Chapter 1: Red Room

This is a true story. It must be. It was in the newspaper. I put it there.


One evening in 1987, someone called my newsroom to tip us that the tiny town of Benton, Pa., had inherited something close to a million dollars. It was bequeathed by a man no one in Benton at first claimed to have heard of. And there was a catch. The bequest was only half of the mystery man’s estate. The other half had been left to the man suspected of murdering his, and Benton’s, benefactor.

Sept. 3, 1987, p. 1

I was working on a project and not available for deadline work. I stole the assignment immediately.

In a few hours of phone calls, I had pieced together a skeleton of the story. The benefactor, Joseph Derr, had lived in Benton as a boy. At some point during his adolescence it appeared he had been exposed as a homosexual after town busybodies uncovered his furtive relationship with another boy. His fate was to be virtually run out of town on a rail. The other boy, too. And the rails ran in opposite directions. That’s how they rolled in the 1920s.

Derr surfaced a few years later in the Midwest. Eventually he came to own a plastics factory and benefited greatly from military contracts. By the late 1970s, Derr was a scion of Evansville, Indiana, society and a friend to the governor. But he had secrets, too. And one of those secrets, who wasn’t really a secret at all to Joe’s inner circle it would later turn out, was a tall, chiseled bodybuilder with a shock of pure white hair and a pigment deficiency. His name was Donald Baggett.  The two traveled to Acapulco in late 1979, fell off the radar and were even reported missing by friends. But in early 1980, Baggett resurfaced in Evansville, alone. No one ever saw or heard from Joe Derr again. Because of the laws governing extradition in that era, Baggett could not be extradited to Mexico, nor could he be tried in the U.S. because no crime had been committed here. The FBI questioned Baggett, but he was not inclined to provide answers. After seven years passed, Derr was to be declared dead and his estate prepared for liquidation.

Over the next two years, I would write many updates on the court battle to unlock the estate, which a judge held up because he believed, quite reasonably, that Baggett might very well be responsible for Derr’s death, and should not be allowed to profit from it. Judge Robert W. Lensing had no legal basis for the many delays he caused in the process of declaring Derr dead and settling the estate, but as attorneys are fond of saying, “You can indict a ham sandwich.” I would also write two long take-outs on the case: One chronicling Derr’s life in Evansville and a second reconstructing his movements during the last days of his life, days spent with Donald Baggett, in Acapulco.

When people think of Indiana, they think Rustbelt, they think Midwest. But Evansville is deep in the southern part of this oblong state, just across the Ohio River from Kentucky. By geography and, I would learn when I visited in the fall of 1987, by temperament, Evansville is a Southern city.

My first contact in Evansville was Derr’s old friend Cy Ruthenberg. I’d written to Cy and he agreed to meet me. I phoned when I arrived and he said: “We shall meet for luncheon at my club. If you do not have a tie you may borrow one.” It was a command, not an invitation – and, in fact, I did not have a tie. I drove through the heart of a golf course a few miles outside of town and then ascended a rise to an impressive villa-style clubhouse where waited Cy, a slight, wizened old gent with a natty mustache and a perfectly pressed handkerchief peeking suavely from the pocket of his single-breasted charcoal suit coat. I accepted a red paisley tie, knotted it over my blue striped shirt and followed Cy into a dark, rich, red dining room. The thick-pile carpet was red. The chairs were red. The tablecloths were red. The thick curtains that covered vast expanses of bare (red) walls – there were no windows — were red. The waiters, whose suit coats and ties were also red, were, without exception, black.

We were led to Cy’s regular table and I took a seat and within a moment a tall, dignified waiter appeared tableside with menus. I thanked him and asked, “Is there a specialty you would recommend?” He stared at me blankly, glanced uncertainly at Cy, and then melted quietly away.

Cy peered at me over the tops of his glasses. “They don’t talk.”

“Pardon me?”

“They don’t talk.”

For a naïve instant I thought perhaps the club altruistically hired only mute minorities. But, of course, what Cy meant was: They aren’t allowed to speak.

Cy told me that the house specialty was a sandwich that, uncannily, comprised every single sort of meat and garnish I find repulsive. I told him I’d have a BLT.

“Hmmm,” he sniffed with disapproval. “You are the type of person who clings to what he knows. Very well.” He waved a hand and the mute waiter reappeared, seeming, because of the red-on-red tableau that included his uniform, to levitate directly out of the floor.

Over the next several hours, with sandwiches and wine giving way to cigars and scotch, Cy wove a tale of boozy soirees during a time when people actually dressed up on Saturday night, canasta, a sham marriage, an Italian countess, a star-crossed gangster named Titanic Thomas, and an indulgent circle of highly peculiar friends who made no judgment of Joseph Derr’s sexual kinks, until one day a new person, an insinuating and menacing figure whose biceps nearly burst the seams of his garish seersucker suit and who raised the hair on Cy’s neck, entered that circle, tagging along behind Joe, who introduced the hulking creature winkingly as his “assistant.”

Next: Chapter 2 – Titanic Rising

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