My People are Rising: Memoir of a Black Panther Party Captain – Aaron Dixon

DixonOn August 22, 1989, former Chairman of the Black Panther Party for self-defense Huey P. Newtown (1942-1989) was shot and killed in Oakland, California at the early age of forty-seven. The violent ending to his life is a reminder that the streets are unforgiving, and should one choose to embrace them, death is a constant threat. In prior years, Newton rose to fame with party co-founder Bobby Seale as the organization spread across America and became an unavoidable presence, catching the eye of Washington, D.C. The Panthers became so feared that former Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) said “the Black Panther party, without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.” Hoover refused to see that the Panthers had become an image solidarity and masculinity to thousands of Black youths who had seen and suffered racial discrimination. In the Pacific Northwest, a young man named Aaron Dixon listened to a speech by Bobby Seale and knew from that point on that he was destined to join the Black Panther Party. This book is his memoir of life on the West Coast and the ten years he spent as a Black Panther Party Captain.

It is not necessary to have extensive knowledge of the Black Panther Party before reading this book, but it will be helpful to know who the party’s leaders were. Bobby Seale enters the story quite early, and Dixon is clear that the speech he watched served as the moment when he knew he had found his calling. As a captain, he was required to make the acquaintance of party leaders such as Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998), Fred Hampton (1948-1969) and Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998). However, they were assigned to other duties within the party and Dixon was dispatched to his hometown of Seattle. But before we get to the Seattle Chapter of the party, Dixon takes us down memory lane to his childhood. Readers will be surprised to learn that the author did not come from a broken home. And while things were not perfect, his background is not that of a child coming from dysfunction and gravitating to the streets. In high school he became a star athlete but the 1960s proved to be too scary, too unpredictable, and too painful for Dixon to focus solely on sports. But when he made the decision to see Seale speak, he did not know that his life would change forever.

When we think of the 1960s and America’s dark past of racial discrimination, images of the Deep South come to mind. But as Dixon shows, the South was not the only place where discrimination was an issue. And the stories that Dixon tells are crucial in understanding why the Panthers were so alluring and needed. From the start, he is fully committed to the party and emphatically says:

“For us, this was what putting on the Panther uniform was all about—standing up strong, refusing to be brushed aside and marginalized. We were dead serious when it came to the rights of the people. One thing was certain: if we had to die in the process, most of us were ready for that, too.” 

Huey P. Newton once said that the first thing a revolutionary must understand is that he is doomed from the start. Success becomes subjective in the face of imprisonment and death. Dixon experienced both extensively before leaving the party but his memories of the people who changed history are recorded here and serve as an invaluable account of how the party functioned from day to day. The public saw black leather jackets and matching berets but in private, things were not always as glamorous as the author shows. One thing that stood out is that the party members did not always know where they would be from one day to the next. This inevitably made marriage and children difficult and resulted in strained relationships between party members. And the threat of infiltration and arrest kept everyone on high alert. Despite the risks, there are success stories in the book that offset the events that nearly shattered the party’s morale.

To anyone watching, it was only a matter of time before the FBI placed the party in its crosshairs. J. Edgar Hoover’s paranoia about Black unity, spurred him to go after anyone and any group that had the power to alter American society. The bureau relied on deception and coercion cloaked under the guise of the infamous Counterintelligence Program (“COINTEL”). The covert actions utilized by the FBI set into motion a series of events that fractured the party resulting in mass exodus and expulsion of people who had joined at its start. And the influence of illegal narcotics in Black communities cannot be understated. Even party members were not immune to their destructive effects. Newton’s battle with drugs is widely known and discussed here as the party slides further into turmoil. Newtown’s paranoia became fueled by drug use and the party saw one of its darkest moments when Newton and Cleaver had a falling out live on air. Dixon can only watch as the party he joined with hopes of changing America, comes apart at the seams.

Before I mentioned that party members found it difficult to have “normal” lives. Dixon is no exception. He is frank about where he went wrong in life and speaks freely of the challenges that came with fatherhood, marriage, and lack of focus on accountability. I am sure that if Dixon could go back in time, he would change his past actions. Joining the party is not one of them. Following the devastating effects of COINTEL, the party became a shell of its former self. Dixon explains how the party changed its focus while trying to hold true to its roots. The section about Elaine Brown and her effect on Bay Area politics is interesting but even she could not avoid the increasingly paranoid Newton. Dixon had a working relationship with Brown and despite their differences, he gives her the praise she is due. However, as the book moves forward, Newton begins his downward spiral. Dixon did know Newton but not intimately as he explains in the book. And while he was in awe of Newton, he was not oblivious to his escalating drug habit and distrust of anyone he thought to be subversive.

While reading Dixon’s account of the party’s decline, it was clear that the writing was on the wall. When he makes his exit, he has given ten years of his life to the party. But as we learn, his life after the party was anything but normal. In fact, there are unexpected twists and turns in the story including a manhunt by the U.S. Marshall Service. I found myself speechless while reading the book’s conclusion. But there is redemption in the story and Dixon did learn from everything he experienced. Further, he is alive today and continues his political activism. Though his days in the Black Panther Party are long gone he is still a Panther at heart. This book was a surprise, and I am glad that I decided to add it to my library. The Black Panther Party, borne in a turbulent time in American history, stands as an example of the people rising up and saying, “no more”.

“I have no regrets about my ten years as a soldier in the Black Panther Party. In the end it is the memories that make life worth living, particularly the good memories. My memories of Huey P. Newton are of a young, rebellious, brave, captivating, eloquent genius who ignited a flame that will never die. My memories of the Black Panther Party are of men and women rising in unison to carry that flame, taking up a position of defiance, of sacrifice, and of undying love, infused with passion and determination to write a new, bold future for Black America. That eternal beacon will shine on, lighting the way for future generations and illuminating the past, helping us remember a time when the possibilities for humanity were endless.” – Aaron Dixon


The Death of a President: November 20 – November 25, 1963 – William Manchester

20220227_145712On November 25, 1963, my mother prepared to celebrate her birthday, but everyone knew there would be little joy that day. While my mother prepared herself for that day, officials in Washington were making the final adjustments to the funeral of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). In Texas, the family of Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) also made their adjustments to his funeral after he was shot and killed while in Dallas Police custody by nightclub owner Jack Rubenstein (1911-1967), known more commonly as Jack Ruby. Over the years, my mother has spoken about that day and has always said that it was the saddest birthday she can recall. The sorrow and tear-streaked faces of those around him are images that have been permanently embedded into my father’s memories that are still intact six decades later. Kennedy’s murder will continue to serve as a topic of debate but what is rarely discussed are his reasons for visiting Dallas and the warnings, he received not to travel to a city known for right-wing activity. Author William Manchester (1922-2004) was asked to author a book covering the Dallas trip from start to finish by former first lady Jacqueline (“Jackie”) Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994). And this account is a thorough explanation the five days in which America experienced the death of a president.

