Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Bottom of the Ninth

Michael Shapiro's Bottom of the Ninth is fascinating reading for anyone who loves baseball -or football, for that matter. Although it is told as a parallel story - with a distracting and incongruous outlining of Casey Stengel's final years as manager of the New York Yankees - the real story is about Branch Rickey and his proposed Continental League, which he tried to create between 1958-1960. The CL would be a third Major League that would do for baseball what - it turned out - the American Football League would do for football. Rickey's CL idea is a little-remembered phenomenon that very nearly worked, and Shapiro's recounting of it is excellent.

At heart, Rickey envisioned a fundamental change in the nature of baseball: no longer would the Yankees and a few other teams so totally dominate the American and National Leagues that competitive races for the pennant were nearly non-existent in 80% of the cities that fielded Major League teams. Instead, Rickey envisioned a more balanced setting, with revenue-sharing, a Major League draft and competition. Rickey believed he could build the CL in a few years into a viable league that would merge with Major League Baseball. Like Ban Johnson - whose start-up American League had broken the will of the National League at the turn of the 20th century - Rickey envisioned his Continental League forcing the other Major League owners to expand.

But Rickey's was not to be expansion for the sake of novelty. Rickey was adamant that his Continental League was not a ruse simply to get the American and National League owners to finally open up Major League Baseball to other cities through expansion franchises in the existing leagues. As Shapiro deftly outlines, however, Rickey was duped. Many of the potential Continental League owners that Rickey had assembled - Craig Cullinan (Houston), Joan Whitney Payson (New York), Jack Kent Cooke (Toronto), and Edwin Johnson (Denver) among others - secretly viewed Rickey's vision to be exactly that: a sham that was merely a way to break the will of the existing Major Leagues and finally get franchises for their respective cities. While Rickey argued that such expansion was a novelty-act - creating new teams that would be unable to be competitive with existing teams - Rickey's potential CL owners wanted to get into that novelty act badly.

Like Ban Johnson - who he viewed as an icon - Branch Rickey believed in competition as the best way to generate and sustain a fan base. For Johnson and Rickey, competition was relative: it didn't matter who a team played so long as the outcome was in doubt. A new league pairing franchises of equal talent against one another - the Continental League or the American League in 1901 - would generate far more excitement and potential for revenue growth for all of the owners than would four new expansion teams in the existing Major Leagues.

Of course, there was another example besides Ban Johnson that Rickey also knew about: Charlie Weeghman. A Chicago businessman, Weeghman desperately wanted to buy either the Cubs or White Sox. When he could not do that, he simply created a third league, with a franchise in Chicago, to being play in 1912. With his Federal League launched, Weeghman even built a new stadium in Chicago - what would become Wrigley Field. But Weeghman never really intended for the Federal League to succeed. His goal was to put enough pressure on the existing owners that they would force the owners of either the Cubs or White Sox to sell to Weeghman in return for his agreement to disband the league. Which is exactly what happened: the Cubs were sold to Weeghman and the other owners Weeghman had suckered into joining him were left to bankruptcy.

The irony is that at the very same time Rickey was looking to launch the Continental League, Lamar Hunt was launching a league that would do exactly that for football. The National Football League had sworn that it would never accept franchises in - let alone merge with - any city that fielded a team in Hunt's new American Football League. Yet, the idea of revenue-sharing and broad competitive sport - which the AFL brought with balanced teams playing competitive games every Sunday - is exactly what contributed to the explosion in popularity of the AFL. It was a success that the NFL could not ignore. Indeed, despite Commissioner Pete Rozelle's claim that the two leagues would never merge, they indeed joined hands in 1970 and today the NFL is the single-biggest competitive professional sports league in the world.

On a side note, one of Shapiro's other noteworthy stories involves Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley and his revolutionary idea of pay-per-view television for broadcasting baseball. O'Malley was so convinced in the idea of what we now call cable television, that when he moved the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, he blacked out all of their games - home and away (with the exception of games against the rival Giants, now in San Francisco) because he refused to let the concept of free baseball on television take root in Los Angeles the way it had in New York.

O'Malley's decision paid off when - on July 17, 1964 - the Dodgers hosted the Cubs with the game being broadcast to 2,500 homes wired to receive it in a four-square mile section of west Los Angeles. Viewers paid $1.50 to view the game. And thus was born the idea of pay-per-view television. Ironically, cable television would have been launched twelve years earlier than it was [in 1976] if not for the Hollywood motion picture industry. So frightened by O'Malley's experiment in 1964, the film industry successfully lobbied politicos to put a referendum on the November 1964 California ballot banning pay television. The referendum passed. Although it only effected California, it so scared off other entrepreneurs that it took a billionaire who didn't care - Ted Turner - to finally launch the concept in 1976.

Shapiro's book is really a testimony to the brilliance of Branch Rickey. In addition to a new league to foster competition, another Rickey innovation that Lamar Hunt's AFL [and very soon thereafter Pete Rozelle's NFL] adapted was the concept of national television contracts versus local television contracts. In addition to revenue-sharing, a pooled television contract would benefit all of the owners in the Continental League. That's exactly what happened in football and it lead to the sport becoming the most watched professional sports entertainment on television.

While baseball did see changes: the abolishment - necessitated by federal court - of the hated reserve clause in 1974 and - finally - revenue sharing in 2005, the sport in 2007 was tied with basketball - well behind football - in popularity. And the financial value of NFL franchises are far, far greater than baseball. On average, NFL teams are valued at $957,000,000 -far greater than baseball, which is roughly $450,000,000.

More important, though, is the discrepancy between teams' values: in football, the richest team, the Dallas Cowboys, is worth $1,200,000,000 while the poorest team, the Minnesota Vikings, is worth $782,000,000. The richest is thus twice as valuable as the poorest. In baseball, however, the richest team, my beloved Yankees, are worth $1,200,000,000 while the poorest team, the Florida Marlins, aer worth $256,000,000. The richest team is thus five times as valuable as the poorest in baseball.

