THURSDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2001 19:30
Seven-thirty in the evening isn’t a really good time to start a meeting. Nonetheless, there we were, once again crammed into the kitchen of the Nation County Jail. The attendees of this second meeting of the day were considerably more upscale than the first. There were people representing the FBI, DOJ, CDC, FDA, DEA, ATF, OSHA, and the NSA. Iowa had sent command level people from the DCI and DNE, as well as the EMD. I felt like I was watching CNN.
It all hardly seemed real, the unreality enhanced by the faint strains of Christmas music coming from the adjacent dispatch center.
FBI was represented not only by George Pollard, but also by our old acquaintance Special Agent in Charge Volont. We’d had some, well, difficult times with him in the past, but nothing horrible. Volont was a good agent, just a bit Bureau-centric, as they say. This time, he seemed genuinely happy to see us. With him were two others: Special Agent Gwen Thurgood, a counterterrorism specialist, and one super special sort named Special Agent Milton Hawse. Hawse was younger than Volont, but obviously someone of great importance in the Bureau. All the other federal employees deferred to him. It wasn’t a respect sort of thing, so much as just really lots of rank. Well, that’s the way it looked to me.
The Department of Justice had sent a deputy U.S. attorney from Cedar Rapids, named Harriet Glee. She’d been working out of the Cedar Rapids office long enough to be known to most of us as “Dirty Harriet.” It was a compliment, and a heartfelt one at that. She was hell on wheels, and one of the best prosecutors in the business.
The Centers for Disease Control had sent a team of three; the Food and Drug Administration, one.
The Drug Enforcement Agency had hustled two of our old friends up from Cedar Rapids, one of whom was Katie Martinez. I was particularly glad to see Katie, as she had worked both L.A. and San Diego for DEA, and we were going to be in dire need of a Spanish-speaker we could trust absolutely.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had also sent somebody I knew and respected, Agent Brian Chase. I didn’t know the two Occupational Safety and Health Administration people, but they both looked pretty intense. I like to see that in somebody who’s been sent to help on a case.
The National Security Agency was just so far from my experience, I wasn’t even really sure what they did. They’d sent two people, though, both of whom were about as un-spy-looking as anybody I’d ever seen. All the feds treated them with great deference, though. Unlike the FBI’s Hawse, these two were treated that way from pure respect. One of the NSA men was introduced to me as Edward Peasley, an expert in biological warfare. Cool. The other was Herb, no last name, who simply said he did “some code work.”
Present from Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation was Hester’s boss’s boss, Special Agent Barney England. Iowa’s Division of Narcotics Enforcement had sent Bob Dahl, who’d worked closely with us when one of his fellow agents had been killed on a dope stakeout back in 1996. Sitting next to him was a guy from Iowa’s Emergency Management Division. He was going to be a critical player, as all requests and demands for emergency management were going to have to go through him. I thought that, with the rather bizarre health hazard that was being revealed, he was going to be one busy man.
Present from Nation County was County Attorney Carson Hilgenberg, along with Deputy Mike Connors and Dispatcher Sally Wells. Sally was key, as most of the communications were going to have to be coordinated by her.
I tried to count heads, and got at least twenty-one people in a room that should have held ten. With only sixteen chairs, including the ones from Dispatch, all the Nation County personnel were seated on the kitchen counter. We were the hosts, after all. George gave Hester his chair, and joined us.
Lamar and Volont threaded their way over to the refrigerator, where they called the meeting to order and made brief statements about cooperation and common goals. Volont explained that those present were part of a newly constituted team that had been assembled at very short notice by Special Agent Hawse, under the new multiagency mandate that had occurred after 9/11. Volont told the assemblage that Hester, Lamar, Sally, and I had worked with him before, on a fairly well-known case against an extremist called “Gabriel.” He said that we were to be trusted. Thank you, Agent Volont. Then he tossed me a real curve.
“I’ve checked, and the ricin didn’t come from our U.S.-based right-wing extremists.”
The “What? “just sort of came out of my mouth unbidden. “I never knew that they were into that.”
“Oh, yeah,” said Volont. “It was my assigned area when we worked our last case together. The extreme right had a strong interest in ricin at that time.” He shrugged. “You just didn’t have a need to know.”