Manchester’s book is not an examination of the crime itself but focuses on the Kennedy party as it left Washington and somberly returned home with a fallen leader. Regarding the assassination, Manchester subscribes to the lone gunman theory but keeps Oswald’s story to a minimum. The book keeps its focus on Kennedy and what was left of his administration after the events in Dealey Plaza. To say that there was mass confusion after Kennedy’s murder would be an understatement. Frankly, all hell broke loose, and no one seemed sure of the procedure during a situation that called for instant responses. Shock consumed everyone but as we see in the book, few should have been surprised. Manchester did a thorough job of capturing the political turmoil as Kennedy sought to diffuse an inter-party battle between Senator Ralph Yarborough (1903-1996) (D-TX) and Texas Governor John Connally (1917-1993). A successful intervention by Kennedy would have paved the way for the presentation of a united Democrat front heading into the 1964 election. But those plans died with Kennedy on November 22, and I am sure that following the assassination, Yarborough must have realized how close he came to being gunned down had the squabble not resulted in him being forced to ride with Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973). The past comes to life through the author’s masterful storytelling in which the main characters assume their positions in a tragedy we know is unfolding.

Because the book is a re-creation of the past, there does exist the possibility that certain dialogue may have been added and/or changed. Manchester did conduct extensive research for the book, and it is my belief that the book is correct. However, it should be noted that Jackie did not approve of the first manuscript and asked Manchester to amend it. The completed manuscript that resulted in this book is admirable, but I did notice things that struck me as odd. The murder of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit (1924-1963) receives little attention in the story and is mentioned in passing. I also found statements from the author regarding Oswald’s alleged guilt to be slightly misleading. Assassination researchers will notice these things instantly. In Manchester’s defense, the book was not intended to be a critique of the crime or the Warren Commission. His assignment was to cover the Kennedy group from start to finish and in that regard he succeeded. But to be fair to the historical record, I belief assertions that Oswald was guilty are open to debate as there are still things about his life that remain a mystery.

After chaos breaks out in Dealey Plaza, the scene shifts to Parkland Hospital. Again, Manchester captures the atmosphere perfectly and supplies a thorough discussion of the panic that ensued following the shooting. Despite first reports, those closest to Kennedy knew the head wound was fatal. However, doctors did what they could before pronouncing him dead. Following the official declaration of death, the book produces a somber feeling as the group must take the body home and prepare for a funeral. The new Commander-In-Chief, Lyndon Johnson, comes across quite differently to what he has been portrayed as elsewhere. Grief consumed the presidential party and as we see in the book, each person managed it differently. This is another area where the book excels. The names of aides and officials will be familiar to readers but here they are parts of the story that do not produce an uplifting conclusion. I can only imagine the thoughts they had as the realization that Kennedy had just been murdered settled in. After making a rough departure from Parkland Hospital and Love Field, Air Force One is soon airborne and on its way back to the nation’s capital. But the story is far from over.

After arriving in Maryland, an autopsy is ordered, and Manchester re-tells the story of the arrival from Dallas. He does not discuss forensic aspects of the autopsy in detail but keeps the focus on the new widowed Jackie and the task of burying Kennedy. At this part of the story, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) becomes more of a presence as he aides his sister-in-law with the challenging task of saying goodbye to Jack. Readers interested in the funeral preparations and decisions that produced what was seen on television will appreciate this section. There is no joy to be found but what can be appreciated are the painstaking decisions and tasks executed by those who loved the late president. The impact of Kennedy’s death cannot be understated, and Manchester again captures the public sentiment and worldwide sadness in the wake of the assassination. The book’s inevitable conclusion slowly approaches as the funeral procession marches towards Arlington National Cemetery. The events seen on television screens are explained as a backdrop before Manchester closes the discussion.

Although I did find misstatements in the book, I still enjoyed reading it. Manchester brilliantly chronicled the Texas trip and the devastating fallout. Conspiracy theorists and researchers will know the story inside and out but for others who are not familiar with the Kennedy murder, this book is a reliable source of information about the reasons for the trip, the mood behind-the-scenes and the extraordinary effort needed to bring Kennedy home and restore order to Washington. There are things about the assassination we may never learn but Manchester’s work is a crucial part in keeping the historical record intact.

ISBN-10:‎ 0316370711
ISBN-13:‎ 978-0316370714

The Making of Lee Boyd Malvo: The D.C. Sniper – Carmeta Albarus and Jonathan M. Mack

MalvoIn October 2002, a series of murders occurred between the states of Maryland and Virginia, and the federal District of Columbia that spread fear and panic across the United States. News reports of a sniper moving across the area and striking at will, left law enforcement scrambling and citizens seeking arms and shelter. I remember watching the nightly news in anticipation that the police had captured the person(s) responsible for the crimes. On October 24, 2002, the nation felt relieved when John Allen Muhammad (1960-2009) and Lee Boyd Malvo were arrested while sleeping in their Chevrolet Caprice near Myersville, Maryland. Both were tried and convicted, with Muhammad receiving the death penalty and Malvo being sentenced to life in prison due to his age at the time of the murders. Muhammad was executed on November 10, 2009, at the Greenville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia and Malvo remains in prison today.

Malvo’s age drew intrigue from doctors and legal analysts with all wondering how a seventeen-year-old kid could have committed unimaginable crimes. John Allen Muhammad had become a second father to Malvo and had deeply influenced Malvo’s thoughts but what was not fully understood was how and why he was able to control his under-age conspirator. Carmeta Albarus is the president of CVA Consulting Services, Inc. and was hired during the investigation into the crimes to find information on Malvo’s background. As part of her work, she met with Malvo extensively and served as an advisor throughout his trial. This book is her explanation of what she discovered as the pieces of his life came together.

