PROBABLE CAUSE, a phrase nestled in the Fourth Amendment of America's Constitution, describes the essential prerequisite for the issuance of a warrant - by a magistrate - ordering the arrest of suspected law breakers or the search and seizure of "persons, houses, papers and effects." It also describes the defining test that law enforcement must meet before beginning a criminal investigation, detaining or arresting someone or conducting searches. As new information emerges surrounding the death of Secretary of Commerce Ron Brown, prudent persons must ask themselves if there is probable cause to believe he may have been assassinated.
Probable cause is not proof "beyond a reasonable doubt". It is evidence that is sufficient to cause a "reasonable and prudent person" to believe a crime may have occurred. Probable cause is defined as "a set of probabilities grounded in the factual and practical considerations which govern the decisions of reasonable and prudent persons and is more than mere suspicion but less than the quantum of evidence required for conviction." (U.S. v. Riemer, D.C. Ohio, 392 F.Supp. 1291, from Black's Law Dictionary, sixth edition). Once the test of probable cause has been met, an investigation may begin, warrants commanding search and arrest may issue, and the wheels of justice may turn.
For example, a man and his wife are having marital problems. He is having an affair with his secretary and his wife threatens to "take him to the cleaners" in a divorce. The man takes out a large life insurance policy on his wife and, two weeks later, his wife "falls down the stairs" and dies. Does probable cause exist warranting an investigation into the possible role her husband played in her death? Most reasonable and prudent persons would answer in the affirmative, even though there is not enough evidence to convict at this point.
We may now take the test of probable cause and apply it to another case, this one very real. It is the death of Mr. Ronald H. Brown, U.S. Secretary of Commerce and member of the president's cabinet. Secretary Brown and thirty-four others died when their Air Force plane crashed into a mountainside while on approach to the Dubrovnik airport in Croatia on April 3, 1996. The Secretary was on an investment- promoting mission and was accompanied by twelve CEO's of American corporations, as well as six Air Force crew members, Commerce Department staff and two Croatians.
This crash is "a classic sort of accident that good instrumentation should be able to prevent" (1) Secretary of Defense William Perry told the Associated Press the next day. An "accident", the Clinton administration concluded, even though U.S. investigators had not even begun their investigation.
In an unprecedented move, the Air Force skipped the first phase of the routine two-phase investigative process. The first phase is called the "safety board", in which all crashes are treated as suspicious. They moved directly into the second phase, which is the "accident investigation", mirroring the White House assumption that it was just an unfortunate "accident."
An accident seemed to be the logical explanation, after all,Newsweek andTime magazines reported that at the time of the crash, Dubrovnik was having "the storm of the decade" with visibility just one-hundred yards. Air Force Lt. General Howell Estes III, Director of Operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made statements carried by CNN about the poor visibility and the terrible wind, rain, and fog. (2) Even to a layman the presence of both wind and fog seems incongruous, but the weather as the chief culprit in the tragedy seemed etched in stone and there was no reason to question the men in charge. The flight data and voice recorders would soon confirm Perry's assumption.
There were no flight data recorders on Ron Brown's plane, a military version of the Boeing 737. "We have done everything humanly possible on the military side to ascertain whether this aircraft had flight data recorders or voice recorders on board and the answer we get ... is that it was not equipped with either," said Gen. Estes. (3) "We have not been able to ascertain why this particular aircraft was not equipped with them," said Major Robin Chandler, an Air Force spokeswoman. (4)
All VIP aircraft based at Andrews Air Force Base are equipped with flight recorders, including the president's Air Force One, according to the Associated Press. (5) Prior to Brown's flight, the aircraft was used to shuttle the president's wife and daughter, as well as other VIP's such as the Secretary of Defense. The absence of flight recorders seems out of the ordinary for such an important aircraft.
What's more, the media and Pentagon claim of "the storm of the decade" was sharply disputed by the widely readAviation Week magazine, which reported light to moderate rain and a constant fourteen mph headwind at the time of the crash. In fact, five planes, one of them a small Piper, had landed at Dubrovnik airport just prior to Brown's. None encountered any problems.
