewel of the university, for years to follow. Two later analyses of Swango’s stay at Ohio State -one from law school dean James Meeks and one by the Franklin County prosecutor’s office – provide much of the detail.

It was Feb. 7, 1984, when a nurse making her rounds entered Room 900 at the Medical Center and noticed Swango at the bedside of Rena Cooper, a 69-year-old woman who hours earlier had had surgery on her lower back.

The nurse said later that “it appeared as if he were adding something to [Cooper’s] IV line with a syringe. I said nothing because I thought he would be done soon.”

The nurse left, and then about two minutes later, she heard Mrs. Cooper’s bed rails shake and heard her roommate screaming.

She rushed back to Room 900 and found Mrs. Cooper turning blue. She still had a pulse, but she had stopped breathing.

Another nurse called a “Code Blue” and doctors arrived to treat Mrs. Cooper. After about 15 minutes of care and the insertion of a tube down her throat, Mrs. Cooper was breathing on her own again.

She then asked for a note pad to write something down. According to at least one of the nurses present, she wrote out two messages: “Who was that blond doctor?” and “Someone came in and put something in my IV tube.”

A few minutes later, a nurse’s aide spotted Swango four rooms away. He later recalled to investigators: “He had a goofy look on his face … like a kid with his fingers in the cookie jar.”

The aide, suspicious, went into the room Swango had just exited and found a syringe on the bathroom sink with its plunger depressed. It was a large needle, used only when a large dosage of medication needs to be injected very quickly.

The aide brought the syringe to the attention of another nurse, who wrapped it in a paper towel and placed it in a cabinet under the sink.

Meanwhile, the neurological unit was buzzing about the possibility that Swango had been involved in Mrs. Cooper’s sudden inability to breathe. Suddenly, unusual deaths over the last few weeks started to seem more sinister.

Just one day earlier, an elderly woman who had been recovering well from a head injury mysteriously had died on the same floor without warning. A nurse later told investigators that she saw Swango in the morning hours of Feb. 6, 1984, using at least two syringes on the patient.

Other deaths started to seem suspicious. On Jan. 14, a healthy 19-year-old gymnast recuperating from a car accident had been suddenly found dead in her room. Less than a week later, a 21-year-old man was found dead in bed. On Jan. 24, a 43-year-old man was discovered dead.

That Swango was on duty on the same floor during all of the deaths was not lost on the nurses.

After a nurse formally complained, the medical center’s top officials, joined by two attorneys, held a special meeting on Feb. 8. The group decided to allow Dr. Joseph Goodman, a neurosurgery professor, to conduct an inquiry. But law enforcement officials were never notified.

What followed was an investigation that still is being criticized today.

According to the law school dean’s later evaluation of the inquiry, Dr. Goodman did not interview any of the nurses or residents who tried to revive the dead patients. He never talked to Rena Cooper’s roommate, who said she saw Swango inject something into Mrs. Cooper’s IV line. He did not inspect the syringe saved by the nurse, records show, even though he was told about it. No autopsies or tests were conducted on any of the alleged victims.

A few days later, Dr. Goodman announced the complaints against Swango were unfounded. It was unusual to have seven deaths in just over two weeks on the same floor – the norm was two or three – but Dr. Goodman said that they could not be pegged on Swango.

Dr. Manuel Tzagournis, then dean of the medical college, decided that Swango would be allowed to return to the hospital. Dr. Michael Whitcomb, OSU medical director, was asked to conduct a follow-up inquiry – again without involving the police.

No notes or reports were made of his investigation, which consisted of only three interviews. Dr. Tzagournis ordered that Swango, who had been given a few days off, should continue his internship. The investigation was officially over.

On the day that Swango was exonerated, another death occurred on the same floor where he was then working, a 72-year-old leukemia patient. The death bothered Dr. Marc Cooperman, who said his patient was not in any danger. “I could never understand why this thing would have happened to somebody who had undergone a straightforward surgical procedure five days earlier and was walking around having no problems.”

Two other patients died in the ensuing days – both treated by Swango and both showing no signs of decline before their deaths.

In late February, after Dr. Whitcomb’s investigation ended, the OSU residency review committee decided that after Swango finished his first year as a resident in June, he would not be allowed to return.

But that did not stop three doctors on staff from writing Swango letters of recommendation to be fully licensed to practice medicine in Ohio. One rated him “good” in medical knowledge, ability to work with peers and staff, and relationship with patients. Another called him “excellent” in all three categories.

The final letter of recommendation mentioned some “reservations” about Swango, but said only: “There was a suggestion concerning a patient’s demise with regard to Dr. Swango having been in attendance proximate to demise. This was investigated rather thoroughly and Dr. Swango was exonerated.” (The doctor was mistaken when he referred to Rena Cooper as dead.)

In his last few months at OSU, Swango continued to be linked to suspicious illnesses.

One day while working at OSU’s Children’s Hospital, Swango volunteered to bring three fellow medical residents “extra spicy” fried chicken. Three hours later, all three doctors were violently ill, with symptoms lasting several days. “One guy was throwing up so bad, he had to have his eyes treated,” Edward Morgan, the prosecutor, said. “This was after they were served their dinner by the good doctor.”

Swango was let go from the residency program in June. But, in part because of the letters written by OSU doctors, state medical officials gave Swango his medical license in September, 1984.

Suddenly without a job, Swango decided to head back to his hometown, Quincy, Ill. He took a job with the Adams County Ambulance Corps, where he had worked briefly before going to OSU.

It struck some of his coworkers as odd that someone with a medical degree would want to be a paramedic. “He just told me he wanted to take a break,” said paramedic Mark Krzystofczyk.

The medics were alarmed by some of Swango’s bizarre habits, such as his penchant for clipping newspaper articles about gory accident scenes and poisonings. He carefully would place the articles in four scrapbooks he considered prized possessions. Mr. Krzystofczyk asked Swango why he did it. “It’s just a compulsion,” Swango replied.

“He made it very clear that if anyone messed with his scrapbooks, he would get very upset,” Mr. Krzystofczyk recalled.

Early on Sept. 14, Swango arrived at the paramedics station with a box of donuts and offered them to his colleagues. Within a few minutes, all four paramedics who ate donuts were sick.

“I was on my side in the fetal position vomiting for two days,” Mr. Krzystofczyk said. “And I wasn’t as bad as the others.”

The next day, when Swango was working at a high school football game, he offered to bring his partner a Coke. After taking a few sips, his partner became violently ill. On Sept. 27, he offered to fetch a 7-Up for another paramedic, who was surprised when Swango handed him the can that had been opened. In minutes, he was vomiting.

All six paramedics eventually recovered. But they were getting suspicious of the pattern: Swango gives someone food or a drink, then that person gets violently ill.

On Oct. 12, when Swango was out on an ambulance call, two paramedics noticed something that confirmed their worst fears: Swango’s duffel bag was open and inside they found two bags of Terro ant poison, whose primary ingredients are arsenic and sugar.

One was full; one was empty. They looked arsenic up in a medical encyclopedia and discovered that the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were exactly what they had been suffering.

The paramedics decided to set a trap for Swango. One of them brewed a pot of iced tea, adding no sweetener. Two glasses were poured before the two paramedics were called out for a run. When they came back, they tasted the tea and it was extremely sweet – a sign that something sweet had been added.

They saved the tea and later had it tested: It contained 35 milligrams of arsenic.

On Oct. 26, Swango was arrested and charged with seven counts of battery. Police searched his apartment and found a virtual chemistry lab. “Detectives found numerous chemicals, suspected poisons, and poisonous compounds,” the police report said. “Underground-type magazines were observed that gave technical information on exotic poisons…. Handwritten recipes for poisons/poisonous compounds were observed.”

They also found syringes, a jug of sulfuric acid, three guns, and a variety of materials related to Satanism and the occult.

The same day of the arrest, Quincy investigators called Ohio State campus police as part of a routine background check.

They wanted to know more about this Michael Swango, who had spent a year roaming the halls at the OSU medical center.

Campus police said they had never heard of him.

After Swango was released on bond, he decided to seek work elsewhere. He looked toward Toledo.

Just days after his arrest, he applied for a job at National Emergency Services, a Toledo company that hires doctors out to hospitals in rural areas across the country. Robert Haller interviewed the young applicant, who did not mention anything about his problems with the Quincy paramedics.

“Everyone was impressed. He seemed like a really fine physician. He came with glowing credentials,” he said, referring to the letters of recommendation from Ohio State.

Mr. Haller said Swango presented himself as an eager doctor who wanted to take some time off from his residency to pay some bills.

Mr. Haller said he drove Swango to two area hospitals where he would be working – Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk, O., and Wyandot Memorial Hospital in Upper Sandusky – and introduced Swango personally to the people he would be working with. “Everybody seemed to like him,” Mr. Haller said.

It is unclear how much work Swango did at the two hospitals. Fisher-Titus spokeswoman Deb Reed said Swango worked only two shifts there. Wyandot Memorial administrator Joe Dettorre said he could not determine how often Swango worked there.

Both hospitals say they conducted brief internal investigations into the patients Swango had seen. Both said they found no problems. Neither hospital brought in law-enforcement personnel to help in the investigations.

At Fisher-Titus, Dr. Timothy Thomas, then the director of emergency services, said in 1985 that he had checked the charts of all the 52 patients Swango may have seen. He said he found nothing unusual.

In any event, Swango’s employment in northwest Ohio was relatively brief. On Jan. 31, the news broke that a former OSU doctor had been charged with poisoning coworkers in Illinois.

When OSU police were contacted by Quincy officials in October, Ohio State officials immediately began a series of meetings to plan their response, according to then-OSU police chief Peter Herdt.

Campus police were stunned. They had no idea a prior investigation had been conducted of suspicious poisonings at the medical center.

The chief was brought into the discussions, he said, but was not pleased with what he heard. He said he was informed that no report or notes were taken by the doctors during the internal probes seven months earlier. He said he was told the investigation locally was over.

“I never knew we had a dead body on campus until a year later,” Mr. Herdt said.

He said he was informed by OSU officials that no crimes occurred on campus involving Dr. Swango, and they did not want the case reopened. But public pressure was mounting as news reports talked about the mysterious doctor who was being linked to deaths.

Quincy officials began to complain publicly that OSU officials were not being cooperative in their investigation. Finally, OSU police were given limited authority to investigate Swango’s time in Columbus.

In April, Swango went on trial in Illinois. Judge Dennis Cashman found him guilty of six of the seven counts of battery. (The seventh was thrown out because the level of arsenic in one paramedic’s hair was significantly lower than the others.) In August, he was sentenced to five years, at the hearing at which Mr. Haller said he and the two northwest Ohio hospitals would be willing to rehire Swango to work with patients again.

Swango began serving his sentence. On Aug. 21, 1987, after only two years in custody, he was released. One might think his felony record and history of suspicious deaths might end his medical career. The next decade would prove that thought wrong.

After his release, Swango moved to Virginia and tried to get back into the medical business. He applied for a state medical license but was rejected. But that did not stop him from getting back into his field.

He found work at a career counseling business that helps people get into medical school. According to James Stewart, a journalist who wrote a book called Blind Eye about Swango, three of his coworkers there came down with the sudden vomiting and other symptoms that seemed to follow the doctor.

He legally changed his name to David Jackson Adams and, in 1991, tried to catch on at a hospital in West Virginia. He claimed that his battery conviction in Illinois had been the result of a barroom brawl. But an administrator checked up on Swango’s story and discovered the Quincy poisonings. Swango did not get the job.

Throughout this period, Swango kept in touch with Robert Haller, his old boss in Toledo. “He called me a couple times after he got out of prison, wondering how he could get back into medicine,” he said. “We talked about it, but I told him that I was no longer in the field [he left National Emergency Services in 1985], and I couldn’t do much for him.”

Swango used Mr. Haller, who now lives in South Bend, Ind., as a reference several times.

Swango next tried at the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls, which accepted his latest story: that he had been one of the paramedics who fell ill in Quincy and that he had been framed by a corrupt crime lab. Officials believed his story enough to offer him a position in their internal medicine residency program in March, 1992.

Amazingly, at one point during the hiring process for Swango, South Dakota officials asked Ohio State officials for some documentation on Swango’s time there. But even after learning that Swango was about to get a job in South Dakota, Ohio State did not alert the hospital of his problems there.

Swango was a popular resident in South Dakota until October, 1992, when he decided to apply for membership in the American Medical Association. An employee there decided to check on his Quincy conviction and got a call from Judge Cashman saying Swango should not be allowed to practice medicine.

Swango withdrew his application, but an AMA employee alerted an official at the medical school. Then Swango had a stroke of bad luck: The Discovery Channel broadcast a show about his problems in Illinois. Officials started getting phone calls from horrified hospital workers. Swango quickly was suspended and fired not long after.

