SECTION EIGHT
SM
COLUMN FORTY-EIGHT, AUGUST 1, 1999
(Copyright 1999 Al Aronowitz)

STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT TO GET OFF 

or

WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
 

PART 2: BURNED DOWN AND CHARGED WITH THE CRIME


In the summer of 1966, my vehemently, pro-union weekly newspaper, the Citizen-Times, was deliberately burned down and I lost what little perspective I had regarding justice or even the remote possibility that "right" could prevail---at least where either the newspaper or I was concerned.

It happened in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during a period of intense union activity involving firefighters and wholesale grocery workers.  The firefighters were being fought by the city and by every fire department administrator on local and state levels.  The other group was locking horns with a wealthy grocery chain owner.  Our newspaper, the largest weekly in the state, was with the workers 100 percent.  My partner, Tom Kuncl, had a knack for describing the anti-union groups and individuals in a way that caused them to suffer serious attacks of apoplexy-particularly in city hall.  For those and other reasons we incurred the wrath of the city, the fire department hierarchy, the state fire marshal's office, and a legion of others.  We had friends among the rank-and-file in the cop shop and the fire department, but everyone above the rank-and-file treated us like pariahs, troublemakers who were giving the city a bad image.

Since working on the Citizen-Times paid nothing, we were lumped together with the unwashed, undesirable elements and shunned by 90 per cent of society.  We worked hard; and frequently, after a week of hard work-thanks to the generosity of workers-we found our table loaded with cold beer and schnapps.  We were less gracious drunk than sober and consequently were only welcomed in those taverns that catered to the workers.

Then the newspaper was torched and we were burned down.


Firefighters Got Out
Moments Before
The Room Exploded


While the fire was raging two firefighters smashed through a window to a second floor room where they thought I was sleeping.  Not finding me they turned around and got out moments before the room exploded.

At one point, over the intercoms that connected all the vehicles, a firefighter shouted, "We're trying to find the chief.  Has anyone seen him?"

There was a pause.  Then someone who didn't identify himself responded with a note of humor, "The chief was last seen leaving the Citizen-Times newspaper building by the back door shortly before the first explosion was heard."

Broke everyone up.  So here was this scene.  Fire trucks, hoses, flames, smoke, people risking their lives, and the rank-and-file laughing and joking about the chief.  Although even from a retrospective view of some 25 years I'm confident the chief wasn't the arsonist, it was no secret that he hated the CT, the staff, the editorials, and particularly Tom Kuncl.

Following the fire and a lengthy investigation, I was charged with arson.  The charges shocked many people, including me.  We had recently spent $45,000 on a large Royal Zenith, web-fed press; we were expanding, were making money for the first time in four years, had relocated in a large building downtown, and had the financial backing of a wealthy insurance company owner.  All of this carried no weight.  Nor did the fact that over the objections of our backer I had dramatically cut back on our insurance policies because of the high premiums.  After four years of working 16to 20 hours a day, without pay, sleeping in the office, using petty cash for cold cuts and white bread, and pounding the pavement six days a week for nickel and dime ads and pitching the churches on Sunday, I wasn't going to spend profits on insurance policies.

Because of prejudicial actions by the prosecutor the charges were thrown out.  I thought that was the end of it.  However, the prosecution persisted, charges were again filed, and I was indicted for the second time.  A year later, I finally appeared in court.


When He Was 'With It'
He Was
Crazy Angry


Over the course of that year, the harassment never ended.  At times, the stress was so great that three and four days of work would just disappear from my mind.  My inability to remember critically important parts of my day became a serious concern with friends.  When I was "with it" I was crazy angry.  When I was "out of it" I was worse--according to my staff.

One night about four months after the fire, while I was working late at our $30-a-month storefront, a couple deputies showed up with the woman who owned the local bonding company.  She claimed I was preparing to leave the country; therefore, she said, she was arresting me and suspending my bond, as she had the power to do.