To understand Lee Boyd Malvo, we must travel back in time to the Caribbean nation of Jamaica where Malvo was born on February 17, 1985, to Leslie Malvo and Una James. The story is typical at first, but it soon becomes clear that trouble is brewing between Malvo’s parents. They eventually part ways and as the author shows, Malvo’s life was never the same again. Prior to reading this book, I did not know what Albarus reveals in this book. Malvo is a textbook case of the dangers that exist due to broken homes. The relationship between Malvo and his mother Una is unquestionably the root of the issues that came back to haunt both in later years. As I read the book, I could not believe what transpired between the two and the number of missed opportunities to provide Malvo with the foundation a child needs. However, there are times when Malvo knew his actions were wrong and he even admits to them. Further, Albarus was able to get close to him due in part to their shared Jamaican ancestry. This undoubtedly helped her gain Malvo’s trust and access to the demons that haunt him to this day. But even she could not have fathomed the level of dysfunction that existed because of a fractured relationship between mother and son and a dark figure eager to unleash a reign of terror.

Readers will notice that Malvo is never in one place for too long. His arrival in Antigua changed his life and set into motion a series of events that culminated with Malvo pulling the trigger on innocent victims. Una’s absence from Antigua could not have come at a worse time for John Allen Muhammad had also arrived on the island and from the start, he makes himself known as a disciplinary who can connect with the youth and influence their actions and thoughts. The information Albarus uncovered is overwhelming, yet it also explains why Malvo was drawn to the mysterious Muhammad. I knew that Muhammad had been in the military but there were details of his personal life of which I was not aware. He too was haunted by his past and Antigua served not only as a recruitment station but also as a place of refuge from America. However, he is without question the antagonist in the book. Had the two not been arrested, the number of victims would have been far higher. The two drifters found what they were looking for in each other and before long, a son would be lost, a father gone, and a nation would find itself on high alert.

The writing style used in the book is fluid and does not exude bias or condemnation. In fact, Albarus does an excellent job of analyzing Malvo and letting him speak for himself about his turbulent life. But at no time does she absolve him of guilt and confronts him on several things. He murdered innocent people, but this book poses the question, would he have done so had his home been stable and he had not John Allen Muhammad? The evidence presented by Albarus strongly indicates that he would be a free and functional adult today had his circumstances been different. It is rare for youths of Malvo’s age at the time of the murders to commit such heinous crimes and when they do happen, people are left to wonder why. In profiling Lee Boyd Malvo, Albarus tackles the tough questions getting to the root of the issues he had. And those issues played a significant role in his inability to think independently, walk away from Muhammad and confront the unresolved issues between him and his mother. To be fair, there were people who tried their best to help Malvo while enduring the wrath of his mother Una. Despite their efforts, the young Malvo never found a haven. And as Albarus states frankly:

“We believe that if even one person had stood up for Malvo to keep him in a positive foster placement, such as with the Maxwells, free from his mother’s constant disruption of the positives in his life, he would not have been susceptible to Muhammad’s machinations.” 

The book is not an attempt to lay blame for the crimes elsewhere. It is a thorough discussion of what happens when we fail children. My brother and I were lucky to have both parents at home as kids and we are more fortunate today to still have them in our lives. The late rap star Tupac Shakur once said that “you need a man to teach you how to be a man”. Truer words have rarely been spoken. Malvo himself is cognizant of the role his own father played in his development. Albarus notes that:

“As I tentatively brought up the subject of Malvo’s life in Jamaica, he spoke passionately about his biological father, Leslie Malvo. “He gave me balance. My dad was the nurturer.” That balance was upset when the bond with his biological father was broken.” 

Towards the end of the book, I could not help thinking that there somewhere out there is another Lee Boyd Malvo who is in danger of falling into the wrong hands. The key is reaching him or her before it is too late. For Lee Boyd Malvo, that time has passed, and he has the rest of his life to think about the actions that led to his permanent incarceration. The families of the victims will never fully heal and the names of John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo will remain infamous for an eternity. If you remember the D.C. Sniper attacks and have unanswered questions about the relationship between Malvo and Muhammad, this book is highly recommended.


The Journalist of Castro Street: The Life of Randy Shilts – Andrew E. Stoner

shiltsThe first time I watched the HBO film “And the Band Played On“, I found myself speechless after it had finished. The AIDS crisis had grown exponentially and the invisible enemy that was originally thought to be a “gay disease” had shown the world that it did not discriminate. The HIV virus that can develop into AIDS spread fast and furiously, claiming the lives of people no one would have expected to succumb to it. Among those figures were movie star Rock Hudson (1925-1985), tennis great Arthur Ashe (1943-1993) and music legend Freddy Mercury (1946-1991). And no one can forget the story of teenager Ryan White (1971-1990), whose experience captivated America. I personally will never forget the announcement on national television by former NBA star Ervin “Magic” Johnson that he had tested positive for HIV. The HBO film was a success and the adaptation of the book by journalist Randy Shilts (1951-1994) for the silver screen has continued to honor his legacy decades after his death. Prior to writing “the Band” as it is called in this biography, Shilts had also written “The Mayor of Castro Street” about the life of the late San Francisco City Supervisor and gay rights activist Harvey Milk (1930-1978). Having read both books, I instinctively knew that this biography of Shilts was a book that I needed to read.

Admittedly, there was much about Shilts’s life that I did know prior to reading this book. I was aware that he had succumbed to AIDS. But his personal life still held an aura of mystery. This book removes the mystique and peels back the layers to Shilts’s short but incredible life that began in Davenport, Iowa and ended in Guerneville, California. At the time of his death, Shilts was only forty-two years old and had authored his final book titled “Conduct Unbecoming”, about the experience of LGBT personnel in the military. Here, author Andrew Stoner takes us back to Aurora, Illinois where we are given an inside look into the home of Bud and Norma Shilts who raised six sons. At first the story feels like a typical mid-western account. We soon learn that the Shilts household has its problems that would affect everyone within.

It is evident early in the story that Randy is “different” from his siblings. But he was able to maintain relationships with them to varying degrees. It was here that I learned the story of all six sons for the first time and what the author reveals is interesting and mystifying. In fact, readers may find themselves puzzled as the story of brother Ronald Shilts is told. The boys’ parents also have their own demons to confront but it is a story that we have seen many times before. But despite the issues at home, Shilts never wavered in his love towards them and in later years comes to understand them in separate ways. But I do believe his childhood experiences explain in part why he left home in search of acceptance. Ironically, he later finds acceptance from one person I did not expect. As Shilts gets older, his life takes unexpected turns and when he lands in San Francisco, the story quickly picks up in pace. I do not believe that he had any idea how San Francisco would change his life and American history.

