By Douglas J. Hagmann

I was recently contacted by a state police detective who is working on an unsolved homicide case. There is nothing unusual in that, as I previously worked on the same case and he wanted to review my notes and findings relative to his. What might be considered unusual, however, is that the case is nearly 30 years old.

The victim, in this case, was 25 years-old at the time of his murder and was not considered a high-risk victim. Simply stated, he was not engaged in any behavior that would place him in jeopardy of being killed. He was a hard-working, law-abiding family man working a steady job and intent on making a better life for himself and his family. His life was cut short by a single bullet to his heart inside of his own home.

The murder of this young man affected the lives of everyone around him, and still does. He was a son, a father, a brother, an uncle and a husband. The ripples of his untimely death touched the lives of many people.

Too frequently, older and cold case homicides don’t get the attention they deserve. Leads dry up, dead ends are reached, and soon, the case gets pushed aside by other cases. Sadly, and all too often, people forget. People outside the small circle of those impacted by a murder or death move on. Justice for the victim is denied, as are answers for the family. Time runs roughshod over the victims and everyone impacted by the event.

What was supposed to be an afternoon meeting ended up spanning several hours over two days and included a visit to the victim’s elderly mother. In a slight stretch of policy, I was invited along. We were warmly greeted, and she invited us to her kitchen table. 

“After all these years, I glad there are people who still remember, who still care,” she said to the detective. She showed us the last picture taken of her son that occupied a frame and sat in a treasured position atop her mantle. Much was said, and tears were shed, but her determination was clear.

“I think about my son every day. He’s gone, and nothing can bring him back. He can’t speak for himself, but even worse, I feel like no one is speaking for him, and it seems that even those who are in a position to get to the bottom of what happened don’t care. The hardest part is not knowing what happened that night. Someone knows the truth, and now you are in a position to get answers,” she said as she leaned closer to the detective. “The truth is all I want. I deserve to know what happened, no matter how painful it might be. Maybe then I’ll be able to rest.”

The detective sat across from the victim’s mother and looked directly into her eyes. “I’ll do everything in my power to give you’re the answers you deserve.” he told her in response.

Back at the station and at the conclusion of our two-day meeting, I asked the detective how long he’d be working this case, and how much effort he would really expend on the investigation considering the passage of time and other factors that influence the assignment of manpower. Political pressure and bureaucracy. Like the detective, I know the reality of a case like this. I know that there was a line of cold case detectives before him and who made the same assurances to this still-grieving mother, merely to placate her, and told him as much.

There was a long pause as he seemed to carefully consider my question. I was surprised and even grateful by his terse reply.

“Well, I’m not them.”

“Meaning what?” I prompted.

Christopher A. Hart, the current chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board

“I take my position and responsibility seriously. I look at this as an opportunity that few are given to make a positive difference by virtue of their position. When I was assigned this case, I was given the chance to make a difference to the victim’s family. To give them the truth they have sought for so long. To provide justice for the victim, and closure to the family. To answer your question, as long as it takes.”

He said one more thing that reignited my belief in the existence of genuinely good men of integrity and principle.

“Maybe I can’t change the world for the better, but I can change her world. How many people are given that opportunity, and act on it?” I want to believe that there are still men of character and integrity when given the chance, will give it their all to ferret out the truth. I know I’ve got to face myself in the mirror each morning, and face my sons and my wife every day. I want them to know that I’m that kind of a man. I want that to be my legacy as a cop and as a man.”

Memories of those two days came rushing back to me as I listened to Jack Cashill this past weekend relate his impromptu meeting with the acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). He told me that he wrote a column about it, and it was scheduled for publication on Monday.

The day after we spoke, I read about his “improbable lunch” with Christopher A. Hart, the current chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Mr. Hart has an impressive resume and comes from a family that, according to his official biography, has a tradition of accomplishment in the field of transportation. His great uncle, James Herman Banning, was the first African-American to receive a pilot’s license issued by the U.S. Government in 1926. An impressive legacy.

It is interesting to note that this is Mr. Hart’s second stint at the NTSB. As noted by Mr. Cashill, Mr. Hart served on the board of the NTSB from 1990 through 1993. He was replaced by Clinton political operative Jim Hall, a man with no aviation experience but ample political connections. It was under Hall’s oversight, or Hall’s willingness to surrender such oversight, that the investigation into the downing of TWA Flight 800 was conducted.

A lunch meeting between Jack Cashill and Jim Hart was indeed improbable and would have likely never taken place had it not been for the casual invitation made by former NTSB board member Vernon Grose, who had previously scheduled the lunch with Hart and casually invited Jack to come along.

Mr. Grose has an impressive background as an applied physicist and a former air traffic controller, and provided his expert on-air commentary on CNN for six hours during the network’s coverage of the incident. According to Mr. Cashill, Grose has become convinced, through his own research and investigation, that “a missile or missiles destroyed TWA 800,” and caused the deaths of 230 people.

TWA 800, The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy

As related by Mr. Cashill, Christopher Hart was provided with his book, TWA 800, The Crash, The Cover-Up, The Conspiracy and a reference outline of findings. In addition to investigative findings detailed in Cashill’s book, Hart also has the benefit of the expert analysis of former board member Mr. Grose. And many other experts as well, all seeking one thing: the truth about what happened.

I cannot help comparing my recent experience with the homicide investigation, the position of the detective and the plight of the victim’s mother to Christopher Hart, his position on the NTSB, and the 230 victims and their families.

Just as the detective has the opportunity to bring justice to a victim and provide answers to his family, Christopher Hart has the ability to do the same, except on a much larger scale.  There are 230 victims of TWA Flight 800, and 230 families who deserve to know the truth. In the case of Christopher Hart, it’s even bigger than that. The citizens of America also deserve to know the truth.

As the Irish statesman Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” I want to believe that every man who is in a position to make a positive difference has the will and courage to do so. I want to believe that there are still men who possess honor and integrity, and these characteristics are not for sale at any price, nor can they be held hostage by political pressure or outside influence. I want to believe that men of integrity still exist, and when given the chance, or even a second chance to correct an injustice will do so, even in the face of formidable opposition. Especially while facing such opposition, for acting when it is unpopular, inconvenient, and even potentially dangerous reveals one’s true character and creates a legacy that can never be taken away.

I want to believe that Christopher A. Hart, a man who has the opportunity to make a difference through his actions, will rise to the challenge, restore integrity to the NTSB, provide justice to the 230 victims, and much needed answers to their families,

Christopher A. Hart has the authority, opportunity, and even the willing assistance of many experts. The only question that remains is does he have the will and courage to do so?

I want to believe he does.

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