JUNE 2017

JUNE  2017
J.P. Morgan as a young man in his own words - "The Public Be Damned."

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Friday, August 15, 2008

IS IT COLD IN HERE?

I don’t believe most Americans have ever heard of Igor Gouzenko, but he actually had more to do with the collapse of the Soviet Empire than Ronald Reagan. Igor was one of those little nobodies whose lives defy the “Great Man” theory of history. Simply because Igor and his wife did what came naturally, the best laid evil plans of Joseph Stalin eventually collapsed. Igor had worked for the Soviet Embassy in the Canadian capital since June of 1943, where he was a lowly “code clerk”, responsible for translating messages to and from Moscow for his boss, “spymaster” Colonel Nicolai Zabotin. Zabotin was aware of how much he depended on the talents of Igor, which is why Zabotin obtained permission for Igor’s pregnant wife to join him in Ottawa in October of 1943. It was a not a boon the Stalinist security structure usually granted. Families at home, under the thumb of the security police, then the NKGB, made effective hostages in case any agents contemplated making a dash for freedom. And Zabotin had even granted his favorite code clerk an apartment at 511 Somerset Street in Ottowa. And it was there, in June of 1944, that the loving couple welcomed the bouncing baby boy who was to cause such difficulties for the evil empire.In September of 1944 the NKGB ordered the happy couple and their 3 month old son to return home to Soviet Russia, and Igor knew that if he did return, at the very least his wife and son would never be allowed to come back to Canada with him. He appealed to Colonel Zabotin, who got him a year’s extension. But as that extension ran out Igor decided to run out, too; during August of 1945 Igor began to stuff top secret cables and documents into his brief case and sneak them home. On September 5th 1945, just days after Japan formally surrendered, he walked out of the embassy for the last time.Unsure of just what to do next Igor asked his next door neighbor for advice. The neighbor, who was a Canadian Royal Air Force officer, suggested that Igor should talk to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But the RCMP had no idea what to do with their pathetic Russian defector. True, he had plenty of documents which indicated some sort of Soviet spy ring operating in Canada and the U.S., but at the time the Russians were Canadian allies. The RCMP wasn’t even sure they should even be looking at this stuff. They told Igor and his family they should come back tomorrow.That night, while Igor and his family huddled, terrified, in the dark, on the floor of their apartment, there was an ominous pounding on their front door. The next day the RCMP asked some questions, and wrote down the answers, but then sent them home again. That night their RCAF neighbor allowed the exhausted couple and their infant to sleep in his apartment. They heard more pounding on their door across the hall. It seemed likely that Colonel Zabotin had finally noticed the 109 documents that were missing from Igor’s desk. After another fruitless visit to the bewildered RCMP, Igor spent the day walking about the Canadian capital trying to find someone in some government agency who was interested in a desperate young man who had the code names and covers of an entire Soviet spy ring in their midst. He even applied for Canadian citizenship. Nobody was interested in his story. In desperation that evening he walked into the newsroom of the Ottawa Journal and blurted out to the night editor, “Its war. It’s Russia.” The editor suggested he go to the Department of Justice. They were closed.The calm of the next night was shattered when four burly men burst into Igor’s apartment and ransacked the place. Fortunately Igor and his little family were again sleeping on their neighbor’s furniture. But this time the neighbor called the police. The four men were detained long enough for all to be identified as employees of the Soviet embassy. But while the police officers looked the other way, the Russians escaped. The following day the embassy protested the brief detention of their staffers, and demanded the immediate return of the “criminal” Igor Gouzenko. And the Canadians darn near turned him over.Instead, at last, a member of Canadian intelligence, acting on his own imitative, granted Igor, his wife and child political asylum. They were spirited away to a farmhouse near the WWII training base of “Camp X”, outside of Whitby, Ontario. Meanwhile Colonel Zabotin was arrested and shipped back to Moscow, where he served four years in a labor camp for allowing his trusted employee t0 escape.But at last somebody was listening to Igor’s story about the level of Soviet spying on their wartime allies. Still the Canadians sought confirmation from British intelligence forces, MI6. The Brits quickly dispatched two agents from their section 9, Kim Philby and Roger Hollis, to interrogate and pass judgment on Igor as a defector. What these two men, both latter confirmed to have been Soviet moles within British intelligence, would have suggested be done with Igor, we may never know because just a few days after they arrived to question Igor, English scientist Alan Nunn May confessed to passing information to the Soviets, and shortly thereafter a Soviet code book was captured in Norway, which opened a number of secret Soviet transmissions to American, British and Canadian investigators, and confirmed every nightmare Igor had been telling the Canadians.And that is how the cold war started.
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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