Rickey's plan for a league fell apart when the owners of Major League Baseball were able to peel away some of Rickey's owners by agreeing to expansion. The American League expanded in 1961, and the National League in 1962. Shapiro's book is a fascinating look at the divergent paths that baseball and football took, and the billions of dollars that were earned as a result.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009



The most fitting tribute to Ted Kennedy, I think, would be the series that appeared earlier this year in the Boston Globe.

Ted Kennedy was neither saint nor evil. Like all of us, he was a combination of both. Unlike most of us, however, he was able to affect change in the lives of tens of millions of people - both for good and ill - although far more for the former than the latter. Any acts of ill were - for the most part - the unintended consequences that we all have caused in our own lives to one extent or another.
The irony, of course, is that Little Teddy became a man of far, far more consequence than his three brothers combined. While Joe died before entering politics, and JFK and RFK are both political icons, it was Little Teddy who served longer than all but two Senators in U.S. history. Indeed, with his death, for the first time since 1962, there is no Kennedy in the United States Senate this morning.
Had Ted Kennedy died in the 1980s he would be viewed as a tragic - dark - figure, with a legacy that was dominated by binge-drinking, waitress-grabbing, and Chappaquiddick. Since the 1991 trial of his nephew on rape charges, however, Kennedy has undergone a metamorphosis into elder statesman that few could have predicted at the time of that awful trial. With the help of his second wife, Victoria Reggie, he quit drinking and embraced the role of political colossus.
The last two Democratic occupants of the White House both owe their positions to Ted Kennedy. It was Bill Clinton who was readily and warmly embraced by Kennedy late in 1991. With Kennedy's help, the Arkansas governor bested Massachusetts's Native Son Paul Tsongas and went on to the nomination. And, were it not for Kennedy's early endorsement, it is debatable as to whether President Obama could have held off Hillary Rodham Clinton in last year's primaries.
So, while Ted Kennedy is now gone, his ability to impact the American power structure will continue in the years to come. If there is a heaven, and if we really do get to go there almost irrespective of what we've done in our lives, then Ted has been reunited with his brothers. Unfortunately, he's also been reunited with his lunatic father.
I'm not really convinced there is a heaven anyway. More likely, Kennedy has gone into that ether that eventually claims us all.
RIP, Teddy.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Point of Impact

Stacie Franklin is 41 years old with a husband and two children. She has lived in her hometown of San Diego for most of her life. Today, she is shopping with her 16-year old daughter in preparation for the upcoming Junior Prom - much to Stacie's horror, mind you.

Rachel Asrelsky, also 41, is busily working in her offices at Columbia University, where she has been a tenured professor since 1995. As she prepares for the annual start-of-term faculty workshops that she dreads like a migraine, she laughs to herself as she remembers what her 4-year old daughter said to her as she was walking out of the door of the day care center this morning: "Don't forget Mommy: Today is Joe Jonas' birthday and I want to make him a card!"

Tom and Bridget Concannon - 71 and 74 respectively - are visiting their 37-year old son, Sean in Hoboken, NJ. The Concannons are Irish - although their son was born when Tom was working in England. Not a few times has Sean made it a point - normally loud enough for his father to hear and thus drive him nuts yet again - that while 'Mum and Dad are Irish; I'm British.' This joking aside, the Concannons remain relatively close, even though Sean moved to the States in 1995. Today, Tom and Bridget are relishing precious time with Sean's three children - their only grandchildren - as a summer sun sets over the New York City skyline behind them.

What I just wrote is fantasy. It is fiction. It never happened. It never happened because of Abdel Basset Ali Megrahi. Although Megrahi never met Stacie Franklin, Rachel Asrelsky, Tom Concannon, Bridget Concannon or Sean Concannon, he saw fit to end their lives on December 21, 1988 by blowing the airplane in which they were flying out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the 270 killed that day were 20-year old flight attendant Stacie Franklin, 21-year old student Rachel Asrelsky, as well as 51-year old Tom Concannon, his 53-year old wife Bridget and their 16-year old son Sean.

Without getting into the reams and reams of documents that detail the Lockerbie terrorist attack perpetrated by Meghrahi - a Libyan intelligence agent - and his network, suffice it to say that the deaths of his victims were horrific. When the bomb planted by Meghrahi's agents - inside a Sony Walkman - detonated, it separated the cockpit from the rest of the plane. In the immediate aftermath of that separation, tornado-force winds tore through the fuselage, tearing clothes off passengers and turning insecurely-fixed items like food and drink trolleys into lethal objects. Because of the sudden change in air pressure, the gases inside the passengers' bodies expanded to four times their normal volume, causing their lungs to swell and then collapse. People and objects not fixed down were been blown out of the aircraft into the minus-50 degree outside air, their 31,000-foot fall lasting about two minutes. That's right, two minutes. Not seconds. Minutes. Free falling in the air. Until the point of impact.

Some passengers remained attached to the fuselage by their seat belts, crashing in Lockerbie strapped to their seats. Although the passengers would have lost consciousness through lack of oxygen, forensic examiners believe some of them regained consciousness as they fell toward oxygen-rich lower altitudes. Forensic pathologist Dr. William G. Eckert, director of the Milton Helpern International Center of Forensic Sciences at Wichita State University, who examined the autopsy evidence, told Scottish police he believed the flight crew, some of the flight attendants - including Stacie Franklin - and 147 other passengers survived the bomb blast and depressurization of the aircraft, and were alive on impact. Repeat: alive on the point of impact.

