Chasing phantom fugitives

My former United Press Canada colleague Nelson Wyatt reminded me the other day of a real fake news story we were dragged into more than 30 years ago.

Real fake news is reported when generally authoritative sources, such as police or government officials, say something that turns out to be claptrap. This can have deadly serious consequences – consider the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin “incident” that escalated the war in Vietnam and Saddam Hussein’s “WMDs.”

Or it can simply be folly – so far – as with a Fabricator in Chief in the White House.

Then there are the many instances when authorities overreact – think terrorism threats or hurricanes – and get things wrong.

This was the case with the Canadian connection to the tale of the Briley brothers, Linwood and James, who led the breakout of six men from death row at the state prison in Mecklenburg, Virginia, on May 31, 1984.

While the other four fugitives were recaptured quickly, the wily Brileys were on the lam for nearly three weeks.

It was during this time that Canadian news outlets began reporting sightings of the brothers in Quebec’s normally peaceful and picturesque Eastern Townships.

I was running the news desk at UPC headquarters in Toronto. Nelson was a reporter-editor in the Montreal bureau.

The story smelled sketchy from the get-go. I figured someone had spotted a couple of black guys, a rarity in those parts, assumed they were up to no good, called the cops and … voila!

Next thing you knew, police armed to the teeth were combing woods and fields, setting up roadblocks and generally scaring the shit out of everyone from Gaspe to the Laurentians. We dutifully reported what the police said, and the hysteria they unleashed.

(The Brileys were truly scary guys. Over seven months in 1979, in and around their hometown of Richmond, Virginia, they robbed and raped and shot and stabbed more than a dozen total strangers. They were convicted of 10 murders.)

The manhunt in Quebec went on for nearly a week. I talked daily with Nelson. The information was so flimsy we started joking about phantom fugitives.

“Where do you think they really are?” Nelson asked.

“Disneyland?”

“Vegas?”

“Probably never left Virginia,” I concluded.

I was close. Linwood Briley, 30, and brother James, 28, were cornered and captured in their uncle’s garage in Philadelphia on June 19, 1984.

The state of Virginia wasn’t taking any chances on another escape – Linwood was executed in the electric chair that October and James the following April.

Imagining the art of the steal

I could easily have pulled off the greatest art heist in history.

Millions and millions of dollars worth of paintings were mine for the taking.

No alarm sounded. No cops. No witnesses.

Today, the original of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party could be hanging above the mantel in the living room of my townhouse in Mississauga, instead of my photo of a flying wood stork.

And Dufy’s The Artist’s Studio would look good in my home office.

The Artist's Studio

Such treasures would be mine if only I’d had a proclivity for thievery 45 years ago today.

On May 29, 1972, I was in Washington with my Swiss wife Anita, who schlepped this kid from Queens through the art museums of two continents during our short-lived marriage.

So, on this hot, sunny Memorial Day in the mecca of American history, instead of paying respects to Mr. Lincoln or Mr. Jefferson, we went to see the Phillips Collection of modern (mostly European) art.

I parked my dark blue Fiat 124 sedan on the street right in front of the gallery. We walked to the front door, opened it, and went inside. There was no one there.

In the entranceway, we admired a small Braque. We walked up a staircase and stood before that large Renoir canvas of the Boating Party, in its gilded frame.

Not another breathing soul around. Just the two of us and those Parisian partygoers, Renoir’s chums from the 1880s, drinking and gabbing on a restaurant balcony overlooking the Seine.

We moseyed on, dawdled in front of paintings by Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Seurat.

“This is weird,” I finally said to Anita. “We could just take any of these paintings and walk out the door.”

“What should we do?” she asked.

Since we were leaving Washington the next day and didn’t know when we might return, we decided to spend a little more time with the paintings.

After about a half hour or so, we began to head out. “Let’s see if we can call someone,” I said.

We went back to the entranceway and found the reception desk. It had one of those sliding shelves where people often pasted lists of phone numbers. Sure enough, I found a list.

There was a number for a “Mrs. Phillips.” I dialed it on the phone atop the desk.

A woman answered.

“Mrs. Phillips?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“My name is Ken Becker and I’m inside your gallery right now but no one else is here.”

“Yes,” she said, “we’re closed today.”

“But my wife and I just walked in. The doors were unlocked.”

“That’s odd,” she said.

“Yes it is,” I said. “What would you like us to do?”

No reply for a moment. “Well, I’ll call our security company. If you wouldn’t mind waiting there until they arrive …”

“No problem,” I said, and hung up.

Anita and I stood inside the front door and guarded the Braque. When we saw a couple of rent-a-cops pull up and rush up the walkway, we met them outside.

“How’d you get in there,” one snapped.

