Somaly Mam and the Dark Side of Charity

Since 1996, a non-governmental organization known as AFESIP (from the French, Acting for Women in Distressing Situations) has been working to rescue and aid young female victims of human trafficking, operating three centres in Cambodia where the young women are housed and educated.
The guiding light of this effort is co-founder Somaly Mam, a Cambodian-born woman who claims to have been a child prostitute in the ’80s. She has become one of the world’s most prominent anti-trafficking activists, racking up prestigious awards and honours. According to Mam, over 4000 girls and women have been rescued from forced prostitution thanks to AFESIP’s efforts. AFESIP’s fundraising arm, the Somaly Mam Foundation, has raised millions since its inception in 2007.
So it came as a nasty surprise to many supporters when Mam stepped down as the head of her own foundation in May, amid allegations that she fabricated not only the stories of two of her spokespeople, but also her own life story. To hear other media outlets tell it, Mam’s downfall was brought about by a single Newsweek cover story penned by Simon Marks.

newsweek

A Distressing Situation

The Newsweek article is shocking, but here’s something even more shocking: Nothing in the Newsweek story is breaking news. Not one thing.

Back in October 2012, Simon Marks, along with Khy Sovuthy, published a piece in Cambodia Daily, “Questions Raised Over Symbol’s Slavery Story“, probing the accuracy of the horrifc story of sexual slavery and mutilation told by Mam’s most high-profile spokesperson, Long Pros (AKA Somana Long). This was just one of several articles Marks has written about Mam and AFESIP over the past two years.

Also in 2012, Cat Barton wrote several articles like this one, questioning the wisdom of the high-profile brothel raids engineered by Somaly Mam.  AFESIP has received a considerable amount of criticism from other anti-trafficking orgs for allowing journalist Nicholas Kristof to “live-tweet” a brothel raid in the northern Cambodian town of Anlong Veng in November 2011, as this violated the privacy of the young women removed from the brothel.
Barton also reported concerns that not all of the women and girls housed by AFESIP centres were there voluntarily; some had been dropped off by police following raids.

In November 2013, Lindsay Murdoch raised further questions about Somana Long’s  account and the integrity of Somaly Mam in a Sydney Morning Herald article, “Dark Truths or Fiction?

Another Marks article, published in El Mundo last year, exposed the same lies that Marks revealed in the Newsweek piece. In fact, there are few significant differences between the two articles. It’s disappointing that the world’s major media outlets ignored such an important investigative piece published by one of the largest newspapers in Spain.

In March, AFESIP launched an inquiry into the allegations raised by journalists over the years. Staffers knew that Marks was working on the Newsweek piece, and apparently realized it was time to deal with the issue head-on. The details of the independent, third-party investigation conducted by Goodwin Proctor LLP have not been divulged, but a statement posted on the website of the Somaly Mam Foundation makes it clear that the investigation results were the direct cause of Mam’s resignation. In other words, Goodwin Proctor discovered that aspects of her story were fraudulent.

With so many people raising the alarm about her, why has Somaly Mam been bulletproof for all these years?

The Long Con

One reason is the compelling stories told by young women she has rescued.

The first of these “pretty victims”, as Daily Beast* writer Amanda Marcotte has dubbed them, was Meas Ratha. Ratha, 14 years old at the time, appeared with Mam on the French TV programme Envoyé Spécial in 1998, only a couple of years after AFESIP was formed. This broadcast drew international attention to Mam’s work, winning Mam the endorsement of Queen Sofia of Spain and the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. She was subsequently able to gain some U.S. government funding, and donations began to flow into AFESIP.

Ratha spoke of being imprisoned in a Phnom Penh brothel, lured there by traffickers who promised her a job as a waitress. She said her father had abandoned his large family, leaving her mother destitute.
Last year, however, she admitted that she and her sister, Meas Sokha, were sent to the AFESIP center in 1997 by both of their parents, not because she had been a child prostitute, but because the couple was unable to provide for all eight of their children. Meas Sokha confirmed this, as did Marie Christine Uguen, a woman who was caring for Ratha at the time of her Envoyé Spécial appearance. Ratha confessed to Uguen, shortly after the TV show aired, that Somaly Mam had selected her to tell a scripted story on television.
Prior to their TV appearance, Mam told Ratha that the trafficking story had really happened to another AFESIP resident, Sokha, who was too traumatized to discuss the events publicly. Ratha was stunned to discover, last year, that Sokha had been featured on the same Envoyé Spécial broadcast, relating a completely different story of forced prostitution.

It was Ratha’s story that won the world’s interest in Somaly Mam’s work, but the young woman known as Long Pros became her most visible success story, and a haunting symbol of human trafficking in Cambodia.

When she first spoke out about her ordeal in a Phnom Penh brothel, Long Pros (Somana Long) said she was 13 in 2005, the year a young woman kidnapped her and sold her to the brothel. The teenager was twice impregnated by rapists and subjected to home abortions. She refused to service the brothel’s clients on the day of her second abortion, and this so angered the brothel owner that the woman seized a chunk of jagged metal and gouged out Long’s eye. She threw the girl out into the streets when the infected, oozing eye socket began to displease customers. Her own parents refused to take her in. Somana was then rescued by Mam’s organization.

An entirely different account appears in Traffik, a 2008 book by photographer Norman Jean Roy. In this version of the story, Somana’s eye became infected after she was kicked in the face by a pimp, and it was surgically removed in hospital. Roy has worked closely with Somaly Mam, photographing girls at AFESIP centres.
Long herself told Josephine Lim, in a 2012 interview for the Australian website Our World Today, that people at the brothel had taken out her eye with a piece of steel and that she was rescued by a police raid.
Asking if Mam had perhaps exaggerated the stories of survivors, Lindsay Murdoch pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald that Somana’s story changed over time, becoming increasingly gruesome and awful.

Two years ago, Cambodia Daily reported that Somana actually had her eye removed by surgeon Dr. Pok Thorn at the Takeo Eye Hospital in November 2005, because of a benign tumour that had been growing for years. Her parents, Long Hon and Sok Hang, confirmed this. They have since refused to discuss the surgery, worried that their daughter could lose her job if they do (she worked for an Australian nonprofit program affiliated with Somaly Mam’s organization).
Te Sereybonn, who was the director of the Takeo Eye Hospital in 2005, says his staff was responsible for Long’s placement in the AFESIP centre. She was not an abused child or a prostitute, but the staffers could see that her family was in financial straits, so they contacted AFESIP to see if she could be enrolled in one of their vocational training programs.
Goodwin Proctor also investigated Somana Long’s story, and it seems they found it to be untrue. The Somaly Mam Foundation has announced it is breaking all ties with her.

The pressing question is, why did Mam fabricate sex-trafficking tales? If her organization has, indeed, saved thousands of girls from forced prostitution, then surely a few of them would be willing to share their true stories. Even if the stories Ratha and Long told were 100% true, though, Mam’s use of these young women as spokespeople for her organization would be questionable. Having to relive their trauma over and over again in front of strangers could delay their own healing.

The Star Factor

Mam would not be where she is today – disgraced and unemployed – without the support of powerful people in business, entertainment, and journalism. She carefully courted these people, going to red-carpet and black-tie events in lovely gowns. She received endorsements from Queen Sofia of Spain, Ban Ki-moon, Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, and Meg Ryan. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Susan Sarandon are advisory members of the Somaly Mam Foundation board of directors. Mam worked closely with Pulitzer-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife. Her 2005 memoir, The Road of Lost Innocence, received dustjacket endorsements from Mariane Pearl and Ayann Hirsi Ali, two women who have survived very real hardship and tragedy.

These people are not fools. Who among us, looking into the earnest, anguished faces of young girls as they recount abduction, rape, and torture, would ask questions like, “Is she putting me on?” In the end, journalists like Marks were the ones to ask the hard questions and dig up the hard, disappointing answers.
One of these journalists should have been Nicholas Kristof. He had observed the sex trafficking situation in Cambodia up close. In 2004, he spent $350 to buy two young girls out of a Cambodian brothel. Kristof is a good journalist, but even the best journalists are human. His emotional response to the plight of women in the Third World blinded him to the reality of the NGOs working with those women. In a 2009 New York Times article, he expressed admiration for the work of Greg Mortenson, the author of the New York Times bestseller Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson founded a nonprofit to educate girls in Middle Eastern countries, achieving worldwide renown for his efforts, but a 2012 investigation concluded that he had misspent $6 million that should have gone to his charity, and Mortenson agreed to repay $1 million. Like Somaly Mam, Mortenson had also fabricated portions of his life story to help promote his organization. When his lies were exposed by 60 Minutes, Mortenson hit back with angry denials; today, he thanks his detractors for putting him back on the straight and narrow. Sadly, his remorse came far too late to save the life of his co-author, David Oliver Relin. Relin committed suicide when the veracity of Three Cups of Tea was challenged.

Kristof embraced Somaly Mam’s work in the same manner that people had approached Mortenson’s accomplishments – with an uncritical eye and a deep willingness to believe in the strength of the human spirit. Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, co-wrote the 2009 bestseller Half the Sky, a passionate call to justice for women in developing countries. This became a PBS documentary of the same name in 2012. Both book and film featured Somana Long telling her story in her own words. She subsequently appeared on Oprah, and her story is still posted on Oprah.com.
It would be difficult to underestimate the amount of credibility that Mam gained by her affiliation with Kristof. His New York Times pieces, his book, and the PBS doc boosted her already thriving NGO into the upper echelons of nonprofit stardom.

Based on a Lie

The fake trafficking victims are bad enough. Then there is the issue of Mam’s own distortions.

On December 7, 2004, police and AFESIP raided a Phnom Penh hotel called the Chai Hour II, removing 83 women and girls to the local AFESIP center. The next day, a group of about 30 men forced their way into the center and removed the females.
In a speech she gave before the UN General Assembly in April 2012, Mam stated that the Cambodian army had killed eight of these girls. This bizarre claim was immediately challenged, and Mam had to  admit that she did not have any firsthand knowledge of events following the raid; she had relied upon secondhand information (from a “reliable source) that eight girls and women had died after the raid in a “series of accidents that may have had something to do with their pimps and traffickers.”

That could be chalked up to a mistaken assumption, but the story of her daughter’s abduction is not so ambiguous. In The Road of Lost Innocence, Mam wrote that in 2006 her 14-year-old adopted daughter, Ning, was kidnapped and gang-raped by traffickers in retaliation for the Chai Hour II raid. When the police found Ning, she was in the company of a “boy she knew”, who acted as a lure for the traffickers.
Mariane Pearl wrote about Ning’s abduction in a piece for Glamour.
However, Mam’s ex-husband and Ning’s father, Pierre Legros, told Lindsay Murdoch that Ning was not kidnapped. She ran away with her then boyfriend. Legros’ version of the story is supported by Aarti Kapoor, who worked as a legal adviser to AFESIP from 2003 to 2006. No police report was ever filed in connection with Ning’s “abduction”.
The creation of false enemies and phony “brushes with death” is something we’ve seen over and over on this blog, among “former Satanists“, conspiracy peddlers, and fraudsters. If you have powerful foes, you must have a powerful message, right? Disturbingly, Kapoor told Simon Marks that other AFESIP employees knew the story was a fabrication, yet elected to remain silent.

Finally, there is Mam’s own chilling tale of survival.
As she tells it in her memoir, Mam was essentially a feral child, living out her earliest years in the forests of northeastern Cambodia with no one to look after her. Her parents and maternal grandmother abandoned her in the village of Bou Sra sometime in the late ’70s, when she was not yet 10 years old. As she repeatedly laments, she grew up without a mother.
Bou Sra was in a remote, forested area that had not been heavily affected by Vietnam or the Pol Pot regime, and Mam was sheltered from modern life. By the time she left the village around 1980, she had never seen a car, hot running water, or a pair of shoes. She had to forage for food and sleep in the open.
Around age 10 she was taken away to a far-off village, Thloc Chhroy, by a man who called himself her grandfather. She was subjected to daily beatings and forced to work in the rice fields. The Khmer villagers treated her like a slave, with the exception of a schoolteacher named Mam Khon and his wife, Pen Navy. This couple took her in, though they had six children of their own. Khon told her he was her paternal uncle, but Mam didn’t believe this. She was just grateful to be unofficially adopted by the family. “Grandfather” exploited Mam until she was approximately 14, then forced her to marry an abusive soldier. Without any medical training, she worked as a nurse in the military hospital at Chup, watching helplessly as soldiers and villagers died terrible deaths at the hands of untrained medical workers.
When her husband failed to return to Chup, Grandfather sold her to a brothel in Phnom Penh, where she was forced to have sex with half a dozen clients per day. She was “about 16 years old.” She remained captive there for about 3 years. She witnessed a brothel owner fatally shoot her best friend. She was subjected to brutal beatings, rape, and electric shocks.

By the time she was in her late teens, however, the brothel owners no longer held Mam captive. She admits she worked for them voluntarily, on and off, up until she decided to leave prostitution in 1991, having met future husband Pierre Legros, a young French biologist working in Phnom Penh.

At least, that’s one version of her story. Speaking at the White House in February 2012, Mam said she was trafficked at age 9 or 10 and spent a decade in the brothel. Sitting beside Susan Sarandon on the Tyra Banks Show in 2008, she said she was sold to the brothel at 13 or 14 and remained there for 4 or 5 years. Legros has stated that when he met his ex-wife in 1991, she was working freely as a prostitute, not in a brothel but in an upscale hotel bar. Some biographies of Mam, such as this one at Women’s Conference.org, would lead you to believe that she met Legros in France.

Simon Marks probed these discrepancies by interviewing villagers in Thloc Chhroy who had known Mam as a child. These people say that Mam was not an abandoned child. She was the biological daughter of the kindly couple she mentions in her memoir, Mam Khon and Pen Navy.
According to residents who were there at the time, the family arrived in the village in 1981 from a nearby community. Prior to that, Mam Khon had been assigned to teach in a remote part of northeastern Cambodia – the same area where Mam supposedly lived as an urchin of the forest for the first 10 years of her life. Furthermore, she attended school in the village from 1981 right up to graduation from Khchao High School in 1987, the period when she was supposedly being prostituted in Phnom Penh. After graduation, she and a friend both sat for a teachers’ exam in Kompong Cham. Then, around 1987, Mam left her family home voluntarily. Never, at any time prior to age 18 or 19, was she homeless or abandoned. She was not married off at the age of 14. She was not pushed out into the streets to sell herself. There was no abusive old man posing as her grandfather. She did not sleep beside the body of a dead mother in the military hospital. There simply wasn’t time for Mam to have been prostituted as a child. Again, this “not enough time” issue is a problem we’ve seen many times in Satanic ritual abuse accounts and self-glorifying autobiographies.

Many of the other stories in Mam’s memoir have yet to be verified, like soldiers decapitating a small boy in Thloc Chhroy, and another little boy being fatally wounded by a hand grenade during military training in the schoolyard, and another little boy (Mam’s best friend) being torn apart in an accidental rocket blast.

But She’s Helping Trafficked Girls, Right?

At this point, an estimated 150 women and girls are living in AFESIP centres. We have no way of knowing how many of them were trafficking victims, and how many are simply young women seeking an education because their families cannot provide for them.

As mentioned, AFESIP has been criticized for taking in sex workers picked up in police raids. One former prostitute told Simon Marks she was taken to an AFESIP center by police on two separate occasions, and fled both times because the centre insisted she learn to sew.
This raises the question of what, exactly, the centres do to help women overcome their tough financial circumstances. In the interview below, Mam enthused that her girls may be doctors and lawyers in 10 years. In reality, the young women in her facilities are taught sewing, hairdressing, weaving, and other traditionally female skills that will allow them to eke out only the smallest incomes. Last fall, Estee Lauder announced it will be training sex trafficking survivors at a Somaly Mam beauty salon in Siem Reap.

It would not be out of line to call Mam’s behaviour predatory. She has been exploiting and manipulating vulnerable Cambodian girls to promote her cause. She has brazenly, outrageously lied to millions of people about ordeals that never occurred, which undermines real victims of trafficking and sexual assault. She has collected millions from donors under false pretenses. She has seized a heroine status that isn’t hers to claim. In a 2013 Daily Beast article, she actually likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave. I think we’ve gone well past exaggeration, here. This is cold-blooded deception on a frightening scale. We could be dealing with a sociopath.

Most NGOs struggle. It isn’t easy to raise funds and effectively operate a charitable organization at the same time, especially if that organization is anchored in a remote area of a developing country. So when a relatively tiny operation like AFESIP achieves dazzling success and brings in millions, attracting some of the most influential people on the planet to its cause, one has to wonder if the money and prestige have become more important than the cause. AFESIP seems to have a lot of both; the SMF regularly ran full-colour, full-page ads in TIME. The ads didn’t show trafficking victims, but a glamour shot of Mam herself.

Sex tourism has long been a problem in Southeast Asia, but now sex trafficking survivors are drawing in tourist money. Last November, U.S. travel company OmLuxe took 20 people to Cambodia to meet with Mam. They were promised they would be able to spend time with sex-trafficking victims. What if anti-trafficking is becoming the new trafficking? This year’s trip, scheduled for November, includes a lunch with Mam.

