Author: stlreporter

C.D. Stelzer is a St. Louis-based, award-winning investigative journalist. Contents © C.D. Stelzer.

The Assassin’s Brother

Bank robber John Larry Ray fought the law and the law won.

A version of this story first appeared in Illinois Times (Springfield) Nov. 28, 2007. John Larry Ray died in 2013.

John Ray

The lone robber entered the Farmers Bank of Liberty at 9:10 a.m. on Friday May 30, 1980. He didn’t bark any demands, and he didn’t hand the teller a note. The gun in his left hand spoke for itself. He placed a crumpled plastic bag on the counter. As the teller stuffed cash from four tills into the bag, the bandit walked directly to the office of the executive vice president, as if he had cased the bank in advance. He motioned for the bank officer to go to the vault. “Two minutes,” he said, aiming the pistol at the officer and another bank employee. Informed that the vault had a time-delayed lock, the bandit grabbed the loot from behind the counter and fled.

The robbery took three minutes and netted $15,122. Eyewitnesses pegged the stickup man as about 50 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, 180 pounds, gray-haired and potbellied. He was dressed in baggy slacks, a tan jacket, and a floppy fisherman’s hat. Though a nylon-stocking mask concealed the robber’s facial features, the traumatized teller noted his “farmer’s tan.”

Three weeks later, John Larry Ray, the brother of the late James Earl Ray, was arrested for the heist. In the town of Liberty, Ill., Ray’s name still strikes terror in the former bank teller, though a jury ultimately acquitted Ray of that crime in a federal trial in Springfield more than a quarter-century ago. These days, the notorious bank robber lives quietly on College Avenue in Quincy in a small brick house with a rickety front porch. Vacant lots dot the neighborhood. Around the corner, on Martin Luther King Memorial Drive, African-American children play on the sidewalk in the autumn dusk.

John Larry Ray moved here from St. Louis three years ago to care for his sister, Melba, who died last November. The 74-year-old brother of the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has survived a heart attack and a stroke in recent years. He is also hobbled by diabetes. Complications from the disease forced the partial amputation of both of his feet more than a decade ago. In the spring, he hopes to erect tombstones at a local cemetery for himself and his kin.

He is counting on royalties from a book due out in March to help pay the bills. The forthcoming biography chronicles his criminal career and life in prison. It also purportedly reveals his late brother’s alleged ties to the CIA [see “His last score,” page 15]. Because of contractual obligations, he is currently not speaking to the press.
John Larry Ray’s own story, however, has little to do with international intrigue or espionage. His is a cops-and-robbers tale rooted in western Illinois. Illinois law-enforcement authorities charged John Larry Ray with the May 30, 1980 robbery of the Farmers Bank of Liberty in Liberty, Ill.

He was born in Alton on St. Valentine’s Day 1933, the second son of Lucille and George “Speedy” Ray, a small-time hoodlum. During his youth, the family hightailed it from town to town, his father adopting aliases to stay one step ahead of the law. By 1944, the “Rayns” family had moved north to Knox County, where, Ray says, he applied for his first Social Security number to earn money delivering the Galesburg Register-Mail. James Earl Ray borrowed that number in 1967 to get a job as a dishwasher in Chicago after John Larry Ray helped him escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary.

Those acts would bind the two brothers’ fates. But John Larry Ray had already made more than one wrong turn by then. His first serious scrape with the law came in 1953, when a joyride through the streets of Quincy in a stolen Hudson earned him five to 10. After his release in 1960 from the Menard State Penitentiary, in Chester, Ill., he worked as a bartender and Greyhound bus-depot employee. He dreamed of being a seaman but ended up tending greens at a golf course near Chicago. In 1964 and 1965, he knocked around Florida and the Catskill Mountains, in upstate New York, and collected unemployment benefits in New York City.

By October 1966 he had landed in St. Louis, where, he says, he worked as a painter. In January 1968, he opened the Grapevine tavern on Arsenal Street in South St. Louis with one of his sisters. Months later, the FBI showed up at the Grapevine to question John Larry Ray on the whereabouts of his brother, who was by then wanted for the murder of King. He lied, telling the agents that he hadn’t had any contact with his brother for years. The FBI couldn’t prove his participation in the prison break the previous year, but the bureau had John Larry Ray in its crosshairs, and he would remain a target.

In 1970, federal agents nabbed him for serving as the getaway driver in a bank robbery in St. Peters, Mo. That charge resulted in his only bank-robbery conviction and an 18-year sentence.

In 1978, however, a congressional panel investigating King’s murder — the House Select Committee on Assassinations — accused Ray of four other bank heists, including an October 1969 stickup in rural Illinois. In an odd twist, Ray would be busted for robbing the same financial institution — the Farmers Bank of Liberty — in 1980, a year-and-a-half after the conclusion of the congressional hearings.

The crime stunned the town of Liberty, population 524. Rumors that the robber was camped in a pasture at the edge of town hiked fears. Police-band chatter crackled with mounting reports of suspicious characters in the vicinity. The robbery garnered banner headlines in the Quincy Herald-Whig, and the Liberty Bee-Times, the town’s weekly newspaper, devoted its entire front page to the story. Less than a week later, Liberty would be jolted again. At 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 4, 1980, a farmer reported a suspicious vehicle west of town, according to the Bee-Times. When Liberty Police Chief Albert “Ab” Viar responded to the call, he found a blue 1969 Pontiac Tempest abandoned beside a gravel road, its engine compartment still warm. The car didn’t have license plates, but a registration application in the lower right-hand corner of the windshield bore the signature of James R. LaRue. Viar drove back to the house of the farmer. As the farmer and his spouse talked to the chief, the farmer’s wife saw a light come on inside the Tempest, which was parked about a quarter-mile away.

By the time the police chief got back to that location, the car was heading in his direction. Viar flipped on his squad car’s emergency lights to signal the driver to stop. Instead the driver sped away, and Viar pursued him. The chase ended a half-mile later, when the Tempest spun out on a curve and crashed into a ditch. The driver jumped from the car and escaped on foot into a cornfield. As darkness fell, the police chief radioed for backup. After his deputy arrived, they conducted a search. About 300 feet from where the Tempest had first been spotted, Viar found a yellow satchel containing $10,803 from the bank robbery.

At 8 o’clock the next morning, a county deputy and state police officer reported being fired upon near the bank, prompting another manhunt. Heavily armed local and state cops swarmed the fields and woodlands surrounding the town. That afternoon, authorities discovered an abandoned encampment about a mile from the scene of the car chase. At the site, police found a hole under a tree, leading them to believe that the robber had unearthed the loot, only to have his plans thwarted by the vigilant police chief.

Meanwhile, the Adams County Sheriff’s Department issued a warrant for James R. LaRue, and the Illinois State Police arrested a man with that name in Cicero, Ill., on June 9, 1980. They released the suspect within hours, however, after he informed officers that a wallet containing his identification had been stolen a month earlier. The investigation appeared to have reached a dead end.

But a week later the sheriff’s department charged Ray with the bank robbery on the basis of a left thumbprint found on one of the Tempest’s side-view mirrors. Ray, who matched the general description of the suspect, had vanished months earlier after being released on parole. Within days the FBI entered the case and, weirdly enough, so did an investigator for the defunct congressional committee. At 5:45 p.m. on June 23, 1980, Sgt. Conrad “Pete” Baetz of the Madison County (Ill.) Sheriff’s Department spotted Ray walking along Illinois Route 140 near Alton.

“As I remember it, he was wearing a dark-blue leisure suit,” says Baetz, who now lives in Two Rivers, Wis. “It was also hotter than hell that day.” Baetz, on a shopping trip with his wife, turned his car around and passed the sweaty pedestrian again to confirm his identity. He then called the sheriff’s department from a nearby roadhouse. An on-duty officer arrived promptly to assist Baetz in the arrest. The two deputies frisked Ray and found nothing. Later, a Madison County jailer discovered a .38-caliber revolver among the personal items that Ray was toting in a shopping bag when he was arrested. The bag reportedly also contained women’s nylon hosiery and coin-roll wrappers from the Farmers Bank of Liberty.

Baetz recognized the suspect so readily because they had crossed paths before. He had interviewed Ray in his capacity as a congressional investigator for the HSCA two years earlier. The Madison County officer had taken a leave of absence from his local law-enforcement duties in 1978 to work for the committee, but the career move turned bad when Baetz came under investigation himself. Former FBI informant Oliver Patterson alleged that the then-congressional investigator had directed him to spy on Jerry Ray, the youngest of the three Ray brothers. The informant also said that he gave false testimony, provided to him by Baetz, to the committee. Patterson revealed his illegal activities at a St. Louis press conference organized by attorney Mark Lane, who then represented James Earl Ray.

Though the committee denied any wrongdoing, the press coverage tarnished the reputations of both the HSCA and Baetz. If Baetz feared that his latest brush with fame would stir up questions about his checkered Capitol Hill tenure, he needn’t have worried. The arrest of John Larry Ray grabbed front-page headlines in newspapers in St. Louis, Alton, and Quincy, but none of the accompanying stories mentioned Baetz’s central role in the HSCA scandal two years earlier.

The Adams County sheriff arrived in Alton the next morning by chartered plane and flew Ray back to Quincy, where FBI agents dispatched from Indianapolis waited to interrogate him about the shooting of National Urban League president Vernon Jordan in Fort Wayne, Ind., on May 29, 1980 — the day before the Farmers Bank of Liberty robbery. Though the agents publicly discounted Ray as a suspect in the civil-rights leader’s shooting, their boss took a different tack. In a front-page story that appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, FBI director William H. Webster emphasized the similarities between the Jordan shooting and the murder of King — including the possibility that money from bank robberies financed the plots.