That sort of pissed me off, since the case he referred to had been a major terrorism investigation we’d worked. Together, supposedly. “I sure could have come up with one, if you’d asked me,” I said. I shrugged. Volont was a bit of a jerk sometimes.
Hester and I briefly outlined our cases to date, Hester doing Cueva, and then me with Gonzales. Sally’d made copies of the case file, and passed them out to everybody present. We’d managed to wangle the use of the super-copier at the Nation County Bulletin, and were therefore able to pass out good copies of the photos from Linda and Rudy’s album. As I got to those, we got two instant hits.
Katie Martinez’s hand shot up. “Katie?”
“Hell, this is Rudolpho Orejuela,” she said, holding up her copy of Rudy Cueva’s photo. “We associated him with the Cali cartel in Colombia, a couple years ago. He was busted by the Colombian authorities. He escaped from the Cathedral a while back, along with a whole group. I know this man.”
“Past tense, Katie. And what’s the ‘Cathedral’ thing?”
“Oh, right,” she said, and laughed. “Knew. Sorry. The Cathedral is a Colombian prison. Orejuela broke out the same time as some of the Medellin cartel people, you remember Pablo Escobar? Rudolpho Orejuela, he got his start with Escobar, and then got hired by the Cali people. After that, he was identified as a FARC associate. We I Ded him in a surveillance in San Diego last year.”
“FARC?” I asked.
“Big-time bad,” said Katie. “That’s the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia. A guerrilla organization, terrorists, based in Colombia. Hates the U.S. Strong drug ties.”
“Oh,” I said, thinking, Jesus Christ! “So, what did he do? Sales?” I asked. Hopefully.
“Oh, no. Not smart enough. Orejuela was muscle. He killed people for hire, or burned down their houses, or friendly little things like that. He was only fair at it, though.” Katie tapped the photo with a forefinger. “I heard they tossed him out, but I can’t say for sure.”
“So, he would have been…what? Working for the cartels?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “He screwed up enough to get caught for offing somebody, they didn’t want to use him much after that. He was known to the cops. They busted him out along with the rest, to send him back into the hills where he could just work inside cartel territory. That’s where we think he hooked up with FARC.”
“Would he have prints on file? “I asked. “We have case prints.”
“Oh, sure. I’ll run them through our people in Colombia. He was booked into prison,” she said. “Even though he just pretty much walked out when he wanted to.”
“Thanks, Katie.” It was the best news I’d had all day.
Because of the way we’d divided the briefing up, I got to tell about Hester discovering and seizing the spray can, the gloves, and the mask. Serious excitement. We then asked if there were any questions.
“Where did you say most of these ‘witnesses’ had gone?” asked Barney England, Hester’s superior’s superior. He knew. He just wanted to emphasize the point.
“Well, that’s the problem,” I said. “We aren’t too sure. Possibly into Wisconsin or Illinois, across the Mississippi bridges. One at Dubuque, one at Freiberg, and one at Lansing. Or straight north into Minnesota.”
“About this Moynihan woman? Everybody’s been notified?”
“Oh, yeah.” I directed him to the last page of the report, where we’d attached Sally’s entries. “Nothing yet, though.”
Special Agent Milton Hawse raised his hand. “I’m not sure that I’m completely clear as to why this number of illegal immigrants have been allowed to work here without a word being said. Could you clarify that for me?”
Well, I certainly could have, but Lamar spoke up in a loud, clear voice from his perch on the counter.
“Let me tell you somethin’,” he said. “We called. We called INS every damned time we found some more of ‘em comin’ in on a bus. We called every time we found ‘em living in crappy conditions. We called every time one of ‘em got into trouble. And every time, we were told that INS was busy, and that it was a federal matter, and that we better keep our noses out of it because we didn’t have any damned jurisdiction to arrest ‘em or to hold ‘em on federal charges.” He was steamed just remembering. “They wouldn’t come up for less ‘n thirty, if we had twenty-five. They wouldn’t come up for less ‘n fifty if we had forty. They were ‘snowed under.’ I know they were snowed under. There ain’t enough INS agents. I know that. I believe ‘em. But it ain’t a local problem, it ain’t a county problem, and it ain’t a state problem. So maybe you should do what we have to do: ask your representative.” He shook his head. “It don’t do a shit pile of good, but it’s all we got.”
