Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Joseph Farman, Discoverer of Ozone Hole

Joseph Farman, 82, Is Dead; Discovered Ozone Hole

Joseph Farman, a British researcher whose single-minded and at times officially derided study of atmospheric changes in the Antarctic established the existence of a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole approximately the size of the United States — one of the most important environmental discoveries of the 20th century — died on May 11 in Cambridge, England. He was 82.

His death was announced by the British Antarctic Survey, the governmental agency for which he worked from 1956 until his retirement in 1990.
Mr. Farman studied the Antarctic atmosphere for 25 years, never expecting momentous findings to emerge from his data, colleagues said. But his commitment to the prosaic first principles of data collection, they said, in the remotest outpost of the scientific world, produced discoveries unimagined by other scientists and overlooked by orbiting satellites.
When he began collecting ozone readings in 1957 as a young geophysicist at the Halley Bay research base in Antarctica, scientists had already come to understand the basic Jekyll-and-Hyde facts of ozone: that it was a pollutant when clumped in high concentrations near the ground and a vital shield when concentrated in the upper atmosphere, absorbing the sun’s most perilous ultraviolet rays.
After 1974, when two American scientists, Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland, proved that chlorofluorocarbons, commonly used in aerosol spray cans and refrigeration, could destroy ozone in the upper atmosphere, the United States and a few other countries began regulating their use and scrutinizing the ozone readings already being collected by NASA satellites.
But Mr. Farman refused to stop making ground-level readings, despite his superiors’ questions about their usefulness, and despite his lack of standing in the field of ozone research. He did not have a Ph.D., and his primary work was in meteorological science. His dedication, as much to the principle of scientific record-keeping as to ozone study, would make him something of a working-class hero among scientists.
“His willingness to do research he thought was important, even when others did not, made him a model scientist,” said Sharon Roan, author of the 1989 book “Ozone Crises: The 15-Year Evolution of a Sudden Global Emergency.” “He wasn’t looking for anything astonishing — just doing a little job, and persevering at it. And he came up with the most astonishing discovery.”
Mr. Farman left the Antarctic station in 1959 to assume management duties for the survey in Britain, but he delegated scientists there to continue his work through the 1960s and ’70s. His insistence was met with forbearance by his superiors until Margaret Thatcher became prime minister in 1980, demanding spending cuts from every government agency.
In an interview years later, Mr. Farman recalled budget-cutters in his office telling him: Your ozone records show little change over the last 25 years; the ozone problem is under control now; the Americans are tracking all this with their orbiting satellites; and there is no point in our doing it too.
When he argued that the agency’s Antarctic ozone level readings were valuable because they were the longest continuous record maintained anywhere, a frustrated superior shot back: “Oh, you mean you’re making this measurement for posterity. What has posterity ever done for you?”
About a year later, in October 1982, Mr. Farman collected Antarctic ozone readings so radically different from anything seen before that he assumed that his 25-year-old Dobson meters had given out. He ordered new ones. (The devices calculate ozone thickness by measuring the amount of ultraviolet radiation penetrating the atmosphere. They had been found to work best when their photographic plates and other sensitive instruments were wrapped in heavy quilts.)
The new machines produced results even more startling. “It just went haywire,” Mr. Farman said.
After a series of double- and triple-check tests, Mr. Farman and his colleagues Jonathan Shanklin and Brian Gardiner published a paper in the journal Nature in May 1985 showing that ozone levels over Antarctica had fallen by about 40 percent from 1975 to 1984. The ozone hole was no longer a theoretical possibility, as Dr. Molina and Dr. Rowland had postulated, it was a real and present danger to life on earth.

Joseph Farman, 82, Is Dead; Discovered Ozone Hole

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Based on the Britons’ findings, and later readings taken by American high-altitude aircraft, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in 1986 that the increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation caused by the ozone hole could be responsible for 40 million cases of skin cancer and 800,000 cancer deaths in the United States over the next 88 years.

