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Suicide leaves more questions than answers

Sunday, March 14, 1999

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

After he set up a Web site championing the political left, Steve Kangas posted his photograph alongside the story of his transformation from the son of conservative Christians to free-thinking leftist.

"I left religion at age 12, and conservatism at age 26, to become the godless pinko commie lying socialist weasel that conservatives find at right," he said in the text beside a photo showing a bearded, bespectacled man who looked like an artifact of the 1960s.

"I'm sure that liberals will recognize something of the kindly, gentle, good-humored progressive student I actually am in this photo, which makes this a political Rorschach ink-blot test."

A Rorschach blot, indeed.

Among those who knew him, Kangas, who left the world in a sudden, inexplicable moment of self-directed violence, is now a cipher.

A man of professed nonviolence who argued against gun ownership, Kangas bought a gun, left Las Vegas and hid out in a restroom near the offices of conservative publisher Richard Mellon Scaife, against whom he had written. Moments after a building engineer stumbled across him around 11:30 p.m. Feb. 8, Kangas shot himself.

He left no suicide note. There was no manifesto. Police found $14.63 in his pockets and a nearly empty whiskey bottle nearby. He had three books, a few magazines, socks and toilet paper in his backpack. What was in his head is anybody's guess.

Who was Steve Kangas, and what was he doing on the 39th floor of One Oxford Centre in the dying hours of that Monday night? Scaife's organization hired a private detective to try to find out.

Ask those who knew him and the perceptions become as distant as the two political poles between which he traveled during his 37 years of life.

"He always seemed like a gentle soul," recalled Vince Winkel, for whom Kangas wrote free-lance articles on politics for an Internet magazine. "He was probably one of the most mellow persons I've met. A really, really mellow guy. Laid back."

"He was a little fat guy who was lonely and geeky," said Denise Waddell, whose husband, Tom, worked with Kangas at a Las Vegas company that specializes in gambling software. "I think he was a little man trying to make a big life for himself."

"He was a happy guy. He had plans for this summer," said his mother, Jan Lankheet, who lives in Michigan and whose Christmas card inviting her son to visit last year was in his backpack when he was found dead.

"I probably was the closest sibling to him, but that's not saying much," said his sister, Sharise Esh, who lives in suburban Washington, D.C. "He was a very competitive person who wanted to do well in life and felt he didn't have the tools needed to do that."

Kangas, who changed his name several years ago from Steven Robert Esh, gave varying accounts of his life.

On the Internet, he was read by an assortment of people who love to debate politics. His online biography tells of a guy who joined the Army after high school and wound up working in military intelligence, both in Central America and Germany, during the waning days of the Cold War.

To friends in Santa Cruz, the easygoing California town where he attended college from 1987 to 1994 without completing his degree, Kangas was a masterful chess player and former president of the local chess club.

One acquaintance described him as a gambler. Another remembered him as living just one step from homelessness as he eked out a marginal living selling free-lance writings to a Colorado Web site.

Flash ahead a few years to 1997 and it was Steve Kangas the swell.

He joined P.W. Enterprises, a Las Vegas firm developing software that combines assorted factors on racehorses and, its creators hope, comes up with consistent winners. The company currently is marketing the software in Hong Kong.

He told his sister he made as much as $200,000 in one year. When she mentioned, in passing, that she needed to save some money, Kangas sent her six $100 bills in the fall of 1997.

"He took great pride in that," she said.

But Tom Waddell, who found Kangas his job at P.W. Enterprises at a moment when Kangas was about to become homeless, remembers a guy with talent who still screwed up the books at his new job and who squandered thousands of dollars on Las Vegas escorts.

"He seemed very mild-mannered, but he was always very conscious of how he presented himself to people," Waddell said. "I'm shocked he would be in the same room with a gun."

Steven Robert Esh was born May 11, 1961, the son of a graphic artist and a mother who went on to get a doctorate in religious studies. His now-divorced parents are strongly conservative Christians, and he attended private religious academies around Landrum, S.C.