The Air Force investigation later concluded, "the weather was not a substantially contributing factor in this mishap." (6) The prime factors were, instead, ruled to be pilot error and faulty navigation aids. Unfortunately, the airport's maintenance chief was unavailable to assist the Air Force in determining if the navigation aids at the airport were functioning properly at the time of the crash. He committed suicide a few days later -- a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.
Why Brown's aircraft drifted a mile off course while on approach to the airport remains a compelling mystery. The jet slammed into Sveti Ivan (St. John's Hill), a 2,400-foot peak outside of Dubrovnik. Lt. Col. Steve Cogswell is a doctor and deputy medical examiner with the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) at Dover Air Force Base. Cogswell investigated this air disaster that he and other investigators at the AFIP describe as a "relatively low-impact crash" that left the rear of the plane intact.
In an interview with Christopher Ruddy of thePittsburgh Tribune-Review, Cogswell claimed that Air Force Sgts. Shelley Kelly and Cheryl Turnage, flight attendants who were seated in jumpseats in the rear of the aircraft, were "potential survivors" of the accident. "Depending on who you talked to, Kelly was found near her seat, on the floor of the plane or outside the plane," he said. (7) Some reports state that she had only cuts and bruises, and was able to help herself into the rescue helicopter. Kelly was dead on arrival at a near-by hospital. Her autopsy at Dover Air Force Base revealed she died of a broken neck.
Dr. Cogswell features the irregularities in the Brown crash investigation in a slide show he presented to colleagues and FBI trainees entitled, "Mistakes and Failures in Forensic Pathology," which also details one-hundred other plane crashes he has investigated since he joined the Air Force in 1991. He contends that evidence was ignored that might have proven Ron Brown was murdered. (8)
The most troubling of this evidence is a perfectly circular hole on the top of Ron Brown's head, a hole Dr. Cogswell refers to as "an apparent gunshot wound." "Essentially ... Brown had a .45-inch inwardly beveling circular hole in the top of his head, which is essentially the description of a .45-caliber gunshot wound ... as close to a perfectly circular hole as you can get," he told theTribune-Review. Cogswell completed his forensic pathology training in Miami where he saw "an awful lot of gunshot wounds," according to a former superior who vouched for his expertise. (9)
Brown's body had been moved to Dover before Dr. Cogswell arrived at the crash scene and his concerns are based on "reports, records, photographs and x-rays" as well as discussions with colleagues at the AFIP. While at the crash scene, he was asked by Col. William Gormley at the AFIP to look for a cylindrical object that could have punctured a round whole in Brown's skull. Cogswell told him the hole sounded like a gunshot wound. "Open him up. This man needs an autopsy," Cogswell said he told Gormley. "This whole thing stinks." (10)
Col. Gormley conducted an external examination of Brown's body, but did not perform an autopsy. He also discounts the theory that the hole in Brown's skull was caused by a gunshot. His claims the skull was not completely punctured and there was no exit wound. (11) Officials conducted a "full discussion" of Brown's injuries, including the hole in his head, and had ruled out the possibility of a gunshot. "This is a closed case," declared the AFIP public affairs officer reassuringly. (12)
According theTribune-Review article, the White House was planning elaborate funeral services for the victims and there was pressure from above to finish the examinations quickly. The AFIP does not have authority to order autopsies on civilians as it does on members of the armed forces, and the AFIP was reluctant to press for that permission from the families of the victims. (13) If Gormley suspected foul play, he could have called in the FBI, at which time an autopsy would have been in order.
