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Investigation of a Suicide: The Diaries (1 2)

In early October, 2001, I investigated the suicide death of his controversial Bush biographer, Jim Hatfield. I went looking for proof to the rumors that Hatfield had been murdered for exposing his sources on his Bush cocaine arrest story. Instead, I received a raw glimpse at the lurid and tarnished back alleys of U.S. politics, in the South and nation-wide. "Suicide Diary" was written while riding and living for 10 days in a van through Arkansas and Texas.

September 30 Manassas, Virginia

My journey has officially started. It is a quest for information about what may have lead up to or inspired the suicide of Jim Hatfield, American tragedy, amateur con man, antihero, [and] ironically one of the best biographers of George W. Bush. Just like at Bull Run, this country is on the brink of a war of which it has no sense of the full implications. And how unlucky we are to have as our leader an untested shivering ex-cheerleader who boasts in slang but doesn't know right from wrong. He just knows how to serve capital and to do as he's told.

There will be people in Jim Hatfield's hometown who have known him all his life. Will they know if he was the kind to give up? I don't think he was.

Here's an outline of my strategy for when I get to Bentonville, Arkansas:

1) Go to Springdale, where the police hold (and might share) the file on Jim’s suicide there.

2) Also, try to infiltrate the Bentonville police department. There's a chance that there's a dissident cop there, who fed info to us indirectly through his mother-in-law in California. Find out who's married to someone with a mom in California or west coast."

I say this because Bev from Online Journal has said that the mother-in-law has her source of inside information. She told me in late July that the mother-in-law mailed her a surface mail letter saying that the official story was false. The letter said there was no arrest warrant out for Jim Hatfield; there was a warrant out for George Burt, Hatfield's former coauthor on six books, his former cellmate, and the plaintiff on the charges of credit card fraud levied at Hatfield in his final hours.

Then, on September 3, I stood at a pay phone and listened to Bev tell me that the mother-in-law had reported new news: U.S. Marshals had recently seized the Hatfield files and told local police to be totally silent about the case.

So first is to find out who the son-in-law cop is. Second is find Bruce Gabbard, Hatfield's "Internet" guru and drinking partner. Third is go talk to Detective Barrios. See the suicide note. Fax it to NYC. In Dallas, interview George Burt. Take whatever other opportunities present themselves before I run out of money or time.

October 1 - outskirts of Lexington, Kentucky

Beginning of the end of the greed. Into the red, the brown and then the black and white. I'm sitting on the roof of the van in the bright and soft misty Kentucky sunshine. I have about 12 hours of driving ahead, to make it into Arkansas by 10 p.m. for a rendezvous with John Sergeant, the Brit from Channel 4 UK. It's 9:50 a.m.

I'm off to an early start. I drove nine hours yesterday and it wasn't easy. The V8 engine is holding up well and once it gets hot doesn't mind cruising at 75 mph. But it's loud, voracious, at 15 miles per gallon and it fills my body with tiny tremors. My back injury from ő93 is always with me on trips like this.

I stayed last night with fellow political junkie and playwright Herman D. Farrell and his lovely wife, Nancy. She is pregnant. They are having a kid. He's also practicing law part-time and they are buying a house. We talked about Bush, the crisis in Afghanistan, the Hatfield situation, and then watched TV. It was a show about lawyers. The Practice. It was dramatic.

I've got to move. Final thoughts: I'm wearing a UPS uniform shirt. Hey Arkansas, the truth is coming today via overnight delivery. Can you come down and sign? Country music is keeping me going. It's smart, verbal, thoughtful and emotional. Thank you, country.

Herman was flying the flag, a true old school Democrat. It was his father's flag from Tammany Hall. He explained as soon as he got there the reasons he was flying the colors - not because of blind patriotism, anger and fear, but because America is an unfinished experiment. His thesis is that it's only become closer to blending "word and deed" in the last 30 years, with Martin Luther King and Civil Rights movement - King who so often quoted the core texts of this experiment's foundation.

I'm fond of a few other things Herman said, which are worth noting:

1) It's terrifying (an adventure) to run for office. Herman found it terrifying that his father was willing to get out there and pass out flyers or shake hands every morning.

2) There's a pattern in this country with politicians like Clinton, who start young with lots of vigor and idealism, but the world compromises them (into nothingness?). Herman talks about the balance the system demands but who benefits from this "balance?"

Good name for a town, or the Program: Popular Bluff

Is this a joke?