How NASA’s satellites missed it has been answered in various ways. In one version, the ozone hole was detected by NASA’s monitors but discarded by data-analysis computer software intended to dismiss wild anomalies. In another, NASA scientists said that the computer program only delayed their discovery of the ozone hole, and that a paper they had prepared on the phenomenon was about to be published when Nature published the British researchers’ work.
The paper by Mr. Farman and his colleagues, coupled with the research of Dr. Molina and Dr. Rowland — who with a Dutch scientist, Paul Crutzen, shared the 1995 Nobel Prize for chemistry for their ozone research — changed the international politics of environmental regulation. A treaty, the Montreal Protocol, intended to phase out the production of ozone-depleting compounds, was signed by 24 countries in 1987 and has since been ratified by almost 200.
Kofi Annan, the former secretary general of the United Nations, called it “perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date.”
Though ozone depletion is said to have leveled off in the early 2000s, the effects of long-living, ozone-depleting chemicals already in the atmosphere will continue for an additional 80 to 100 years, by most accounts.
The son of a builder, Joseph Charles Farman was born in Norwich, England, on Aug. 7, 1930. He won a scholarship to study natural sciences at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and later served in the British Army and worked for an aircraft company before joining the Falkland Islands Dependency Survey, now known as the British Antarctic Survey.
“I saw an advertisement: ‘Go to the Antarctic,’ ” he said in a 2009 interview. “And I thought, Well, you’ve always wanted to go, so you’d better apply for it and see what happens.”
He is survived by his wife, Paula.
A pipe-smoking man who later traveled widely promoting environmental preservation, Mr. Farman cast a wry outsider’s eye on everything that crossed his path, including Mrs. Thatcher and her husband, Denis. He traded chitchat with her, and then with him, at an awards ceremony in his honor.
Mr. Thatcher “obviously didn’t know anything about it,” he said, meaning the ozone layer. “So he said, ‘And what are you going to turn your brilliant mind to now, Mr. Farman?’ So I looked him in the eye, and I said: ‘Well, I believe you have some other problems in the country today. Let me see, there’s advance payments.’ ” (The British term for safety net programs referred to here as entitlements.)
“So we agreed to talk about rugby.”

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Kennett Love, Times Correspondent in 1950s Iran

Kennett Love, Times Correspondent in 1950s, Dies at 88

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Kennett Love, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times who covered tumultuous events in the Middle East in the early days of the cold war, died Monday in Southampton, N.Y. He was 88.
The New York Times
Kennett Love in 1952.
The cause was respiratory failure, his partner, Blair Seagram, said.
Mr. Love was in Tehran in August 1953 when the C.I.A. executed a successful plot to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran’s democratically elected prime minister, and replace him with Gen. Fazlollah Zahedi, a loyalist to Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had close ties to the United States.
Mr. Love’s reporting may have played a small part in the coup. He and a reporter for The Associated Press wrote about decrees signed by the Shah that called for General Zahedi to replace Mr. Mossadegh. The release of the decrees, which helped legitimize the coup, was engineered by the C.I.A., though Mr. Love insisted later that he had been unaware of the agency’s involvement.
While he was based in Cairo in 1954, he wrote front-page articles about the discovery, near the Great Pyramid at Giza, of a 50-foot boat that had been intended to convey the spirit of the pharaoh Cheops to the underworld.
He also covered the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 and wrote a book about it, “Suez: The Twice-Fought War,” published in 1969.
Kennett Farrar Potter Love was born in St. Louis on Aug. 17, 1924. He attended Princeton University and was a pilot in the Navy Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he married Felicite Pratt, in 1946 (she died in 2002), and continued his studies at Columbia University. His newspaper career began at The Hudson-Dispatch in Union City, N.J. He joined The Times in 1948, working in the morgue before becoming a reporter in 1950.
Mr. Love is survived by two daughters, Mary Christy Love Sadron and Suzanna Potter Love; two sons, John and Nicholas; two sisters, Mary Lehmann and Nathalie Love; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Love left The Times in 1962 to cover culture and foreign affairs for the magazine USA1, which went out of business after five issues. He later taught journalism at the American University in Cairo and worked for the Peace Corps.
Mr. Love regarded his book on the Suez crisis in part as a return to unfinished business, and as an example that other journalists might follow.
“If they are unable to penetrate the secrecy with which officialdom seeks to cloak its enterprises,” he wrote in the preface, “they should go back as historians to make the record whole and clear.”

