photographs by Justin Fox Burks
An Acura Legend abandoned on the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge at night. Strands of barbed wire wrapped around a man's face. The dark cellar of an antebellum home in north Memphis. The burned-out hulk of a car, another Acura strangely enough, on the highway leading to Mississippi. Posters stapled to telephone poles across town, across America even, pleading, "Missing -- Please Contact?" A Harvard professor last seen at The Peabody.
All are indelible images -- and perhaps tantalizing clues -- from some of the strangest mysteries in Memphis. On the following pages, we present the facts (as far as we know them) about each of these bizarre tales. We report what investigators and authorities claim happened. And then we tell you what skeptics believe really took place. Fact or fiction? You decide.
The Missing Millionaire
WHO: John Cheek
WHEN: December 1, 1993
Plenty has changed since the last time a young businessman named John Cheek was last seen in Memphis. The restaurant where he last dined and celebrated with a group of friends, the Cooker, is now home to Ruth's Chris Steak House. The exit ramp -- then called Delaware -- where his 1987 black Acura Legend was found abandoned, is now the Metal Museum exit. And the toll-free number the Cheek family set up for the public to call with any sightings or information about their missing son now announces to callers the latest news about the Humana insurance company.
One thing remains unchanged, however: No one knows exactly what became of John Cheek.
A PROMISING FUTURE
The son of Dr. Richard and Arrena Cheek was, by all accounts, a happy young man who grew up in East Memphis near Memphis University School, where he attended high school. After graduating, Cheek moved to Dallas, Texas, to attend Southern Methodist University. There, he joined the Phi Delta Theta fraternity and was not only a successful student, but a popular one as well. A driven, smart young man, Cheek graduated from S.M.U. and went on to earn a master's degree in business administration in 1991 from the University of Chicago -- arguably one of the nation's most prestigious (and grueling) schools.
This was not a young man afraid of a challenge, nor one who was fazed by hard work.
With his master's degree in hand, Cheek moved back to Memphis, where he quickly settled into his familiar hometown. The bachelor purchased a house on Heather, just blocks from where he spent his days at M.U.S. He was hired by George Cates as the chief financial officer of Cates Company, which owns and manages apartment complexes across the South. He was active in the Phoenix Club, an organization committed to raising money for nonprofits such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, which counted among its members established Memphis business leaders including Fred Smith, Sam Cooper, and Bob Mednikow.
There's no denying that John Cheek was well on his way to becoming one of Memphis' most successful businessmen. But did success, or more accurately, the pressure to achieve it, eventually become his downfall?
For months prior to his disappearance, Cheek, who had been employed at Cates for three years, was working on the biggest deal of his life. Cates was slated to go public in early December with a real estate investment trust called Mid-America Apartment Communities, Inc. The conversion to a public company would have meant potentially enormous financial gains not only for Cates, but also for Cheek himself. Once the deal was finalized, Cheek's salary would have been $110,000, and included stock options worth a reported $2 million. In November 1991, John Cheek was days away from becoming a millionaire.
THE LAST SIGHTING
Just before he vanished, Cheek hopped planes first to Milwaukee, then to Denver, then to Portland. The three-day trip was spent tying up loose ends, and making sure all bases for the future conversion were covered. Upon his return to Memphis, rather than heading home for some much-needed rest, Cheek dashed straight to his office to answer last-minute questions, remarking to coworkers that he hadn't slept in 72 hours.
Despite Cheek's whirlwind trip and mounting sleep deficit, he joined a group of colleagues for dinner at the Cooker after work. According to his family and his business associates, Cheek was "consumed" with the deal, regularly working 18-hour days. Some nights, he didn't sleep at all. His last night in Memphis was spent with accountants also working on the deal, who later reported to the Memphis Police Department that Cheek seemed to be in good spirits. In fact, the talk that night was dominated by Tiger basketball, not stressful business details. One of the accountants dropped him off at his car, which was parked at the Crescent Center at about 11 p.m.
He hasn't been seen since. Or has he . . . ?
CLUES, LEADS, DEAD ENDS
When Cheek didn't show up for work on December 2nd, colleagues were immediately concerned. His parents reported him missing to the Memphis Police Department at 9 a.m., December 3rd. His car was spotted by a trucker on the old Delaware Street exit ramp, and was recovered by the MPD on December 4th. The car was locked, with no evidence of a struggle or damage from an accident.