I was just a little embarrassed, but also glad he’d said what he had. I watched George, who was trying very hard to make it look as if he’d been so absorbed in our reports that he hadn’t heard anything. Volont was grinning from ear to ear.
Hawse seemed somewhat taken aback, but not at all flustered. “Good, clear answer,” he said.
“Lamar’s right,” I said. “But I want to make something very clear here. We don’t need INS moving in at this point, okay?” I looked at the kitchen full of heavy-hitters. “Not yet. We don’t want INS up until after we talk to these witnesses. Just hold off on notification. The illegals will be back. I’m certain of it, and pretty soon, too. They need the work.”
“And Hester and I can’t afford to drive to a federal detention facility, or worse, to Mexico, every time we want to talk to a witness. Okay?”
Hawse nodded. He didn’t say a word. It was the best I could get.
“Any other questions?” I asked.
I looked around the kitchen. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so out of place in my life. I just wanted to get two things done: I wanted to get the killer of Rudy Cueva, or whoever the hell our dead man really was. And I wanted to get whoever put Gonzales up to spraying toxic shit all over some beef. That was all.
“Well,” I said, “that’s about all I have here. I can’t see that I’ll be much help with the rest of this, the way it’s going, but if you need anything from our department, just ask. My main interest is the Cueva murder and the actual placement of the ricin in the food.” I was simply telling the truth. I was also getting a feeling that, regardless of the information we were able to gather on Rudy Cueva’s murder, other concerns were going to have to come first. National concerns. I could just see us having to hold off on an arrest of Cueva’s killer to further a broader and more important investigation. Not that I wouldn’t be willing or able to see the reasoning behind that. It was just that I was willing to bet that this was the last time most of the people in the room were going to listen to a word I said.
Harriet Glee, Deputy U.S. Attorney, replaced Hester and me in front of the refrigerator.
“Let me summarize to this point,” she said. “One: we have a terrorist act. Foreign or domestic, it’s a terrorist act. If it’s domestic, it’s also a hate crime. Two: we don’t know who’s behind it. Three: I think Nation County and the State of Iowa should be complimented on their investigation to date. They’ve done a fine job.”
It wasn’t like there was any applause or anything, but I gave her my most cavalier bow from the kitchen counter.
“Their reports,” said Harriet, “will be appended to the reports of Agents Pollard and Volont.” It was an order, and both Volont and George nodded. “I’ll need those before I leave tonight. I’ll present this information to the Federal Grand Jury tomorrow, probably before noon. If we need subpoenas for any data, let’s ask for them then.” She looked directly at Lamar. “I’m going to suggest that we not flood the area with agents at this point. Just the absolute minimum of federal people to inspect the plant in a timely fashion, and to assist Nation County with legwork. Especially in finding those illegals. Let me take care of any waiver necessary, so interviews can be done without compelling custody.”
It was a pleasure watching her work.
“Given the possibilities here,” she said, “I suggest that Mr. Hawse assemble an action group, within a reasonable response distance, and arrange for liaison between them and the officers and agents working this area.” She looked directly at Hawse, and I saw him nod again.
I made a mental note to ask George what constituted an “action group.” A surveillance team and an interview team we could call on would be nice.
“CDC will do the public information and news release on the ricin. The FDA will handle the recall of all the meat shipped by the plant since December ninth, to be on the safe side. I believe that’s already begun?”
Fred Nichimura of the FDA held up his cell phone and said, “Even as we speak. We contacted the customer delis in Chicago early today, so both the New York and Chicago delis have been notified. They’re checking their subsequent shipments. That’s only coverage for the kosher meats. The nonkosher is the subject of a nationwide recall, as well. That will begin in a few hours. Without making any presumptions,” he said, almost as an aside, “it seems that the most easily traced meats, the kosher shipments, were the only ones affected.”
“Excellent, Mr. Nichimura. Thank you. So, then, I will maintain very close contact with Mr. Bligh and Mr. Hilgenberg,” said Harriet. “Cooperation is key here.”
That was the last thing of import said, really. It was 20:44 on the nose.
We mostly stood around in little clumps after that. I talked mostly to the state people, as just about all of them were heading home. No budget for overnight stays. They’d be driving back and forth to Nation County for the next few days. It was gong to be more expensive, but their funds were in the mileage budget. We were a one-to-two-hour commute for most of them, one way, so it also cut into the time they were able to spend on-site. Hester, being the lead DCI agent on a homicide case, was the exception. Most of the feds, on the other hand, were staying over.