The FBI chief’s accusations may have been sparked by memories of his early days on the bench. Like Baetz, the nation’s top cop had encountered John Larry Ray previously. As a fledgling federal district judge in St. Louis, Webster had sentenced John Larry Ray to prison for being the wheelman in the 1970 robbery of the Bank of St. Peters (Mo.). In 1978, the HSCA used that single federal conviction as the linchpin for its theory that the Ray brothers were an organized gang of bank robbers. The committee further alleged that James Earl Ray and John Larry Ray robbed the Bank of Alton on July 13, 1967, and used proceeds from that heist to finance James Earl Ray’s travels in the year preceding the King assassination.

To buttress its theory, the committee cited other bank robberies that were carried out in a similar fashion, including the 1970 Bank of St. Peters robbery, for which John Larry Ray was convicted, and the 1969 holdup of the Farmers Bank of Liberty, for which he wasn’t even charged.

“They all went down in essentially the same way,” Baetz says. “We put James Earl Ray in the area on the day the Alton robbery occurred.”

By the time HSCA called him to testify, John Larry Ray was slotted for parole for his 1971 bank-robbery conviction. After he refused to admit involvement in any of the bank robberies, the committee charged him with perjury and federal marshals pulled him out of a halfway house in St. Louis. He spent the next two months in solitary confinement at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., while Justice Department officials tried to decide whether to pursue the charge.

In comments to the press, Ray accused the federal prison system, the FBI, and congressional investigators of conspiring to deny his release. Attorney James Lesar, who represented John Larry Ray before the HSCA hearings, objected vehemently to the relevancy of bringing up bank robberies that took place after King was assassinated. The committee repeatedly overruled the objections. “They pretended they were a judicial proceeding despite the fact that it was a totally one-sided presentation of evidence,” says Lesar, a Washington, D.C., lawyer. “They were the prosecutor, the judge, and the jury, all in one ball.”

Internal Justice Department memos obtained later by Lesar through the Freedom of Information Act confirmed the HSCA had overreached its authority. Justice Department officials ruled that the committee had improperly slapped the perjury charge on John Larry Ray to force James Earl Ray to testify. The department refused to prosecute the case. Back at the St. Louis halfway house from which he had been yanked, John Larry Ray told the Associated Press on Aug. 24, 1978, that “he would testify about a ‘link’ in the assassination if authorities would permit a nationwide television report about improper judicial action that resulted in his conviction of aiding the robbery of a St. Peters, Mo., bank.”

His only co-defendant in the 1971 St. Peters bank-robbery trial had his conviction overturned on a technicality as Ray remained locked up. Now the judge who sentenced him had risen to FBI director. Guilt or innocence mattered little under these circumstances. Nothing would ever shake his belief that he had been set up to take a fall because he was James Earl Ray’s brother.

The pawn had made his move, but it was as if he wasn’t even on the chessboard. Nobody paid attention to his offer. This must have convinced him that the game was rigged. But that doesn’t explain why John Larry Ray chose to lie to the HSCA. Despite the expiration on the statute of limitation and a congressional grant of immunity, Ray denied involvement in James Earl Ray’s escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1967. He has since admitted picking up his brother after the escape near Jefferson City, Mo. In its final report, the HSCA concluded “that the resistance of the Ray brothers to admitting a criminal association among themselves in these minor crimes is based on a frank realization that such an admission might well lead to their implication in the higher crime of assassination.”

When asked to make a closing statement before the HSCA on Dec. 1, 1978, John Larry Ray cast the blame for King’s assassination on his accusers, appealing to Congress to unlock evidence the government had decided to seal until 2027. “The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI and a federal judge locked up thousands of pages of evidence concerning . . . Martin Luther King, and the Rays and maybe a person who conspired to assassinate him.

“It is my belief that since I have been locked in solitary confinement for 67 days, in three different federal asylums, and [endured] many physical tortures by this government, that they should release this information, and the person who do [sic] not release the information, it seems to me they would be covering up a murder. They would be covering up the murder of Martin Luther King. . . .”

At his arraignment in Adams County on June 25, 1980, Ray displayed no belated signs of contrition. He argued press coverage of “FBI propaganda” made it impossible for him to receive fair treatment in the United States and requested a trial before the United Nations. Six months later, after more contentious court appearances, the state of Illinois washed its hands of John Larry Ray and turned the case over to federal prosecutors. The rest of the courtroom drama would play out in federal district court in Springfield. It would pit an inexperienced public defender against a phalanx of assistant U.S. attorneys.

Ronald Spears, Ray’s court-appointed lawyer, had been in private practice for less than two years when he went to trial in April 1981. He confesses a degree of youthful naïveté then about outside events surrounding the case, but that doesn’t explain his surprise over the unusual developments inside the courtroom. “There were some critical mysteries in the case that I’ve never figured out,” says Spears, who is now a Christian County Circuit Court judge.
The most mysterious element of the case, says Spears, involved a flashlight that the prosecution admitted as evidence. Twenty-six years later it remains a subject of debate. Baetz, the arresting officer who testified at the trial, says that FBI agents belatedly discovered a roll of bills inside the flashlight, money that the former congressional investigator contends came from the bank robbery.

But Spears remembers it differently.

With FBI agents present, he and Ray examined the physical evidence, including the flashlight that had been found in the shopping bag at the time of his arrest. Ray opened the flashlight and peered into the battery chamber and then put the cap back on, according to Spears. Later Ray took Spears aside and asked him to call for an investigation. Ray claimed that he had stashed money he had earned working in Chicago before his arrest in the flashlight and that it had disappeared. Spears informed the court of his client’s allegation and demanded an explanation. “So the prosecutor brings the thing into open court and takes it out of the box,” says Spears. “He opens up the end of it, [and] pulls out several thousand dollars in cash. All of this evidence was in the custody of the FBI. They had already examined it. They obviously would have identified if they found the money in there. Either there was some not very good work done by the crime lab, or somebody took it [the money] and was going to keep it and got caught.”
 

Other evidence may have been flushed down the toilet. Feces collected near the getaway car contained anal hairs, which prompted the state to order Ray to provide samples. He complied. But when Spears later questioned the forensic specialist at the trial, the witness testified that he had thrown away the evidence. “Again, it points to either what could have been a sloppy investigation or worse,” Spears says.

The prosecution relied on the testimony of Charles Reeder, a cellmate of John Larry Ray’s while Ray was jailed in Adams County. He told the jury that Ray had confessed to the crime. Under cross-examination, however, Reeder said that he agreed to testify for the government in exchange for a possible reduction in his 10-year sentence for deviate sexual assault.

The defense countered by calling Oliver Patterson, the former HSCA informant, to the stand, prompting the prosecution to object, so Judge J. Waldo Ackerman cleared the jury from the courtroom to ascertain the relevancy of his testimony. Under oath, Patterson said that when he heard that Baetz had arrested John Larry Ray, he immediately wondered whether the former congressional investigator had tampered with the evidence. Moreover, Patterson told the court, his false testimony before the HSCA — which Baetz allegedly condoned — led to the delay in Ray’s 1978 parole.

In short, Patterson maintained that Baetz had a vendetta against Ray and his family. Not surprisingly, Jerry Ray agreed. The youngest of the Ray brothers testified that the FBI had first tried to pin the Liberty bank heist on him. “When it was shown that I couldn’t have robbed it because I was in Georgia, then they said ‘John Ray robbed it,’ ” says Jerry Ray. “If they can’t get one, then they get the other.”

Ackerman, however, ruled that Patterson’s testimony was irrelevant to the bank-robbery charge.
“I’m sure at that point Patterson liked the publicity he was getting,” Baetz says. “I didn’t even know that he was going to testify, but my guess is he would testify to the fact that there was this vast conspiracy against the Ray family.”

The former congressional investigator blames Mark Lane, James Earl Ray’s attorney, for promulgating that idea. “His way of handling things was to throw out as many allegations as you can, as loud as you can, and see if they will stick,” Baetz says. In this case, however, the job of making things stick fell to federal prosecutors, who failed to place John Larry Ray inside the bank that had been robbed. None of the fingerprints at the bank matched Ray’s, plus none of the witnesses, including the teller, could identify Ray.

Instead, prosecutors used circumstantial evidence against Ray, including the thumbprint on the vehicle involved in the car chase — a week after the robbery. In addition, a ballistic expert testified that a .38-caliber bullet removed from a tree at the site where the getaway car was found on the day of the robbery matched the gun discovered in Ray’s shopping bag after his arrest.

After seven hours of deliberations, the jury found Ray guilty. But the judge threw out the conviction. His decision hinged on a handwritten motion submitted by John Larry Ray when he faced state charges in Adams County. Federal prosecutors introduced his motion as evidence so that the jury could compare it with handwriting on the license-plate-application form for the Pontiac Tempest involved in the car chase. But Ray’s motion included detailed information on his prior bank-robbery conviction, which was inadmissible evidence.

In the second trial, which took place in July 1981, Ray was acquitted by the jury after more than 10 hours of deliberations. John Larry Ray, however, returned to federal penitentiary because he had been convicted in March 1981 for contempt of court for not providing handwriting samples to federal prosecutors. Ray apparently balked at the demand after having already given samples to the state after his arrest the previous year. For his lack of cooperation, he received a three-year sentence. He received additional time for the .38-caliber pistol found among his possessions after his arrest. Ray was paroled in 1987 and disappeared for the next five years. U.S. marshals arrested him for parole violation in St. Louis in 1992. The Federal Bureau of Prisons released him for the last time on July 26, 1993. By that time, Ray had spent more than 25 years of his life in prisons in 13 states from coast to coast.