Friday, May 24, 2013

Albert Seedman, NYC Chief of Detectives

Albert Seedman, Chief of Detectives in New York for Short, Tumultuous Time, Dies at 94

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Albert Seedman, the New York Police Department’s chief of detectives in the early 1970s who became something of a celebrity as the savvy, cigar-chomping personification of the tough-guy cop while modernizing a tradition-bound force, died on Friday in Delray Beach, Fla. He was 94.
New York Herald Tribune
Albert Seedman, a New York police captain in 1962, helped photographers get a better picture of a murder suspect’s face.

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The cause was congestive heart failure, his granddaughter Alison Stiegler said. He lived in Boynton Beach, Fla.
Mr. Seedman oversaw New York City’s 3,000 or so detectives for only 13 months, but he seemed to be everywhere during a tumultuous time.
Three pairs of police officers were shot — four of the officers were killed and two grievously wounded — in ambushes by the Black Liberation Army. The underworld boss Joseph A. Colombo Sr. was shot in the head by a gunman who was himself shot to death seconds later at Mr. Colombo’s Italian-American Day rally in Columbus Circle. The mob leader Joey Gallo was fatally shot at a Little Italy restaurant. Gunmen posing as guests looted 47 safe deposit boxes at the Hotel Pierre.
The Police Department meanwhile faced a major corruption investigation in which Mr. Seedman was briefly caught up before being exonerated.
As chief of detectives from March 1971 to April 1972, he was often the department’s face, pleased to supply a quotation for the press though he might not be telling all.
Stocky and broad-shouldered, invariably chewing on a cigar, he wore white-on-white patterned shirts with “Al” embroidered on the sleeves, sported bejeweled rings on both hands and carried a pearl-handled revolver.
He may have evoked the style of an old-school detective, but he represented the changing ways of law enforcement. He graduated from the City College business school (now Baruch College) in 1941, received graduate degrees in public administration and oversaw what Patrick V. Murphy, the police commissioner who made him chief of detectives, called “the first major change in the force in half a century.”
Mr. Seedman was the prime architect of a major restructuring of the way detectives and patrol officers did their jobs. Instead of catching whatever case came their way at a station house, detectives were assigned to a specialty — perhaps homicides or robberies — while officers on patrol were permitted to investigate some crimes for the first time.
His ascendancy marked a change as well in the department’s aura.
“The Jewish cop was an alien in an Irish universe,” the crime novelist Jerome Charyn wrote in The New York Times in 2004. “Enter Albert Seedman, the first, last and only Jewish chief of detectives. It’s the 1970s and Chief Seedman is all over the place, tough, flamboyant and foul-mouthed, chomping on a cigar, appearing at the scene of important crimes. He seemed more Irish than the Irish, as if he had co-opted their territory, their language, their domain.”
Albert A. Seedman (the middle initial was solely that) was born on Aug. 9, 1918, in the Bronx, the son of a taxi driver. He liked to say that he first thought of becoming a police officer as a stairwell monitor in grade school.
He joined the department in 1942, returned to it after Army service in World War II.
By 1962 he was a captain, but his career almost fell apart over the “perp walk,” in which police officers paraded suspects for the benefit of news photographers.
Mr. Seedman was taking Anthony Dellernia, a suspect in the fatal shooting of two detectives during a Brooklyn tobacco shop robbery, out of a station house when he grabbed Mr. Dellernia under the chin and squeezed his cheek so photographers could see his face. The American Civil Liberties Union demanded that Mr. Seedman be disciplined for using inappropriate force in the interests of publicity.
