Beginning today, I am serialising my novel, Presumed Dead: A Tale of the Americas:
The Burdens of Privilege
There is nothing unusual in a yacht running aground on the shore of Chesapeake Bay in bad weather.
when the weather is perfectly fine,
when the boat in question (a 30 foot Columbia yacht) is apparently unmanned,
when the boat contains expensive radio equipment,
when a letter, addressed to one William A. McClure, Washington Post Agent # 1401, and another complaining about deliveries of the Post not being made regularly, is found on board,
when the registration papers on board the boat indicate that the owner was a William McClure, who turns out not to be a Washington Post delivery driver after all, but a CIA employee,
when, the previous evening, McClure failed to turn up for a dinner engagement with his wife, from whom he had separated several months earlier, but with whom he has remained on friendly terms,
when a report relating to the strategic strength of the Soviet Bloc is found inside,
when a table has been torn from its hinges, and
when pickle loaf is found on the floor as if the owner had been interrupted in the middle of eating,
then things take on a decidedly different hue.
Some kind of a solution to the question of McClure’s fate emerged, literally, six days later on the afternoon of Sunday, October 1, 1978, when, while cruising two miles south-east of the Patuxent River and three miles off the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, some watermen on a workboat spotted “a green and bloated object” floating in the water.
One of the coastguardsmen, who had been dispatched to the scene to retrieve the body, later said:
The body had ballooned in size and was hairless. A small bullet hole was oozing brain matter behind the left ear. The body looked as if it had on white gloves; in fact, the skin on the hands was sliding off.
Obviously, the Bay’s famed crabs had nibbled away at the corpse until the process of decomposition had set in enough to create the gases that floated the body to the surface. As one of the watermen, who had been the first to spot it, said: “It was so grotesque as to be almost not human.”
And this body had plenty to keep it down—two nineteen-pound diver’s belts were wrapped around the corpse.
Arriving at the Navy’s recreational center on Solomon’s Island, to which the body had been taken, John Murphy, a young Maryland State Police corporal who had been sent to investigate, later described what he had seen.
The body was dressed in light blue dungarees, blue socks, a white T-shirt, and a wristwatch called a Chalet, with a black face and green numerals and hands. There were no shoes on the body. Wrapped around the lower chest and abdomen were two diver’s belts. The set around the chest had long, thin weights on a black belt with a silver-colored “S” at the buckle. The other set were wider weights and were on a red belt. There were numerous markings around the neck.
The county coroner, Dr George Weems, who arrived at the same time with a local fishing buddy and marina owner Harry Lee Langley Sr., also described what he had seen:
The body was in bad shape but recognizable. The neck looked like it had been irritated, like a kind of squeeze, or there had been a rope around the neck. You get that type of lesion on your neck from hanging… . I thought there was foul play.
To those present, he said: “I’d bet my reputation as a coroner for twenty years that the circle around the neck was made before the person was killed.”
Strangely, Weems never mentioned the markings around the neck in his written report on the body to then State Medical Examiner, Dr. Russell Fisher.
After briefly examining the body, he arranged for the Beall Funeral Home to take the body to Baltimore for forensic examination.
Langley, who had seen McClure around his marina from time to time, and knew Mimsey, later said:
While I was looking at the body, a police official present said to me: “Don’t say anything about what you saw. The fellow worked for the CIA and you are not to say anything about this to anyone. Do you understand? It’s all supposed to be all government, all secret.”
Later that evening, in the grim building in downtown Baltimore that serves as headquarters for the Maryland State Medical Examiner, and observed by two Maryland state troopers, Dr Stephen Adams began grim the task of trying to determine how the “floater” recovered from the Bay had died. Looking down at the corpse on the table, Adams saw a five-foot-seven-inch, 144-pound white male.
The corpse’s brownish gray tongue was sticking out from its bloated face. The single gunshot wound above and behind the left ear had caused the skull to fracture much like a plate-glass window hit by a baseball. The jacket and slug were found separately in the head. As I removed the slug from the skull, I noted that the brain had turned to liquid. There was no food in the stomach. There was not enough blood left in the body to successfully determine blood type. Skin slippage on the hands was so bad that successful fingerprint identification might be nearly impossible. The body had a complete lower plate and partial upper plate, making dental confirmation difficult. The only serious medical condition was the presence of six gall-stones. The other key systems appeared to be normal.