His home revealed few clues, save for the unpacked suitcases from his recent trip, and an open garage door that was usually kept closed. No money had been taken from his accounts; no charges appeared on any of his credit cards.
Theories that perhaps the big deal Cheek had been handling was going awry were shot down as well. Despite a last-minute glitch that was quickly resolved when he returned from Portland, nothing was wrong with the company's finances. No missing paperwork, no missing funds, no evidence of anything but months of Cheek's hard, honest work were unearthed.
Friends and family rapidly gathered to launch a search. Posters with his description and photo, as well as a contact number for sightings, were plastered from coast to coast. Coworkers, family members, fraternity brothers, and fellow students from the University of Chicago were diligent in the search for their missing friend.
But for weeks, there was nothing. Cheek's loved ones assumed the worst. Murder. Kidnapping. Suicide. No possibility was ruled out. Family members sought the aid of the popular television show Unsolved Mysteries , flashing the young man's face and information nationwide to an audience of millions. People magazine featured a story in its March 28, 1994, issue. It seemed as though the entire country was looking for the man from Memphis.
Then, a breakthrough: Memphis police received a call from trucker Ron Jackson who thought he'd spotted Cheek at White's truck stop in Raphine, Virginia. He described a clean-shaven man who had a change of clothes wrapped in a belt. Jackson bought the man breakfast, and during the meal, Jackson claims the man resembling Cheek told him he'd been catching rides with truckers, stayed in a homeless shelter in Little Rock, and was making his way to Richmond, Virginia. Next, a traveling insurance man phoned the toll-free number, reporting a man fitting Cheek's description at a Texaco station in Virginia. The storeowner remembered the man as well.
These glimmers of hope spurred a renewed search effort, but in the end, no leads panned out.
It's not unusual for people under inordinate amounts of stress to fall into what psychologists refer to as a "fugue state." This disorder, while causing the victim to lose his identity but remain communicative and functional, can last from several weeks to several years. Family friend and psychologist Ray Sexton gave this explanation to various media outlets as a potential explanation for Cheek's disappearance. Friends and family held out hope that their son would return, but in the 13 years that have passed since Cheek was seen here in Memphis, hope is not easy to come by.
No one knows what happened to Cheek. Friends doubt suicide, and no evidence points to foul play. In August 2000, Cheek was legally declared dead in Chancery Court. Though his fate remains a mystery, a few things are clear. He was a hard-working, business-savvy individual who was loved by those who met him. Hundreds of concerned friends and family blanketed the nation with posters, hitting the interstate and scouring rest stops, shelters, and anywhere they thought might hold the key to the whereabouts of their missing friend. Though Cheek's life was short, it was rich with love, promise, and integrity. Still, with no hard evidence as to what may have occurred, this case remains:
The Disappearing Doctor
WHO: Dr. Don C. Wiley
WHEN: November 15, 2001
The night of November 15, 2001, was by all accounts a festive one for Dr. Don Wiley, in Memphis for a meeting of the Scientific Advisory Board of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The 57-year-old was a renowned and award-winning Harvard professor of biophysics and biochemistry. His specific area of expertise? Ebola and other lethal viruses.
Wrapping up the two-day conference was a dinner at The Peabody, followed by cocktails in the famed lobby bar. By all accounts, this happily married father of four was no stranger to Memphis. He'd been staying with his father while here, who lived in Germantown. Wiley had also visited Memphis just a month earlier, family members later explained. In short, this was a man who was more than vaguely familiar with the lay of the land.
Wiley was last seen leaving the Peabody lobby, and told colleagues he was headed to his father's Germantown home for the night. He ended the evening with drinks at the lobby bar, but according to writer Doug Most, who researched the incident for Boston magazine, the bartender remembered that Wiley had two cocktails before switching to Perrier, citing his 20-minute drive ahead.
BRIDGING THE GAP?
