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Death sparks conspiracy theory

Sunday, March 14, 1999

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A former Army intelligence officer shot himself to death last month in a restroom outside conservative philanthropist and publisher Richard Mellon Scaife's Downtown offices, and Scaife has assigned a private investigator to determine whether the incident was a bungled assassination attempt.

Steven R. Kangas 

Steven R. Kangas died in the late hours of Monday, Feb. 8, on the 39th floor of One Oxford Centre.

The shooting of the 37-year-old Las Vegas man attracted little attention at the time, and Pittsburgh police and the Allegheny County coroner's office quickly ruled it a suicide.

Since then, though, the Internet has churned with speculation about Kangas. Some Web theorists have drawn parallels to the 1993 death of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent Foster, whose apparent suicide Scaife has openly questioned, calling it "the Rosetta Stone" of the Clinton administration.

For the past month, according to Kangas' friends and family, Mississippi private investigator Rex Armistead has traveled the country, trying to learn what interest Kangas might have had in Scaife.

Kangas had recently sold his share of a gambling business in Las Vegas, and he ran the "Liberalism Resurgent" page on the World Wide Web. The page published extensive criticism of conservatives, and some of its writings asserted that Scaife was the financier of a right-wing conspiracy to topple President Clinton.

According to a city police report, One Oxford Centre building engineer Don Adams was making a routine check of electrical circuit breakers in the men's room down the hall from the Scaife foundation offices when he found Kangas lying face up, his head protruding from beneath a toilet stall.

    The Kangas Suicide

Suicide leaves more questions than answers


Police said Adams left the restroom to radio for help, and when he returned with a colleague a minute later, they found Kangas seated on the toilet, slumped over after apparently shooting himself in the head. Police and security guards found a 9 mm pistol Kangas had bought two weeks earlier in Las Vegas, along with at least 47 rounds of ammunition in his backpack and one of his pockets.

Police also found a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey and three books, including "Mein Kampf" by Adolf Hitler.

An autopsy by the Allegheny County coroner's office determined that Kangas died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. A toxicology test set his blood-alcohol level at 0.14 - above the state's threshold of 0.1 for being too intoxicated to drive.

Kangas' parents say they have attempted to figure out why their son, whose military career included stints in Central America and Berlin during the latter days of the Cold War, would have gone to Pittsburgh, apparently with no credit cards and only $14.63 in his pocket, to kill himself.

Scaife is one of three tenants on the 39th floor, a location he specifically requested when he moved his family foundations and personal offices there several years ago. Also on the floor are Staley Capital Advisers and the law offices of T.W. Henderson.

Henderson yesterday said he heard nothing further about the suicide after it was reported and knew nothing about Kangas. Receptionists at Staley Capital referred all inquiries to One Oxford Centre management.

"We're as baffled as anybody else," said Robert Esh, Kangas' father, who said his son had changed his name six years ago from Esh to Kangas, his mother's maiden name.

  Richard Mellon Scaife

"We have no earthly idea why he would be up there."

Esh and Kangas' mother, Jan Lankheet, are divorced. He lives in South Carolina, and she resides in a small town in Michigan.

Both said they had no idea their son had bought a gun and learned of it only after his suicide. Then they discovered he had ordered a burglar alarm for his Las Vegas apartment.

"Steve was totally nonviolent. He didn't even believe in guns. It looks like he was running scared, and we don't know why," Esh said.

Scaife hired Armistead to find out whether Kangas had gone to One Oxford Centre with plans to confront or attack the billionaire because of Scaife's financial backing of conservative groups that have attacked Clinton.

One of those organizations, The American Spectator magazine, received more than $1.8 million for the so-called "Arkansas Project," which sought to find evidence linking Clinton to drugs and also looked into the Foster suicide.

The magazine also uncovered allegations concerning Paula Corbin Jones. It was Jones' sex-harassment lawsuit against Clinton that eventually led to revelations of the president's sexual liaison with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Published reports have said Armistead played a role in the Arkansas Project, and a federal grand jury in Little Rock last year began looking into the matter.

Scaife, who publishes the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, also assigned one of his reporters, Richard Gazarik, to dig into Kangas' background.

Kangas' family and friends who have talked with Armistead and Gazarik say the men have explored theories linking Kangas and associates to the CIA and the intelligence communities.

Kangas' mother said she has tried, without success, to find out whether her son attempted to visit Scaife.

"We still don't know if Steve was running or if he was after somebody," Lankheet said.

She and her current husband, Roger, traveled to Pittsburgh several days after Kangas was found dead and attempted to trace his final movements.

She said police and officials at One Oxford Centre did not directly answer her when she asked whether her son might have had contact with Scaife. It could not be determined whether Scaife was even in his office Feb. 8. He could not be reached for comment.