I told her I didn't have enough money to use the john at the bus station much less leave the country.  Regardless, she said, she was pulling the bond.  The deputies nodded when she repeated that I was under arrest.  Further, as I knew, I'd be out the fee I had already paid her.  With no money, I'd sit in the county jail until they got around to a trial.  I couldn't deal with it.

As they were walking me to the car I decided I couldn't live like these people were forcing me to live.  I told them they could shove their arrest warrant.  I jerked loose and started walking away from them.  They told me to stop.  I refused.  They pulled their guns and ordered me to stop and I told them exactly what I thought of them, the county attorney, the state of Iowa, and their individual parentage, and I kept walking.  The sound of the hammer on the deputy's pistol being pulled back sounded like a couple of Ginger Baker rim shots.  I thought they were going to kill me, and at that point in my life I didn't give a damn.  I kept walking, waiting for the punch! If you have ever been shot, you know what I mean by "punch!" They waited, and waited, and finally one of them ran to their car, grabbed the microphone, and called for help.  He was yelling something about an escaped prisoner and asking for backup.  What a circus.

I walked across a large vacant lot to the apartment of my friends, Janie and Paul Kelso.  The deputies watched where I was going.

Janie and Paul asked what all the yelling was about.  I told them what was happening.  The cops were going to be all over the place in a few minutes, I said.

Paul had this thing about health foods.  He didn't have anything to drink with alcohol in it, so I accepted one of his special high-energy milk shakes.  I knew I'd need something to help me make it through that night.  I hadn't gotten half of it down before the sirens started.  Seven squad cars converged on the apartment.

When the police knocked on the door I went peacefully.

The health food must have adversely affected my mind.


Rank-And-File
Cops Were
Embarrassed


At the station I was informed that new charges had been filed: resisting arrest, possibly unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, escape, yaddida, yaddida, yaddida.  Most of the rank-and-file cops were embarrassed.  I was booked and spent the night in the can with prisoners I was beginning to know by their first names.  The next morning, someone said the right words or brought enough cash and I was back on the street.

My only clear memory of leaving the jail that morning was the feeling that I was starting a new life.       The whole episode-the arrest, the second arrest-had an emotionally cleansing effect on me.  There were times when the whole system had frightened me.  Fear of prison; fear of having people around who you knew were trying to destroy you; not so much the fear of failure as the fear of not winning-of not being able to stand up against whomever and whatever it was you had to stand up against.

The trial began on April 18, 1966.  For the first week of the trial the prosecution paraded the state fire marshal's investigators and arson experts before the jury and the news media.  First to the jury and then to the news media the "overwhelming evidence" against me, which amounted to nothing more than determined speculation, was offered by a confident county attorney.  After a week, the prosecutor rested his case with a round of adjectives, arm waving, and finger pointing.

Like it or not, despite the prosecutor's lack of hard evidence, I had to face the fact that it didn't look good for me.  A guilty verdict would mean a 25-year sentence.  With all the hell we had been raising with the city, the courts, the county attorney's office, and just about anyone who wasn't cheering for the working class, I looked for no breaks.  None at all.

We asked for and received a ten-minute break to collect ourselves for the defense.

Just as we were entering the courtroom, Bob Nelson, one of my defense lawyers, was called to the phone by the bailiff.  Suddenly our case became a classic Perry Mason adventure.

We had received an anonymous tip.  A city detective had gotten a look into the county attorney's files and found reports that the county attorney had suppressed---scientific reports that would clear me of the arson charge.  One report, he confided, was from the FBI's criminal investigation laboratory in Washington, DC, another was from an independent lab, and the third was from a chemistry department at a local college.  There was no evidence in any of those reports to indicate that the fire had been set, and much to indicate that it hadn't.

Someone had set me up and it had almost worked.  Whether the detective liked me or hated them I never found out.  Chances are he was one of those cops who had bought into a personal honor system that couldn't be set aside.  Not when the law enforcement hierarchy wanted to close down a newspaper that had been born over on the West Side in Boheme Town.  The paper that published "All the News That's Pit to Frint"---one of Kuncl's favorite digs at one of New York City's "waterpumps."