The next year, he applied for a spot in a psychiatric residency program at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, on Long Island. Swango seemed like a strong applicant, and he openly admitted he had served time in jail, although he continued to say it was for a barroom brawl.

Stony Brook officials did not make some basic background checks, like calling the Federation of State Medical Boards, which would have informed them of Swango’s license being suspended in Ohio and Illinois. In June, 1993, he was accepted into the residency program.

While no suspicious deaths appear to have occurred in South Dakota, the same was not true on Long Island.

Several patients who seemed well on their way to recovery died suddenly while Swango was working nearby. Eventually, a tip from someone in South Dakota led to Swango being exposed. He was fired in October, 1993. Soon after, FBI agents started looking for Swango, but by that point, he was on the run.

After a stop in Georgia working at a company that treats metro Atlanta’s water supply, Swango went to one place where he thought his history would not haunt him: Africa. He applied for a job as a bush doctor in Zimbabwe.

Swango was hired, and not long after, people started to die mysteriously. Hospital officials became suspicious, and Swango was fired after almost a year. He soon found employment at another nearby hospital – requesting that he live in the hospital, giving him full access to patients at almost any hour of the day or night. After a short time there, a local reporter began asking questions and Swango was fired again. More people began to appear with symptoms similar to the paramedics in Illinois: intense vomiting and nausea.

He moved on to Zambia, where he worked for a few months before Zimbabwan officials alerted the hospital there of his past and he was fired again. He headed to South Africa, where he worked through a physician placement agency to find a job. He landed one in Saudi Arabia, working at a hospital run by the Saudi royal family.

There was one catch, though: Swango had to fly back to the United States, pick up his visa, then fly to Saudi Arabia.

On June 27, 1997, he landed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. A customs official ran his passport number through a computer and found he was wanted on federal fraud charges relating to lies he told while applying for his job on Long Island. His run was over.

In March, 1998, Swango pleaded guilty to the fraud charges and was sentenced to 42 months in prison. He was due to be released in July when federal officials came forward with the case that might keep Swango in prison for the rest of his life.

Swango was indicted on July 11. He faces two more fraud counts and three counts of giving false statements. But he was also charged with one count of assault and – almost 20 years after the first suspicious death linked to him – three counts of murderstemming from his time in New York.

The Michael Swango story stretches across at least seven states and four foreign countries. But officials in Columbus believe the story should have ended years ago at Ohio State.

“You had a small group of administrators who made tragic mistakes in their decisions,” said former OSU police chief Peter Herdt, who is now chief in Clearcreek Township, O. “This could have been stopped in 1983. Everything could have been stopped in 1983 if they would have called the police department.”

Once a full investigation had begun at OSU, much of the evidence was either gone or useless, according to a later university analysis.

The syringe found in the room Swango had just exited had been discarded. The IV line connected to Mrs. Cooper was also tossed. Several bodies were exhumed, but enough time had lapsed that the level of toxins in the corpses could never be detected.

“To go back and try to collect evidence two years later, it’s extremely hard,” said Edward Morgan, the Franklin County prosecutor and a native Toledoan. “Let’s face it: poison is the perfect murder weapon. It’s too difficult to extract after the fact. And that was one of our biggest problems.”

Judge Cashman, who has been one of Swango’s most dogged pursuers, said that OSU should be one of the primary targets of blame. “What they did was outrageous,” he said. “They wanted to protect their liability.”

Dr. Tzagournis, Dr. Goodman, and Dr. Whitcomb, the team of OSU medical administrators who investigated Swango, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Ohio State eventually had its law school dean, James Meeks, review the procedure the hospital used in investigating Swango. He issued a report in April, 1985, that called OSU’s investigation “far too superficial” and criticized the decision not to call in the police and keep an accurate record of their inquiry. But it denied any cover up.

“What we have investigated,” the report said, “is sufficient to convince us that the matter warranted a more thorough inquiry than a reading of the medical records of the patients who died.”

Mr. Morgan prepared his own report for the Franklin County prosecutor’s office, and it was scathing. He criticized the investigation for putting no single person in charge, for failing to call the witnesses to the Rena Cooper incident for statements, and for ignoring physical evidence.

David Ferguson, OSU’s associate vice president for university relations, defends the university’s actions.

“We feel as if at the time we did everything we possibly could to look into the circumstances,” he said. “Hindsight is always 20/20. There are things we might have done differently. But there is nothing to suggest we were in any shape or form negligent.”

Last year, OSU issued a statement saying that “we should have called in outside police authorities to investigate” earlier.

Mr. Ferguson said if a similar circumstance came up now, “we’d take an even harder look.” Still, he said that OSU authorities are not investigating the suspicious deaths at the hospital, even though murder has no statute of limitations.

Attempts have been made to strengthen the system that protects patients from rogue doctors. In 1990, the National Practitioner Data Bank was created to allow hospitals to check on the disciplinary records of doctors. But consistently over the last decade, bad doctors have continued to practice, either because hospitals do not report disciplinary actions to the data bank or do not check with the data bank when making hiring decisions.

Michael Donio, director of projects for the People’s Medical Society, said the system in place is too weak. “There was no excuse for not doing thorough background checks on [Swango],” he said. “In my opinion, that constituted a violation of the public trust. How long does it take to make a phone call? Five minutes?”

It’s difficult to know how many people Swango may have killed. Judge Cashman said an FBI agent told him several years ago that investigators were confident the number was at least 60. Mr. Stewart, the author of Blind Eye, puts the number at about 35.

Unless Swango makes a detailed admission of his crimes, it may be impossible ever to know. Negotiations are under way between Swango’s attorney and federal prosecutors. Swango is in federal custody in New York City.

Mr. Morgan said he gets calls from relatives of the deceased medical center patients. “This isn’t something that just goes away. They have lived with this for a long time, and they still live with it,” he said. “Every time they see something in the newspaper or on TV about this, it brings it all up again…. I sympathize with them.”

Mark Krzystofczyk, the Quincy paramedic who was one of the doctor’s first victims, said he never doubted that Swango – charming, handsome, and smart – would find a way to poison more people . “The only thing we ever said after his trial was that he didn’t get enough time,” he said. “It wasn’t long enough. He would be out there again.”

Bailey certain to weather storm, ex-colleague Cochran believes

By Michael D. Sallah and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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ORLANDO, FLA. — Johnny Cochran thinks that one of his colleagues on the O.J. Simpson “Dream Team” deserves a break.

“I’m betting on him,” Mr. Cochran said yesterday this week about F. Lee Bailey, thea famed lawyer whose disbarment has been recommended in Florida. “I think he’s going to come out all right in this.”

Mr. Bailey, who assisted Mr. Cochran in Mr. Simpson’s double- murder trial, is accused of taking millions of dollars worth of stock from one of his clients, convicted drug smuggler Claude Duboc, and refusing to turn it over to federal prosecutors.

“I have a lot of concern for what’s going on with Lee,” Mr. Cochran said. “But you’ve got to know Lee, and he is a survivor.

And he’s going to fight this, I’m sure.”

The charges facing Mr. Bailey could put an end to his legendary legal career. In 1996, he spent more than 40 days in jail on a contempt charge related to the Duboc case. Last month, a Florida judge recommended that Mr. Bailey be disbarred permanently for his actions.

Mr. Cochran is in Orlando to represent several clients suing Disney in an intellectual-property dispute.

He said that the Florida courts should consider Mr. Bailey’s lengthy history as a lawyer-including high-profile clients such as Sam Sheppard and Patricia Hearst – in determining his fate.

“They have got to consider his long career, a great career, and his contributions to the law,” he said.”That’s got to stand for something. He’s been a lawyer for a long time.”

But Mr. Bailey’s history as a lawyer has not always been good. In 1970, a Massachusetts judge censured him and considered disbarment because of Mr. Bailey’s habit of talking to the news media about his cases. The next year, his privileges to practice law in New Jersey were suspended for a year.

Jeffrey Cohen, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in legal-malpractice law, said the Florida high court is unpredictable when it comes to bar recommendations and sometimes “can completely differ with a referee’s findings.”

Mr. Cohen, a former chairman of the Dade County Bar grievance committee, said lawyers have been disbarred on charges similar to Mr. Bailey’s. But he said that while “records of honor and trustworthiness will and should figure into this,” he does not think Mr. Bailey’s celebrity status will help him. “I don’t think he’ll be treated any differently.”

A spokesman for the Florida Supreme Court said he expects a decision on the disbarment to “come fairly quickly.”

Craig Waters said the court is in its summer recess until Monday. Chief Justice Charles Wells would be able to act on the disbarment during the recess by consulting with the other justices, but it is unlikely he would go to such extraordinary lengths.

After the recess, a death-penalty case will be the court’s top priority, Mr. Waters said, but the Bailey case likely will be resolved shortly thereafter.

Once-stellar F. Lee Bailey now broke, beleaguered

By Michael D. Sallah and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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In 1981, F. Lee Bailey was still at the top of his game.

The defense attorney to the stars – with clients like Dr. Sam Sheppard and Patricia Hearst behind him, and O.J. Simpson still to come – was visiting a friend, wealthy agribusiness executive George Weasel, on a large estate about 25 miles southwest of Toledo.

Mr. Weasel had hired the flamboyant lawyer to handle his divorce. The two became fast friends, in part because of their shared love for flying jets.

One day over cocktails, Mr. Bailey suddenly stood up and said: “Do you want some lobster? I can get the best lobster anywhere,” Mr. Weasel recalled.

Without hesitation, the pair hopped on Mr. Bailey’s Lear jet and headed for Boston. They were met at the airport there by men with two large vats, filled with plump, live New England lobsters.

They got right back in the plane and returned to Ohio, where Mr. Bailey cooked up the catch. “Lee knew his lobster, and he knew how to cook it,” Mr. Weasel said.

Mr. Bailey was at the top of his profession back then, and he lived like it: imported scotch by the case, Dunhill cigarettes, casual jaunts to exotic places. He was the man America’s most famous people called when they ran into trouble, and those phone calls were very, very profitable.

Those old days must seem like another era to Mr. Bailey today. Last week, a Florida judge recommended that the 67-year-old litigator be disbarred. He is accused of taking millions of dollars worth of stock from a convicted drug smuggler he represented and refusing to turn it over to federal prosecutors.

The greatest irony for a lifelong high spender: Mr. Bailey says he needed the money because he’s broke.

Cantankerous, egotistical, and obstinate, he has been in scrapes with the ethical guardians of his profession before. He was almost disbarred 30 years ago when a Massachusetts judge said his attitude showed “a self-esteem of such proportions as to challenge description.”

But this may be the old warrior’s last chance. In the last year, his wife and mother have died, and his work load has been reduced by all the time he has spent in court defending his own actions.

“It’s sad, because this is a guy who was probably the most prominent lawyer in the country,” said Darrell Van Horn, a former assistant Lucas County prosecutor and friend of Mr. Bailey. “To go through this at this stage of his life has got to be tough.”

There’s a lien on Mr. Bailey’s million-dollar home near Palm Beach, Fla., and he claims he’s living off the good will of friends and associates. In a recent court appearance, he told the judge the only money he had was in his wallet.

His fall is all the more remarkable considering the pinnacles he once attained. Francis Lee Bailey was among the first lawyers to turn himself into a celebrity by using the news media in high-profile cases. And in the process, he became perhaps the most recognized American lawyer of the 20th century.

“I’ll hire F. Lee Bailey” became the potent retort of anyone facing thorny legal problems.

Prominence

He first came to prominence in 1964 as a young man in a Cleveland courtroom. Just four years out of law school at Boston University, he convinced a judge to give a new trial to Dr. Sam Sheppard, the doctor who was accused of murdering his wife in the case that later inspired the television series, The Fugitive.

Mr. Bailey eventually got the U.S. Supreme Court to agree on appeal and won his client an acquittal in the retrial.

It was the first – but not the last – time that Mr. Bailey was in a “trial of the century.” Indeed, he seemed to be involved in most of them.

Mr. Bailey’s argument for a retrial centered on the massive pretrial publicity in the Sheppard case, which he argued had influenced the jury and meant his client could not get a fair trial.

But it was perhaps the last time the Massachusetts native complained about massive publicity. He spent much of his career seeking the spotlight, going after such high-profile cases and taking his arguments to the media.

His celebrity status thrust his social life into the headlines, particularly his protracted affair with singer Connie Francis. He rubbed shoulders with the famous and was a frequent guest on late-night talk shows.

And when he wasn’t appearing on television shows, he was sometimes hosting them. At 34, he was picked to host a show called Good Company, where he interviewed the rich and famous about their lifestyles. The show’s producer, David Susskind, said of his host: “He’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s sexy, he’s a natural for television.”

Years later, Mr. Bailey hosted another show, Lie Detector, where he sought such scoops as whether Zsa Zsa Gabor was telling the truth about whether she married men for their money.