By virtue of his relationship to his late brother, John Larry Ray will always be associated with one of the most heinous crimes of the 20th century. In many ways he has been cast in a role not entirely of his own creation. His legend is really a collaborative work, a crazy quilt of official sources whose pieces don’t always fit. His side of the story has been largely ignored or discredited. Ray is, after all, a felon, an ex-con with a rap sheet that spans five decades. He is known to have lied to the FBI and Congress. But there is another reason that his version of events has often gone unheeded: Ray has a lifelong speech impediment. Words have failed him. He has literally been misunderstood.

An intent listener can discern his message clearly enough, however, and it hasn’t changed for a very long time. Ray still harbors an unyielding contempt for authority. The world is his prison, and he has made a career of defying those who run the joint.

Cover Story

A deep dive into the 1978 House Committee on Assassinations’ conspiracy theory on the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

In 1978, Russell G. Byers was fingered as a suspect in a St. Louis Art Museum heist before becoming a witness before the House Select Committee on Assassination’s probe into the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King.

BY C.D. STELZER
(first published in the Riverfront Times April 8, 1992)

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to murder the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Evidence gathered by the HSCA has been sealed until 2027. James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of King, claims the congressional investigation itself was a cover-up.

Ray pleaded guilty to the crime in 1969, but immediately recanted. There has never been a trial. He is now a prisoner at River Bend Penitentiary in Nashville, Tenn. In the preface to Ray’s book, “Who Killed Martin Luther King,” published in 1992, the Rev. Jesse Jackson demands a special prosecutor be named and the case reopened.

The following story centers on the HSCA’s St. Louis-based conspiracy theory and is comprised of information gleaned from Ray’s book, congressional testimony and newspaper accounts.

At 7:55 a.m. Nov. 8, 1979, produce man John Paul Spica said goodbye to his girlfriend Dina Bachelier for the last time. He walked out of the two family flat at 1115 Claytonia Terrace in Richmond Heights and stepped into his 1977 black Cadillac. When Spica touched the break pedal, he detonated five to eight sticks of dynamite. The explosion blew both of Spica’s legs off. The driver’s door of the vehicle landed 30 yards away.

Moments later, Wellston police officer Nick Sturghill, saw a bearded white male in a yellow pickup truck speeding away. Spica, who had a speech impediment, mumbled a few unintelligible words to Sturghill before he died.

Spica’s violent death a year after his closed-door testimony before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) has long been attributed to a war between competing organized crime elements. for the control of a St. But Spica served time in Missouri Penitentiary with James Earl Ray, and was also the brother-in-law of Russell G. Byers, the committee’s star witness, who testified that there was a St. Louis-based conspiracy to kill the civil rights leader. The HSCA final report concluded that Byers’ allegations were credible.

The HSCA findings suggest that Ray, the convicted assassin, did not act alone, but its findings raise more questions than answers. The doubt begin with the HSCA’s chief witness and Spica’s brother-in law. That’s because in 1978 Byers was the suspected mastermind of a St. Louis Art Museum burglary. He was arrested but never charged with the crime.

Sometime after his arrest, the FBI in St. Louis provided HSCA investigators with Byers’ name after a misfiled 1974 report surfaced, which stated that, according to a confidential informant, Byers had boasted of receiving an offer to kill King.

In 1978, Byers told the HSCA that the offer came from two prominent deceased St. Louisans: former stockbroker John R. Kauffmann and patent lawyer John H. Sutherland, who founded “whites rights” groups locally.

Spica, Byers’ brother-in-law, was a convicted murder contractor himself. Spica had served 10 years of a life sentence for negotiating the 1962 killing of John T. Myszak, a North St. Louis County realtor. Upon parole, Spica opened the Corner Produce, a vegetable stand at Shaw and Vandevanter, which may have been an organized crime front. Spica was known to have ties to the late Anthony Giordano, leader of the St. Louis mafia.

Police believe Spica’s slaying, and subsequent car bombings during the early 80s, began as a power struggle within then-mob-dominated Laborers’ Union Local 42. In a 1987 federal trial here, Raymond H. Flynn, the local’s business manager, was implicated in Spica’s bombing and found guilty of multiple racketeering and conspiracy charges.

But Spica had other interesting associations besides his brother-in law and the mafia: While in a Missouri prison, Spica shared the same cell block with James Earl Ray.

In 1978, after being subpoenaed and granted immunity by the HSCA, Byers publicly testified that in late 1966 or early 1967 he was approached by Kauffmann, a retired stockbroker and former aircraft company owner active in St. Louis County Democratic politics. Byers had been a friend of the elder Kauffmann’s late brother Gil, an assistant St. Louis County coroner. According to Byers’ account, Kauffmann introduced him to a neighbor, John H. Sutherland, an avowed racist who made the $50,000 contract offer to kill King.

At this time, Kauffmann lived in Jefferson County and operated the Bluff Acres Motel on Highway 67 in Barnhart. Byers claimed the motel was actually a front for illegal activities and told the committee he used the premises for his stolen car operations. When asked by the committee whether he had informed Spica of the contract offer to kill King, Byers said he had not, but said that his brother-in-law, who was in state prison at the time, may have learned of the offer through other sources. Also in the same prison at the same time, was James Earl Ray, who was serving a sentence for the robbery of a Kroger’s supermarket on Ohio Avenue in South St. Louis. Both he and Spica, for a brief period, worked in the prison hospital together. Newspaper accounts cite rumors that Spica and Ray were dealing drugs inside.

Interestingly, the prison doctor, with the keys to the medicine chest, was Hugh W. Maxey — an old friend of Kauffmann’s. One shady business Kauffmann operated out of his motel was Fixaco, Inc., a pharmaceutical company. Seven people connected with Fixaco, including Kauffmann, were arrested on April 4, 1967 for conspiracy to illegally sell 725,000 amphetamines pills. Among those charged were two New Yorkers: Bernard Chubet, a former stockbroker and Anthony K. Chang, a Chinese Nationalist (Taiwanese) exchange student. Also arrested was Sgt. Henry Geerdes, a Jefferson County deputy. Former Jefferson County Sheriff Walter “Buck” Buerger claimed his deputy was acting as an undercover agent when arrested by the U.S. Bureau of Drug Abuse Control. However, the HSCA testimony of one of Byers’ former lawyers, the late Murray Randall, indicates the Jefferson County sheriff — not a deputy — purchased drugs from Kauffmann.

Within weeks of Kauffmann’s speed bust, Ray, with another inmate’s help, smuggled himself out of prison in a bread box. Inexplicably, charges against one of his earlier failed escape efforts were dropped not long before the breakout, allowing Ray back into the main prison population.

Fred Wilkinson, the Missouri director of corrections at the time, was a former federal prison official with ties to the CIA. In 1962, Wilkinson helped exchange a Russian spy for Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot shot down over the Soviet Union.

Ray wasn’t the only one taking leave of the prison in those days. Maxey, the prison physician, released at least one inmate to work at Kauffmann’s motel as part of a “rehabilitation program.” And in a 1978 interview, Kauffmann’s widow said that in 1966, Spica visited the motel with Byers, while Spica was serving his life sentence. According to prison records, Spica received his first official prison furlough in 1972.

The other St. Louis businessman implicated by Byers, in the alleged assassination plot, was the late John H. Sutherland, a neighbor of Kauffmann’s and a patent attorney who had offices in the Shell Building on Locust Street where The Riverfront Times is now located. The firm of Sutherland Polster and Taylor represented clients such as Monsanto. When he died in 1970, Sutherland left a portfolio of mainly oil and chemical stocks worth more than $300,000, including investments in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.

In 1978, another St. Louisan was linked to a local firm — Hydro-Air Engineering, Inc. — which was being investigated for illegal trade with the same white-supremacist nation. The allegations came soon after federal Judge William Webster was confirmed as FBI chief. While the African business may be unrelated, Webster had a closer tie to the case, which is harder to dismiss.

Richard O’Hara, an art restorer, was the FBI informant who purportedly reported Byers’ assassination claims in 1974 to the FBI. O’Hara had been arrested in 1972 for his knowledge of a Maryland Plaza jewel robbery. Two suspects in that case were murdered, another was acquitted here in a federal trial racked with improprieties. Judge Webster presided over the questionable judicial proceedings.

Webster and Sutherland also both belonged to the then-all-white Veiled Prophet society. Sutherland’s membership in the organization was posthumously investigated the HSCA the same year Webster’s VP connection was questioned during his Senate confirmation hearings. The reason the HSCA showed interest in the VP was because of Byers’ testimony that Sutherland represented a “secret Southern society,” with a lot of money. The wealthy Veiled Prophet organization was founded in the post Civil War era by Southern sympathizers.

However, the HSCA gave more credence to the theory that one of three overtly racist political groups may have been involved in the conspiracy. The HSCA theorized that word may have been passed to Ray through his family. In 1968, Ray’s brother, John, operated the Grapevine tavern at 1982 Arsenal Street adjacent to Benton Park. The saloon was the gathering place for American Party workers who had a campaign office nearby. The third-party movement was created to support the George Wallace’s presidential bid. Sutherland was a Wallace supporter. Another possibility mentioned by the HSCA was the St. Louis Metropolitan Area Citizens Council, a “whites’ rights” group. Sutherland had been the group’s first president. But the outfit the HSCA took most seriously was the Nashville-based Southern States Industrial Council to which Sutherland belonged. A position paper published by the council quotes FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover’s belief that the “Negro movement” was being subverted by communists.


Making a Killing

Author Gerald Posner scores another bestseller, at the expense of historical accuracy

The wreckage of John Paul Spica’s Cadillac outside his Richmond Heights apartment on Nov. 8, 1979. The previous year Spica gave closed-door testimony to the House committee inquiry into the murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Spica’s testimony remains sealed until 2027.( Photo by Jim Rackwitz.)

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) May 20, 1998

BY C.D. STELZER

In the final chapter of Killing the Dream, Gerald Posner takes the reader inside of the mind of James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. This is no small trick considering the author never interviewed Ray, who died shortly after publication of the book in April.