He never told us his name.  He just gave us the facts.

The reports had been in the hands of the county attorney within ten days after the fire and he had hidden them---suppressed them---for over a year.  A classic cover-up.  While I squirmed, it had been business as usual for the county attorney.  I sat there with a whole new understanding of why some people kill.

With this new evidence in hand, the case for the defense was not that complex.  We had brought in the top arson investigator in the country---the man who had trained the investigators the state was using in their attempt to convict me.  He testified that he could not believe anyone who had attended his school could have investigated that fire and reached the conclusions they had reached.  In his own opinion, he said, the fire had started probably as the result of a broken light bulb in an area far from where the state fire marshal said it had been deliberately set.

After his testimony was finished, one of the state fire marshals was recalled and he was asked by either Bob Fassler or Bob Nelson if any outside laboratories had conducted an independent investigation into whether or not flammable agents had been used.  The marshal admitted there had been at least two such investigations.  He was asked where those reports were from.  He said one was done at the FBI laboratories in Washington, DC, and the other was done inside the chemistry department at nearby Coe College.  Upon further questioning, he admitted that the reports showed that no such agents had been found where the two fires were alleged to have been set and that those reports had been in the hands of the prosecutor within ten days after the fire had broken out.

(If you, dear reader, ever end up in court, I sure hope your day will be as sweet as mine was that day.)


Suppressed Evidence
Caused The State's Case
To Disappear


With the news about the suppressed evidence in front of the jury, the state's case disappeared.  The jury came back with a "Not Guilty" verdict and I was a new man.  Unresolved, however, were two interesting bits of evidence: 1) a utility truck, the same as or very similar to trucks operated by the city, was seen at the rear of our building, and 2) shortly after it was seen leaving the back of the building, people living in the house next door thought they heard a muffled explosion.

Despite our own star witness' testimony about the light bulb, I believed for my own reasons that the newspaper fire had been deliberately set by someone.  Why did I think so? I had studied the site for months.  I had taken photos of every inch of the burned areas.  I studied the textbooks on arson investigation that our own expert had authored.  My conclusion was the same as his, however, that the fire had started inside the back door.

What the state investigators had failed to recognize was how the fire had spread from the first floor up to the second floor to emerge under the altar/stage area.  The flames had followed the path of an "I" beam for approximately 25 feet and had burned through the floor in two places.  These two burn sites "convinced" the state that the fire had been set in two places under the altar/stage.  The FBI laboratory was unable to find any traces of flammable substances at or around these burn sites, however.  Rather than accepting the FBI findings and continuing the investigation, as a competent investigator would have done, the fire marshal's team chose to ignore the scientific reports---actually sup-pressed them-and stick to their original theory.  Had they acted properly they might have discovered evidence that would have led to a successful conclusion.  Since they refused to do so, I can only assume that they were more interested in putting me out of business than they were in solving a crime.  If they had studied the site and traced the fire to the source, they would have been looking for the utility truck and the driver.

For me to point a finger at who may have had reason to destroy the newspaper was fruitless, not because I couldn't come up with anyone but because there were so many.  The only people who didn't hate us were working class people---union members.

Additional evidence we never had to use were statements that had been made by the state fire marshal's investigators at an out-of-state conference.  Two of them had gotten drunk and said, "We're finally going to get rid of Kuncl, Grant, and the Citizen-Times."

Before the defense rested, I pointed these facts out to my attorneys and our investigators.  I wanted the state witnesses recalled and questioned about the site, about their charges against me, and, more than any-thing, about why the reports were suppressed for over a year.

They shook their heads and said, "Forget it.  You're innocent.  We did what we came to do.  We accepted this case to prove you innocent, not to go on a crusade." I could understand their reasoning.  What had to be done had to be done by me.

Some of the jury members were crying when I went over and thanked them.  I thanked my lawyers, then walked out of the courtroom with a smile on my face and hatred in my heart for the local upper echelon law enforcement.  The press was there and someone asked me what my plans were.  I told them I was going to start a daily newspaper.  ##

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