26 July 2020

With Social Media the Past is never Far Away



A few years ago, on this same blog site, I posted an article which briefly touched on losing a friend of mine by the name of Tom Whitehead. Tom and I had run together during our high school and early college years in Wichita, Kansas. After a couple of years of college, Tom joined the Army. He went to the 25th Infantry near Cu Chi several months before I went to the 1st Air Cav at Ankhe up in the Central Highlands during the Summer of '67. Before I rotated home in mid-'68, I heard from friends that Tom got caught in a mortar attack, came home as a statistic and was buried in Oklahoma. Like I said at the beginning of this paragraph, I had briefly mentioned Tom in a SleuthSayer's blog article. Shortly afterwards, I received a surprise e-mail in response to that mention.

It seems that Tom had a half-brother in Texas and this half-brother was reaching out to me to learn more about the relative he had never met and knew very little about. I gathered photos and information about Tom from friends we had in common and e-mailed these items to Tom's half-brother in Texas to help him fill in the gap he had in his family tree.

At the end, I was surprised at how easily the past could reach out through the ether and touch the present. And now, it's happened again.

A few days ago, I received an e-male from a female I did not know. Her e-mail had been directed through my author website, which told me she did not have either of my direct e-mail addresses. In her e-mail, she told me that she had been going through her father's belongings and had found my old (DEA) business card. She was hoping to learn more about her father and implied that I knew what had happened to him. From her words, I was fairly sure her dad was deceased, but not only did I not know him from his name, I also had no idea what had happened to him.

With luck and a calculated internet search, I learned her father had been a police officer in a western Nebraska town near the South Dakota border and that he had died (a one-line obit) in July 1992 at the age of 32. No other details seemed to be available about his death. I had made a fair-sized cocaine case in that border town during the late 80's/early 90's, but I did not recall meeting the man, nor giving him my business card. I subsequently provided her with the skimpy information I had and then asked a few questions in return.

In her reply e-mails, I learned that her father had gone to work as an undercover operative in central South Dakota to buy drugs on and off the Indian reservation. The day he was to come out of the cold and meet with his handlers in a specific South Dakota city, he was found dead in a small Nebraska border town. Allegedly, he had committed suicide. Also allegedly, there were inconsistencies in the reports.

Three things came to my mind. First, small Midwest towns usually don't have the best forensics and their county coroners may not have any training for their position. Situations are often taken at face value. Second, the undercover game is a tough mental and emotional stretch. Not everyone is suited to the tension of being in a deep cover situation where backup can't get to you in time if circumstances suddenly go south. Maintaining cover as a different personality can be nerve-racking when the other side has guns, but no rules to restrict them. And third, when an operation goes bad, people start distancing themselves, especially those career officials striving to climb the promotion ladder. Take your pick.

Turned out, according to the daughter, that her father was working with the FBI and a regional drug task force to buy drugs and get evidence on some corrupt officials. That was a time period when the FBI had decided they had concurrent jurisdiction on drug cases. Naturally, they did not tell us about their operations. As a matter of fact, they kept the information so tight, that even though it occurred in the eastern part of my territory and just over the river from my first line supervisor's territory, neither one of us heard even a whisper about it when the operation was ongoing, or afterwards, until the daughter e-mailed me. I still don't know how her dad got my business card.

They say the past is history. In truth, it is often seen in terms of dust and death. But, in those times when the past squeezes through the ether to peer over your shoulder and raises the short hairs on the back of your neck, that's not dust reaching out to touch you.

20 comments:

Art Taylor said...

A fascinating story, R.T.—though a sad one too, of course.

bobbi chukran said...

Thanks for sharing that story, R.T. Just wow.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

With improved forensics, such as the use of DNA, many past crimes are ending up being solved. So history does become current.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Raising short hairs. An army brat like me has few childhood friends as I was also the new kid in a new school. The nomadic life, matched with the fact (I didn't know until I was told later) that I was a pain-in-the-ass brat, left me with no grade-school friends. I have, however, been in contact with other army brats who went to school with me in Italy and Kansas and it's nice, especially sharing pictures. Good column, R.T.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I can't stop thinking about the daughter who has carried all those questions about her dad for most of her life. Whatever you told her must have been comforting to one who had so little. That's a great story behind the sorrow.

Eve Fisher said...

It sounds like a suspicious death to me, especially since small Nebraska towns on the SD border aren't known for their strict adherence to laws. Any laws. As Art says, fascinating, but sad as well.

R.T. Lawton said...

Art, it is a sad story.But then, life will sometimes give us questions and yet not provide nice, neat answers for those same questions. Those are the times we are left dangling, wondering what really happened.

R.T. Lawton said...

Bobbi, I kept the daughter's e-mail just in case I find more information later, but with the passage of about 28 years, some of those with any information may have already taken that information to the grave.

R.T. Lawton said...

Jacqueline, thanks for commenting. I love the way DNA from cold cases is catching criminals decades after they committed their crime. Of course with this one, assuming it is a homicide, some one in that jurisdiction needs to get interested enough to look at the case and see what, if any, potential DNA evidence exits to submit to a lab.

R.T. Lawton said...

O'Neil, I always appreciate hearing from you. One of these days, I'll dig up some old Army photos and e-mail them to you.

R.T. Lawton said...

Thanks, Susan. It has got to be tough when you have gaps in your life and you can't get the answers you need.

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, I agree. In those days, in those small communities with small budgets and possible lack of proper, up-to-date training, it could be easier to hide the true facts of a crime, or even miss them altogether.

Melodie Campbell said...

RT, you are one of those people I'd love to meet for a pint (would you say for beers down your way?) and listen to your career stories for hours. Maybe someday at Bouchercon, if we ever get back to a new normal.

Leigh Lundin said...

What Melodie says.

Damn dust.

I'm glad they had a professional on this end of the listening line.

Catherine Dilts said...

Wow.

R.T. Lawton said...

Melodie, the first pint is on me. And, I just might have 2 or 3 mafia stories from Kansas City to tell you.

R.T. Lawton said...

Thanks, Leigh. We keep missing each other in person, but yeah, the first drink when we do get together is on me.

R.T. Lawton said...

Cathy, you said a lot in one word. I'm sure I thought that one word myself a couple of times during the process.

DoolinDalton said...

Well-handled, amigo. Did it occur to you at all that the daughter might not be what/who she claimed to be? Might just be my suspicious nature at work, but in this age of catfishing, that thought popped unbidden into my head upon reading your opening.

Brian

R.T. Lawton said...

Doolin, yes, as paranoid as the occupation is, I did consider that possibility of a "false flag" and tried to judge what information she would be getting out of my e-mails. In the end, she knew a lot more than I did about the situation.