The Problem Doesn’t End Here

The Somaly Mam debacle is not an isolated incident. Charity-related fraud is widespread, and it’s very easy to be taken in by slick, professional-looking campaigns that want your donations. A few of the problems in the NGO world include:

  1. Fake Charities/Charities that aren’t actually charitable
    One example of a bogus charity is Pink Pagoda, an organization that claims to have rescued 50,000 Chinese girls from infanticide and is trying to raise $1 billion to rescue a million more. While it has the outward appearance of an NGO, a legal disclaimer in teeny-tiny print on the bottom of its website states that it is not a charitable organization. It is a for-profit enterprise, and an extremely dodgy one. Its founder/director, Jim Garrow, appears to be engaged in the buying and selling of babies. I’ve covered Pink Pagoda in a recent post about Garrow at Leaving Alex Jonestown.
  2. NGOs that aren’t actually doing anything
    Many orgs have good intentions, yet suffer from mismanagement, poor planning, or misguided goals.  NGOs dedicated to ending malaria in Africa (Roll Back Malaria, Malaria No More, etc.) tout mosquito netting treated with chrysanthemum-derived insecticides as the most effective method of stopping the disease. Unfortunately, a 2003 study found that an average of 55% of African households given treated bed nets actually used them over sleeping children. This amounts to roughly 20 million children – an impressive number, but far from enough to make an impact.
  3. Trafficking Activists who may be mistaken or lying
    In Argentina, Susana Trimarco is receiving the same accolades Somaly Mam did. Trimarco became an anti-trafficking activist after the disappearance of her 23-year-old daughter, Marita, in 2002. She insists her daughter was abducted and sold into prostitution, though the evidence seems thin, and has implicated everyone from hospital staffers to the governor of her province. She began to disguise herself as a prostitute to infiltrate brothels, piecing together stray bits of gossip in an attempt to track down her daughter. By some accounts, she has now rescued about 150 South American and Spanish girls from sexual slavery. She has millions convinced that some of the highest officials in South America are complicit in human trafficking, but how much of her story is accurate?
  4. The crying wolf effect
    Charity frauds like Mam and Garrow harden people, making them less likely to donate time or volunteer hours to worthy causes.

* It should be noted that Daily Beast made Mam one of its “Women of the World” just three years ago. Last November, it published Mam’s firsthand account of her time as a child prostitute, in which she likened herself to the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave.

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The Top 10 Stupidest/Weirdest Theories About Flight MH370

lost numbers

We all know the first part of the story: Early in the morning on March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, just one hour into its flight, lost radio contact with air traffic controllers. After going silent in the Gulf of Thailand, the plane unexpectedly veered west and flew back across Malaysia, heading into the Strait of Malacca. As indicated by primary radar returns, it was last charted heading northwest towards a navigational waypoint called IGREX, near the Andaman Coast of Phuket. However, ACARS reports indicate that Flight 370 remained in the air for at least 4 hours after losing radio contact, and the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch collaborated with the satellite company Inmarsat to track the plane as far as the Indian Ocean west of Perth, Australia – meaning the plane was airborne for at least 8 hours after losing radio contact. As there are no potential landing sites anywhere near this location, it is assumed that Flight 370 crashed into the ocean. Despite extensive searches, not a single piece of debris has been found. Another search is scheduled for August. There were 277 passengers and 12 crew members aboard, making Flight MH370 the largest aerial disappearance in history.

mh370 map

Flight MH370’s last known movements (Daily Mail)

Contradictory and false information given by Malaysian authorities led many people to suspect that Malaysia knew exactly what had happened to its plane, and was suppressing the truth for reasons unknown. In Beijing, victims’ family members have protested and staged vigils outside the Malaysian Embassy, demanding the truth. One of the first Western conspiranoids to contribute a theory was Rupert Murdoch, who tweeted that jihadists had hijacked the plane to “make trouble for China.” Rush Limbaugh chimed in that the plane may have been shot down by some “hostile little country.” Then the professional conspiranoids took over. Here, in no particular order, are ten of the goofiest narratives they came up with to explain the disappearance of Flight 370.

10.   Scientific Sabotage

Retired Delta Air Lines Captain Field McConnell believes Flight 370 was hijacked to obtain information about pending technology patents from some of the passengers, Chinese employees of Freescale Semiconductor, an Austin-based microchip company. According to McConnell, Freescale has developed a classified technology that uses paint and electronics to turn regular jets into stealth aircraft. He points out that a patent (#8671381) related to integrated circuits and semiconductor wafers was approved just days after the plane vanished. McConnell and others have claimed that the rights to this patent were supposed to have been split five ways: 20% to Freescale Semiconductor, and 20% each to four employees who were on the plane. 

This theory isn’t completely out in left field, since rashes of odd scientist deaths related to innovative or secret technology have occurred a few times. In the ’80s, over a dozen British scientists involved in defense research died rather weird, untimely deaths; several of them worked for Marconi. But there have also been red herring Dead Scientist memes floating around in the conspiracy world for years, including the Dead Microbiologists meme that began shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The list of dead microbiologists thought to have some knowledge of U.S. and/or Iraqi bioweapons became so absurdly long that even community college biology teachers ended up on it.

Field McConnell’s theory crumbles under scrutiny. Not one of the names listed on patent #8671381 appears on the passenger manifest released by Malaysian authorities. To date, there is no evidence that any of the people listed on the patent worked for Freescale or that the patent has anything to do with Freescale.

It must also be noted that McConnell and co-researcher David Hawkins have one of the most batshit insane, least coherent websites on the entire Internets: Abel Danger. Don’t believe me? Try reading whatever the hell this is. The entire website is like that – lesbian assassins taking over the world, word salad, Floyd Cramer videos. Field McConnell is also the author of the self-published tome Lesbian Cults, Pedophile Oaths and the Guild of Patented Hits. I challenge you to read more than two pages of it on Amazon without getting annoyed. Can’t be done.

The Scientific Sabotage theory has been embraced by Henry “Lesbian Candy Bars” Makow, though he awkwardly grafts the Diego Garcia abduction theory (below) onto it. Needless to say, Makow also found a way to drop a Rothschild into the mix, repeating the snopes-debunked factoid that Jacob Rothschild owns Freescale. Rothschild is a member of the Blackstone Group’s International Advisory Board, and the Blackstone Group owns more 196 million shares in Freescale, but the Carlyle Group and TPG Group Holdings both own the same number of Freescale shares as the Blackstone Group does. Then Makow got bored with missing planes and returned to his usual gay-bashing and theories like “Jesse James Killed John Wilkes Booth by order of the Freemasons.”

9.   The U.S. is hiding the plane at Diego Garcia (AKA the Assphone Scenario)

This theory holds that either the plane was hijacked by agents of the U.S. government, then flown to the U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia, or the plane made an emergency landing at this base and was captured on arrival. 

 Here’s how it started: Shortly after the flight’s disappearance, a message and a photo were posted to 4chan by a man claiming to be a passenger. The message read, “I have been held hostage by unknown military personal after my flight was hijacked (blindfolded). I work for IBM and I have managed to hide my cellphone in my ass during the hijack. I have been separated from the rest of the passengers and I am in a cell. My name is Philip Wood. I think I have been drugged as well and cannot think clearly.”

The photo was just a black screen, but its Exif data identified the iPhone user, a time consistent with the plane’s last known movements, and GPS coordinates of a building on Diego Garcia.

Philip Wood, a 50-year-old IBM engineer living in Asia, actually was a passenger on the plane. Wood’s girlfriend, Sarah Bajc, has appeared on CNN and a few radio shows to air her belief that he and his fellow passengers are being held hostage at a secret facility. She hasn’t mentioned the Assphone message, but one has to wonder if she accepts it as genuine. I doubt that she does, because she seems like a smart lady.  And to accept the Assphone Scenario, one has to accept a shit-tonne of dodgy things:

  • that the abductors remembered to dose everybody with drugs, but forgot to confiscate phones from all of their super-secret hostages, on a military base that has wi-fi
  • that a successful, industrious adult man, caught in a situation that would make Jack Bauer twig out, decided not to email a loved one or post a message to Facebook or notify the FBI or send a message to his Congressman
  • instead, he chose 4chan, because credibility
  • he relied on 4chan for his salvation
  • srsly, people, fucking 4chan

8.   Accidental Shootdown and Cover-up (AKA the Whoops Scenario)

Whether Limbaugh really believed his shootdown theory or not is unclear. Let’s face it, most of the time he just says words on the air. If he believes his theory, then he thinks Malaysians accidentally shot down their own plane in blind panic.

Nigel Cawthorne has a different shootdown theory. His book Flight MH370: The Mystery, released in May, argues that a joint US-Thai fighter jet training drill accidentally shot down the plane. Fearing an international incident (or maybe just epic embarrassment), Thailand and the U.S. collaborated on a cover-up that would put Charles Widmore to shame.

Cawthorne is a freelance journalist and prolific author. His specialties are the sexual peccadilloes of English gentlemen and Hollywood starlets, historical military battles, ’60s celebrities, and true crime. His titles include The Mammoth Book of Football Hooligans and Takin’ Back My Name: The Confessions of Ike Turner. A review of Flight MH370: The Mystery by David Free of The Australian might confirm your suspicions about Cawthorne’s level of expertise in this area. The book contains many typos, factoids, and speculative scenarios, but no new evidence that would support the War Games/Whoops scenario.

7.   Black Hole, Wormhole, Portal from Donnie Darko

A poll posted on CNN‘s website reported that 9% of respondents thought it was either very or somewhat likely that the plane was abducted by aliens, “time travelers or beings from another dimension.” To date, CNN has not conducted a poll to determine how many people like to screw with CNN polls.

The notion that a “miniature” black hole swallowed the plane shouldn’t have gone anywhere, but CNN Newsroom host Don Lemon briefly entertained it on-air. Panelist Mary Schiavo gently informed him that black holes don’t work like that.

If it seems unbelievable that anyone could believe time travel made a jet vanish, keep in mind that people still buy into the Philadelphia Experiment and Montauk Project hoaxes.

6.   Reptilians or Whatever

Alexandra Bruce, a conspiracy writer who specializes in stories about reptoid aliens and New Age flim-flam, became the first person to throw out the obligatory “ALIENS” theory. Her evidence consisted of a YouTube video of a computer simulation of the plane departing from Kuala Lumpur,  in which the simulated plane seems to vanish in the presence of an aircraft Bruce identifies as a UFO.  Boston.com journalist Jack Pickell, in his own rundown of silly Flight 370 theories, pointed out that the “UFO” was clearly marked as Korean Airlines Flight 672.

5.   Predictive Programming

“Predictive programming”, which I have written about here and at Leaving Alex Jonestown, is the profoundly dumb notion that the baddies who run everything can’t do terrible things to us without asking our permission first (a common theme in the folklore of vampires, demons, and other supernatural entities). But they can’t just ask, “Mind if we kill several hundred of you today?”, so they resort to seeding clues about their plans into episodes of The Simpsons. As reported by the Independent, predictive programming experts agree that the 2012 Pitbull/Shakira song “Get It Started” betrays prior knowledge of Flight 370’s disappearance, containing lines such as, “Now it’s off to Malaysia” and “Two passports, three cities, two countries, one day.” The lyrics “No Ali, No Frazier, but for now off to Malaysia” refer to the shady character known as Mr. Ali (no word yet on who the hell Frazier is), and the “two passports” are clearly a reference to the stolen Austrian and Italian ones Mr. Ali provided to two mystery passengers. The song also mentions Times Square, Tom Cruise, and Manila. I think this means that Tom Cruise is going to marry a Filipino ladyboy on New Year’s Eve.

No fewer than eight people share the writing credits for “Get It Started.” In addition to making me fearful about the future of pop music in general, this makes me doubtful that the Illuminati was involved. I could see letting Shakira in on a secret plan to kidnap a planeful of people – she could never become an effective whistleblower, because people are so busy staring at her that they rarely hear a word she’s saying. But seven other people? That’s just silly. Besides, if Morrissey didn’t predict MH370, then no one did.

4.   A Scary-Ass Machine or Something

Mike “Health Ranger” Adams, who was recently featured on Dr. Oz’s TV show, ponders the fate of the plane in this article at his Natural News site. He dismisses the conventional explanations,  one by one, before telling us that an “entirely new, mysterious and powerful” weapon can make airplanes vanish without trace.  Whoever controls this Aircraft-Disappearing Machine clearly has the capability to dominate the whole planet. Elsewhere on his website, however, Adams opines that a rogue nation has commandeered the plane and will soon be using it as a “stealth nuclear weapon.”

langoliers

Maybe it was these guys.

3.    China

This theory, first proposed by Reddit user Dark_Spectre, also revolves around Philip Wood, who was an IBM Technical Storage Executive for Malaysia. Since IBM was one of the companies implicated by Edward Snowden as helping the NSA spy on China, maybe the Chinese hijacked the flight to abduct and interrogate Wood. And maybe the U.S. found out about it, located the plane, and killed all the passengers to prevent the Chinese from learning anything. Or maybe, in bloody retaliation for NSA algorithms, China patiently waited nearly a year after Snowden’s IBM revelations to off Philip Wood in a manner that looks totally accidental. Makes sense.

Eric-Snowden1

Fail.

2.    Israel

Israel framed Iran. Without actually framing Iran. Yoichi Shimatsu aired this theory during an interview with conspiranoid radio host Jeff Rense (below). Citing alleged eyewitness reports from anonymous sources, “Jews did 9/11” researcher Christopher Bollyn reported that a lookalike of MH370 is being stored in a hangar at Tel Aviv Airport, possibly for use in a future false flag attack by Israel.

1.    Distraction

No matter what you talk about, some dickhole is going to inform you that there’s something more important to talk about. In Conspiracyland, this is taken to the nth extreme, creating elaborate Russian nesting dolls of derp. For example, after mentally disturbed mother Miriam Carey was gunned down for driving through a barricade in D.C., Jones declared that her death was simply a distraction from the government shutdown, while the shutdown was “political theater billed as a government shutdown”, while the political theatre was just globalists reinforcing a false left/right paradigm. Is everything a distraction? Just where do distractions stop and real events begin, guy?

In the case of Flight 370, people opined that it was a distraction from the Ukraine, One of these people was David Hawkins, of the aforementioned Abel Danger website.

Technically, everything on this planet distracts you from something else on this planet. No one has to deliberately engineer distractions in an age of commercial-free television, beer pong, and breastaurants.

Perhaps we shouldn’t judge any of these wonky theories too harshly, though. Reporter and CNN commentator Jeff Wise has candidly admitted in a piece for Canada’s National Post that he poured feverish enthusiasm and plenty of money into pursuing a theory that turned out to be flat-out wrong. Unlike a lot of the other MH370 armchair detectives, who will defend their discredited theories to the death, Wise has admitted his error, and he explains just how easy it is to fill in the blanks or craft wildly imaginative scenarios when there are so many unanswered questions, so many red herrings, so many unknowns.
Like Flight 19, Flight 370 seems destined to become one of the great unsolved mysteries of our time…and that means we’ll be seeing scores more wacky theories in years to come.

2013: A Very Bad Year for Psychics

A landmark year for extrasensory fail. 

mzarathustra1

Don’t Help Me, Rhonda

On June 6, 2011, an unassuming ranch near the town of Hardin, Texas (about an hour outside Houston) was swarmed by Liberty County sheriff’s deputies, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, and officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety. News choppers buzzed overheard as law enforcement fanned out over the property with cadaver dogs. Backhoes were brought in to excavate random spots.
This huge search effort was triggered by two phone calls to the Hays County Sheriff’s Office from a woman who identified herself only as “Angel”. She said the remains of at least 32 “sacrificed” children were concealed in the walls of a building on the property of Joe Bankson and Gena Charlton, and that messages were scrawled on these walls in blood. She also said the lives of three more children were in danger, hinting that two of them were  Jasmine and Mariana Pinales, who had been abducted by their 14-year-old sister in May (weirdly, they were no longer missing at the time of Angel’s phone calls – they had been found alive two weeks earlier, near Austin). Angel admitted she had received this information secondhand, from the ghosts of the children, but authorities felt obligated to investigate nonetheless. For one thing, Angel seemed familiar with the ranch. She knew its location and its layout, even though she didn’t seem to know much about the owners (she incorrectly identified the unemployed Joe Bankson as a carny).
The search quickly caught the attention of KPRC-TV and KHOU-TV in Houston, and news outlets around the world picked it up that afternoon. After Reuters erroneously reported that bodies had actually been found, Ed Lavendera of CNN tweeted that “at least 20” bodies had been found, someone at ABC News tweeted “‘Dozens of bodies’ found in mass Texas grave”, and the New York Times tweeted that up to 30 dismembered bodies were discovered. The Houston Chronicle reported a foul stench and traces of blood at the ranch. If Bankson and/or Charlton were responsible for all the bodies said to be buried there, he/they would have been the most prolific serial killer(s) the Houston region had seen since Dean Corll and his two teenage accomplices, back in the early ’70s.
Later in the evening, the AP revealed that the tip about bodies at the ranch might have come from a psychic. This was the first hint that the story could be bogus. The news agencies started to qualify their statements, tweeting phrases like “unconfirmed reports” and “conflicting information” (the Washington Post has compiled a timeline of some of these tweets).

The second hint? The search produced nothing. The blood mentioned by the Chronicle had come from a May suicide attempt by the boyfriend of Joe Bankson’s daughter, the source of the bad smell was trash, and there wasn’t a single headless corpse anywhere to be found. “Angel” turned out to be an area psychic by the name of Presley “Rhonda” Gridley. In an interview with KHOU, she made it clear that her information about dismembered corpses and endangered children at the ranch came solely from Jesus and 32 “angels” (the departed spirits of the children supposedly murdered by Bankson and Charlton). She did not explain how she was able to give a physical description of the property when her other details were so horrendously off.
Incredibly, she has never been charged with making a false report to police.