Dr. Martin Fackler, former director of the Army's Wound Ballistics Laboratory in San Francisco, was shown the photographs of Brown's head wound. "I'm impressed by how very, very round that hole is," he told theTribune-Review. "That's unusual except for a gunshot wound. It's unusual for anything else." When he learned Brown was only given an external examination he replied, "They didn't do an autopsy. My God. It's astounding." (14)
Dr. Cogswell thinks that was a big mistake. "You can't ignore who this person is," he told the Tribune-Review. "You can't ignore the controversy surrounding him. To stack up the coincidences: one of thirty-six people has got a hole; the hole is in their head; the hole is dead center in the top of their head; and it just happens to be the most important person on that airplane from a political point of view. That's a whole lot of reason to investigate it." (15)
In other words, there is probable cause to believe a crime may have occurred, and an immediate investigation is warranted beginning with an autopsy of Mr. Brown. An investigation has begun, not of Brown's violent death, however, but of Dr. Cogswell himself. According to theTribune-Review, on Friday, December 5th, Dr. Cogswell was placed under "command investigation" by the Air Force and given written orders not to speak to the press or leave the floor where he works without permission from his superiors. He may not leave for lunch without permission and later, Friday, he was escorted by Military Police to his home where they demanded entrance while he retrieved case materials in his possession. (16)
Soon after Dr. Cogswell was gagged by his superiors, another medical examiner stepped forward to corroborate his story, according to a December 9th story by theTribune-Review. U.S. Army Lt. Col. David Hause was present during Brown's external examination. His exam table was near the table where Brown was being examined. "A commotion" erupted at Brown's table when someone said, "Gee, this looks like a gunshot wound." Hause said he went over to have a look. He remembers saying, "Sure enough, it looks like a gunshot wound to me, too." He told theTribune-Review that the hole in Brown's head "looked like a punched-out .45-caliber entrance hole", and he agreed it appeared perfectly circular, consistent with a high-velocity impact caused by a bullet. Dr. Hause is considered one of the the AFIP's leading experts on gunshot wounds. (17)
To make this case even more interesting, both Drs. Cogswell and Hause allege that all of Brown's head x-rays, taken during his external exam, are now missing. On Friday, December 5th, Hause was asked to review Brown's case file with Dr. Jerry Spencer, the AFIP's chief medical examiner. They discovered all of Brown's x-rays to be missing from his case file, as well as the photographs of the x-rays that were stored in a safe and the negatives for those photographs. According to Hause, all that remains of the x-rays are the color slides in Dr. Cogswell's slide presentation and the copy of Brown's head x-ray in the possession of theTribune-Review. (18)
The copies of the missing head x-ray reveal what may be interpreted as a "lead snowstorm" in the skull. This term refers to the fragmentation of a bullet as it enters the skull. (19) Hause agreed that "by any professional standard" Brown should have received an autopsy and that the AFIP's actions against Cogswell is a classic case of "shooting the messenger." (20)
Because there is evidence that suggests Ron Brown was assassinated, the first question that a reasonable and prudent person would ask is, "who would have a motive to do this?" We may begin by examining the controversy surrounding Brown at the time of his death. Ron Brown, a highly connected attorney and member of the Washington elite, was chairman of the Democratic National Committee during Clinton's first run for the presidency. He was involved in fund raising. His expensive tastes allegedly led him to accept a bribe from Vietnam to normalize trade relations. He was under investigation by the Commerce Department Inspector General, the FDIC, the Justice Department, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, and the Senate Judiciary Committee. He was two weeks away from being indicted over a bribe he received from an Oklahoma corporation. Brown is reported to have said, "I am too old to go to jail. If I go down, I'll take everyone else down with me." Evidently, he thought he knew enough to influence those in power to save him, but that was an apparent miscalculation. (21)
The April '96 issued ofThe American Spectator featured an article entitled, "Why Ron Brown Won't Go Down" -- referring to his legal troubles. Shortly after that issue was released, Brown did go down -- with his aircraft and everyone else on board. Six hours later, the independent council investigating Brown's shady business deals and fund-raising practices quietly closed his investigation. (22)
Current developments surrounding this case make it even more suspect. On Thursday, December 11, the World Net Daily reported that the gag order and restrictions placed on Dr. Cogswell have been applied to all personnel at the AFIP, who have been ordered to turn in "all slides, photos, x-rays and other materials" related to the Brown case. All personnel at the AFIP are prohibited from talking to the press and must stay at their work stations for the duration of their working day. All personnel, including ranking officers, must obtain permission to leave for lunch.