Shilts soon finds himself working for the San Francisco Chronicle, writing about issues in the gay community of which he is a part. As I read this section of the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time to Castro Street as Harvey Milk and others were challenging the establishment emboldened by the actions of anti-LGBT activist Anita Bryant. Shilts is a first-hand witness and covered the issues extensively while at the same time struggling to confront his own demons and vices that threaten to derail his life and career. The author left no stone unturned and allows us to see the battle in private that Shilts was waging against himself. Happiness became a lost item in his life as one challenge after another presented itself. And lurking in the shadows was a virus that would leave death and devastation in its wake as it ravaged communities and exposed the dark side of politics and the health care industry.

In some ways this biography rivals the story told in “the Band”. In particular, the complicated situation Shilts found himself in must have been difficult and emotionally draining. As the issue of the bath houses comes to a boiling point, Shilts nearly becomes an enemy of the state in the LGBT community. Readers will find his interactions with both Harvey Milk and former California State Senator John V. Briggs (1930-2020) highly interesting. The AIDS epidemic continues to gain speed and it becomes clear that it is a threat no one had seen before. Shilts eventually makes the decision to author the book that catapulted him into the national spotlight but the path to complete was anything but simple. Further, the author provides an interesting assessment of the patient zero origin and the truth about Gaëtan Dugas (1953-1984), the Air Canada flight attendant who was demonized and accused of intentionally spreading HIV. In October 2016, news reports surfaced that Dugas did not spread HIV to the United States. However, at the time of Shilts’s work on the book, the flight attendant was believed to be the main person responsible for the destruction in San Francisco’s gay community. Shilts did not live to see Dugas vindicated but I believe that if he had lived, he would have regretted the turmoil press reports caused the Canadian until his death on March 30, 1984.

Shilts’s masterpiece did have its flaws but has stood the test of the time as a literary classic. But the HIV virus spared no one, not even Shilts himself. Exactly when he learned he had HIV is lost to history but as the virus progresses and develops into AIDS, his life becomes a race against the clock. His decline and realization that he cannot escape his fate spurs him to author his final book. If you have read other books that describe death from AIDS, you know that this story will not be easy to finish. The information presented about the final years of his life as he struggled with his health and the raging AIDS crisis will remind older readers about a time in history when no one knew how to interact with someone who had AIDS yet many of us knew someone who had contracted HIV. Today the virus that causes AIDS is no longer a death sentence but in the 1980s, the diagnosis of Kaposi sarcoma and a positive HIV test result meant a trip to the grave as doctors struggled to develop medication to combat the growing menace. If Shilts were alive, he would have the benefit of modern medicine and the ability to live a full life. He is gone but his work will never be forgotten. And I am glad that I decided to read his life story which has left me with a better understanding of what inspired him to author the classics that continue to give knowledge and wisdom to new readers. This is a good look at the life of Randy Shilts.


The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution – James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project

carlosOn the evening of February 4, 1983, twenty-four-year-old Wanda Lopez arrived at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, to begin her shift as a gas station attendant. She never finished that shift. After noticing a suspicious male brandishing a knife, Lopez called police not once but twice before she was savagely attacked and fatally wounded. In less than one hour, police arrested twenty-year-old Carlos Deluna and charged him with the murder. Deluna entered a plea of not guilty and chose to stand trial where he was convicted and later sentenced to death. On December 7, 1989, he was executed at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Prosecutors had secured a conviction and put forth the notion that justice had been served in the State of Texas. However, Deluna maintained his innocence from the start and stated more than once that he knew who did kill Lopez. The name “Carlos Hernandez” became an area of interest, yet officials claimed that no such person existed, nor had he been incarcerated in Texas. But were they telling the truth? And was justice served in Deluna’s execution? James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project examined the Lopez murder and the fate of Carlos Deluna to uncover what really happened and find the truth behind a dark story that will send chills down the spine of readers.

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Carlos Deluna or the murder of Wanda Lopez. But that quickly changed as I began to read this unsettling and thought-provoking account of the justice system failing to deliver due process. The book focuses on the Lopez murder early on as expected. From the start, the crime itself makes no sense and we learn early that a couple of the witnesses whom the police questioned remained haunted by that night. And their admissions regarding what they saw or thought they saw that night, set the stage for the saga to come, and presents the basis for doubt of Deluna’s guilt. After presenting the subsequent statements of witnesses to the crime, the authors take us back to that night in February 1983 when Wanda Lopez lived her last moments. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of violence and crime scenes may find this part of the book difficult. However, the scene and actions of forensic investigators will have enormous consequences later in the story, when the authors review the collection of vital evidence.

Deluna was assigned legal counsel and the job of defending him fell on Hector De Peña and James Lawrence. De Peña had no experience in defending a capital murder defendant, but Lawrence was an experienced trial lawyer. To their credit, De Peña and Lawrence do their best to mount a defense but come across naive to the determination of prosecutors to see their client convicted and sentenced to death. Despite the State’s imposing presence, De Peña and Lawrence also made mistakes in defending their client. Deluna insisted all along that he was innocent and was adamant that Carlos Hernandez was the man responsible for Lopez’s death, yet it seemed as if no one took him seriously. But just who was Carlos Hernandez and was he as dangerous as Deluna stated?

I have read accounts of countless murder suspects, but few come across as deadly and cold-blooded as Carlos Hernandez. Frankly, the man was pure evil and his propensity for violence towards women is chilling and on full display in the book. He is undoubtedly the darkest figure in the story but incredibly, he was well-known to law enforcement and had committed offenses before and after Lopez’s murder. And as readers will learn, prosecutors were aware of his existence but made no attempt to present him in Deluna’s trial. Deluna’s counsel failed to follow leads that might have taken them to Hernandez. As someone who works in the legal field, I found myself staring in disbelief at the legal practice conducted by the prosecution and defense. And I kept asking myself why a man like Carlos Hernandez was allowed back on the streets of Texas when authorities knew how dangerous he was? And why did Deluna’s lawyers fail to call witnesses who could have provided the jurors with vital information about Deluna’s personal issues and Hernandez’s existence?

I warn readers that Hernandez is a dark figure, but the mini biography provided by the authors does provide explanations as to why he became a monster. To say that his family was dysfunctional would be an understatement. As for Deluna, the authors also provide a biographical sketch of him, and his back story explains his own path in life. Surprisingly, the two men both named Carlos were not strangers to each other and it is this part of the story that seemed to be lost on all counsel. As I read, I kept scratching my head at the missed opportunities to locate Carlos Hernandez and put an end to the mystery. And considering the multitude of crimes that Hernandez committed and his own admissions, it does make one wonder how he evaded punishment so many times. There was more to his story than the State wanted defense counsel to discover. The authors provide another crucial piece of evidence in their assessment that directly addresses the eyewitness testimony: side-by-side photos of both men. When I saw the photo of both men side-by-side, I could not tell them apart and would have picked “the wrong Carlos” myself. Without the aid of DNA technology, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence were the tools of the trade, and the police made a mess of both.