Four hours after Wiley was seen leaving The Peabody, his abandoned rental car was found on the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, known to locals as "the old bridge." The 2001 Mitsubishi Gallant was parked in the wrong lane -- west in the eastbound lane -- with the keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. The only indicators of something wrong were a missing hubcap on the right front side of the car, and a yellow scrape mark on the driver's side. Wiley was nowhere to be found.
The police discovered the car after a truck driver called to complain a car was blocking traffic. Walter Norris, a Memphis homicide detective at the time, stated the car was probably on the bridge for no more than 15 minutes.
Not only was a world-famous doctor missing, so were three hours and forty-five minutes of his last hours on earth.
After scouring the areas around the bridge and the dark waters of the muddy Mississippi, there was still no sign of Wiley. Family members firmly denied any history of mental illness or depression, stressing his excitement over the recent purchase of plane tickets for a Christmas trip to Iceland. Witnesses interviewed from the dinner stated Wiley to be in great spirits, even mentioning his plans for a jog in the morning.
Memphis police approached the event as a missing persons case for four days before handing it over to the homicide bureau. Even then, there were no signs of foul play. Investigators and family members were baffled. The MPD spokesperson Lt. Richard True said that based on prior experience with similar situations, all evidence pointed toward suicide.
On December 19th, the body of Don Wiley was found in the Mississippi River, 320 miles south of Memphis by a worker in Vidalia, Louisiana. After a month in the water, not much physical evidence remained. The body was sent back to Memphis, where coroner O.C. Smith concluded Wiley's death was caused by an accidental fall from the bridge.
It didn't take long for the conspiracy enthusiasts and the paranoid masses to fill the Internet with their own conclusions about what happened to Wiley. Most suspected that the doctor was murdered, or kidnapped and quizzed about his knowledge of lethal viruses, especially anthrax, for bioterrorist use. (It should be noted that while Wiley did study many infectious diseases, anthrax was not on his list of specialties). Sites popped up going so far as to say Wiley was killed by U.S. and foreign intelligence sources after he discovered the U.S. government's continuing work on biological weapons long after the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.
Sure, Wiley could have been a target for terrorists wanting his expertise, but Wiley surely was a cautious man. This was a Harvard professor with a decent grasp of the layout of Memphis. Why would he head to Arkansas when his destination was his father's home in Germantown? Perhaps after some sort of accident, Wiley got out of his car to inspect the damage, and somehow fell over the edge to the chilly waters below. And if that is the case, where had he been from midnight until the car was discovered four hours later?
Though the medical examiner ruled the death an accident, no one will ever know for certain what happened during the last moments of the brilliant doctor's life, which makes this case, for us,
The King Conspiracy
WHO: James Earl Ray
WHERE: The Lorraine Motel and a South Main boarding house
WHEN: April 4, 1968
THE CLAIM: James Earl Ray was either: 1) innocent, or 2) a patsy. The King assassination was the result of a broad conspiracy involving the Memphis Police Department, or the FBI, or just about any other group you can think of.
In April, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King returned to Memphis to salvage his reputation. He had visited this city just a few weeks before, to help negotiate a "truce" between the striking sanitation workers union and Memphis Mayor Henry Loeb, but a protest march had turned ugly, marring King's image as a practitioner of nonviolence. A second visit, he thought, would help calm things down.
On the evening of April 4, 1968, he stepped from his room out onto the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel. As he leaned over the railing to talk to friends below, a single shot rang out -- fired from the bathroom window of a boarding house across the street. The .30-06 bullet smashed into King's jaw, killing him instantly. Even as supporters screamed for police and pointed where they thought the shot came from, a white Mustang pulled away from the Main Street entrance of the boarding house. Police stormed the building minutes later, but the assassin was gone. Investigators would soon say the killer's name was James Earl Ray.
A little more than a month later, Ray was arrested at London's Heathrow Airport, carrying a forged passport in the name of Ramon George Sneyd. When he was returned to Memphis, he confessed to King's murder, and was sentenced to 99 years in prison. Almost immediately, he retracted his confession, and began to suggest that the murder had actually been carried out by someone named "Raoul." At one point, he told reporters that he could have been "partially responsible without knowing it," but he would not elaborate.
Ray spent the rest of his life behind bars at Tennessee's Brushy Mountain State Prison. He died there of liver disease in 1998.