TORN FROM A FRAME

I have been in love with Isabel Steward Gardner for more than forty years. And she’s been dead for almost 70 years. Isabel was the daughter of wealth, who, as was the practice in the Gilded Age, married into even more wealth. She lived in a Back Bay mansion at 152 Beacon Street. And in the tiny fenced front yard, common to most Back Bay mansions, there grew a single tree, in which, legend has it, Isabel used to perch on summer afternoons to unexpectedly greet her startled visitors. Of course she was also quoted as saying, “Why spoil a thing with the truth.”
After her son died of pneumonia at the age of two, in March of 1865, Isabel’s husband, Jack, began to take the broken hearted Isabel on European trips, where Isabel courted the likes of artists such as John Singer Sargent and James Whistler, and writers such as Henry James. Isabel loved to collect art, and to attend boxing matches and Harvard football games. She bet the ponies at Suffolk Downs and advised her fellow blue bloods, “Win as though you were used to it, and lose as if you like it.” And she once scandalized proper Boston society at a Philharmonic Concert by wearing a formal evening gown adorned with a headband that read “Oh, You Red Sox!”After her husband Jack died in 1898 Isabel built herself a Venetian Mansion in the reclaimed marshlands which would shortly give Fenway Park its name. Isabel called her new mansion “Fenway Court”, and it held her personal art collection. And it was there she died of a stroke, in 1924. Isabel left all her fortune to the ASPCA and endowed her home as the “Isabel Stewart Gardner Museum”. And that was why I as so personally offended by the St. Patrick’s Day robbery of the Gardner in 1990. What was stolen was not just art. It had all been the personal property of Isabel. It had all meant something special to very special woman. How dare those thugs steal from a great lady like her!They still don’t know who did it. But the money is on the same North End gangs that a generation earlier had robbed the Brinks Armored Car Company. But whereas the Brink’s Job of January 1950 had been the work of mooks who were all caught, the Gardner heist remains a complete and total mystery. No one has been even tried to claim the $5 million reward. The statute of limitations on the theft has run out and no one has felt the need to unburden themselves of guilt or hot paintings. And the only rumor that ever even hinted at the possible return of the 13 stolen masterpieces was probably just a confidence scam.The best guess is the thieves tried it twice. On the second attempt, they succeeded. Shortly after one AM on Monday, March 19, 1990 two mustached “police officers” talked their way into the closed museum and swiftly handcuffed the two inexperienced guards, and then stashed them safely in the museum’s basement. Motion detectors followed the thieves for the next 81 minutes as they separated and each smashed, cut and shattered a dozen paintings from their frames; $400 million dollars worth of Rembrandts, five Degas, a Vermeer and a Manet: and one gold eagle from atop a Napoleonic banner. Then, after removing the video tapes from the VCRs at the security desk, the thieves made two separate trips out to their red hatch back parked in the side street around the corner from the museum, and before 3AM, they and the paintings disappeared forever.The real cops weren’t called until 8:15 AM the next morning. By that time it was likely the paintings were already on their way out of the country. The only description of the thieves that was broadcast was pathetic; one of the men was described as resembling Colonel Klink, from “Hogan’s Heroes”. There were no finger prints left behind, no articles of clothing, and no whispers were ever heard in art or criminal circles. No leads were received until four years later when a letter offered to return the paintings in exchange for $2.6 million. But after a first hint, that letter led nowhere. Again, in 1997, a reporter for the Boston Herald was led blindfolded to a hidden location and shown what he was told were the stolen Rembrandt’s, and even provided with paint chips as proof. But upon further examination the chips could not have been from the painting they were claimed to be from, and the whole thing was eventually written off as an attempt to finagle the freedom of Myles Connor, an art thief already under arrest.
It has been almost twenty years since the dozen paintings were stolen, and increasingly it appears they will never be restored. The lack of any information on the paintings’ whereabouts, or even rumors as to their location would seem to hint that the thieves are not now or perhaps were never in a position where they could blackmail whoever paid them to steal the paintings. There is, of course, no honor amongst theives. So perhaps the theives are dead. And with the passage of time, it becomes clear that whoever masterminded the theft is now, also dead, and their heirs may have decided to destroy the evidence of their family shame. But the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum still keeps the empty frames on the wall, to document the stolen masterpieces which have still not been returned. In a way it is much as Isabel must preserved that torn place in her heart where her little son had once resided.But what a great broad she was.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