The entire incident echoed a fruitless search conducted in central Washington state in 1989. In that case, investigators were acting on a tip from the late Ted Gunderson, a retired FBI agent who considered himself an expert on ritual abuse, human sacrifice, and other things Satanic. During a taping of one of Geraldo Rivera’s many shows on the dangers of Satanism, Gunderson declared that a knowledgeable source had told him about mass graves containing countless the bodies of Satanic murder victims somewhere in Mason County, Washington. In response to the concerns of county residents, multiple agencies conducted helicopter and ground searches of the area. No trace of the “Satanic burial ground” was ever found.
That Geraldo broadcast I mentioned was mostly about the mass grave found in Matamoros. In that case, a group of drug runners with strange, cultish beliefs had ritualistically murdered several people to increase their luck and fortunes (that worked out really well for them). This was a big deal at the time. Now, drug cartels have considerably larger mass graves, and Geraldo isn’t saying boo about them. Huh.

In the Washington case, no private property was damaged, and no one’s reputation was harmed (unless you count Gunderson and Geraldo). The Texas case was much different. Bankson’s and Charlton’s land was riddled with holes, their house was trashed, and friends and acquaintances grew deeply suspicious of them.  Last year they filed a lawsuit against the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office for unlawful search and seizure, and against several media outlets (including most of those mentioned) for defamation. They also sued “Angel”, naming her as “Jane Doe” because the woman would not reveal her real name. They ultimately dropped the sheriff’s office and the media from their suit.
On May 7 of this year, Gridley was ordered to pay the Charltons $6.8 million in damages. This spells the end of the weird case for most people, but troubling questions remain. Why did Gridley target Bankson and Charlton, two people she apparently did not know? How did she know the layout of their property when she lived 800 miles north of it, in Stanton? Why has she not been charged with making a false report?
And when will the next massive, fruitless searched be launched on the say-so of some self-proclaimed seeress or cult expert?

Sylvia Browne

Louwana Miller was terrified when her 16-year-old daughter, Amanda Berry, failed to return home from her job at a Cleveland Burger King on April 21, 2003, just one day before her 17th birthday. Amanda had phoned to say she would be getting a ride home from work, and that was the last anyone heard from her. Miller knew her daughter hadn’t run away from home.
One week later, Louwana received a call from her daughter’s cell phone. A male voice said, “I have Amanda. She’s fine and will be coming home in a couple of days.” But Amanda never appeared.

Almost exactly a year after Amanda vanished, 14-year-old Gina DeJesus disappeared from the same street. The two girls were featured on America’s Most Wanted and Oprah. Then Montel Williams decided to invite Louwana on his show to ask the late Sylvia Browne about her daughter. Browne was accurate, at first. She correctly stated that Amanda had been wearing a jacket, and seemed very confident that only one person was responsible for her disappearance (at the time, Miller and the authorities believed three men were involved). She even gave a description of the perp that was remarkably on-target: “sort of Cuban-looking, short, kind of stocky build, heavyset…”, though she got the age wrong (21 or 22). Then she broke the bad news: Amanda was dead. Her body was “in water” somewhere.

Louwana Miller never entirely gave up the search for her daughter, but she did scale back her efforts after Browne told her Amanda was dead. Her health declined steadily. She died of heart failure in 2006.

On May 6 of this year, Amanda, Gina, and a third missing woman named Michelle Knight were rescued from a Cleveland house owned by Ariel Castro. All three had been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and abuse by Castro. Amanda had given birth to a daughter without medical assistance the year after her mother died.
Castro was Puerto Rican, not Cuban, and was in his 40s when he abducted his first known victim, Knight, in 2002.

The media was quick to pounce on Browne’s mistake, but this was just one of numerous epic blunders she had made over the years. She misled more grieving people than I can count, either giving them false hope that their deceased loved ones were alive, or smashing their hopes by declaring falsely that their loved ones were dead. She went to her grave without apologizing to even one of these people.
Furthermore, she didn’t even accurately predict her own death. On a May 2003 appearance on Larry King Live, she said she would die at the age of 88.

An Unsuccessful Success Story

Psychic detectives have an abysmal track record when it comes to actually solving crimes, as a previous series on this blog shows. One psychic seemed to have defied expectations this past summer, however, when she located the body of an 11-year-old boy in Menifee, California. Terry Smith Jr. had been reported missing by his mother on July 7. The community and law enforcement quickly mobilized to search the area.
On July 10, Pamela Ragland phoned the tip line set up for information related to Terry’s disappearance. Identifying herself as a psychic, Ragland said she had been experiencing visions of Terry lying on his side, as though sleeping. Riverside County Sheriff’s investigators, desperate for any lead, encouraged her to visit Menifee. She and her children were taken to the Smith property by an off-duty fireman. Within an hour, the Raglands came upon Terry’s remains. His body had been placed in a shallow grave beneath a tree.
The media lavished attention on Ragland’s astonishing “hit”, pointing out that she somehow knew her way around the Smith property. But a closer examination reveals that Ragland was literally stumbling around in the dark. After seeing the Smith home on TV, she was familiar enough with the property to point out a few landmarks. No psychic ability required. She didn’t even find Terry’s body; her 12-year-old daughter did. The only mystery connected to this story is how the grave was overlooked for days.
Skylor Atilano, Terry’s 16-year-old brother, has been charged with his murder. Skylor did not have access to a vehicle, so by necessity would have had to dispose of his brother’s body in the immediate area. Perhaps Ms. Ragland suspected as much, since Skylor was admittedly the last person to see Terry alive.

Sleazier Than Fiction

Jude Devereux is one of the top-selling romance novelists in the world. In 1991, she decided to end her four-year marriage to Claude White, and she feared that he (in an interesting reversal of gender roles) would take her to the cleaners in court. That was when she happened to meet a woman named Joyce Michaels in the Manhattan studio of a friend. Michaels revealed she was a psychic, operating out of an office in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and offered to help Devereux get through her divorce with relatively little trauma – for a price, of course. She then told Devereux precisely when White would file for divorce, and on what day the papers would arrive at her home.
Devereux says she was deeply skeptical of this seer until the papers arrived. Now convinced that Michaels possessed extraordinary powers, Devereux gave her $1 million to somehow make the divorce process easier. Michaels had convinced her the money was cursed, and promised to cleanse it of “evil” at the cathedral (a classic scam).
Devereux was so satisfied with the “results” that she continued to consult Michaels for years, giving her up to $20 million for various readings, consultations, and blessings.
What Devereux and other clients of Joyce Michaels didn’t know was that the woman was really Nancy “Rose” Marks, the matriarch of a family of psychic scammers who often used aliases. She did not have an office in St. Patrick’s cathedral. The Marks clan defrauded so many people that police set up a sting operation to catch them, codenamed Operation Crystal Ball. Several members of the extended Marks family were arrested in August 2011.
Nancy Marks was convicted of 14 counts of fraud in September, after Devereux and other victims testified against her.

The Iceman Lieth

Was Mafia assassin Richard Kuklinski full of sh**?

I’ve had Richard “Ice Man” Kuklinski’s claims on my mind for some time now, and with the FBI recently scouring Detroit for Jimmy Hoffa and a movie starring Michael Shannon as Kuklinski being released in May, this seems as good a time as any to examine what the notorious hitman had to say prior to his death in 2006.

kuklinski
Who was Richard Kuklinski? 

Born in 1935 to an alcoholic, abusive railroad brakeman and a fanatically Catholic mother who also administered beatings freely, Richard Leonard Kuklinski dropped out of the eighth grade to become a full-time hoodlum, stealing cars and robbing houses in Jersey City and Hoboken.

At 19 he became a serial killer, murdering homeless men in the alleys of New York, Newark and Hoboken. He claimed he killed at least 50 men just for the pleasure it gave him. He experimented with different killing techniques, as he would throughout his life. He was soon working as an enforcer and contract killer for New Jersey’s DeCavalcante crime family, which would later serve as the model for the fictional DiMeo crime family in The Sopranos.
At 6’4″ and 250 pounds, with a hair-trigger temper and an array of weapons, Kuklinski was an incredibly deadly force. He was such a skilled, trusted hitman by 1960 that he began doing work for the New York crime families, earning up to five figures per job. Yet he continued to live in low-income housing in Jersey City, thanks to his penchant for gambling.  (1)

He married a good Catholic girl, Barbara Pedrici, in 1962. This was his second marriage. He had two sons (the elder was Richard Jr.) with his first wife. He claims he sliced off his first wife’s nipples when he found her in bed with another man, but didn’t officially separate from her until the eve of his marriage to Barbara.  (1)

Though Barbara had three miscarriages and a difficult fourth pregnancy in 1962 and ’63, and the couple had no money, Kuklinski didn’t take a single contract during this period. He worked a series of low-paying, menial “straight” jobs. The closest he came to organized crime was bootlegging copies of cartoons and X-rated movies while working in a film lab. Then, with two other guys, he reverted to stealing truckloads of merchandise. He shot two men in a fit of road rage, killed four others when a buyer who tried to renegotiate the price of a stolen load of wristwatches, and tortured and killed two men who attempted to steal a load of stolen goods from his crew.
So far as his family knew, though, Kuklinski’s only job was copying cartoons in a Hell’s Kitchen lab. They weren’t aware that he was actually copying porn movies in a lab controlled by a member of the Gambino crime family. He worked long hours, often staying in the lab through the night. When a union representative confronted him about this, he killed the man and disguised his death as a hanging in a public park. In 1971, he murdered a bouncer at the Peppermint Lounge for showing him disrespect.
It was around this time that he quit his lab job and began distributing and financing porn. One Christmas, he killed a porn producer who refused to repay a $1500 loan, even though the man’s brother was a captain in the Gambino family.  (1)

In the early ’70s, Kuklinski got himself heavily into debt with a Gambino associate who was partners with Roy DeMeo, and DeMeo pistol-whipped him. But he ended up being so impressed by Kuklinski’s fearlessness – a quality they shared – that he began giving him jobs. Once again, he was a hitman and enforcer for the Mafia.

demeo

Roy DeMeo

DeMeo had worked his way up in the Gambino crime family. His headquarters was the Gemini Lounge, a seedy bar on Troy Avenue, Queens. DeMeo was involved in a broad range of criminal enterprises, notably stripping stolen cars, but in the ’70s he assembled a team of hitmen and made contract killings his specialty. His outfit became known as the Murder Machine. By the early ’80s, he had attracted the attention of the Organized Crime Task Force of the Queens D.A.’s office. Detectives Kenny McCabe, Joe Wendling, and John Murphy put the Gemini Lounge under unofficial surveillance, learning the faces and names of every frequent visitor to the lounge.  (2)

By 1969 the Kuklinskis had three children, two daughters and a son. In the mid-’70s Richard purchased a lovely three-bedroom split level in Dumont, New Jersey, where he and Barbara hosted neighbourhood barbecues and pool parties. They went to church every Sunday, and the kids were enrolled in private Catholic schools.
Meanwhile, Kuklinski killed one of his two partners in the porn distribution business on DeMeo’s orders. Immediately afterward, he shot a stranger in another fit of road rage.  (1)

Altogether, Kuklinski killed over 100 people in at least 18 states, including Hawaii.  (1, 3)
In the ’70s and ’80s, he was involved in some of the most infamous killings in Mafia history (more on those shortly). But it was his crew of relatively small-time cat burglars that brought him down; after killing no fewer than four of his associates between ’81 and ’83, Kuklinski finally caught the attention of New Jersey law enforcement. A sting operation resulted in his arrest in ’86, and in ’88 he was convicted of four murders (a fifth case against him was dropped for lack of evidence).

Between 1991 and his death in 2006, Kuklinski gave a series of chilling interviews to HBO. These were turned into three America Undercover documentaries. In the first, chewing gum and wearing a sweatshirt, he calmly ran down his crimes – the cyanide, the strangulation, the time he wore elevator shoes to infiltrate a disco. He showed a flicker of humanity just once, as he talked about his ex-wife and children.
In this first interview, he made no mention of his most dramatic claim – that he, along with three other men, had kidnapped and murdered Jimmy Hoffa.
In his second HBO interview, aired in 2001, he explicitly stated that he did not kill Hoffa (but knew who did).  (3, 4)
Then, just before his death in 2006, he supposedly gave a very different story to true crime writer Philip Carlo, who documented it in his book The Ice Man.

Hoffa

hoffa

The task of making Hoffa “disappear forever” had been handed to a childhood acquaintance of Kuklinski, identified only as “Tony P.” or “Tony Pro” by Philip Carlo (obviously meant to be Anthony Provenanzo, a Genovese caporegime who was also  vice president for Teamsters Local 560 in Union City, New Jersey).  (5)
Provenzano enlisted Richard and two other Jersey men to help him. Kuklinski was told only that a union guy in Detroit was making trouble for the Genovese family, and had to be killed. That was all he wanted, or needed, to know.
On the afternoon of July 30, 1975, the quartet drove to the Machus Red Fox restaurant outside Detroit, as arranged, and Tony P. conversed briefly with Hoffa in the parking lot. Then Hoffa got into the car, and Tony drove several miles before giving Kuklinski the signal to knock the mark unconscious with a “jawbreaker” and stab him to death with one powerful thrust of his hunting knife. They bundled the body into the trunk, and Kuklinski was left with the risky job of driving it back to Jersey while the other three guys caught a bus out of town.
Back in New Jersey, Kuklinski took Hoffa’s body to a Mafia-affiliated junkyard in Kearney and deposited it into a 50-gallon drum, which he then burned and buried on the property.
Kuklinski thought the man had looked familiar, but didn’t discover who he was until later.
Around 1978, one of the killers began to talk to the FBI. Kuklinski was hired to take him out. This man, according to Carlo’s book, was Salvatore Briguglio, an official in Union City’s Local 560. Prosecutors subpoenaed Briguglio and several other suspected conspirators to appear before a federal grand jury on December 4, 1975, but they could never pin Hoffa’s disappearance on them.  (1, 5)
In March 1978, Briguglio was shot to death near the Andrea Doria Social Club in New York’s Little Italy. This seemingly had nothing to do with Hoffa; Briguglio had been scheduled to appear in court with Anthony Provenzano and Harold Konigsberg for the 1961 murder of Anthony Castellito.  (5)
According to several people, including his wife, Hoffa had expected to meet with Anthony Giacalone of Detroit and Anthony Provenzano on the afternoon he vanished. But Provenzano wasn’t even in Detroit that day; he was in Union City. The car that picked up Hoffa was likely driven by a man Hoffa looked upon as a son, Charles O’Brien.  (5,6)

The following account is drawn from the work of Dan Moldea, author of The Hoffa Wars. He has pieced together what federal investigators believe is the closest we will ever get to the truth about Hoffa’s death. Some of the information came from Ralph Picardo, a former driver for Provenzano.
Hoffa had gotten on the wrong side of Provenzano and Pennsylvania crime boss Russell Bufalino. Hoffa and Provenzano even came to blows in prison. On the morning of July 30, O’Brien picked up three of Provenzano’s henchmen at a Detroit-area airport and drove them to a house where he was staying, not far from the Machus Red Fox restaurant. These three men were Sal Briguglio, his brother Gabriel, and and another New Jersey Teamster official named Thomas Andretta. All three would subsequently be named as the suspected assassins by the federal grand jury. Moldea suspects that Frank Sheeran of Teamsters Local 326 in Wilmington, Delaware, was another conspirator/witness.
In the afternoon, O’Brien picked Hoffa up at the restaurant and drove him to the house, where the men were waiting for him.  (5)
Picardo alleged that Hoffa’s killers stuffed him into a 55-gallon drum, loaded him onto a truck in Detroit, and shipped him to an unknown destination. His remains were later squashed in a car-compacting machine. This, too, was brought before the grand jury.  (6)

Kuklinski claimed that after Briguglio started talking in ’78, the barrel containing Hoffa’s scorched remains was dug up, squashed in a car-compacting machine, and shipped off to Japan as scrap metal.  (1, 4)

Though he had talked about his work at great length with the HBO crew years earlier, Kuklinski waited over 20 years to publicly confess his role in Hoffa’s disappearance. I don’t know how you feel about all this, but my response was basically

nope

The thing with Hoffa’s disappearance is that isn’t as mysterious as the average person thinks it is. As you can see from the above passage, the feds had a pretty good idea who was involved, and who was connected to those guys. Kuklinski’s name did not come up once. Former FBI agent Robert Garrity, one of the investigators of Hoffa’s disappearance said, “I’ve never heard of him, and I’ve never heard of the writer [Carlo].” Bob Buccino, the former head of the New Jersey Division of Criminal Justice’s organized crime division and a member of the task force who ultimately brought Kuklinski down, was reportedly also skeptical of the claims in Carlo’s book.  (7)
In fact, you’re not going to find a single seasoned Hoffa or Mafia investigator who buys Kuklinski’s story. Yet Carlo would have us believe that this hulking maniac, who would literally murder other drivers just for looking at him funny, was so skillful and so meticulous in his work that he managed to slip past every Mafia-savvy federal agent, police officer, and investigative reporter in the nation for nearly 30 years, like Caspar on steroids.

totallylegit
Also, who would drive from Detroit to Jersey with a former Teamster boss in his trunk? They don’t have car-crushing machines in Detroit?

Now let’s look at three other infamous hits in which Kuklinski was supposedly involved: The murder of Bonanno family boss Carmine Galante; the assassination of the head of the Gambino crime family, Paul Castellano; and the death of Roy DeMeo.

