The Campaign for Radical Truth in History: Fortean Studies and the Occult Cryptocracy

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Conspiracy didn't kill eleven microbiologists, just coincidence --a case of "random clumping" and death by "roadway bounce"

September 2002

When the Miami Police first found Benito Que, he was slumped on a desolate side street, near the empty spot where he had habitually parked his Ford Explorer. At about the same time, Don C. Wiley mysteriously disappeared. His car, a white rented Mitsubishi Galant, was abandoned on a bridge outside of Memphis, where he had just had a jovial dinner with friends. The following week, Vladimir Pasechnik collapsed in London, apparently of a stroke.

The list would grow to nearly a dozen in the space of four nerve-jangling months. Stabbed in Leesburg, Va. Suffocated in an air-locked lab in Geelong, Australia. Found wedged under a chair, naked from the waist down, in a blood-splattered apartment in Norwich, England. Hit by a car while jogging. Killed in a private plane crash. Shot dead while a pizza delivery man served as a decoy.

What joined these men was their proximity to the world of bioterror and germ warfare. Que, the one who was car-jacked, was a researcher at the University of Miami School of Medicine. Wiley, the most famous, knew as much as anyone about how the immune system responds to attacks from viruses like Ebola. Pasechnik was Russian, and before he defected, he helped the Soviets transform cruise missiles into biological weapons. The chain of deaths -- these three men and eight others like them -- began last fall...

In more ordinary times, this cluster of deaths might not have been noticed, but these are not ordinary times...we are spooked and startled by stories like these - all these scientists dying within months of one another... The stories of these dozen or so deaths started out as a curiosity and were transformed rumor by rumor into the specter of conspiracy as they circulated first on the Internet and then in the mainstream media. What are the odds, after all? What are the odds, indeed?

For this is not about conspiracy but about coincidence...The true meaning of the word is 'a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.' In other words, pure happenstance. Yet by merely noticing a coincidence, we elevate it to something that transcends its definition as pure chance. We are discomforted by the idea of a random universe...John Allen Paulos (is) a professor of mathematics at Temple University. Finding a reason or a pattern where none actually exists ''makes it less frightening,'' he says, because events get placed in the realm of the logical. ''Believing in fate, or even conspiracy, can sometimes be more comforting than facing the fact that sometimes things just happen.'' In the past year there has been plenty of conspiracy, of course, but also a lot of things have ''just happened.''

The numbers 9/11 (9 plus 1 plus 1) equal 11, and American Airlines Flight 11 was the first to hit the twin towers, and there were 92 people on board (9 plus 2), and Sept. 11 is the 254th day of the year (2 plus 5 plus 4), and there are 11 letters each in ''Afghanistan,'' ''New York City'' and ''the Pentagon'' (and while we're counting, in George W. Bush), and the World Trade towers themselves took the form of the number 11, this seeming numerical message is not actually a pattern that exists but merely a pattern we have found...

Recall, for example, the list of coincidences that...linked the deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. It goes, in part, like this: The two men were elected 100 years apart; they were both succeeded by men named Johnson; and the two Johnsons were born 100 years apart. Their names each contain seven letters; their successors' names each contain 13 letters; and their assassins' names each contain 15 letters. Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran to a warehouse. Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran to a theater. Lincoln was shot in a theater named Ford. Kennedy was shot in a Ford automobile named Lincoln. Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln (Evelyn Lincoln) who warned him not to go to Dallas.

Something like that has to be more than coincidence, we protest. What are the odds? The mathematician will answer that even in the most unbelievable situations, the odds are actually very good. The law of large numbers says that with a large enough denominator -- in other words, in a big wide world -- stuff will happen, even very weird stuff. ''The really unusual day would be one where nothing unusual happens,'' explains Persi Diaconis, a Stanford statistician who has spent his career collecting and studying examples of coincidence. Given that there are 280 million people in the United States, he says, ''280 times a day, a one-in-a-million shot is going to occur.''

..And what of the deaths of nearly a dozen scientists? Is it really possible that they all just happened to die, most in such peculiar, jarring ways, within so short a time? ''We can never say for a fact that something isn't a conspiracy,'' says Bradley Efron, a professor of statistics at Stanford. ''We can just point out the odds that it isn't.''

...I read a small news item out of the Finnish town of Raahe...On the morning of March 5, two elderly twin brothers were riding their bicycles, as was their habit, completing their separate errands. At 9:30, one brother was struck by a truck along coastal Highway 8 and killed instantly. About two hours later and one mile down the same highway, the other brother was struck by a second truck and killed. It was hard to believe this could happen just by chance,'' says Marko Salo, the senior constable who investigated both deaths for the Raahe Police Department. Instead, the department looked for a cause, thinking initially that the second death was really a suicide. ''Almost all Raahe thought he did it knowing that his brother was dead,'' Salo says of the second brother's death. ''They thought he tried on purpose. That would have explained things.'' But the investigation showed that the older brother was off cheerfully getting his hair cut just before his own death.

...Which brings us to the death of Benito Que...Que had the habit of parking his car on Northwest 10th Avenue, a side street that Ardalan describes as being ''beyond the area considered to be safe.'' His spot that day was in front of a house where a young boy was playing outside. Four youths approached Que as he neared his car, the boy later told the police, and there might have been some baseball bats involved. When the police arrived, they found Que unconscious. His briefcase was at his side, but his wallet was gone. His car was eventually found abandoned several miles from the scene...