Nevertheless, reviewers have lauded the tome. Anthony Lewis of the New York Times calls it “a model of investigation, meticulous in its discovery and presentation of evidence, unbiased in its exploration of every claim.” The august newspaper columnist is too kind.

In his acknowledgments, Posner himself confesses to succumbing to deadline pressure, spurred no doubt by the publisher, Random House, which opportunely released the book on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination.

To finish his assignment on time, Posner relied heavily on the works of two other authors who have previously written books on the King assassination: William Bradford Huie and George McMillan. Both writers assumed Ray’s guilt. Posner sews their narratives together, patching tatters and frayed edges with suppositions, taking verbal potshots at the convicted murderer whenever possible, repeatedly condemning him for being an ignorant, genetically inferior racist from “the backwaters of Missouri.”

In between personal attacks, Posner refutes, with seeming aplomb, Ray’s alibi, which revolves around being a patsy for Rauol, a mysterious smuggler. Posner then sets about trashing the credibility of all other conspiracy theories concerning the murder of the civil rights leader. He ends by reiterating his foregone conclusion: “There is no doubt that James Earl Ray shot and killed Martin Luther King.”

It is a formula that has proven successful for the author in the past. Case Closed , his 1993 best-seller, sided with the Warren Commission’s questionable conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

But under scrutiny, Posner’s case against Ray is marred by factual errors and omissions. For instance, he refers to the car-bombing death of John Paul Spica as occurring in the “St. Louis suburb of Richmond.” He further states that the “possibility of learning more from Spica ended” with the explosion.

Posner is wrong on both counts. In reality, Spica, a St. Louis Mafioso, was killed outside his Claytonia Terrace apartment in Richmond Heights. His murder has been attributed to feuding underworld factions vying for control of a labor union here. Before his death, however, he testified in executive session before the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1978. Spica’s testimony remains sealed under the terms of a congressional edict until 2027. Unsealing these transcripts could yet provide information relevant to the case.

In another instance, Posner refers to the Phoenix Program as a “government campaign against the anti-war movement.” In reality, the Phoenix Program was a CIA-sponsored operation that hunted down and killed suspected communist sympathizers in South Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. After the war, congressional investigators conservatively estimated that more than 20,000 civilians were murdered as a part of the pogrom, which used a computer database to track its targets. Some conspiracy theorists have postulated that a similar operation could have been employed domestically.

Of course, Posner pooh-poohs the possibility of any military or intelligence involvement in the assassination of King. Instead, he holds to a simpler conspiracy theory advanced by the HSCA in 1978. According to the HSCA’s final report, Ray may have received word of an alleged $50,000 bounty on King’s life offered by two St. Louis supporters of segregationist George Wallace.

The problem with confirming this convenient theory is that both men were dead by 1978. Moreover, Russell G. Byers, the HSCA witness, who claimed he received the murder contract, was a suspect in a notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglary that year. Posner conveniently leaves this last detail out of his book, choosing instead to accept the HSCA findings without qualification.

If there is indeed a connection to be made, the motive behind these shadowy associations may have more to do with drug dealing than racist politics. During the mid-1960s, Byers busied himself chopping stolen cars at the Bluff Acres Motel in the burg of Barnhart in then-rural Jefferson County, Mo. While Byers ran the car theft ring, John R. Kauffmann, the motel owner, engaged in other illegal activities. On April 4, 1967, Kauffmann and six others who frequented the site were arrested for the sale of 725,000 pharmaceutical-grade amphetamines pills. Kauffmann just happened to be one of the two men who Byers’ claimed had asked him to kill King.

Meanwhile, Spica — Byers’ brother-in-law — shared the same cell block with Ray at the Missouri Penitentiary. For a while, they worked in the prison hospital together. Hugh W. Maxey, the prison doctor, even granted Spica weekend furloughs to visit a mutual acquaintance — Kauffmann — in Jefferson County. Spica, a convicted murderer, was released on his own recognizance. More curious is the fact that within a couple of weeks of Kauffmann’s drug bust, Ray managed to escape.

Ray’s escape was engineered with the help of a guard, who was part of another drug smuggling ring at the prison, according to John Ray, the brother of James Earl Ray. In an interview last year, John Ray told me that he had acted as an outside drug courier for inmate Carl Drake, during his brother’s incarceration. After James Earl Ray’s prison break, John Ray says he drove his brother back to St. Louis. When they arrived, the two brothers didn’t meet with any George Wallace supporters. Instead, John Ray says they immediately contacted Joe Burnett, a hitman and heroin addict.

Posner fails to report any of this.

Case Not Closed

James Earl Ray’s attorney points his finger at the FBI

Mark Lane and his client James Earl Ray appearing before the House Select Committee on Assassinations in 1978. Lane died in 2016.

first published in The Riverfront Times (St. Louis), April 2, 1997

Mark Lane, former attorney for James Earl Ray, has spent much of his career questioning the official version of events concerning the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He is the author of “Rush to Judgment,”the seminal critique of the Warren Commission., published in 1966. In 1977, he co-wrote, with Dick Gregory ,”Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.” A revised edition of the latter book was reissued in 1993 under the title ,”Murder in Memphis.”

As founder of the Citizens Commission on Inquiry in the mid 1970s, Lane lobbied Congress to form the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) . He later, however, became one of the harshest critics of the HSCA’ s findings. Now 70 years old, Lane maintains a private law practice in Washington, D.C. He spoke to The Riverfront Times by telephone about the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from his office in the nation’s capital.

RFT: Why do you believe the political establishment is so intent upon covering up the evidence in the Martin Luther King murder case?

Lane: Because I think all the evidence points to the FBI. All the black leaders in America have been saying that from the very beginning. Everybody — Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory. …

If that is true, why did the FBI want King assassinated?

People can say that the removal of one person doesn’t change history, but the civil rights movement ended with his death. We had riots in cities all around the country, and have never gotten back on track in terms on any serious leadership in that movement. Killing King was very effective in that regard.

We know Hoover hated him. … He hated the idea that King was given the Nobel Prize. Hoover thought he should have gotten one. That was nuts.

We also know Hoover wanted King dead. He sent a tape (recording) to King with the suggestion that he `do the appropriate thing.’ Everybody agreed that what Hoover was saying was, `kill yourself.’ You don’t tell someone to kill himself unless you want him dead. If you have that kind of power, and you want him dead, you might (also) be able to put some wheels in motion.

You represented James Earl before the HSCA in 1978, correct?

I didn’t represent him at the time of the non-trial (in 1969). He was (then) represented by (Arthur) Hanes and then Percy Foreman. But after he was convicted and sentenced to 99 years he then asked me to represent him.
The civil rights movement and black activists wanted a trial, too, because they never believed the story that Ray did it. They believed that it was much more involved. So when Ray heard that I was writing about the assassination, and looking into it, he asked me to represent him. …

I myself was part of the civil rights movement. In fact, as a member of the (New York) state legislature, I was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Miss in 1961. I’m the only public official, I think, ever arrested as a Freedom Rider.

Of course, we couldn’t get a trial, although he was entitled to one by Tennessee law. The law says that if you make an application for a new trial and it’s pending and the judge dies or becomes permanently insane, you’re entitled to a trial. That’s what happened in this case. Judge (Preston W.) Battle died, after he got the application from James Earl Ray asking for a trial.

When was that?

Just a couple of days after the plea (in 1969). James wrote a letter (recanting his admission of guilt) at that time.
James was in that cell in Memphis 24-hours a day with lights on him, the room bugged completely the entire time. He was under surveillance for eight months. Finally, when he entered the plea, they put out the lights. He had one night’s sleep, and (then) wrote a letter to Judge Battle saying, `I was coerced into pleading guilty, I’m innocent and I want a trial.’

Battle went away on vacation, came back and dropped dead. That’s when the Tennessee annotated code should have came into play. He was entitled to a trial, but the state court said no in this case. It wasn’t possible because the law has nothing to do with justice when there are big political considerations. We could never get a trial.
Now Ray has asked me again to get information from the (government) under the Freedom of Information Act. His current lawyer Bill Pepper refused to because the King family doesn’t want him to do it.

Why was the HSCA trying to discredit you in 1978?

Because I was representing Ray. It’s kind of ironic since I wrote the legislation that set up the House Committee on Assassinations. I moved to Washington to do that. I got more than a hundred members of Congress to sign the petition to form that committee. I worked closely with Andy Young, then the chairman of the black caucus and his successor Yvonne Burke.

But the pressure was on them. I’ll tell you an example.
Dick Gregory is very well respected by the black leadership in this country. He called me after the Select Committee had been set up, and asked to meet with (U.S. Rep.) Walter Fauntroy at my house. Fauntroy was the delegate from Washington, D.C., and then the chairman of the subcommittee on the King assassination. He had worked with King.

I called Walter and said, `Greg wants to see you tonight at 8, can you come here?’ So they were here in the very same room from which I am in now talking to you. It’s my library on the second floor right across the street from the Supreme Court.

Fauntroy is a minister. … They’re sitting on the coach next to each other and Gregory says, `Let’s pray Walter.’ They both got down on their knees. I was sitting behind my desk watching this moment in history.
Gregory says: `This is the most important man in America — not the most important black man. Give him the courage, the ability to find out who killed Dr. King, and tell the truth to the American people.’ They both said amen and sat back down on the coach.

Walter, the chairman of the investigating committee, looks at Gregory, and says, `We know who did it.’

Gregory says, `Well, good.’

(Fauntroy says,) `We’ve discovered that already.’

Gregory replies, `Well, good. … All you have to do is tell everyone.’
Fauntroy says, `But, Dick, the FBI did it. The FBI is bugging my church, they’re bugging my home, they’re bugging my office. You can’t say what’s on your mind.’