Carmine “Lilo” Galante was a big-time narcotics trafficker, instrumental in the French Connection, and he took over control of the Bonanno family after Philip Rastelli went to prison in 1974. The other four New York families deeply resented Galante’s domination of the drug trade and its profits, so they began plotting to take him out.
On the afternoon of July 12, 1979, three men in ski masks burst onto the patio of Joe and Mary’s Italian-American Restaurant in Brooklyn and opened fire on Galante, his cousin, and three other members of the Bonanno family. Galante never saw it coming; the little man nicknamed for a cigar died with one clamped between his teeth. Only two of the men survived, and these two (Baldo Amato and Cesare Bonventre) were suspected of having some involvement in the hit.  (8)

galante crime scene

The Galante crime scene

Numerous men have been floated as suspects over the years, but Kuklinski has never been on the radar in relation to the murder of Carmine Galante; the only person to suggest he could have been one of the gunmen was Kuklinski himself. His version of the story is extremely detailed – right down to the restaurant decor and the “rubbery waves of heat” coming from the sidewalk that day – but it simply doesn’t match up with the event. Kuklinski’s claims are in bold, with the facts as they are told in Selwyn Raab’s Five Families following:

– He identified the owner of the restaurant as Galante’s cousin Mary. Joe and Mary’s was actually owned by Galante’s distant cousin, Giuseppe Turano, who was one of the three men killed that day.
– Galante entered the restaurant with two guys, one of whom – Bonventre – was in on the job (as DeMeo explained to Kuklinski). Galante showed up alone that day, dropped off by a nephew. Everyone who was on the patio during the shooting had joined Galante later. Clearly, Kuklinski and/or Carlo relied on popular accounts of the shooting, which indicated (erroneously) that Amato and Bonventre were acting as bodyguards for Galante that day and accompanied him into the restaurant.
– Kuklinski arrived before Galante and behaved like a regular customer until the other two gunmen appeared. Surely, Giuseppe’s son John – who was shot by one of the three men – would have noticed an unmasked gunman moving toward the patio. Everyone agrees that all three shooters entered and exited the restaurant at the same time, wearing masks.
– Kuklinski started toward the exit as soon as the other two assassins started firing, got into a car driven by DeMeo, and was gone by the time it was all over. Again, all three gunman left the restaurant together and got into the same getaway car.
– DeMeo told him that one of the guys with Galante – Bonventre – would leave the table at some point, giving the signal. Kuklinski watched him exit the restaurant. By all other accounts, Bonventre did not leave the patio. He remained there throughout the attack and exited the restaurant shortly after the shooters did. In fact, that’s what tipped people off that he could have been involved in the hit; he and and Amato were almost literally on the heels of the three assassins, yet made no effort to stop them.

This cockamamie story serves to expose other tales Kuklinski told as bogus. For instance, DeMeo and his boss Anthony “Nino” Gaggi were supposedly so impressed by his expert handling of the Galante murders that they cut him in on a huge cocaine deal, even sending him to Rio to negotiate a shipment. But if Kuklinski didn’t kill Galante, why would Gaggi reward him in this way?

Castellano

Paul Castellano

Paul Castellano

Paul Castellano was made head of the Gambino family not so much because he earned it, but because he had married Carlo Gambino’s sister. This gave him a lot of pull, but by 1985 John Gotti was plotting to take him out and replace him. Kuklinski claims he was given the contract to shoot Castellano’s right-hand man and chauffeur, Tommy Bilotti, by Sammy Gravano. Someone else would take care of Castellano, he was told.  (1)
It would not be possible to overestimate the importance of this assassination in Mafia history. Gotti, a relative unknown, shot to gangland superstardom because of this hit. Ever see that A&E show Growing Up Gotti? Yeah, well, you wouldn’t have had to suffer through that if it wasn’t for this hit. It was a seismic event, and once the dust settled, the terrain of the Gambino family was never the same.
The plan was cooked up by Gotti, Robert DiBernardo, Joseph Armone, and Gravano. Their people allegedly broached the idea with three of the five New York families, and received unofficial sanction for their hostile takeover. Frank DeCicco provided vital inside information; Castellano would be meeting with a trusted group of capos – himself included – at Sparks Steakhouse in Manhattan at 5:00 PM on December 16, 1985. Gotti chose eleven assassins for the job. Four of them would wait near the entrance to Sparks and take out Castellano and Bilotti as they approached.
The hit went off precisely as planned. The four gunmen swarmed Castellano’s Lincoln Town Car and fired a hail of bullets into the two men. All team members escaped in getaway cars.  (8)
Again, Kuklinski’s account deviates significantly from the known details of the event. His claims are in bold:

– Gravano told him straight out that Bilotti was his target. The eleven guys handpicked by Gotti were not given their targets until just hours before the hit.
– He walked to Sparks by himself, window-shopping along the way. He did not know who the other assassins were, or where they were. The assassins met in a nearby park for a “dress rehearsal” shortly before 5:00.
– He chose a spot across the street from Sparks. The gunmen had already selected their positions by the time they arrived. This would not have been left to chance; it was a tightly coordinated hit.
– He fled on foot and hailed a cab. The assassins had getaway cars waiting for them on Second Avenue. What kind of hitman hails a cab from a crime scene, anyway?

Gravano would later cut a deal and testify against Gotti, admitting to his role in the murder of Castellano. He did not mention Kuklinski. Even after Kuklinski fingered him for the murder of Peter Calabro, Gravano never explicitly stated that he knew him, though it certainly would have been to his advantage to finger Kuklinski for the Castelleno hit. “Yeah, I know that guy. I hired him to take out Bilotti.”

I will repeat that no one familiar with organized crime recognized Kuklinski after his arrest. In Selwyn Raab’s Five Families, his name is given as “Kukinski”. This might say more about Raab than it does about Kuklinski, but isn’t it curious that a journalist who followed Mafia affairs for the New York Times for a quarter of a century had never heard of the guy? Just how does a Polish hitman standing six and a half feet tall slip under the radar?

DeMeo

In Carlo’s book, Kuklinski never really respects Roy DeMeo. He’s grateful for the work DeMeo gives him, but he secretly nurses resentment over DeMeo’s bullying and plans to kill him someday.
In February 1983, he finally got his chance. DeMeo feared murder charges would soon be laid against him for the murders of “Jimmy Esposito” and his son (Nino Gaggi was already in jail for this crime). Kuklinski feared that DeMeo, desperate as he was, would roll over on him. So he shot DeMeo as they were parked in DeMeo’s car near Sheepshead Bay. He placed the body in the trunk and strolled away.
Even Carlo admits, in a postscript to his book, that Kuklinski probably wasn’t involved in DeMeo’s death. The generally held view is that Castellano ordered him killed because he couldn’t be trusted, and the hit was carried out by one or more of DeMeo’s own crew members. Again, several men have been named as strong suspects, and Kuklinski was never mentioned by anyone. Also, the motive he gives doesn’t make a lick of sense, and his details are again inconsistent with known facts. For instance, the Eppolito (not Esposito) murders had occurred four years earlier; Gaggi had already served his time, and the case was closed.

Anthony Bruno left the Castellano and DeMeo murders out of his 1994 biography of Kuklinski, The Iceman: The True Story of a Cold-Blooded Killer. He has explained that he simply couldn’t verify them.

Kuklinski also claimed he was in on the murder of John Favara, a neighbour of John Gotti. Favara accidentally struck and killed 12-year-old Frank Gotti, John’s youngest son, with his car in the spring of 1980. Kuklinski said Gotti’s brother Gene, a few other men and himself beat and tortured Favara to death. Several men have been named in relation to the case, and one of them was Gene Gotti, but Kuklinski has never been mentioned – except by himself and Carlo.  (1)

Some of Kuklinski’s other dramatic – and unprovable – claims:

  • When he was 5, his parents told him that his 10-year-old brother Florian had been struck and killed by a car, and he believed them. Years later, however, he claimed that Florian really died from one of their father’s beatings, and his parents told police Florian had tumbled down a staircase. How would he know this? It seems unlikely that either parent would ever admit to obscuring the cause of their child’s death, and Kuklinski obviously didn’t witness his brother’s demise.
  • He accidentally beat a neighbourhood bully named Charley Lane to death with a clothing rod from his closet when he was just 13 or 14 years old. He stole a car and drove the corpse two hours south to a swamp in the Pine Barrens, where he removed all the boy’s teeth and hacked off his fingers to delay identification of the body. (1)
    I can find no information on a Jersey City boy disappearing or being found dead in 1948 or 1949. There are at least two versions of the story; in Carlo’s book, young Kuklinski is already crime-savvy enough to steal a car, make a clean getaway, and dispose of a body, while in Bruno’s book he merely leaves the body in the courtyard of his apartment building. Carlo states the boy’s body was not found.
  • Between 1955 and 1960, he killed no fewer than three people after disputes in bars. His second murder was committed outside a Hoboken pool hall about 5 years after he killed Lane. A young Irish policeman who was getting on his nerves had fallen asleep in his car, so Kuklinski set it on fire. This man is known as “Doyle” in Carlo’s book. There may be at least two versions of this story, because elsewhere Kuklinski claimed he beat a man to death with a pool cue when he was 18. In 1959 he stabbed another man and beat a bouncer to death with a hammer.
  • In his late teens and early 20s, he headed a crime ring of 4 or 5 other young guys. They called themselves the Coming Up Roses. The gang was approached by a member of the DeCavalcante crime family and asked, point-blank, to “take care of” a man who was causing trouble. It was Kuklinski who walked up to the mark’s parked car outside a Hoboken bar one night and shot him in the head with a .32 revolver. Each member of the gang received $500. After that they were given many jobs, including stealing $3 million in cash and gold from an armoured-truck warehouse in North Bergen.
    This robbery would have been bigger than the Great Brink’s Robbery of 1950 (which was the nation’s largest robbery at that time), yet it didn’t even make the New Jersey papers. Huh.
    Later, under orders from the DeCavalantes, Kuklinski killed two of his own crew members. The names Philip Carlo gives for these two men are apparently pseudonyms.
    All of this supposedly occurred before Kuklinski was 19.
  • In February 1956, he killed three men who confronted him in Jersey City and dumped their bodies in a cave in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
  • He was the only hitman known to have worked for all five New York crime families (plus the two in New Jersey), according to Philip Carlo’s book.
  • One of the porn films he copied at the lab where he worked in the ’60s was Dogf**ker, starring Linda Lovelace. But that movie was made in the ’70s. This is just one of numerous examples of Kuklinski and/or Philip Carlo juicing up the narrative with BS details. Remember that bouncer he killed at the Peppermint Lounge in ’71? Well, that bar closed in 1965 and didn’t reopen until 1980.
  • In Florida, he killed a rapist (on DeMeo’s orders) by cutting off chunks of his flesh (including his penis) and setting him adrift in the ocean to be devoured by sharks. Immediately afterward, he killed three young men at a rest stop because they had taunted him on the road.
  • He blew off the head of a motorist stopped at a traffic light with a double-barreled shotgun, from a motorcycle.
  • Strictly as an experiment, he shot a random pedestrian in the head with a crossbow.
  • In Honolulu, he threw a man off the balcony at a five-star hotel.
  • After a robbery in New Jersey, he tired of the bickering of his four cohorts and decided to feed them cyanide-laced sandwiches. All four men died within minutes. He did not dispose of the bodies. The following day, he poisoned the man who had arranged the job.
    Four men being found dead in the same room would be a big deal, even in New Jersey. Yet this didn’t make the papers, either.
  • On more than one occasion, he took victims to a rat-infested cave in Pennsylvania, cocooned them with duct tape, and left them there to be devoured. These murders-by-rat were supposedly videotaped, with a motion sensor triggering a light as the rats moved in to feast, and Kuklinski says he gave the tapes to his clients to prove the “marks” had suffered.
  • He poisoned several people with cyanide in restaurants, while dining with his victims, yet managed to get out the door without being apprehended or questioned. Each and every one of these deaths, he claims, was attributed to heart attacks – meaning the EMTs and medical examiners somehow failed to detect any of the telltale signs of cyanide poisoning (cyanide rictus, the distinctive odour of almonds, etc.).
  • He poisoned more than one victim with cyanide merely by spilling it on their clothes. He would approach the mark in a bar, “accidentally” dump his cyanide-laced drink on the guy, then walk away. The cyanide, he explained, would gradually soak through the victims’ clothing and into their skin.

Then there’s the issue of the ice cream truck assassin…

Who was Robert “Mister Softee” Prongay? 

Kuklinski supposedly met Robert Prongay (spelled Pronge by Carlo) in the early ’80s, at a New Jersey hotel. He and Prongay were possibly stalking the same victim, and they quickly discovered they were fellow assassins. They enthusiastically traded techniques and war stories. Prongay claimed to be a former Special Forces member, trained in the use of explosives and poisons. Kuklinski said he was particularly impressed by Prongay’s use of a Mister Softee ice cream van as a surveillance vehicle, his ingenious use of cyanide in spray form, his remotely-controlled grenades, and his habit of freezing bodies before he dumped them to obscure the estimated time of death. Kuklinski began adopting some of Pronay’s methods in his own work. Prongay, in turn, was fascinated by Kuklinski’s use of rats.

Ice Cream Man

TV Tropes has an extensive list of killer ice cream men under the label “Bad Humor Truck”. Zero points for originality, Ice Man.

Their friendship came to an abrupt end in 1984. First, Prongay asked Kuklinski to kill his wife and young son for him. Then he told Kuklinski of his plan to poison a community reservoir just to kill members of a single family. Outraged, Kuklinski shot him.

What do we really know about Robert Prongay? Basically, nothing. We are told by Carlo that he was found shot to death in his ice cream truck in 1984, but his death didn’t make the papers. Other sources state that his body was discovered hanging in a warehouse on Tonnelle Avenue. There are no known photos of him. His background is a blank. No one in the world – other than Kuklinski – has ever talked about the guy. Carlo tells us Kuklinski pled guilty to his murder in 2004.
There are several possibilities here. One is that an ice cream assassin really was tooling the streets of North Bergen in the ’70s and ’80s, stashing bodies in his freezer. Another is that Kuklinski really did know a criminal ice cream man, and created a bullshit story around the guy, transforming him from a small-time hood into a crack military-trained assassin to obscure the unimpressive truth.

The Prongay conundrum turned out to be the tip of an iceberg. The more I delved into Kuklinski’s world, the less credible he became. Nagging doubts and unresolved issues multiplied, until I was finally faced with some deeply troubling questions.

Did Kuklinski really work for Roy DeMeo?

I began to realize that there isn’t a lot of concrete evidence actually connecting Kuklinski to DeMeo. The only person besides Kuklinski to publicly declare that Kuklinski was an associate of DeMeo is another highly questionable character by the name of Greg Bucceroni. This fellow crawled out of the woodwork a couple of years ago, telling Dr. Phil and any journalist who would listen that he was a Gambino associate at the same time as Kuklinski, that he had been a teenage prostitute for the Gambino family, that the Mafia tried to hire him to kill Mumia Abu-Jamal prior to his arrest, and that Philly businessman Ed Savitz once tried to pimp him out to disgraced Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky. Bucceroni alleges that Kuklinski often traveled between Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York on behalf of DeMeo and Robert DiBernadino, trafficking in illegal porn, working as an enforcer, and of course murdering people.
To date, there is no solid evidence that supports any of Bucceroni’s stories. Not even the Philadelphia Daily News, a glorified tabloid, really bought into him. In fact, reporter William Bender essentially called him out as a liar. The Patriot-News reporter who broke the Sandusky story, Sara Ganim, said when she first spoke to Bucceroni, he presented her with fresh allegations against the coach and other members of what he said was a vast pedophile ring, but couldn’t or wouldn’t provide any details. He said he didn’t know the surnames of his abusers. Later, however, he gave a laundry list of prominent names to other media outlets. When Ganim decided not to run with his unverifiable accusations, Bucceroni resorted to sending her harassing emails and naming her in profanity-laced tweets. Other writers who have had dealings with Bucceroni report similar experiences. Check out Kyle Scott’s posts on Bucceroni at Crossing Broad for more info.
So what we seem to have here is one conman propping up the stories of another conman. Interesting stories? Sure. Convincing evidence? Nope.
Bucceroni is the one and only person who has ever named Kuklinski as a close associate of DeMeo, though several members of DeMeo’s crew became informants.

In their 1992 book Murder Machine, Jerry Capeci and Gerry Mustain didn’t mention Kuklinski at all. Capeci does not buy his stories about Hoffa, Castellano, and DeMeo, and refers to him  as “heretofore unknown”. In other words, while intensively researching DeMeo and his crew, Capeci and Mustain didn’t hear squat about a gigantic Polish hitman.

In The Ice Man, Carlo explains that informant Freddie DiNome tipped off investigators to Kuklinski’s work for DeMeo. I can find no evidence for this. If you come across some, kindly let me know.

On the other hand, the film lab where Kuklinski copied porn was linked to the Gambino family; it was owned by Robert DiBernardi, and one of the theatres he sold stolen porn to was owned by DeMeo. And Kenny McCabe of the NYPD allegedly confirmed to author Anthony Bruno that Kuklinski’s vehicle had been parked at the Gemini Lounge in Brooklyn on several occasions in the early ’80s, when DeMeo was under surveillance. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean he worked for DeMeo outside the film lab. 

Was he a hitman?

Six of the seven murders that can be linked to Kuklinski are those of his own associates, people who worked with him on relatively minor jobs involving theft, or people who owed money: Robert Prongay, George Malliband, Louis Masgay, Gary Smith, Paul Hoffman, and Daniel Deppner. Then there is the case of Peter Calabro, which is rather questionable. All seven murders were committed within a short timespan (198o-1984). Kuklinski was convicted of two of them in 1988, pled guilty to two others, and (according to Carlo) pled guilty to the murders of Pronge and Calabro in 2004.

