A Father Meets His Nightmare
"... his eldest son Steve was found dead at the base of Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, on April 12, 1979. It was a year after William Pierce, an Oregon physics professor, had published The Turner Diaries, which advocated ritualistic killing of Jews by the thousands. ..."
By LIONEL ROLFE
Cannon Beach, Oregon, is a strangely desolate, coldly beautiful spot on the Oregon coast anchored by Haystack Rock, a jagged monolith, one of the world's largest, that rises 300 feet above the angry Pacific Ocean.
Fir covered mountains come right down to the beach.
Haystack is surrounded by a marine garden, a federally protected tide-pool, and is home to many birds who nest there in summer, including the tufted -puffin.
The closest good-size city is Portland, 80 miles east on Highway 26. It's a lonely road through forests, dotted only by a few places selling gas, food and souvenirs.
There is also something, how should we say it, very non-Jewish about the place, or at least a place that Orthodox Jewish types would feel very uncomfortable in. Oregonians are mostly rednecks, lumberjacks, with only a sprinkling of progressive long haired types who inhabit a few of its larger cities.
Oregon is the kind of place where the red necks either go to church all the time or spend their evenings making love to their neighbor's spouses, then seeking forgiveness for their sins.
You will have to forgive Mr. Zvi Finkelstein of Brooklyn if he looked a bit askance when he went to Oregon to investigate what appeared to him to be a ritual Jew Killing - his eldest son Steve was found dead at the base of Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach, on April 12, 1979. It was a year after William Pierce, an Oregon physics professor, had published The Turner Diaries, which advocated ritualistic killing of Jews by the thousands.
Zvi's son Steve had been in the Army Reserve, dealing with military intelligence, and he was deeply involved with two members of his unit. Zvi was convinced that the two killed his son, but the Army steadfastly refused Finkelstein's pleas for them to investigate his death.
The extent of Steve's injuries were so severe one of the paramedics at the scene got ill from the sight of them.
After an extended trip to the West Coast and the expenditure of thousands of dollars to conduct an investigation, he was of the opinion that Steve either was pushed from the rock, or he was beaten to death at or near the rock, or murdered before arriving at the rock and then his body was taken to the base of Haystack.
The fact that authorities described it as nothing more than a rock-climbing accident convinced him his son was the victim of a Jew-hating murder. Mountain climbing accidents were a classic way that anti-Semites killed Jews in Europe and South America. Further, it was a trademark of such killings that the Jews were killed on Jewish holidays. Steve was killed on the eve of Passover.
The great advantage of killing Jews in this way is that it is almost impossible to disprove that it is an accident.
Where other people might say, oh such dark things could never appear in the good old USA, Zvi was starting to discover that heartland places like Oregon are not like Los Angeles or New York, places where overt anti-Semitism would be most unexpected.
The great dark side of America's homeland can be found in abundance in Oregon. Of course, not all Christians are anti-Semites. But there is a very pronounced element in nativist Christianity as practiced in parts of the area that is very disturbing.
Do not be surprised if you are as likely to meet "good Christians" in the bars as in the churches, especially in small towns. Like portions of Northern California, such as Mt. Shasta an active volcano right on the border of Oregon, and Birney where Posse Comitatus was born, there are small but well organized gangs of fascists with neo-Nazi theologies. To the east of Oregon is Idaho, another place where you will find similar manifestations.
Colorado is another place where small mountain towns are often run by mayors, councilmen and justices of the peace who are also members of the Klan.
It is not so unreasonable to presume that a Jew could meet met a horrible accident in the region on the first evening of Passover.
The practice of Christianity in whose dark heart Nazism beats goes by the name "Christian Identity." They consider themselves "good Christians."
Most Oregonians live between the mountain range and the coast.
Posse Comitatus was formed by a former Army general, an aide to General McCarthur, named William Gale -- who may or may not have had a hand in the assassination of Robert Kennedy back in 1968.
No, it would not be surprising if Zvi of Brooklyn found Oregon a bit unnerving.
Oregon is the home of the Volksfront and the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, with ties to The Order, the Aryan gang that killed a controversial Jewish disc jockey in Idaho -- the next state east of Oregon -- in an effort to start a race war.
