It’s been a long time since I’ve published a new chapter, and there are a number of reasons for that. I started this chapter one night last fall, just as a storm began to roll in. It was just before sundown and the sky was dark and featureless, mostly a flat gray, but just as the sun reached the horizon, it cast a sickly yellow glow on the neighborhood which came and went quickly as dusk set in. Soon there were flashes of light and rumbles of distant thunder; the sky grew dark. I thought Yeah, this would be a great time to settle-in and write the next chapter. I got out my computer and began pecking away. Raindrops began to tap the roof one or ten at a time, then quickening until the tapping was a steady shhhhhhhhhhhh over my head. I could hear the rain trickling into the gutters and the thunder getting louder, and despite my belief that a storm is the best time to sit down and indulge one’s creative streak, I soon came to the conclusion that I was lost. I didn’t know what I was writing or what story I was telling… so I put it down.
There have been a number of events in my life since then that made me think This is a future chapter but they’re stories I wasn’t ready to tell yet. So, I continued to wait for the moment of inspiration to arrive. When my wife and I decided to rearrange to make room for a podcasting studio in a mudroom space, the moment finally arrived.
I had to empty out a filing cabinet to make room for my computer desk in the mudroom, and when I started to go through the drawers, I found something I had stashed decades earlier… letters from my Uncle Jim.
In part three of this story, I told you about my Uncle Jim. He served 33 years in prison for his part in the 1977 murder of a man named Jack Whiteley in a rinky dink motel near Detroit. In that chapter I said “I wish I still had his letters so I could get it word for word, but I’ll have to recount his version of the story as best I can from memory.” If you haven’t read that chapter, I would recommend you read it, because now that I’ve found his letter, it makes this part more revealing.
The letter from Jim was dated April 1, 1993 and directly under that he wrote, Thursday night. I was in my mid-twenties at that time, and in my previous letter to him I had asked if he would be willing to share the details of his crime. This was the first time I had the opportunity to hear the story directly from Jim.
Jim had been waiting on a transfer to a different, down-state correctional facility for some time, and on this day, he found out the bus had left without him, which meant his transfer had not been approved yet, so he took the opportunity to leave his packing until later and answer my letter. He wrote:
It is very hard… difficult, to explain “my crime” as you put it. There were a lot of things that led up to it… and some things quite simply, just happened. I’ve been trying to think of where to start, since there really is no beginning as such, no single place that I can put my finger on. Do any of things mean anything to you:
The Posse Comitatus
The Posse Comitatus was a name that was known to me, but the others I had not heard. If you look them up, you’ll get an education on a number of things. Jim wrote:
I was involved with such things at one time… call them radicals, with pretty extreme views and aims.
Jim had recently been paroled from federal prison and had no place to go.
I more or less conned my way into an old girlfriend’s apartment in Pittsburgh. While living there, a couple of old associates called to see if I was really there and free… and to keep me posted on some of the different groups’ activities. Needless to say, although I had a place to live (for how long, I didn’t know), food, and sex… I really didn’t have any money or anything to call my own. And a man without any real means of his own, especially a man in the frame of mind I was in at that stage of my life, wasn’t much of a man.
This is classic philosophizing from my Uncle Jim. His letters were always full of his own nuggets of wisdom and advice. He continued:
I had a couple of money making offers (none legal), and after a few days I decided to take up one of the offers…… figuring at the time that I had little or nothing to lose. How wrong that turned out to be!
You’ll notice in this letter that my uncle had already used that word, associate, that I told you about in part three, and he was about to use it again.
I called an old associate (not a friend), who seemed to be the one calling the most. While I didn’t like the guy (had known him off and on for years), I thought there just might be some easy money in some of his hinted suggestions.
This “associate” was Dan Clements, from Louisiana. He was the second man who was eventually arrested and convicted in the murder of Jack Whiteley. Jim borrowed some money from his girlfriend for a plane ticket (in his letter he said “I think she was glad to get rid of me”) and flew down south. Jim wrote:
When I got there, he was full of big plans and ideas, but little else. Still, there I was, so I figured I might as well play the game by ear.