The first murder that can be definitely linked to him was committed in 1981. Louis Masgay, 44, purchased a lot of stolen merchandise from Kuklinski’s buddy Phil Solimene to stock a little store he owned in Paterson, and one day Phil and Kuklinski decided to rob and kill him. Richard wrapped the body in plastic and tipped it into a cold-water well near a warehouse in North Bergen. He wanted to try freezing a body, as Mister Softee sometimes did.
George Malliband was killed in the first week of February, 1982. A small-time hustler from Pennsylvania, friendly with Kuklinski, Malliband supposedly owed DeMeo $35,000. He tried to weasel his way out of paying on time by hinting that he could harm Kuklinski’s family…and Kuklinski, though brutally abusive to his wife, was so protective of his daughters that he would actually spy on them during parties. He was instantly enraged. He shot Malliband five times, shoved his body into a barrel by removing one leg, and dumped the barrel on the grounds of a chemical plant.
The plant owner found the barrel almost immediately, and it didn’t take police long to learn that Richard Kuklinski was the last person to see Malliband alive.
Meanwhile, DeMeo had decided to switch coke suppliers, and had no intention of paying for the last shipment he received from his original suppliers, a pair of Brazilian brothers. He wanted Kuklinski to travel to Rio a second time and take out both brothers. That’s how Kuklinski became an international assassin. It would not be his last overseas job, he claimed.  (1)

One murder that has been linked to Kuklinski serves as the strongest evidence that he was, in fact, a Mafia-linked hitman. Yet this case is extremely problematic. The hit was allegedly ordered in 1980 by Gambino underboss Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, and the mark was a crooked NYPD detective by the name of Peter Calabro. The exact reasons for the hit aren’t known, but it has been alleged that Calabro’s former in-laws suspected him in the 1977 drowning death of his wife, Carmella, and turned to Gravano for “help” (in the Carlo/Kuklinski version of the story, Calabro hired DeMeo himself to kill Carmella).

Gravano

Sammy Gravano

Here’s how the murder went down, according to Kuklinski: He waited in his van near Calabro’s home in Saddle River, New Jersey, maintaining radio contact with Gravano, who was tailing Calabro. When Calabro attempted to drive around the van, Kuklinski fired the shotgun given to him by Gravano through the windshield of his Honda Civic, killing him with a single shot.  (1, 4)

The murder remained unsolved for over two decades. In 2003, Gravano was charged with soliciting Calabro’s murder. Why? Because Kuklinski took credit for the hit and told the feds it was Gravano who hired him. Beyond that, there is no evidence connecting Kuklinski to Calabro’s murder. Kuklinski had kept this murder under his hat until 2001, when he was interviewed by HBO for the second time.
He agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence (rather than a death sentence), and he also agreed to testify against Gravano. The young state police detectives who questioned Kuklinski claim he provided details that only the killer would know.  (1)  Just what those details are remains a mystery. And no one has answered  a rather obvious question: Why would Gravano, one of Mafiadom’s most prolific hitman himself, hire Kuklinski to do a job like this? He had to hire someone else for the Castellano hit because it was done on a street crawling with Christmas shoppers and steakhouse patrons who could recognize him, but he could easily have pulled off a covert nighttime hit like the Calabro shooting himself. It doesn’t make much sense. Several jailhouse informants have stated that Gravano bragged about killing Calabro himself, for whatever that’s worth.
At any rate, Kuklinski died before Gravano went to trial. The murder charges were dropped for lack of evidence.

The third and fourth murders for which Kuklinski was convicted in ’88 were those of Gary Smith and Daniel Deppner. In late 1981, Percy House, one of the members of a small burglary ring Richard ran, was arrested, and fingered Kuklinski as the boss, though he knew Kuklinski only as “Big Rich”.
Later, the ex-wife of missing crew member Danny Deppner provided state police detective Patrick Kane with Richard’s full name. This woman told Kane that Kuklinski was a hitman, and that he and Deppner had murdered crew member Gary Smith in December 1982 by giving him a poisoned hamburger, then strangling him. Sure enough, Detective Kane learned, Smith’s body had been found stuffed beneath a bed at the York Motel in North Bergen two days after Christmas in 1982. Several people had rented the room without noticing it.

York Motel

Worst housekeeping ever.

In May 1983, Deppner’s body was found near a reservoir in West Milford. He had been poisoned with cyanide, then shot. It would later emerge that he had been killed in the apartment of Richie Peterson, boyfriend of Kuklinski’s elder daughter, Merrick. Peterson had even helped Richard dispose of the body. Kuklinski told young Richie that Deppner had died of a drug overdose, and Richie believed him.
Then came the discovery that gave Kuklinski his nickname, the Ice Man. In August 1983, Louis Masgay’s partially defrosted corpse was found in Rockland County, New York (by other accounts, he was found in Palisades Interstate Park near Orangeburg, New Jersey). Though the corpse appeared fresh, an autopsy revealed shards of ice in his chest cavity, indicating he could have died much earlier.
It was Percy House who broke the case open, finally admitting to Detective Kane that he knew “Big Rich” had killed Masgay, Smith, and Paul Hoffman. Then Kane learned that a fourth guy, George Malliband, had an appointment with Kuklinski on the day he ended up in a barrel. Kukinski’s attorney would try to pin everything on House.
The Masgay case contains a mystery: How did Kuklinski freeze the body? Carlo claims it was kept in an ice-cold well, while the authorities seem to believe it was kept in an industrial freezer. So far as we, though, Kuklinski didn’t have access to a freezer large enough to hold a man’s body. 

Pat Kane worked obsessively on the Kuklinski cases for over four years. Initially, his bosses didn’t think there was anything to them because the MOs were so different in each murder: Strangulation, shooting, poisoning. How could they possibly be the work of one individual, a family man? Kuklinski was a “film distributor” on paper, and had a clean record (with just two complaints for road rage incidents).
Nonetheless, Kane was certain he was on to something. And he kept hearing rumours that Kuklinski was not only a killer, but  a hitman with Mafia ties. Given the body count, that wasn’t hard for Kane to believe. So he cooked up a plan to lure Kuklinski with a decoy client, an undercover cop. The man selected for this job was an enthusiastic ATF agent, Dominick Polifrone. In early 1985, Phil Solimene agreed to introduce him to Kuklinski as a weapons dealer.
It wasn’t until September 1986 that Polifrone finally met Kuklinski face-to-face. Kuklinski asked him to acquire some cyanide, and Polifrone asked for some firearms. Unaware that their phone conversation was being recorded, Kuklinski presented one of his associates (identified as “John Spasudo” in Carlo’s book) as an arms dealer who could get Dominick some “metal” for an IRA client. The two men then chatted about cyanide and all the interesting ways there are to kill people. Kuklinski was admitting, for the record, that he had murdered people.
They arranged to meet at a rest stop on October 2 so Kuklinski could hand over a “hit kit” consisting of a gun and silencer. As they hovered over the trunk of Kuklinski’s car, Dominick floated the idea of poisoning a wealthy young client by cutting his cocaine with cyanide. Kuklinski took the bait, telling Polifrone it could be done. Again, the conversation was recorded.
On Halloween, they arranged to meet up at the rest stop for a third time. This time, Dominick would bring the young coke buyer he supposedly wanted Richard to kill. Detective Paul Smith posed as the buyer. Kuklinski didn’t show. He was too busy conducting business in South Carolina and Zurich, according to Carlo’s book. The team waited tensely until another meeting was set up for December 6. This was a key meeting, because Kuklinski finally named two of the people he had killed: Deppner and Smith. During and after a fourth meeting, on December 12, he and Polifrone made arrangements to meet up again five days later and poison the coke buyer with a cyanide-laced sandwich; Dominick said he could supply the cyanide and the sandwich, which seemed to suit Kuklinski just fine.
On December 17, Polifrone handed Kuklinski a bagful of egg salad sandwiches and a tiny vial of white powder that looked like cyanide. He would pick up their mark and bring him back to the rest stop in about half an hour, he said. Kuklinski said he would swap his car for a van (a safe place to poison the buyer) and return to the rest stop in twenty minutes.
It didn’t take him long to realize the cyanide was fake. He pulled his car over and tested some of it on a stray dog – to absolutely no effect.  (1)

State police detectives were staking out his house in Dumont. They watched him return home around 10:00 AM with a load of groceries. Deputy Chief Bob Buccino gave the order for Kuklinski to be arrested there, and fifteen police vehicles rapidly converged on the scene. Oblivious, Kuklinski bundled a sick Barbara into the car, planning to take her out for breakfast, and drove directly into a solid line of cop cars. It took several men to subdue Richard once he was out of the car.

busted by a sammich

Busted by a sammich.

It seems clear, in hindsight, that Kuklinski at this point in his life was like a scared animal, frantically defending his small amount of turf by recklessly killing anyone who could conceivably pose a threat to it. But his own account of these last years of freedom paint a much different picture, of course; in his own mind, and in Carlo’s book, he was a jet-setting mastermind with his fingers in firearms, foreign currency, and Swiss bank fraud. He committed scores of contract murders, killed a few more people in fits of road rage, freed a dozen trafficked children from the dungeon of a pot dealer in New Jersey, and took down an Arab blackmailer in Zurich with a quick spray of cyanide.

In addition to the murders of Masgay, Malliband, Smith, and Deppner, Kuklinski was charged with the April 1982 murder of Paul Hoffman, a crooked pharmacist who supposedly supplied him with cyanide for many years. This was another profit-motivated killing; Hoffman was willing to pay a large sum of cash for a stolen load of Tagamet, and Kuklinski again conspired with his good buddy Solimene to simply bump him off and take the money. He shot and bludgeoned the man to death, stuffed his body into a 55-gallon drum, and brazenly deposited the drum near a Hackensack diner he frequented, Harry’s Luncheonette. He claimed that even though the barrel was in plain sight, no one discovered what was in it. One day when he dropped by for lunch, the barrel was gone.  (1, 3)
Hoffman’s body has never been found.
There is very little doubt that Kuklinski committed this murder, but the charges were ultimately dropped for lack of evidence.

In his second HBO interview, it is stated that Kuklinski became a hitman only after meeting Roy DeMeo. Prior to that time, he had never killed for money, and told DeMeo he thought he could do it. This story changed later, when Carlo interviewed Kuklinski. Suddenly, Kuklinski had been a teenage hitman, so proficient in the art of contract killing that he was already in demand at the age of 19. No one except Carlo accepts this. Even the makers of the movie The Iceman rejected it completely.

How accurate is the movie The Iceman?

The film makes no mention of Kuklinski’s more outrageous claims (Hoffa, DeMeo, etc.). This is because the script was based on Anthony Bruno’s book, rather than Carlo’s book. Even so, it relies on Kuklinski’s own accounts of his crimes, so it is probably not even remotely accurate. This is one of those films in which “inspired by a true story” is stretched to the outermost limits.

Son Dwight is left out of the picture. Barbara is “Deborah”. Murders of non-Mafia associates are transferred to powerful Mafia-linked figures. For instance, the Christmastime murder of Kuklinski’s associate “Bruno Latini” becomes the murder of a character based on Anthony Gaggi and Paul Castellano, Roy DeMeo’s bosses in the Gambino family. In reality, as we have seen, Kuklinski played no role in the assassination of Castellano.
The names of DeMeo’s closest associates are altered, and the name of “Mr. Freezy” (Mister Softee) isn’t given at all.
In The Iceman, Kuklinski is drawn into the Mafia through his work in the film lab, and Roy DeMeo essentially forces him to become a hitman. Kuklinski claimed just the opposite; he was an expert contract killer by the age of 19, and his stint at the labs was just a way to make ends meet. It was not DeMeo who introduced him to the Mafia.

The bizarre sneezing-in-the-disco scene in Iceman was actually even weirder in real life, according to Kuklinski. He had decided to kill a Bonanno family lieutenant inside a popular New York disco – a spectacularly risky move that doesn’t seem at all like his usual style. He had recently learned about poisons and acquired some cyanide from Paul Hoffman, and one night he showed up at the mark’s favourite disco in an absurd “gay” getup: elevator shoes (remember, he was 6’4″), a red hat, wildly coloured clothes. Instead of spraying cyanide on his mark, Kuklinski jabbed him with a syringe as he scooted past him on the dance floor.  The man was dead before Kuklinski left the club.
Kuklinski didn’t start using cyanide in spray form until the 1980s, after he befriended ex-military assassin Robert Prongay (Mr. Softee).  (3)

Kuklinski did not save a teenage girl from a sexual predator. That story, it seems, was created out of whole cloth just for the film.

In the film, Kuklinski is just as he described himself; a Jekyll and Hyde. But the dividing line between the upright family man and the raging sociopath was not clearly demarcated between his work and his home life, as it is in the movie. Michael Shannon’s Kuklinski controls his temper around his wife and daughters, for the most part. In reality, Kuklinski was physically abusive to Barbara, and so controlling with his three children that one daughter, Chris, claims she lost her virginity to a stranger at age 12 just to feel she finally had control over something – her own body. Kuklinski blackened Barbara’s eyes, caused her to miscarry, shattered furniture, destroyed mementos. He told his daughter Merrick that he would have to murder the entire family if he accidentally killed her mother, so she and her sister carefully packed a bag and worked out a plan to run for their lives, just in case.

Why I don’t believe Kuklinski, in a nutshell

1. He was a prolific liar. Even people who believe most of his story, like Bruno, acknowledge that not all of his stories are true.
2. There is simply no concrete evidence that he was a hitman.

Here’s what I think happened: Kuklinski was a minor-league criminal running a B&E gang, bootlegging porn, selling stolen merchandise, etc. In the early ’80s he lost control of his crew, and some members starting getting into trouble, so he began picking them off one by one, just like Jesse James did in the twilight of his criminal career.
He had long been telling people he was a hitman, and after his arrest he decided to pass himself off as a world-class Mafia hitman. An avid – but not very careful – reader of true crime lit since boyhood, he used famous crime scene photos and twice-told gangster tales to piece together an impressive life story, inserting himself into some of the Mafia’s most notorious murders. Many people bought it.

I do believe that Kuklinski and his siblings were severely abused as children, because the Kuklinski clan spawned two remorseless killers. His younger brother, Joseph, served 33 years in Trenton State for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old neighbour.
I believe that he did work, in some capacity, for DeMeo (perhaps merely as a porn supplier).
I believe that he killed at least six of his associates. The fact that he was busted for nearly all of them indicates he was not a professional killer.
I believe that he was a career criminal. He had very few legit jobs in his lifetime, yet his income was steady and he was able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
In my opinion, the rest is bullshit.

How did Kuklinski pull off one of the biggest hoaxes in criminal history?

First of all, he chose the right profession. Hitmen often work alone, are crazy paranoid about surveillance, and kill people to whom they can’t be connected – usually without even knowing their names. If a Mafia hitman tells you he killed 100-200 people over three decades in two countries and at least 18 states, that’s a tough thing to refute. I cannot conclusively say that Kuklinski never worked as a contract killer. I can only cast doubt on his claims by pointing to the lack of corroborating evidence for them.
Kuklinski was a serial killer. There’s no question about that. His real killing experiences may have enabled him to spin plausible-sounding tales about contract murders.

Secondly, Kuklinski was a sociopath. He was a convincing liar, and a reasonably intelligent man. He knew how to fill the credibility gaps in some of his stories. He was smart enough to know that DeMeo’s Gemini Lounge was under surveillance, and to make up the story about always meeting DeMeo near the Tappan Zee Bridge. As DeMeo’s “secret weapon”, he supposedly didn’t have to rub elbows with the other killers in DeMeo’s crew very often. This would explain why he wasn’t known as a Gemini Lounge regular.
He was also smart enough to come up with an excuse for living in a nice, but hardly extravagant, 3-bedroom house in New Jersey when he was pulling in millions every year: Gambling. Sure, he could send his kids to private schools and buy lovely furniture for his wife, but he pissed away several grand on a regular basis in poker games and casinos. This lie unraveled when the man who prosecuted him, New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Bob Carroll, said to HBO, “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t gamble.”  (3)

Thirdly, he stuck to a principle that liars and hoaxers throughout history have found extremely useful: Go big or go home. By seeding his stories with some of the biggest names in modern Mafia history, Kuklinski effectively armored himself against accusations of trickery. Who would pretend to kill people for Roy DeMeo, or finger Sammy Gravano for a murder, unless he was legit? No one would be so bold. No one would be so foolish.
Paradoxically, it was this name-dropping that made me start questioning Kuklinski in the first place. Like most everyone who watched the HBO interviews, I was mesmerized and appalled by Kuklinski, and had little reason to doubt he was a hardcore contract killer. Then his Hoffa story hit the news, and I suddenly realized that not all of his stories were necessarily true. This ultimately led me to what I believe today – that Kuklinski was not a contract killer and did not work for the Mafia outside of the porn-bootlegging business.

Maybe Iceman is the perfect name for him – he pulled off an amazing snowjob. In fact, he wins the second posthumous Pants Afire Award. Irony.

pantsafireaward1

Postscript

It’s nearly impossible to dig into any subject without bumping into conspiracy theories these days. Here’s one about Kuklinski, courtesy of Ed Chiarini (the Texan who believes John Stossel is Freddy Mercury, Winston Churchill was also Lionel Barrymore, etc.): Richard Kuklinski did not die in prison in 2006, but became the chief medical examiner of the state of Connecticut, Dr. H. Wayne Carver. In Chiarini’s view, Kuklinski/Carver was a key player in the Sandy Hook massacre hoax.
Chiarini is losing his touch. Sure, I could believe that Robert Blake was the Pope, but the resemblance between Kuklinski and Carver is extremely slight (they’re both large and bald, basically).