WHAT CONSPIRACY THEORISTS SAY
As soon as authorities revealed that James Earl Ray was the shooter, conspiracy buffs disputed that claim. How could a bumbling two-bit crook like Ray pull off the assassination (which took place despite heavy security surrounding King while he was in Memphis), and then manage to escape to London? Who provided him with the money to do this, or gave him a forged passport? The police, the FBI, the CIA -- everybody was in on this, they said, and Ray himself was the fall guy.
Then, in 1993, an elderly Memphian named Lloyd Jowers confessed that he had been paid $100,000 from a prominent local businessman to arrange the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Jowers owned Joe's Grill, a cafe on the ground floor of the Main Street rooming house where Ray had stayed back in April 1968. Though most authorities gave his confession little or no credibility, King's family came to Memphis to meet Jowers. They not only believed him, they began a campaign to get a new trial for Ray, whom they now believed innocent.
At the same time, they brought a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against Jowers, which they won. The family was awarded just $100. But that didn't end the controversy or exonerate Ray. Legal experts found plenty of fault with Jowers' testimony, since he had failed lie detector tests, and a congressional subcommittee re-examined the case and concluded that Jowers had lied. In fact, Jowers changed his story many times, one time saying a Memphis police officer did the killing, another time claiming he paid a homeless fruit-picker to do the shooting.
To this day most authorities believe the man who killed King was the same man who died in Brushy Mountain State Prison eight years ago, though it is possible he received help from his family and friends.
Most people connected with this case are now dead. Until new evidence is released, or the mysterious "Raoul" turns up, the various conspiracy theories regarding the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. must be considered:
Examining the Examiner
WHO: Dr. O.C. Smith
WHERE: Shelby County Regional Forensic Center
WHEN: June 2, 2002
THE CLAIM: Someone attacked Dr. Smith outside his Medical Center office, tied him to a window guard with barbed wire, and strapped a motion-sensitive bomb to his chest. Both the attacker and his motive were unknown.
Shortly after midnight, a Medical Center security guard noticed that the car of Dr. O.C. Smith, the Shelby County medical examiner, was still in the parking lot, so he went to look for him. He encountered a shocking sight: Smith's head and neck were wrapped tightly in barbed wire and then tied to window bars outside his office, and a motion-sensitive bomb was strapped to his chest. Smith had been forced to remain immobile for more than three hours. The police bomb squad was called to dismantle the device, and Smith was taken to the nearby Regional Medical Center for examination, where he was treated for minor facial burns and -- despite all the barbed wire -- a few small scratches and bruises. After a few hours, he left the hospital and joined the police in searching for his assailant
He told investigators that after he left his office around 10 p.m. on Saturday night, someone stepped out of the darkness, splashed some burning liquid in his face to disable him, punched him in the stomach, then bound him with the barbed wire. When the attacker placed the motion-sensitive bomb on his chest, he warned him, "Push it, pull it, twist it, and you die. Welcome to Death Row."
Why would anyone want to attack Smith? Two months earlier, a similar bomb was found in a stairwell of his building, and he had recently received threatening letters, each one cryptically signed "Steel in the Hand of the King of Kings." Without fully explaining why, some authorities linked those threats to Smith's testimony during the murder trial of Philip Workman, convicted of shooting and killing a Memphis police officer in 1981 after a botched robbery and now sitting on Death Row. Smith had told the jury at Workman's trial that the fatal shots had indeed come from Workman's pistol, despite the defense attorneys' allegations that police officer Ronald Oliver had, in fact, been killed accidentally by one of his fellow officers on the scene.
That was just speculation, however. "We don't know a motive and aren't making any assumptions as to why anyone would want to hurt Dr. Smith," a deputy police chief with the Memphis Police Department told reporters.
Memphis police and investigators with the federal office of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms announced they would devote all their efforts to this peculiar case, which quickly made the national news and was even featured on the TV show America's Most Wanted . "We are planning to saturate this investigation and team up with local police on this matter immediately," the ATF declared at a press conference held that Sunday afternoon.
The strange case began to take a bizarre turn in September 2003, when a grand jury was convened to examine the attack. "Federal investigators have said it would be difficult for Smith to have staged the attack himself," reported The Commercial Appeal , "but they have not ruled out that possibility." This was the first time Memphians learned that investigators had begun to think the bizarre attack was a hoax.
