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A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice
By Fred Burton, John Bruning
Palgrave MacmillanCopyright © 2011 Fred Burton
All rights reserved.
Saturday, June 30, 1973
The summer of 1973 marked the first significant dividing line in my life. I was sixteen, about to start my junior year at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and completely unprepared for the sudden dose of reality one episode of violence brought to my naive and limited view of the world.
Bethesda in the early 1970s was a safe haven, a place where nothing bad ever happened. Our neighbors in the sleepy, blue-collar bedroom community were the kind of people who built America and kept it great: factory workers, construction foremen, low-level government employees, cops, and firefighters. With brawn, reliability, and a can-do attitude, we were throw-backs to a different era. As the 1970s waned, ours became a dying breed.
My dad started out shoveling coal in West Virginia. After World War II, he tried his hand at building cars in Detroit. When that did not work out, he moved the family to Bethesda and opened up a gas station on the corner of Arlington Road and Bradley Boulevard. The station is still there, a lone monument to an era long since consigned to yellowing newspapers and fading memories. In the intervening years, Bethesda has been Yuppified; it is the place where the D.C. gentry go to spawn.
My dad's Chevron station was only two blocks from our house. From the late 1960s throughout the 1970s, it was a sort of community center for my group of friends. In the mornings that summer, I would throw on a pair of jeans, an old white T-shirt, and a pair of tennis shoes, then run over to the station to start my day. I worked side by side with my old man, pumping gas, changing oil, and cleaning windshields as my pals dropped by to chat during the lulls in the business. Gas was twenty cents a gallon then, and nobody had heard of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).
The gas station stood on a busy corner with a supermarket and hardware store across the street. In some ways, my father's gas station was the nexus for our little neighborhood. It was the one place everyone stopped at on their way to wherever their days took them. Some of Dad's customers included Spiro Agnew and other notable figures around D.C.
I often wonder if Joe Alon passed through our service islands. Had I ever filled his tank? I probably had, but I did not know him then. His '71 Galaxie 500 would have looked like anyone else's eight-cylinder sedan.
Looking back, that July ended up being the last good summer for us in Bethesda. The Yom Kippur War kicked off at the end of the summer. America's support of Israel during the war outraged the Arab world and triggered the OPEC oil embargo. In the midst of the oil crunch, the economy began a long downhill slide at same time Watergate unraveled the Nixon presidency.
I was about as politically aware as your average sixteen-year-old. The Vietnam War was a distant event I knew only through Walter Cronkite's broadcasts. The Apollo space program had ended the previous December, and there was not much else to hold a teenager's interest in the nightly WTOP radio news broadcasts I used to listen to in my dad's GMC truck. From my limited vantage point, it seemed we stood on the brink of a return to normalcy after all the turmoil the 1960s had brought. I was too young to understand that there was no going back. And I was too naive to recognize the brewing storm on the horizon.
That June 30 I spent the day pumping gas. At five, sunburned and oil-stained, Dad cut me loose, and I ran back home for a quick shower and a change of clothes. Cleaned up, I jumped in our 1965 GMC truck with an eight-track player and rolled out to meet my pals at The Tasty Diner, a fixture in Bethesda to this day.
If the gas station was the nexus for our neighborhood, Tasty's was the local hangout for high schoolers. It looked like an old Pullman railroad car stuck up on blocks in a weedy field. Inside, the double row of high-backed booths sported little jukeboxes arrayed on each table. We spent hours there, girl watching, listening to music, and discussing our one real passion: baseball.
Johnny Cash sang "Folsom Prison Blues" on the jukebox that evening when I arrived. The guys made room for me, and the waitress brought us burgers and Cokes. We decided to hit a movie later that night. The big summer release, American Graffiti, was a month away, but the trailers every week made us almost frantic to see it. The cars were too cool to miss.
* * *
Just south of my father's gas station was a maze of residential roads. In the middle of this little enclave stretched Trent Street. Shortly after sunset, while we kids went about our summer routine, Joe Alon and his wife, Dvora, returned to their Trent Street home after a day and evening of shopping. Their oldest daughter, Dalia, who was a senior with us at B-CC High, had been gone all day on a first date with a boy she had met at the Roy Rogers where she worked as a waitress. The Alons' other two daughters, Yola, fourteen, and Rachel, six, had stayed at home all day. When the Alons returned that evening, they found Yola and Rachel curled up in the living room watching television.
Joe and Dvora had been invited to a party earlier that week, and the day before Joe had confirmed his attendance. Now, at nine-thirty that evening, Joe put on a pair of brown slacks, a white shirt and tie with a gold tie clasp, and a red sport coat. His wife slipped into a cocktail dress. Joe escorted Dvora out to the Ford Galaxie 500 sedan sitting in the driveway. Before they left, someone switched on the porch lights, bathing the front yard in their amber glow. The garage door stood open, which was not unusual. Crime was nonexistent back then in Bethesda. Hardly anyone bothered to lock their doors. It was a Saturday night, and a party waited up on East Kirk Street, a few miles away. Even though he should have been watching his back, he felt that security was not an issue.
Not long after Joe and his wife drove away for the party, a shadow crossed the front yard. A man, moving with speed and stealth, stole across the driveway and slipped behind some bushes that flanked the garage. The figure waited with discipline and patience. Inside the house, their girls fell asleep in front of the television.