Commissioner Michael J. Murphy publicly expressed regret about the incident, and Mr. Seedman’s expected promotion to deputy inspector was postponed. Mr. Dellernia was acquitted; two others were convicted.
Mr. Seedman handled high-profile cases even before becoming the detectives chief.
He oversaw the investigation that solved the 1964 Kitty Genovese murder, which had shocked the city when it was reported in the press that 38 neighbors had heard Ms. Genovese’s late-night cries on a Queens street without summoning help.
When he was chief of detectives for the southern half of Brooklyn in 1967, a 17-year-old girl was killed by a bullet fired through an open window of her car as she drove on the Belt Parkway near the ocean.
Mr. Seedman oversaw an investigation in which 2,400 people were interviewed. Detectives located a gas station owner who had fired a rifle from his fishing boat while taking target practice at a floating beer can. One bullet had evidently ricocheted off the water and gone through the car window. A grand jury ruled the shooting a bizarre accident.
In October 1971, while chief of detectives, Mr. Seedman found his integrity in question. A few days before the Knapp Commission, appointed by Mayor John V. Lindsay, opened hearings into police corruption, he was transferred out of his post when it was disclosed that he had accepted a free meal from the management of the New York Hilton for himself, his wife and two guests in March 1970. But Commissioner Patrick Murphy reinstated him a few days later.
Mr. Seedman retired in April 1972 to become chief of security for the Alexander’s department store chain.
His resignation came two weeks after Police Officer Philip Cardillo was shot with his own gun during a struggle inside a Nation of Islam mosque in Harlem, having responded to a 911 phone call — later determined to be a ruse — stating that a policeman was in trouble there. Officer Cardillo died of his wounds.
The police had left the mosque abruptly while suspects were still being held there, and no one was ever convicted in the killing.
An internal department report prepared in 1973, but not made public until 1983, found that it was Mr. Seedman who made the decision to allow 16 people being lined up for questioning inside the mosque to go free, under a promise from mosque officials that they would later be made available to the police. They never were. The report attributed the decision to break off the on-site investigation in part to the threat of a riot outside the mosque.
But in an introduction to a 2011 e-book edition of his memoir, “Chief,” Mr. Seedman saidhe had been ordered to remove the police from the mosque by Chief Inspector Michael Codd because of fears of racial violence. He said it was his anger over that order that compelled him to retire. Mr. Codd later became the police commissioner. He died in 1985.
A 1980 report by a state grand jury cited three police officials as having been derelict in curtailing the investigation, but their names were not made public.
Besides his granddaughter Ms. Stiegler, Mr. Seedman’s survivors include his wife of 43 years, the former Henny Joseph; a daughter, Marilyn Stiegler; two sons, Barry and David; five other grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
Mr. Seedman spent his later years in the placid condominium belt of South Florida, but he retained touches of rough-and-tumble New York. He carried a replica of his chief of detectives gold badge. And Jack Kitaeff, author of the 2006 book “Jews in Blue,” said Mr. Seedman told him that in his late 80s he still carried a revolver “in case there is trouble.”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Boruch Spiegel, Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Fighter