Eckert came to this conclusion because none of these passengers showed signs of injury from the explosion itself, or from the decompression and disintegration of the aircraft. Eckert told Scottish police that distinctive marks on 55-year old American Captain James MacQuarrie's thumb suggested he had been hanging onto the yoke of the plane as it descended, and was alive when the plane crashed. The captain, first officer, flight engineer, a flight attendant - Stacie Franklin - and a number of first-class passengers were found still strapped to their seats inside the nose section when it crashed in a field by a farm in the village of Tundergarth.

Franklin, incredibly, was alive when found by the farmer's wife. She died before her rescuer could summon help.

Remember all of this as you read how the only man ever convicted of the attack left Scotland this week - on a Libyan jet - flying safely through the same skies he bombed his victims out of 21 years ago and arrived in Tripoli to a hero's welcome. A hero's welcome.

That man, Megrahi, was not even arrested until 1999. That is, he lived in freedom for 11 years after ending those 270 lives. Once caught, it took two more years to convict Megrahi. Unfortunately, it was the British who caught him. Had it been the Americans, he would have been eligible for the death penalty. Because the British have been pussified into believing that somehow capital punishment is 'cruel and unusual', the most they could give Megrahi was a life sentence, which was handed down in 2001 by a Scottish court.

How did 'life' translate into 10 years in prison? Well, in announcing Megrahi's release, Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill intoned that "when such an appalling crime is committed, it is appropriate that a severe sentence be imposed." Yes, you read that right: this asshole Scottish politician seemed to be saying that the 10-year sentence was enough. Another way of looking at it, of course, is to say that MacAskill [or, as I like to call him Mac Ass Kill] was saying that a severe sentence of life should be imposed, but not necessarily carried out.

As pissed as I am about the 12 days in prison Vince Fumo will serve for each of his felony convictions, the mind reels when you realize that Megrahi served a little less than 14 days for each of the victims he killed. About two weeks. And you thought your life was worth more, I'll bet.

Megrahi's release is being justified on compassionate grounds: he is thankfully terminally ill with an aggressive form of prostate cancer - which one hopes is incredibly painful. In some patients, surgeons have to castrate patients with advanced prostate cancer in a drastic effort to stop the spread of the disease. I'm going to prefer to believe that this is what's happened to Megrahi. And that they performed the procedure with a plastic spoon and no anesthesia. Megrahi is said to have as little as three months to live. The Earth's fiery core awaits him.

While that is wonderful, this 'compassion' being afforded a man who - to this day - has refused to admit his guilt is abhorrent. Mac Ass added further insult to injury with a cryptic remark that Megrahi faces "a sentence imposed by a higher power." Apparently, then, the existence of God has been confirmed by the British courts. Since I'm not really convinced of that, however, I must point out that a life sentence should mean that a man ends his days in prison - in this case, a foreign prison [in Scotland for the Libyan Megrahi]. He should not end his days in the bosom of his family and country to a hero's welcome.

The real injustice - and one President Obama must vigorously protest in person to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown the next time they have tea - is that Scotland's decision to release this motherfucker is a result of a recent prisoner transfer agreement between Libya and the U.K. The agreement calls for Britain to release prisoners in return for Libya granting lucrative arms and energy contracts to British companies. The U.S. had no say in the matter, despite the fact that the vast majority of victims of the disaster were American. Put another way, Megrahi's release was a tacit quid pro quo for lucrative energy and arms deals for U.K. firms.

This cold-blooded killer's release is a reminder of what happens when terrorism is treated as a problem for the criminal justice system. Scottish pol Mac Ass had the balls to sit there and congratulate Scotland (and himself) on the superior virtue his decision supposedly evinces. Of course, terrorists will surely draw a different lesson about the will of the West to confront and punish them. And the compassion that is still owed those made bereft by the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 has now been tainted by a second Lockerbie outrage.

No matter how vigorously the British justice system protests that this is not so, the fact is that the entire judicial system of Her Majesty is now irrevocably tainted by this corrupt bargain. And, every time a British company lands a deal in Libya from here on out, the families of the 270 victims will be reminded that their loved ones paid for it with their lives nearly 21 years ago over Scotland. While still alive. Until the point of impact.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review: 1789

By all rights, I should not have enjoyed this book. I've never been in love with European history - probably because it's too damned long. U.S. history is great: concise, 200+ years, simple. Boom, that's it. With Europe though, you're talking about at least 1,000 years - and that's if you write off whatever happened before 1066 as utter misery.

Andress' book, however, blends American with European history through the spectrum of 1789 in America, France and England. The events of that year - and the years immediately preceding and succeeding it - led to what Andress calls "the threshold of the modern age."

We know that in the United States 1789 saw the installation of the form of government approved in the newly-ratified Constitution. The irony is that in England at the same time, a centenary celebration of the "glorious" revolution of 1689 led many to question whether England's unwritten constitution - or an actual written document like the United States now had - was the preferable form. As President Washington settled into his new digs in New York City, Congress began debate on a 'bill of rights' - which had been demanded by many states in return for their agreement to ratify the Constitution at all. Andress covers most of the basics in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist debate, although his portraits of Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are a bit thin. He does accurately bring to life, however, Benjamin Franklin and the role his ideas played in the new government.

In England, a battle between political forces led by Charles James Fox against those led by William Pitt coincided with the centenary celebration. At the same time, Thomas Paine was preparing his epic, The Rights of Man, which would turn much of the world on its proverbial ear with such truly revolutionary concepts as the fallacy of monarchy and the inherent rights of the common man [hence, the title, folks] that exist - written or unwritten - now and for all time.

Meanwhile, in France, we know that a whole lot of guillotine makers are about to get rich. Which is ironic, since it is the rich who will end up at the losing end of the guillotine over the next five years. Andress' description of Louis XVI - and Marie Antoinette - make the book worth reading in and of themselves. The duplicity of Louis - according to Andress - is what truly was his ruin in the end. His half-measures in dealing with the Estates General were simultaneous with his plans to crush the 'parlement'.