His name was prominent in almost every medium. His books were best sellers, particularly his first, The Defense Never Rests. The book’s jacket gushes: “F. Lee Bailey is probably the most controversial – and certainly the most talked about – American lawyer since Clarence Darrow.” And his lectures were well attended around the country, including several appearances in Toledo.

To some attorneys, Mr. Bailey’s penchant for publicity was grating; even some of his clients didn’t like it. Newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst appealed her conviction for a bank robbery, saying Mr. Bailey spent too much time seeking a book deal to provide her a proper defense.

Cross-examining

But many of his clients were still drawn to his undeniable ability in a courtroom. He was known for a razor-sharp memory, cross-examining witnesses for hours without using notes.

“He truly mastered the art of cross-examination, far more than most lawyers,” said James Tuschman, who spent a day with Mr. Bailey when the celebrated attorney visited Toledo for a lecture in the 1970s. Mr. Tuschman, a lawyer himself, now chairs the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.

Cases that seemed hopeless to some turned into victories for Mr. Bailey. In 1971, he defended Capt. Ernest Medina, an Army officer implicated in the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War. In his memoirs, Mr. Bailey calls Mr. Medina “the most decent man I’ve ever had the privilege to defend,” and despite significant evidence against his client, he won an acquittal.

Later, Mr. Medina admitted that he had been aware of what was happening during the massacre and had “not been completely candid to avoid disgracing the military, the United States, his family, and himself.”

Mr. Bailey also played a role in getting the release of one of Toledo’s most notorious gangsters, Thomas “Yonnie” Licavoli, who took over Toledo’s rackets in a wave of violence during the Depression. Licavoli was convicted of four murders, including the killing of Toledo bootlegger Jack Kennedy, in one of the city’s most infamous slayings.

In 1970, Mr. Bailey was hired as part of a legal team to try to get Licavoli out of the Ohio Penitentiary. At a speech in Toledo, he compared his new client to Dr. Sheppard, saying both were notorious in the state: “There seems to be a feeling Licavoli must be kept in prison as long as possible.” Licavoli was paroled two years later and died shortly after his release.

Mr. Bailey didn’t win all of his cases. His defense of Ms. Hearst was unsuccessful, as he couldn’t convince jurors that she was brainwashed by her Symbionese Liberation Army captors.

He was the lawyer for the alleged “Boston Strangler,” Albert DeSalvo, and recorded his client’s confessions to the crimes. DeSalvo was never charged in the crimes, however, and was killed in prison while being held on unrelated charges.

Mr. Bailey has had legal troubles of his own. Twice he has clashed with state bar associations, resulting in disciplinary action. In 1970, he was censured by a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court justice for doing what brought him his fame in the first place: talking to the news media about his case.

Justice Paul Kirk wrote that Mr. Bailey “is unwilling to concede that he could have been wrong; he believes that he alone should decide if ‘special circumstances’ exist to justify a departure from the established norms of conduct; he studies rules and judicial orders with a purpose of evasion rather than a will to comply with their spirit for the general good.”

He concluded that Mr. Bailey has developed “a philosophy of extreme egocentricity for the defense of criminal cases involving the use of news media.”

Disbarring Mr. Bailey “would not be essentially wrong,” Justice Kirk wrote. But the justice said he chose to merely censure him because disbarring Mr. Bailey “would close the door to possible reconsideration of values and standards by one who is still young in the profession.”

A year later, the Supreme Court of New Jersey suspended Mr. Bailey’s privileges to practice in the state for one year, again because of his efforts to plead his case through the media.

Over the years, a string of legal problems – including drunk-driving arrests and a mail-fraud case – exposed Mr. Bailey to the other side of the legal process. Often representing himself, he was never convicted of a serious charge.

Maverick

Mr. Bailey sometimes used his legal troubles as a way to portray himself as a maverick, someone who was not part of the legal establishment. A former Marine jet pilot, he likened his role to a pilot fighting a lonely battle.

“If I ran a school for criminal lawyers, I would teach them all to fly,” he wrote in his memoir. “I would send them up when the weather was rough, when the planes were in tough shape, when the birds were walking.

“The ones who survived would understand the meaning of ‘alone.’ If I understand anything, I understand that.”

Colleagues said that Mr. Bailey didn’t try to ingratiate himself to judges and other lawyers. “Lee never gives an inch on anything,” said Seymour Gelber, former judge and Miami Beach mayor. “It’s not in his nature. That sometimes makes him extremely unpopular.”

But no matter who he was defending, Mr. Bailey did it in high style. He would fly across the country at a moment’s notice in his own eight-seat Lear jet, collecting huge legal fees.

“Lee would fly in, and I’d be expecting him to stay for a couple of days, and he’d no sooner sit down than the phone would ring, and he’d be off flying to somewhere else,” said Mr. Weasel, 75, whose Henry County estate was sometimes a home away from home for Mr. Bailey in the early 1980s. “He would stay here for weeks at a time, just to get away,” said Mr. Weasel.

By the mid 1980s, Mr. Bailey had decided that he wanted to move his practice from Boston to south Florida. He began to study for the Florida bar exam while living in an oceanfront condo in Palm Beach.

That’s when Mr. Van Horn, the Toledo lawyer, first met Mr. Bailey, when they were both studying. Mr. Van Horn’s wife at the time, Polly, was a close friend of Mr. Bailey’s wife, Patricia.

Mr. Van Horn, 52, recalls dining one night at the Palm Beach condo. “We were having a rack of lamb dinner, but Lee kept getting calls from people representing [Panamanian dictator Manuel] Noriega, trying to get him to take the case,” he said. “Then two minutes later, the Justice Department would call. He was back and forth on the phone all night.”

Connections

Soon after meeting him, Mr. Van Horn learned that Mr. Bailey’s connections to the Toledo area went back decades.

In the mid 1960s, when he was searching for a new venue for the Sam Sheppard case, Mr. Bailey drove around Ohio, talking to local residents in each city to see if they believed his client could get a fair trial there.

Mr. Van Horn said Mr. Bailey told him Toledo was one place where he felt his client could get an open-minded jury.

Mr. Van Horn also began to notice a Bailey trademark: heavy drinking. He recalls going to dinner with Mr. Bailey and his wife one night at a Palm Beach restaurant.

“I remember him ordering a double scotch on the rocks, and then he stopped the waiter and said to bring two. And before he finished his second drink, he was already ordering two more. By the end of the night, we were all singing Italian songs.”

Indeed, the opening words of Mr. Bailey’s second memoir, For the Defense, are: “Heavy trials make me thirsty.”

In 1989, Mr. Bailey was admitted to the Florida bar. But the next time most Americans heard his name was a few thousand miles west, in Simi Valley, Calif. In 1995, he was part of the legal “Dream Team” that defended O.J. Simpson in his double-murder trial. Mr. Bailey cross-examined Detective Mark Fuhrman on whether he had used a racial slur against African-Americans in the last 10 years.

Mr. Fuhrman’s denials came back to haunt him five months later, when the defense produced tapes of the detective using the “N word” dozens of times in an interview with a writer. The taint of racism left by the exchange was cited by many analysts as a critical point in Mr. Simpson’s eventual acquittal.

It was the last time Mr. Bailey was in the spotlight in a favorable way.

He has always been able to pull himself out of trouble, but with the latest charges, it may not be so easy.

“Lee’s in some serious trouble now, and he’s going to need a lot of help,” said Mr. Gelber, the former Florida judge and mayor.

Mr. Bailey told a Toledo audience in 1970 that he held drug smugglers in a special brand of contempt. He said he declined to represent smugglers unless he believed they were innocent.

By the mid 1990s, Mr. Bailey had evidently changed his mind, in a case that has come back to haunt him.

Smugglers

In 1994, federal drug agents made a major catch: They arrested Claude Duboc, believed to be one of the most important marijuana smugglers in the world, in Hong Kong. He was extradited to the United States and retained Robert Shapiro, another of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team,” to be his attorney.

Since Duboc’s trial was to be held in Florida, Mr. Shapiro contacted his old friend and mentor, Mr. Bailey, to handle that end of the case. According to federal documents, each attorney was to receive a $1 million fee from Duboc.

Their client’s guilt was never in doubt; Mr. Bailey even referred to him as a man “with no legitimate source of income.” But he was fabulously wealthy, with two large estates in France and valuable collections of cars, boats, and artwork.

Among Duboc’s assets was 602,000 shares of Biochem Pharma, a Canadian company whose research into a possible AIDS drug was likely to send the stock’s value soaring.

Mr. Bailey and Duboc’s other lawyers negotiated a deal: In return for a guilty plea from their client and what they called “extraordinary cooperation” – meaning Duboc would forfeit all of his possessions to the federal government – prosecutors would go easy on him and give him a lighter sentence.

Because the Biochem stock was expected to gain in value, Mr. Bailey kept it separate from Duboc’s other assets. Federal officials claim that that arrangement was temporary and that the stock was supposed to be turned over to the government as well.

Mr. Bailey claimed the stock was his to keep as part of his legal fees.

When he refused to turn over the stock in 1996 – by then worth more than $16 million – he was found in contempt of court. With cameras flashing and reporters watching, Mr. Bailey was led away in handcuffs and leg irons to jail.

He spent more than 40 days there before agreeing to give up his yacht and $16 million, having to borrow some of the money he handed over.

But his troubles weren’t over. The Internal Revenue Service slapped a $243,000 lien against him for allegedly underpaying his income taxes in the early 1990s. Last year, in a New York case, he said in an affidavit that “heavy reverse cash flows” have left him unable to pay his mortgage or office rent.

Big spending

Some who know Mr. Bailey would say that his big spending finally caught up with him. “If Lee made $1 million, he would spend $1.5 million,” said Mr. Van Horn.

And his handling of the Duboc stock led the Florida Bar to file a complaint against Mr. Bailey, alleging misappropriation of funds, lying in court, and attempts to influence a judge. On July 17, a special referee, Collier County Circuit Judge Cynthia Ellis, released her findings: He should be permanently disbarred.

“At the end of the day, [Mr. Bailey] has forfeited his privilege to practice law in the state of Florida,” she wrote. “Frankly, it is difficult for this referee to conceive of a more egregious act of circumstances than those which Mr. Bailey has brought upon himself.”

Mr. Bailey continues to defend himself, saying prosecutors are out to get him and are lying about the stock deal.

The final decision now lies with the Florida Supreme Court.

If he is disbarred in Florida, he would likely face a similar fate in Massachusetts, where he founded his practice. That would likely mean the end of his storied legal career.

The strain is clearly showing on Mr. Bailey. His face is haggard and tired, and his hands shake. He is still grieving the loss of his mother and wife.

But he refuses to give up his legal career. “I will continue to represent my existing clients with all appropriate vigor,” he said in a statement last week.

“He’s an old Marine, you know, and Lee’s not just going to lay down,” said Mr. Gelber. “He’d just as soon slug it out.”

Toledo group joins 13th annual parade; Amid the road, Vietnam vets discover peace

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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WASHINGTON — As the motorcycles rolled slowly by in the afternoon sun, a blinding sea of chrome and leather and noise, Jim Ballinger was smiling.

Three decades ago, he was an infantry grunt in Vietnam. He has two Purple Hearts, a few scars, and a host of wrecked relationships to show for it. After returning from the war, his mind pulsed for years with violent thoughts, and he had trouble reconciling his life with the 58,000 deaths his war brought to America.

“I was full of guilt,” the 50-year-old Toledoan said. “I thought I didn’t do enough to save my men. They were dead, and I was alive, but I felt I should have been with them.”

But over the last few years, Mr. Ballinger has gotten help from a variety of sources, including psychiatric therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous. He’s stitched his life together. He’s begun to come to terms with what the war did to him.

And now, watching a parade for him and for all Vietnam veterans, he was smiling.

“They didn’t kill all of us,” he said. “There’s some more of us who made it back.”

Mr. Ballinger was one of about 35 Toledo-area residents who made a trek to Washington this weekend to attend the 13th annual Rolling Thunder parade. It’s a gathering of more than 200,000 motorcyclists from around the country for a ceremonial run through the nation’s center of power.

It’s meant to bring attention to prisoner-of-war issues, but it is also the homecoming parade most Vietnam veterans never received.

“It’s time these soldiers got some respect and some homage,” said Joe Berger, another Toledoan and Vietnam veteran.

The sound made by tens of thousands of motorcycles revving their engines makes words like “deafening” and “roar” seem downright inadequate.

Bikers began to descend on the parade’s starting point – the parking lot of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va. – not long after dawn yesterday. By noon, when the parade began, the parking lot was filled with bikers, talking about everything from Vietnam to what they’d like to see in next year’s Harley models.

At noon, the parade began to move out, slowly. With an estimated 200,000 bikes on hand, it took hours for the last motorcycles to leave the parking lot.