Earlier I mentioned that the crime scene and actions of investigators had an enormous impact on the trial. The way it impacted the trial is explained by the authors who pay close attention to the handling of evidence and the failure to preserve clues that could have proven conclusively the guilt or innocence of the correct person. If you have watched any modern-day crime show such as “The First 48”, then you know the collection of evidence is the primary concern of investigators. Readers will find themselves aghast as the actions of crime scene investigators. I could not believe what I was reading. If new detectives need a case study on what not to do, it can be found here. Though they did not know it at the time, the actions of investigators helped seal the fate of Carlos Deluna.

It becomes clear in the book that Deluna is headed for conviction. The deck is stacked against him. Following the guilty conviction, the next phase of determining whether he should die was a foregone conclusion. However, he and his family never gave up and exhausted the appeals process to secure his freedom. Yet again, Deluna had legal counsel who neither prepared the case appropriately nor sought to find the mysterious Carlos Hernandez who was hiding in plain sight. The book is both spellbinding and overwhelming. And to think that his happened in America where we are entitled to due process is upsetting. If Carlos Deluna was not a poor man of Mexican heritage but a rich man of another background, he might be alive today. And Carlos Hernandez would have found himself on death row.

Admittedly, Carlos Deluna was no angel and had been in trouble with the law himself before Lopez’s murder. However, his cognitive and emotional issues were neglected throughout his life and resulted in him finding companionship with people who only knew violence and dysfunction. Today Deluna would have at his disposal programs and counseling to help with his issues but in 1983 in a poor part of Texas, help was almost non-existent and slow cognitive development was stigmatized. I never met Carlos Deluna, but I now know his story. Despite everything he went through, he left his family with these words that show a man resigned to his fate and adamant about his innocence:

“I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up. —Last words of Carlos DeLuna, December 7, 1989, as recorded by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” – Carlos Deluna

This is the story of Carlos Deluna, Carlos Hernandez, and a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas that shows how society and the criminal justice system failed those they were designed to protect.


Shantaram: A Novel – Gregory David Roberts

20220123_132734This review will be different from my normal write-up as I have stepped back into the world of fiction. This book came as a gift, and it is one that I will cherish infinitely. But before I continue, I want to point out that this book is long. In fact, it is over nine hundred pages in length and not for the faint at heart. If the length of the book does not deter you, then you will find an incredible story that will remain with you for years to come. And by the time the story ends, readers will be eager to learn more about the lives of the characters that come to life in this spellbinding tale.

The book opens with the main character arriving in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. No one knows his real name and he is fugitive from his native Australia. His fake New Zealand passport allows him to enter the country and it is not long before he becomes aware of how life operates in Bombay. Soon he meets one of the most cheerful characters in the story, Prabaker who we come to know as Prabu. Our character needs a name and becomes Lin or more intimately, Linbaba. Prabu becomes his guide in the new city, and the locals are drawn to the new white face whose background remains a mystery. Lin is soon introduced to the group of characters that form the backbone of the book: Karla, Didier, Modena, and Maurizio. Each has their own backstory which is explained at various points in the book. Of the group, Lin quickly makes friends with Didier who is a rascal and finds himself attracted to Karla, who plays a significant role in events that come later in the book. Modena and Maurizio also play a significant role but for darker and more disturbing reasons.

Money and shelter become the primary concerns for the new arrival, but Lin is able to survive on side hustles before moving to a well-known slum. From this point on in the story, the darkest aspects of Bombay come to life and the people Lin meets while working as a “physician” in the slum, set in motion a chain of events that bring him into to the criminal underworld, However, Lin is a complex figure and performs acts of courage and kindness throughout the book while learning more about the underworld and its lucrative financial incentives. His actions as a deadly plague breaks out in the slum will remind readers of the danger that comes with living in under-developed parts of the world. However, Lin in aware that eyes are watching him as he is performing feats of courage in the slum. As a foreigner, he was destined to stand out and eventually crosses paths with Bombay’s most feared figure, Abel Khader Khan. Khader becomes a second father to Lin who calls him Khaderbai. Through his mentor, he makes the acquaintance of Abdullah and Nazeer, two pillars of strength throughout the story.

Karla is never far from Lin’s mind and one day she approaches him to assist her in solving a problem at a local establishment. It is here that we are introduced to the notorious Madame Zhou. As they leave, Karla and Lin are under the impression that all is well, but they are unaware that Lin now has a target on his back. Ulla, who is intimately involved with Modena, approaches Lin for a favor that requires they meet at a local restaurant late at night. Lin agrees but this trip turns out to be unlike any he has taken before. Things soon go wrong, and Lin finds himself in a world of trouble. To say he goes through hell would be an understatement. The savageness of human nature is put on full display and the author pulls no punches.

As the dark horrors of Bombay become a painful reality, Lin is forced to confront his own demons from his life in Australia. Readers familiar with the author’s life will recognize that the fictional Lin is based on Roberts’s real-life experiences. The other characters in the book are composites of people he knew, and parts of the story are inspired by true events. Karla is the book’s most mysterious character and Lin can never quite figure her out. However, she comes to his aid when needed and serves as a voice of reason at times. But Lin is not mentally where he needs to be and his association with Khader, Abdullah and others in the Bombay underworld, are far from over.

I mentioned before that the story has twists and turns that come of out of nowhere. Lin could not have imagined that he would become friends with Bombay’s biggest gangster or that he would follow him all the way to Afghanistan. At this part in the story, I thought I had mis-read when I learned of the group’s mission there. The story is surreal but makes sense after we learn more about Khader and another figure, Khaled. They are joined by others whose lives have been changed by the Soviet invasion in 1979. However, understanding each of them is not easy but through Lin, their lives come into focus, and we are able to see the complexity of human nature. The men know they must commit dark deed but believe that out of the darkness comes light. The relationship between Lin and Khader is put to the test and before the mission is over, Lin will be re-born. Upon returning to Bombay, Lin is a changed man but wiser to Bombay’s dark side and there remains unfinished business in the underworld. Madame Zhou reappears in what is one of the book’s crazier moments.