Boruch Spiegel, Fighter in Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Dies at 93

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Boruch Spiegel, one of the last surviving fighters of the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943, in which a vastly outgunned band of 750 young Jews held off German soldiers for more than a month with crude arms and Molotov cocktails, died on May 9 in Montreal. He was 93.
Suzanne Wolbers
Boruch Spiegel with his wife, Chaike Belchatowska.
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Mr. Spiegel, around age 16 or 17 in Warsaw.
His death was confirmed by his son, Julius, a retired parks commissioner of Brooklyn. Mr. Spiegel lived in Montreal.
The Warsaw ghetto uprising has been regarded as the signal episode of resistance to the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum calls it the first armed urban rebellion in German-occupied Europe.
As a young man, Mr. Spiegel was active in the leftist Jewish Labor Bund, and when it became clear that the Germans were not just deporting Jews but systematically killing them in death camps like Treblinka, Bundists joined with other left-wing groups to form the Jewish Combat Organization, known by its Polish acronym ZOB.
In January 1943, when German soldiers entered the ghetto for another deportation — 300,000 Jews had already been sent to Treblinka or otherwise murdered in the summer of 1942 — ZOB fighters fought back for three days and killed or wounded several dozen Germans, seized weapons and forced the stunned Germans to retreat.
“We didn’t have enough weapons, we didn’t have enough bullets,” Mr. Spiegel once told an interviewer. “It was like fighting a well-equipped army with firecrackers.”
In the early morning of April 19, the eve of Passover, a German force, equipped with tanks and artillery, tried again, surrounding the ghetto walls. Mr. Spiegel was on guard duty and, according to his son-in-law, Eugene Orenstein, a retired professor of Jewish history at McGill University, gave the signal to launch the uprising. The scattered ZOB fighters, joined by a right-wing Zionist counterpart, peppered the Germans from attics and underground bunkers, sending the Germans into retreat once more. Changing tactics, the Germans began using flamethrowers to burn down the ghetto house by house and smoke out those in hiding. On May 8, ZOB’s headquarters, at 18 Mila Street, was destroyed. The group’s commander, Mordechai Anielewicz, is believed to have taken his own life, but scattered resistance continued for several more weeks in what was now rubble.
By then, Mr. Spiegel and 60 or so other fighters had spirited their way out of the ghetto through sewers. One was Chaike Belchatowska, whom he would marry. They joined up with Polish partisans in a forest.
“He was very modest, a reluctant hero,” his son Julius said. “He was given an opportunity and he took it. I don’t think he was braver or more resourceful than anyone else.”
Mr. Spiegel was born on Oct. 4, 1919, and reared in Warsaw, the son of an Orthodox woman and a leather worker who ran a small cottage industry that specialized in briefcases and spats. After the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, Mr. Spiegel and his brother Beryl made their way to Bialystok, in eastern Poland, which was newly occupied by the Soviets. When Beryl went back to Warsaw to get his parents and two sisters, he became involved in the Bundist underground. Mr. Spiegel joined him. While Jews all around them were taken for deportation, the family held out as long as it did because the Spiegel apartment had a steel door and the German police did not take the trouble to break it down.
Nevertheless, Mr. Spiegel’s father died of malnutrition and his mother, two sisters and Beryl perished in a manner that Mr. Spiegel never learned. Mr. Spiegel nearly died in a slave labor camp and was taken to the staging area for Treblinka, but managed to escape and return to the Warsaw ghetto.
Even after the ghetto uprising was crushed, he fought with partisans and went back to Warsaw for a revolt by Poles in August-September 1944. Warsaw was liberated on Jan. 17, 1945.
Ms. Belchatowska wanted to remain in Poland, but Mr. Orenstein said that Mr. Spiegel had “felt he could not live on the soil of the graves of his dear ones, and he didn’t believe there was a future for Jewish life in Poland.”
The couple went to Sweden, where they married and gave birth to Julius. Mrs. Spiegel died in 2002.
In addition to Julius, Mr. Spiegel is survived by a daughter, Mindy Spiegel, and four grandchildren.
In 1948, the Spiegels went to Montreal, where Mr. Spiegel took up his father’s leather craft, first as a worker making handbags, then establishing his own factory and finally serving as the foreman of a purse factory. In 2003, on the uprising’s 60th anniversary, Mr. Spiegel and the five other living ZOB fighters were honored by the Polish government. Dr. Orenstein said there were only two fighters left, Pnina Greenspan and Simcha Rotem, both in Israel.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Geza Vermes, "Historical Jesus" Scholar

Geza Vermes, Scholar of ‘Historical Jesus,’ Dies at 88

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Geza Vermes, a religious scholar who argued that Jesus as a historical figure could be understood only through the Jewish tradition from which he emerged, and who helped expand that understanding through his widely read English translations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, died on May 8 in Oxford, England. He was 88.