Sources: 

1. The Ice Man: Confessions of a Mafia Contract Killer by Philip Carlo (St. Martin’s Press, 2006)
2. Roy DeMeo episode of Mobsters (originally aired on the Biography Channel October 24, 2008)
3. The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer (1992)
4. The Iceman Confesses: Secrets of a Mafia Hitman (2001)
5. The Hoffa Wars by Dan E. Moldea (Paddington Press, 1978)
6.My Afternoon With Jimmy Hoffa’s Alleged Killer” (1999) by Dan E. Moldea, Moldea.com
7.Man’s claim that he killed Hoffa is dismissed as a hoax“. Detroit Free Press. April 18, 2006.
8. Five Families: The Rise, Decline, and Resurgence of America’s Most Powerful Mafia Empires by Selwyn Raab (Thomas Dunne Books, 2005)

Wednesday Weirdness Roundup

Do you know this suburban twentysomething wild teenager?
  • For the past nine months, a young Kaspar Hauser clone in Germany has been insisting he was raised in the woods for the past 5 years, knows only his first name (“Ray”), and that he buried his father (his only known relative) in an unmarked forest grave last August. Intriguing as the Forest Boy of Berlin mystery is, I suspect we’re seeing another Bush Boys of British Columbia or Piano Man story in the making. Update (June 15, 2012): Forest Boy has been identified as Robin van Helsum, a 20-year-old from the Netherlands. He disappeared from Hengelo just three days before he turned up in Berlin last September.
  • Hey, did you know that Vice magazine and Beavis and Butthead predicted 9/11? Yeah, neither did they. Conspiranoids are pointing out that an illustration in a 1994 issue of Vice, featuring Beavis and Butthead as Al Qaeda terrorists circling the Twin Towers in little airplanes (tasteful as hell, right?), is a classic example of “predictive programming”. That’s when bad guys tell you exactly what they’re going to do to you before they do it because their ancient, heathen religion demands a willing victim (you know, like Cabin in the Woods). The problem with this brilliant theory is, the issue was actually a mock-up of a 1994 magazine to commemorate Vice‘s 15th anniversary – written, illustrated, and printed in 2009.
  • If you’ve read part VI of the Fake Teens series , or followed the incredibly bizarre story of the teen boy who manipulated an online buddy into trying to kill him, or even just watched Dateline, then you know that online romances with teenagers can end messily. A young woman in Novia Scotia is now facing up to the consequences of her fake online identity after her pseudocide possibly contributed to a real suicide.
  • Last month, the Skeptoid podcast did a nice piece on the Rothschild banking dynasty, pointing out that the Rothschilds are still all that, but do not currently include a bag of chips.
  • That Cabin in the Woods reference wasn’t really a spoiler. If you like horror movies, see it.

In the next few days, we’ll be wrapping up the Prodigal Witch series and moving on up to Chemtrail Week.

Fake Teens V: Serial Teen Frederic Bourdin

This case bears some resemblance to Arthur Hutchens‘ 1928 impersonation of the missing Los Angeles boy Walter Collins, but there are darker twists to the tale.

A Changeling in Spain

13-year-old Nicholas Barclay went missing from San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. On June 10, he phoned home to ask for a ride after playing basketball with his friends. His 24-year-old half-brother, Jason, told him to walk home.
Their mother, Beverly Dollarhide, was a heroin addict who worked the graveyard shift at a doughnut shop. She was having a hard time managing Nicky. He had ADD and was developing criminal tendencies along with a larger-than-average dose of teen hostility. Earlier in the year he had been caught breaking into a convenience store, a crime for which he was to be sentenced on June 14, and Beverly was tempted to hand him over to foster care. His father had no involvement in his life. Jason was a coke addict.
It wouldn’t have surprised too many people if Nicholas ran away from home. Perhaps that’s why Beverly didn’t report him missing until June 13.

Nicholas was an unusual kid. He had letters home-tattooed on various parts of his body: A T near his left thumb, a J on one shoulder, an L and an N on his ankle. He carried a pink backpack to school, which couldn’t have done him any favours socially. And he looked much younger than his 13 years, weighing just 80 pounds. He could have been easily spotted and identified in a restaurant or gas station. But no one reported seeing him.

Beverly became a meth addict, and Jason’s coke addiction worsened. In the two months after Nicky’s disappearance, police were summoned twice to break up violent arguments between them.
On September 25, according to Jason, Nicholas crept up to the house and attempted to break into the garage. He ran off when Jason tried to confront him. This would remain the only sighting of Nicholas Barclay for three years.

In October 1997, Beverly received a call from the police. A boy staying at a youth home in Linares, Spain appeared to be her son. He said he had been abducted by members of an international pedophile ring, smuggled to Europe, and imprisoned in one room of a safehouse. His captors forced him to speak only their own language, French. He was subjected not only to sexual abuse, but to bizarre medical experiments. One day a guard left a door open, and he dashed to freedom.
Nicky’s 31-year-old half-sister, Carey Gibson, flew to Spain to pick him up.

Chameleon from Nantes

Carey’s arrival triggered a mixture of exultation and panic in the boy. Exultation, because he had gotten away with it again. Panic, because he didn’t know how long he could get away with it. After all, he didn’t look much like Nicholas Barclay. His hair was dark brown and thinning, not sandy and full like Nicky’s. His eyes were brown, not blue (this was the result of a chemical experiment conducted by his captors, he would explain). His English was good, but a trace of his French accent lingered. He would just have to say his Texas accent had faded after three years of speaking a foreign language, and hope these Americans believed him.

Frederic Bourdin was 23 years old. He was born outside Paris in 1974 to an 18-year-old factory worker, Ghislaine Bourdin, and reared near Nantes by Ghislaine’s parents until he was 12. By that time, his petty thefts and acting-out had landed him in a series of homes for troubled youth. At 16, Frederic ran away to Paris and attempted his first known impersonation, telling a police officer he was a missing English boy named Jimmy Sale (there doesn’t seem to be such a person). He was shipped back to the children’s home when authorities discovered he didn’t even speak English. It was an unimpressive start, but in time, Frederic would pull the abandoned-boy stunt in 5 languages and 15 countries.
He often pretended to be mute, or amnesiac, or abused – a runaway or the victim of a horrible accident. He was usually caught by doctors who examined him, but the authorities rarely pressed charges. By his eighteenth birthday he had posed as an abandoned child a dozen times. Once, he faked his death in Germany. By 1995, he was known throughout France as a chameleonic con man, and made the first of many appearances on French TV.

One of Bourdin’s French TV appearances

Proud of his notoriety, he got a tattoo on his arm: “Chameleon From Nantes“. This pride – and his growing audacity – belied his insistence that he just a lost, lonely soul looking for the love and acceptance he had never known as a child. It became increasingly clear over the years that Bourdin was not just a parasite – he was a predator, always on the hunt for soft-hearted people who would take him in, clothe him and feed him, take pity on him. When he was done with them, he moved on without a backward glance.

In Linares, a child-welfare judge insisted Frederic either produce evidence that he was a minor, or be fingerprinted. Usually, when backed into a corner like this, Frederic simply fled or confessed. This time, he decided to take a new risk: He would impersonate a real missing boy, one who lived very far away. He phoned the U.S.’s National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and posed as a staff member of the Linares shelter, trying to identify a young American boy. Did they have a short, brown-haired boy with a gap between his front teeth in their database?
This description roughly matched Nicholas Barclay. Bourdin requested a missing person flyer. He learned Nicholas was a blonde, with a cross (actually a letter T) tattooed on one hand, so he asked a friend to ink him and dyed his hair. He informed San Antonio police that the boy found in Spain was indeed Nicky Barclay, still carrying his pink backpack.

When Carey arrived at the U.S. embassy in Madrid, Frederic donned sunglasses and a ball cap and swaddled himself in a scarf, but the disguise turned out to be unnecessary; Carey instantly and unequivocally accepted him as Nicky, despite the difference in eye colour and the slight French accent. He seemed to recognize photos of family members, he had the tattoo on his hand, and he even had their Uncle Pat’s largish nose. The Spanish authorities remained skeptical until Carey swore under oath that this was her brother.

On October 18, everyone in Nicky’s family assembled at the San Antonio airport to greet him, with the notable exception of Jason. Jason had kicked his coke habit and was working as a peer counselor at a rehab centre. For some reason, he avoided Nicky for a month and a half.
Beverly said she didn’t want Nicky to be home alone while she worked nights, so it was arranged for Nicky to live with Carey, her husband Bryan, and their two kids (10-year-old Chantel and 14-year-old Codey, who was extremely excited to see his uncle again). The Gibsons lived in an isolated, wooded area north of the city, in a trailer home. Nicky shared a room with Codey.
For the first two months, Nicky adjusted remarkably well. He did his homework, played video games with the kids, and spent time with his mother at every opportunity.
Knowing he had been through a traumatic ordeal, everyone avoided discussing the previous three years of his life.

FBI Agent Nancy Fisher was assigned to investigate Nicholas’ case. After three years in close quarters with the pedophile gang, he would certainly be able to provide detailed descriptions of the men and some of the other children they had abducted.
Nicholas described his captivity and abuse in detail, but to Fisher’s bafflement and frustration, he flatly refused to tell her anything about the perpetrators. He was terrified they would return to Texas.
Fisher was unnerved by something else: Nicky’s voice. He just didn’t sound like a Texan, and it seemed unnatural to her that his childhood accent and diction hadn’t returned. Also, his blond hair was starting to grow darker at the roots.

San Antonio P.I. Charlie Parker was even more suspicious of Nicholas. He had been hired by producers of the tabloid TV show Hard Copy to investigate the boy’s amazing return, and it hadn’t taken him more than a few heartbeats to realize there was something seriously wrong with this kid. Why did he still sound so European? Could eye colour really be altered with chemicals?
The clincher, for Parker, was the ears. He knew that the shape and position of our ears remain the same throughout our lives, and Frederic’s ears looked nothing like Nicky’s.
Parker stockpiled evidence that “Nicholas” was an imposter. An opthamologist told him that no chemical could turn eyes from blue to brown, and a Trinity University dialect expert informed him that Nicky should have retained his native accent if he was abducted at 13.
The family refused to accept Parker’s findings, even though he expressed concern the guy could be dangerous, maybe even a terrorist.

In December, Nicky began acting out. He was suspended from school for cutting class. He fought with Codey. He stole Carey and Bryan’s car and drove it to Oklahoma before being apprehended.
Frederic had found American life to be far short of his expectations, and apparently couldn’t cope. He even called his real mom in France and told her what he was doing.
Around Christmastime, he slashed his face with a razor and was sent to a psych ward for observation.

By March 1998, Agent Fisher’s doubts had cemented into a certainty: The brown-eyed European kid with dark roots wasn’t Nicholas. A psychiatrist had rendered the opinion that his accent was Spanish or French. She obtained blood samples from an extremely reluctant Beverly and “son”.

Bourdin had begun to suspect that Jason knew what really happened to his brother. After finally visiting “Nicky” a month and a half after his return, he seemed wary and standoffish. He said nothing about the contradiction between his September ’94 sighting of Nicky and Frederic’s tale of being spirited away by pedophiles three months earlier. And he didn’t visit again.
Fisher began to wonder about Beverly, too. Surely, she must realize that this stranger wasn’t her child. Was she hiding something?
Beverly was given two polygraph exams. She failed the second, which indicated she was being untruthful when she stated she didn’t know what happened to Nicholas. Later, she told writer David Grann she had never fully accepted Jason’s story about glimpsing Nicky three months after his disappearance.
A polygraph administered to Frederic was, not surprisingly, inconclusive. He surrendered his fingerprints and a blood sample only under court order.
Jason spoke to Agent Fisher with great reluctance, muttering vague answers to questions about his brother. He died of a cocaine overdose a few weeks after being questioned.

Frederic continued to sow seeds of destruction in Texas, and soon his grasp extended to Germany. Desperate to keep the FBI off his back, he told Agent Fisher that one of the other children kidnapped by the pedophile ring in 1995 was named Till Kratzsch. This boy, 13, had gone missing from Berlin.

Till Kratzsch, 13. He disappeared from Berlin on June 14, 1995.

March 5 was the critical day. Beverly phoned Charlie Parker and admitted she no longer thought Frederic was her son. She and Carey so desperately wanted to believe he was Nicky that she ignored her initial reservations about him. When he moved in with her, however, she could no longer avoid the evidence that he wasn’t her child. A friend told her Nicky had shown no recognition when they drove through his old neighborhood.
Interpol received Frederic’s fingerprints from the U.S. State Department, and relayed his colourful background to the feds.
Meanwhile, Claudia Kratzsch, mother of Till Kratzsch, arrived in San Antonio to meet with Nicholas. In the presence of Charlie Parker, she asked Nicky to identify any scars he had noticed on Till’s body. Nicky obligingly drew a diagram showing marks on the boy’s knees and arms. What he failed to draw was a highly visible scar on Till’s forehead.

Bourdin was backed into a tighter corner than usual. Stuck in the boonies on foreign soil, he had little choice but to confess everything to P.I. Parker.
He told the authorities that Beverly and Jason knew he was an imposter from the beginning, but played along with him because they knew what happened to the real Nicholas. Federal prosecutor Jack Stick and Agent Fisher didn’t take his word for it, but they did find Beverly’s uncooperative attitude perplexing. She seemed completely uninterested in finding out who had taken her son, and wasn’t eager to have him live in her home. During questioning, she had rushed from the room and shouted at Fisher, “This is so typical of Nicholas. Look at the hell he’s putting me through.”

In jail, Bourdin reverted to his fondest habit: Lying through his teeth. He claimed he really had been abducted by a pedophile ring, in Madrid, and Nicholas was one of the kids he encountered in captivity. They grew very close, like brothers, and Nicholas asked him to take his place in Texas so that his family could heal. Frederic was then rescued by a “very famous American” who wished to remain anonymous.
Needless to say, no one bought it. Reporters pointed out that Nicholas would have given Bourdin contact information for his mother, while in reality Bourdin had phoned the Center for Missing and Exploited Children and San Antonio police.
Finally, he broke down and told the true story of how he had scammed his way to America. He also revealed that he visited a center for missing children in San Antonio to gather details about Till Kratzsch.

Carey suffered a nervous breakdown after Frederic’s arrest, and denounced him as a liar in court. He was convicted of perjury and obtaining and possessing false documents. After sentencing him to six years in prison, the judge likened him to a killer.

At the time, it was believed Bourdin was the first person to successfully impersonate a missing child in the United States. We’ve since learned about the Arthur Hutchens case, but there’s no doubt that Bourdin’s ruse lasted much longer; while Hutchens was outed within a fortnight by a disbelieving mother, Frederic Bourdin fooled Nicholas’ entire family for over five months.

The Chameleon’s Return

Upon his release in 2003, Bourdin returned to Europe and continued his way of life. In Grenoble he stole the identity of Leo Balley, a 14-year-old who vanished on a camping trip in Isere eight years earlier. He was busted by a DNA test. In May 2005 he appeared at a child welfare office in Orthez, swaddled in a scarf with a ball cap pulled low over his face. He said he was Francisco Fernandez, a 15-year-old from Spain. His mom and younger brother had died in a car crash, leaving him in the care of an abusive uncle, so he ran away to France. He insisted on wearing his hat at all times, supposedly to hide burn scars from the crash. In reality, his hairline was receding.

Childhood picture of Leo Balley. He disappeared from Isere, in the Taillefer Mountains, on July 19, 1996.

Francisco was placed in the St. Vincent de Paul youth shelter in Pau, and enrolled at College Jean Monnet, a small local high school. He became very popular among the students, and delivered a dead-on Michael Jackson impression at the school talent show.
On June 8, a distressed school administrator informed the principal that she had seen the notorious impersonator Frederic Bourdin discussed on a TV show, and he looked just like Francisco. They phoned the police.

Once again, Bourdin confessed. He was sentenced to a six-month suspended sentence for obtaining and using fake ID in the Balley case.

The End?

In 2007, Bourdin announced he was going straight. He had recently wed a law student named Isabelle, who contacted him after seeing him on TV. They were expecting a child when David Grann interviewed them for his New Yorker story, and had a girl named Athena one month later.

Earlier this year, Gaumant released Jean-Paul Salome’s thinly fictionalized movie The Chameleon.

Perhaps capitalizing on the movie’s release, Bourdin recently posted a few videos on his YouTube channel, “Francameleon“.

No one was ever charged in the disappearance of Nicholas Barclay. He remains missing, as do Till Kratzsch and Leo Balley.

The Lady Vanishes

The media hoo-rah surrounding South Carolina governor Mark Sanford’s “disappearance” brought to my mind some far stranger voluntary disappearances, most of them involving the very same thing that supposedly drove Gov. Sanford into the arms of his Argentine mistress: True love. Or, in some cases, the lack of it.

Parts I & II: Agatha Christie
Part III: Aimee Semple McPherson
Part IV: Dar Heatherington
Part V: Other Notable Cases (Jacqueline Gay Hart, Audrey Seiler, Jennifer Wilbanks, Karen McConnell-Hancock, Don LaRose, Furqan Muhammad-Haroon)

The Lady Vanishes Part V: Other Notable Cases

1959: Jacqueline Gay Hart

Jacqueline Gay Hart, known as Gay to her friends, was the lovely 21-year-old daughter of marketing wizard Ralph Hart, the president of Colgate Palmolive International. Ralph had scraped his way to the top from the humblest of beginnings – trapping muskrats in Alberta to support his widowed mother when he was just a lad – but Jacqueline lived a very different life than her father. (1)  She was a socialite in the day when that meant something: Impeccable manners, glittering social skills, and flawless decorum were expected at all times and in every situation. And Jacqueline certainly fit the mould. Sleek. blonde, and poised, she was crowned Sweet Briar College’s Queen of the May in 1959, shortly before her graduation. She was engaged to 25-year-old Stanley Gaines, the son of a West Virginia coal magnate. They were to be married before 500 of their closest friends and relatives in late August. (2)

On the night of July 21, Jacqueline drove her fiance to Newark airport for a flight to Pennsylvania. She did not return to the family home in Short Hills that night.
After her empty car was discovered at the airport, a frenzied search commenced.
On July 23, Ralph Hart received the call he had been desperately hoping to get: Jacqueline phoned from Chicago, pleading, “Come and get me.” She had been taken to a Chicago police station after running up to a parked cruiser near Grant Park, sobbing, “Where am I?”
Tearful and dazed, she gave detectives a disjointed account of what had happened to her in Newark two days earlier. She had returned to her car after bidding farewell to Stanley in the terminal, and was about to climb into the driver’s seat when a strange young man accosted her. He dragged her into a car parked beside her own and roared off into the night before she could even scream. The kidnapper’s male accomplice gagged her, bound her hands, and blindfolded her. Then they tossed a blanket over her head.
The two men drove for hours without telling her anything. All she could hear was the occasional plink of coins dropping into toll booth slots. If she squirmed, one of the men would kick her. Periodically, she was given a candy bar to eat.