One can dismiss such groups as nothing but kooks and the like. But unfortunately, some of them have strong links with retired military and police groups, which means they have the access and means to be methodically violent. You'd be wrong to dismiss the existence of such people.
Actor Mel Gibson, who made a movie based on the passion plays of Europe in the 1300s, which were historically prominent as a means of spreading anti-Semitism, has shown that Jew hatred is still not so rare in the United States as is officially maintained.
More serious than Gibson, which is admittedly very disturbing, this year the New York Times reported that the Turner Diaries were the bible of an increasing number of soldiers in George Bush’s Iraq Army. The newspaper reported that a significant number of neo-Nazis and skinhead extremists were joining the fight in Iraq in order to train for the coming big race war in the United States.
According to the paper, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups and the like, said the numbers involved could run into the several thousands.
“We’ve got Aryan Nations graffiti in Baghdad,” a defense department investigator said. "That is a problem,” he added.
According to the Times, neo-Nazi groups like the National Alliance, whose founder, William Pierce, wrote The Turner Diaries, were behind much of which was going on.
The Diaries were the inspiration and blueprint for Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. He was trying to train future recruits of the coming race war.
Part of the reason this was occurring, the newspaper said, is that the Army is having increasing difficulty in recruiting. In the article, Scott Barfield, a Defense Department investigator, is quoted as saying, "Recruiters are knowingly allowing neo-Nazis and white supremacists to join the armed forces, and commanders don't remove them from the military even after we positively identify them as extremists or gang members.”
Probably the best known instance of this, even before the Iraq War, was Timothy McVeigh, a good soldier in Pierce's apocalyptical race war. He recruited at least two fellow soldiers in his bombing plot.
Barfield, based in Fort Lewis, Washington, said he has evidence of 320 extremists who have joined in the past year, only two of whom have been discharged.
The believers in Turner’s Diaries take as revealed word, with all their hearts, that there will be a coming race war. They want to help propel that race war forward and see that their kind prevails over the Jews, the Mexicans, the blacks, and the Asians who are polluting their gene pool.
They particularly want their soldiers schooled in light infantry units, such as those now in Baghdad. House-to-house battle is exactly what they want experience in. Neighborhood-by-neighborhood ethnic cleansing is great sport.
Their strange ancient hatred of Jews is some kind of primeval thing, proudly connected to the murder and genocide advocated by Pierce and his ilk.
The book has some odd parallels with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which also predicts a war, a revolution in the future. The difference is Jack London was a socialist, and he saw the revolution coming which issues in socialism.
Ironically, London himself was a contradiction in terms of what he was. He used to sign all his letters, “Your’s for the Revolution.” But he also was much influenced by Frederich Nietsche and others of the social Darwinists. He was, frankly, a racist. He wanted socialism, but for the white man only. He was even something of a colonialist.
There were other differences between London and Pierce. Pierce is a fairly mediocre writer, possessed by ideological passion. London also had ideological passion, but he also was one of the greatest writers of all times.
But Pierce is speaking the language of Adolph Hitler to a new generation -- and it speaks intensely to people like McVeigh, and perhaps a couple of characters you will meet in this journey.
If you think we’re overstating the case, rest assured this is not the case.
William Pierce, founder of the National Alliance, the wealthiest and most powerful of the neo-nazi groups, was a former physics professor at Oregon State University. He died in 2002, leaving as his great contribution to the next Reich, The Turner Diaries, the wet dream tale of a man who is seeking an apocalyptic race war.
The National Alliance had strong connections with the Populist Party of Georgia. In 1900, Pierce had sponsored his good friend John Tyndall, longtime head of the neo-fascist British National Party, on a speaking tour to Georgia, where he spoke in front of the Populist Party.
The Populist Party was an old historic Georgia institution. It was started by Tom Watson, one of the great demagogues of Southern history, which produced its share of them, from Huey Long to Gerald K. Smith.
Watson’s party, started early in Reconstruction after the Civil War, was originally a coalition of ex-slaves and poor whites. Just as the Populist Party was becoming a major force in Georgian politics, Watson suddenly switched, and became a purveyor of racism, destroying the movement he had personally created.