The characters in the story are a mix of good and bad and that is what makes it work so well. Some have committed crimes, others have turned to drugs, yet each is struggling to understand their own existence while engaged in one hustle to the next. Roberts does an excellent job of focusing on the concept of morality without directly addressing it. Instead, we learn about the characters and are able to make our own judgments. Upon learning their backgrounds, I found that I did not dislike the majority, and the duality in their nature is given close attention. The story also reminds the reader that the saying there is no honor amongst thieves has a ring of truth to it. But is that accurate in Shantaram? And is it possible that sometimes you must commit an evil act to produce a greater good? As the book shows, there are aspects of human nature that can never be erased but carefully hidden. And as Lin learns in Bombay, the heart means everything in India. The locals, despite their living conditions, are content and teach Lin valuable lessons that one might suspect cannot be found in the slums of Bombay.

As the book moves forward towards its conclusion, Lin becomes embedded in the social fabric of Bombay and well-known to everyone in the underworld. When he arrived at the beginning of the book, he could not have anticipated the road he would take. But at this point in the story, he is a seasoned gangster who has lost as much as he has gained. He comes to terms with the actions and lives of those around him and their effect on his life. Karla remains close, as do Didier and others such as Lisa, Vikram, Lisa and Kavita. Linbaba completes a long journey and along the way we learn why the name Shantaram is so fitting. There is far more the story than I have mentioned here and readers will enjoy reading the book. It is long but written very well and the story is easy to follow. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0312330529
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0312330521

Survival in the Killing Fields – Haing S. Ngor

ngorOn March 25, 1985, the 57th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. During the ceremony, the category of best supporting actor was called, and the winner was Haing S. Ngor (1940-1996), a doctor born and raised in Cambodia, who had survived the Khmer Rouge dictatorship under the notorious Pol Pot (1925-1998). Ngor had starred as Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (1942-2008) in the 1984 film The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, and Craig T. Nelson. The movie is tough to watch due to its sensitive subject matter but also an important work of art that captured a time in world history when a revolution nearly destroyed an entire nation permanently.

I was familiar with the Khmer Rouge before starting the book and I have seen the film more than once. I have also read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a gripping account of life under the Khmer Rouge. Her story was adapted for the big screen and in 2017, Netflix released the film of the same name directed by Angelina Jolie. Though there are some modifications to the story in the film, it is follows the book fairly closely and shows how Cambodian society was turned upside down during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Ngor is even more blunt in how life changed for Cambodians:

“The truth was that under the communists the country was much worse off than it had ever been during my lifetime. We had no electricity. No clocks or automobiles. No modern medicines. No schools. No religious worship. Very little food. And we lived in constant fear of the soldiers.”

The book begins with Ngor remembering his early life and fragile relationship with his father. A volatile temper and determination to resist anything he felt was unfair, resulted in Ngor going through a series of inconvenient situations, including one with his father that placed their relationship under great strain. However, he eventually graduates from medical school and begins to practice medicine. Life as a doctor is good and at home, his wife Huoy performs the traditional duties of a wife in Cambodian society. On April 17, 1975, their lives were changed permanently when Pol Pot and his revolutionaries seized control of Cambodia under the guise of rebuilding society. Millions of Cambodians had no idea what would come next as the extremists dismantled society piece by piece. To give the reader an idea of how extreme their ideloogy was, Ngor explains that:

“The Khmer Rouge wanted a complete change of society, from top to bottom. Gone was everything that had governed our lives in the old times. Lon Nol was gone, airlifted to America before the fall; Sihanouk was gone, his fate a mystery. The monks were gone.” 

Following the takeover, families were uprooted and forced to move, typically to distant parts of the country to engage in heavy manual labor. Famine, inhumane treatment, and lack of crucial resources gave rise to disease, hunger, and death in work camps across the country. Ngor himself suffered illness on more than one occasion as he explains in the book. Had it not been for his medical training which he kept secret for reasons also disclosed in the book, he surely would have perished. The aid of his wife Huoy was invaluable and she served as his guardian angel on more than one occasion. But her fate and that of those around them, are among the difficult moments in the book. And when not facing death from hunger or disease, workers were reminded through vicious and bloodthirsty guards that Angkar was  watching. This system of surveillance gave men and women incentive to spy on each other and tell what they saw, even if it meant death to those accused. Ngor becomes a first-hand witness to the brutal system of torture that Angkar notoriously used to break the spirit of those needing “reformation”.

As time progressed, cracks in the surface began to show and Ngor realizes that the regime is slowly falling apart. The Khmer Rouge’s idea of transforming society was a complete failure and in its attempt to flex its muscle, it had angered the North Vietnamese Government which soon made it a goal to deal with Cambodia. In April 1979, the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But for Ngor and millions of his fellow citizens, the occupation by Vietnam did not end their ordeal overnight. Cambodia had been freed of one communist government only to be replaced by another. Those who were able realized the only option was to cross the border into Thailand. The journey was not easy and bandits along the way were just as ruthless as the Khmer Rouge if not worse at times. But in Thailand, the full weight of his ordeal comes crashing down when he reflects that:

“By 1979 Cambodia was utterly destroyed. Next door in Thailand were paved roads, beautiful temples and more rice than the people could eat. As a refugee, the more I saw of Thailand, the angrier I became. It was the anger of a man who finds out he has been lied to all his life.” 

After arriving in Thailand, Ngor slowly puts his life together and through a series of chance encounters, he befriends John Crowley of the Joint Volunteer Agency who paves the way for his next journey to the United States where he is joined by his adopted niece Sophia. His entry into America was rough at first but it is clear from the start that in comparison to the Cambodia he had left behind, America was a brand new and welcomed experience. And luck was on his side again when he was scouted and picked to star in the Killing Fields. His performance and win at the Oscars transformed Ngor into a celebrity but the experiences in Cambodia remained fresh in his mind and a heavy burden to bear. Ngor never ceased to labor on behalf of those still in Cambodia who never wanted to see another Khmer Rouge takeover. IN spite of his fame and success, Ngor remained haunted by what he saw and experienced. He reminds the reader that the Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly every part of Cambodian society. And I believe that this sombering statement bythe author sums up the experiences of those held under the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge:

“The Cambodian holocaust ripped through our lives, tossing us randomly, leaving none of us the way we were. You can blame who you want, the outside powers for interfering, or our own internal flaws like corruption and kum, but when the talking is over we still do not know why it had to happen. The country is still in ruins, millions have died and those of us who survived are not done with our grieving.”  

