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Greg Stejskal served as an FBI agent for 31 years and retired as resident agent in charge of the Ann Arbor office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hunting for The Joker

By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

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In the Spring of 1989, a drama fraught with irony began playing out in Austria. A Jewish American family, a mother and her two grown sons, were fighting extradition to the US. About 50 years before, Jewish families were desperately trying to leave Austria for safe havens like the U.S.

The subjects of the extradition were Linda Leary and sons, Paul and Richard Heilbrunn. They fled to Austria from Indiana in anticipation of an indictment that was returned by a Federal Grand Jury in November, 1987. The indictment ran 136 pages and contained 53 counts variously charging 34 people. Paul and Richard were specifically charged with running a massive marijuana smuggling and distribution operation, legally termed a “Continuing Criminal Enterprise” (CCE). According to the indictment the ring operated from 1975 to 1985. It distributed more than 150,000 lbs. and took in more than $50 million in cash. The figures were subsequently revised upward to 250,000 lbs. and $50 to $100 million. It would prove to be the biggest marijuana ring ever prosecuted by the US.

Paul Heilbrunn was characterized as the ring leader of the enterprise. Testimony later depicted him as both respected and feared. He was referred to as “Melech,” Hebrew for king. Although Paul was a high school dropout, he was by all accounts a brilliant businessman. Prior to the indictment, he was believed to be a successful commodities trader in Indianapolis and wrote a column on trading for the local newspaper. He was a bon vivant who favored three-piece suits, frequented the finest restaurants and drove a top of the line BMW. He on several occasions rented jets and flew his friends to such events as the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball finals.

His older brother, Richard, on the other hand was described as a big Teddy bear. He lived on a farm and usually wore flannel shirts and jeans. Richard supervised operations while Paul was the CEO.

Their mother, Linda Leary, was twice married and divorced. She had kept the name of her second husband. Leary was prominent in the Indianapolis community. She was the head of the Indiana League of Women Voters and president of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Leary was also involved in her sons’ business ventures. An early venture was dubbed Heilbrunn and Friends, ostensibly it was a health food distribution business -a good front for marijuana distribution. The “friends” were high school buddies who had setup marijuana sales networks at colleges they attended. But soon the network was supplying customers outside the campuses in eleven Midwestern states. Most of the marijuana came by ship from Columbia, Jamaica and Thailand – an exotic global operation. It was then trucked to Indiana where it was stored in barns that were owned or rented by the Heilbrunn organization.

Paul Heilbrunn had structured the organization so that information stovepiped, that is, information moved up and down, but only flowed between members as was necessary. This limited what any member could divulge should they choose to cooperate with law enforcement.

Paul also had attorneys set up offshore corporations in the Bahamas and Panama to launder the proceeds from the marijuana operation. Linda Leary was designated as the head of several of these corporations. Much of the laundered money was transferred back into the US and used to fund loans often for Indiana businesses.

In the present the paradigm has changed – now with so many states legalizing marijuana, it’s almost like looking back on prohibition. The Heilbrunns and their cohorts weren’t protesting the illegality of marijuana. Rather like the bootleggers, they were taking advantage of a restricted market. They could set the price, had little competition and the profits were tax free.

The Beginning of the End of The Empire

The beginning of the end for the Heilbrunn empire occurred when in 1983 a cocaine dealer was arrested. The dealer had previously worked for the Heilbrunns, but had been let go for drug use. He offered to tell what he knew about the Heilbrunn operation as part of plea bargain. There is no honor among thieves and little to none among drug dealers.

After the arrest of the cocaine dealer, law enforcement meticulously put together a case against the Heilbrunn organization which culminated in the 1987 federal indictment. Most of the 34 people charged were known to the federal grand jury that returned the indictment with the notable exception of one indictee who was referred to as “John Doe, also known as the Joker” like Batman’s nemesis. There were also two female subordinates to the Joker – named as Jane Does, aka, “Tipper and Topper.” (This probably was a disappointment to comic book purists who were anticipating a female code name like Catwoman.)

While the Heilbrunns were fighting extradition, most of the indictees were prosecuted and convicted. Some cooperated and agreed to testify against others including the Heilbrunns. In one of the co-conspirator’s trial, there was testimony about the Joker. He was depicted as “Paul Heilbrunn’s trusted and valued peer,” whose Michigan based operation did business with Heilbrunn and his associates. But no one in the Heilbrunn organization other than Paul himself seemed to know Joker’s true identity.

One person in the Joker’s organization had been identified and prosecuted for having stored a 40,000 lb. load purchased by the Joker from Heilbrunn. That person was James Shedd who owned a barn in Ypsilanti Twp. just southeast of Ann Arbor where the load was stored. (Shedd had also previously been the manager of the Sidetrack Bar, a locally famous and historical place in Ypsilanti.) Shedd had refused a plea deal and would not identify the Joker. That stand may have been based more on compensation from the Joker than honor.

It became a personal challenge for me to identify the Joker. It was a matter of pride. The Joker was a huge marijuana dealer who had been operating in my territory with impunity.

There was an individual who had become disenchanted with the Joker’s enterprise and reportedly had a falling out. I decided to see what if anything I could learn from him that might identify the Joker.