No less a person than former President Jimmy Carter was fascinated by Watson’s career, and studied it.
One of the contemporary leaders of the Populist Party was a figure named James Yarbrough. Yarbrough will figure in this story in a short bit.
Given the ideologies and personalities involved, you will see why Zvi’s son Steve may well have been a victim of a Jew killing ritual in 1979 on the Oregon coast.
It was on a windy, rainy day that April during which hail and sleet had lashed at the rock. Winds were gusting at 50 mph. Sometime between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. Zvi’s 22-year-old son was found dead at the bottom of the rock. According to Randall Lamar Mills, with whom he had allegedly climbed the sheer south side of the rock, Mills dragged him to the shore from about five feet of water he had fallen into.
It was a couple of hours short of high tide, which was about 7.6 feet deep. Low tide, which had occurred at 1:38 p.m., was 1.4 feet. Somehow, Steve had supposedly fallen 60 feet.
The first Cannon Beach officer on the scene said that Mills smelled of alcohol and was “quite visibly shaken.” The first paramedic said that Steve’s body was so mangled it was hard even for him, a seasoned paramedic, to look at it.
He immediately took Mill's word at face value that both of them had decided to climb the rock. Mills said he was the first one to decide to stop climbing because it was cold and slippery and the wind was blowing hard.
Mills said he told Steve to turn around, but Steve replied, “In a minute. I want to go higher.” He said Steve was about 10 feet above him when he tried to turn around. Then he heard Steve cry out, and he looked up just in time to see Steve fall 60 feet down Haystack Rock.
The authorities all conceded that there were no other witnesses to the accident. Steve and Mills were the only two people present.
Mills said that the pair had stopped at a tavern in Cannon Beach, adding he didn't remember the name of the tavern. They each consumed seven beers. They then drove five miles to the rock and decided to climb it. About half way up, Mills said he told Steve it was too dangerous to continue.
Mills said he "got Steve's body and laid him on the rocks at the base of Haystack Rock. I knew he was dead."
He said he ran to a cottage near the beach and borrowed a phone to call for an ambulance. Then he grabbed an blanket. In two minutes an ambulance was there.
"I told Officer Groh that I would like to leave the beach area. I gave him my home address and we drove up the beach..." he said. The officer gave him a cigarette. He then wrote down his phone number -- "it was at Sears Hall, USAR Center, c/o Van Halder, who receives messages for me as I do not have a home telephone."
It was the same Van Halder who Steve's father came to believe was in league with Mills to commit the killing.
There was never much more than a cursory investigation in the beginning. The authorities on the scene quickly gave their stamp of approval to the version of Steve’s death as told by his climbing companion, Randall Lamar Mills.
Mills said Steve fell from about 60 feet. The authorities never seriously considered the possibility he was pushed off because there wasn’t enough room anywhere on the treacherous south side of the rock for two people to be.
Zvi, however, was never convinced of this. He knew his son well enough to know that he was always, if nothing else, a practical man. Why would he have driven in blinding rain to climb an impossible rock part way into the Pacific. He had never been the outdoor type.
But these are subtleties that the authorities in Oregon were not anxious to entertain.
Everyone but the acting coroner was ready to take the surface impression and not investigate further. Dr. Robert Wayne, however, was not so convinced.
Zvi spent a lot of time finding Dr. Robert Wayne, who had filled in for the regular medical examiner when Steve was found dead at the base of Haystack Rock.
Wayne was the General Practitioner in the community of Cannon Beach then. He was the person there to deliver babies, perform surgeries, and other such duties. He was much loved by the people of Cannon Beach, but he was -- as a Oregon state detective later “uncovered” -- guilty of the apparent crime of being from New York -- just like Zvi.
The detective felt compelled to say Wayne not only was from New York, “but of the Jewish persuasion.” It was never clear why exactly he said this except by implication in his official report.
Wayne’s greatest reservations centered around Steve’s severed esophagus. Wayne was not convinced that even a fall from Haystack Rock would have so severely severed his esophagus.
Dr. Robert Wayne wrote his report on April 19, 1979.
Steve and Mills had arrived in Cannon Beach in a “green Ford pickup truck with unknown Oregon license plates,” according to Detective John C. Wood of the Department of State Police in Salem.