This revelation had immediate ramifications. Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton called for Smith's resignation, and -- before Smith could respond -- began searching for his replacement. Even more significant, the scheduled execution of Philip Workman was postponed, since it was believed that Smith's testimony was now questionable. Workman's attorney, Robert Hutton, told reporters that Smith was "an expert in pathology, he's an expert in ballistics, he's an expert in torture, he's kind of an expert in everything," suggesting that the medical examiner was more than capable of knowing how to stage an attack without harming himself.
On the other hand, Smith had his own supporters. His attorneys held a press conference to declare, "Let us be perfectly clear. Dr. Smith did not stage this attack upon himself. He has consistently maintained his absolute innocence of any wrongdoing."
In February 2004, however, a grand jury indicted the former medical examiner, charging him with illegal possession of a bomb and making false statements to federal investigators. The trial began the first week of February 2005, and interesting details came to light. Although the bomb itself was determined to be real, investigators revealed that Smith's injuries were quite minor. A paramedic testified that she was at first horrified at the sight of Smith's face wrapped in barbed wire, but when it was finally cut away, she said, "It didn't make any sense that as how compressed and tight that barbed wire was, there were no scratches or blood or puncture wounds. It was so symmetrical that it was almost like a face mask or head gear."
Covering the trial for The Memphis Flyer , John Branston observed, "a skilled mystery writer would have this story end with A) Smith's conviction, B) Smith's acquittal, or C) Nothing: The plot is too far-fetched."
After the jury remained deadlocked for three days, the judge declared a mistrial, and the attorney general's office announced it would not seek a second trial. Authorities never turned up any other suspects, but if Smith faked the whole incident, his motive has never been fully explained. In the Flyer , Branston wrote: "People who think Smith did it will continue to think that. People who think Smith was attacked will continue to think that." The entire incident must be judged:
A Solid Foundation
WHAT: The Burkle Estate, also known as "Slavehaven"
WHERE: 826 North Second Street
THE CLAIM: The Burkle Estate served as a stop on the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War.
On June 4, 1966, the members of the Memphis City Council voted 8-0 to approve $100,000 in funding to restore a white frame house owned by Helene Shorty, who claimed the building was historically significant because it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Operated before and during the Civil War, the Underground Railroad was a network of secret locations that enabled runaway slaves to escape to freedom in the North.
The tumbledown building on a litter-strewn lot in North Memphis was supposedly built in 1849 by Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant who once owned the Memphis Stockyards, also located on the property. Elaine Turner of Heritage Tours, which operates the house as a nonprofit museum devoted to African-American heritage, has argued that certain features of the building prove that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Its location, some 1,500 feet from the river during the Civil War, would have provided easy access to riverboats. In the cramped cellar, a set of old stone steps and what appears to be a bricked-over archway suggest -- according to Turner -- the remains of a tunnel that linked the house to the river.
Bill Day, owner of the Hunt-Phelan House, was tutored as a child by a descendant of Jacob Burkle. Several years ago, he told reporters that, as a child, he had been shown a letter from a former slave, written to Burkle and thanking him for helping him escape to freedom. That letter has since disappeared. Day also claimed that as a child he got his clothes dusty by crawling beneath the house and exploring some of the tunnels, though there is no trace of them today.
The fact that no documents, historical records, or physical evidence prove that the Burkle Estate -- or any property in Memphis -- was part of the Underground Railroad didn't dissuade Turner, whose Heritage Tours has operated the house since it opened in 1997. "I have no problem with how the story of Jacob Burkle passed down through history," she told The Memphis Flyer shortly after the house opened. "The fact that there's no particular written evidence means Jacob Burkle did a good job of covering his tracks. . . . We feel very confident that this was a way station on the Underground Railroad."
WHAT OTHERS SAY
First of all, we have to consider how the Burkle Estate could possibly have been used as a so-called "stop" on the Underground Railroad, and it just doesn't make sense. A slave in this area would have had to begin his escape to freedom -- not by sneaking off through the woods -- but by first traveling all the way to downtown Memphis, and somehow making his way to one particular building that was -- at the time -- separated from the rest of the city by the Gayoso Bayou. This alone would have been an almost impossible journey, considering that slave owners posted huge rewards for the return of their "property."