If you break down those two sentences, I believe we can see where the whole thing began. My uncle had borrowed money to fly to Louisiana to meet a schmuck who was all mouth. He got there and realized there was nothing really going on, and no money making opportunity. And his “associate” probably felt pressured to come up with something because he had promised there was money to be made, and now, Jim had arrived. So they went looking for trouble.
The Night Of
At this point, my Uncle Jim’s letter moves to page two and he gets down to the details of the night that would end with him spending 33 years in prison.
We did several things, none legal, but the thing that brought all this about was a shipment were supposed to check into and pick up. The shipment was weapons. I’ve never told anyone this much, so you see, you’ve gotten a scoop.
Do I really believe I got a scoop? That my uncle never told anyone this much? No, not really. My uncle is not the only person I’ve ever known who served time in prison, and I’ve learned that sometimes their stories are exaggerated, or straight-up lies. Romanticized tales of wrongdoing go a long way toward establishing your cred in circles like my uncle’s. His letter continues:
After stopping in to see an old mob connected friend in Tom’s River, New Jersey, we came up north (into Michigan), to see a guy about some weapons, and maybe picking them up. Apparently, arrangements and talks had been going on for some time (not known to me). While I didn’t know the guy (and still don’t) I assume it was the guy who ended up getting killed. As the guy who got killed was the Vice President of Gross Mechanical Company in Detroit. I say, I don’t know if he was the guy, because, I sincerely do not… I said not more than 10 words to him, and really was not around him at all.
“The guy” he is talking about is Jack Whiteley, and he is the man who ended up dead. It occurs to me all these years later that my uncle never used names in his letters or stories. He never named Dan Clements or Jack Whiteley, and often acted like he had forgotten their names, despite his ability to remember other fine details. I wouldn’t know the names myself if I hadn’t researched the case and looked up newspaper articles. Prison life had taught my uncle well… snitches get stitches, and you never let a co-conspirator’s name (or a victim’s) cross your lips.
We went to a pre-arranged meeting place in a real nice bar… and while I sat by myself for about 3 hours, drinking and playing music on the box, my associate and this guy sat together, clear across a crowded room from me… talking and whatever, It wasn’t for me to know, so I didn’t question it.
This is a claim I’ve never believed. I think Jim made this up, the part about him sitting alone while Dan and Jack “did business,” to distance himself from what would eventually happen. I don’t have proof that it’s a lie, but I believe it is nonetheless.
I was given a sign after awhile to leave the bar and head for our motel room, which I did. Shortly thereafter, this guy and my associate come falling into the room (I assumed they were both drunk out of their minds), talking “it’s party time!” Party my ass, I hadn’t come to Michigan to party.
I think there’s some code in that last line. I believe “I hadn’t come to Michigan to party” really means my Uncle Jim was pissed about being kept waiting in the room and was ready to get down to business. He was at home in his role as an enforcer, and when drunk, he reverted to the character he was most comfortable playing. I think that was the moment the confrontation began, regardless of the story Jim would continue to tell in his letter.
I was pretty drunk myself (would have had a hard time finding my ass with both hands), and wasn’t paying all that much attention. The next thing I recall is, these two are yelling back and forth… now this is about 3:00 AM, and I can’t make any real sense of it. It seems someone got paid and someone got ripped off, or thought they had. The next thing I know, I’m headed for the bathroom and my associate nails this guy… you guessed it… blew his mug out!
Again, I believe there are more lies here. He talks about “not paying much attention,” again, I believe, to distance himself from what was about to happen. He says he couldn’t “make any real sense of it” and that “someone got paid and someone got ripped off,” as if, at the moment of the confrontation, he was just figuring that out, but to believe that, you’d have to believe he went along on this “job” with Dan Clements, drove from Louisiana to New Jersey, and then to Michigan without ever discussing what the job was. I don’t buy it. At any rate, in Jim’s telling of it, Dan had just punched the guy, blew the guy’s mug out so-to-speak. His letter continues:
Only the guy doesn’t go down and stay down! Here I’m half in the bathroom, not knowing what the hell is going on, or whether I should get involved, and these two are going at each other. It was obvious that my associate needed no help anyway… the other guy clearly couldn’t handle him, he just wouldn’t stay down.