Andress' work is well-researched and a relatively easy-read. It gets a bit mundane in the inner-workings of each country's system of government - but such a background is necessary in order to make his larger point that the events in and around 1789 laid the foundation for the modern age.

In addition to revolutionary ideas [and, in the U.S. and France, revolutionary actions], all three powers shared another common bond: slavery. Andress goes into great detail about how slavery and slave trade came to be in each of the three nations, and what effects slavery had on the shaping of the revolutionary ideas that were taking shape in the world of 1789.

While not necessarily a work for those looking for a quick-read of light fare, Andress' 1789 is a good starting point for anyone seeking to get a primer on the age, with the idea of then delving deeper into any of the many issues he touches on in his work.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Supremely Offensive

Frederick Phillip Hammer [above, during his 1979 trial] is the serial killer the Pennsylvania Supreme Court let get away.

This is a story of how sometimes the American judicial system really, really, really blows. Back on the night of October 13, 1978, Frederick Phillip Hammer, 18, a worker at a Philadelphia construction site, hitchhiked along Delaware Avenue. He was picked up by Charles Uffelman, an off-duty Philadelphia police officer heading home after dinner and drinks at DiNardo's restaurant. The exact details of what happened next may never be known, but the gist of it is this: within minutes, Hammer fatally slammed Uffelman in the back of the head with a four-by-four, ripped his wallet from his pocket, and fled in the officer's silver Monte Carlo. About an hour later, Hammer, who lived at the time in Lancaster County, was stopped for speeding in Uffelman's car in Chester County by two state troopers.

Initially, Hammer denied involvement in the murder, but he began changing his story when he realized police had linked him to Uffelman's car. Hammer's mind was not only criminal, but also creative: first, he told officers this unbelievable tale: Uffelman became ill, stopped the car, and vomited at curbside. Hammer told the investigators that when he slapped Uffelman in the face to revive him, it caused Uffelman to punch him, prompting Hammer to grab a nearby board to defend himself. Hammer did admit to police that he stole about $200 from Uffelman.

After speaking with an attorney, however, Hammer changed his tune. Seven months later, during his lengthy trial, he admitted killing Uffelman but in doing so put Uffelman's family through even more heartache and torture. From the witness stand Hammer told the jury that the crime occurred after he rebuffed homosexual advances by the off-duty officer. The allegation outraged Uffelman's family and colleagues in the courtroom.

Throughout the trial, Common Pleas Court Judge Robert A. Latrone frequently expressed incredulity at Hammer's testimony and sharply questioned the defendant from the bench in a manner Hammer's lawyers thought was highly prejudicial. Now, at first blush, Latrone would appear to be a hero for doing so. That would be incorrect. What he was doing was actually setting the stage for Hammer to get out of jail.

Jurors deliberated for 30 hours and - in a burst of good taste - ultimately rejected Hammer's story, convicting him of third-degree murder. Yet that was clearly a compromise verdict: they acquitted Hammer of robbery, knowing that would most likely reduce his ultimate sentence. Latrone eventually imposed a sentence of 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison, less than the 10 to 20 years sought by the prosecution.

If that outrages you, hold on, because Hammer never served even the low end of that sentence. Hammer appealed, citing Latrone's conduct during the trial. The Pennsylvania State Supreme Court agreed that Latrone's actions had been prejudicial, and inexplicably overturned Hammer's conviction in June 1985. In their ruling, they sharply chastised Latrone for acting as an "advocate for the prosecution."

Again, we might think Latrone a hero for not letting Hammer make a sham out of his trial. Yet, he clearly went overboard. At one point during the trial, the judge responded with belligerence to an objection from the defense: "All right. You object. I overrule it. OK? I just overruled." When the trial was over, the State Supreme Court noted in its opinion, Latrone delayed filing an opinion on post-trial motions for three years and 10 months. "Such judicial lethargy must be strongly condemned," the Court said.

Latrone died in 1999. He didn't live to see what happened to Hammer. Or four others.

After the State Supreme Court's asinine action, a second jury further tortured Uffelman's family by acquitting Hammer entirely, on May 23, 1986. Bob Marano, the prosecutor, remembered Hammer as a "handsome young kid" who seemed to connect with a predominantly young female jury, as he had at his first trial. Marano also said he was handicapped by his inability to introduce evidence related to the robbery, which the first jury had taken off the table. The absence of the robbery charge prevented the jury from knowing Hammer's motive, leaving jurors susceptible to Hammer's outrageous claims about Uffelman's purported homosexual advances.

Hammer was released from prison 12 years earlier than if he had been given the full sentence prosecutors desired at his first trial. Following his release, Hammer relocated to the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where his stepfather owned property. He settled in Ashe County and worked long hours as a handyman. He also ran a firewood business out of the modest home in Crumpler that he shared with his third wife, Brenda Blevins Hammer.

Friends in North Carolina describe Hammer as a charming, smart workaholic who enjoys camping and horseback riding. They are now shocked that the man they knew could have committed such a violent crime. Imagine, then, how shocked they were when they learned he'd was still doing it.

Financial problems began plaguing Hammer and his wife in 2002, when they filed the first in a series of bankruptcies that revealed escalating debt. They listed their assets as $47,630 and liabilities as $177,436 in 2005. As a result, Hammer was convicted for writing bad checks in 2007. At that time, friends admit, cracks did appear in his normally jovial demeanor.

Shortly after the check-kiting conviction, Hammer went to the home of Jimmy Blevins, who worked for him and was his wife's nephew. The two drove off together. Blevins was never seen again.

Jimmy Blevin's disappearance led James Williams, the Ashe County sheriff, to question Hammer. Soon enough, he would not be the only law enforcement officer interested in the firewood dealer. Albeit too late for three more victims.