But if he -- or she -- somehow got that far without being spotted, then he was supposed to hide in the cellar, crawl through a long tunnel all the way to the Mississippi River, and then wait for a boat to take him to the north or -- after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime for Northerners to harbor runaway slaves -- all the way to Canada. That's just not a very sound plan.
Next there is the age of the house to consider. Several historians have determined that the Burkle house itself was not constructed in 1849, but in 1895 -- decades after the Civil War. Some property records, in fact, don't even show Jacob Burkle owning this particular piece of land at all during, or prior to, the Civil War. A 1998 Commercial Appeal article cites a title search by Lawyers Title Insurance Company that indicates Jacob Burkle did not purchase the property until 1871.
Then there are the physical problems. Archeologist Guy Weaver examined the property years ago and told the Flyer , "There's no evidence of tunnels underneath the house. You hear stories of tunnels running under the streets, but usually those turn out to be sewer lines or foundation vaults." And even if old Jacob Burkle did manage to scoop out a 1,500-foot-long tunnel -- again, without any of his neighbors noticing -- what did he do with all that dirt?
Local historians, while respecting the oral history tradition, have also expressed almost universal skepticism about the Burkle Estate. Back in 1997, Arthur Webb, a consultant for the National Park Service, told The Commercial Appeal , "I visited the house and quite frankly didn't find anything unusual about the structure." About the so-called tunnel to the river, he said, "I seriously question whether that claim would survive geological scrutiny. I think [the cellar] is just a root cellar."
And besides, there is no evidence that Memphis -- a slave-trading center in the mid-1800s -- played any role whatsoever in the Underground Railroad network, which many historians believe operated mainly in the East and North. "I would be pleased to see any proof," Charles Crawford, professor of history at the University of Memphis, told the CA in 1997. "If you allege anything to be historical fact, there needs to be some proof." And Shelby Foote, arguably the world's greatest authority on the Civil War, has gone on record as saying "no evidence has surfaced to indicate the Underground Railroad was active in Memphis."
Finally, some of Burkle's own descendants, while insisting that the house was indeed constructed before the Civil War, admit they never heard rumors that their ancestor helped runaway slaves. "No, we're not aware of anything like that," John Martin told the CA in 1998.
Nevertheless, Turner with Heritage Tours said she was not surprised, telling reporters that abolitionists had to keep their activities secret, sometimes even from their own families.
A recent tour of the house reveals that the docents have changed certain details of Slavehaven's role. As they walk visitors through the house and take them down into the brick cellar, they now make no mention of any tunnels. Instead, they explain that runaway slaves entered the cellar through a wooden trapdoor on the porch, and -- when the time came for them to do so -- exited it by squeezing through a round hole punched in the foundation. For reasons that were never made clear (though several visitors asked why), the hidden slaves couldn't use the regular wooden stairs to get out of the cellar. Once outside, they would then walk (again, without being spotted) to the nearby river, where a boat piloted or owned by an abolitionist would carry them to freedom. It's not clear why nobody ever noticed any of those boats, either.
As a museum, the Burkle Estate offers a sobering view of the role of African-Americans in the 1800s. The house offers a nice glimpse of nineteenth-century life in Memphis, a time without heat, air conditioning, bathrooms, or running water. Many of the exhibits -- whips flecked with blood, "Slaves for Sale" advertisements, and stereotypical advertisements -- are downright disturbing. And the docents should be commended for their obvious passion for their work. But the fact remains that the Burkle Estate's status as a station on the Underground Railroad must be judged.
License to Kill
WHO: Katherine Smith
WHEN: February 10, 2002
WHAT: False ID's issued to terrorists?
Any local who's suffered the seemingly endless lines at any of the city's driver's license testing and renewal offices will tell you it's a long, boring way to spend a day. But it wasn't so boring on February 6, 2002, when federal agents hauled six individuals, including driver's license examiner Katherine Smith, from the testing station on Summer Avenue. The sight of those agents and Tennessee Highway Patrol investigators taking into custody five men of Middle-Eastern descent -- a mere five months after the country's most vicious terror attack --ignited a rumor mill that spread across the city within minutes. So who was Katherine Smith? How did she know these men, and why did they need fake identification? Most intriguing, were they in any way a part of the attacks on the World Trade Center?