Over the next several months, we periodically met for coffee. We talked about a lot of things: sports, politics and although nothing specific was discussed, drugs. Slowly I gained his trust. I explained to him I would never disclose his identity, and any information he provided would be reported in such a way as to not divulge his identity. At no time did he ask me about any payment for information nor did I offer him any compensation. We both understood if he were to provide information, it would be because it was the right thing to do.

We began to discuss some specific things regarding marijuana distribution in Michigan. In early 1989, I asked him if he could help me identify the Joker. His reply was, yes, he could help – he could tell me who the Joker was – he was James Hill.

I immediately began to investigate James Hill. I found that James F. Hill owned a house in an affluent part of Ann Arbor. He also owned a business in Ann Arbor, an ice cream shop on Main Street, “The Lovin’ Spoonful.” And he owned and lived on an 80-acre farm just west of Ann Arbor. Hill had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago. Hill had no criminal record except he had been arrested for a traffic violation in 1973. It was nothing serious, but there was an arrest photo.

I sent a copy of the photo to Indianapolis, and after seeing the photo several of cooperating witnesses identified James Hill as the person they knew as the Joker.

The FBI Ann Arbor Office

Indianapolis obtained an arrest warrant for Hill, aka, the Joker. Early the next morning we set up an arrest team at Hill’s farm. When he was observed leaving the farm, we arrested him and took him to the Ann Arbor FBI office. I explained to Hill that he had been identified as the Joker in a federal indictment from Indiana charging him with multiple drug trafficking violations, and he would be taken to Detroit to be arraigned. He would likely remain in custody until he was transported to Indianapolis. He didn’t really question anything and seemed to have expected to be arrested. He indicated he would be cooperative, but he didn’t want to be interviewed until he got to Indianapolis.

When the media learned of Hill/the Joker’s arrest at the arraignment, they wanted to know how he had been identified. Rather than say nothing and encourage speculation, I made a statement that one of the cooperating witnesses in Indiana had identified him which was partially true.

Hill was removed to Indiana and did cooperate. Tipper and Topper were identified as sisters, Jennifer and Patricia Hanlon of Ann Arbor. They later pleaded guilty and were each sentenced to six years.

In late 1989, the Heilbrunns lost their two-year fight against extradition and were returned to the US.

In  October 1990, Hill pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against the Heilbrunns. In his plea agreement, Hill admitted to having received several 1,200 to 2,000 lb. shipments of marijuana starting in 1976. Then between March and November 1985, Hill received marijuana shipments of 18,000 lbs., 20,000 lbs., 40,000 lbs. and a pair of 2,000 lb. loads from the Heilbrunn organization. Hill said he made his last payment to Heilbrunn in 1986. By then he had paid the Heilbrunn organization about $20 million for more than 100,000 lbs. marijuana.

James Hill was sentenced to 20 years. Because he had pleaded to having run a Continuing Criminal Enterprise all of his assets were subject to forfeiture. The US District Court Judge said that Hill would have received harsher punishment if not for his cooperation.

In January 1991, Linda Leary also pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against her sons. She was subsequently sentenced to nine years.

There was no trial of the Heilbrunns. Paul and Richard pleaded guilty in April, and in July 1991, they were sentenced. Richard got 13 years. Paul, the King, who had also pleaded to CCE, received 28 years. Thus, ended the Heilbrunn empire.

To my knowledge no one ever learned the identity of the source who identified the Joker.

 

 


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The Abduction of GM Executive’s Son Shows Kidnapping Doesn’t Pay

Greg Stejskal was an FBI agent for 31 years and retired as resident agent in charge of the Ann Arbor office.

Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

I was one of more than a dozen FBI agents assigned to surveillance on Braeburn Circle on Ann Arbor’s south side. After a few hours, agent Stan Lapekas, suggested we look in a Dumpster at the townhouse complex for possible evidence. The Dumpster was inside a wood fence enclosure in the parking lot, and we couldn’t be seen from the outside.

After only a few minutes, a car drove in and parked next to the gate. I peeked out and realized the driver was the man we were looking for — a suspect in the kidnapping of the son of a prominent General Motors executive.

In 1975, my first year assigned to the FBI’s Detroit Division, Michigan had four kidnappings. The one everyone remembers is Jimmy Hoffa, a kidnapping/murder that remains unsolved. The other three were kidnappings for ransom.

Ransom kidnappings still happen frequently in areas where law enforcement is weak or corrupt, including parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. They were once common in the U.S., too. In Public Enemies, America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34, Bryan Burrough writes that for some of the notorious gangs of the era, kidnapping was the crime of choice. John Dillinger’s gang specialized in bank robbery, but the Barker/Karpis gang preferred kidnapping. The two gangs were so successful at their respective specialties that Congress made bank robbery and kidnapping federal crimes, empowering the FBI to investigate them.


Bob Stempel

The 1932 statute that gives the FBI jurisdiction in kidnapping cases is called the “Lindbergh Law.” There was a proliferation of high-profile kidnappings in the U.S. during the 1930s, but none was more famous than the abduction of Charles Lindbergh Jr., the toddler son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh, in May of that year.

Kidnapping for ransom, out of necessity, requires a victim who is of wealth or has some access to wealth. Not only were the Lindberghs rich, but  Charles may have been the most famous and beloved person in America at the time.

The Lindbergh baby was found dead after a ransom payment, and the crime took several years to solve. Tracking the cash finally led authorities to carpenter Bruno Richard Hauptmann. He was convicted in 1935 and executed a year later.