October 2 - Rogers, Arkansas

Got into Bentonville, last night after 13 hours of driving. I took State Route 60 through most of Missouri as it snaked through the Ozarks. This van can do 80 mph even going up sharp inclines and for $850 I got such a deal. I tried to find John Sergeant from Channel 4 UK, but his place was delayed. The airport was very non-user-friendly. Hatfield told me once that Wal-Mart essentially had it built for this, the town of their corporate HQ. I was so delirious with fatigue I found myself offering rides to aloof strangers, people waiting around for their pre arranged rides. I gave quarters to grateful Latino fathers so their toddler sons could play the video games.

I tried to get a beer but the whole county is dry. You can't buy beer in stores. There are no bars, only members-only clubs in hotels. Great place. It kind of encourages drinking at home and therefore alcoholism. Was this a factor in the desperate end of Jim Hatfield?

Last night was the first I spent in the van. It was actually quite comfortable. I have a whole futon here in the back. I woke up early this morning and sat up and got my bearings. I was parked in a field near the Wal-Mart corporate HQ, next to landscaping supplies. As I tried to get going, a yuppie couple walked by on the street next to the field about 30 yards away. They stared long and hard at this shaggy dude sitting groggy in his van. I should have waved. Instead I felt like a degenerate.

As I was writing the paragraph above, Myra Moran from the local Democratic Party stopped by, chatted. She thinks Hatfield was "emotionally destroyed." Good. But can we prove it.

I just found John Sergeant, in a white Geo, in the lot here of the Library. Got to get to work.

October 3 - Bentonville

I saw the suicide note. It's pretty heavy. I was struck at the rambling desperate nature, but Sergeant was struck at Jim's bluntness and lack of self-pity. But Jim was nothing but one pitiful character: $125 thousand in debt but still making payments on a BMW. Dying with $900 cash in his pocket. Was that a last grasp at the riches he always dreamed of, withdrawing cash before dying?

The BMW of this former Reagan Democrat strikes me as a metaphor for his American Dream: a grasping after the bright surface of sure success and society‚s approval, while on the inside there lives a truth no one knows until too late: doubt, debt, insecurity, alcoholism, and failure. The quest to go up against the political establishment armed with nothing but the truth ended in foundering. But his version of the American Dream, keeping up appearances of success no matter what, showed that Jim was pursuing things that might have always been beyond his grasp.

Reading the suicide note is like colliding with a building. Mark Schone from Rolling Stone is down here too. He had dinner with us at the Ruby Tuesday. He's a hardened New Yorker. He's like, "What did you think it would be?" I hate being talked down to. I stuttered and said, "It's the first bit of proof I've seen."

I'm stuffing down eggs and ham at RJ's Coffee Shop, which is like a converted Denny's, the interior covered in smoke.

We're going to the Bentonville Police Department, to get Jim's criminal file on his fi

nancial fraud allegations. Yesterday, I met with Detective Barrios in Springdale, who investigated the suicide. Barrios is a plump, pleasant detective. He's no NYPD. He's kind and sensitive to people's emotional needs. In the middle of dealing with the suicide note he asked if I was all right. I had gone to the bathroom and he thought I was really upset. In truth, I was flipping the tape on my recording device. I feel bad. He was so nice. I was so untrusting.

He handed me a copy of the full Springdale file on Jim. A big step towards clarity on this. But getting a copy of the Bentonville Hatfield file is more important. The mother-in-law told us this file has been seized by the Feds, or was she talking about the Springdale suicide file, which I now have?

So if the Bentonville file exists then the mother-in-law's credibility is in serious trouble. If there's an arrest warrant for Jim, and none for George Burt, someone is wrong, and it's not the cops. I already suspect the mother-in-law is not credible.

John Sergeant has a background researching the assassination of MLK and the death of Danny Cassollarro. He believes that men in power tend to conspire to keep that power. So when MLK begins to campaign for the rights of all working people and the poor, he is silenced. When Danny Cassollarro gets in too deep researching BCCI, Bush [SR.?], Iran/Contra, the October Surprise, etc. Then bam! Dead in a motel room in West Virginia. "A suicide." But

Mark Schone has a different theory: people looking to prove a pre-conceived conspiracy usually can, but that doesn't mean it's true. Mark has this annoying habit of asking questions and then interrupting your answer with his own. He's got that New York cynical media writer's edge. I don't trust that vibe. He's also a big Clintonite, so my comments on Vince Foster's suspicious death were met with a general dismissal about how all military people are Republican, so Clinton couldn't have gotten any supporters in the military/intelligence worlds to kill for him.

At the same time I must say that what's good about having Mark around is that he's covering all the bases, doing a serious print story about this and interviewing everyone he can. We're sharing info. He's certain I have a pre-conceived theory about this investigation, but I'm trying to get him to understand that new information does have an effect. I'm sensitive to the ways my mind grew defensive about Hatfield's ugly past and good book. I'm trying to expose my own bias as I go.


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