WHO WAS SMITH?
The mother of three grown children, the 49-year-old Katherine Smith lived in a modest home near Hollywood and Central Avenue, an area not quite considered Midtown, not quite Orange Mound. She was raised by a farming family in Fayette County, about 25 minutes east of Memphis, graduating in 1971 from Fayette-Ware High School. Since she wasn't an A-student, college was not in the cards for Smith, who began working in various behavioral-health facilities. The job that wound up costing her her life, however, was the one she obtained in 1992.
For nine years, the low-level employee worked as a license examiner at the Summer Avenue Highway Patrol testing station. Her starting salary was $15,480 and had hit just over $23,000 at the time of her death. Even in a city known for its low cost of living, that isn't a lot of cash.
So, how tempting would it have been for a church-going, hardworking, and (until this time) otherwise law-abiding citizen to make some quick cash on the side by simply altering a few documents at her place of employment? For Smith, the offer proved too tempting. And sadly, too deadly.
Somehow, Smith befriended Khaled Odtllah, who appeared to be the ringleader in helping friends Mohammed Fares, Mostafa Said Abou-Shahin, and Abdelmuhsen Mahmid Hammad obtain Tennessee licenses without the proper paperwork. Memphis FBI Special Agent Suzanne Nash explained to the media after the arrests were made that tips from a New York agent led local agents to Smith, who was exchanging licenses for $1,000 cash. After her arrest on February 5th, Smith was put on unpaid leave from her job at the Highway Patrol, and released on her own recognizance. The other suspects were held without bond.
While the men cooled their heels in jail awaiting a hearing, Smith prepared for her detention and probable-cause hearing on Monday, February 11th. She never made it to court.
DEAD BY SATURDAY
Smith's family says she went missing Saturday night, and their worst fears were confirmed when the charred remains of her Acura were found on Highway 72 in Fayette County, a mere 200 yards from the Mississippi state line. Smith's car was spotted by six individuals heading westbound on 72 at 12:45 a.m. when it apparently veered off the road, plowed through a ditch, and struck a utility pole. The crash, however, was not the cause of Smith's death. The car itself was already on fire before striking the pole, and the impact didn't even cause the gas tank to explode. The front-end of the car received only what agent Nash described as "light damage."
Inside the car was another matter entirely. The interior, Smith, and every piece of the car's interior were burnt beyond recognition. Although there was little doubt that the badly burned body inside the charred car was Smith's, medical examiners had to rely solely on dental records for a positive identification of the driver.
NOT AN ACCIDENT
An FBI investigation quickly found that both the car's interior and Smith's clothing were covered in accelerant. The official cause of death cited on Smith's death certificate says nothing about the crash, but rather lists "inhalation of flame." To a layman, that means that Smith must have been alive when the fire began in order to inhale flames and smoke. This death, agent Nash declared before a federal judge, "was no accident."
With all five men who were indicted along with Smith sitting in the Federal Correctional Institution in Memphis while the murder took place, who was responsible for her death? And why would someone, or a group of people, go to such great lengths to prevent Smith from testifying about men who, according to their defense attorneys, were guilty of nothing more than skirting the legal system to obtain licenses for employment?
THE 9/11 CONNECTION?
After Smith's death, attorneys for the defendants went into overdrive painting a case of backlash from their clients' Middle-Eastern descent since September 11th. But there are indeed connections between not only New York, but the World Trade Center and these same men. Hammad, a native of Jordan but a citizen of New York, had a visitor's pass for the WTC dated September 5, 2001, and Abou-Shahin and Fares also traveled to Memphis from New York. But no evidence firmly linked these men with the terror attacks of September 11th, and no evidence that Smith had any idea that she could have unwittingly been involved in a scam with global repercussions. The truth lies buried with her at Memphis Memory Gardens. As for the men? They were indicted on fraud charges for their roles in the license scams, but not for any connection to Smith's death. As for alleged ties to the World Trade Center, the case remains:
Mary Helen Tibbs, Michael Finger