The Lindbergh Law relies on a presumption that any kidnapping involves interstate commerce. It is a rebuttable presumption, but allows the FBI to investigate a kidnapping without having to first establish some interstate aspect. And so it was that Stan Lapekas and I came to be hiding out by the Dumpster at University Townhouses in November 1975.

Four days earlier, 13-year-old Tim Stempel had been snatched in Bloomfield Township.

Tim was the son of Bob Stempel, a GM vice president on track to become CEO. Stempel received calls at home from the kidnappers, who wanted $150,000. They told him not to go to the police, but Stempel contacted GM security, who in turn contacted the police and the FBI.

Kidnapping a Rich Kid 

Tim had been kidnapped by Darryl Wilson and Clinton Williams, who had decided that a moneymaking project would be to grab a rich family’s kid and hold him for ransom.

They had no specific victim in mind when they drove to the high-income neighborhoods of Bloomfield Township. They passed on a few potential victims for various reasons — playing too close to a house, too young.

Then they spotted Tim Stempel skateboarding. Williams asked the teenager for directions to someone’s house. Tim said he didn’t know the person and started to walk away. Williams pulled a handgun and told him to get in the car.

The boy hit Williams with the skateboard, but Williams tackled him and struck him several times in the head. Williams and Wilson then blindfolded their victim and placed him in the backseat.

They drove to the Ann Arbor townhouse on Braeburn where Williams was staying and transferred the boy to the car’s trunk, where he would remain for 50-some hours. Williams then called Bob Stempel to announce that they had his son. He said he would call back later with instructions.

The police and FBI committed hundreds of officers and agents to the investigation. It was designated a “special” by FBI headquarters; all hands on deck. But it had to be done in such a way as to not alert the kidnappers. The paramount goal in any kidnapping investigation, obviously, is the safe return of the victim.

Stempel got additional calls Nov. 11 and 12. Ultimately he was instructed to go to an empty lot behind a roller skating rink in Inkster. He was to leave the money there, and he would be contacted about his son’s release.

The evening of the “drop,” it was pouring rain. Efforts were made to watch the ransom package, but because of the location and the weather, it was impossible without taking the chance of alerting the kidnappers. The package was retrieved, but whoever made the pickup was not seen. Night vision equipment would have been helpful but was not yet available.

Within a few hours, Tim was released near the drop site.


Darryl Wilson and Clinton Williams in court

An Apparel Store 

Initially there were no suspects, but because much of the activity had occurred in Inkster and nearby, neighborhood investigations were conducted, including a canvass of businesses and homes to determine if anyone had noticed relevant activity.

At an apparel store within a block of the roller rink, an agent learned that two men had spent several hundred dollars in cash for clothes. The serial numbers on the cash matched the numbers recorded from some of the ransom money, and the men who bought the clothes were identified.

The men were interviewed. They said they had driven two other men to the roller rink to pick up the cash. They assumed it contained drug money and accepted several thousand dollars for their trouble.

They identified one of the men as Darryl Wilson and said he lived in Ann Arbor. They didn’t know his address, but an investigation determined that he lived on Braeburn with a relative. A surveillance was set up, and the car used in the kidnapping was found.

That was where things stood when Stan Lapekas and I decided to inspect the Dumpster and Wilson drove up. As soon as he exited the car, Lapekas and I grabbed him and placed him in our backseat, with us sitting very close on each side.

We acted as if we already knew everything but wanted to give him an opportunity to tell his side of the story. After we read him his rights, he almost immediately confessed and gave up his accomplice, Clinton Williams.

We hadn’t had Williams’ name. Wilson also told us where Williams lived. I got several other agents and drove to Williams’ home and arrested him.

Williams also confessed. He told us he had threatened Tim Stempel with a handgun and hit him several times. He said they had kept the boy in the car trunk for over two days. He also said he had called the Stempel home from a pay phone in Inkster.

At Wilson’s apartment, we found $137,000 of the ransom.

L. Brooks Patterson Gets Involved 

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The case and subsequent trial became a bit of a media circus. There was no interstate aspect of the kidnapping that would trigger federal charges, so it was prosecuted in state court in Oakland County. County prosecutor L. Brooks Patterson handled the case. (He would later run for governor, and was just re-elected to his seventh term as the Oakland County executive.)

Because of the media attention, the trial was moved to Leelenau County, in the northwest Lower Peninsula. On the first day of trial, Patterson suspected that Wilson and Williams might be planning to enter a plea, so he put Tim Stempel on the stand.

While locked in the trunk of the car, Tim had carved his name on the inside of the trunk lid with a broken piece of a hacksaw blade he found in the trunk — an ingenious act. Patterson introduced the trunk lid as evidence. He then had me testify to get Williams’ confession on the record with all the damning admissions. The next day, Wilson and Williams entered guilty pleas.

We investigated other kidnappings for ransom in the Detroit Division during my 30-plus years there, but I’m not aware of any that succeeded. All the kidnappers were prosecuted.

In two instances, although a ransom was paid, the victims were murdered. In both those cases, the kidnappers never had any intention of releasing the victims.

In the latter years of my career, there were no kidnappings for ransom in Michigan. They also seem rare elsewhere in the country now. The business model is flawed: although the potential profits would seem to be high, the odds of actually getting  and keeping the money are extremely low.