The book closes with more reflection by Ngor of Cambodia and his life in America. By this time, Sophia had moved out and the two had not spoken. In the epilogue, we learn more of their relationship and future interactions. Also, more information is provided about Ngor’s return to Cambodia, his business dealings and difficulties in life while living in Los Angeles. After finishing Ngor’s heartbreaking account of his life, readers will need to prepare for another difficult part in the book: Ngor’s final days.

On February 25, 1996, Ngor was returning home when he drove past three Asian street gang members. The trio was high on crack cocaine and saw him as their next target to score more cash. It is believed that after asking for his money and other valuables, the thieves also wanted a chain he wore which contained a locket holding a picture of his late wife Huoy. Ngor undoubtedly would have refused, and readers will understand why after finishing his story. Prosecutors stated that shots were fired and Ngor fell to the pavement gasping for air. He died on the scene at the age of fifty-five. It should be noted that the killers did not take Ngor’s car or money, leading people to believe that the killing was related to his past in Cambodia. It is difficult to say but there is one clue provided in the epilogue related to the political climate in Cambodia at the time that might explain who would have wanted him dead. We may never know the real motive for his death, but the shooter was sentenced to life in prison and his accomplices each received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

In the future when I watch The Killing Fields again, I will now have a deeper appreciation for Ngor’s performance. I wish I had known more about him upon viewing the film for the first time. However, my lack of knowledge regarding his personal life does not detract from the viewing experience. The film is haunting as it should be to show viewers the danger of poisonous rhetoric. Voltaire had it right when he wrote that “any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices“. Haing S. Ngor was witness to one of history’s greatest crimes and lived to tell the tale of Cambodia’s darkest days. And even today, this book can server as reminder of the dangers that come with extremism and importance of addressing extreme ideology before it is too late.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B019NFEM42

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Douglass The history of America is dark at times, and those moments have been omitted or neglected for many years. However, they are crucial to understanding how and why the United States developed into the nation that it is today. As an American, I am constantly seeking to understand my own country and clarify the myths that have propagated with regards to its past. I am learning uncomfortable truths, but they have not diminished the love that I have for America. In the history of this country, the name of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) remains a reminder of the institution of slavery that degraded human beings, served as the backbone of an economic system, and led America towards a civil war. Douglass was born into the slave system and became a free man as an adult. This is his story of his time in bondage, freedom from oppression and evolution into a public speaker.

The story begins with Douglass’s early years at the home of his grandparents. He had not understood that he was born into slavery and had no concept of it. But that soon changed when he was taken to meet his siblings whom he had never met. They reside on a plantation owned by former Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd (1779-1834). And it was here that Douglass came to know the horrors of the slave system for the first time. His observation about the lack of connection to his siblings reveals a devastating effect of slavery. Douglass points out that:

“The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.” 

The family is the backbone for our journey through life and Douglass understood the tragedy that developed from its destruction. His words are tough to read at times and the cruelty he endures did not always come at the hands of slaveowners or overseers. In fact, the actions of his Aunt Katy are equally deplorable and the two of them never established a close bond. Douglass’ mother does enter the story but briefly and for reasons the reader will find disgust in. However, her life and role are also an example of slavery’s goal in breaking down the will and spirit of those caught in its grip. There is, however, something that Douglass points out which is interesting about slavery itself. During his time in bondage, he observed the lives of blacks and whites, and this statement regarding what he saw is interesting:

“I knew of blacks who were not slaves; I knew of whites who were not slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were nearly white, who were slaves. Color, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery.”

Racism was undeniably a contributing factor for enslavement, but revenue was the driving factor. The system of slavery did not see individuals, but property to be used until it was no longer useful.  The effects upon human chattel were disregarded by those in power. But slaves were not content with remaining in bondage, and it was not long before rebellions erupted across slave-owning territories. The names of John Brown (1800-1859), Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) and Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) stand out among the scores of men and women determined to destroy the system of slavery. Their actions were not lost on Douglass who keenly observed that rebellions would increase as the enslaved sought their natural born right to be free. As Douglass ages, he becomes more aware of the changing sentiment in America and the undercurrent of emotions by those in bondage and their allies in the abolitionist movement. As Douglass states himself:

“The insurrection of Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was present, that God was angry with the white people because of their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were abroad in the land.”

I warn readers that his experiences on Lloyd’s plantation are not for the faint at heart. The degradation he endures should spark the fire of anger in anyone who reads this book. I found myself becoming emotional as I read his words and I cannot imagine the humiliation inflicted upon him and others who lived on the plantation. And what is interesting is that the plantation was not located in the deep south but in the State of Maryland. And his life became even more difficult when he was given to Capt. Thomas Auld, a former Army Commander during the War of 1812. Auld quickly becomes the darkest figure in the book and his cruelty towards Douglass is abhorrent. He was determined to break Douglass down and nearly succeeded completely as readers will learn in the book. However, the relationship between Douglass and Auld’s wife Lucretia offsets the darker moments. During his time with Auld, Douglass grows into a strapping young man and becomes determined to escape slavery at all costs. He first refuses to be beaten and after learning to read, began to understand how slavery functions at its core and why illiteracy is a necessary component to keep slaves in line. Once he learns the truth, his path to freedom comes into full focus. However, Douglass never fully reveals how he escaped from Maryland, likely to protect those who had assisted him. He does discuss how he became a free man once in the North but is also careful in that regard.

Following his escape from Maryland, he arrives in New York City but for a short amount of time before moving on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, Douglass soon learns that prejudice is not solely a product of the South. As he explains, he had his fair share of humiliation in the North as well. However, he was now free and despite the treatment by whites, he continued to evolve and mature. And his spirit becomes unbreakable. He also learns that he has the gift of oration and soon explores that talent to its fullest extent. Today he is regarded as one of the most popular voices of his time but regrettably, none of us will ever have the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. The story takes yet another turn when he is invited to visit several countries in Europe. It is this part of the book in which Douglass learns important truths about America while away from its shores. And what he explains to the reader are supported by the statements from jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991), whose experiences in France had opened his eyes to the dysfunction in America. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was seasoned and armed with a better understanding of the world and the changes needed at home. He devoted the rest of his life the abolitionist movement and in 1877, he was confirmed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia after being selected by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). In later years, he attempted a run for president and held several posts in the U.S. Government. On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Washington, D.C. His wife Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903) lived several more years until her own death at the age of sixty-five.

