“All the News…” (Part II)
In my previous post – “A Bomb For President Clinton” (subtitled: “All the News…” Part I) I got to thinking about what circumstances cause a news item to wind its way into the public discourse. And if it doesn’t – well then, for all intents and purposes – it never happened – right? But if it fits a tried and true story line… the more salacious the better… hitmen really make the grade – you can pretty much count on hearing about it, if not in the New York Times, at least in the Enquirer. Or some 7:30 p.m. trash TV show.
One example of a story which the public never seems to tire of is the hackneyed retelling of some desperately wronged spouse who seeks the services of a ‘hitman” to dispose of her unworthy mate.
Then the twist! The “hitman” is really a cop! (As usual.)
If you haven’t figured this out yet, 99% of “hitmen” turn out to be undercover cops. The unhappy spouse will call the least savory person she knows, the kind of guy who will undoubtedly be in a position to refer her to a hired killer. That person will then enthusiastically take advantage of a chance to earn some goodwill or work off a beef by calling his favorite cop to tell him about the woman’s scheme. The cop will then make arrangements to introduce an undercover officer who can pass for a murderer to perform the “hit”. To put it more bluntly, the “hit”, from it’s inception, is a bullshit, a sting, a scheme orchestrated by a snitch, with the help of a cop. Or vice-versa.
Part II, herein, focuses on how a story – any story – no matter how incredible, how fantastic, how gruesome – can be completely ignored locally, and hence, never muster a peep, nationally.
I’ve had more than a few of these. One that really stands out was…
(A quick lament – condensing these things truly presents a challenge, a real pain in the ass. But let’s move on.)
OK, back to the story…..so anyway, we were contacted (as usual) by a federal prisoner whose inmate BFF, a real psycho, wanted to kill a guy for whom he had developed quite the intense hard-on. In fact, he had already tried to kill this poor bastard once before, and had actually come about as close as one possibly could.
A Little (Sordid) History
Let me back up.
Back in November of 1990, a group of small time criminals from the Midwest had a falling out, of ambiguous origin, which culminated in a heinous crime, and eventually led to more crimes, in – where else – Las Vegas. When it did finally play out here, the story was so bizarre that the fact that it had eluded national attention surprised me. Therein lies the rub – although so many are tantalized by crime stories and Vegas tales, unless a local reporter reports it – they’ll never hear about it.
“Lucky” Ed and Jerry Dean Ashburn
Ed Bumgardner was a scrawny 52 vear old from Texas, whose new business venture had brought him to Davenport, Iowa, where Riverboat Gambling was now a big attraction for aspiring “players” (read: degenerate gamblers/losers). It was, in fact, a gambling system he had himself devised. He claimed it was a guaranteed method of winning at craps. It was aptly called “The Winning Way”. With a name like that, it couldn’t miss, right?
Well one day, a certain member of Ed’s inner circle decided to execute two of the others. Don’t ask why That’s for the book.
This most antisocial friend of Ed was one Jerry Dean Ashburn. On the morning of November 9, 1990, Ashburn, for no apparent reason, and with no warning, showed up at Ed’s house. Summarizing, Ashburn shot Ed in the head, and then he and Ed’s roommate (Glen Barangan) carried Ed’s semi-limp body outside to Ashburn’s Caddy. They then threw him – thinking him deceased – in the trunk. From said trunk, Ed – still breathing, by the way – witnessed Ashburn turn on his accomplice – Ed’s roommate, Barangan – and watched him shoot Barangan in the skull too. He, unfortunately, did not survive.
Ashburn then (inexplicably?) made a 12 hour drive to Missouri, where he picked up another friend, Gordon Shultz, who was to help unload the “dead” bodies. Happening upon an abandoned farmhouse, Ashbury stopped the Caddy and pulled over. After two arduous trips to the basement, dragging dead weight, Ashburn surveyed the scene.
One shudders considering the operation of Ashburn’s twisted mind at that moment. But the still conscious Ed was able to hear Ashburn announce his next tactical decision: “Burn the house down“. So they did. Why Ashbury didn’t kill Schultz as well is anyone’s guess.
Amazingly, Ed had not only managed to survive the bullets, but also the flames. Somehow, Ed Bumgartner found himself outside the fully engulfed house, naked and on fire. But Lucky Ed was rescued, just as the remnants of the structure, now an inferno, collapsed!
The Iowa Trial
A trial was held in Iowa, with Jerry Dean Ashburn convicted, in the end, of the murder of Barangan (the fellow in the trunk who did not have the luck of Ed Bumgartner on his side), and the attempted murder of Ed. Schultz, who had been charged as an accessory after the fact, testified against Ashburn, but the state‘s star witness was Lucky Ed. This did little to further endear him to Ashburn, who was sentenced to life without parole. He was also convicted of the farmhouse arson in the State of Missouri, and received 15 years concurrent to the Iowa sentence. The Des Moines press gave the proceedings extensive coverage, as the crime was extraordinarily violent, gruesome, sensational….in a word, newsworthy. At least in Iowa, that is.