Gregory says, `What do we love about Martin, Walter? He didn’t take private positions and public positions that were different.’

Fauntroy says, `Yeah, and they killed him, and I don’t want to be killed. I’m not going to say it.’

Gregory then looked at me like why did we do all this work to get this committee set up. … So that was the end of the investigation, just as soon as it began.

Didn’t the HSCA fire or dismiss the original head counsel Richard Sprague?

I got Dick Sprague as counsel. They were offering me the job as counsel to investigate the Kennedy assassination. I said, `I don’t think that would be useful because everybody knows my position. … I think you want to start with somebody who is tough and really doesn’t have a set position.’ I suggested Dick Sprague. I didn’t know Sprague, but he had just finished prosecuting Tony Boyle, the head of the United Mine Workers who murdered (dissident union leader) Joseph Yablonski.

So I went down to Philadelphia and spent hours with Sprague, and told him what I thought could be done. … (Then) I went back and I told that to the members of the committee, and they were very excited. … Then I returned to Philadelphia and met with Sprague. We took the train back into Washington, and I introduced him to members of the committee. That day they hired him.

Representatives from the FBI and the CIA (soon) came to see Sprague. They said, `Tell us who you’re thinking about having for your staff, we’ll do background searches. Furthermore, we’ll give you some documents that might help you.’

(Sprague replied:) `You guys are suspects at least in the coverup. You’re not clearing anybody for me. I’m going to back up trucks to your buildings and get all the documents that I want. I’m going to subpoena them. So don’t tell me you’re going to give me some selected documents.’

That started the campaign led by The New York Times and the Washington Post to get rid of Dick Sprague. They finally bounced him out.

The new head counsel Robert Blakey had subpoena power, but never subpoenaed a document. He closed down the investigation.That’s when everything went sour.

The committee decided that it was going to clear everybody. But there were enough members on that committee who had to go back to their districts and try to get re-elected. So while Blakey wanted the position to be that Oswald and Ray did it alone, no one would buy that. Instead, they took the position that there was a conspiracy in each case. But they didn’t know who did it (only that) Oswald and Ray were involved.

They then cleared the FBI and the CIA in a bizarre conclusion in which they said, We don’t know what group did it, but these groups didn’t do it. …

All the HSCA did was eliminate the FBI and CIA as suspects.

The Secret Life of Gunther Russbacher

The convicted felon claims he was a Navy captain, a CIA operative and George Bush’s pilot in the infamous October Surprise Scandal

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 5, 1992

by C.D. Stelzer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — North, south, east and west. The lines in Gunther Karl Russbacher’s brow run in all directions. There appears to be a crease for every one of his 50 years. Deep undulating furrows that register emotional changes across a craggy facial landscape.

I’m trying to catch my breath, I’m not quite with it yet,” says Russbacher, after entering the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility here. He is carrying a foot-thick binder of court briefs, depositions, memos, diary entries,bills of lading, letters of credit and loading manifests. And while not gasping for air, the heavy paper load makes it easy to believe this man is under stress.

To reach inmate 184306, a visitor must be escorted through three check points and five clanging sets of iron bars. Gunther Karl Russbacher is a prisoner– and not just any ordinary prisoner. But beyond that, no one is sure who he really is. So far, those interested in finding out have included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the United States Congress and Geraldo Rivera.

In the past, Russbacher has admittedly used aliases such as Emory Joseph Peden,Robert Andrew Walker and Robert Behler. He has also allegedly been known as “The Raven.” The last pseudonym could be classified a nom de guerre, because Russbacher claims to be a Navy captain — and not just any ordinary Navy captain.

Federal authorities arrested him in July 1990 for impersonating a military officer at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, Calif. The charge led to Russbacher’s probation revocation in St. Charles Co., where he had a 1989 conviction for stealing through deceit. Russbacher pleaded guilty in that case to defrauding clients of the St. Louis-based National Brokerage Companies, which he headed. He received a 21-year sentence. In both of these instances, Russbacher now claims he was carrying out covert duties for the United States government.

By his own account, he is a CIA operative with knowledge of the agency’s involvement in financial fraud, drug trafficking, and illicit arms trading.

Russbacher established National Brokerage and other proprietary companies, including a failed savings and loan in Pennsylvania, at the behest of the CIA, he alleges. He further charges that his military and criminal records — ostensibly altered to infiltrate terrorists and narcotic rings — are now being used against him.

In addition, Russbacher claims his 1990 arrest followed a secret flight to inform Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the pending war with Iraq. This would be fantastic enough, but it’s not all. As an aviator attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Russbacher says he piloted a BAC-111 aircraft — with George Bush on board — to Paris in 1980. Perhaps more importantly, Russbacher claims to have shuttled Bush back to the United States a few hours later in an SR-71 spy plane — and he professes to have proof.

His knowledge of these events is the real reason he is in prison, Russbacher says. Bush’s French rendezvous purportedly finalized earlier negotiations between the Reagan-Bush campaign and Islamic revolutionaries. Those talks supposedly centered on delaying the release of 52 American hostages then being held by Iran until after the November presidential elections. In exchange for prolonging their captivity, the Iranians were allegedly promised arms and spare parts to supply their burgeoning war with Iraq. According to Russbacher, the Reaganites also forked over $40 million up front to seal the deal.

The move was meant to assure a Republican victory over then-President Jimmy Carter and preempt any “October surprise,” or last-minute administration plan to gain the hostages release.

Russbacher is not the first nor most credible person to make these allegations. Reagan administration member Barbara Honegger published the initial October Surprise book in 1989. In 1990, Gary Sick, a National Security Council member in the Carter administration, renewed interest in the subject through a New York Times op-ed article. Sick followed it up last year with a volume of his own.

Although there seems to be substance to these claims, there is uncertainty as to Bush’s presence at the Paris meetings. Citing Secret Service logs and interviews, the House October Surprise Task Force, a congressional inquiry now under way, dismissed the possibility of president’s participation in an interim report issued June 30. In February, a lengthy analysis by writer Frank Snepp of the Village Voice similarly refuted the premise.

Another writer delving into related scandals didn’t get a chance to jump to any conclusions. Journalist Danny Casolaro was found dead in a Martinsburg, W. Va. motel room last August. The local coroner ruled it a suicide. But Casolaro’s investigation into the BCCI banking debacle and Inslaw computer software case has left doubt as to the actual cause of his death. Within this context, and given his alleged association with such shadowy figures as arms merchant Richard Brenneke and self-proclaimed CIA contract agent Michael Riconosciuto, Russbacher’s incredible story teeters on the verge of plausibility.

Inside the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility at Jefferson City,the air conditioning isn’t working in one of the two visiting rooms. The four by four closet-sized space is furnished with two metal folding chairs and divided in the middle by a narrow counter top. Windows and a concave mirror allow prison guards to keep watch. The cubbyhole is thick with humidity as Russbacher, dressed in a sky blue sweat suit, begins to divulge the trump that he believes will set him free, and, ultimately, lead to either President Bush’s impeachment or resignation.

“It’s actually quite a simple thing,” says Russbacher. “Every (SR) 71 flight– be it a training session or actual mission — is documented through a voice cockpit and video cockpit recorder,” he explains. According to Russbacher, the plane’s recording devices “document each and every facial expression, every movement of your hands and every turn of the instruments.” After the video is transmitted in six-second bites to one of three satellites positioned at “keyhole 11, 12 or 13” a signature is superimposed at the bottom of the screen, which includes: the exact time, aircraft of origin and its location.

“It’s beamed back down to the NSA (National Security Agency) station at Fort Meade,Md. There is no way to tamper with it. If you try to make a secondary copy from the original, bar codes jump up,” says Russbacher.”

This tape is in our possession,” he adds. Once the tape is turned over to congressional investigators and authenticated, he has been promised a release from prison and immunity from prosecution, Russbacher claims. His supporters, those who purloined the recording, form a cadre of disgruntled covert operatives, according to Russbacher. The way he explains it, there is a war going on within the intelligence community that involves three groups. “Faction one is the pro-Bush or the loyal faction within the agency,” says Russbacher. “Faction two (is) comprised mainly out of ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) handlers.” These are the good guys, according to Russbacher. “Faction two is loyal, basically, to the Constitution and to the concept of military law and order.” Russbacher indicates the third bunch is in league with the second. “They’re called rouge elephants.They’re stationed overseas, they’re stringers, they’re cutouts, they’re low-level agents.” Be it an act or the bonafide portrayal, Russbacher’s stance hasn’t gone unreviewed.

Back in February — days after announcing an interest in the presidency — Ross Perot sent his top lawyer, David Bryant, and two pilots to interview the Missouri inmate. Perot also contacted Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in regard to Russbacher’s treatment at the Fulton Correctional Facility. Gephardt’s office in turn requested Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin inquire about Russbacher’s condition. Griffin then spoke to George Lombardi, a state prison official. This flurry of concern came after Perot’s delegation was refused the right to interview Russbacher. At the time, Russbacher, who claims a heart condition, was being cloistered at the University Hospital in Columbia, Mo. News accounts have implied Russbacher feigned illness to dodge the investigators. Russbacher denies this, but says he still can’t state what transpired out of fear for himself and his family.

When The RFT asked why he had been admitted, a hospital spokeswoman said the information was confidential. Since being moved to Jefferson City, Russbacher has been placed in protective custody. Because of the delay, Bryant and both pilots departed before speaking to Russbacher. To determine his familiarity with the SR-71, the remaining investigator, Bob Peck, asked a specific question about TEB, a jet fuel additive, according to Russbacher. The question came despite agreeing in advance not to discuss the aircraft, he says. With a prison official monitoring the interview, the self-professed spy plane pilot either couldn’t answer the questioner was unwilling to do so under the circumstances.