The pickup truck was also something suspicious in Zvi’s own personal investigation. Harold Van Halder said that Miller owned the truck, which Wood took at face value. But Zvi hired a detective to find out if this was actually the case. It wasn’t. The only vehicle Mills had ever owned while in Oregon was a Honda motorcycle.
The motorcycle was endorsed to Randall Mills on December 4, 1958. The registration had then been suspended and then updated on May 9, 1978. In those days Mills had an address of 3323 S.W. Multnomah Boulevard in Portland.
Zvi smelled a rat. A better answer to the mysterious pickup was that it had probably been military, since green was a military color. It also had “unknown Oregon plates,” according to local police. Zvi figured that it would have been easy for Van Halder, who worked as a supply sergeant, to get one for Mills to drive. Although neither Mills or Van Halder had authority to use the truck for a jaunt to kill a Jew on a rock in the Pacific Ocean, it wouldn’t have been hard to arrange it.
Unfortunately, or conveniently, Zvi learned official records of military vehicles are not kept for very long.
Zvi came out to Oregon and then California to investigate what had happened. He had a letter from Van Halder that on the face of it was sympathetic to Zvi about the loss of his son. But underneath the prose were some nasty remarks and giveaways of his basic hostility to Steve. And when Zvi pressed him, Van Halder turned nasty and threatening.
Zvi gathered a lot of stuff, hired a high-powered attorney, Dan E. Neal of Eugene, and good investigators in Oregon and Georgia (Mills ended up returning to Georgia, and adopting the name of his hero, James Yarbrough,, of the Populist Party).
But almost no one official would investigate. Well, almost no one. The district attorney of Clatsop County asked for an investigation, and John C. Wood of the Oregon State Police ran a strange and curious investigation that seemed to raise more questions than it answered. It was filed with the Grand Jury, but to this date, despite promises made to release the Grand Jury’s actions -- or lack of actions -- but authorities have never sent anything.
Perhaps he mentioned that Wayne was from New York and “of the Jewish persuasion” because that might explain why he doubted the official version of Steve’s death.
Wood went and talked to Van Halder and never made an attempt to find Mills in Georgia. He accepted everything Van Halder said at face value, refusing to question anything he said.
He quickly concluded that there was no reason to suspect anti-Semitism as a possible motive, thus there was no reason to investigate Mills and his associate, Van Halder.
Wood did quote one of Mill’s military commanders, Jon Weck, who recalled that Mills “was a rebellious type of person who appeared to resent authority and military discipline.”
In Wood’s point of view, there was no reason to investigate the two men Zvi regarded as suspects in the death of his son. Wood explained his conclusions this way. “It is felt by the father of the victim that the death was the result of a hate crime based on the ‘powerful anti-Semitic beliefs” of Mills. This is based on the fact that Zvi was advised by a person or persons, not identified, that Mills was known to articulate anti-Semitic comments, and that Mills later moved to southern Georgia, an area known as ‘a hot bed' of racism and anti-Semitism.
“I found no reference in the correspondence by Van Halder, nor in my conversation with Weck, that attributed any anti-Semitic activity or comments to Mills,” Wood writes. It wasn’t clear if he had even bothered to ask directly about any anti-Semitic comments.
Wood offered his opinion: “the fact that Mills later moved to Georgia, and has been seen, 13 years after the incident, in a drinking establishment where the KKK constitute a segment of the clientèle, has little bearing on the atmosphere at the time of the incident. Mills may or may not have anti-Semitic beliefs at this time, however, it cannot be proven what his beliefs were in 1979.”
He also denied there had ever been a coverup, as Zvi alleged.
He saw no reason to look at the matter even further. So what, if Mills and Van Halder were good old boys who sometime “played” a little tough.
He ended up saying that “the information contained in this report will be submitted to the Clatsop County Grand Jury for consideration. The results of which will be forwarded to Mr. Neal (Zvi’s attorney in Eugene, Oregon), with a copy of the report and the photographs.”
They never went sent to Neal.
Wood did document that Wayne had clearly stated that he did not believe the esophagus could have been severed in such a manner as it was at Haystack Rock.