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Robin Hood in Reverse — A $1.1 Million Scam

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By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

In 2005 Female Jones (not her real name), an indigent woman living in public housing in Ann Arbor, Mich., discovered she wasn’t eligible for federal housing assistance. The reason she wasn’t eligible was because it appeared she was already receiving “Section 8” voucher payments. Jones wasn’t aware of receiving any assistance. So it was assumed that there was a bureaucratic snafu, but an investigation revealed something far more nefarious.

Section 8 vouchers are so-called because they are authorized under Section 8 of the Federal Housing Act of 1937, part of the New Deal legislation designed to help people suffering the effects of the Great Depression. In 1974 the Housing Act was amended to create the Section 8 voucher program. Low income people would be eligible for vouchers that would pay a percentage of their rent in approved housing facilities. The money for the program would be provided by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but the program would be administered by the state and local public housing agencies.

There was only a limited amount of funding available. So not all eligible people would receive vouchers. In Michigan a waiting list existed and waits of 3-6 years were not uncommon.

Greg Stejskal

Greg Stejskal

The voucher payments were made directly to the indigent tenants’ landlords to minimize the opportunity for fraud. Housing voucher agents working for the state prepared the application forms for the indigent applicants. These agents obtained background information and determined whether the applicants met the eligibility requirements.

Female Jones’ caseworker determined that she was enrolled in the Section 8 program, and voucher payments were being sent to Washtenaw Payee Services, a company that appeared to receive Section 8 payments on behalf of several landlords in Washtenaw County. Because the woman was unaware of the payments, and they were not being received by her landlord, the caseworker reported the problem to the Michigan State Housing Development Authority (MSHDA).

MSHDA’s initial investigation indicated there might be some fraudulent activity. As the Section 8 program is federally funded, they reported their concerns to the FBI, and a joint FBI/MSHDA investigation was begun.

Although Washtenaw Payment Services (WPS) appeared to have an office with a street address, it turned out to be a private mailbox service which is often a red flag in a fraud investigation.

The bank records for WPS were obtained via subpoena. Those records showed that WPS was formed in 1990 when LaToya Cotton filed business papers with Washtenaw County and opened a bank account. Since 1994, about 11 years, WPS had been receiving Section 8 voucher payments ostensibly for landlords of low-income tenants enrolled in the program.

The striking thing was the founder of WPS, LaToya Cotton, was a Michigan housing agent responsible for enrolling prospective low-income applicants for Section 8 vouchers. But even more troubling, it didn’t appear that any money had been paid from the WPS account to any landlords on behalf of the Section 8 enrollees.

LaToya Cotton became a Michigan housing agent for MSHDA in 1994. Very soon thereafter she concocted her scheme.

Prior to becoming a housing agent Cotton had setup the WPS account for a legitimate purpose. But after becoming an agent and enrolling applicants for the Section 8 program, she designated WPS as the recipient for some of the applicants’ landlord payments. When the WPS applicants were approved for Section 8 payments, Cotton didn’t tell them they had been approved. Rather, she told them they were not approved, or that they were on the waitlist. None of those enrollees were ever aware that they had been approved for Section 8 payments.

In September 2005, the FBI obtained a search warrant for Cotton’s office. The records seized revealed that during the 11 years that Cotton was a housing agent, she enrolled 100s of Section 8 applicants. Of those applicants she designated WPS as the recipient of landlord payments for about 40 of the enrollees. Cotton would periodically change the WPS enrollees, removing some and adding others. At the time her office was searched, she had eight enrollees whose voucher payments were going to WPS.

All of the money paid into the WPS account was used by Cotton for personal expenses. Over the 11-year period of the fraud, the total amount paid into the account was $1,051,701. She purchased cars, went on vacations. In April 2004, Cotton purchased a 5,237 square foot home for $830,000.  MSHDA figured that the amount embezzled by Cotton could have subsidized housing for 50 families for more than four years.

In January 2006, in front of US District Court Judge Patrick Duggan (The father of current Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan – ironically the mayor has been trying to turn Detroit around after it has been racked by years of public corruption.), Cotton pleaded guilty to a federal indictment charging her with theft from a federally funded program.

Judge Duggan in May 2006 sentenced Cotton to three and a half years incarceration, three years supervised release and ordered her to pay $1.1 million in restitution.  (Cotton’s house was forfeited and sold with the proceeds used to pay a portion of the restitution.)

At the time I was quoted as saying, “She (Cotton) was living in a mansion and there were low-income people on the Section 8 waiting list. It was Robin Hood in reverse.”

 


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How U-M Football Coach Bo Schembechler Inspired FBI’s First Probe Into Steroids in Sports

This column first appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer. It’s being republished with his permission.

By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

Featured_stejskal-and-bo_22400The late Bo Schembechler (left) and Greg Stejskal.

In reading recent accounts of state-sponsored use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), primarily by Russia, I was struck by how quickly it was decided that the FBI would open an investigation. There hasn’t always been a keen interest in pursuing criminal investigations of PEDs in sports. Arguably, that interest began in Ann Arbor.

In 1988, when I was an agent in the FBI’s Ann Arbor office, Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler asked me to come to his office. Since 1982, I had been making presentations to Bo’s players about sports gambling, drugs, and violence against women.