Russbacher’s reticence became one more reason for the press to label him a charlatan. Russbacher has no compunction about discussing the SR-71 now, however. “You know what TEB stands for?” he asks. “That’s for tetra ethyl-borane, which is like the stuff you squirt into a car on a cold morning.”

Such details and jargon add credibility to Russbacher’s story. There is also the stubble of beard that contrasts with his bald pate, and a subtle comportment that projects a military air. The combination seems almost enough to transform “Capt.”Russbacher’s prison garb into a flight suit. More startling is his missing fingernails, the result, Russbacher claims, of having been tortured by the enemy after he crashed over Laos during the Vietnam War. Eyeglasses offer the finishing touch to his persona.

If this were a movie, Robert Duvall would be cast in the role. Indeed, Russbacher’s alleged exploits have already piqued an interest within the entertainment industry.He is quick to cite Gorby Leon, of Coumbia Picture’s story department, as one of his contacts. He also granted Geraldo Rivera’s “Now it Can be Told” a five-and-a-half hour interview recently. The segment never ran, and since then the TV show has been cancelled. True to character, Russbacher attributes its demise to forces more nefarious than low ratings. Likewise, members of the House October Surprise Task Force aren’t tuning in the “Gunther Russbacher Show,” or so they would have it seem. Richard Lewis, a spokesman for the task force in Washington, D.C., cannot comment on specifics, but says all individuals who claim participation or knowledge of events surrounding the October Surprise are being interviewed.

However, as mentioned earlier, the task force has already refuted Russbacher’s allegation that Bush attended the 1980 Paris meetings. To explain this premature judgment, Lewis notes that task force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), “is intent upon not having this seen as a partisan investigation.” Russbacher sees just that. “Hamilton entertained thoughts that he would become Mr. Clinton’s running mate.

You will find that Mr. Hamilton will be more at ease now with the situation, … and I think you will see a retraction quite soon,” he says. “Lee Hamilton doesn’t play little games like that,” responds Lewis. The spokesman concedes Hamilton was”very wary” of accusations against Bush from the beginning. The committee chairman wanted to “show good faith” and give the perception of professionalism by refuting the allegations as soon as possible, Lewis says.

Presidents always seem to garner “good faith” from the pols and the press. Russbacher hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. Mainstream media, if they refer to him at all, they often don’t mention his name. The best reporting on the subject has been by small independent newspapers like the Jefferson City News Tribune and the Napa(Calif.) Sentinel. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, by contrast, calls Russbacher “the great pretender,” but seems more fawning to Bush administration officials. In reporting a visit by U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg on June 8, the newspaper failed to mention that the former CIA official has been implicated in the October Surprise. And only in the photo caption is there word that Gregg conferred with Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft before speaking to the World Affairs Council. Interestingly, this was the first time Ashcroft attended such a seminar, according to a council spokeswoman.

In St. Charles, assistant prosecutor Phillip W. Groenweghe appears no more eager to talk about the Russbacher case. Repeated calls to his office went unreturned last week. Robert Fleming, a court-appointed public defender, provided the following background on his client. Russbacher acquired a record for passing bad checks in the Army as a teenager. Then in the 70s, he was placed on probation after being convicted on federal charges in Louisiana of carrying bearer bonds, while dressed in a Army major’s uniform. Before now, Russbacher “doesn’t seem to have served anytime in any penitentiary,” says Fleming. This dovetails with his contention that he has been “sheepdipped,” Fleming says. The espionage term describes a spy whose identity has been changed.

Fleming is challenging Russbacher’s conviction on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired and that his client previously received inadequate legal counsel. National Brokerage Companies, the alleged CIA proprietary, was registered with the state in January 1986. The names connected to the company are Emory Joseph Peden, Russbacher’s alias, and Peggy Russbacher, his former wife. A Florissant firm now using the title appears to be unrelated, Fleming says. Russbacher and his wife also incorporated other companies, according to Fleming, but investigators have been unable to find records of any National Brokerage spin-offs, which Russbacher asserts were part of the CIA operation. Russbacher says he ran the CIA proprietary at 7711 Bonhomme in Clayton and shared an office with the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company.

There may even be a more secretive organization behind Russbacher’s activities. As the interview concludes, he shows off a the wide gold band he wears on one finger. There are enigmatic symbols inscribed on the ring. “The pyramid is also the symbol for delta,” Russbacher cryptically explains. Other symbols, shaped like asterisks, represent the eight points of the earth, he says. “I’m just telling you very few people wear this ring. My wife has one, I have one. All other married couples wear them. They’re handmade. It signifies the ability to strike as a unit for the sake of humanity,” says Russbacher.

“It’s a very long story.”

Overreaching Reason

In the wake of James Earl Ray’s death, the media has unleashed a barrage of attacks on the family of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

Susan Wadsworth, attorney Mark Lane and HSCA informant Oliver Patterson at a St. Louis press conference held Aug. 8, 1978. (photo by Karen Elshout of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.)

published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis) April 29, 1998

BY C.D. STELZER

With the death of James Earl Ray last week, mainstream news organizations have intimated that the convicted assassin of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. somehow took all knowledge of the crime with him to the grave; that nothing further can be learned. At the same time, the white-liberal establishment and certain well-encroached members of the civil rights community have openly condemned the call for a new investigation, arguing against the efficacy of such an endeavor, and casting aspersions on the King family for making such a suggestion.

Meanwhile, the press has been less critical of the opportunistic release of a new book on the subject, which went on sale on April 4, the 30th anniversary of the assassination. In Killing the Dream, best-selling author Gerald Posner presents a hackneyed indictment of Ray based primarily on previously published accounts. Despite its prodigious annotations, the work contains factual mistakes that are surpassed only by errors of omission.

Clearly, rhetoric has overreached reason, and in the ensuing lurch to debunk “conspiracy theories”critical thinking has been sacrificed. In an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Friday, the newspaper rabidly attacked the King family for accepting a “crank theory that Dr. King’s death was ordered by Lyndon Baines Johnson. …” There was no further explanation given. But the disturbing message sounds similar to FBI propaganda, which was leaked into the editorial pages of the now defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat in the weeks preceding King’s assassination in 1968. Ironically, the Post’s official position, which describes Ray as a “two-bit punk,” is juxtaposed next to the newspaper’s much vaunted platform, a platform that professes to hold to strict intolerance for injustice.

More alarming is the Post-Dispatch editorial’s casual acceptance of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) findings from 1978. In the only official investigation of the assassination, the HSCA concluded that two St. Louis businessmen placed a $50,000 bounty on King’s life. The HSCA speculated that Ray may have heard of this offer either through one of his brothers or through fellow prisoners at the Missouri penitentiary, where he was incarcerated prior to his escape in 1967. Both of the St. Louisans implicated in the offer were dead by 1978 and could not be called as witnesses before the HSCA.

The other problem with this conspiracy theory is that it is promulgated solely on the testimony of a convicted felon, Russell G. Byers, who was compelled to appear before the congressional committee, after becoming a suspect in one of two notorious St. Louis Art Museum burglaries in early 1978. Byers was never charged with the crime, but two other suspects in the case were later found murdered. Byers’ brother-in-law — John Paul Spica — who testified to the HSCA in closed session, died in a car bombing in 1979. Although an informant notified the FBI that Byers’ had boasted in 1973 of receiving an earlier offer to kill King, the FBI never looked into the matter, and the report was allegedly misplaced until the HSCA requested all files pertaining to the assassination. Only then did it resurface. When it did, Byers’ former lawyer, Murray Randall, who by then had become a Missouri circuit court judge, pleaded with the committee not to subpoena him, asserting that unnamed St. Louis underworld figures would retaliate against him. His appeal was not granted. In his subsequent testimony Randall said he found the entire St. Louis-based conspiracy theory incredible. His opinion was echoed by then-FBI director William Webster, who called Byers’ testimony”hearsay three-times removed.” Webster had been a federal judge in St. Louis before becoming FBI director in 1978.

There is another reason to doubt the veracity of the congressional findings, however. In a press conference held in St. Louis in August 1978, the late Oliver Patterson, an informant for the HSCA, admitted that his duties included theft, making false statements to Congress and wire tapping. Patterson, who had previously worked as an FBI informant, also confessed that he had planned, with congressional investigator Conrad “Pete” Baetz,” to leak a story to the New York Times that would have branded James Earl Ray’s attorney, Mark Lane, a homosexual. This was reported on the front page of the Post-Dispatch in 1978, but it appears the newspaper is now suffering from institutional amnesia or senile dementia.

David Patterson, the 25-year-old son of the of the late HSCA informant, is only now beginning to understand what transpired, when he was six years old. He would like to know more. “Why was there underhanded and illegal stuff going on? he asks.”Why did it need to go on? Why was my father being manipulated and why did he feel like he had to come out and reveal this stuff?” These are questions that the King family would like to know as well.

After reading about his father’s covert activities in the Riverfront Times last year, David Patterson realized the significance of the many cassette recordings that are now in his possession. The tape recordings, include phone conversations between his father and Baetz, the congressional investigator.

On one of the tapes, the two discuss how to coordinate the press conference at which the reputation of James Earl Ray’s attorney was to be smeared. Baetz had called to tells Patterson to delay the announcement because of the sudden death of the Pope. In another conversation, Oliver Patterson inquires about the appropriate attire to wear when meeting a New York Times reporter. “Should I wear my mafia outfit or my sports coat,” he asks.

Some of the conversations are much less humorous. In a briefing with assassination researcher Harold Weisberg, Oliver Patterson recalls altering an FBI report on Jerry Ray, the youngest brother of James Earl Ray.