On January 24, 2008, Hammer stopped by the Hudler Carolina Tree Farm in Grayson County, Va., where he had spent many hours working for Ron Hudler. Hammer had gone there because he knew that Hudler kept large amounts of cash on the property.There, Hammer fatally shot Hudler, his son, Frederick, and John Miller, an employee. Hammer shot Frederick Hudler four times in the farm's driveway - in the nose, in the back of the head, and twice on the left side of the head. Miller, whose body was found in a garage, was shot twice in the back of the head.
When the elder Hudler came outside in his bedroom slippers to investigate the gunfire, Hammer forced him at gunpoint back inside his home to retrieve a safe. Hammer then shot him once in the back of the head at close range.

Hammer then fled with two metal gun cases, two briefcases containing documents, and a small black safe containing a TAG Heuer watch and $10,000 in cash. Within 12 hours, a calm and smooth Hammer was questioned and caught in lies about his whereabouts. Authorities began compiling evidence, which included surveillance videos and paint chips from Hammer's hand truck that matched paint left on Ron Hudler's safe. He was arrested in the slayings within days.

It took until May 2009, however, for investigators to find the stolen $10,000 and one of the weapons used in the crime, and that was only after Hammer had told another inmate where it was hidden. The inmate then informed authorities in return for a better facilities.

With the evidence, on May 22, 2009, to avoid risking the death penalty, Hammer pleaded guilty to the triple slaying. He was immediately sentenced to multiple life terms with no possibility of parole.

There was still one more Hammer victim unaccounted for: Jimmy Blevins. Hammer agreed in a letter in June to a jailhouse interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer at the Powhatan correctional center southwest of Richmond. After he was put in solitary confinement, however, Hammer instead began sending follow-up letters to the newspaper.

In these letters, Hammer intimated that he had killed Jimmy Blevins - although not why he had killed him - and knew the whereabouts of Blevins' body. In a June 29, 2009 letter to the Inquirer, referring to the Ashe County Sheriff's Department, he said he held "the only key to their problems." About a month later - tipped off by the Inquirer about the contents of the letter - Williams - the county sheriff - agreed to meet with Hammer. The killer agreed to reveal the location of Blevins' body if certain conditions were met. They included moving him to a prison closer to his home.

And so it was that, in a debris-strewn pit in rural Ashe County, N.C., authorities last week unearthed the decaying corpse of Jimmy Blevins, missing and presumed dead for more than two years.

Frederick Phillip Hammer, then, is a serial murderer now serving multiple life terms for three execution-style killings at a tree farm in Grayson County, Va. He took the lives of Uffelman in 1978, Blevins in 2007. And there may be others.

Do you think the Pennsylvania Supreme Court - who freed Hammer to kill at least four more times - gives a rusty fuck?

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Mrs. Thomas' Long Week

Elvis Aaron Presley - January 8, 1935-August 16, 1977

Beginning 32 years ago today - early in the evening - Mrs. Thomas took to her room after crying out, quickly calling her mother and telling her to, "get the hell over here" and plopping her 8-year old son in front of the television to await his grandmother's arrival. Mrs. Thomas didn't come out of her room the rest of the night. Nor did she come out the next day. Nor the following day, either. It was only on the fourth day after the sudden death of her beloved Elvis that she emerged finally emerged. Her hair was a tangled mess. Her eyes were red with traces of days-old mascara running up and down her cheeks. She showered, got something to eat, and returned to her room for two more days before emerging.

I know this because I was an 8-year old witness to much of it. On the evening of August 16, 1977, I was watching television when CBS News ran one of their 30-second national news briefs. A photo of Elvis Presley was in the upper right corner of the screen as the anchor - probably Roger Mudd or maybe Morton Dean - said something to the effect of, "Reaction continues to roll in from around the globe as news of the death of Elvis Presley today at the age of 42 has brought a throng of thousands of grieving fans to his home in Memphis..." I remember turning to my mother and saying, "Mrs. Thomas is going to be in trouble."

I was friends with Mrs. Thomas' son, who lived across the street from our first floor duplex apartment. It was from my friend and his mother that I first learned about Matchbox cars, NASCAR racing and Elvis Presley. Shortly after the Thomas' moved in I was invited over to play. In a tour of the apartment - which took about 7 seconds, although at the time I was too young to know that we were just barely making enough income so that we were always just a little bit behind - I saw an enormous portrait hanging over Mrs. Thomas' bed. "Who is that?!?" I said to my friend. I heard a gasp from behind me, where Mrs. Thomas must've have overheard me. If I'd have said the same thing about the enormous portrait handing across from Mrs. Thomas' bed - that of Jesus Christ - she would not have been as upset with me. "Who is that Evil?!?! That is Elvis Presley! How have you gotten this old [seven, at the time] not knowing Elvis?!?!" Ok, so she didn't call me 'Evil' - although no doubt she called me worse over the years. Other than that, though, that's pretty much what she said.

I'd put that about mid-1976. Over the next year or so, then, it was rare for me to be over the Thomas' apartment and not hear Elvis on the stereo, or see Elvis on the TV - as the Thomas' were the first people I ever knew with a VCR. Which is funny because they had no more of a pot to piss in than we did, yet there was this incredibly expensive primitive video player. Might not have been called a VCR, as I don't remember any tapes. Anyway, Mrs. Thomas had every single one of Elvis' movies - whatever format it was in - and they were always on.

I remember not liking the movies terribly much - even at that age I realized it was essentially Elvis Presley playing himself in some unrealistic setting like Hawaii or a 19th century western town. The music, though. Well, the music was incredible. I can't tell you the first song I heard, but the one that I remembered liking immediately was "Wear My Ring Around Your Neck". Just a great tune, with every element of Presley's talents all over it. Never liked 'Heartbreak Hotel' [still don't]. But all of the others I soon knew pretty well. It became 'normal' to see the large bust of Elvis that rested on Mrs. Thomas' bureau, not to mention that painting, and just accept the fact that Elvis was that important that of course you'd have a bust and portrait of him in your house, you idiot. It was vintage 1970s, in retrospect: I swear that damned painting was on a velour canvas. I just remember it was fuzzy to the touch [although we never let Mrs. Thomas know we touched the damned thing, believe you me].