“We just walked in,” I said, turning to demonstrate how I’d grabbed each handle of the double-doors and pulled. The doors opened.

“You’re not supposed to do it that way,” said the uniformed security man. He closed the doors, grasped only one handle, pulled, and the doors stayed locked.

I laughed. “You mean anybody with two hands can get in but you’re counting on them to only pull one handle?”

He and his partner nodded. Dumbfounded. But not amused.

They looked us over, apparently checking to see whether I had a Degas in my pants or Anita had a Klee in her purse, before dismissing us with a wave.

All these years later, I envision filling my Fiat with great Impressionist works, driving up the Jersey Turnpike, home to New York, with the Renoir strapped to the roof.

When Anita and I split up later that year, she took the Beatles albums and I got the Sinatra and Simon and Garfunkel.

But I can now imagine us sitting around the living room of our apartment in Queens with priceless canvases strewn about.

I want the Picasso.

Fine, but I’ll take the Matisse.

No, I want the Matisse.

I’ll trade you two Cezannes for the Matisse.

Deal.

Let’s divvy up the Van Goghs.

Okay, but who gets the Renoir?

Considering all the places I’ve lived since then – Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Maine, Northern Ontario, Mississauga – I would have had to hire a Brink’s truck to haul my stash of paintings from house to house.

And now I’d have that Renoir above the mantel.

Or maybe Gauguin’s The Ham in the kitchen.

The Ham

And Picasso’s The Blue Room in the john.

Picasso

On sparring with pols

The assault of a reporter by a congressional candidate in Montana got me thinking about my confrontations with politicians – and a strange press scrum at the bedside of a comatose Mafia don.

Like the Guardian reporter who was “body-slammed” to the floor in Bozeman on Wednesday, I have inserted myself in political places I wasn’t welcome.

The first time was after a televised debate between Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller and Democrat Arthur Goldberg in New York in 1970, when I followed Rocky and his entourage into a freight elevator at the TV studio.

The governor was steamed. He hadn’t done well.

As the door was closing, I raised my notebook and pen and asked Rockefeller a question.

“Who the hell are you?” he spat.

“Ken Becker – UPI”

“Get him out of here,” the governor ordered.

His bodyguards obeyed, opening the doors and pushing me out of the elevator.

I have written before in this space about my experiences covering Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret for UPI in the 1970s. And about the skirmish I had with Trudeau in 1974.

In case you missed it, here’s the setup and the blow by blow:

I was in the office that September when one of our reporters in Ottawa called with a tip that Margaret was in the psychiatric wing of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, and that her husband was on his way to visit her

By this time, I had covered Trudeau often enough that he recognized me.

So, when he arrived at the hospital with a two-man security detail – they stayed in the car – he knew the one guy waiting for him was a reporter.

“What are you doing here?” he snapped.

“How’s your wife doing?” I responded.

“And how would that be your business?”

I tried to make the case for the public’s right to know. He countered with his best harrumphs and shrugs of dismissal. I followed him into the lobby, to the elevator doors.

“Fuck off,” the prime minister of Canada said.

I was a wizened old hand in the news biz when I had a more public spat with a future prime minister.

It was 1991, when I was working for Canadian Press, mainly as an editor. But I put on my reporter hat to cover an early morning news conference held by the federal justice minister, Kim Campbell, in a meeting room at a Toronto hotel.

We knew she was going to announce whether to order a review of the 1970 murder conviction of David Milgaard, whose supporters had made a persuasive argument for his innocence.

I commandeered the only phone in the room – this was the Paleophonic Era – called my office and was ready to dictate a bulletin as soon as Campbell announced her decision.

“Hang up the phone,” one of her lackeys told me.

“Why?”

“Because …”

“Because what?”

“Because the minister is about to speak.”

“I’m not stopping her.”

By now, all of those in the room were focused on me. Including the minister of justice.

“Somebody’s not a morning person,” Campbell said with a smirk.

“You do your job, I’ll do mine,” I said.

I held onto the phone, kept the line open, and dictated my story as soon as she announced the news.

Now to that bedside vigil with the Mafia don – one time you’d think reporters would be unwelcome and in peril.

Joe Colombo was a mobster who craved media attention. Fed up with being shadowed by the FBI and angry at the portrayal of his family business in The Godfather, Colombo went public, saying he and his paisans were discriminated against not because they were killers, but because they were Italian.

He founded the Italian-American Civil Rights League, the Mafia’s answer to B’nai Brith or the NAACP.

In June 1970. the league, with Colombo the star attraction, held its first Italian-American Unity Day rally, drawing 50,000 people to Columbus Circle in Manhattan. A few months later, Frank Sinatra headlined a benefit concert for the league at Madison Square Garden.