Jim’s contention that Jack Whiteley “wouldn’t stay down” fits with what we know about him. After his murder, some reports described him as 60 years old, but a physical fitness buff who looked younger than his age. Two sentences later, Jim distances himself again from the murder by saying his associate didn’t need his help.
Anyway, as best as I can remember it, I started across the room to lend my associate a hand until I could find out what was going on. I grab the guy from behind, throw him on the bed, and tell him to chill out, before he really gets his ass hurt. Now the guy wants to fight me! Shit, I don’t even know what’s going on, for sure, so I back up and look at my associate, as if to say, “Hey, you started this shit, it’s not my problem.” Next thing I know, my associate has pulled a knife, and is on top of this guy on the bed. Even then I didn’t think much about it… I figured he was trying to scare the guy. Not so… he stabbed the guy in the heart, and then, cut his throat.
When I told this story in part three, I told it from memory and I didn’t remember Jim saying anything about Mr. Whiteley’s throat being cut, and I considered that a lie of omission. Now that I’ve seen this letter again, I realize he did mention it, but you can still see the lies and convenient explanations from a mile away. My uncle had just finished telling me that his associate had the situation in hand, didn’t need his assistance, and the very next thing, he “started across the room to lend his associate a hand.” He admits to throwing Mr. Whiteley on the bed, but then claims to have backed away because it wasn’t his fight. I don’t buy it for a moment. It strikes me as a claim you’d see in a true crime documentary, where a perpetrator comes up with a weird story to explain why his hair was found on a victim, or his blood in their house… Yes, I can explain why my hair was found on the victim’s body. I threw him on the bed and told him to chill.
At this point in the letter, Jim describes calming down his “associate” and getting the hell out of there, only to be caught ten days later in Pittsburgh. He makes several more claims about not knowing what really happened and disavowing all but the most cursory involvement in the events that led to Jack Whiteley’s death, but the most glaring evidence that Uncle Jim never told me the whole truth, and that he was much more involved in Jack Whiteley’s murder than he is willing to let on, is what we learned from the investigation.
Jack Whiteley was tied up, first with bath towels, and later with a lamp cord. Where was that in Uncle Jim’s story?
If you read between the lines, the story tells itself.
“After stopping in to see an old mob connected friend in Tom’s River, New Jersey, we came up north (into Michigan), to see a guy about some weapons, and maybe picking them up.”
“It seems someone got paid and someone got ripped off.”
Jack Whiteley got tied to a chair by two guys who came to see him on the orders of a mob-connected friend in New Jersey.
He ended up dead, stabbed in the chest with his throat cut.
Seems pretty clear to me. Of course, for this story to be true, we also have to assume that Jack Whiteley was involved in mob business and/or arms deals, and we don’t know that because the man is dead and the only version of the story we’ve heard is from a felon convicted many times over.
This story, of my Uncle Jim and the murder of Jack Whiteley, and the larger story of my family that has come to be known as “So Many Secrets,” is brimming with half-truths and obfuscation from the players in the tale.
No sense sugar-coating it. Parents who lied to their kids, and vice versa. People who lied about things big and small, trivial and monumental. Lies about marital status. Lies about drug use. Lies about children birthed. Lies to deny culpability. Lies to avoid responsibility. Lies taken to the grave.
We all lie every day… little white lies that are largely harmless. Yes, that shirt looks great on you. No, I’m not avoiding your call, I’m just busy.
We tell little white lies because the truth hurts, but we too often forget, lies hurt, too. Families that pass down a willingness to lie about matters of real importance are like that thunderstorm that rolled through when I began writing this chapter… it’s starts with a lie or ten, tapping on your roof, but soon it’s a deluge. Truth becomes subjective and right and wrong can be harder to recognize. I’m certain my Uncle Jim was lost in it from a very young age, and if he’d had a family of his own, he would have passed it on to another generation of our family to get lost in the rain.