Now he and Mike Gittleson, the Michigan strength and conditioning coach, wanted to discuss their concerns about the use of anabolic steroids by football players. These synthetic versions of testosterone have very limited legitimate medical uses–but the coaches were seeing athletes who abused them, taking dangerously high doses to promote abnormal growth and strength.

It wasn’t just college players. The coaches told me that even the high school players they were seeing in Michigan’s summer instructional camp were asking not whether they should use steroids but when they should start.

Bo knew the sale and possession of nonprescription steroids had recently been made a felony under federal law. He wanted to know what was being done to enforce the law. I told him I didn’t know but would find out.

Read more »


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A Cold Murder Case in Detroit Dating Back to 1857

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By Gregory Stejskal

There is an apocryphal story – Ernest Hemingway was having lunch with some writer friends when he proposed a wager. He bet $10 that he could write a story in six words. With no doubt some curiosity, everyone at the table put $10 in the pot. Hemingway wrote on a napkin, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Hemingway passed the napkin around the table and collected his winnings.

Hemingway’s six word story is an extreme example of what is called flash fiction. My experience with something that might qualify as flash fiction was an 1857 reward poster that my wife found at an estate sale in Ann Arbor (Michigan).

The poster had a place, Detroit, and a date of April 14, 1857, and was offering “$1,500 Reward!” for information regarding a missing man, “John Rodgers, a resident of the town of Farmington, age 27.” The poster provides a physical description of John Rodgers and the clothing he was wearing when last seen leaving “Finney’s Hotel stable at dusk Tuesday evening, April 7th” (1857) where he left a span (pair) of horses.

The poster also indicates a suspicion of “foul play” and offers $1,000 “for the detection of any person or persons who may have been guilty of the murder of John Rodgers….” The reward is offered by Stephen Rodgers.

Like Hemingway’s baby shoes, the poster doesn’t so much tell a story as it suggests one.

My wife had the poster framed, and it has hung next to my desk. I have often wondered about the fate of John Rodgers, and what clues were contained on the poster.

The thing that literally stands out is the reward amount, “$1,500” In 1857 $1,500 was a very large amount of money worth about $42,000 today. It isn’t clear who Stephen Rodgers was from the poster, but he must have been a man of some means.

Since having the poster, I have made sporadic inquiries of local historians and checked records trying to find the rest of the story behind the poster.

Lee Peel, a historian of Farmington (Michigan), was able to determine that Stephen and John Rodgers were prosperous farmers with land in Farmington, but he wasn’t able to find any information regarding the incident described in the poster.

Later I happened on an article in the Detroit Free Press about the abolition movement and the rise of the Republican Party in Michigan. In the article Seymour Finney was mentioned. In the 1850s Finney was an abolitionist who ran a hotel in Detroit. Behind the hotel he had a large barn on the northeast corner of State and Griswald Sts. (Today there is an historical marker there.) Finney used the barn to hide runaway slaves until they could cross the Detroit River into Canada. The barn was located just blocks from the river.

Canada was a haven for the erstwhile slaves because in 1837 England had abolished slavery in their entire empire. So any slave that made it to Canada was free.

In the 1840s and 50s, an Underground Railroad developed in the US. Slaves followed established routes to northern states where they were relatively safe. Some of those routes led from the south to Michigan where there were many sympathetic people willing to hide them and aid their passage to Canada.

In fact the Republican Party, which was established by people opposed to the expansion of slavery beyond the states where it existed, began to flourish in Michigan. The party’s first statewide convention was held in Jackson, Michigan in 1854. One the party’s founders was Dr. Nathan Thomas, who had a medical practice in Kalamazoo and maintained a “station” on the Underground Railroad in Kalamazoo.

There were also free Blacks in Michigan who were active in the Underground Railroad. George de Baptiste, a freeman, owned a barbershop and a bakery in Detroit. He also owned a steamship named, T. Whitney, which transported freight and passengers from Detroit to Windsor, Canada. The T. Whitney also surreptiously smuggled escaped slaves to Canada at de Baptiste’s direction.

De Baptiste had formed a secret organization, African-American Mysteries or Order of the Men of Oppression, that worked with the Underground Railroad. Seymour Finney as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad would have been a member or an affiliate of the secret organization.

Secrecy was necessary because in 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted by Congress. The act required that slaves apprehended anywhere in the US including “free” states be returned to their slave masters. Rewards were offered for slaves, and despite there being many people in Michigan who were anti-slavery, there were many who were not opposed to slavery or were out to collect a reward. On occasion slave-catchers stayed in Finney’s Hotel while slaves were hidden in the barn.

So John Rodgers was last seen leaving “Finney’s Hotel stable at dusk….” Had he stumbled across some fugitive slaves? Did he attempt to obstruct their escape or did he try to resist efforts by bounty hunters to apprehend slaves?

Recently I talked to a Detroit historian, Bill Loomis, about the poster. Loomis has access to Detroit newspaper archives. (I had previously had other people with access to newspaper archives search for anything relating to John Rodgers disappearance with no success.) Loomis was able to find one article in the Detroit Free Press, dated May 21, 1857 and titled “Verdict in Rodgers Case.”

The article is not about a trial, but an inquest held in the office of Justice Ensworth, presumably acting as coroner. John Rodgers body had been recovered from the Detroit River, but it is not clear from the article when it was recovered. The reward poster was dated April 14th, seven days after he went missing, and the inquest occurred on May 20th.