When a government VIP aircraft goes down, taking a cabinet official and thirty-five other people to their deaths, shouldn't the investigation be broad in scope and include the possibility of sabotage and other types of foul play? Isn't it very suspicious that the Clinton administration was calling the crash an "accident" before investigators even arrived on the scene, and that the Air Force skipped its customary "safety board"?
When the VIP aircraft doesn't have the customary flight data recorders, and there is no explanation for the aircraft's drift off course, and the airport's maintenance chief "commits suicide" before U.S. investigators can talk to him, shouldn't an alarm be sounding somewhere? Shouldn't this man's suicide be viewed with great suspicion when his family claims he was emotionally stable and suicide is a rare thing in Croatian culture, especially with a large caliber handgun? When Sgt. Shelly Kelly, the only apparent survivor of the crash, walks to the rescue helicopter but arrives at the hospital dead, shouldn't we be asking questions about what happened to her on the way?
When the VIP in question was instrumental in getting our current president elected and was a highly connected Washington insider who was about to face corruption charges, shouldn't his threat to "spill the beans" shed some light on a possible motive for his demise? When this man's plane suddenly goes down on the eve of his indictment, crashing in a Third World country with no developed system of safety investigation and forensic pathology, doesn't this seem to be just a little too convenient? When American investigators get there five days after the crash, after the bodies have been removed and the scene looted by Croats, doesn't concern for the facts appear to be obviously lacking?
When two competent government pathologists step forward and say that the most important VIP on the aircraft had an apparent gunshot wound to his head, and the VIP in question was rushed through an external exam and then buried without an autopsy, shouldn't there be outrage and calls for an investigation? When these pathologists are gagged and all the evidence is disappearing faster than anyone can keep up, shouldn't the requirements of probable cause be met at last? There have been many unanswered questions surrounding the death of Ron Brown, just one of many persons connected with the president who have died under suspicious circumstances. There is abundant probable cause to believe a crime has been committed. The efforts being made by government to destroy evidence, as well as the media's cooperation in ignoring the case, show just how broad the conspiracy is to obstruct justice.
It was a cloudy Saturday at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, when thirty-three flag draped coffins were delivered to their families, still shocked by the sudden death of their loved ones. The Air Force band played hymns and "My Country 'Tis of Thee", while the president and vice-president consoled each grieving family. The president's face revealed great emotion, and his voice cracked as he spoke.
"Today we come to a place that has seen too many sad homecomings, because this is where we in America bring home our own, those who have given their lives in the service of their country," Clinton told the crowd. "They believed in what they were doing. They believed in their country, and they believed they could make a difference." And to those who remain skeptical of his sincerity he added, "They are a stern rebuke to the cynicism that is all too familiar today." (23)
As revelations and events continue to unfold in the coming months, many Americans will discover and even find themselves targets of the great cynicism of those occupying positions of trust in their government.
1. "Experts Differ on Ron Brown's Head Wound" by Christopher Ruddy, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 12-3-97.
2. "Ron Brown's Loose Lips Seal Fate" by J. Orlin Grabbe.
3 - 5. "Absence of Black Box Remains Mystery" by John Diamond, Associated Press, April 5, 1996.
6. "Air Force Details Results of CT-43 Accident Investigation, Reference No. 342-96.
7 - 11. "Experts Differ..." (cited above)
12. "Air Force Medical Examiner: Brown Should Have Had Autopsy" by Christopher Ruddy, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 12-5-97.
13 - 15. "Experts Differ..." (cited above)
16."Military Imposes Gag Order on Ron Brown Controversy" by Christopher Ruddy, Pittsburgh Tribune Review, 12-6-97.
17 - 20 "Second Expert: Brown's Wound Appears to be From Gunshot" by Christopher Ruddy, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 12-9-97.
21 - 22. "Ron Browns Loose Lips..." (cited above)
23. "Clinton Consoles Families of Bosnian Plane Crash Victims", Associated Press, April 8, 1996.
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