Two or three abreast, the bikers crossed the Potomac River via the Memorial Bridge at Arlington National Cemetery. Slowly they crawled along the Mall, passing the Lincoln and Washington memorials and ending at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Along the way, children in leather riding gear waved flags, men with ponytails called out to friends, and women with tattoos jabbed peace signs into the air. One woman watching the parade made it her goal to tell every passing biker: “Welcome home, boys. Welcome home.”

For veterans from around the country, it’s a validation of what they went through decades ago.

This was the third parade for Charlie Garrett, 50, a journeyman sheet metal worker from Westland, Mich. The ex-Marine said he kept his feelings about the war locked up for decades.

“I kind of stayed in the closet for a while,” he said. It took the election of President Clinton, who avoided Vietnam service in the 1960s, to make him become active.

Daryl Curry – nicknamed “Blue” for his sharply colored eyes – served on nuclear submarines for 10 years in the 1960s and 1970s. For years, he didn’t pay much attention to the Vietnam veterans movement. “But as I got older, I figured I needed to make a statement that these people did something important,” he said.

Mr. Curry, a technician for a Washington-area TV station, has participated in the parade five years now, and each time he has brought along his two children, now 7 and 9.

“I take them down to the Wall and explain as best I can what happened. I’m not sure they can understand, but someday my son might be in a similar position and I want him to know that people still care about the men who went over there,” he said.

The event can dredge up painful memories. But the bikers keep coming back.

“As long as I’m able to ride, I’m coming,” Mr. Garrett said.

Like the American troops in the Vietnam War, the riders come from a range of backgrounds, from lawyers to factory workers, black and white. They have little in common except their time in the armed forces.

Even the most basic divide among bikers – between Harley-Davidson riders and those who prefer foreign-made bikes by Honda or Suzuki – is bridged here.

“You’ve got people here who would never ride together under other circumstances,” Mr. Curry said. “And there’s no attitude at all. Everybody gets along. Everyone meditates on the message, and no one has any time for the nonsense.”

In the crowds that gather around Washington in the days and hours before the parade, it can be difficult to determine who is a veteran and who is not. By some estimates, most of those who participate in the weekend’s events are not veterans.

Some wear patches on their leather riding vests promoting the POW/MIA issue, but so do others who never served. And some people who were in the armed forces either served in other parts of the world or never saw combat.

But for Bob Zabik, a 57-year-old Navy veteran from Port Huron, Mich., it’s easy to tell the Vietnam veterans from the civilians.

“Just look at their faces,” he said. “You can see the emotions running through them.”

Joe Berger spent his 19th birthday on a plane to Vietnam. It was 1969, and his life was about to change radically.

He had enlisted in the Marine Corps because he thought it was his best chance of coming back alive. At first, he wanted to be a radio technician, but shortly after arriving, he was convinced to join an airborne unit as a paratrooper.

His job was to drop into enemy territory, do reconnaissance on the equipment and forces there, then be flown out, usually by helicopter. In all, he jumped 19 times and “everyone was like the first one,” he said.

It was dangerous work. His company lost 11 men. Only eight made it back alive. Miraculously, he was never injured.

When he came back, like many veterans, he had some trouble readjusting to civilian life. “You’re tense, your defenses are up. You don’t trust people. It takes a long time to get that out of your system. Actually, it never goes out of your system,” he said.

After coming back, he became a drill instructor as an outlet for his pent-up anger. But the anger is still there, and the anxiety. “I still can’t sit with my back to the door in a restaurant. I can’t stand to have somebody behind me.

“You think about Vietnam every day. It might be for five seconds, it might be for a couple of hours. You don’t have any control over it.”

Mr. Berger, now 50, acted out in a variety of ways, including spending some time in outlaw motorcycle gangs. But a few years ago, he decided that he wanted to confront his time in Vietnam. This is his third Rolling Thunder run.

It wasn’t until that first run two years ago that Mr. Berger saw the Wall. On Friday night, he attended a candlelight vigil there with hundreds of other veterans. He said it made him more emotional than ever. “I lost it,” he said. “It was like a funeral service.”

“When you look at that Wall, they’re looking right back at you, ” he said. “It’s almost like a mirror. When you touch it, it’s almost a transformation. You can feel something.”

It’s the same feeling that makes grown men who have never met hug each other at the Wall. “There’s something about being here that helps you open up,” Mr. Berger said.

But even at the vigil, his anger showed itself. A child – part of a school group visiting the Wall – said offhandedly, “Isn’t this cool?”

Mr. Berger said he yelled at the youth and asked him why he thought it was “cool.”

“‘These guys are dead, and you think it’s cool?’ You ask these kids what Memorial Day is, and you know what they tell you? It’s just a day off of school. That’s all.”

As much as he has gained from Rolling Thunder over the past few years, Mr. Berger is unsure if he will keep coming back every year. He is unhappy that there are more nonveterans than veterans participating, and he doesn’t like the atmosphere that surrounds the gathering.

As Vietnam veterans have grown older and more have become interested in revisiting their experiences, a cottage industry has sprung up to take advantage. Selling everything from T-shirts to stickers, and hats to earrings, vendors appear by the hundreds at events like this to hawk their wares.

That makes Mr. Berger angry. “It has become so commercialized it’s like Niagara Falls,” he said. Last year, he found a bracelet commemorating a helicopter pilot who had dropped him off on one of his missions and was killed shortly thereafter. “You think that guy’s family got the $20 they were charging? You think they saw anything out of it?”

For Toledo resident Garry Snyder, what he didn’t see in Vietnam is just as troubling as what he did.

Mr. Snyder spent a year on an air force base outside Saigon in a civil engineers unit. His job was to maintain equipment on the base, or, as he put it, “to bring light bulbs wherever somebody needed one.”

People in his position weren’t allowed to leave the base, and as a result, he saw relatively little of the enemy, other than the wounded North Vietnamese prisoners who were brought onto the base periodically.

“I had an excellent job. It was nothing compared to what the guys in the bush went through,” said Mr. Snyder, a machine attendant at a factory in Waterville. “I guess I was there, but I wasn’t there.”

But he saw the impact the war had on some of his friends. One, he said, “to this day isn’t right. He can’t keep a full-time job anywhere. We knew each other 15, 20 years before he even mentioned Vietnam to me.”

For years, Mr. Snyder had said he wanted to visit the Wall, but he had never made time to do so. Once, driving near Washington with his wife Evelyn, he had planned to stop to see it, but he drove right past the exit on the interstate.

“She said, ‘I thought you were gonna turn there to see the Wall.’ And I just said I had changed my mind. I didn’t want to think about it,” Mr. Snyder said.

Finally, after he became a Harley enthusiast two years ago – the Sylvania Harley Owners Group organized this trip – he decided that this would be the time to see the Wall. He and his wife made a very brief visit on Saturday. “We just ran through,” his wife said. “We didn’t look for names. We kept moving quickly.”

It was a moving experience, Mr. Snyder said. “You look at it and you start thinking of things, of guys that I know. It’s amazing what granite can do.”

But perhaps most moving was what they saw nearby. They spotted a middle-aged man, dressed in faded combat fatigues, standing a short distance away from the Wall. Clearly he wanted to get closer. But just as clearly, he could not summon the will power.

“He’d walk up, get close, and then change his mind,” Mrs. Snyder said. “Every once in a while, you’d see him get more confident, and he’d have a stronger walk. He’d get closer, but at the last minute, he’d veer right and walk away. You could almost hear him say, ‘Maybe next time.’

“I wanted to go up to him and say something to him,” Mr. Snyder said afterward. “I should have. I should have gone up to him and said ‘Welcome home,’ ask him where he served, and if he wanted to talk.”

Before the war, Mr. Ballinger was headed down a bad path in life. He was living on Toledo’s streets, camping out in people’s backyards until they’d invite him to stay inside for a few weeks. He was getting involved in burglaries and car thefts. “The cops knew who I was, and they were looking for me,” he said.

So, to lower the pressure from police, he signed up for a four-year stint with the Marines in 1968. He soon got a letter from a police officer saying that police would drop their investigations of him if he agreed not to return to Toledo until he was 21. Mr. Ballinger was fine with that.

He went to Vietnam and became a fire team leader. Twice, he was wounded. The first was in a mortar attack in which he moved several other soldiers to safety before being hit, leaving 42 pieces of shrapnel in his body. Within 30 days, he was back in the field, still bandaged. The second came from an attack on a fortification in which shrapnel hit his leg.

When Mr. Ballinger returned to Toledo as a 21-year-old, he brought Vietnam’s violence with him. Not long after returning, he threatened to kill his father unless he would get his son a job working at the Jeep plant. He also became an alcoholic. “I still had that anger,” he said. “My kids were scared of me. They didn’t know when I might snap.”

Whenever he thought about his days in Vietnam, his strongest feeling was guilt, he said. “I was a perfectionist,” he said. “So because I didn’t save everybody, I felt guilty for that.”

After years of tormenting himself and those around him, Mr. Ballinger began to think about how to end the cycle. He’s sought psychiatric help for his memories and his alcoholism.

But perhaps more importantly, he’s rethought how he evaluates his life.

“I can own up to the fact that I’m not perfect. You’ve got to accept that, and then you can forgive yourself. But not until then.”

Mr. Ballinger now believes he did all he could in Vietnam to save the men he lost. And he acknowledges that his actions saved several lives along the way.

It’s not a perfect situation, and Mr. Ballinger said he still feels guilty sometimes about the war. But he’s working on it.

“I survived,” he said. “I’m going to try to do whatever I’m meant to do.”

At events like this weekend’s, Mr. Ballinger tries to discuss his memories and experiences with other veterans to try to reconcile his past with his future. In some ways, it’s the central idea behind Rolling Thunder.

“The ones who are healing talk,” he said. “It helps me, and it helps them.”

Buchanan’s visit fails to stir Williams County

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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HOLIDAY CITY, O. — Pat Buchanan says he is running a grass-roots campaign for president. It’s difficult to get closer to the roots than he did last night.

Here in the Williams County village of Holiday City – population 50 – a small but vocal crowd attended a rally for their candidate. They heard their candidate say that the United States is under threat of domination by “the coming of world government” and that he is the only candidate who will fight for their national sovereignty.

“I will fight to the end, and we will win this time!” Mr. Buchanan said to a standing ovation.

Normally, when a presidential candidate comes to a small town, people take notice. It’s an exciting event for the entire community.

But here, just outside the larger Montpelier, population 4,700, the arrival of Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan was greeted mostly with a yawn.

The rally was held at one end of the Holiday Inn here. At the other was a meeting of the Ohio Identification Officers Association, which had more people in attendance.

After two unsuccessful runs for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Mr. Buchanan announced in October that he was abandoning the GOP for the Reform Party. So far, he is the only major announced candidate for the Reform nod, which means he will likely be on the November ballot alongside Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

“Those other two agree on issue after issue 100 per cent,” he said. “If I don’t run, the American people aren’t going to be able to hear what we have to say.”

Before the rally, Mr. Buchanan held a fund-raiser at the home of Kevin Whitlock, a 28-year-old engineer from the even smaller town of West Unity, O. About 60 people, many of whom drove several hours to attend, were at the $100-a-person function.

In some ways, Williams County seems like prime ground for a Buchanan candidacy. Historically, it has been more supportive of Reform Party candidates than most areas. In the 1992 election, it was one of only three Ohio counties to give party founder Ross Perot more votes than Bill Clinton.

And Mr. Buchanan’s past with the GOP – including working in the Reagan and Nixon administrations – should help him in this Republican stronghold. “I was in a poker game that was too rich for my blood,” he said of his decision to leave the GOP when faced with well-funded opposition.

Several Buchanan supporters at the rally said they formerly were strong Republicans. “I was disgusted at the way the party treated Pat,” said Frank Barnard, 73, a retired salesman from Hudson, Mich. “He’s extremely sincere, totally direct, and I agree with 90 per cent of what he says.”

Mr. Barnard has left the GOP for the Libertarian Party, but he said he would join the Reform Party if it would help Mr. Buchanan.

Dorothy Lucey and her husband, Richard, made the trip from Grand Rapids, Mich., to see their candidate. “He stands for everything I believe in,” she said.

Mr. Buchanan would help reduce the number of immigrants into this country: “They expect all these handouts, when the older immigrants never did,” she said.

At the fund-raiser, some of the most vocal attendants asked the candidate about a variety of conspiracy theories they held. Many were about groups some claim control the world, such as the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderburgers, Skull and Bones.

On several occasions, Mr. Buchanan said the groups are not worth being concerned about, and he occasionally tried to distance himself from the questioning.

He did not respond directly when a woman claimed the Federal Reserve system is controlled by unknown foreign groups. After one question about alleged corruption at the highest levels of the Roman Catholic Church, Mr. Buchanan was quick to say, “He said that. Don’t quote me as saying that!”