It seemed quite odd that Wood utterly dismissed the notion of talking to Mills and Van Halder.
Wayne told Wood he wished that he had insisted on an autopsy. He said he did not insist on an autopsy at the time because local authorities didn’t ask for it. Had he another chance, he told the detective, he would have done it differently. For one, he would have ordered an autopsy. Budget constraints were a factor in the reason he didn’t insist on one at the time, but more importantly, an autopsy was never performed unless authorities called for one.
Zvi talked to Wayne later at his office in Cannon Beach. It took him several trips to meet Wayne. At that point, the doctor told Zvi that Steve’s injuries could have been caused by anything -- including beatings and murder. He wrote his report at the time saying that Steven had fallen, because that’s what authorities told him to write. He admits he was not experienced in the administrative aspects of acting as a coroner then. Wayne told Zvi that if there ever was an official investigation, he would certainly tell what he knew.
The doctor was bothered by some of the case’s inconsistencies. Mills claimed that he and Steve had stopped and consumed about seven beers at a tavern on the way to the beach. Wayne, however, had indicated in his original report that no medications or alcohol was immediately detectable. Wayne told Wood he wished he had ordered an alcohol test as well as an autopsy.
Wood wrote his report for the Department of State Police in Salem, Oregon, on Oct. 13, 1993 -- some years after Steve’s death. It was then turned over to the Grand Jury.
One of the many curious things about the case -- there may have been pictures taken, but they were never found. Wood said that on June of 1993, he tired to see if photos were available of the death.
The then police chief told him that old files had been moved into the attic, and the file was not where it was supposed to be. The chief offered to have a hand search made of the boxes of stored reports if necessary. But Wayne decided it wasn’t necessary, since he had a copy of the written documents and so did Zvi.
Wood saw no indication of a cover up. “I had no concern that the misplaced files in any way indicated a form of cover up,” the detective wrote.
Wood talked to Wayne at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria, where he was on staff. He again repeated that he wished he had ordered an autopsy, because toxicology is a standard part of any autopsy.
Again, it should be noted, Wood was cryptic in his wording in the report. “It should be noted, in light of the allegation of a possible coverup of the incident,” Wood wrote, “that Dr. Wayne is also of the Jewish persuasion, and is from New York.”
Zvi had another reason to distrust Wood. Wood threatened Zvi if he insisted on wanting the investigation to continue.
Zvi did not stop, of course. He asked for a military investigation, but that request was denied. Congressmen and others wrote letters favoring his position. They were trying to to get a full-scale federal investigation, but one was never pursued.
Zvi felt that at least the two men he suspected in the death of his son should be examined.
When he first got to Cannon Beach, he looked up Sam Foster, who had been the correspondent for The Oregonian for many years. Foster told Zvi he had never known of anyone to climb the rock's south face.
In Foster’s view, there were two possibilities. "Either Steve was murdered at Haystack or somewhere else and brought there,” Foster said.
Steve was wearing cowboy boots with slick soles, exactly the thing he should not have been wearing to climb a mountain. Zvi knew his son, knew he would never have attempted to climb Haystack Rock without the correct equipment.
Zvi remembered when he took his son for a pony ride in New York and he imagined he was a cowboy. He also wore his father’s cowboy hat.
When he was a little older, his son had gone off to school on a farm settlement near Haifa and loved helping out with the chickens and cows. Steve remained an Israeli even when he lived in Norway and was a champion swimmer for his class. Next, Steve learned how to ski and he and his brother spoke Norwegian. The cowboy boots had been a true love of his for many years.
But Zvi also knew his son was a practical fellow as well. He was also not a particularly outdoors kind of man. He would not have tried to climb a dangerous rock in the middle of a hard, driving, freezing rain in cowboy boots with slick soles on them.
Zvi had made his living as a chemist, but his son was still searching for what he would be. Steve had tried several academic programs, but he kept coming back to the fact that language and writing were his true love.
“He was attracted to writing and felt that struggling alone with his thoughts and fantasies and ending up with an interesting story was what he most wanted to do,” Zvi said.
Steve was also a realist. So he took a minor in education, and had held several jobs since he was in grade school. Just before he died, he had been working in the auto and tire repair section of Montgomery Ward.