"We said, 'Did Steve actually try to see him?' Nobody talks. You get a shrug of the shoulders," Lankheet said.

On the day she visited, Lankheet said, One Oxford Centre officials showed her a building surveillance tape that indicated Kangas was in the building at 2:45 p.m. Feb. 8. Neither the police nor the coroner's report indicates his movements between then and 11:30 p.m., the approximate time the building engineer reported finding Kangas in the men's room.

According to the police report, Kangas made eye contact with Adams, who asked him, "Are you OK?" The report said Kangas mumbled something and Adams told him to stay put and he would get help.

Adams told police he went outside to radio for a colleague. When the men returned, they found Kangas fully clothed, sitting on the toilet, covered with blood.

One of the building engineers who responded to Adams' call, Don Oberdick, said it appeared Kangas shot himself after he was discovered, but no one seemed to have heard the gun go off.

"That was a hell of a way to start the evening off," he said.

Adams declined to give details, saying, "It's over, it's history. There's nothing I want to say about it."

Paramedics declared Kangas dead at the scene at 11:53 p.m.

A county pathologist concluded that Kangas was shot through the roof of his mouth. Two pieces of a 9 mm bullet were recovered from the back of his brain.

One Oxford Centre officials said Scaife's staff immediately asked for upgraded security on the floor. Keypad locks were installed on the men's and women's restrooms, which are along a wall facing Scaife's office suite.

In the autobiography he posted on his web site, Kangas called his move to Las Vegas in 1997 "a big mistake" and said he was planning to move back to Santa Cruz, Calif., where he spent nearly a decade after attending the University of California's campus there.

Instead, according to family and friends, he placed ads in the Las Vegas newspaper to sell his car and his camera, then bought the gun, which he registered with Las Vegas police Jan. 26,. Precisely when he left Las Vegas, no one seems to know.

Word of Kangas' death raced through the Internet community, where he was known as a participant in liberal, conspiracy and left-wing news discussion groups, and where his Web site was gaining in reputation.

"Steve Kangas Found Shot To Death in Richard Mellon Scaife's Bathroom," reads one posting on the alt.current-events.clinton.whitewater discussion group.

On the alt.conspiracy.jfk discussion group, an independent television producer named Jerry Trowbridge picks away at the Tribune-Review's suggestions that Foster, the White House deputy counsel, might have been murdered.

"There's a lot wrong with the Foster suicide investigation, and now there's the Steve Kangas suicide that has some very interesting connections to the Foster case," Trowbridge wrote.

Kangas' death, the Scaife connection and its possible meanings quickly formed the basis for several heated exchanges as the Internet rumor mill went into full throttle in the weeks after Feb. 8.

Several writers pointedly drew attention to Kangas' previous declarations against handgun ownership and the fact that he ended his life with one in his hand.

Compounding the controversy is his family's dissatisfaction with the account of his death.

Whatever trail Kangas might have left on the home computer from which he worked were lost after his roommate returned from Hong Kong, where the firm was selling its horse-racing computer software.

Denise Waddell, wife of one of Kangas' co-workers at the business, said the firm's president, Peter Wagner, had shared an apartment with Kangas. When Wagner returned from the extended trip to discover that Kangas had not paid his share of the rent for several months, Wagner was stuck for the money.

To reimburse himself, she said, Wagner sold Kangas' computer to the building's maintenance man, who then erased its hard drive.

About the same time, Robert Esh, the dead man's father, gave Armistead permission to collect Kangas' mail and examine any other records, which were later passed along to the family. The investigation, Esh said, yielded no conclusive evidence about what Kangas was doing in Pittsburgh.

Two discrepancies between the coroner's report and the police report filed in the case have intensified family speculation about Kangas' death.

First, his parents point out, the police report says, in the heading "nature of injuries," that Kangas suffered a "gunshot wound/left head."

The autopsy report clearly states that Kangas shot himself through the roof of the mouth.

"Things are a little confusing," Esh said.

Then, the initial coroner's report said that when Adams, the building engineer, found Kangas lying face up on the floor of the bathroom stall, he also spotted blood around him, something that would suggest he had already been shot.

The narrative in the police report makes no mention of blood until after Adams re-entered the bathroom and found Kangas on the toilet seat.

Kangas' body was cremated, his mother said, to save costs in returning his remains to South Carolina, where he was raised.

Esh said the family was still struggling to understand why their son would have traveled so far to hide in a bathroom outside the offices of a man he had criticized.

"That's how it started out, the theory that Steve was there to do some damage to someone else. But Steve was totally nonviolent. He didn't even believe in guns."

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