While those at the rally were vocal in their support, for whatever reason, Mr. Buchanan’s appearance here generated little excitement. Just a few hours before his arrival, most people in Montpelier and West Unity seemed to have no idea he was coming – or even that he was running.

“I don’t know anything about it,”said Jodi Repp, owner of The Garden Divine in West Unity. Her comments echoed more than two dozen others interviewed in the two villages.

“I’ve know about it for a few days, but no one else has even mentioned it,” said Lewis Hilkert, branch manger of the Farmers & Merchants State Bank in West Unity.

More than 30 interviews in the two villages found no one who said he or she would support Mr. Buchanan in November.

They gave a variety of reasons, ranging from Mr. Buchanan’s social conservatism to his opposition to free-trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But perhaps most troubling for Mr. Buchanan are the people who say they do like him but still won’t vote for him.

Teresa Vanover, a floral designer at The Personal Touch flower shop in downtown Montpelier, said she supported Mr. Buchanan in his previous runs for the presidency. But this time, she’s staying away.

“I like that he’s for the American worker and against NAFTA, but he doesn’t have a chance against Bush and Gore,” she said. “So there’s no chance I’d vote for him.”

“He’s too late,” said Ralph Sedam, 59, a sales manager for Golden Auto Parts in Montpelier, who had a favorable impression from his last two campaigns. “He’s a straight-shooter, and he doesn’t want to just give people everything. He wants people to work for it. But he’s wasting his time.”

Mr. Buchanan insists he will keep campaigning, even as national polls show him struggling at about 5 per cent, far below Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore.

At the rally, he continued to deliver his campaign message of keeping out of foreign wars, curbing free trade, and bringing a conservative approach to issues such as abortion.

One of his biggest focuses was America’s trade relations with China, which he said are helping to build up a potential military threat to the United States. If elected, Mr. Buchanan said he would meet with representatives of the Chinese government and demand that without human-rights improvements and other concessions,

He said that if he can get into the national debates, the opportunity to “de-demonize” himself will move him up quickly in the polls. “They’ll be scalping tickets for that debate! They’ll be saying, ‘What’s he going to say next?'”

Mr. Whitlock said he invited Mr. Buchanan to Williams County after helping his campaigns for several years.

Mr. Buchanan is not the first presidential candidate to make a visit to Montpelier. In September, 1996, former Sen. Bob Dole – after beating Mr. Buchanan in the Republican primaries – visited the village. His great-grandfather is buried in a cemetery nearby.

Those left behind in Saigon haunt those who made it out; Marines recall the emptiness of April 30, 1975

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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The early morning sun was burning over Saigon.

The streets were rumbling under the weight of North Vietnamese tanks, triumphantly rolling into the old city unchallenged.

In little more than an hour, one of them would smash through the gates of the presidential palace, and the war for Vietnam finally would be over.

And up in the sky, in a Chinook-46 helicopter, was Sgt. Dave Leet, a 20-year-old kid from Washington state. For hours – they seemed like days – he’d been trying to control thousands of frantic Vietnamese at the American embassy, where he was a guard. He’d watched them scream and cry when they realized they weren’t going with him on a helicopter headed for the safety of an American aircraft carrier offshore.

“After I got on the helicopter and we were flying out over the city and then out to sea, I thought about all the guys who died out there,” he remembers today. “And here we were, running away. And you think about the guys and think, what was it all for?

“I thought about those Vietnamese who relied on us, who we said we’d help. And we just folded up our tents and said good-bye. We didn’t even say good-bye; we just left. It was a real worthless feeling.”

Twenty-five years ago today, Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, and Vietnam was reunited under communist rule.

The result was hardly a surprise. It was widely assumed that after America pulled out of the war, as it did in 1973, South Vietnam was playing a losing game. But no matter how expected it may have been, the fall of Saigon hit America like a brick, rubbing in the fact that its army, threatened by the fearsome Soviet Union, couldn’t beat a tiny country on the corner of the map.

But its most lasting impact was on the people involved, from the Marines who rode off in helicopters to the Vietnamese who just wished they had.

“Those were terrible, terrifying times,” said Kim Nguyen Leons, a Vietnamese woman who lives in Toledo.

After more than a decade of involvement in southeast Asia, the Paris peace accords signed on January 17, 1973, formally ended the American war in Vietnam. All U.S. forces were to be withdrawn. The only armed Americans left in the country were the Marines who were guards at the Saigon embassy and at four consulates around the country.

As dishonorable a defeat as it seemed, many Americans were happy to see any sort of an ending. All sides had paid a terrible price. America had lost more than 58,000 men, but Vietnam had lost more than 5,000,000 of its citizens.

The war for Vietnam was not over when America withdrew. Soon after the peace accord, North Vietnam officials announced there would be a “return to revolutionary violence” in an attempt to reunify the country. At first, though, neither side made much headway, and the conflict began to look like a deadlock.

At the time, Saigon didn’t seem like such a bad place to be. Sgt. Ted Murray, then a 21-year-old fresh out of training to be an embassy guard, was happy to be booked for Vietnam. “At first, I loved it,” he said. “I’d volunteered for Saigon. I wanted to go. I wasn’t old enough to be part of the war, but I wanted to get a feel for what really happened. I wanted to say I’d been there.”

Shortly after he arrived in Saigon, North Vietnam began a huge offensive that would make quick work of the south. By the beginning of April, 1975, important cities such as Hue and Da Nang were falling with little or no resistance as South Vietnamese troops retreated.

The Americans left in Vietnam knew it was time to think about how they would leave. Mr. Leet, who had been in Saigon for about a year as an embassy guard, helped “burning and shredding all the classified material” like lists of which South Vietnamese had helped the Americans.

As the North Vietnamese Army marched from victory to victory in April, Americans began an airlift for the Vietnamese who had helped the U.S. cause. If left behind, they’d likely be taken prisoner or executed. They were being flown out on transport planes at Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut airfield.

Mr. Murray and about a dozen fellow Marines were in charge of keeping the crowds of Vietnamese at the airstrip under control. The job became more risky when advancing North Vietnamese troops began shelling the site.

It was there, in the early morning of April 29, that Mr. Murray saw a tragedy that would haunt him for decades.

“I was trying to get some sleep,” he said. “I remember the first rocket hitting in the distance woke me up. I just picked up my M16 and started running out of bed. The second rocket was closer. The third was right outside the building. Then there was nothing.”

By the time he reached downstairs, he saw that the third rocket had hit one of the guard posts. Inside it had been two of his friends, Cpl. Charles McMahon and Lance Cpl. Darwin Judge.

Corporal McMahon and Lance Corporal Judge were the last two Americans killed in Vietnam.

The rocket barrage had another effect: It damaged the runway at Tan Son Nhut enough that the airstrip became unusable. Quickly, the Americans switched into Plan B: transporting Vietnamese and Americans out by helicopter.

Over the previous few weeks, Vietnamese hoping to leave the country had lined up around the block at the American embassy to get an exit visa.

But when the airstrip was rocketed – and as the rumble of North Vietnamese tanks arrived in Saigon – the panic began. Locals began clamoring for entry at the embassy complex around noon on the 29th.

“We were only letting people in at one gate, and people were getting pretty testy out there,” Mr. Leet said. “There was a guy who tried to force his way in with an M1 carbine. One of us grabbed the gun, and another hit him across the jaw with the butt of his rifle.”

That gate was closed in the early afternoon, but people were still sneaking in over walls. Several thousand Vietnamese were inside the complex waiting to be evacuated.

About 6 p.m., swarms of helicopters began to arrive at the embassy to take the Vietnamese to safety on American aircraft carriers waiting offshore. For a while, the helicopters arrived at a rate of one every four minutes. The smaller ones landed on the embassy roof, while larger units set down in the embassy parking lot. Both were tight squeezes.

“It’s a helicopter pilot’s nightmare: going straight down 70 feet from a hover, load up all these people, then go back straight up,” Mr. Leet said.

The helicopters were going to the airstrip site, taking away the Vietnamese and the Marines there.

Mr. Murray got out on the last Chinook helicopter to leave the airstrip, departing after 11 p.m. on the 29th. As soon as he got up in the air, he could see North Vietnamese tanks rapidly advancing. “They weren’t far away. Another 15 minutes, half an hour, and we wouldn’t have been getting out of there cleanly.”

Back at the embassy, a helicopter landed on the roof after midnight with an order that the remaining Vietnamese were to be left behind. It was time for the Americans to go. Mr. Leet said “close to 1,000″ Vietnamese were left in the compound.

Every remaining embassy worker headed up to the rooftop, locking every door behind them. Despite all the barriers they put up – including three sets of locked steel doors – within 30 minutes, Vietnamese were crammed up against the final door that opened onto the roof. “They had broken through them all,” Mr. Leet said.

That last door successfully was blocked with piles of the Marines’ personal gear, he said. But the door had a narrow reinforced glass window to show the men the despair on the other side of the door.

“We could see their faces, hear them saying, ‘Please help us,'” Mr. Leet said. “We were kind of powerless at that point. You just had to turn away. It didn’t make you feel good, but there was nothing you could do. It would have been chaos to let those people out.”

The helicopters started coming in again, taking away embassy officials first, and then Marines. Mr. Leet was on the second-to-last flight out, shortly after the sun rose over the invading tanks.

While the war had a huge impact on the United States, it is easy to forget that its effect on Vietnam was much larger. The same can be said of the effect of the fall of Saigon on the Vietnamese who came to this country.

According to 1997 census data, 770,000 U.S. residents were born in Vietnam. The majority arrived beginning in April, 1975. Kim Nguyen Leons estimates 350 Vietnamese are here locally.

Ms. Leons left Saigon on April 29, 1975, at 11:30 a.m., when she reached a Navy ship off the Saigon coast. After stops in the Philippines and Pennsylvania, she found her way to Toledo, where she had family. For the last 10 years, she has worked for Lucas County as a child-support enforcement investigator.

“The first two years were very difficult,” she said. “Homesick all the time, and the weather in Ohio doesn’t help much. There was the language problem and the cultural barrier. But you know you can’t go back. So you have to make your life here.”

Diep Le also left Saigon on April 29, finding a spot on a boat and fleeing to an aircraft carrier off the coast. As a member of the South Vietnamese army, he feared for his safety if he stayed.He arrived in Toledo in 1975 and has worked at The Andersons since.

“If I would have stayed, they would have put me in prison,” he said. “This country has more opportunities.”

Many Vietnamese who came to this country in 1975 largely settled in California, Texas, and Florida. Most Vietnamese in Toledo arrived later in the “boat people” waves of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“The first 10 years we were here, we were very close to one another,” Ms. Leons said. “But now we don’t have as much of a unified community because people do things outside of us.”

Some still keep their ties to Vietnam close to their hearts. “Vietnam is still my homeland,” said Mary Tran, 58, who left Vietnam just after the fall of Saigon and works in human resources for Lucas County. She left behind her parents and siblings. “I have had a good life in America, and my two sons have been successful here.

“But I’ve told them that when I retire, I want to move back there. I want to die there. If I die before I make it there, I want to be cremated so they can send my ashes to my homeland.”

When the Saigon Marines were in the spotlight, many people back home were doing their best to forget southeast Asia.

But the Marines are still fighting to be recognized for what they did.

Because the American war officially ended when the Paris peace accords took effect on March 28, 1973, the Saigon Marines never received the Vietnam Service Medal that was given to all soldiers who served in that country. Instead, they received the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal.

While a uniform patch may seem like a minor point, it is a battle worth fighting for many of these Marines. “When the accords were signed, everybody came home, and everybody forgot about everything. But the war didn’t end until we left,” Mr. Murray said.

Marines such as Mr. Murray have been sending letters to members of Congress, defense officials, and others in an unsuccessful attempt to get the medal they think they deserve.

Former President Gerald R. Ford wrote a letter to Defense Secretary William Cohen last year asking him to consider their request strongly.

“I think those Marine guards warranted maximum recognition for their Vietnam service,” President Ford said Friday.

But Secretary Cohen responded to the letter last summer with a denial. “I believe our policies in this area, now 30 years in standing, are equitable and appropriate,” he wrote.

The Marines have pledged to keep trying. But a missing medal is not the only way the fall of Saigon has stayed in the lives of Marines. For some, it’s a cynicism toward authority, brought on by promises not kept by politicians.

“I have a lot of contempt for the politicians who got us into this,” said Mr. Leet, now a pilot for UPS. “Every time something comes up like Kuwait or Bosnia, I really am a skeptic about what the military’s role is. Are they just going to get used for target practice?”

For others, the damage went deeper. In the early 1990s, the memories of Vietnam were starting to get to Mr. Murray.

“I had survivor’s guilt that we had lived and that Judge and McMahon had died,” he said. He had never told his family about the rocket attack.

“I also had the feeling that we had let every man and woman who had served in Vietnam down because we turned tail and ran. It took me two, three years with a [veterans’] counselor to realize that there was nothing we could have done differently.”