The car finally stopped sometime on July 22. The kidnappers led Jacqueline out of the car and up a flight of steps, depositing her in a small bathroom. Through the door, she overheard them discussing her: One man called the other Ed, and urged Ed to “get rid of her…she’s too hot.” Clearly, the captors somehow knew that an intensive search was underway in New Jersey. At one point, the man known as Ed poked his head in the bathroom door and informed his captive that they would have to get rid of her because “my friend is chicken.”
The next evening, they dumped her near Grant Park. She didn’t know what city -what state – she was in. The men had handled her so roughly that there were bruises on her arms. She couldn’t remember many details about what they looked like, except that they appeared to be in their twenties. (3)

Newspaper photos showed a solemn Jacqueline Hart bundled under a blanket at the station, waiting anxiously for her parents. As she showed her bruises to reporters, detectives in Chicago and Newark set to work on finding Ed and The Chicken.
But their investigation led them away from abduction, straight into the twilight world of self-abduction. It didn’t take long to discover that a woman matching Miss Hart’s description had boarded a bus to Chicago on the night of July 21. Under questioning, she finally admitted that she hadn’t been abducted. She had fled New Jersey because she felt overwhelmed about her upcoming wedding.

Incredibly, Stanley Gaines decided to go forward with the nuptuials. He and Jacqueline were wed in a considerably scaled-down ceremony at the Hart home just one day after their original wedding date, and remain married to this day. (4)

Sources

1. Ralph Hart obituary. Chicago Tribune. Aug. 26/95
2.The May Queen’s Baffling Journey“. LIFE. Aug. 3/59.
3.Missing Jersey Socialite Found Near Hysteria in Chicago Park“. Rome Daily Sentinel. July 24/59.
4.Jacqueline Hart, Girl Who Disappeared Two Days, Becomes Bride“. Ocala Star-Banner. Aug. 30/59.

 

2004: Audrey Seiler

The youngest of our vanishing ladies, Audrey Seiler, was just 20 years old in March of 2004. A native of Rockford, Minnesota, she was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she maintained a 4.0 GPA. She disappeared on the night of March 27, 2004. The last glimpse of her came from her apartment building’s surveillance camera; she left in flip-flops, leaving the front door open. She didn’t have her purse or a coat with her. Her roommate reported her missing the following afternoon.

Fear immediately set in for Audrey’s friends and family, because just the previous month Audrey had been knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant while walking home alone from a party. It was not her habit to leave her door unlocked. Also, she was suffering the flu on the night she vanished.
In November of the previous year, a student at the University of North Dakota named Dru Sjodin went missing after leaving a shopping mall. At the time Audrey disappeared, Dru’s body had not yet been found, but a registered sex offender had been charged with abducting her.
Audrey’s boyfriend, Ryan Fisher, was certain that someone had taken her. Audrey was a slender, pretty girl with hair flowing sleekly past her shoulders – the perfect coed.
The disappearance made national news. Hundreds of citizens of Rockford, Minnesota, converged in Madison to search for the girl. University students planned to hold a candlelight vigil outside Audrey’s building.

Four days later, a woman found Audrey wandering, confused, in a boggy area behind office buildings and hotels on Rimrock Road, on Madison’s south side. She was whisked to St. Mary’s Medical Center, but didn’t have to be treated for dehydration, hypothermia, or anything else. She only complained of muscle aches.
Audrey said she had been abducted from her apartment by a man in his 20s or 30s. He simply walked into her apartment, barged into her bedroom, and ordered her knifepoint to put on her shoes and walk out of the building ahead of him. He held her captive for four days in the same area where she was found. He would leave her alone for short periods, but always warned he would be watching her from hiding places nearby. When a police officer approached Audrey, she was lying on the ground in a fetal position. She told him her abductor was still somewhere in the area, with a gun and a knife. Oddly, though she wasn’t injured or restrained and hadn’t been drugged with anything stronger than Nyquil capsules, she hadn’t made any effort to flee the area or seek help in the two hours since the kidnapper left her.
Employees of Stark Realty and the Department of Revenue were evacuated from their offices while police searched the area for an armed man. They found no sign of him were found, but they did locate several items that Audrey had purchased at a local store the night before she disappeared – including a paring knife and a Nyquil box. When asked what items she had purchased at the store, Audrey failed to mention these things. She said she had just bought some gum and Chapstick, she insisted. Only when shown surveillance footage of herself in the store did she admit that she had bought some Nyquil for her flu, as well as some duct tape to fix a light in her apartment.

Audrey had no idea why she had been abducted, she said. As she hadn’t caught even a glimpse of the person who struck her on the head in February, she had no way of knowing if it was same person. All she could tell police was that the man had made a phone call to someone else when he thought she was asleep, and she heard him say, “I did what you asked. You got to let me in now.” She gave a vague physical description: 5’10” or so, stocky, large nose. A cap covered his hair. Later, she gave a more detailed description to a sketch artist.

Investigators soon learned that Audrey had gotten into an argument with Ryan Fisher on the night she was knocked unconscious after a party. They arrived separately at the party, argued for a short time, then parted ways for the night – Audrey headed home by herself, while Ryan remained at the party.
After the attack, according to a friend, Audrey spent most nights with Ryan because she was afraid to be by herself. Audrey’s roommate and other friends implied that prior to the attack, the relationship had been on shaky ground; Audrey seemed to want more attention than Ryan was willing to give her. She seemed depressed, crying often and complaining that Ryan wasn’t returning her calls. This was confirmed by Ryan, who told police that Audrey “does not go 12 hours without calling my cell phone”, and made it clear he didn’t always return those calls.
Audrey’s mother noted that her daughter was “extremely needy” when it came to Ryan. (2)
A search of Audrey’s laptop showed that someone had logged on to Ryan’s e-mail account and accessed two recent messages between Ryan and an old girlfriend.

The romantic drama snagged investigators’ attention, but not as much as the testimony of office workers who had actually seen Audrey wandering in the marshy area near Rimrock Road in the two days before she was found. These witnesses said that Audrey seemed perfectly fine, if somewhat out of place, each time they encountered her in the area. She wasn’t in need of help and said nothing to them, behaving as if she wanted to be left alone. Only when a police officer walked right up to her did she say that she had just been set free by a kidnapper with a gun. Her clothes and shoes seemed fairly clean and dry, despite recent rain.
The biggest problem with Audrey’s account of the abduction was her description of the man entering her apartment and barging into her bedroom, ordering her at knifepoint to put on her shoes and walk ahead of him out of the building. The surveillance footage taken at this time showed Audrey leaving by herself. No one followed her. Also, the office workers who saw Audrey wandering around hadn’t seen any fitting the kidnapper’s description.
And though she said her mouth had been duct-ducted during some of her captivity, there was no trace of tape residue on Audrey’s face.

Under close questioning, Audrey burst into tears and admitted she had bought the Nyquil, the tape, and the knife with the intention of staging her own abduction. She said she felt “messed up” and just wanted to be by herself for a while. She seemed embarrassed, contrite, and very relieved to be coming clean at last.
Incredibly, though, she insisted she really had been abducted by the man with the knife after she left her apartment alone with her “abduction kit” in tow.
When she repeated this story to Ryan Fisher, she implied that the man had sexually assaulted her.

Word that Audrey had changed her story spready quickly. As in all the other cases we’ve examined, all the fear and concern of the community was immediately translated into baffled rage, scorn, and mockery. One Madison resident left this comment at an online forum, “Here in Madison many people are throwing ‘Audrey Seiler Parties’. Dress code includes Abercrombie sweatshirt and either white shoes or flip-flops. Duct tape and rope optional. I’m not kidding about this, people really hate her around here.” The sense of betrayal ran deep. Thousands of people had joined in the search for a vulnerable girl, only to find that she wasn’t the victim of some random psycho – she was the victim of her own broken heart.

Ultimately, Audrey Seiler pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts of obstructing an officer and was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to pay $9000 towards the cost of the search efforts. (video)

Audrey has returned to obscurity, but the Seiler affair hasn’t gone away. For some reason, it lingered in the public consciousness a bit longer than the average staged disappearance. A Madison playwright even staged a show titled “Audrey Seiler, Where Are You?”, and Audrey’s abduction was reportedly the inspiration for Jacqelyn Mitchard’s suspense novel Now You See Her.

Sources:

1. “Audrey Seiler: Mystery Surrounds Alleged Abductor“. WISN News, Madison.
April 1/04.
2.
Criminal complaint against Audrey Seiler (PDF)

 

2005: Jennifer Wilbanks

Jennifer Wilbanks disappeared from Duluth, Georgia, on April 26, 2005 – just four days before her planned wedding to boyfriend John Mason. He reported her missing when she failed to return from her usual evening jog. The following day, police discovered some unsettling potential pieces of evidence in the area: clumps of brunette hair near a pond, discarded clothes, weapons.
Unfortunately, suspicion of murder buzzed around Mason’s head for the next three days as searchers combed Georgia’s byways for the missing 32-year-old woman.
Then, on April 29, a phone call from Albuquerque changed the whole story. From a phone booth at a convenience store, Jennifer told Mason she had been abducted and sexually assaulted by a middled-aged Hispanic man and his white girlfriend. They had dropped her off on the road and driven away in their blue van.
When questioned by New Mexico authorities, Wilbank admitted that she hadn’t been abducted. She was just nervous about her upcoming wedding, and needed some time alone to think. The creepy clues had been planted to throw police off her trail.
As police led Wilbanks past a bevy of reporters, she famously draped a Mexican blanket over her face. She promptly checked into a clinic for psychiatric treatment and rest.
Later in the year she pled no contest to a charge of making false statements, and also agreed to pay the city of Duluth
$13,000 towards the cost of the massive search effort.

This wasn’t the end of the affair, of course. As you probably recall, the media brouhaha over the “real runaway bride” stayed at insane levels for weeks. “Total media saturation” wouldn’t be an exaggeration. The woman who ducked out of state to avoid some embarrassing personal conflict was suddenly the center of worldwide attention – none of it good.

Unsurprisingly, the wedding was called off in May.
In 2006 Jennifer sued Mason, claiming that while she was hospitalized and medicated, he negotiated the sale of their story to a New York firm for and later used the money to buy a house in his own name. They moved into it together, but he soon threw her out. Mason countersued for the emotional distress he suffered from being abandoned days before his wedding. The suits were ultimately dropped.
John Mason married another woman in 2008, and Jennifer Wilbanks…well, she’s still single.

The incident and its aftermath bear an almost eerie resemblance to the Seiler case, and inspired a musical that premiered in March, 2008, at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth, Georgia.


2007: Karyn McConnell-Hancock

If you’ve noticed a pattern in these voluntary disappearances, it’s probably that all of these “vanishees” were educated women working in male-dominated careers. Why is this? I have no idea, but our next case is no exception.
In December of 2007, 35-year-old Karyn McConnell-Hancock was a Toledo, Ohio attorney who had taken over the practice of her father, Cleasby Allen McConnell, after he left private practice to become a municipal court judge in 1999. Like Dar Heatherington, she served as a city councilwoman at one time.
She married Lawrence Hancock in 2004, and a year later he became the founder and pastor of Toledo’s Final Harvest Church. They had a son named Lawrence, Jr. At the time of her abduction, Karyn was six months pregnant with the couple’s second child.

The case played out much like those of Sister Aimee and Darlene Heatherington. On the morning of December 5, 2007, a Wednesday, McConnell-Hancock was on her way to a meeting at the Lucas County Juvenile Justice Center in Toledo. She parked her Chrysler in a downtown lot and stepped out of the car. She wasn’t seen again for four days.

Lawrence Hancock first learned something was very wrong shortly after 6:00 that evening, when he received a call from the daycare center saying that his wife hadn’t picked up Lawrence, Jr. Finding her car missing from its lot near her law office on Michigan street, he reported his wife missing at 10:30.
Toledo police learned that someone had withdrawn several hundred dollars from McConnell- Hancock’s bank account on Wednesday night.
The next afternoon, Lawrence Hancock received a brief phone call from his wife. Karyn told him she had been abducted downtown by two men and a woman, but she hung up before she could give him any details about her location, saying “they’re coming”.
News of the phone call sparked a nationwide alert for Karyn. So soon after the disappearance of Laci Peterson, the daylight abduction of a pregnant woman was taken very seriously. (1)

On Saturday, December 8, a woman caught the attention of a security guard at the Six Flags Over Georgia amusement park outside Atlanta. She said she had been dropped off there by three people who abducted her in Ohio and drove her to Georgia in the back of a white van, blindfolded. She mentioned that her own car had been stolen, but curiously omitted any mention of the several hundred dollars removed from her bank account.
The Chrysler was soon found, parked about a mile and a half from the amusement park. The white van was never found.

McConnell-Hancock described to authorities in Cobb County, Georgia, and Toledo how two unfamiliar white men and a black woman she had never met approached her on the morning of December 5. One of the men had a pistol. They blindfolded her and ordered her into the back of a white van, while at least one of the kidnappers stole her car. There weren’t any demands from the captors as they drove to Georgia, nor was Karyn assaulted. The entire abduction seemed to have no specific purpose.

McConnell-Hancock’s father, a municipal court judge, offered his own cryptic explanation for the kidnapping, which would soon be parroted by his daughter: “I think she was not the target – I think I was. I think it was over something that happened before I became a judge.” He never elaborated on what this “something” could be.
As it turned out, he wouldn’t have to. After eight hours of questioning, McConnell Hancock admitted her story was fake. There had been no kidnappers. (1)

As in the Heatherington case, there doesn’t seem to be any concrete evidence of a secret lover or a rendezvous with someone Karyn met online, though that’s the explanation that many Toledo residents preferred.
There were, however, serious financial problems in Karyn’s life: She owed nearly $100,000 to the IRS for unpaid income taxes for the years 2001-2003. And throughout 2008, evidence steadily mounted that during the previous six years she had diverted over half a million dollars from an escrow account containing funds from 23 of her clients. She had replaced only half of this money when she was indicted for felony theft in October of that year (video). By that time, she had shut down her practice.
In January of this year, McConnell Hancock was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison.

Lawrence Hancock alleges that Judge McConnell’s law practice was already debt-crippled and deeply disorganized when he handed it over to his daughter in 2000, and that the judge paid off at least one of Karyn’s clients who told him his money was missing – over $15,000. According to Hancock, the judge kept this a secret from the rest of the family. If his father-in-law had shared the information with him, Hancock wrote in an e-mail to NBC24 in November 2008, “I would not have been subjected to forgery, able to protect my assets, and avoid the nightmare of Karyn faking her own kidnapping/false alarm…. As a result, our lives and community are still healing from a faked kidnapping hoax that shell shocked and embarrassed us all nationally that should have been prevented. ” He alleged that Karyn had stolen all of his mail in November 2008. She was not charged with forgery nor any other crime related to her ex-husband’s allegations.
He called for McConnell to resign from the bench. (3)

This wasn’t the only problem the Hancocks faced in 2008. In May, Karyn filed for divorce, citing Lawrence’s “extreme cruelty” as one reason. Was it a legitimate reason? Only the Hancocks know the answer. The only thing we know for certain is that the McConnells were not impressed with their former son-in-law, because during Karyn’s trial they made an unsuccessful attempt to gain custody of their two grandchildren. They may only have been angry about Lawrence’s accusation that Judge McConnell helped his daughter hide her financial misdeeds.

So what happened here?
It’s likely that Hancock-McConnell was either fleeing her financial troubles to start a new life somewhere else, but had second thoughts by the second day of her escape, and/or was afraid that a client was after her.
She definitely doesn’t fit into the self-stalker category; unlike Dar Heatherington, she had never reported being menaced by anyone (though her father and husband did say they received strange phone calls before her disappearance). As mentioned earlier, there were no signs of a boyfriend. The motive for this voluntary disappearance was probably good old-fashioned fear.

Sources

1.
“Father of the Toledo lawyer thinks he was abductors’ target” by David Yonke. Toledo Blade. Dec. 10/07.
“What happened to Karyn McConnell-Hancock?” WTOL News, Toledo. Dec. 10/07. wnRenderDate(‘Monday, December 10, 2007 9:44 AM EST’,
3. “”Embattled Attorney’s Husband Speaks out.
Toledo on the Move. Nov. 12/08.

 

Lest you think I’ve been picking on the ladies, here are two equally strange voluntary disappearances involving men…

2007: Don LaRose (AKA Mayor Ken Williams)

In November of 2007, 69-year-old Ken Williams had been the mayor of Centerton, Arkansas for six years. Then he announced that his name was really Don LaRose, and this wasn’t the first time he had become someone else. Over 30 years earlier, he had been a married preacher and father of two in New York state, until Satanists abducted him and “brainwashed” him to forget all about his former life. In 1975 he was injected with a truth serum and suddenly remembered what the Satanists had done to him. Williams/LaRose says he underwent five years of therapy to recover the rest of his memories.