He joined the Army three years after leaving high school in 1979, and his resume includes time at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he studied Russian. Kangas then received intelligence training at Goodfellow Air Force Base in Texas.

On his Web site Kangas writes that he was sent to Central America, "doing things I am not at liberty to discuss," before he went to Berlin, where he eavesdropped on Soviet military communications.

After the Army, Kangas returned to the United States in 1986. He settled in Santa Cruz, a college community south of San Francisco, where coffee shops buzz with politics from the nearby branch campus of the University of California.

Kangas described the shift from the Army to Santa Cruz as "like going from conservative heaven to liberal heaven at warp speed."

One Santa Cruz acquaintance remembered Kangas as a talented chess player who seemed to also become involved in gambling, although Tom Waddell, the former co-worker, said Kangas rarely had enough money to gamble to any large extent.

What became clear, though, was that Kangas had veered sharply to the left in his beliefs. At the same time, he briefly married, and for a period of more than a year, was almost entirely out of touch with his family during the late 1980s.

"He was unhappy with his childhood, and he didn't feel our parents prepared us for life in the real world," explained Sharise Esh.

Then, two years ago, his siblings and father chipped in to fly Steve home to South Carolina for Christmas.

"We all felt we'd had a huge reach-across," Robert Esh said. "It wasn't that we were at odds with each other or fighting, but that he'd kept some distance because his belief system was different than ours."

That Kangas' belief system had become different from his family's was clear after his parents examined his Web page. Lankheet called some of the writings "extreme."

One of Kangas' online essays, "Origins of the Overclass," purports to show "why the richest 1 percent have exploded ahead since 1975, with the help of the New Right, Corporate America and, surprisingly, the CIA."

Toward the end of the essay, he introduces Scaife and tells of the billionaire's role - later confirmed - in running a London news agency that was a CIA front.

The essay also discusses Scaife's donations to various right-wing think tanks and other organizations.

Kangas went into greater detail on Scaife in another piece discussing the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that first lady Hillary Clinton has claimed was aligned against President Clinton.

The piece is largely a rehash of previously published accounts of Scaife's involvement with think tanks and the American Spectator's "Arkansas Project," to which Scaife contributed more than $1.8 million in an effort to dig up dirt on Clinton.

While Kangas' Web site includes criticisms of Scaife, none of the pieces published there reflects a singular obsession with him. Other conservatives and right-wing foundations also are referred to in his writings. In none of them does he make threats.

During the time he was gaining a reputation for his Web site, Kangas was also, in some respects, falling apart in his personal life.

Both Tom and Denise Waddell said Kangas increasingly was spending time and money on paid escorts in Las Vegas, and that while he seemed to consider the women friends, they generally abandoned him after his money ran out.

Kangas also was becoming unhappy with his work arrangements.

He quit a year ago and accepted a $30,000 buyout, even though company officials tried to tell him his share was worth $100,000.

"He said, 'No, I don't want to be in that damn 1 percent I rail about in my Web page,' " Jan Lankheet recalled.

In early January, he called his sister, Sharise. The man who had a few months earlier turned down $100,000 now was pleading poverty.

A few weeks later, according to his family, Kangas bought a gun, registered it on Jan. 26, and ordered a burglar alarm for his apartment.

No one seems to know precisely when he left Las Vegas or when he arrived in Pittsburgh. He rented a locker at the Greyhound bus terminal, Downtown, and also had a Pittsburgh street map, according to Lankheet, who traveled to Pittsburgh last month to seek details about her son's death.

Surveillance cameras at One Oxford Centre picked him up riding the escalator in the building lobby Feb. 8 and also in the elevator lobby, but the building lacks an extensive network of such cameras, so the last sighting was at 2:45 p.m.

In nine hours, Steve Kangas, professed man of peace with a mission no one has yet decoded, would be dead and a mystery begun.

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