But he also had lived in several countries and had his own experiences and observations. He felt he had earned the right to write. He intended to do both.
He was on leave from Temple University in Philadelphia, having just completed three months active reserve training by the time he arrived in Portland.
Part of the puzzle of Steve’s death was Sharon, the pretty young woman who was some sort of girlfriend of his. She was also tied to Mills. Zvi met with her and spent at least a couple of hours talking to her after Steve’s death. She gave him a picture of herself and Steve looking very loving. She said she decided to get out of the relationship when she had come to realize Steve was too serious for her, and she was afraid of having a relationship with him because she was too young for him.
At first, Zvi bought this. But not after he thought about it more.
Zvi had a long lunch in a Portland restaurant about a year after Steve’s death. Sharon, her mother Lola Marsal, and one of Sharon’s sisters, were there.
At that luncheon he learned that Lola had yet another daughter, who was slightly retarded. She had been beaten to death a few months after Steve's death. Zvi asked her if she thought Mills might have been involved.
She adamantly said no.
But the other sister at the table was not so sure. She said she had seen Mills the night of Steve's death, looking “glassy eyed,” as if he were on drugs and acting very strangely.
This sister then looked directly at Sharon, and asked her if she hadn't gone back to Mill’s place to get her clothes.
It was a pointed reference. Sharon and Lola were conspicuous in their silence, even though the other sister repeated the question, looking directly at Zvi.
This sister then said outright that she was of the opinion that she wouldn’t trust Mills or Sharon and gave Zvi her phone number. Later when he tried to call her, however, they were gone. All their phones had been disconnected. Sharon supposedly went to California and was never heard from again.
Mill drove back from Cannon Beach to Portland that day, and then without telling anyone where he was going, disappeared. He gave Van Halder’s address at the base to receive mail at.
Steve’s next stop after Portland, where he was ending his three months active reserve, was going back to school at Temple University in Philadelphia.
He had been Mills' roommate in a garden apartment for about two weeks. Among his possessions when he died was a receipt, showing that Mills owed him $50 on April 12. April 12 was the day he died. Steve’s body was shipped back to his father for burial in Montefiore Cemetery near Philadelphia.
Years later -- in January, 1993, to be precise -- Zvi learned what had apparently happened to Mills.
He got a letter from Laurie Wood of Klan Watch, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. She sent him an article in the May 23, 1991 edition of the Carolina Pacemaker, a black paper.
The story tells of a meeting of leaders in the far-right movement. Jim Yarbrough is identified and our database links this article to a file on James H. of Gainesville, Ga."
He was a popular speaker at various KKK, skinhead, Populist, neo-Nazi, Aryan Resistance and other such events.
This is important to note because Mills was apparently enamored of Yarbrough, so much so he tried to change his name to that of his hero.
Zvi’s attorney, meanwhile, told his client that "a computer check that was done on Mills listed an address in Valdosta, Georgia, and it appears that he may have changed his name two or three years ago to that of Yarbrough. Yarbrough’s name corresponded with Mills’ address. Further, Michael R. Olsen, a detective from Eugene, Oregon, said in 1993 the last known location he could trace Mills to was Valdosta, Georgia, and then to Lake Park, Georgia.
Zvi’s attorney said that he needed to focus on Mills, who the one commander had dismissed as a “rebellious type” of person he “would not turn his back on.”
Zvi hired another investigator who learned that Mills liked to go a bar in Statenville, Georgia, frequented by neo-Nazi types, deep in the land where they still talk proudly about how the confederacy would rise again.
Mills moved often, dodging the law for not paying child support and getting driving under the influence citations and the like. Zvi’s investigator also came from the same parts of South Georgia and north Florida where Mills hailed from. His name was Rembrandt Moses.
Moses, who later moved to Atlanta, found that Mills frequented two bars in particular in Statenville, whose patrons were KKK and other neo-Nazi types.
To this day, the area is rich with such “traditional values.” One local web site that serves as one of the area’s community newspapers has far more than the normal share of people in community picnics and meetings dressed in KKK garb.
It all looks sort of innocent -- like a quaint local custom among the natives. There are young girls that look like any typical teen-agers having a good time.