I was working for UPI when Colombo was shot at the second unity day rally, on June 28, 1971. He was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, a few blocks from Columbus Circle.

I followed the herd of reporters – right into his room. About a dozen of us were at his bedside, with Colombo’s wife and sons.

While the wife cried, and the sons talked of revenge – everybody suspected the rival Gallo gang had set up the hit, though the shooter was a black guy posing as a news photographer, shot dead at the scene – reporters shouted questions at the unconscious Colombo, some sticking microphones within inches of his mouth, which was hooked up to a ventilator.

“What happened, Joe?”

“How do you feel, Joe?”

“Who did it, Joe?

“You going after the Gallos, Joe?”

It would be Joe Colombo’s last news conference. He never said a word.

He never woke up either – was “vegetabled,” as Joey Gallo put it – but hung on for another seven years.

Jimmy Breslin’s wonderful comic novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, was a take on Crazy Joey’s Brooklyn crew.

The Colombo-Gallo war was effectively over less than a year after Joe went into a coma, when Joey was gunned down in Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Nearly a year ago, I sent Harry Edwards an email with the subject line: An idea for your consideration, please.

Edwards rose to prominence during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with his call for black athletes to boycott the Olympics, the inspiration for the black power salute at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.

Now professor emeritus of sociology at Berkeley, Edwards has long been one of the strongest voices linking human rights to the exploitation of black athletes.

My email, sent June 9, 2016, read:

Dr. Edwards,

I’ve been thinking lately about all the states that have passed discriminatory laws aimed at stripping African Americans and others of basic rights: voting, social assistance, marriage, abortion etc.

And this had led me to the idea that black athletes should stop enriching and enabling state universities in these places – and go to more progressive states to play football, basketball and other sports.

Can’t think of a stronger means of taking on politicians seeking a return to the bad old days.

And, I’m writing to you because I can’t think of another person who might be in a better position to explore this kind of action.

Thanks for your time.

Ken Becker

Expat American, retired journalist, writer, living in Canada

I came of age in the ’60s, when states in the Old Confederacy still barred the schoolhouse door to black students and colleges consequently fielded all-white teams. Federally ordered desegregation changed that.

Yet here in the 21st century, I was struck by the success of nearly all-black starting lineups on teams from state universities in the New Confederacy, solidly Republican and demonstrably racist.

When I wrote to Edwards, I imagined calls for a boycott, and a new generation of Freedom Riders going to the homes of the top – African American – high school athletes in Red States, persuading them to go to colleges in Blue States.

I wondered what would happen if Gomer and Bubba woke up one Saturday morning to discover their favorite teams fielding a roster of their slow, clumsy kinfolk? Would it force political change?

But the timing of my email to Edwards could not have been worse, as he noted in his reply:

I’m sorry that I am unable to respond substantively to your email at this time.  I am attending  the Memorial Service and associated events in Louisville, KY, honoring the Life and Contributions of Muhammad Ali …

DrHE

That was five months before the U.S. election, before the Race Baiter in Chief moved into the White House, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III became Attorney General, and the GOP whitewashed the rest of Obama’s Washington.

I began sketching this story in January, when publicly funded schools in two of the most reactionary states – South Carolina’s Clemson and the University of Alabama – played for the second straight year in college football’s national championship game.

Once more, as is always the case from Tuscaloosa to Norman, Tallahassee to Topeka, all the star players on the field were black and all the well-heeled fans in the stands were white.

But the piece never came together. I wound up folding the idea into a paragraph of a blog posted April 1:

Want to crush the crackers in states that discriminate against poor people and minorities by legislating to limit voting rights, women’s rights, religious rights, gay rights, worker rights etc.? Organize campaigns to persuade top high school football and basketball players – from poor and minority families – to boycott state universities in places like South Carolina, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas.

I provided a link on Facebook and got a nice response from a former Canadian Press colleague, Lee-Anne Goodman: “Brilliant suggestion re: football and basketball stars boycotting certain colleges. That is something people would pay attention to … We need to make this a thing.”

Well, as far as I can tell, people were not paying attention and this is not a thing.

So, I now call on you, soldiers in The Resistance, to add this action to your “Resources for the Fight,” along with your attempts to swamp congressional offices with phone calls and emails.

You call yourself “a grassroots movement fighting against the hateful and authoritarian agenda of Donald Trump and the radical right.”

Some of you have also enrolled in Resistance School, and dutifully tune in to episodes of The Resistance with Keith Olbermann at gq.com.

Cool!

And, while the media have compared you to the Tea Party, remember that those folks mainly replaced right-wingers with right-wingnuts in Congress.

If you really want to stick it to the man, start organizing Freedom Rides to liberate young jocks from the servitude of college sports in the New Confederacy.