The mystery, limited to small items in local Florida papers at first, was ''What killed Benito Que?'' Could it have been the mugging? A CAT scan showed no signs of bony fracture. In fact, there were no scrapes or bruises or other physical signs of assault. Perhaps he died of a stroke? His brain scan did show a ''huge intracranial bleed,'' Ardalan says, which would have explained his earlier headache, and his high blood pressure would have made a stroke likely. In other words, this man just happened to be mugged when he was a stroke waiting to be triggered. That is a jarring coincidence, to be sure. But it is not one that the world was likely to have noticed if Don Wiley had not up and disappeared.

Don C. Wiley was a microbiologist. He did some work with anthrax...and he was also quite familiar with Ebola, smallpox, ...and influenza. At 57, he was the father of four children and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the department of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard.

On Nov. 15, four days before the attack on Benito Que, Wiley was in Memphis to visit his father and to attend the annual meeting of the scientific advisory board of St. Jude's Research Hospital, of which he was a member. At midnight, he was seen leaving a banquet at the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. Friends and colleagues say he had a little to drink but did not appear impaired, and they remember him as being in a fine mood, looking forward to seeing his wife and children, who were about to join him for a short vacation.

Wiley's father lives in a Memphis suburb, and that is where Wiley should have been headed after the banquet. Instead, his car was found facing in the opposite direction on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, which spans the Mississippi River at the border of Tennessee and Arkansas. When the police found the car at 4 a.m., it was unlocked, the keys were in the ignition and the gas tank was full. There was a scrape of yellow paint on the driver's side, which appeared to come from a construction sign on the bridge, and a right hubcap was missing on the passenger side, where the wheel rims were also scraped. There was no sign, however, of Don Wiley. Detectives searched Wiley's financial records, his family relationships, his scientific research-- anything for a hint that the man might have had cause to take his own life. ...The week that Wiley disappeared coincided with the peak of anthrax fear throughout the country...Could it be mere chance that this particular scientist, who had profound knowledge of these microbes, had disappeared at this time?

...Vladimir Pasechnik was 64 when he died. His early career was spent in the Soviet Union working at Biopreparat, the site of that country's biological weapons program. He defected in 1989 and spilled what he knew to the British, revealing for the first time the immense scale of Soviet work with anthrax, plague, tularemia and smallpox. For the next 10 years, he worked at the Center for Applied Microbiology and Research, part of Britain's Department of Health....In the weeks before he died, Pasechnik had reportedly consulted with authorities about the growing anthrax scare...

Robert Schwartz...was an expert on DNA sequencing and analysis. On Dec. 10 he was found dead on the kitchen floor of his isolated log-and-fieldstone farmhouse near Leesburg, Va., where he had lived alone since losing his wife to cancer four years ago and his children to college. Schwartz had been stabbed to death with a two-foot-long sword, and his killer had carved an X on the back of his neck.

...On the same day that Schwartz died, Set Van Nguyen, 44, was found dead in an air-locked storage chamber at the Australian Commonwealth's Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's animal diseases facility in Geelong...the center dealt with microbes like mousepox, which is similar to smallpox...''He was a valued member of the laboratory's technical support staff... Nguyen...shared a last name with Kathy Nguyen, the 61-year-old hospital worker who just happened to be the one New Yorker to die of anthrax.

In addition to the men already discussed, the names that appear most often are these: Victor Korshunov, a Russian expert in intestinal bacteria, who was bashed over the head near his home in Moscow; Ian Langford, a British expert in environmental risk and disease, who was found dead in his home near Norwich, England, naked from the waist down and wedged under a chair; Tanya Holzmayer, who worked as a microbiologist near San Jose and was shot seven times...when she opened the door to a pizza delivery man; David Wynn-Williams, who was hit by a car near his home in Cambridge, England; and Steven Mostow, who died in a plane crash near Denver.

Ken one of the country's best-known microbiologists. He was the No. 2 man at the Soviet Union's Biopreparrat (where Victor Pasechnik also worked)...and now works with the U.S. government seeking antidotes for the very weapons he developed:''I got an e-mail from Pasechnik before he died...but I'm not paying much attention.''

Others are not quite as sanguine. Phyllis Della-Latta is the director of clinical microbiology services at New York's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. She found an article on the deaths circulating in the most erudite place -- an Internet discussion group of directors of clinical microbiology labs around the world. These are the people who, when a patient develops suspicious symptoms, are brought in to rule out things like anthrax...

Don Wiley's body was finally found on Dec. 20, near Vidalia, La., about 300 miles south of where he disappeared. The Memphis medical examiner, O.C. Smith, concluded that yellow paint marks on Wiley's car suggest that he hit a construction sign on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge, as does the fact that a hubcap was missing from the right front tire. Smith's theory is that heavy truck traffic on the bridge can set off wind gusts and create ''roadway bounce,'' which might have been enough to cause Wiley to lose his balance after getting out of the car to inspect the scrapes....''If Dr. Wiley were on the curb trying to assess damage to his car, all of these factors may have played a role in his going over the rail,'' Smith said when he issued his report. The Memphis Police consider the case closed..The talk of Memphis at the moment is the bizarre ambush of the city's coroner last month. He was wrapped in barbed wire and left lying in a stairwell of the medical examiner's building with a live bomb strapped to his chest. Coincidentally, that coroner, O.C. Smith, was also the coroner who did the much-awaited, somewhat controversial autopsy on Don Wiley.

Paul of Fortean Times...''the Journal of Strange Phenomena''...Sieveking says: ''It's probably just a random clumping, but it just happens to look significant. ...conspiracy theorists are just frustrated novelists. We like to make up a good story out of random facts.''

..Mainstream newspapers started taking up the story, including an alternative weekly in Memphis, where interest in the Wiley case was particularly strong, and most recently The Toronto Globe and Mail....

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