While Mr. Murray thought he had let down others who had served in Vietnam, others seem to have wished they could have been in his shoes. He said his counselor required proof that he had been a Marine at the embassy because several of his other patients had claimed falsely to have been on that last helicopter out of Saigon.

“They thought of us last few as heroes,” he said. “And I thought we had lost the war for everybody.”

Mr. Murray, 46, a manager for a computer-support company in Arizona, is able to put his experience into perspective. “I can accept it now. I can understand that my old fears and my thoughts weren’t justified. Now, I can live with what happened.”

Fight for Elian fueled by rage against Castro; Miami Cuban-Americans have clout, long memories

By Michael D. Sallah and Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writers

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MIAMI — Just before dawn, the ritual begins.

A crowd gathers around a modest bungalow, locks arms, and chants the name of the small boy inside.

The cameras capture the image, and the rest of the world watches as another day begins in the international saga of Elian.

In most places, the debate over the fate of a 6-year-old boy would be left to the courts, but here, it has escalated into a daily media drama.

Few American cities have hosted such crises, but few places are like Miami.

This city on Biscayne Bay has changed more than just about anywhere else in America in the last 40 years. It’s gone from a sunny playground for white northerners – “the sun and fun capital of the world,” as Jackie Gleason used to say – to a symbol of vice, corruption, and excess.

“Paradise lost,” Time magazine declared in the 1980s.

Many changes have occurred, but the most obvious one has been the enormous influx of Cubans since Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. Passionate about their homeland and strong enough to dictate foreign policy, they are perhaps the most powerful minority enclave in the nation.

Not since the infamous Mariel boat lift 20 years ago has this group so dominated the nation’s attention.

South Florida is home to about 800,000 Cuban-Americans. The ways they’ve transformed the landscape have been put on display by the Elian controversy, which has been left to simmer by a federal court injunction late last week.

Their passionate hatred of the bearded dictator has long dictated American foreign policy toward the island 90 miles off Key West. “The Cold War has ended for the rest of the world, but unfortunately, not for the Cuban people,” said Dr. Uva de Aragon, assistant director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.

Now a majority in Miami, most Cuban-Americans are proud, patriotic citizens of their new country. But when it comes to Castro, the rule of law sometimes has become secondary.

Last month, Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas stunned Americans when he said that local police would not “assist the federal government in any way, shape, or form to inappropriately repatriate Elian Gonzalez to Cuba.” Mr. Penelas’s comments caused controversy around the country but endeared him to his constituents. A Miami Herald poll last week said that 74 per cent of Miami Cubans agreed with the mayor’s statement.

The same poll showed that one out of three Miami Cubans believed that protesters would be justified in physically stopping federal agents from taking legal custody of Elian.

Statements and poll results such as these don’t help the city of 368,000 fight the perceptions of others, who have called Miami everything from a banana republic to a city in virtual secession.

“You keep hearing in the media about ‘the Cuban-Americans in Miami’ and you see all these people standing in front of a house to keep a father from his son,” said Elena Freyre, executive director of the Cuban Committee for Democracy. “The rest of the country looks at these people and says, ‘Who are these crazy people?'”

Says Dr. Aragon: “Miami had a lot of difficulties with its image. But it’s so easy to judge rather than to try to understand.”

*

Miami began as a small resort town carved out of the cypress and pine forests of South Florida. Its founders were Ohioans looking to escape snowbound winters: Julia Tuttle and William Brickell from Cleveland and Henry Flagler, a one-time Toledoan who built the railroad connecting the nascent town to the rest of the country.

The ocean breezes and tropical climate were magnets for northerners, first as a winter respite and later as a permanent home. Its population grew from 1,500 in 1900 to 249,000 fifty years later.

A growing array of starlets and entertainers flocked to places such as Hialeah racetrack and the Fountainbleu Hotel. Songs like “Moon Over Miami” hit the airwaves. Hotels sprouted on the beachfront like palm trees.

Instead of leaving every Easter to trudge back north, people began staying. Miami began to buzz year round.

Across the Florida Straits, another city was attracting northerners looking for a good time. Havana, with its grand hotels and casinos, beckoned thousands every year for everything from honeymoons to gambling binges.

That changed in 1959. Castro, then a 33-year-old political idealist, led a revolution against the corrupt Fulgencio Batista, the dictator who had been backed by the U.S. government.

In short order, he seized millions of dollars in American property, from sugar mills to resorts, and committed his new government to the Communist cause.

For wealthy Cubans who had profited under the Batista regime, it was clearly time to leave. Thousands of them fled to the nearest free land, Florida, and began plotting their return.

They thought it would be just a few years. It’s been four decades. Castro has ruled longer than any other world leader.

Since that first wave, more Cubans have found their way to South Florida. Another wave arrived in the late 1960s, and the Mariel boat lift in 1980 – which sent much of Cuba’s prison population across the Straits – brought 125,000 to the Florida shores.

As their numbers grew, the Cuban exiles in Miami became a force in everything from state politics to culture. They built communities, started businesses, and began families. They are easily the wealthiest and most educated of all Latino groups in America. But they’ve never lost sight of the island 90 miles to the south.

“You don’t forget when you have relatives who are suffering over there and you’re told about them every day,” said Mary Reyes, 28, a Miami attorney whose parents were born in Cuba.

Throughout the 20th century, tens of millions of immigrants have arrived in America. For most, one of their biggest goals was to assimilate into American society, eventually discarding their native languages and cultures.

But the Cubans were different, said Dr. Aragon, who left in 1959.

“They always thought they’d go back,” she said. “They didn’t want to forget their language, and they made sure their children learned it. They were not like most immigrants.”

*

In part because of that attitude toward assimilation, tensions have been high between Miami’s various racial and ethnic groups for decades. Two race riots occurred in the 1980s and a long series of protests ever since.

“Racial animosity never occurs in a vacuum – there is always a history behind it,” wrote Robert Steinback, an African-American columnist for the Miami Herald. “Non-Cubans resent the powerful economic, social, and political machine that Cubans built here – one that virtually excludes them. Cubans, justifiably proud of their achievement, feel little obligation to invite others to the party.”

And as Cubans have grown in power in Miami, many of the city’s whites have moved to more suburban places such as Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Cubans are now the majority in Miami, and much of the tension has been transferred to infighting within the exile community.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the most powerful figure in the conflict was undoubtedly Jorge Mas Canosa. The son of a Cuban army veterinarian, he fled his homeland in 1960, a year after Castro’s revolution. In Florida, he founded a telecommunications company and became one of the wealthiest Latinos in the nation, with a net worth over $250 million.

His hatred of Castro was legendary, and in 1981, he and a group of other wealthy exiles started the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), which was dedicated to Castro’s overthrow.

The Bay of Pigs veteran, who died in 1997, was known for his fiery speeches and condemnations of pro-Castro Cubans or those whose opposition to the dictator was not strong enough.

Americas Watch, a human rights watchdog group, issued a report in 1994 that said Miami suffered from a “general atmosphere of fear and danger” because of the actions of Mr. Mas Canosa and others who attacked those not strong enough in condemning Castro. The report criticized the U.S. government for helping organizations like the CANF and other “groups that have been closely identified with efforts to restrict freedom of expression.”

Take the case of former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Jr. In the early 1990s, he wrote a series of editorials opposing an effort by CANF to strengthen the embargo. Mr. Mas Canosa fought back. In 1992, he began a campaign against the Herald, distributing thousands of bumper stickers and putting up billboards with the slogan, “I don’t believe the Herald.”

Mr. Lawrence received death threats and was forced to travel with bodyguards. Newspaper vending machines were smeared with feces. In recognition, the Scripps Howard Foundation gave Mr. Lawrence its Service to the First Amendment award.

Through the administrations of President Reagan, President Bush, and now President Clinton, Mr. Mas Canosa was the principal architect of America’s foreign policy toward Cuba. The embargo of the island nation begun by President Eisenhower in 1960 has been strengthened further, and American foreign policy has shown few signs of concessions to its southern neighbor, even as it extends trade with other Communist nations that violate human rights, like China.

*

Miami has had an image problem ever since the early 1980s. It became a center of international drug trafficking, crime was rampant, and the TV series Miami Vice taught viewers that South Florida was a haven for undesirables.

It didn’t get better in the 1990s, which included a major hurricane in 1992, a rash of tourist murders, and a wave of corruption that has led to the arrests of 35 public officials since 1996, including two county commissioners and three city councilmen.

Mayor Xavier Suarez, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was only in office four months in 1998 before he was removed by a Florida appeals court judge because of voter fraud in his election. He had been “elected” on a platform of bringing the city back from the brink of bankruptcy. Its bonds were rated below junk bonds by Wall Street analysts, and the state of Florida was forced to step in to bring stability to city government.

But among all these troubles, moderate activists have hope that the hard-line anti-Castro position represented by the CANF may be slowly fading.

One of the biggest gaps is generational. For Cubans who arrived in Miami in the 1960s, opposition to Castro is still passionate.

“Don’t underestimate how the older generation feels,” Desiree Calas-Johnson, 26, a native Miamian, said. “You have to understand that they lost everything in Cuba: their homes, their businesses, and their land.”

But those who arrived in the 1980s or 1990s – or who arrived at a young age and have grown up in America – are generally more willing to forge a productive connection between the two countries.

A 1997 poll conducted by Florida International University showed that 52 per cent of Miami Cubans want the government to have a dialogue with the island. But among those who arrived in the 1990s, 75 per cent do.

Cuban Americans born in the United States are more than three times as likely to oppose the embargo as those who came to this country in the early 1960s, the poll said.

Cuban culture has flowered in America in the 1990s. Cuban music especially is increasingly popular; the movie Buena Vista Social Club and its soundtrack album have been enormous hits and drawn attention to the traditional son music of Cuba.

That exposure has helped people see Cuba as a more complex issue, Ms. Freyre said. “Before, people just thought of the crazy man with the beard and some more crazy people in Miami. Now people know more about the culture and the complexity.”

In contrast, Cuban musicians often were prevented from playing in Miami by local officials who said such performances would help Castro gain legitimacy.

Other events have pushed Miami’s Cubans toward moderation, including the 1998 visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II and the death of Mr. Mas Canosa.

Ms. Freyre leads the Cuban Committee for Democracy, which was formed in 1992 as a moderate alternative to the CANF. She said she has gotten a few threats of violence from hard liners, but “it’s mostly name calling.”

“Miami is the only place that I know of where intransigence is something to be proud of and moderation is something to be ashamed of,” she said.

She estimates that, a few years ago, about 30 per cent of Miami Cubans supported her group’s stance. She thinks that number, while still a minority, is on the rise.

“The people who arrived in the 1960s, they had everything taken away from them,” she said. “They were at the pinnacle of their careers and they had it all taken away. But younger people just want to see it resolved somehow, and they’re not as strident.”

While the furor over Elian Gonzalez has focused all of the pro and anti-Cuba forces into one small 6-year-old boy, the debate will survive long after his case is resolved, which could happen as soon as this week.

Neal Sonnett, a native Miamian and a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that the Elian episode will be another time for the rest of America to judge his hometown. How the city reacts to whatever happens will go a long way toward determining how the rest of the world views this tense mix of peoples.

“Miami’s an incredible city,” he said. “It’s vibrant, alive, and it’s had a colorful history. I know it’s gone through a lot of different stages, but it will survive this.”

Ohio could be next to rid ‘squaw’ from map

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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The next time you head out to South Bass Island and your boat approaches Put-in-Bay Harbor, look a little to the right. If you look closely, you might be able to see the beginnings of a controversy.

That little body of water on the right is named Squaw Harbor, and sometime soon, it might be Exhibit A in a battle over Indian traditions and the way American culture interprets them.

“We haven’t done any organized protests yet,” said Bob Allen, a coordinator at the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio. “But I’m sure that’ll be next.”

Across the country, Native American groups have begun organizing around the issue. They say the word “squaw” is offensive and should be eliminated from the landscape.

Last week, Maine Gov. Angus King became the latest to sign a law that will change the name of all “squaw” place names in the state. Minnesota and Montana have enacted similar legislation, and the issue has come up in at least five other states.

According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, Ohio has 10 place names that include the word “squaw.” Two are in northwest Ohio: Squaw Harbor at Put-in-Bay and small Squaw Island in Sandusky County. Michigan has 29 “squaw” place names, but none near Toledo.

Ohio is no stranger to conflicts over American Indian imagery. The Cleveland Indians and their mascot, the forever smiling Chief Wahoo, has been a constant target of criticism. And in 1997, Miami University changed its team nickname from the Redskins to the RedHawks after the Miami tribe council said it found the old name offensive.

The origin of the word is disputed. Some older dictionaries claim it is derived from a word in the Massachusett language that simply means “woman.” But recent research suggests that its true origin is the Iroquois word “otsikwaw,” which was a native word for the female genitals. Among Native Americans, it is considered derogatory, comparable with calling someone a prostitute or a harlot.