One witness at the inquest was the father of the deceased, Stephen Rodgers, who offered the reward. Mr. Rodgers testified that he and John had come to the city with a load of pork which was sold. The father kept the proceeds from the sale except for $6 which he gave to his son, John, at about 1-2 pm. Rodgers said that he thought his son had from $25-100 in his possession and that he had two “porte-monnaies” (wallets) with him, a new one and an old one. No money was found with the body.

When Rodgers paid his son the money, he noticed some men standing on the corner nearby. “There were from four to six men and they were talking with one another. I noticed particularly one of them looking at us. They had the appearance of rather hard cases. I never saw them before neither have I seen them since.”

Also testifying at the inquest was a Dr. Terry who apparently was the medical examiner. He had done an analysis of the deceased’s stomach which had been delivered to him the day before in a jar. (In a time before refrigeration, this evokes some unsavory images.) Dr. Terry determined that John Rodgers last meal was corned beef and potatoes. Due to the state of digestion, Dr. Terry believed Rodgers died 2-3 hours after his last meal.

Dr. Terry testified that he had conducted “chemical tests to the contents of the stomach to ascertain whether opium or any of its preparations were present including morphine or its salts. Nothing of the kind was detected. (This seems to infer that at that time if poisoning were suspected, the drug of choice was an opiate.) The time that has elapsed since the death of Mr. Rodgers would render the detection of a vegetable poison very difficult if not impossible.”

Dr. Terry concluded: “I would say, that in regard to Mr. Rodgers’ death, it strikes me that the theory assumed by the physicians on the post mortem examination, that is, that the deceased was drugged is the most probable one. The absence of opium or morphine in the contents of the stomach at such a length of time after his death is no disproof of this supposition.”

The verdict of the jury was: “The jury upon their oaths present that from the appearance of the body and from all the facts and circumstances disclosed by the testimony, they are of the opinion that said Rodgers came to death in the city of Detroit by unlawful means, used by persons or persons unknown to the jurors who are unable definitely to determine from the testimony before them what means in fact were used by the murderers to effect (sic) their diabolical purpose.”

So the jury concluded that Rodgers was murdered, but they didn’t know how or why or by whom. Like the unused baby shoes several possibilities are suggested. I will continue to search for the rest of the story, but at least now I know John Rodgers fate.


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An Intriguing Tale of a GM Worker Who Got Busted Selling Test Cars from Proving Grounds

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By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

Jack Clingingsmith had what any car guy would consider a dream job. He was the executive in charge of testing for Buick at the General Motors proving grounds.

GM’s Milford, Michigan proving ground, when it opened in 1924, was the auto industry’s first dedicated testing facility. Today the sprawling 400 acre complex has over 100 buildings and about 132 miles (212 km) of roads. Those roads replicate all types of conditions found on streets and highways throughout North America – from dirt tracks to four lane interstate highways. There are also specialty surfaces to test traction, anti-skid and brake technology.

In 1984 despite Clingingsmith’s dream job, he had serious personal financial problems.

Part of Clingingsmith’s duties was to dispose of test cars after they were no longer of use. Some of these cars were one-of-a-kind prototypes and some had experimental parts using developing technology. For obvious reasons, these cars were not to be sold or driven by unauthorized people. Consequently, the cars were to be destroyed by having them crushed when they were no longer needed for testing.

A crushed car at that time was worth about $90 as scrap metal. However, if the cars were sold for parts, they could bring $1-2,000 each. Clingingsmith had an idea as to how to alleviate his financial problems. He would sell the cars for parts rather than having them crushed. GM wouldn’t know, and he would keep the difference.

In order to do this, he would need to obtain phony documentation to show the cars had been crushed. Part of the disposal process involved having the cars vehicle identification number (VIN) plates removed. Clingingsmith would turn in the VIN plates and advise GM and the Michigan Secretary of State that the cars were destroyed.

So that Clingingsmith didn’t have to deal with the scrap/auto parts dealer directly, he recruited an associate, Ingo Nicolay, to act as a middleman. Nicolay was the general manager of Johnson Motors, a Pontiac dealership in Holly, Michigan. Clingingsmith knew Nicolay because Johnson Motors had for years done body work on cars GM maintained for their executives.

Nicolay agreed to participate in the scam and in turn recruited Donald Holloway, the owner of Holloway Auto Parts in Flint, a city just north of Holly and once the home of Buick. Holloway was more than willing to buy low mileage, well maintained used cars to be used for auto parts. He was also willing to provide fake bills of sale showing the cars had been crushed.

Between November, 1984 and December, 1985, 14 test cars (13 Buicks and one Oldsmobile) were reported by Clingingsmith to have been destroyed. Actually they had been sold to Holloway for parts.

The conspiracy seemed to be going well, and all the conspirators were happy, but one of them was especially happy.

Even A Better Idea

Holloway upon taking delivery of these pristine used cars had an epiphany – why disassemble these cars to sell for parts when they could be sold whole. These cars hadn’t been reported stolen; in fact, there was no record they even existed. But it probably wouldn’t be wise to sell them locally.

Holloway had done business with a dealership, Fann’s Auto Sales, in Manchester, Tennessee. Holloway told the people at Fann’s that he had a source for “assembled” GM cars. Assembled cars were cars that were built from parts of two or more cars. (This was usually as a result of the cars having been extensively damaged in an accident.) For that reason the VIN plates had been removed. There was a provision under Tennessee law that allowed for assembled cars to be registered and assigned a new VIN.