PROPERTY ROOM

I want to work for the Houston Police Department, and not just because they are offering $12,000 for new hires (with 5 years previous experience), but primarily because these guys seem to treat their property room with all the attention to detail of a fat guy attending a salad shooter product demonstration clinic at a donut shop. Specifically the HOPD claims to have misplaced $50,000 in property seized in 2005 from the Adult Video Megaplex-xxx : items with names like “The Emperor” and the “Cyber Wabbit”. Now, honestly, how do you misplace an $89.99 “Cyber Wabbit”?Lost items from property rooms are certainly not unheard of. The Washington, D.C. cops admitted in May that over the last two years they have “lost” from their property rooms $16,453 in cash, seven revolvers, one shotgun, one derringer, one BB gun, and assorted amounts of cocaine, methamphetamines and marijuana. And I’m sure we would all rather the police misplaced a dozen “Cyber Wabbits” instead of even one shotgun. And, on the same day as the disappearance of the confiscated items in Houston, the cops in Buffalo Grove, Illinois reported their $150 pair of “beer goggles”, presumably having been bought with funds from the Department of Homeland Security, had gone missing. And we certainly don’t want any police department playing fast and loose with federal funds meant to defend us from another attack by beer addled terrorists. Still, HPD’s inability to locate even a single one of the 564 sex toys seized, locked up and signed into their legal possession just three years ago, is a little disturbing, and raises all sorts of unpleasant questions about the personal integrity of Houston’s finest and their understanding of the words “chain of evidence”.Houston P.D.’s awareness of problems in their property room dates back to August 2004 when it was revealed in a random audit that out of the 18,000 weapons in storage 21, including pistols, a shotgun and an assault rifle, were missing. That may not seem like bad odds, 21 out of 18,000, all things considered, except that at least two of those missing pistols have reappeared, back out on the street. HPD has been forced to admit that, in the words of one fired employee, “Security was terrible”. A CSI technician admitted to having smuggled 57 pounds of cocaine out of the lab. A temporary employee was allowed to continue working unsupervised in the property room while awaiting sentencing on drug charges. But in May, while heralding the start of construction on a $13 million new “property building”, the chief of police dared to proclaim that the problems if missing evidence and property seized was behind the HPD. And now $50,000 in sex toys are missing. Either HPD’s batteries are running low or something else is going on here.The cops raided the “Adult Video Megaplex-xxx, conveniently located on Interstate 45 on June 9, 2005. The store was described in a review as “…a cornucopia of porn – a “pornucopia” if you will…along with a nice little selection of toys…” The HPD not only seized $50,000 worth of those toys, but also arrested the store clerk, and charged him with promoting the use of sex toys. If convicted Jose Escalante faced a year in prison and a $4,000 fine. But a jury found Jose not guilty. And that left the cops holding all those “multi-speed wabbits” with the “…new High Powered motor…(and) equipped with twisting metal beads”.And even though no one else affiliated with the store was charged with any crime, the Travis County D.A. refused to authorize the release of the $50,000 in merchandise held in the known porous confines of the Houston P.D. property room until, in March of this year, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit finally held that in line with previous U.S. Supreme Court Cases, a “…business can assert the rights of their customers…” and that “…restricting the ability to purchase an item is tantamount to restricting that item’s use…(and infringes upon) not simply the right to engage in the sexual act itself, but (also)…the right to be free from governmental intrusion regarding “the most private human contact, sexual behavior”…Whatever one might think or believe about the use of these devices, government interference with their personal and private use violates the Constitution.” That sounds pretty definitive to me.In May the attorney for Megaplex-xxx wrote to the HPD and asked when and where his clients could pick up their property. At first he says he was told, “…no problem, you can send somebody by to pick them up, and then we get another call and it’s “Whoops, we don’t have them.” A police spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle, “There does need to be a court order authorizing the destruction of any property.” But the Chronicle could find no such court order. And yet the HPD insists they now longer have the items. So I am left to wonder, whatever happened to Mr. Wabbit?I hope the Houston cops have not turned their property room into their own personal grab bag for door prizes and joke anniversary and wedding gifts. But even more I hope that some born again in the prosecutor’s office or within the HPD itself, did not decide that it was better the taxpayers of Houston believed the cops were so religious they were willing to become liars, rather than for the public to believe the Houston cops were unable to resist the temptation of stealing a battery operated dildo. For either the Houston cops are too incompetent to run their own property room, which I don’t believe for a second, or somebody there is making up the law as they go along. The idea is, of course, that we are all suppose to have faith in the cops, no matter what church or mosque we attend. And if you are a Christian and have no problem with the police enforcing moral edicts from the Bible, I suggest you imagine the cops acting on instructions from the Koran. If you are Muslim or Jewish you already understand how fragile it feels living under the forbearance of somebody else’s religious doctrine.

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