“It’s very offensive,” said Joyce Mahaney, president of the Toledo-based American Indian Intertribal Association. “People say it in conversation, because they’ve read it in history or maybe they’ve seen the word in doing genealogical research. We try to educate them that it’s offensive.”

Even many of the dictionaries that favor the “woman” derivation still note that the word is considered derogatory.

The names that dot America’s landscape have been the subject of debate before. There are place names that offend just about every ethnic and racial group, from Italians and Jews to Chinese and Hispanics.

Twice, the federal government has gotten involved to eliminate whole groups of names considered offensive. In 1963, the U.S. Board of Geographic Names created a rule that changed all instances of the “N word” across the landscape to “Negro.” More than 1,000 names had to be changed.

One of those was in Ohio: Negro Run in Monroe County. Four years ago, local officials asked the federal board to change the name again, this time to Salem Run, because changing times had made some consider Negro Run offensive as well.

There are seven former “N word” places in Michigan, including what is now known as Strong Island, located in the River Raisin near downtown Monroe, just west of I-75.

The other blanket change the federal board has made occurred in 1974, when it voted to change all instances of “Jap” to “Japanese.”

Roger Payne, the board’s executive secretary, said that Native American groups have twice asked the board to eliminate “squaw” from the 928 place names it recognizes with the word. But he said there was no agreement on what to replace the word with, so the board decided to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

Changing a name is a fairly straightforward process. Anyone can send a letter of complaint to the federal names board asking for a change. The board then asks for an opinion from the local government agencies involved, such as a city council or county commissioners.

“If it doesn’t have the approval of a local body, it has less of a chance of being successful,” Mr. Payne said. “Our biggest concern is that we have names that people actually use.”

A similar request goes to the state body in charge of naming, which is the Department of Natural Resources in both Ohio and Michigan. Finally, the federal board votes on whether to make a change.

But despite the debates over “squaw” and other words, a request to change an offensive name is fairly rare, Mr. Payne said. Only five have been made in the last five years, not counting the mass changes in Minnesota, Montana, and now Maine.

The issue doesn’t seem to have come up much in Ohio. “It’s never been an issue here,” said Michael O’Brien, a commissioner in Trumbull County near Youngstown. Trumbull has the most “squaw” names of any Ohio county, including a Squaw Creek, a Squaw Valley Park Lake, and, as Mr. O’Brien puts it, “just about everything else: Squaw Trail, Run, Lane, Street.”

But Mr. O’Brien said that he would have “no opposition” if someone wanted to change the names in his county.

Ottawa County Commissioner John Papcun said that he has watched the debate over Indian mascots with interest. “I’m a big [Cleveland] Indians fan,” he said, “and I played ball for Port Clinton, and our nickname’s the Redskins.”

But he said that he would not have a problem with changing the name of Squaw Harbor on South Bass Island. “I think it would be very appropriate to be changed, because I think that is offensive to a gender,” he said. “I think it should be changed.”

But Dale Burris, a trustee in Put-in-Bay Township, isn’t so sure. “I can’t see that,” he said. “I’m from the old school. No one’s ever brought it up.”

He said he didn’t know that some Native Americans find the word offensive because of its derivation. “I tell you what: I would bet that not one person in Put-in-Bay Township knows that,” he said.

Ms. Mahaney said that lack of knowledge is key to resolving the issue.

“People just don’t know,” she said. “They think it’s appropriate to use the word, which is why education is important.

Beyond belief: The remarkable life and mysterious disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Madalyn Murray O’Hair, America’s most famous atheist, was ready to retire.

Back in 1964, Life magazine had called the former Rossford resident “The Most Hated Woman In America” after she had won a Supreme Court case stopping prayer in public schools.

For two decades, her brash, abrasive personality made her a favorite of the talk-show circuit, debating ministers over the existence of God and assembling a multimillion-dollar empire dedicated to fighting religion in any arena.

But the morning-in-America Reagan years had pushed her to the sidelines, and the 1990s brought little hope of an atheist revival. The Moral Majority had been defeated, but the Christian Coalition was right there to replace it. In her 70s and suffering from diabetes, Ms. O’Hair was in no shape to leap back into the religious war she helped create.

“I have little or no hope about the country,” she wrote in a May, 1995, letter to Toledoan Naomi Twining, a Rossford High School classmate of hers. “I think that it is going to be taken back to Medievalism. The American people are not politically sophisticated enough to manage an (alleged) democracy. Oh well, it’s been a good fight, even though a losing one.”

She seemed well on her way to being just another answer to a trivia question. “I was 76 in April,” she wrote. “That is just one helluva long time to be alive.”

Madalyn Murray O’Hair was ready to give up the fight and prepare for the pleasures and pains of old age.

Four months later, she vanished.

Some surmised that an angry God had taken her; others said she had gone into hiding because she was near death and didn’t want Christians praying for her. More cynical types suggested she had stolen millions and had run away to a retirement overseas.

But federal authorities believe none of those scenarios are true. They say Ms. O’Hair was kidnapped, murdered, dismembered, stuffed in a plastic barrel, and buried somewhere on a West Texas ranch.

A few weeks ago, more than four years after her disappearance, the man they think did the killing was sentenced to time behind bars, but on unrelated charges.

Ms. O’Hair had long ago faded from the spotlight. Few took notice of her activism. Even the one triumph of her life, her Supreme Court victory, is endangered: the court will consider, in its session that begins tomorrow, several cases that could chip away at the church-state divide she helped create, including allowing prayers at high school graduations.

It is one of her life’s bizarre ironies that it took her disappearance to make the world notice her one last time.

“Next year, it’ll be 40 years since my mother came into public view,” said her surviving son, Bill. “And in that time, she’s gotten more attention from this than from anything else she did. Everything else she did was a flash in the pan. But this is a Lizzie Borden story, a Lindbergh kidnapping, a Jack the Ripper, an Amelia Earhart – a case people are still going to be talking about a hundred years from now.”

*

From the moment she entered this world, Madalyn was touched by darkness.

When little Madalyn Mays was born on April 13, 1919, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Beechview, she emerged in a black shroud, a bizarre dark membrane coating her infant body.

At least that’s the story told by Madalyn’s Presbyterian mother, Lena Mays, after her daughter became a nationally hated atheist. Like many stories about Madalyn Murray O’Hair, it’s impossible to know whether it’s true.

Not much is conclusively known about young Madalyn’s childhood. Her parents, while not particularly religious, had Madalyn baptized in a Presbyterian church as a child. Her father, John, moved from job to job, and in 1934 took the Mays family to Rossford for a job at Libbey-Owens-Ford. Madalyn enrolled as a sophomore at the high school.

It’s unclear when young Madalyn started thinking about God and religion. After she achieved her fame, she told several different stories about how she came to her beliefs. Sometimes she said she had been an atheist since age 6. In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1965, she said her eureka moment came when the family was living in Ohio.

“I was about 12 or 13 years old,” she said. “It was then that I was introduced to the Bible. We were living in Akron and I wasn’t able to get to the library, so I had two things to read at home: a dictionary and a Bible.

“Well, I picked up the Bible and read it from cover to cover one weekend – just as if it were a novel – very rapidly, and I’ve never gotten over the shock of it. The miracles, the inconsistencies, the improbabilities, the impossibilities, the wretched history, the sordid sex, the sadism in it, the whole thing shocked me profoundly.”

But if Madalyn was thinking about atheism at Rossford High School, there’s no indication in her yearbooks. Next to her 1936 senior photo is a listing of her school activities: the French Club, the school newspaper, and the Girl Reserves. The Girl Reserves, the yearbook says, was “a subsidiary of the Young Women’s Christian Association” and held chapel programs and a Christmas ball.

“She was very assertive, very bright,” said Stanley Schultz, who was then the Rossford High student body president and now sells real estate in California. “But she was not a particularly attractive girl. She was sometimes the victim of classmates’ jokes: ‘Who are you going to take to prom? Madalyn Mays?’ ”

He recalled walking to school with Madalyn and having discussions about her religious doubts. “She had the same views she had later, but not quite as strong,” he said. “She took life seriously. She didn’t believe in God; I was Catholic, so I would disagree with her. But she didn’t get too angry about things back then.”

Classmate Charles Duricek has less pleasant memories. “She was terrible,” he said. “She was anti-Rossford, just anti-regular society … She was just a different type of girl, that’s for sure. She wanted to be president of the United States.”

Her views didn’t make Madalyn very popular, either during high school or at later reunions.

Naomi Twining was six years behind Madalyn in school, but remembers her vividly. “I used to walk behind her on the way to school,” she said. Later, Ms. Twining became involved in her old schoolmate’s movement and talked to her about their Rossford days.

“Madalyn told me that one of the first places she started thinking about religion was in the Brooks drugstore in Rossford,” Ms. Twining said. “The owners of the drugstore had been to college, and she liked to sit at the counter by the soda fountain and talk about philosophical issues with the owners.” (One of the workers at the former Superior Street drugstore, Jerome Brooks, went on to be the Detroit regional director of the National Labor Relations Board and president of the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.)

Even in high school, Mr. Schultz could see Madalyn’s potential.

“I’m sure she would have succeeded in whatever she did, and I had to admire her because she had beliefs and she stood up for them,” he said. “But I was a little disappointed that she took so much pride in being so hated.”

After graduating from Rossford in 1936, Madalyn attended the University of Toledo, but only for a year. “My father moved a lot, and I went to whatever college was handy,” she told an interviewer in 1964.

She ended up attending the University of Pittsburgh, Howard University, and the South Texas College of Law, along with a total of four Ohio schools: UT; Ashland College, where she received her bachelor’s degree; Western Reserve University; and Ohio Northern University, where she attended law school for one year.

Later in life, in her Playboy interview, she talked about her time at Ashland, a Brethren institution which required two years of Bible study for graduation. “It was a good, sound, thorough, but completely biased evaluation of the Bible, and I was delighted with it, because it helped to document my doubts; it gave me a framework within which I could be critical.”

In 1941, Ms. O’Hair eloped with a steelworker named John Roths, but World War II separated them two months after marriage. He joined the Marines and was sent to the Pacific; she went to Europe in the Women’s Army Corps. While in Europe, she had an affair with a married air corps officer named William Murray, Jr., and in 1945 conceived her first child.

When she returned to Mr. Roths, she demanded a divorce and hoped Mr. Murray would leave his wife for her. He never did, but Ms. O’Hair decided to take his name anyway. She became Madalyn Murray, and named her son William Murray III.

Over the next few years, Madalyn moved back to Ohio, then to Texas, and finally, in 1952, to Baltimore. She met another man, who fathered her second child, whom she named Jon Garth Murray – despite the fact that her wartime lover was not the father. She took a variety of jobs, including a lengthy stint as a psychiatric social worker.

It was there, in 1960, where she found her true calling. Her eldest son, Bill, was enrolled at Woodbourne Junior High, where students were required to recite the Lord’s Prayer at the start of each school day. Ms. O’Hair, by that time an avowed and open atheist, decided to file suit against the Baltimore schools, saying that her son’s rights were being violated when he was forced to be around prayers in a public school.

Few noticed, until a Baltimore Sun reporter decided to do a story on her and her son. Within days, every major television and radio network was on the story. Ms. O’Hair was a celebrity.

In 1961, a local court dismissed her suit, but she appealed to the Maryland Court of Appeals. She lost there too, leaving only one court to hear her case.

When the suit reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the attorneys general of 18 states had filed a friend-of-the-court brief opposing Ms. O’Hair. On her side were an array of liberal and humanist groups, along with the National Council of Churches and several Jewish groups.

On June 17, 1963, the court ruled 8-1, with Justice Potter Stewart dissenting, that school-sponsored prayer was unconstitutional. She had won.

*

After the Supreme Court decision, Ms. O’Hair became a star.

In truth, her role was not essential to the court’s ruling. The Supreme Court made its groundbreaking decision on another case, Abington Township v. Schempp, and merely attached Ms. O’Hair’s suit to that one. Had Ms. O’Hair’s suit never been filed, school-sponsored prayer would be just as unconstitutional as it is today.

And it didn’t take an atheist to oppose school prayer: many believers of many faiths believed the court had made the correct decision in keeping religion and education separate.

But, to millions of Americans, Ms. O’Hair was the villain.

The plaintiff in the Schempp case was a relatively quiet Unitarian from Pennsylvania. Ms. O’Hair was a fire-breathing radical atheist, eager for attention and always ready with an enraging quip. When the media and angry Christians went searching for someone to symbolize the massive change the court decision had wrought, they didn’t go looking for Ed Schempp of suburban Philadelphia. They went to Ms. O’Hair.

She loved it. She took to calling herself “the most hated woman in America,” and reveled in the seeming importance it brought her.