We all went over possibilities, made many suggestions to each other, and just generally tried to get a grip on what was happening. The public needed to be reassured that there was no risk of contagion from contact with an infected individual, and CDC could emphasize that.
Hester and Hawse were talking about the ricin developments, and she happened to mention the funny little episode with my biohazard labels. I overheard that, and drifted over to them.
“Don’t worry about getting that evidence to our lab,” said Hawse. “They’ll be here soon. I’ve got our Evidence Response Team from the St. Louis field office on the way. They can handle that when they do the apartment and the packing plant.”
Volont, standing over by the sink with Lamar, was sort of listening in with half an ear.
“I didn’t know you’d alerted them.” His voice was light enough, but he didn’t look too happy about it.
“Always on top of it,” said Hawse. “That’s why you let me come along.” He, too, was lighthearted, but there were undercurrents. Boy, were there undercurrents. I made a mental note, all in caps, to stay the hell out of the way of that little pissing contest.
Hawse said they felt the deliberate aspects of the crime should be deemphasized for the present, until we had more information we could act on. The specter of another anthrax scare loomed over everything. Fred Hohenstein from Iowa’s Emergency Management Division said, “This is much more manageable. It’s got a solid mechanical vector, and the incidence rate is falling off. We know where it came from, and where it went. Very localized. It’s not like an indiscriminate mailing.”
I, for one, felt better.
For a moment. Carson Hilgenberg sidled up to me and asked if I thought there should be a separate “County Attorney’s” news conference.
“Absolutely not,” I said. I thought that was pretty restrained, since I didn’t add “you idiot.”
He looked hurt. “Well, I’ll go with what you guys want. But I just was thinking we should, ah, emphasize that the local officials are, ah, in control.”
“I think,” I said, as nicely as I could manage, “they’ll be really happy that the state and feds are on the case. Relieved, even.”
It was nearly 11 P.M. when I got home. Sue was waiting up, but very nearly asleep.
“Why are you so late?”
It was a good question, but since I’d just been required to sign an agreement that I wouldn’t talk about anything with anybody at any time, it was going to be tough to explain.
“I can’t tell you, dear,” I said, as I leaned over and kissed her hello. “National security concerns.” I thought she’d think I was joking.
“I understand,” she said.
“I understand. It must be really busy for you right now. Did you see the KNUG news at ten?”
Uh-oh. “No, I really was busy.”
“I know. I thought you might miss it, so I taped it for you.” She picked up the VCR remote and turned the tape on.
I was appalled. Judy Mercer and her cameraman had managed to get almost everybody who had attended the meeting on camera as they came through the parking lot. The only ones she’d apparently missed were George, Hester, Bligh, McWhirter, and me. I was never so glad I’d used a back door in my life.
She did get Volont, Thurgood, and Hawse, though. That camera had quite a zoom, apparently. The worst part was, she identified Volont correctly, and although she didn’t name Thurgood, she did say that she was a counterterrorism agent who had “testified in the Cedar Rapids Federal Court for the Northern District of Iowa.” Hawse she didn’t ID, and that was at least a blessing.
Judy Mercer’s voice-over was, when not identifying attendees, busy outlining the “mysterious death” of “an unidentified worker” at the plant in Battenberg. “After a mysterious death in Battenberg, is there any reason for Eastern Iowa to be concerned about an infectious disease? “She then cut to about fifteen seconds of an interview with Fred Hohenstein, from Iowa Emergency Management. Good old Fred simply stated flat-out: “There is no involvement of an infectious agent. There was some contamination with a toxic substance, and we’re here to make sure there is no further exposure.” Judy Mercer didn’t repeat what he had said. That worried me. I knew she was pretty damned good, so I was now wondering just what she’d heard about the New York connection. I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to take the major networks too long to piece together.
When it was over, Sue asked me if there was any reason to be concerned about the unspecified disease.
“Do we need shots or something? “was what she said.
“Nope. Noncommunicable. Absolutely no problem.”
“Okay…” But she sounded just a teeny bit uncertain.
I showered and shaved just before I went to bed. You learn to do it that way, so you’re at least half presentable if you get called out early the next morning.