“On page three of an FBI report I wrote dated May 16, 1971, I quote Jerry Ray as saying, `my brother pulled the trigger. …’ The report was originally written differently with other quotes exactly contradicting that one statement,” says Oliver Patterson. “After the report was reviewed by FBI special agent Stanley Jacobson, the page was retyped at his directive deleting all the contradictions to that one remark. That statement out of context distorts the meaning completely out of proportion and gives a totally, completely different intent to what was originally written.”

In another taped phone conversation Patterson inexplicably called the office of U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, then the junior senator from Utah. Patterson’s undercover work was under the auspices of the House committee not the Senate.

In the book Orders to Kill , William F. Pepper, Ray’s last lawyer, claimed a Green Beret sniper team was in place in Memphis at the time of the assassination. That claim has been refuted by ABC News. But the allegation of the Army’s intrusion into domestic affairs has never been denied.

The Army is known to have been spying on King since 1947, and, indeed, members of the 111th Military Intelligence Group (MIG) were closely shadowing his movements in Memphis, according to a 1993 story by investigative reporter Stephen G. Tompkins, formerly of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. The Army also used civilian, police and FBI sources for additional intelligence support during King’s visit to Memphis. After the shot killed King, Marrell McCollough, a Memphis police undercover agent, reached him first. McCollough had been relaying King’s movements to the police who in turn forwarded the information to the FBI and other intelligence agencies, which would have likely included the 111th MIG. McCollough now works for the CIA, and has refused to be interviewed on the subject even by Posner.

Last year, a ballistics test on the rifle found at the crime scene in Memphis failed to confirm whether it was the weapon used in the murder. In March, the black judge who had allowed the rifle test was removed from the case by the state of Tennessee because his decisions were deemed biased towards Ray’s defense.

The King family has long expressed a belief that Ray was innocent of the crime. In recent years, they led the efforts to gain the convicted assassin a new trial. Ray himself recanted his confession almost immediately after his 1969 conviction, arguing he had been coerced into confessing and had received inadequate legal counsel. He spent the remainder of his life in prison unsuccessfully seeking a trial.

Earlier this month, Corretta King, the widow of the slain civil rights leader, met with Attorney General Janet Reno, asking that the U.S. Department of Justice reopen the investigation into the assassination of her late husband. It is by any measure a reasonable request. If the Clinton administration is serious about improving race relations, this is where the reconciliation should begin.

The Casino Beat

More than 20 years ago the RFT dragged its feet reporting on the Michael Lazaroff scandal. Some people prefer to forget about it.

Mobbed Up: On Oct. 14, 1992, St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phil Linsalata revealed that Station Casino founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. helped skim millions from Vegas casinos for the Kansas City Mafia. When a scandal later broke over the casino company’s illegal activities in Missouri in 1999 and 2000, the Riverfront Times failed to report on Fertitta’s ties to organized crime. Then-RFT managing editor Roland Klose is now an editor at the Post-Dispatch. The following story appeared on the Media Mayhem blog, Feb. 8, 2004. C.D. Stelzer is a former RFT staff writer.

If I had all this juicy information on Station Casino’s founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. why didn’t I write the story? Why pass such rich material to a fellow reporter? Was I altruistic or just lazy? Well, it’s kind of a long story.
At a Riverfront Times staff meeting in late 1999, reporters were asked to submit issues that they were interested in covering. Among those I chose was the casino beat.
I had a good source — anti-casino lobbyist Steve Taylor. When I was still freelancing for the RFT in the  early 1990s, Taylor had provided me with accurate information. During this time, he was an environmental activist opposed to the Times Beach dioxin incinerator. I wrote a few dozen stories on the Times Beach Superfund Cleanup. One caught the DNR, EPA and their contractors cooking the books on the stack emission tests. Exposing this fraud won me top honors for investigative reporting in 1997 from the Missouri Press Association. Taylor leaked me reams of data that pointed to the corrupt practices. I knew I could trust him from experience. In his new job for an outfit called Casino Watch, he was down in Jefferson City during the legislative sessions, keeping tabs on the then nascent gambling industry. This meant he could relay developments in a timely manner.

But hard-hitting, timely casino coverage didn’t appear to be exactly what the RFT was looking for under the New Times ownership. After all, Station Casino, the gambling company that was ultimately kicked out the state and fined $1 million, ran full-page ads in the RFT every week. But at the time, I was still naïve enough to believe advertisers didn’t hold sway over editorial judgments.

A week after we submitted our choices for beat coverage, editor Safir Ahmed announced the selections that he and managing editor Roland Klose had made. I didnt’ get the casino beat. Bruce Rushton got it. (When I later wrote about the proposed Lemay casino, I pitched that idea to my editors as a St. Louis County

Roland Klose, former RFT managing editor.

development issue.)

As a result, when I got a tip in December 1999 from attorney Joe Jacobson that Michael Lazaroff, Station’s lobbyist/lawyer, was about to be busted for illegally meeting with Volvo dealer and state gaming board chairman James Wolfson, I handed it over to my editors. Within days of receiving the tip from Jacobson, Lazaroff attempted suicide. Lazaroff was then a law partner at Thompson Coburn. His office was next to former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton’s.]

This was a huge story and we had a jump on the Post-Dispatch. Being a good soldier and following the chain of command, I alerted my superiors, who assigned Rushton to cover the story.  But I was still curious about the case. So I did some digging on my own. I soon discovered (and it wasn’t very difficult) that Station’s founder had past ties with the Mafia, Because of his mob ties he had been forced to put Station’s Missouri gaming license in his son’s name. Suddenly, a huge story grew much, much larger. Dutifully, I also handed over this information to Rushton, Ahmed and Klose.

What happened? Nothing.

Former RFT staffer Bruce Rushton.

The biggest story I ever uncovered in my career and these three sat on it for a full 11 months. When Rushton’s cover story finally did see the light of day on Nov. 1, 2000, it didn’t even mention Frank J. Fertitta Jr. It barely mentioned his son. Of course, there was no reference to organized crime. Leaving out Fertitta was like writing a story about the Anheuser-Busch brewery and leaving out the name of August Busch III. Even if Feritta’s ties to the Mafia weren’t deemed important, Rushton could have still dropped a short paragraph or a sentence into the body of the story. He didn’t. His story was over 5,000 words long. So the omission wasn’t because he didn’t have enough space. And the omission wasn’t because he was ignorant. So how many reasons for this “oversight” are left other than those two?

Believe it or not, an earlier story by Rushton on Lazaroff didn’t even bother to mention Station Casino at all. Instead, it focused exclusively on illegal campaign contributions made by Lazaroff and his law partners. This story ran on July 12, 2000. Let me make this clear: Rushton — the casino beat reporter — wrote about a crooked casino lobbyist’s illegal activities but failed to even mention anything about Lazaroff’s largest client — Station Casino. By this point, Rushton already had been sitting on the story for eight months.

But it gets worse. After he wrote the less than definitive Lazaroff/Station’s story in the summer of 2000, the RFT sent him to Atlanta to cover a stock car race, as a part of a fluffy sports profile on some amateur driver.

Tipster Joe Jacobson.

I had been connected to the paper for a decade by this point and I never saw anything like that before. The RFT covers local issues mainly and only does limited sports coverage. It was unprecedented to send a reporter half way across the country to cover a minor sporting event. Unlike the Lazaroff/Station’s story, Rushton cranked out the race car story in a couple weeks. (Quantity not quality counts most at the RFT. Bruce had to keep up with his quota.) Then he went on vacation in August for two weeks just as the Lazaroff hearings were set to start.

His cover story wouldn’t run until November.

I remember the day he finally wrapped up the Lazaroff cover story. His spirits were buoyed. It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders. I saw him walking down the hall past my office. He was heading for the fire escape for a smoke break, as was his usual custom. But this time he hadn’t waited until he got outside to light up, and Bruce wasn’t smoking tobacco that day.

He bogarted the joint.

After prosecuting the mob trial in Kansas City for the Justice Department, David Helfrey moved across the state and set up shop as a white-collar criminal defense attorney.

Who’s Hiding What?

Don’t get distracted by the shell game, folks. Nobody hid the fact that Station Casino founder Frank J. Fertitta Jr. was an associate of organized crime from Riverfront Times reporter Bruce Rushton. The information was packaged neatly and placed in his hands — by me. I gave the same information to editor Safir Ahmed and managing editor Roland Klose, too.

But in the opus that Rushton wrote about attorney and gambling lobbyist Michael Lazaroff in the late fall of 2000, Rushton failed, for unknown reasons, to mention anything about Fertitta’s sordid past.

Flipper: Federal prosecutor-turned criminal-defense attorney David B.B. Helfrey.

He could have asked David Helfrey, Station’s outside counsel, about Fertitta, of course, because Rushton interviewed him. But apparently he chose not to ask any tough questions of Helfrey, who prior to becoming a criminal defense attorney, was a federal prosecutor in Kansas City. In that capacity, Helfrey was in a position to know about Fertitta’s organized crime background because FBI wiretap transcripts allude to Fertitta being involved in the Las Vegas skimming operation carried out by Carl Thomas, a casino executive who was recorded having conversations with Kansas City Mafia bosses Nick and Carl Civella among others in 1979. During the conversations, Thomas mentions Fertitta repeatedly as being a part of his crew, a crew that bilked the casinos out of millions and deposited the money into the hands of the Mafia families in Kansas City, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Chicago. The case became the basis for Nicholas Pileggi’s 1995 non-fiction bestseller Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, which director Martin Scorcese made into a blockbuster movie, starring Robert DeNiro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci.

Fertitta’s tainted background is the reason that he chose to put Station’s Missouri license in his son’s name — Frank J. Fertitta III. Rushton knew this because I gave him a copy of a story by former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Phil Linsalata from 1992, when Station’s was applying for the state license for the St. Charles casino. [In the 1992 story, Linsalata duly reported Fertitta Jr.’s Mafia ties.