“My mother was constantly talking about how brilliant she was: ‘I’m Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a very important person!’ ” said her son Bill, who converted to Christianity in 1980. “She always told my brother, ‘Maybe one of these days you’ll live up to being called the son of Madalyn Murray O’Hair!’ ”

She immediately set to filing more lawsuits, seeking more impressive victories. She tried to remove the tax exemption of churches; when she couldn’t win that battle in court, she succeeded in getting her atheist organizations declared tax-exempt. She tried to get “In God We Trust” removed from American money. She tried to stop public bodies from having prayers before meetings, and to stop courts from swearing witnesses and jurors with “so help me God.”

She tried a lot of things, and most of them got her a lot of publicity, if little success. For her work, Ms. O’Hair received an enormous amount of abuse, from death threats to physical confrontations – which isn’t surprising, considering she was cracking jokes about virgin births and advocating sex for 13-year-olds at a time when Leave It To Beaver was still on the air.

Christian clerics began using the name of Madalyn Murray O’Hair in their sermons as a symbol of all things bad about the modern world.

After describing, one by one, the performance of each of her past lovers to Playboy, she said: “Say, I wonder why I’m telling you all this. I know I’m being indiscreet, because this kind of thing could be used against me nationwide; it’ll just add fuel to the fire, which is already hot enough for me. But you know something? It just so happens that I don’t give a damn. I’m going to be damned anyway. If they haven’t destroyed me yet, I’d say I’m indestructible.”

Her rise coincided with the rise of the talk show and the televised debate, and she was a perfect match for the new medium. Ms. O’Hair was smart, well-read, and a powerful speaker; she could be a magnetic personality when she wasn’t repulsing her audience with her ideas. (She spoke twice in northwest Ohio, in 1972 and 1975.)

In 1967, when a young Dayton man named Phil Donahue was starting a talk show on WLWD-TV, he had Madalyn Murray O’Hair as his first guest. During that first show, Mr. Donahue noticed that audience members were asking tough questions of her during commercial breaks. He decided to run out into the audience with a microphone, getting them to repeat the questions on the air – and starting the modern daytime talk show format.

By 1965, Ms. O’Hair had moved to Austin, where she would live for the rest of her life. She made the Texas capital the center of the many atheist organizations she founded . She claimed that her main group, American Atheists, had more than 50,000 members, although more objective estimates put the total at around 2,000 or 3,000.

But somehow, with a small membership, her atheist groups managed to pull in enormous amounts of money, and some of it reached the O’Hair family. She bragged about paying for the new 16,000-square-foot American Atheist headquarters in 1986 with more than $1 million in cash. At that time, she drove a Mercedes, as did her son Jon; granddaughter Robin drove a Porsche. Jon bragged in the media about how much his suits cost; the entire family had overseas bank accounts with hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A leader of a rival atheist organization once called Ms. O’Hair “the Jimmy Swaggart of the movement.”)

At the same time, her abrasive manner alienated more than a few members of her organization. She was not known for keeping her voice down, and she didn’t hesitate to belittle even her allies. In 1980, even her own son Bill revolted, declaring he had found Jesus Christ (on Mother’s Day, no less) and becoming a fundamentalist minister.

She put her other son, Jon Garth, and granddaughter Robin into positions of power within the organization that others didn’t feel they were ready for, pushing more people away. Some revolted and formed splinter groups; some became O’Hair enemies.

“She perpetually challenged everyone’s motives and intentions,” said Frank Zindler, a Columbus resident who edits American Atheist magazine and remained a friend of Ms. O’Hair’s until her disappearance. “She was cautious – some would say paranoid – about others, and that was always lurking in the background. She could get extraordinarily angry at the people who worked for her and with her.”

In 1995, according to federal authorities, one of those people was not willing to take that abuse anymore, and settled on revenge.

*

The mystery began on Aug. 28, 1995, when employees of American Atheists showed up for work at the Austin headquarters.

“The Murray-O’Hair family has been called out of town on an emergency basis,” read a note left at the headquarters. Ms. O’Hair, son Jon, and granddaughter Robin were nowhere to be found.

An atheist friend of the family stopped by their home, and found a half-eaten breakfast on the table, and Ms. O’Hair’s blood-pressure medication on the kitchen counter.

Concerned associates of the O’Hairs tried reaching them on Jon’s cell phone, and succeeded. Ms. O’Hair told her callers that she was on unspecified business in San Antonio and that she shouldn’t be contacted. She told them that everything was fine, but her friends told authorities they weren’t so sure. “You could tell everything was not OK,” said Ellen Johnson, now president of American Atheists.

The last contact with the O’Hairs took place on Sept. 29. After that the phone was turned off. No one has heard from the three of them since.

Few noticed when Ms. O’Hair vanished, because her star had long ago dimmed on the national scene. People in Austin threw out a few theories, from alien abduction to Satanic human sacrifice.

No one even filed a missing persons report until September, 1996, when son Bill finally did.

Over the next two years, a few tantalizing clues trickled out of private and law enforcement investigations. While in San Antonio, Jon Murray had wired $600,000 from an offshore account in New Zealand to a San Antonio bank. He had used that money to buy 1,174 gold coins from a jewelry store.

And a former office manager at American Atheists named David Waters was pushing his own theory: He claimed to have documents taken from the atheists headquarters proving that the O’Hairs were planning on fleeing to New Zealand with the organization’s money. He even wrote an as-yet-unpublished book about it, entitled Good Gawd Madalyn! The Not-So-Sudden Disappearance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

The theories and counter theories flew furiously until March 24 of this year, when FBI agents raided Waters’s Austin apartment and simultaneously entered the Novi, Mich., home of a man named Gary Karr.

Waters, 52, and Karr, 50, have extensive criminal records. Waters has the longer rap sheet, with a homicide, an assault, and two forgeries. Karr had been convicted of armed robbery and indecency with a child, along with weapons charges.

Agents in Waters’s apartment were looking for, among other things, pieces of Ms. O’Hair’s jewelry, the missing gold coins, and a 9mm handgun. They didn’t find those, but they did find 119 rounds of ammunition. As a convicted felon, Waters is banned from having weapons or ammunition, and he was arrested on weapons charges.

At the same time, agents in Michigan found two handguns in Karr’s Novi home, and arrested him on similar charges.

It quickly became clear that the agents weren’t just looking for evidence for weapons charges against these two men. They were, agents revealed, the leading suspects in the murders of the O’Hairs.

Neither man has been charged with anything related to the family’s disappearance, and no bodies have been found. But an affidavit filed in federal court and unsealed on May 26 lays out a substantial circumstantial case against Waters and Karr.

Here, according to the affidavit, is what agents believe happened to Ms. O’Hair and her family:

In April, 1994, more than $54,000 disappeared from the bank account of one of Ms. O’Hair’s groups. A subsequent investigation showed that the money vanished when Waters had written checks to himself from the account. In May, 1995, Waters pleaded guilty to theft, and despite his lengthy, violent criminal record, received a light sentence: 10 years of probation, and an order to repay the money over a 10-year period.

Ms. O’Hair was flabbergasted; had someone stolen this amount from, say, a Protestant church, the sentence would have been much more severe, she believed. As she often did, she took out her anger in writing, penning a long article for the July, 1995, issue of the American Atheist newsletter about Waters.

She detailed his criminal past, including details of his 1978 battery conviction against his mother, in which he beat her with a broom handle, broke wall plaques over her head, and urinated in her face. She detailed how fear of Waters had caused the organization to erect a seven-foot steel-link fence around atheist headquarters.

According to Waters’s girlfriend at the time, the essay enraged Waters. He began talking about wanting to kill the O’Hairs, to torture Ms. O’Hair by pulling off each of her toes with pliers. He felt he had been mistreated by the O’Hairs and wanted his revenge.

So, according to the affidavit, he recruited Karr – an old buddy from a prison stint in Illinois – along with a man from Florida named Danny Fry. Their plan: kidnap the O’Hairs, force them to withdraw money from one of their bank accounts, convert it into untraceable gold coins, then kill them.

According to the affidavit, they carried out the plan. Waters rented a mini-storage warehouse in San Antonio in which to store the gold coins , and ordered Jon Murray to get them the money. Once the gold coins were purchased, the O’Hairs weren’t heard from again.

A confidential source quoted in the affidavit stated that soon after, Danny Fry “looked sick … It was obvious that Waters and Karr were getting along, but Fry was not part of the group … It was quite uncommon for Fry to be so quiet [and] strange that Fry was not drinking or even drunk, as he usually drank whiskey and beer everyday.”

Three days after the O’Hairs were last heard from, Fry disappeared as well. His body, with its head and hands chopped off, was dumped by a river east of Dallas. It went unidentified for more than three years.

In the month after the killings, Waters and Karr went on a spending spree, buying expensive clothes, jewelry, and cars.

Most elements of the government’s case are well documented through phone and purchase records accumulated throughout investigations. The major holes: no bodies and no weapon. But when authorities went to Michigan to question Karr, he allegedly admitted to his role in the killings of the O’Hairs and Fry, according to court testimony from one of the FBI agents who interviewed him. (Karr, through his attorney, has since said he made no such admission.)

The government’s explanation has satisfied many of the people around the O’Hairs. “I think that’s what happened,” said Ms. O’Hair’s son, Bill. “They make a strong argument, and it makes sense to me,” said her colleague, Frank Zindler.

But some still have doubts, and hold out hope that the family is still alive.

On May 27, Waters pleaded guilty to the weapons charges, for which he was sentenced to eight years in a federal prison.

Then, on Aug. 11, came what might be considered Ms. O’Hair’s revenge from beyond the grave.

She had been enraged when Waters was given just 10 years probation on his theft of $54,000 from American Atheists in 1994. But the federal weapons charges were a violation of the terms of that probation.

So an Austin judge decided to throw the book at him and sentenced him to 60 years for the theft for which, just a few years earlier, he had gotten off almost scot-free.

Karr is being held in the Wayne County jail in Michigan on the weapons charges, awaiting a judge’s ruling on a motion to suppress key evidence in his trial.

As important as Ms. O’Hair fancied herself to be, her movement has survived without her. American Atheists moved its headquarters to New Jersey and has kept its membership rolls steady. Many atheists are happy that their movement now has a less abrasive face.

In the new U.S. Supreme Court session that begins tomorrow, the justices are expected to take up several cases that could weaken her historic school prayer victory, including suits over private school vouchers and prayer at graduation ceremonies or football games.

But her legacy has survived. In the wake of last year’s school shootings, more than a few conservative pundits blamed the violence on Ms. O’Hair and her removal of school prayer.

If she is dead, it’s possible that her body will never be found. If authorities are correct, it’s likely that only Waters knows where it is, and he has little incentive to talk. But Ms. O’Hair, more than a decade ago, sketched out for an interviewer how she would like to be remembered:

“I told my kids I just want three words on my tombstone, if I have one. I’ll probably be cremated. One is ‘woman.’ I’m very comfortable in that role. I’ve loved being a woman, I’ve loved being a mother, I’ve loved being a grandmother.

“I want three words: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. That’s me.”

Son of atheist found God in 1980

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A10

It was the ultimate betrayal for Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

On Mother’s Day, 1980, her oldest son, William Murray, made an announcement: he had found God, and was abandoning his mother’s atheism for fundamentalist Christianity.

It was made in a letter to the editor in the Baltimore Sun – the paper which, 30 years earlier, had published the letter from Ms. O’Hair that started the debate over school prayer. Eventually, Ms. O’Hair sued the Baltimore school system because young William, then 14, was forced to listen to Bible readings and participate in prayers at his public junior high school.

“I would like to apologize to the people of the City of Baltimore for whatever part I played in the removal of Bible reading and praying from the public schools of that city,” he wrote in the 1980 letter. “I can now see the damage this removal has caused to our nation in the form of loss of faith and moral decline.”

Mr. Murray, 53, heads a conservative Christian political action committee (named Government Is Not God) and a group called the Religious Freedom Foundation. He often lectures and preaches about his conversion experience.

“Unlike my mother, I draw a crowd when I speak,” Mr. Murray said from his office in northern Virginia.

In 1982, Mr. Murray published My Life Without God, a memoir about growing up atheist, in which he savagely attacks his mother, portraying her as a violent, egomaniacal Communist in love with her delusions. It also accuses her of being racist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic.

“Our home was so dysfunctional, a storm of chaos,” he said. “Everyone was always fighting.”

One of Mr. Murray’s main goals is, ironically enough, to reverse the school prayer ban he helped bring about.

While he, in some ways, is a mirror image of his mother – establishing multiple organizations, giving speeches, seeking donations – he doesn’t see many similarities between their styles.

One of his most powerful tools in preaching is his own remarkable story: how many other preachers can say they have traveled through as deep a valley of darkness as his mother’s?

“Telling the story helps,” he admits. “A lot of what I do on the evangelistic circuit, I use that story as a central theme.”