The disappearance of Reverend Don LaRose from Maine, New York, had made area headlines in 1975. According to a February 13/76 article in Christianity Today, some members of his congregation at the First Baptist Church even speculated that he had been abducted by angry Satanists who had written a threatening letter to him. However, when authorities located LaRose three months after his disappearance, they determined he had vanished voluntarily (for some crazy reason, they just didn’t buy his story that strangers had hauled him into the back of a van and “brainwashed” with a portable electroshock device they attached to his forehead). He had taken the name Bruce Kent Williams from a car-crash victim who died in 1958, but implied the Satanists had “given” him this identity; according to LaRose, he had simply woken up in Minneapolis as a homeless drunk named Bruce Williams, with no memory of his previous life as a Baptist minister. He became a baker’s assistant in a downtown cafeteria, spending his free time at a local mission. A preacher there recognized him as the missing New York pastor and arranged for LaRose’s wife and father to pick him up.

LaRose was “happily” reunited with his unremembered wife, Eunice, and their two daughters, but his former church washed its hands of him. And that seemed to be that.

The LaRoses moved to Indiana in ’77. Don became pastor of Hessville Baptist Church in Hammond, and continued to tell his story about Satanic abduction and brainwashing, claiming he had recovered the memories of the events only after a dose of sodium amytal administered by Dr. Marvin DeHaan.

Those pesky Satanists just wouldn’t leave him alone, though. In June 1980 he claimed to have seen them sneaking around his church, peeping in windows. On June 10, he told Eunice he was going to the church to meet someone. He didn’t return home. Seven years later he was declared dead, and Eunice remarried.
Despite his presumed death, family members continued to search for Don LaRose and hoped to learn his fate.

On the website that led to his unmasking, LaRose/Williams admitted his second vanishing was deliberate, but only because the unknown Satanists had threatened to kill his family unless he disappeared again. He bicycled away from home, bought a bus ticket to Wyoming, and became “Ken Williams”.

In the early ’80s Ken Williams popped up in Centerton, became a radio personality on KURM, and remarried. He founded Ken Williams Ministries, which now focuses on the “4 Rs”: Retracing the Jewish roots of Christianity, Researching Creationism vs. Evolution, Rescuing Christian History from Revisionists, and Reveling in the Country Gospel Music of Dale Johnston.
Williams was elected mayor in 2001. But earlier this year he put up a website about Pastor LaRose’s disappearance, written from the perspective of LaRose. It contained an autobiography of LaRose, a recap of the initial “abduction” (“may have been SATANIC inspired”), and his “amazing story of survival” after being forced to abandon his family. A member of LaRose’s family discovered the site, and it was easily traced to Williams. On Monday, November 19, the Benton County Daily Record phoned Mayor Williams to confirm his true identity. For a day he denied being LaRose, then “came clean” about his past to the newspaper.

LaRose has resigned as mayor of Centerton. Though he has expressed interest in seeing his daughters, his grandchildren, and his 96-year-old father, he plans to remain in Arkansas with his current wife, and will continue to use the name Ken Williams. He is reportedly not under criminal investigation.

LaRose/Williams says the people who abducted and brainwashed him were probably not Satanists, just “Satanically inspired”.

Poor Eunice. Not every man will pretend to be brainwashed by Satanists twice just to get away from you.

Sources:

– Florida wftv.com article (erroneously gives pastor’s name as “LeRose”)
“Being Don LaRose” by Eleanor Evans and Tracy Neal, Benton County Daily Record online, Nov. 21/07
“The Two Reappearances of Don LaRose”, Benton County Daily Record online, Nov. 22/07
http://www.donlarose.com/ (Williams’ website)


2009: Furqan Muhammad-Haroon

The second-youngest abductee on our list, Muhammad-Haroon is 22 years old. Photos show a squirrel-cheeked man with a swirly shock of black hair and a what-me-worry grin. Your average university student. He was enrolled at the University of Toronto, studying electrical engineering. On the afternoon of April 22nd, while driving his van in the Midland Avenue and Ellesmere Road area, he was reportedly carjacked by three armed men. He was en route to the airport to depart for a trip to the United Arab Emiriates when he phoned a friend to describe the vehicle closing in on him. Then one of the men in the vehicle brandished a gun, waving him to the side of the road. Police found the abandoned van, but no trace of the quartet.

Because of his ethnicity, there was speculation that Furqan had become the victim of an extraordinary rendition or an act of anti-Muslim violence. His horror-stricken parents begged publicly for his safe return.

Four days later, an anonymous call to police led to Furqan’s location: a mosque in St. Catherines. He had not been abducted. It turned out that he had allegedly stolen a few thousand dollars’ worth of equipment from his former employer, IBM, and was fearful of criminal charges while he was out of the country. He’ll be going to court on those charges in September. In the meantime, he was charged with criminal mischief.

“However far you may travel in this world, you will still occupy the same volume of space.” – traditional Ur-Bororo saying

 

The Lady Vanishes Part IV: Dar Heatherington

This is what you get for waking up in Vegas.

I don’t know if Darlene “Dar” Heatherington is well-known beyond the Canadian border, but around these parts she’s a household name. And when people say that name, they either have a very strong opinion on it, or they’re utterly confounded by the whole thing and have to stop thinking about it before they get brain cramps.

Here’s why. In 2002, Mrs. Heatherington was 39 years old and a member of the city council of Lethbridge, Alberta. She was also a married mother of three little children, ranging in age from 10 to 4. Her husband, David, was the city’s deputy fire chief.
Around October of that year, Heatherington reported to Lethbridge police that she had been receiving obscene phone calls and lewd letters at her office. A wiretap and surveillance cameras were set up to snare the perp, but the calls ceased as soon as the phone line was tapped. The surveillance footage revealed no likely suspects.

Fastfoward 8 months. During the first week of May, 2003, Lethbridge mayor Bob Tarleck and five aldermen traveled to Great Falls, Montana, to meet officially with some American counterparts. Heatherington was one of them. On Saturday, May 3rd, she planned to be at a morning meeting, then return to Lethbridge to attend her daughter’s evening piano recital. Around 9:00 that morning, however, she phoned her husband to say the meetings would be longer than expected. She wouldn’t be home in time for the recital.
Then, an hour later, she cancelled her meetings.

Sometime before noon, she purchased a mountain bike at a Great Falls pawn shop. She told the owner she wanted to bike the network of trails along the Missouri River.

When she didn’t arrive home that night, David Heatherington immediately reported his wife missing. Her rental car had been found in a downtown parking lot the previous afternoon, with her purse and keys flung on the ground nearby. During the next three days, all 19 detectives of the Great Falls police department were put on the case. Helicopters searched the trails along the Missouri River.

Foul play, an accident, or suicide initially seemed the likeliest possibilities, of course, but by Tuesday the Great Falls police had formed at least one other theory. They revealed that Lethbridge police “had a history” with Heatherington, a reference to the mysterious stalking incidents. Now they explored the possibility that she had faked her own disappearance.

On the night of Tuesday, May 2nd, a woman was reported to be wandering around outside the Treasure Island Casino in Las Vegas in a distressed state. Police took her to University Medical Center. She appeared to be in good condition, but she explained that she had been abducted from a parking lot in Montana three days earlier.

David Heatherington met his wife in Vegas on Wednesday, May 7th, and together they flew back to Great Falls to be questioned by police. It was after sitting in on this interrogation that Cascade Country attorney Brant Light decided to charge Mrs. Heatherington with giving a false statement.
This was Heatherington’s first story: As she stood near her rental car on the afternoon of May 3rd, a man grabbed her and placed her in his car. She was forced to ingest an unidentified drug. The next thing she knew, she was 1600 kilometers away, in Vegas. The man had evidently driven her there, and she said it was possible she had been raped by him.

This story didn’t make much sense to the investigators. Firstly, Heatherington refused to provide any other details. Secondly, there had been no signs of a struggle at her car. Thirdly, there were the unresolved matters of the bicycle and the cancelled meetings – not to mention the mysterious obscene phone calls and letters. If she had been stalked by a psychopath for at least six months, then drugged and abducted, where was the evidence?

Under pressure, Heatherington provided a second story: By chance, she met a fellow Albertan in Great Falls. He was a married man, but she decided to catch a ride with him to visit a friend in Culver City, California. Instead, they drove to Vegas and stayed there for two nights.
She refused to give the man’s name.
Light decided to charge Heatherington with making a false statement. If found guilty, she would face a $500 fine, 6 months in jail, or both.
Heatherington promptly recanted her second story, insisting (as she does to this day) that the first one was true.

The Heatheringtons returned to Lethbridge the same night the criminal charge was laid. The mayor had gently suggested that Mrs. Heatherington take some time off from her work with the city council, but she seemed determined to continue her life as it had been before her disappearance. That would not be easy. Angry locals reportedly vandalized her house, neighbors shunned the family, and even the children’s friends kept their distance. Few people in Lethbridge accepted the abduction story; they assumed Mrs. Heatherington had run off to Vegas with a lover, but didn’t want to accept the consequences of having an affair. Many of them demanded her resignation from city council.
David Heatherington staunchly supported his wife’s story. He told reporters that while he didn’t know all the details of the “untoward event”, he could attest that her body was bruised.

On May 20th, as part of a deal worked out with the Cascade County attorney, Dar Heatherington pled not guilty to a charge of giving a false statement to police, agreed to pay $100 to help cover court costs, and promised to attend counselling. This didn’t reflect her real response to the charges – she continued to say she had been abducted – but the deal enabled her to remain on the Lethbridge city council.

The Great Falls affair wrapped up, there was now that matter of the Lethbridge stalker. On June 10th, police concluded their investigation into the incidents by charging Dar Heatherington with criminal mischief, contending that she fabricated everything – the letters, the phone calls, the midnight prowler.
She was convicted on June 29, 2004. A criminal conviction meant she could no longer serve on the city council, but (still insisting that the stalking had been real), Heatherington clung to her position until she was forced to resign in September. She also violated the terms of her house arrest, resulting in another conviction early the following year. By this time Mrs. Heatherington had reportedly become dependent on a mixture of anti-depressants and painkillers.

In the summer of 2005, Heatherington dropped her appeal. She and her husband soon filed bankruptcy due to their legal troubles.

So what happened in this case? I don’t know, but my hunch is that Dar Heatherington was not in Vegas with a boyfriend, and that she falls into the extemely small category of “self-stalkers”: people who stage harrassment or even assaults against themselves, usually because they’re suffering factitious disorders or dissociative disorders. Self-stalking is often detected quickly, when injuries are inconsistent with the violent assaults reported by victims, or surveillance catches them doing something to themselves. (I discussed some of these cases in my post on Ashley Todd, the John McCain campaign volunteer who carved the letter “B” onto her own cheek, then claimed she had been mugged and assaulted by an Obama supporter.)
Dar Heatherington’s case is remarkably similiar to the self-stalking case of Ruth Finley, a Kansas housewife with Dissociative Identity Disorder who sent lewd, menacing letters to herself and even staged a parking-lot abduction and a stabbing. But the unresolved elements of the Heatherington affair cast it into the same limbo as the stalking and mysterious death of Vancouver nurse Cindy James.
We’ll probably never know exactly what happened on the way to Vegas.

 

The Lady Vanishes Part III: Aimee Semple McPherson

Before there was Jim Bakker, before there was Jerry Fartwell, before there was Jimmy Swaggart, there was Sister Aimee.

Born to an Ontario farming family in 1890, Aimee Kennedy was born again at age 17, and married a Pentacostal preacher named Robert Semple a short time later. After Semple died on a missionary trip to China, leaving Aimee with a year-old daughter, she relocated to the U.S.
Like Tony Alamo, she slipped into her late spouse’s shoes by becoming a traveling preacher, and married a wholesale grocer named McPherson.

Aimee was a red-haired dynamo who enthralled everyone, even Christians who thought women should obey St. Paul: sit down and shut up. No one could shut up Aimee McPherson. She pitched her revival tent throughout Canada and New England for two years, with two children in tow, and she drew crowds everywhere she preached.
In 1921, three years after the family settled in Los Angeles, the McPhersons divorced. Incredibly, this didn’t put much of a dent in Aimee’s popular image. By 1923 she and her mother, Minnie, had built a religious empire around Aimee’s International Church of the Foursquare Gospel – the PTL of its day. Its Angelus Temple in Echo Park was the nation’s first true megachurch – an airy, modern masterpiece with seating for 5300 parishioners. As if that audience wasn’t big enough, “Sister Aimee” (as her flock called her) also became the first American woman to be granted an FCC license for her own radio station. She preached every day of the week and up to six times on Sundays, advocating a humble and squeaky-clean lifestyle without adding too much fire and brimstone. In the deeply corrupt L.A. of the Roaring Twenties, such homilies were warmly welcomed. As I wrote in my post about the real stories behind the film The Changeling, the LAPD at this time was rife with corruption. A “gun squad” practiced its own strange brand of urban Western justice, mowing down suspected criminals and inconvenient persons alike under the force’s shoot to kill policy; bodies were routinely found in alleys, warehouses, and other dark corners of the city. The LAPD also had its fingers in an array of criminal enterprises: bootlegging, prostitution, extortion, bribery. In another L.A. church, a social crusader and beloved Presbyterian minister named Gustav Briegleb would rail against this lawlessness for years.

A return to wholesomeness wasn’t the only alluring thing about the Foursquare Church. Each worship service was like a Vegas floor show with faith healings; a full orchestra, the Foursquare choir, costume changes, elaborate sets.

It all worked. By 1926, at the age of 35, Sister Aimee was a millionaire with an estimated 40,000 followers.

Aimee on the Beach

In the early evening hours of May 18, 1926, Aimee was one of a dozen or so swimmers at L.A.’s Ocean Park Beach. A strong swimmer, she cut purposefully through the waves in her knee-length bathing suit and diving cap while her personal secretary waited on the beach, looking over some notes.
But when the secretary looked up, Sister Aimee was gone. She had apparently drowned before she could call out for help.

For days, thousands of mourners gathered on the sand to mourn Sister Aimee. Though no trace of her had washed ashore, she was certainly dead.
But then strange rumours began to surface: Sister Aimee had been sighted at various California hotels in the company of her radio station’s married engineer, Kenneth Ormiston. Not everyone believed the rumours, of course, but Mrs. Ormiston seemed certain that her husband had run off with Sister Aimee. He had vanished around the same time the preacher supposedly drowned.

Minnie Kennedy, on the other hand, insisted her daughter must have been abducted for ransom and offered a $25,000 reward for her safe return. A Los Angeles lawyer soon announced he was in contact with the kidnappers, and they had accurately described a scar on one of Sister Aimee’s fingers. They were demanding $500,000, or else they would “sell her to old Felipe of Mexico City. We are sick and tired and of her infernal preaching.” Aside from the reference to Mexico, the ransom demand contained no clues to Aimee’s location. Her followers could only sit tight and pray.
No further demands or instructions were conveyed by the captors. A month after Aimee disappeared, Minnie appeared to give up hope of recovering her daughter. She held a memorial service for her at Angelus Temple.

Three days after the service, a dazed Sister Aimee staggered out of the desert near Agua Prieta, Mexico, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. She told local authorities she had been abducted from Ocean Park Beach, lured to a car by a couple who claimed to have a sick child in need of her healing powers. She was driven into the desert and imprisoned in a shack by two men and a woman they called Mexicali Rose. Miraculously, she somehow escaped her captors and ran across miles of scorching sand without being pursued, without getting her shoes overly dirty, and without becoming dehydrated or sunburned. Aside from a few blisters and some exhaustion, she was in fine condition.

Sister Aimee tried in vain to lead authorities back to the shack in middle of the desert. It was never found.
But it didn’t take long for the investigators to find out where Aimee had really been for the previous month: In Carmel, having a faux honeymoon with Kenneth Ormiston. Minnie and the attorney had helped Aimee prop up the absurd abduction story. And Aimee stuck to it, while Ormiston insisted he had been out of town with another woman.
In July a grand jury convened to hear evidence on the case. Sister Aimee was represented by Sammy Hahn, the prominent attorney who would take on Christine Collins’ lawsuit against the LAPD three years later. In the end, there simply wasn’t enough solid evidence to show that Sister Aimee may have fabricated her kidnapping. No charges were filed.

You’d think this would be the last straw for Sister Aimee’s flock, wouldn’t you? They could overlook the divorce and the circus-style pageantry, but a faked drowning followed by a faked kidnapping? Pretending you’re preaching to evil kidnappers while you’re actually canoodling with your married employee? That’s just too much. I mean, this stuff makes Orel Roberts look sane. To make matters worse, Aimee married a third time and died from a barbituate overdose in 1944.

But the Foursquare Church has never wavered from Sister Aimee’s account of her abduction. Sister Aimee’s followers staunchly defended her against all accusations of hoaxery. They even accused the investigators of trying to smear her reputation (on behalf of Satan, naturally).
Her son, Rolf, declared years later that his mother was targeted for kidnapping because she knew too much about the L.A. underworld of organized crime and political corruption, thanks to her work with drug addicts and prostitutes.

Church officials contend that Sister Aimee’s fatal overdose was accidental.

Mexicali Rose and her godless thugs have never been found.

Sources:
1. Landsburg, Alan. In Search of Missing Persons. Bantam, 1978.
2. Wikipedia entry on Aimee Semple McPherson. Retrieved Aug. 25/09.
3. Wikipedia entry on the Foursquare Church. Retrieved Aug. 25/09.