Geraint Lewis
Geza Vermes
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His death was confirmed by David Ariel, the president of the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where Dr. Vermes was most recently an honorary fellow.
Dr. Vermes, born in Hungary to Jewish parents who converted to Christianity when he was 6, was among many scholars after World War II who sought to reveal a “historical Jesus” by painting an objective portrait of the man who grew up in Nazareth about 2,000 years ago and emerged as a religious leader when he was in his 30s.
Drawing on new archaeological evidence — particularly the scrolls, which were discovered by an Arab shepherd in a cave northwest of the Dead Sea in 1947 — historians of many stripes agreed on a basic sketch of Jesus, but their religious biases sometimes colored details.
“You can cut out the Jewish part — that is the traditional Christian path,” Dr. Vermes said in a 1994 interview with Herschel Shanks, the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. “But if you are more demanding and want to go back to the sources, you will realize that Jesus stood before Christianity.”
The scrolls, written over several hundred years before, during and after Jesus lived, offered new insight into religious, cultural and political life at the time. Dr. Vermes became one of the scrolls’ essential translators and a vocal advocate for their broad dissemination. His 1962 book, “The Dead Sea Scrolls in English,” has been updated and reissued multiple times and is regarded as the most widely read version of the scrolls. It is often used as a course text.
Dr. Vermes had long been frustrated that only a handful of scholars had direct access to the scrolls, and he eventually made his frustrations public. In 1977, he said that their handling was “likely to become the academic scandal par excellence of the 20th century.” More than a decade passed, but the scrolls eventually became more easily accessible in their original form and through photographs.
The scrolls helped deepen Dr. Vermes’s interest in Judaism and in how perceptions of Jesus changed as Christianity spread. He argued that the messianic Jesus worshiped by modern Christians was largely created in the first three centuries after he died. In 1973 he wrote “Jesus the Jew,” the first of several books in which he placed Jesus in the tradition of Jewish teachers.
“When it came out, it sounded like a very provocative title,” Dr. Vermes recalled in 1994 of “Jesus the Jew.” “Today it is commonplace. Everybody knows now that Jesus was a Jew. But in 1973, although people knew that Jesus had something to do with Judaism, they thought that he was really something totally different.”
Dr. Vermes’s interest in cultural context echoed his personal history. His family was of Jewish ancestry but had not been practicing Jews since at least the first half of the 19th century. In 1931, with anti-Semitism rising in Europe, his parents converted to Roman Catholicism.
He enrolled in a Catholic seminary in Budapest in 1942, when he was 18, seeking to become a priest but also to protect himself. Two years later, his parents disappeared after being taken to a Nazi concentration camp.
He did become a priest — in the late 1940s he joined the Order of the Fathers of Notre-Dame de Sion, in Louvain, Belgium — but he left the priesthood the following decade after falling in love with his future wife, Pamela Hobson Curle, a poet and scholar who was married to another man when they met. Dr. Vermes later returned to Judaism.
Dr. Vermes was born on June 22, 1924, in Mako, Hungary. His father was a liberal journalist, his mother a teacher. He received his doctorate in theology from the Catholic University in Louvain in 1953; his dissertation was the first written about the scrolls.
He did research on the scrolls for several years in Paris before moving to England, where he initially spent eight years teaching at what is now Newcastle University. He published the first edition of his English translation of the scrolls while there. In 1965 he moved to Oxford, where he eventually became professor of Jewish studies and a governor of the Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He was named professor emeritus in 1991.
Dr. Vermes’s survivors include his wife, Margaret, and a stepson, Ian. Pamela Vermes died in 1993.
Even as Dr. Vermes’s work challenged some Christian beliefs, he often talked of improving dialogue between Christians and Jews, and he was widely respected among scholars of various beliefs. Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Communion, praised Dr. Vermes last year in a review of his final book, “Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea,” which traces the first 300 years of Christianity.
Writing in The Guardian, the archbishop called the book “beautiful and magisterial” but said it “leaves unsolved some of the puzzles that still make readers of the New Testament pause to ask what really is the right, the truthful, way to talk about a figure like the Jesus we meet in these texts.”
Lawrence H. Schiffman, a leading Dead Sea Scrolls scholar and the vice provost of Yeshiva University, said in an interview that Dr. Vermes had worked in an academic and religious environment in which “everybody knew Jesus was a Jew, of course.”
“But,” he added, “the refusal to acknowledge it — that he truly thought, acted and lived as a Jew — that took a while to get across.” Dr. Vermes, he said, “was a major force in making that happen.”

Monday, May 20, 2013

Billie Sol Estes, Texas Con Man

Billie Sol Estes, Texas Con Man Whose Fall Shook Up Washington, Dies at 88

Ferd Kaufman/Associated Press
Billie Sol Estes at the El Paso federal courthouse in 1962, the year his business empire crumbled.

