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John G. Craig Jr.: Mission: Implausible

Dick Scaife couldn't keep his probe of Kangas a secret

Sunday, March 28, 1999

The Steven Kangas case is a textbook example of the dangers of trying to hide what will not stay hidden for very long.

  John G. Craig Jr. is editor of the Post-Gazette. 

Kangas came to Pittsburgh and apparently died by his own hand at 11:30 p.m. Feb. 8. The principal public note of the event locally was the following story, printed in its entirety, from the Post-Gazette of Feb. 12:

"The body of a 37-year-old man found in a 39th floor bathroom of One Oxford Centre late Monday night has been identified as Steven Kangas of Las Vegas. He died of a gunshot wound to the head. The Allegheny County coroner's office ruled the death a suicide."

You will note that four days had passed between the death and this cryptic public report. The easy explanation is that suicides are not usually the subject of news stories until there is an official determination by the coroner that they have occurred - except, of course, when the act takes place in a dramatic or public fashion, or the victim is immediately recognizable as a public figure, neither of which was the case with Kangas.

His death did immediately set off alarm bells, but they rang only behind closed doors. The PG, the coroner's office, the Pittsburgh police department and the TV stations missed completely the fact that "the 39th floor" was a long-storied Pittsburgh address. For the better part of a century, the 39th floor of a Downtown building was the citadel of Mellon family interests - and it was the floor address that Richard M. Scaife chose to retain for his personal offices when he moved to One Oxford Centre a few years ago.

If either the police or the press had been on their toes, the coincidence of Kangas' body being found less than 60 feet from Scaife's office door would not have gone unremarked, particularly when even a cursory check of the Internet could have revealed that Kangas had been a prominent player in chat rooms where liberal conspiracy theorists emote and where in the previous few months he had been outspoken in his criticism of Scaife and the dangers Kangas believed Scaife-funded initiatives posed to the nation.

The obvious and immediate question would have been: Who was this man and why did he come to Pittsburgh to kill himself? Did anyone in town know him? Had he ever worked for anyone with a Pittsburgh connection? What was his background?

The only people who immediately addressed such questions, not surprisingly, were employed by Richard M. Scaife.

I don't know about you, but I don't blame them. If someone shot himself outside my office, I'd have questions by the dozen. Was Kangas lying in wait for some ill purpose? A hostage taking? A murder? A dramatic publicity stunt? The most prudent of men would immediately wonder about such things. And in the world of Dick Scaife, where conspiracies abound, the possibilities would be limitless.

What is interesting is what the Scaife people did next. Instead of sharing immediately their anxieties with those who could help them most - local law enforcement officers and the coroner - they put a reporter from the Tribune-Review, Richard Gazarik, and a notorious private investigator from Mississippi, Rex Armistead, on the case.

Gazarik and Armistead got a good line on Kangas in rather short order. Between them they talked to members of his family, reviewed his Internet ramblings, visited Las Vegas and checked out both his apartment and place of employment. They were encouraged in this work by Kangas' parents, who were mystified by what they had been told. They did not see their son as either suicidal or dangerous, but no one else they talked to in Pittsburgh seemed much interested in that or anything else concerning their son.

The problem with conducting your own secret investigation, conscientious as it may be, is that the people you talk to start talking to other people. Before long, thanks to the Internet, the gossip is out there for all to see. Scaife's organization, including his newspapers, were able to sit on the story for more than four weeks, but when a friend called the matter to my attention March 11, the intensity of the chatter around the nation had reached such a level that for all intents and purposes, the cat was out of the bag.

In the two weeks since the story broke, nature has taken its usual course. Lawyers and writers who serve the conservative cause have circled the wagons and are chirp, chirping away about people like Kangas who hate them. The Clintonites and their friends are taking pleasure in the irony of Scaife's discomfort and the embarrassment the extremists on the left were able to stir up as a result of the long information vacuum.

Local law enforcement officials and the mainstream press (and who knows who else) have realized that they dropped the ball and now are all started down a trail that is six weeks cold. As for the poor public, it is left wondering, as is its wont, "What the hell is going on here?"

If the principals behave as they predictably behave, the rumors and questions will continue unabated, and the facts of the matter, whatever they are, will forever be lost in the larger partisan passions that define contemporary politics.

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