I cannot overstate the importance of this work and why it is such a critical read. His story was the exception and not the normal course of action for thousands of enslaved people. He also revealed the contrast between the northern and southern parts of America, paying close attention to the prejudice against people of color across the nation. Frankly, life for Black people was short, humiliating and void of hope at times. However, Douglass and others like him, refused to live out their lives in bondage and were determined to gain their freedom even if it meant death. He is and always will be an icon for those who are oppressed and yearning for freedom.

The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Willful Misconduct: The Tragic Story of Pan American Flight 806 – William Norris

Norris806During a recent flight from San Francisco to New York, the aircraft encountered rough air while making its descent into John F. Kennedy (JFK) Airport. The flight attendant began to speak on the intercom and informed all passengers to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts. He also added “don’t worry, the pilots are trained for this”. I thought to myself that it is good because if they are not, then we have a big problem on this plane. Thinking back on it today, I have come to realize that passengers place an enormous amount of trust in the hands of pilots across the globe every day. When we board an aircraft, we are confident that the people in the cockpit are sufficiently trained to do the job required of them. Air travel in the United States is the safest it has ever been with incidents becoming rarer by the day. But the reality is that there is always a certain level of risk associated with flying. On January 30, 1974, ninety-one passengers boarded Pan American (“Pan Am”) Flight 806 at Auckland International Airport in New Zealand for the short flight to Pago Pago International Airport, American Samoa. The aircraft was staffed with ten-person flight crew who were seasoned employees in the aviation industry. As the aircraft made its final approach to Pago Pago, it crashed short of the runway. Though the passengers survived the crash landing, eighty-seven of them perished as fire and smoke engulfed the plane. The disaster remains one of the worst accidents in commercial aviation history. This is the story of that crash and its relevance to air travel today.  

Prior to reading the book I knew nothing of Flight 806. Of course, the name Pan Am is legendary in air travel. Though now defunct, it was once an airline that held a world-wide reputation for class and efficiency. My brother has two bags with its logo that he travels with today. But as author William Norris shows, the company was not above skirting rules and regulations. And when backed into a corner, profit and reputation took priority over the lives of those who died at the hands of pilots employed by the airline. After providing background information on the flight crew, the story moves forward as we learn about notable passengers on the flight. Through fate, they are destined to board Flight 806 which was routine, but the final approach turned into a nightmare and by the time emergency crews arrived on the scene, dozens of passengers met a grisly fate as they remained trapped on the aircraft. In the aftermath of the crash, litigation commenced, and the details of what transpired serve as the basis for this book that exposes the truth about a crash that should have been avoidable. The author makes a statement quite early in the story that sets the tone of the book: 

“Judge Matthew William Byrne Jr. ordered the records of Petersen, Phillips, and Gaines to be kept from the jury and put under seal, and he consigned them to room 64G. Which is where I found them.”

As someone who works in the legal field, my eyebrows became raised. Documents are placed under seal typically is exceptional circumstances. It became clear to me that the information contained in those records was highly damaging to the reputation of Pan Am and the pilots on Flight 806. I had no idea what was to come as the book progressed. Years ago, during a conversation with a former attorney regarding the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960-1999), he said to me “in the air the margin for error is very slim”. I have never forgotten those words and they certainly apply here. Lawyers for all sides inevitably become involved and I thought to myself what could Pan Am’s defense be? Barring any malfunction with the aircraft, the next conclusion typically reached is pilot error. However, Pan Am was not going to let that happen if possible and the lengths it went to during the trial are nothing short of astounding. Readers may find themselves seething with anger as the legal drama plays out. Sadly, the people who ended up suffering are those who were on the plane or lost their loved ones in the crash. 

A disturbing fact that becomes known is that dozens of passengers remained on the aircraft even though they were alive on impact. You may be thinking “planes have multiple exits in case of emergency”. That is correct but why did the emergency doors not open on this flight? That is just one of several questions that lawyers for the victims tried to find answers to. The first course of action would have been to examine the wreckage, however that proved to be an issue in the case of Flight 806. Readers will be aghast at the attitude towards evidence by Pan Am and the names Robert Benedict and United States Aviation Insurance Group will be seared into their minds by the book’s conclusion. Benedict is a pivotal character in the book but far from the only one. To the victims, the case was simple: what was Pan Am going to pay to compensate them for their injuries and losses? If the airline had its way, that number would have been zero. In its defense, it spared no amount of money as expert after expert takes the stand promoting outlandish theories that even laypeople would balk at. To be fair, the airline knew it would have to pay and did attempt to do through Benedict. Shockingly, those who professed to be “for the victims” exercise questionable discretion that readers may find mystifying and distasteful. 

Due to the nature of the incident, aircraft safety became a critical issue during the trial. The Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) is the governmental agency responsible for ensuring that you and I reach our destinations safely each time we fly. However, the FAA and its regulations are part of a larger picture. Airlines are also responsible for maintaining strict maintenance schedules and enforcing safety procedures. But as we learn from the book, Pan Am’s internal system of operation was in dire need of overhaul. A chilling example of its malfunctioning safety program is summed up in this quote by the author regarding evidence disclosed during the trial: 

“It was simple, it was direct, and it proved to be the most important single piece of evidence in the whole trial: when Pan American sent Flight 806 into Pago Pago loaded with excess fuel, to crash and burn and to take the lives of ninety-seven people, the company was flaunting its own regulations.”

These words sent a chill down my spine and highlighted the danger that accompanied air travel less than fifty years ago. Throughout the trial, a dark cloud hovered over the proceedings. And the question remained, was the flight crew negligent in its actions? The legal maneuvers executed by the lawyers are exhausting and readers may stare in disbelief while they read the accounts of the arguments put forth by attorneys for Pan Am and the United States itself. Testimony from former pilots, radar operators, engineers and those aboard the flight adds complexity to the story but, the jury had the final word. And its verdict had a profound impact on the airline industry and Pan Am.  

Today we often take for granted the improvements in safety and the advancements in technology that have made flying the safest it has ever been. However, complacency has no place in air travel and mistakes do cost lives. The passengers and crew of Flight 806 know this all too well. Norris’s account of the impact of Flight 806 is beautifully written and well-researched. I can only imagine the range of emotions he must have felt as dark truths were uncovered during his research. Those truths explain why Judge Byrne ordered the records sealed from the public. The lives of Flight 806’s eighty-seven passengers and nine crewmembers who perished are gone forever. But this book may prove to be an invaluable tool in preventing similar disasters in the years to come. This is the story of Pan Am Flight 806 and the tragic repercussions of willful misconduct.