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Billie Sol Estes, a fast-talking Texas swindler who made millions, went to prison and captivated America for years with mind-boggling agricultural scams, payoffs to politicians and bizarre tales of covered-up killings and White House conspiracies, was found dead on Tuesday at his home in Granbury, Tex. He was 88.
Don Blakley/Abilene Reporter-News, via Associated Press
Mr. Estes in November 1983.
He died in his sleep and was found in his recliner, Mr. Estes’s daughter Pamela Padget said.
Nonexistent fertilizer tanks. Faked mortgages. Bogus cotton-acreage allotments. Farmers in four states bamboozled. Strange “suicides,” including a bludgeoned investigator shot five times with a bolt-action rifle. Assassination plots. Jimmy Hoffa and Fidel Castro. Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald.
The rise and fall of Billie Sol Estes was one of the sensations of the postwar era: the saga of a good-ol’-boy con man who created a $150 million empire of real and illusory farming enterprises that capitalized on his contacts in Washington and the gullibility and greed of farmers, banks and agriculture businesses.
He was a Bible-thumping preacher who gave barbecues for governors and senators, rode his bike to work in Pecos, Tex., and his airplane to Washington, and was named one of America’s 10 outstanding young men of 1953 by the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce. Later, autographed photos of John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson and others lined his walls.
As his empire crumbled in 1962, the notoriety of Billie Sol, as nearly everyone in America called him, might have been passing had it not been for the bodies that kept cropping up, for the bribery scandals and fraud in federal farm programs, and for Mr. Estes’s own lurid accounts of how it all happened and who was involved.
Many of his statements were self-serving and never proved — particularly allegations about Johnson. Mr. Estes said that he had given millions to Johnson, and that Johnson, while he was vice president, had ordered seven killings disguised as suicides or accidents to cover up his connections to the frauds and had then set up the assassination of Kennedy in 1963 to become president.
The Estes chronicles filled newspapers and magazines, inspired books and songs, created new lines for comedians and conspiracy theorists, and played out politically in myriad ways. Scandal-loving Americans lapped them up. Mr. Estes’s smiling, dimpled moon face — with a liquid fertilizer tank in the background — was on the cover of Time magazine on May 25, 1962, then its all-time best-selling issue.
“This government is staying right on Mr. Estes’s tail,” a harried President Kennedy said at an overflowing news conference as he, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Agriculture Secretary Orville L. Freeman were thrown on the defensive by almost daily revelations in the serpentine scandal.
Administration officials were fired. Congressmen who had taken favors were mortified. Scores of F.B.I. agents were dispatched to Texas to investigate suspicious deaths. Richard M. Nixon, then running for governor in California, called it “the biggest national scandal since Teapot Dome.” Political cartoonists had a field day, caricaturing Mr. Estes and Washington as mired in the same farm muck.
In 1962, Tom Wicker of The New York Times, portrayed Mr. Estes as both a predator and a romantic outlaw, writing, “Billie Sol Estes is a product of the limitless plains of West Texas and the limitless spirit of the American frontier.” He added, “And though it is many years since there was ‘no law west of the Pecos,’ some of the old frontier freedoms remain — the right of a man to dream of new worlds, for instance, and to set about finding them the quickest way he can.”
As politicians ran for cover, the protest singer Phil Ochs wrote “The Ballad of Billie Sol,” whose refrain caught the mood of the day:
Stand tall, Billie Sol, we don’t know you at all,
We’ve taken down your pictures from the wall.
Well, we don’t want to handle an agriculture scandal,
We have got to face elections in the fall.
Billie Sol Estes was born on Jan. 10, 1925, on a farm near Clyde, Tex., one of six children of John and Lillian Estes. He was an average student. His family was poor, but Billie Sol showed early promise as a financier.
At 13, he received a lamb as a gift, sold its wool for $5, bought another lamb and went into business. At 15, he sold 100 sheep for $3,000. He borrowed $3,500 more from a bank, bought government surplus grain and sold it for a big profit. By 18, he had $38,000.
He never attended college, but served in the merchant marine in World War II, and later sold war surplus materials and converted barracks into housing.