So it was on that mid-August night 32 years ago that I saw what was going on there on the TV and told my mother that Mrs. Thomas was going to be in trouble. What I meant, of course, was that she was going to be a holy emotional fucking wreck. I just didn't know some of those words at the time, so 'in trouble' was my way of saying, 'she's going to be majorly fucked up by this news, mother.'

And, indeed, she was. It was too late to walk across the street to check on my friend and Mrs. Thomas - at least that's what I remember my mother telling me. I remember looking at the window across the street at the Thomas' second-floor apartment front window. The room was black but I could see the neon-like images of what was the television screen in the living room. By that time, I figured out later, Mrs. Thomas had plopped my friend in front of the TV and retired to her room. The next day, early, I walked over and sure enough there was my friend and his none-too-happy grandmother. She, no doubt, figured her days of raising an 8-year old had long passed.

I asked my friend's grandmother how Mrs. Thomas was doing. "Not good," said his grandmother. "She's crazy. She wasn't this upset when her father died." Just then, I vaguely remembered one time when I overheard Mrs. Thomas calling her father something along the lines of a 'lazy, no-good boozing prick'. I chose not to share that with my friend's grandmother that morning. At first, I was scared for my friend. I could hear Mrs. Thomas crying in her room over the sounds of Elvis' music. My friend and I went out to play [back in those days, 'what are your kids doing this summer?' meant that moms across the country simply opened their front doors, turned to their off-spring and lovingly said, 'Get out!']. We came back for lunch and the soundtrack - Mrs. Thomas' shrieking with Elvis providing back-up - were still going strong. Same thing at dinner. By this point, my friend's grandmother looked like she wanted to strangle her daughter but was afraid to open the door to her room to begin doing so.

The next day, when it continued, I remember asking my friend what he thought of all of this. How did he feel about Elvis' death? "He's Elvis, man," my friend said. "He's Elvis and he's dead. It's too weird." That was about as introspective as we two 8-year olds got that summer. When, about a week later, Mrs. Thomas was well enough to go back to work and slowly resume what now seems, in retrospect, to have been a very sad and mundane life raising a son as a single parent, I noticed that more Elvis memorabilia had somehow been acquired. Maybe it'd always been there and I'd never noticed it. More likely, Mrs. Thomas had instructed her mother to bring the stuff with her, as her mother still lived in the house where Mrs. Thomas grew up a young girl in love with the 1950s Elvis.

Over the years, I've encountered others who had a similar Elvis-worship. While I thought the Elvis portrait Mrs. Thomas possessed had to be a one-of-a-kind, amazingly a few years later I saw the same damned thing over another friend's mother's bed - no lie. I guess that was the painting you put over your bed. While I encountered other Elvis-worshippers, Mrs. Thomas is the one I recall most vividly simply because she was the only one I witnessed suffering in the aftermath of Elvis' actual death.

As I say, the music was something I dug right away, and always have. Throughout my life, I've maintained that if you don't like Elvis, and you are American, then there is something very, very wrong with you. In your soul, I mean. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it's my blog. Elvis is so quintessentially American, that to not like the music [hey, I agree: the movies suck], the persona, Graceland, etc, meant that somehow you'd missed the whole point of America. At least as it existed in the second half of the 20th century. I can't quite explain why - in words - that I feel that way. It just is.

So, today, on the 32nd anniversary of The King's death, I think of him and his music. I think of Mrs. Thomas, too. All of these years later - assuming she's still alive - I wonder if this day still fills her with the kind of grief it did back then - the shock of it aside, of course. Now that I'm just two years younger than Elvis was when his head hit that porcelain toilet as his heart finally gave out, I still love the music, and the persona [the movies still suck, though]. I also still think that Elvis is as quintessentially American as any other icon of the 20th century. That he'd only be 74 years old also reminds me just how young he was when he died.

And, just how young I was, too.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

How Bill's Excellent Adventure Was Funded

While used to dealing with fallout from some of the folks in her husband's little black book, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton [above] might have underestimated the importance of Bill Clinton's non-dating contacts.

Not to pour cold water on Bill Clinton - although, God knows, if ever there was someone who needed a cold shower it is our 42nd President - but as details come out about his 'rescue' of two journalists from the hell that is North Korea, shades of arguments made against confirming Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State are coming to life. President Clinton's central role in the return of the two journalists has once again cast a spotlight on his vast web of financial and political contacts, a network that troubled senators who weighed whether to confirm his wife as Secretary of State.

In the case of the detainees, Clinton tapped wealthy business people to execute a mission that, without a special federal waiver for the aircraft to travel to North Korea, would have been illegal. This after an incident, a few weeks ago, in which one of his business contacts very publicly had the ear of Hillary Rodham Clinton in her role as secretary of state during a visit to India, an uncomfortable reminder of the former president's far-flung interests and associates.

The intersection of power and connections blurred the exact nature of Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea. He agreed to meet with leader Kim Jong-Il two days after North Korea called his wife a "primary schoolgirl" because she had likened the country to an unruly child. The Obama Administration took pains to distance itself from the mission, though officials conceded they had repeated contact with North Korean officials in the days leading up to the trip to confirm the journalists would be released if the former President traveled to Pyongyang.

For her part, with a lifetime's experience of being upstaged by Bill, Hillary Clinton is used to this. While touring Africa while images of her husband meeting with Kim flashed on television sets around the world, Hillary Clinton felt compelled to address the conflicting images when she spoke from Nairobi. "I want to be sure people don't confuse what Bill did, which was a private humanitarian mission to bring these young women home, with our policy, which continues to be one that gives choices to North Korea," she said. "Our policy remains the same."