This was Mills hometown territory.
Van Halder is an enigmatic part of the tale.
He seemed to know many details of the case. He reported that Steve had completed his military intelligence training at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, and was trained “in a specialty very much needed by the unit.”
He said he introduced Steve to Mills after Steve completed his active duty about the middle of February.
They became fast friends and roommates, Van Halder said. He said Mills and Sharon were the only ones who knew Steve well during this period.
Zvi initially contacted Van Halder’s commander to see if there were vehicle records that might solve the case of the mysterious green pickup truck. The commander said that “vehicle records from that time had undoubtedly been destroyed.”
Brigadier General, U.S. Air Force, Ronald L. Lowe, from the headquarters of the 351st Civil Affairs Command in Mountain View, California, told Zvi that ”the case involving your son, Steve, was entirely a civilian matter under the jurisdiction of the Cannon Beach, Oregon, Police Department.”
“None of the personnel you mention in your letter were serving in any military capacity at the time. Mr. Van Halder’s only involvement seems to be that he knew both your son and Sgt. Mills and that he assisted in gathering your son’s belongings to be returned to you,” Lowe wrote Zvi.
By 1989, Van Halder was a civilian employee of the 20th Psychological Operations Company, Lowe said. He had no authority to require him to make a statement.
Despite his protestations of being able to do nothing, Zvi quickly got a letter from Van Halder shortly after writing Lowe. Van Halder began complimenting Steve on his “professionalism," but before wasting too many words of praise, managed to imply Steve was a hop head who had stolen a customer’s credit card to buy his girlfriend things. He said that Steve had a police record as a result.
He also told Zvi that “Mills was a good Christian citizen and why would he want to bring up the case?”
When Zvi contacted Van Halder by phone, all the niceties were gone. He got threatening -- just like Wood had gotten threatening when Zvi pushed him too much.
In his letter, Van Halder said that Steve and Mills “were close and good roommates.” He continued, “Mills was a Christian, so I’m sure they discussed spiritual things.” He said that Mills gave Steve lots of rides in his pickup truck to preclude Steve from having to use the city buses to get to work.
He alluded to Steve having ”some personal problems shortly before his death. This was due to his arrest for using a customer's credit card at JC Penny's to purchase items for his girlfriend.”
Van Halder also said Sharon “apparently ran away from home about three days prior” to Steve’s death. Furthermore, says Van Halder, Mills told him that when he packed Steve’s personal things to send back to Zvi, he was “surprised to see items in Steve’s things that are used to smoke dope.”
Zvi investigated the credit card charge and found that the case had been dismissed before Steve’s death because Steve hadn’t committed any offense.
Zvi’s attorney wrote that Steve had initially accepted some responsibility to protect his girlfriend, Sharon Ellenberg, who was guilty of processing and using a phony credit card.”
Van Halder claimed that Steve stole a customer’s credit card. “I believe what happened, a customer forgot his charge card after Steve sold him merchandise. Steve then used it to charge things for his girlfriend and he was arrested.” Van Halder said Sharon’s mother paid Steve’s bail.
Did Steve Finkelstein just fall in with some bad company or was this perhaps a far more sinister case -- a young man being set up for a ritual Jew killing?
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, wrote the United States Attorney’s Office a letter twice, the last time in 1987. “Stephen’s father is still not able to be at peace with his son’s tragic death and we, therefore, ask once again for your office to look into the circumstances surround the accident,” he said.
In 1995, the FBI acknowledged in 1993 that “Assistant United States Attorney Stephen F. Peifer had reviewed the information in this matter and discussed with the the Civil Rights Division, United States Department of Justice, Washington, D.C.”
No civil rights charges could be made because “this matter is outside the statue of limitations for civil rights matters ... with the incident having occurred over 14 years prior.” Peifer also told the FBI it had no basis for an investigation.
So far, this is a story with no end, no completion, no justice, at least as far as Zvi Finkelstein is concerned.
Lionel Rolfe was the editor of the B’nai Brith Messenger, Los Angeles’ pioneer Jewish newspaper, for 10 years. He works as a journalist and has written such books as The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather, Literary L.A. Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles and Fat Man on the Left.