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The Tale of the Stolen Meteorite

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By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

I was assigned to the FBI’s Ann Arbor, Michigan office for most of my career (referred to as a resident agency or RA in the Bureau) We were primarily responsible for investigating violations of federal  law in five counties which had a total population of about a million people.  Ann Arbor is also the home of the University of Michigan, one of the largest and most prestigious research institutions in the world.

A good thing about working in a RA was there were a variety of cases – some were very unique.

It was August 1998 when I got a call from Detective Kevin McNulty of the UM Department of Public Safety. McNulty and I had worked cases together before, and he told me that they had located a meteorite that had been stolen from the UM Museum of Natural History. McNulty explained that the 60 lb. meteorite, worth about $10,000, had been stolen from the fourth floor of the museum a few days before.

Apparently there was good market for meteorites especially ones from the Diablo (devil in Spanish) Canyon crater, aka Barringer Crater, near Flagstaff, Arizona. That crater has gained a sort of a science fiction cult fascination with the people that believe extraterrestrials have visited earth and may be still among us.  Part of this fascination is probably because the crater is relatively young in earth’s geological history, and it still looks like an impact crater like the ones on the moon. (In the 1984 movie, “Starman,” the ET character played by Jeff Bridges is trying to get to the Barringer crater to rendezvous with a rescue craft from his home planet.)

The meteorite that was stolen from the museum was actually a fragment of a much larger meteor that created the crater in Diablo Canyon when it struck the earth about 50,000 years ago. It is estimated that the meteor weighed about 60,000 tons with a diameter of approximately 100 feet and traveling at 30,000 mph when it hit. Most of the meteor vaporized on impact, but pieces of it were strewn around the crater.  The impact had the explosive power of a ten megaton bomb (1 megaton = 1 million tons of TNT). The crater is almost 600 feet deep and is about 3,900 feet across.

No Witnesses

No humans would have been around to witness the impact. It would be at least 10,000 years before any humans would be in the area. It was the Spanish explorers in the 16th Century who named the canyon Diablo. For reasons that have been lost, the Indians who descended from the earlier inhabitants considered the canyon cursed.

In the early 1900s, Daniel Barringer, a mining engineer who had made millions from silver mining in Arizona, took an interest in the crater. He believed that the crater had been caused by a meteor impact. The prevailing scientific theory at the time was that the crater resulted from some type of volcanic activity and the meteorite fragments around the crater were coincidental.

Because fragments found in the area were composed of iron and nickel, Barringer believed the main mass of the meteor was buried beneath the floor of the crater and that meteor mass would be worth millions. Over the next several years, Barringer drilled numerous exploratory holes in the floor of the crater – some as deep as 1,400 feet.  But he never hit any main mass nor did he discover an alien spacecraft.

Barringer rightly deduced the crater was created by a meteor impact, but he didn’t understand the physics of the tremendous force caused by the impact which resulted in the near total vaporization of the meteor leaving only fragments.  The Barringer family still owns the crater. It is a popular tourist attraction and has been designated a national historical site.

Meanwhile back in Ann Arbor, there had been no witnesses to the theft of the meteorite, and at the time no surveillance cameras were in the area of the theft. After the theft, Det. McNulty had put a photo and description of the meteorite on the internet, a relatively new forum for broadcasting reports of stolen property. The rock dealer, Michael Casper, had been surfing the Internet and came across McNulty’s posting. Casper contacted the UM museum and confirmed the meteorite he had purchased was the one that had been stolen.

McNulty wanted to recover the meteorite, but was concerned Casper, the dealer in NY, might not cooperate and McNulty had no police power in New York.

I agreed to call Casper, and he was very cooperative. He understood that he was in possession of stolen property, and that because it had been transported interstate his continued possession of it was potentially a violation of federal law. He agreed to return it to UM.  Casper also provided the name and address of the person who sold the meteorite to him, Steven Collins.

Collins had called Casper and told him he had a 60lb. Diablo Canyon meteorite for sale. Casper initially agreed to purchase it for $2,300. When Collins delivered the meteorite, they agreed that Casper would pay $1,000 and trade a prehistoric crab fossil and a 200 lb. slab of crystallized purple quartz, amethyst, for the meteorite.

Both McNulty and I assumed that the name and address that had been provided to Casper were false. But it turned out there was a Steven Collins living at the address given to Casper in Pittsfield Township, outside of Ann Arbor. That Steven Collins had been convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan; had served time and was currently on parole which could provide some leverage when dealing with Collins.

McNulty made contact with Collins, and he readily admitted that he had sold the meteorite to the dealer in NY. Collins said he had run into a guy he had met in prison, and the guy had offered to sell him a meteorite that he said he had found in Arizona. He paid the guy a few hundred dollars knowing the meteorite was worth much more. Collins claimed he didn’t know the meteorite was stolen. Collins gave the name of the inmate, but no one by that name could be found in the Michigan Department of Corrections records.

Lacked Evidence

Although McNulty had recovered the meteorite, he didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute Collins for the theft from the museum.

I thought we might be able to prosecute Collins federally for interstate transportation of stolen property (ITSP), but we needed for him to admit that he knew the meteorite was stolen. I believed Collins had stolen the meteorite himself, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to admit to that. However, sometimes a bad denial can be almost as good as a confession.