Of course, that's not what people were upset about: we know there's only one President and no one 'misread' Bill Clinton's journey as being a departure from the Obama Administration's foreign policy. What did upset people, though, was the appearance that diplomatic benefits are flowing from her husband's missions to his clients thanks to his wife's role as Secretary of State.

It is true that no taxpayer money was used to fund the North Korean trip, with the exception of the salaries of the Secret Service agents traveling with President Clinton. Since these salaries would have been paid if he'd been banging a secretary in Peoria or ogling a waitress in the restroom of a Denny's in Topeka, we won't count that as taxpayer money for the trip. Still, the former president procured aircraft and crews by tapping companies and contacts that have previously underwritten his endeavors.

Dow Chemical, which has contributed as much as $50,000 to the William J. Clinton Foundation - granted, a mere pittance by Clinton standards - provided the plane that ferried the former President from his home in Westchester County, N.Y., to Burbank, Calif. There, he boarded an all-business-class Boeing 737 jet provided by wealthy Hollywood producer Steve Bing. Clinton was accompanied by a team that included John D. Podesta, who was his White House chief of staff, and a former State Department expert on North Korea.

Now, Bing is a heavy-hitter in Clinton fundraising. He is one of the biggest donors to the Clinton Foundation, with gifts totaling $10 million to $25 million. Bing will foot an estimated $200,000 bill for the fuel, the crew and other incidental expenses for the trip. The trip was especially difficult to arrange because Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] regulations prohibit U.S.-registered aircraft from landing in North Korea. The company that owns the plane received a call from Bing about the flight, and it took an unprecedented level of cooperation from the FAA and the State Department to secure the necessary legal and diplomatic approvals in time for Clinton's departure to Pyongyang.

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Administration had wanted to send former Vice President Al Gore to North Korea instead of Clinton; Gore is a co-founder of Current TV, which employs the journalists who were detained. More importantly, he's not nearly the pain in the ass that bill Clinton is. Alas, North Korean officials made it clear that they wanted Bill Clinton and no one else.

The breakthrough in the standoff over the journalists -- who were sentenced in June to 12 years of hard labor after being seized near the Chinese border in March -- came on July 18, when the women told their families in a phone call that North Korean officials had clearly stated that they would be released if Clinton came to Pyongyang.

U.S. officials immediately began to verify that statement with North Korean counterparts, and on July 24 National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones asked Clinton to consider making the trip. Full assurances from Pyongyang were not secured until the day the former President left Burbank on Bing's jet. At the time of departure, U.S. officials knew that Clinton was scheduled to have a rare meeting with Kim.

Gore praised Bing at a news conference after the plane landed. "To Steve Bing and all the folks who have made the flight possible, we say a word of thanks, deep thanks, as well," he said. The journalists thanked Bing and also Dow and Andrew Liveris, the company's chief executive -- who also is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, another one of the former President's interminable projects.

This is not the first time since her confirmation that Hillary has run into flak over her husband's [non-dating] Rolodex. On her trip to India last month, Hillary Clinton sat next to another one of her husband's donors, Mukesh Ambani, during a meeting in Mumbai with a group of Indian business tycoons. The European subsidiary of Ambani's Reliance Holdings contributed as much as $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation. During the meeting, Ambani called for the establishment of joint institutions between the United States and India to develop "clean technology." As it happens, the Clinton Foundation is in talks in India with the provincial government of Gujarat to create the world's largest single solar-power project -- and Reliance is also lining up solar projects in the state. Complicating matters further, Reliance is one of the biggest suppliers of refined gasoline to Iran and could be targeted under congressional efforts to cut off Iran's supply of gasoline.

It will be interesting to see if Secretary Clinton lets that happen to one of President Clinton's clients.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Bill and Kim's Excellent Adventure

Bill Clinton, Kim Jung-Il and the rest of the cast of the new CBS prime-time drama Pyongyang [based loosely on Dallas, with Kim earning uproarious reviews as the "Korean Miss Ellie"] pose for a publicity photo on Tuesday.

Well, no one can accuse former President Bill Clinton of lacking in drama. The former Chief Executive left North Korea on Wednesday morning after a surreal 20-hour odyssey, in which he won the freedom of two American journalists, seemingly opened a diplomatic channel to North Korea’s reclusive government and dined with the North’s ailing leader, Kim Jong-Il. No doubt, they traded stories about dating in your sixties.

Clinton managed to extricate journalists, Laura Ling and Euna Lee. Although both match Clinton's dating age criteria [both are in their 30s], this is one time when the former President was jetting around with two women and not having sex. Between that and the sight of Kim in the flesh, I'm thinking the former is more noteworthy than the latter, but that's just me.

In June, the North Korean government had sentenced the women to 12 years of hard labor [as if being stuck in North Korea for a dozen years weren't punishment enough] for "illegally" entering North Korean territory. Pyongyang made it very clear that Kim had pardoned the women only after Clinton "apologized" to Kim for their actions. And, if there's one thing Bill Clinton is well-versed at, it's apologizing. For what it's worth National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones adamantly refuted Pyongyang's claim regarding Clinton's apology.

Clinton’s mission to Pyongyang was the most visible by an American in nearly a decade. It came at a time when the United States’ relationship with North Korea had reached near-code blue status, after North Korea’s test of its second nuclear device in May and a series of missile launchings.

On a personal level, Clinton's actions ended a harrowing ordeal for the two women, who were stopped on March 17 by soldiers near North Korea’s border with China while researching a report about women and human trafficking. They faced years of imprisonment in the gulag-like confines of a North Korean prison camp. Although, exactly how you can tell a North Korean prison camp from a North Korean summer camp is still unclear.