After concluding the autopsy, Adams removed the hands from the corpse and turned them over to Maryland State Police for fingerprint identification. They, in turn, delivered them to the FBI.
In the autopsy report, Adams gave, as the cause of death, the following:
Gunshot wound, penetrating head, close contact range. Entrance in left occipital parietal region with powder deposition within wound and on skull. Crania-cerebral injury. Missile recovered, large calibre, deformed, jacketed, lead. Trajectory: left to right (cannot be further evaluated).
No mention was made of the marks around the body’s neck that had so alarmed Dr George Weems, Corporal John Murphy, and Harry Lee Langley.
The report concluded:
William McClure, a 46 year old white male showing advanced decompositional changes, died of a penetrating gunshot wound to the head. The manner of death is undetermined. Signed Russell S. Fisher, M.D., Chief Medical Examiner.
Despite the fact that no one in his office had looked at the corpse until October 2, 1978, Fisher included in the report a sheet dated October 1, 1978, identifying the corpse as McClure. He did so on the basis of “fingerprints” that he said the FBI had on file for McClure.
Sometime after midnight, on October 3, 1978, the Director of Security at the CIA reached Corporal John Murphy, who informed him that the body was in terrible shape and that there was no way that they could identify it through simply exterior identification. The only possible way of confirming that the body was McClure’s was through fingerprint identification and dental examination.
Alerted by a source within the CIA as to McClure’s true standing within the agency, an enterprising young reporter wrote a story that appeared on the morning of Wednesday, October 4, in a small newspaper in Wilmington, Delaware, revealing that McClure was a “high-ranking CIA officer”, and that CIA officials were concerned that he might have been a KGB target because of the important information he had access to.
The story was picked up and carried by newspapers around the world, making the hitherto private matter of William McClure’s disappearance an international cause celebre.
A young naval officer, acting as a spokesperson for the Office of Public Affairs, called the story nonsense and described McClure as a “low level analyst”, which angered McClure’s wife, who said that her husband had been a high-ranking agent in the Office of Strategic Research.
Over the next few weeks, the reporter wrote a series of articles for the Wilmington newspaper, contesting the CIA Press Office’s claims regarding McClure’s standing within the agency and exposing the problems Maryland Police had with identifying the body. Not least amongst these was the fact that, according to a fingerprint card which the reporter had obtained in one day from the Coastguard Record Rooms, made when McClure entered the Merchant Marine in1952, the real William McClure was five feet eleven inches tall and weighed 170 pounds, whereas the body that Dr. Weems autopsied was five feet seven inches and weighed 144 pounds.
Hoping to identify the “floater”, Maryland State Police Corporal John Murphy contacted the FBI in the expectation of obtaining fingerprints of McClure. He was surprised to be told that the FBI had no fingerprint cards for McClure, these having been destroyed along with six million others as part of an FBI “housecleaning”. When, at a meeting at the Maryland State Police headquarters in Pikesville, the investigating officers asked the Director of Security whether the CIA had a fingerprint card for McClure, he replied that they didn’t, that they had only a “fingerprint classification card”, which, for identification purposes, was useless, and that all fingerprints cards of new employees had been turned over to the FBI, who, as we have already learnt, said that they had destroyed them.
On the basis of claims, contradicted by close friends and relatives, made by Air Force Colonel (retired) Bill Norton, who had allowed McClure to berth his yacht outside his Maryland waterfront home, and Amaya Zarragoitia, a research student in Psychology at George Washington University, whom McClure had been seeing in the final months of his life, and evidence that he had bought an extra diving belt at the National Diving Center at 4932 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington D.C. 20016, and under pressure from the Director of Security of the CIA, the Maryland Police nevertheless concluded that “William McClure died as a result of taking his own life sometime on or about 9-24-78”.
Although the physical evidence defies that conclusion, they determined that McClure had wrapped two nineteen-pound weight belts around himself, jumped from Mimsey, and shot himself in the head in midair.
Text copyright © Anthony T. Hopkins 2008. All rights reserved.