I wanted to interview Collins again, and I wanted it to be a surprise. I didn’t want to give him time to prepare or worse decide he didn’t want to talk to me.

I decided to try to talk to him where he worked. He was working for a construction company testing a cleared and graded site for the level of compaction of the soil – a good job for a self-described rock hound. I told Collins that we were having some trouble with his original story as there was no inmate by the name he gave us that had ever been in the Michigan prison system.

Collins said that he hadn’t bought the meteorite from a former inmate, but from a guy he met in bar. He said he couldn’t admit to having been in a bar because that was a violation of his parole.  (I didn’t mention that his having left Michigan and traveling to New York without permission was also a parole violation.)

In the bar he struck up a conversation with a guy about rocks. The guy seemed to be pretty knowledgeable, and he said he had a meteorite that he wanted to sell. They went to the guy’s car and in the trunk was a large meteorite that the guy said had come from Diablo Canyon. Collins knew that it was a meteorite, and had some idea of its value. He agreed to buy it for $400. He paid in cash and had no documentation of the sale.

Collins claimed that he didn’t know the guy’s name, nor did have any contact information for him. Collins hadn’t seen him before or since. He hadn’t noticed whether the car’s license was from out-of-state. He was only able to give a very general description of the guy. Collins told me the name of the bar, but said he didn’t know any of the employees or patrons in the bar. He didn’t think there was anyone in the bar who could corroborate any part of his story.

Collins had not only changed his story when it was challenged, he had provided what I thought was a pretty weak new story as to how he acquired the meteorite – a bad denial.

Collins was federally charged with Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property and his parole was violated for having left Michigan. He pleaded guilty and admitted to the judge he knew the meteorite was stolen when he transported it to NY. He was sentenced to nine months incarceration in addition to the about two years he did for parole violation.

We never did learn how he was able to get the meteorite out of the museum without being seen.

“The truth is out there.”

 


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The Double Steal — The Right and Wrong Way to Steal Trade Secrets

Bill Davidson

By Greg Stejskal
ticklethewire.com

It took about 5,000 years from the discovery of glass until a process was developed to economically mass produce flat glass, and only a few years before the technology was stolen.

Glass is one of the great fundamental inventions – not at the level of the wheel or fire, but up pretty high on the list. Glass is chiefly made from relatively common and inexpensive raw materials: sand, soda ash (sodium carbonate) and lime.

No one knows when glass was first invented or by whom. It does occur in nature when lightning strikes sand or sometimes from volcanic eruptions (obsidian). Its first use seems to have been as a glaze for ceramic vessels in about 3,000 BCE. It wasn’t until about 1,500 BCE that glass vessels were produced in Egypt (ultimately used to hold beer, one of my favorite inventions). The use of a pipe for blowing superheated glass wasn’t invented until circa 30 BCE.

Through the ages uses for glass have multiplied and are as diverse as flat glass to optical lenses which enabled the development of telescopes and microscopes. But this story is about the technology to produce flat glass, and why some people would go to great lengths to steal it.

Flat glass is used primarily for windows and doors on homes, buildings and vehicles. Until relatively recently there wasn’t an economical way to produce large quantities of quality flat glass.

Flat glass was originally made by blowing cylinders of glass that were cut open and flattened then cut into panes. Most window glass up until the early 1800s was made using the cylinder method. The cylinders were limited in size. They were 6-8 feet (2-3m) long and 10-14 inches (~30cm) in diameter, thus limiting the size of the panes that could be cut. Large windows had to be made of multiple panes.

In 1848 Henry Bessemer, an English engineer, designed a system that produced a continuous ribbon of flat glass by forming the ribbon of molten glass between rollers. This was an expensive process as the surface of the glass had to be ground and polished. This did overcome the size limitations of the cylinder method. Beginning in the 1920s, a continuous ribbon of glass was passed through a lengthy series of inline grinders and polishers, reducing glass loss and cost.

The major breakthrough in the production of flat glass didn’t come until the late 1950s. Sir Alastair Pilkington and Kenneth Bickerstaff of Pilkington Brothers, Ltd. in the UK developed the first successful commercial float glass process.

Bill Davidson

Float glass uses common glass-making raw materials. The materials are mixed with cullet (waste glass) in a furnace where it is heated to ~2,800 degrees F (1,500C). When the mixture becomes molten, it is allowed to pour onto a “tin bath,” a bath of molten tin about 2.3 inches (6cm) deep, 3-4 feet (3-4m) wide and 150 feet (45m) long.

The glass enters via a canal. The speed and volume of glass flow is controlled by a gate called a twill. The glass literally floats on top of the tin with uniform thickness. (The molten tin does not adhere to the glass, but an oxygen free atmosphere has to be maintained to keep the tin from oxidizing and adhering to the glass.) As the glass flows along the tin bath, the temperature is gradually reduced. At the end of the bath, the glass has cooled to approximately 1,100F (600C). At that temperature the glass can be lifted from the bath onto rollers. The glass ribbon is pulled by the rollers at a controlled speed. The speed at which the glass is pulled determines its thickness.

As the glass is pulled from the bath, it passes through a lehr (a type of kiln) where it gradually cools so that it anneals and does not crack from more rapid temperature change. After exiting the lehr, the glass is cut by machines.

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