Perhaps as amazing as Ed’s survival was the fact that Ashburn, a recidivist criminal, who would spend life behind bars, wasn’t done yet. The youngster who had spent two years at Boys Town had grown into a man who would do all he could to prove the ever-optimistic Father Flanagan wrong. Maybe there is such a thing as a bad boy after all.
The Inevitable Involvement of Sin City
Far away in sunny Vegas, there lived a man named Allen Davis. Mr. Davis had an interesting background. A tough looking former Marine and boxer, now in his late sixties, he was married to a Japanese woman who worked as a hostess at a major hotel-casino. Mr. Davis was rough around the edges, but he was no criminal, and certainly no Jerry Dean Ashburn. He did, however, have one thing in common with Ashburn – a burning desire to see Ed Bumgardner dead.
It seems that even before surviving the wrath of Jerry Dean Ashburn, Lucky Ed’s fool-proof method of prevailing at craps, “The Winning Way”, had been embraced by Mr. Davis. Alas, the program did not live up to its name, resulting in at least one extremely dissatisfied customer, an aging pensioner of limited means and fading health: Allen Davis.
For whatever reason, Mr. Davis’ reaction to being victimized by Ed seemed a bit…extreme. He became obsessed with Ed Bumgartner, and with vengeance. He began researching everything he could about Ed. He took ads out in the classifieds seeking information about him. Along the way he became privy to Ed’s previous troubles, and discovered that there was one other person on this earth who hated Ed just as much – well, presumably almost as much – as he did.
Mr. Davis began corresponding by mail with Jerry Dean Ashburn, who was now serving his life sentence at the Iowa State Penitentiary at Fort Madison. The new pen pals discussed things like the location of Ed’s trailer in Texas, his daily routine, the descriptions of his family members, etc. And how best to have him murdered. Ashburn assured Mr. Davis that he could make the arrangements from prison.
Then Jerry Dean Ashburn made an age old error in judgment. He mentioned the aspirations he and Mr. Davis shared, vis a vis Ed, to a fellow inmate, who offered to help. That inmate would ultimately hook Ashburn up with a “hitman” who was more than capable of carrying out the capital sentence which he and Mr. Davis had decreed upon Ed.
Unfortunately for the would be angels of death, that inmate had his own agenda. He immediately recognized this opportunity to abbreviate his stay as a guest of the state of Iowa. The “hitman” he would introduce to Ashburn would actually be a veteran FBI agent- also named Ed!
Special Agent Ed Preciado was a wiry, accomplished runner of Mexican descent. Agent Ed was competent and likable, with a sharp wit and mouth to match. As Hitman Ed, he was tough, surly, and menacing. As it would turn out, he was in fact all of the above, even when not playing a UC role.
Together, Ed Preciado and I plotted a course in terms of how to approach the subjects. A phone call was made to Davis, who suggested a meeting at Binion’s Horseshoe. Other meetings followed, all tape recorded by Preciado. During one, Hitman Ed mentioned that he might carry out the task by causing a gas leak in Lucky Ed’s trailer, and an explosion would take out anyone present, like maybe Ed‘s wife. Davis’ response reveals the inexplicable depth of his hatred. “That don’t make a fuck to me……everything goes…..the whole God damned family could go as far as I‘m concerned”.
When all was said and done, we had numerous tape recorded incriminating conversations between Mr. Davis and Hitman Ed, whom Jerry Dean Ashbury had so highly recommended to kill Ed Bumgartner.
An instructive sidelight of the investigation was the takedown, once we felt we had accrued sufficient proof to charge both Ashburn and Davis. Among other evidence, we had taken photographs, posed by the FBI , depicting a “murdered” Ed Bumgartner. These were delivered to Mr. Davis’ home along with Ed’s identification as further proof of his demise. Pretty standard steps in a murder for hire sting.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Search Warrant
As the person who would ultimately have to present the case to a trial jury, however, I had a vested interest in obtaining all potentially valuable evidence before shutting things down by making arrests. I strongly suggested we prepare an application for a search warrant. Preciado’s response reflected a recurring tension in Prosecutor-Agent (Cop) relations. His thinking, which I had come to expect from all but the greenest or most aggressive agents, was, effectively, ” Search warrant? Why? We already have enough evidence.”
Consequently, I wearily wrote the application myself. In the federal system, the agents usually do the writing . Preciado read it and attested to it, thus becoming the witness who would have to testify if the warrant was litigated. He proceeded, a bit grudgingly, to Mr. Davis’ home to conduct a search.
The result was a virtual treasure trove of evidence. Mr. Davis had a file marked “Bumgartner”. It contained copies of correspondence he had sent to Jerry Dean Ashburn in prison; original correspondence from Ashburn; ads he had placed in various newspapers seeking to learn the whereabouts of his prey, the Bumgartner family, including their addresses, descriptions, etc. All of these items were fingerprinted with positive identifications of both Mr. Davis and Jerry Dean. We also found the photos and ID which had been delivered to Mr. Davis upon “completion of the job”.
The correspondence was particularly helpful, because the basis for jurisdiction in a federal murder for hire case is use of an interstate facility, like the mails.