Michael Lazaroff

Rushton also knew that Michael Lazaroff feared for his life and was given state police protection during and after the Missouri Gaming Commission hearings that were held in Jefferson City in the summer of 2000. He knew this because he was told as much by Steve Taylor, an anti-casino lobbyist who attended the hearings. I later confirmed Taylor’s recollection through Missouri Assistant Attorney Mike Bradley.

Why would Lazaroff be in fear of his life? Because another witness had died when asked to testify by the gaming board. Carl Thomas — the person who had direct knowledge of Fertitta’s organized crime connections — had been asked in 1993 to provide background information on his former employee to the Missouri Gaming Commission. Thomas traveled to Las Vegas from his home in Oregon to confer with Station’s executives in Las Vegas about the upcoming testimony. But he never made it to Missouri to testify. After his Vegas visit, Thomas returned to Oregon and died in a one-car accident.

Lazaroff’s own testimony refers to “Carl Thomas”, and the “Fremont” casino and “Argent” corporation, all of which were part of the Kansas City Mafia’s skim operation in Las Vegas in the 1970s. Rushton had a transcript of the Missouri Gaming Commission hearings in which Lazaroff made these references. He could have quoted directly from Lazaroff’s testimony. Instead, he chose to portray him as a clown.

At the hearings, retired FBI agent and former Gaming Commissioner William Quinn testified that he had

Frank J. Fertitta Jr., who died in 2006, skimmed casino cash for the Civella crime family of Kansas City.

talked to Helfrey, Station’s lawyer, on three occasions. Quinn already knew Helfrey because they had worked on the Operation Strawman cases together. Strawman was the FBI operation that resulted in the conviction of 19 Mafia members in the Midwest, including the Civella brothers of Kansas City, for skimming from the Hacienda, Fremont, Stardust and Tropicana casinos in Las Vegas.

The transcript of the Gaming Commission hearings, show that Quinn testified that on one occasion Helfrey asked him over the phone to meet with him and a Station’s representative. Quinn’s testimony shows that Helfrey had been retained after the Lazaroff scandal broke. In other words, Helfrey was already representing Station in a legal capacity. In short, Helfrey’s and Lazaroff’s legal services to Station Casino overlapped. They were both working for the same company at the same time. Moreover, if Helfrey and a Station’s representative had met with Quinn, it would have been comparable to Lazaroff’s violations in meeting with Gaming Commission chairman Wolfson. Such a meeting would have been in violation of the Commission’s “ex parte” rule, which was set up in 1994 to make sure that state gaming commissioners did not fall under the influence of the casinos that they were supposed to be regulating.
Quinn said he was concerned about his former colleague’s s suggestion and he refused to meet with Helfrey and the Station’s representative. Again, Rushton had the transcript of Quinn’s testimony. But instead of citing Quinn, he relied heavily on Helfey’s version of events in telling the story.

Nobody hid this information from Bruce Rushton. But he did manage to hide it from the public.

Canto One

Entering my seventh decade, I found myself under house arrest on the darkest of winter days, clad in plaid pajamas, listening to passenger jets passing over my hovel, they, carrying plague throughout the land, and me surrounded by baying hounds of hell in my neighbors’ backyards, I then chose to venture forth despite dire warnings from physicians and politicians alike, in search of solace, to my provincial city’s botanical garden, I did go.

On exiting the alley of my humble domicile, I did spy a white Chevrolet SUV adorned with U.S. government license plates on a back street of Maple Wood, and thus pondered why its driver chose to terry by the telephone pole that linked my shelter to the  babble known collectively as the Worldwide Web.

No rhyme or reason could I fathom why said imperial emissary would travel or linger in this undistinguished district far from the cradle of civilization, among its poor and destitute inhabitants. But neither did I dwell on his unexpected presence on this dreary day, commencing instead to travel without hesitation from my county fiefdom to the city proper and its exquisite amenities, where I walked through nature and did calm and replenish my body and soul.

On returning to the relative comfort of my dwelling place, I did there seek sanctuary, but was startled by visions through the ether, received via a cathode-ray tube, showing the glorious capitol edifice of our Empire under apparent siege by despicable vandals and huns, who entered into the corridors of power with seeming ease, and a dearth of resistance from our nation state’s sturdy and plentiful guardians of peace and tranquility.

The images so did awe and confuse me, I quaked with dread and thereby prayed them end for the good of all. Only in the wake of this chaotic scene, did I then pause and ruminate over the queer circumstances I witnessed from afar, and then worried of the sequence of events that had unfolded both in the hinterlands of my residency and in the far away fortified capital. Then did I wonder: If our omnipotent empire’s envoys do so occupy and patrol the provinces where we live, and watch over us all, and keep us safe from foreign and domestic agents of terror, and prevent us from harming one another and ourselves, why then were they unable to staunch the tide of the lowly rabble who entered unmolested into the hollowed halls of our empire’s most sacred temple?

Cosmetic Maintenance

OSHA closed its investigation of an unsafe work environment at a Richmond Heights construction site in October by taking the word of the construction company owner responsible for the abhorrent conditions.

When the wrecking crew from Flex Construction began demolition work on the apartment building at 7701-7703 Wise Ave. in Richmond Heights in early October, it didn’t bother getting a building permit or an asbestos inspection beforehand — nor were its workers provided with personal professional equipment.

“Light Cosmetic Maintenance.”

Lacking N-95 masks or other safety gear, they began gutting one of the apartments, while residents still occupied the other units. Interior walls were razed and flooring removed and dumped illegally.  During this process, which continued for days, potentially hazardous materials were released inside building, including asbestos, a known human carcinogen.

A complaint was subsequently filed with the St. Louis office of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on behalf of the workers by a concerned citizen. But OSHA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, quickly dismissed the case based on the assurances of Diego Utera, the construction company owner.

In his written response to Complaint #1671686, OSHA duty officer John M Teel wrote:

“Flex Construction has advised me that the hazards you complained about have been investigated. The employer states that the employees are doing light cosmetic maintenance work.

“With the information provided, OSHA feels the case can be closed on the grounds that the hazardous condition do not exist,” wrote Teel.  “If you do not agree that the hazards you complained about have been satisfactorily abated, please contact us within ten (10) business days of the date of this notification. If we do not hear from you within that time, we will assume that the hazards have been corrected and will take no further action with respect to this case. …”

An appeal was immediately filed, which included photographs of the extensive demolition work and a list of other officials contacted at the municipal, county and state level. OSHA failed to reply to the appeal.

OSHA is not the only government agency that appears to have been lax in enforcing the law in this case. The Richmond Heights Building and Zoning Administration also blithely accepted the misrepresentations of Flex Construction and  Artemis Holdings LLC, the owners of the building. After tenants informed him of the demolition work, Richmond Heights Building and Zoning Administrator James Benedick continued to refer to the project as just “a little painting.”

After being cited for not securing a building permit, Flex Construction and Artemis Holdings submitted false information on its belated application, claiming work was limited to the remodeling of the kitchen and bath at a total cost of $500. When that characterization was challenged by residents of the building, a second permit was issued that increased the total cost to $5,000, but the permit still downplayed the renovation as a “remodeling” job.  In reality, the entire apartment was gutted and debris was hauled away, including all the walls and the asbestos-contaminated floor tiles.

Eventually, in late October, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health issued a Notice of Violation for failing to properly inspect the apartment for asbestos, which is against a federal EPA law.  The issues related to the asbestos abatement remain unsettled.

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The Millionaire Pothole Fund

Artemis Holdings co-owner James Ryan Redlingshafer Sr. lives behind these locked gates in Country Life Acres.

In this season of giving, it should warm the cockles of our hearts to know that the Missouri Department of Transportation has not forsaken the wealthiest of St. Louis County residents.

Although the millionaire denizens of the village of Country Life Acres in St. Louis County only received a small gift from MoDot last year, it’s the thought that counts.

In 2019, MoDot provided $2,964.20 to the exclusive gated community that prohibits public access to its roads. The total tax dollars annually doled out by the state transportation agency to this millionaires’ pothole fund is based on a formula that divvies up a combination of state revenue sources among cities based on population. Country Life Acres, with a population of 74, received public funds despite being a private enclave because it incorporated as a municipality in 1949. This qualifies the uber-rich subdivision to get a cut of the state fuel tax, vehicle sales tax and motor vehicle fees. Approximately, two-thirds of that money came from the state fuel tax.

When asked to explain why a private community is entitled to public funding of its roadways, a spokesman for MoDot suggested contacting state legislators about the issue. “Although in certain situations, as the one you describe, it may feel unfair, our elected lawmakers set it up in that way,” says Ryan Percy, the MoDot engineer assigned to Southwest St. Louis County. “They may be able to give you a better feel for why the law is set up this way, or perhaps, consider working with their counterparts to adjust the law.”

One of the village trustees is James Ryan Redlingshafer Sr., who purchased his five-acre estate in 2016 for $3.8 million. Redlingshafer is co-owner, with his son, of Artemis Holdings, a limited liability corporation cited for violations of building and environmental laws by the city of Richmond Heights and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health earlier this year. The health department issued Artemis Holdings a Notice of Violation for skirting federal environmental law pertaining to asbestos abatement involving the renovation of an apartment building in Richmond Heights. Artemis Holdings was also fined by the city of Richmond Heights for not obtaining a $70 building permit for the same building.

The trustee post is an elected position. That means Redlingshafer — a public official — owns a company that violated the law in another municipality located in the same county.

This bizarre circumstance can be largely attributed to the balkanized makeup of St. Louis County, which has 90 municipalities that are akin to fiefdoms. In this archaic system, wealthy landlords reap windfalls profits with few if any restrictions, as if they were midieval aristocrats exploiting their serfs.