In 1946 Mr. Estes married Patsy Howe, and the couple had five children. After the death of his wife in 2000, he married Dorris Brookover. Granbury, where he lived at his death, is about 35 miles southwest of Fort Worth. In addition to his daughter Pamela and his wife, he is survived by a brother, Word Estes; a sister, Jean Holcomb; three more daughters, January Harman, Joy Lovell and Dawn Stevens; a son, Billie Sol Jr.; 11 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Estes moved to Pecos in 1951. He bought land and farmed cotton, eventually acquiring 26,000 acres. He acquired mineral rights, sold farm equipment, built grain elevators and went into real estate, construction, trucking, a mortuary and the newspaper business. At 35, he employed 4,000 people and was worth $40 million.
“Everything I touched made money,” he once recalled.
A major contributor to Democrats, Mr. Estes held lavish parties for them in his 52-foot-long living room, complete with a waterfall at one end, and on the grounds of estate, where barbecue pits would roast three steers simultaneously. On Sundays he preached against vices — drinking, profanity, promiscuity, even dancing — as an elder of the Church of Christ.
In the late 1950s, Mr. Estes launched a bewildering array of interlocking enterprises involving liquid fertilizer, storage tanks, grain elevators, cotton crops, illegally borrowed money, secret payments to farmers and thousands of sham mortgages. It leaned heavily on government programs that compensated farmers for storing surplus grain and for lands taken under eminent domain laws to build public works projects.
There were clandestine lease-back arrangements, phony mortgages on nonexistent fertilizer storage tanks, illegal transfers of federal-compensation rights, kickbacks for bankers and bribes for Washington. The scams were so complex that prosecutors eventually had to break them down into 50 state and federal indictments.
The cover was blown in early 1962, when The Pecos Independent and Enterprise published an exposé by its city editor, Oscar Griffin Jr., on thousands of mortgages for nonexistent fertilizer tanks. The articles, which did not name Mr. Estes, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting and led to an avalanche of investigations.
Mr. Estes was arrested in frauds that reached from farms in Texas, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama to the halls of power in Washington. Three agriculture officials were fired for taking bribes. An assistant secretary of labor who took $1,000 resigned. Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat, and Representative H. Carl Anderson, a Minnesota Republican, acknowledged accepting political contributions. Congressional investigators found disarray at the Department of Agriculture but no systemic corruption.
Soon after the Estes indictments, however, Mr. Freeman, the agriculture secretary, disclosed that a key investigator on the case, Henry Marshall, had been found dead in Texas — bludgeoned on the head, with nearly fatal amounts of carbon monoxide in his bloodstream and five chest wounds from a single-shot bolt-action rifle. Local officials ruled it suicide, but the body was exhumed and the cause changed to homicide.
Six other men tied to the case also died. Three perished in accidents, including a plane crash. Two were found in cars filled with carbon monoxide and were declared suicides. Mr. Estes’s accountant was also found dead in a car, with a rubber tube connecting its exhaust to the interior, suggesting suicide, but no poisonous gases were found in the body, and his death was attributed to a heart attack.
In 1963, Mr. Estes was convicted on federal charges and sentenced to 15 years. A state conviction was overturned on grounds of prejudicial news coverage. After exhausting appeals and serving six years, he was paroled in 1971. In 1979, he was convicted of tax fraud and served four more years. He was released in 1983.
A year later, in what he called a voluntary statement to clear the record, Mr. Estes told a Texas grand jury that Johnson, as vice president in 1961, had ordered that Mr. Marshall be killed to prevent him from disclosing Johnson’s ties to the Estes conspiracies. He said a Johnson aide, Malcolm Wallace, had shot him.
The Justice Department asked Mr. Estes for more information, and the response was explosive. For a pardon and immunity from prosecution, he promised to detail eight killings arranged by Johnson, including the Kennedy assassination. He said that Mr. Wallace had not only persuaded Jack Ruby to recruit Lee Harvey Oswald, but that Mr. Wallace had also fired a shot in Dallas that hit the president.
Mr. Estes also claimed knowledge of a White House plan to kill Fidel Castro and a plot by the former Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa to kill Robert Kennedy. Mr. Estes reiterated his allegations in a book, “JFK, the Last Standing Man” (2003), written with William Reymond, and a memoir, “Billie Sol Estes: A Texas Legend” (2004).
As with similar allegations in books, articles and documentaries over the years, none of the Estes claims could be proved. Johnson had died in 1973, and everyone else, except Mr. Estes, was also dead.