Ashburn and Davis Plead in Las Vegas
Jerry Dean Ashburn pled prior to trial. He got 15 years consecutive to the Iowa life sentence. Then things got even more weird. Ashburn subsequently requested several meetings with us in which he claimed responsibility for a number of murders. Given what we knew before meeting with him, Ashburn was already scary. But after spending some time with him one on one, he was even scarier. For a time, we thought he might be a serial killer. Naturally, the FBI was very interested in what he had to say. The FBI behavioral experts in Quantico, Virginia became involved in the case, and ultimately concluded that his claims were not credible. Who knows what Ashburn really did or didn’t do. The fact that he would claim to have committed murders which he hadn’t done was almost as disturbing as if he really had. This guy was a true sociopath.
On the day of trial, Mr. Davis, represented by the very competent attorney (now a state court judge in Vegas) Mike Cherry, very reluctantly entered into a plea which, via the legal machinations of both sides, would result in about a year in custody, which he had just about done awaiting trial. Mike Cherry and I had saved poor Mr. Davis from himself.
So Who Decides What’s Newsworthy? In Des Moines, or Vegas, or Manhattan?
Would you agree that Ed’s story was, at least – unusual? By Des Moines standards, it clearly was, and derived quite a bit of lurid press. An example:
Back to the Question – Who Writes History?
After one of the hearings in this case, I walked out of the courtroom only to run into Warren Bates – the federal courthouse reporter for the major Las Vegas daily newspaper, the Review-Journal.
Warren was slight, always cordial, a polite young guy – at least to me. He had an easy, non-adversarial manner, and a scraggly beard and pony tail, which bespoke his defense oriented nature.
So on that day, Warren asked me if I had anything going on which might be of interest. When I told him I was involved in a murder-for-hire case, and added a few tidbits, he inquired, not quite following the bouncing ball, “Was anyone murdered?”
When I told him, no, not in this case. This case was just part of a quite sinister conspiracy, which had not been fully successful. He then sort of smirked, and advised me that if no one was actually murdered, his readers wouldn’t really care.
Notwithstanding that one defendant in our case (Ashburn) had been convicted of murdering one victim (Barangan), and had also been convicted of attempting to kill our surviving victim (Ed) by means of a bullet and an arson – and then had tried a third time, this time via a hitman, to kill Ed – the story didn’t grab Warren.
Aside from the obvious potential public interest in such a bizarre story, this was a true law enforcement success story that a reporter decided was not newsworthy. So as far as John Q. Public is concerned, it never happened. At least in Vegas. (Please don’t tempt me to use that advertising cliche).
This exchange raises an interesting, if obvious, point.
The average person will probably never have any dealings with the press. He or she will read the local paper, watch some national news, and most likely trust the various media to report fully and fairly, and accept out of hand what’s put out.
“Journalists” – Worthy of Our Trust?
But any medium is only as reliable and credible as the people who run it. Those who gather information, those who decide which information will be fed to the general public, those who edit what is ultimately disseminated and have the power to put their spin on it, basically create “news“.
This is as true of international reporting of world crises as it is of the local paper’s reporting of the action of the city council in a small town. In fact, in venues where one paper may enjoy a virtual monopoly, the potential problem is worse.
It is also applicable to the crime beat. The public only hears about the cases that reporters deign to cover. Your DA’s office may be doing fine work, but the taxpayers who pay the prosecutors’ salaries may have no idea what kind of service they are getting for their money. It is amazing how powerful the press really is. Reporters bear a heavy responsibility to the public, and I am afraid many do not fulfill that responsibility.
A preliminary issue is the reporters themselves. Who are they? What are the individual reporter’s qualifications to cover a particular type of story? I have never personally met a crime reporter yet who had any experience as a cop or a lawyer. I am aware of at least one. In contrast, the late Chris Borgen, a highly respected reporter for years at WCBS television in New York, was former NYPD. I am not suggesting anyone who reports on crime needs to be an ex-cop. But isn’t some relevant background desirable? Or at least some meaningful life experience?
How is a young guy or girl with a degree in journalism qualified to not only objectively (does anyone really believe this is the standard practice among journalists?) report news, but to decide what is news? We would all like to trust our institutions, but the determination as to what gets reported and what doesn’t is often left to people who know virtually nothing about the subject matter.
If the tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If law enforcement does a great job, but a reporter decides not to cover it – whether because the story isn’t “sexy” enough, or as a result of some personal bias, or whatever – was the effort of any moment, beyond the personal interest of the parties?
With all due respect to Warren Bates, I felt he had a bias against the prosecution. He had once remarked to me that he felt acquitals were far more newsworthy than convictions, because “you‘re the Government, you’re supposed to win.” Maybe.
I suspect if you examined the Las Vegas newspaper that the reporter mentioned above worked for, on the days following Ashburn and Davis’ court proceedings, you won’t find any stories as bizarre or fascinating. Neither, of course, will you find their story.
So next time you read the paper, whether it’s a crime report or anything else, ponder about how the material may have been gathered, edited, and disseminated. And then wonder about the “news” you didn’t even hear about, and never will.