More importantly for bloggers like me, however, Clinton's actions catapulted Bubba back onto the global stage. The irony, of course, is he did so on behalf of a president who defeated his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a bitter primary campaign last year, only to choose her to be his secretary of state six months later.

Hillary Clinton was deeply involved in the case, too. She originally proposed sending various people - including former Vice President Al Gore [who co-founded Current TV, the San Francisco-based media company that employees Ling and Lee] - to Pyongyang to lobby for the release of the women. It was then, however, that the North Koreans made their own preference clear. In conversations they had with Ling and Lee, North Korea signaled its desire to have Bill Clinton act as a special envoy. Ling and Lee then relayed that message to their families in the middle of July. That message, in turn, was passed to Gore 10 days ago. Gore then contacted the White House, which then explored whether such a mission would be successful. They asked Gore to ask President Clinton if he would be willing to undertake the trip. Bill Clinton agreed.

The riveting drama of a former president, jetting into a diplomatic crisis while his wife was embarking on a tour of Africa in her role as the nation’s chief diplomat, underscored the unique and enduring role of the Clintons, even in the Obama era. The trip came just two weeks after North Korea issued a harsh personal attack on Hillary Clinton, in response to comments she made comparing its nuclear test and missile launchings to the behavior of an attention-seeking teenager. The North Korean Foreign Ministry objected to her “vulgar remarks” and called her “a funny lady” who was neither intelligent nor diplomatic. “Sometimes she looks like a primary-school girl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping,” a spokesman said at the time. Apparently, a pensioner going shopping is the North Korean equivalent of the English word 'bitch'.

Despite Pyongyang's harsh rhetoric toward the Secretary of State, the episode did not stop consideration of sending her husband as an envoy. In a town that keeps a secret about as well as Lindsay Lohan keeps a boyfriend, the initiative was cloaked in secrecy and came after weeks of back-channel talks between the United States and North Korea through its United Nations mission - all without any leaks. In addition to Gore, the White House’s list of potential candidates included Gov. Bill Richardson [D, New Mexico]. Needless to say we're all thanking God that didn't happen. If it had, Ling and Lee might have been sentenced to an additional 12 years if Kim had been forced to dine with the gluttonous Richardson.

President Obama did not speak directly with President Clinton before the mission. But his national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, contacted the former president to brief him what - and what not - to say. The Obama Administration also did what it called “due diligence” with the North Koreans to ensure that - if Bill Clinton went - he would return with the journalists.

So, why did Kim choose Bubba? It really is an amazing story in its simplicity, and it speaks to the universal humanity that even a lunatic like Kim has [somewhere] within him. It turns out that, as president, Clinton had sent Kim a letter of condolence on the death of his father, Kim Il-Sung. Kim apparently was deeply touched when he received the letter. For Kim, it turns out, freeing the women was a “reciprocal humanitarian gesture.”

The families of the American journalists issued a statement saying they were “overjoyed” by news of the pardon and thanked Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. “We especially want to thank President Bill Clinton for taking on such an arduous mission and Vice President Al Gore for his tireless efforts to bring Laura and Euna home,” the statement said.

Administration officials were clear in making the point that President Clinton went to North Korea as a private citizen, and did not carry a message from Obama for Kim and had the authority to negotiate only for the women’s release. Considering Clinton's ability to interpret "authority", you can bet Obama Administration officials made Clinton repeat his instructions back to them just so that they could be sure he understood it. Otherwise, who knows what Clinton might agree to? “This was 100 percent about the journalists,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be named while essentially calling Clinton an unpredictable prick. "We knew Kim Jong-Il would probably seek a meeting with Clinton. But that’s not what this visit was about.”

Still, North Korea, clearly seeing a propaganda opportunity at home and a rare chance for a measure of favorable publicity abroad, welcomed Clinton with the fanfare of a state visit. It broadcast a group portrait that looked not unlike the 1978 publicity photo taken by the cast of Dallas. The event was also portrayed through photos of Kim gesturing and talking to Clinton; of the former president accepting flowers from a North Korean girl; and of Clinton, seated across a negotiating table from Kim, each flanked by their aides.

Among those greeting Clinton at the airport was Kim Kye-Gwan, North Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator. Among those accompanying Clinton was David Straub, a former director of the Korea desk at the State Department, who had held talks with the North Koreans through what is known as the “New York connection” - the U.N. Clinton was joined by John Podesta, an informal adviser to the Obama administration who served as Clinton’s chief of staff in the final years of his presidency, when the former president yearned to travel to North Korea to clinch a deal that would have curbed its nuclear program.

That visit never happened — partly because the White House concluded that a deal was not assured — and President George W. Bush put the kibosh on direct talks with North Korea, setting the stage for eight years of largely fruitless efforts to stop the North’s nuclear ambitions.

Given Clinton’s stature and his long interest in the North Korean nuclear issue, and his inability to follow instructions, you can bet that his discussions in North Korea ranged well beyond obtaining the release of Ling and Lee.

The visit also was another reminder of the awkward dance Bill Clinton and President Obama have been engaged in. The last time the two spoke was in March, when Obama invited Clinton to a ceremony in Washington for signing legislation expanding the AmeriCorps program created by President Clinton. In interviews last spring, Clinton said that he would be happy to do anything Obama asked him to do, but that “I try to stay out of their way.”

Ironically, Bill Clinton’s mission may be less of an issue for Obama than for his Secretary of State. The same day he landed in North Korea, Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Kenya, kicking off an 11-day journey through Africa — a visit now largely eclipsed by her husband’s travels.

Not the first - nor, I'm sure, the last - time Bill's upstaged Hillary. At least this time there was no intern involved.

copyright 2009 by EBBP Redux. If you are reading this on a blog or website other than EBBP Redux or via a feedreader, this content has been stolen and used without permission.