Three hours passed. Dalia and her date, Robert Dempsey, drove up Trent Street in his light blue VW Bug. He walked her to the porch, said good night, and left without going inside. Dalia locked the front door behind her once she was inside the house. Her arrival woke up Rachel and Yola, who shut off the TV and went to bed. Within minutes, the house was totally dark. Only the porch lights remained on.
Outside, the figure remained still and hidden behind the bushes near the garage. The three girls inside were at their most vulnerable, tucked away in their beds, back door unlocked, garage wide open. But the figure was not interested in the girls. He continued his vigil from the bushes, eyes scanning for the return of the family's Ford sedan.
At twelve-thirty, Joe and Dvora left the party on East Kirk Street. Joe insisted on driving, although he had been drinking throughout the evening. He slid behind the wheel while Dvora snuggled close to him on the bench seat. Cautiously, he puttered home to the one-story rambler on Trent Street. Just before 1:00 A.M., the green Ford rolled to a stop on the driveway in front of the garage. The porch lights no longer blazed, and when Joe shut off the sedan's headlights, darkness cloaked the yard. Unconcerned, Dvora popped out of the passenger's side of the car and headed for the front door without waiting for her husband. Joe, who had left his red sport coat in the backseat, opened his door, stepped out, then leaned inside to retrieve the coat. With his back to the yard, bent over awkwardly, Joe never saw the figure slip from bushes and walk toward him.
Dvora had just opened the front door when she heard the first shot. Glancing back, she saw her husband stagger by the car. She ran inside as four more shots rang out. The daughters, roused by the noise, poured into the living room. Dvora went through the kitchen, opened the door to the garage, and flicked on the light, hoping to see her husband. She could not see him. Up the street, a car's headlights shined to life, catching Dvora's attention. It rolled past the Alon house, and she could see it was a white, full-size sedan. It drove off down Trent Street and vanished into the night. She had never seen that car in the neighborhood before.
Suddenly, a thought occurred to her. The garage light had illuminated the driveway. If the gunman was still out there, it would make Joe an easier target. Dvora herself was an easy target now, standing in the doorway at the back of the garage. Quickly, she flicked the light off, closed the door, and dialed the Montgomery County Police.
The operator wanted so much information that Dvora was overwhelmed. She handed the phone to Yola, grabbed some towels, and told Dalia to follow her. Going through the front door, they ran out into the night in search of their husband and father.
They found Joe on his back in the grass beside the driveway. Blood was everywhere. Dvora and Dalia fell to their knees and went to work, desperately trying to staunch the bleeding. But there were too many wounds. Joe tried to speak, but no words came out. Dvora held his head while Dalia placed the towels across his chest. An ambulance from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad roared up Trent Street. The paramedics arrived to find both mother and daughter splattered with blood, Joe's body still in Dvora's arms.
Traumatized and reeling, Dvora rode in the ambulance with Joe's body as it drove to Suburban Hospital. Back at the Trent Street house, the Montgomery County Police descended on the crime scene, searching for clues. Somewhere in the night, a killer remained at large.
* * *
The next morning, I awoke to the news that there had been a murder in our neighborhood. The Washington Post, which ran a front-page story, gave only the basics of the crime. I read the article over breakfast, stunned that one of my schoolmates could be touched by such raw violence. Was it a random street crime? Was it something more? If it was something more, then who was Joe Alon and why would anyone want him dead? I think many people in Bethesda were asking those same questions around their breakfast tables that morning.
Twenty-four hours after the murder, Dvora and her daughters boarded Air Force Two (part of the presidential air fleet used to back up Air Force One) and flew to Israel. No one saw two of the daughters again until 2010, when we met at the house with an Israeli TV crew to discuss the murder.CHAPTER 2
THE LION OF HATZOR
Joseph Alon lived in an average American neighborhood in an average-size house and drove a nondescript American sedan. His children attended the local public schools, just like most everyone else in Bethesda at that time. At first glance, there seemed to be no reason behind Joe's murder. It seemed random and disturbingly out of place for our community.
The fact was, the image Joe portrayed was carefully cultivated and concealed his true identity, which was anything but ordinary.
For starters, Joe Alon was not an American, and his real name was not Joe Alon.
* * *
In the 1920s, Joe's Zionist parents emigrated from Brno, in what was then Czechoslovakia, to Palestine, where they settled on a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley near Mount Gilboa. When Joseph was born in 1929, his last name was Placzek. Two years later, his family was driven off the kibbutz by ongoing Arab-Jewish violence and returned to Brno. The Placzeks were a well-known and respected Jewish family there and no doubt were welcomed back. Joe's father, Friedrich, had a brother named Georg who was a noted physicist. Prior to World War II, Georg emigrated to the United States, where he taught at Princeton and later joined the Manhattan Project.
In 1939, just before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, Joe's father sent his ten-year-old son to live in England. He had the foresight to see what fate held for his country and his people. Joe got out just in time, though his brother and sister remained in Brno.
In March of that year, the Germans swept into Prague, the Czech capital. Eight days after the invasion, German soldiers murdered Friedrich Placzek. Two years later, the Nazis rounded up most of the Czech Jews—Joe's mother and sister among them—and moved them into the Terezin Ghetto, which had been established inside a series of eighteenth-century fortresses. The ghetto later became known as Theresienstadt concentration camp. The inmates, who ultimately numbered almost 150,000, were forced to serve as slave laborers for the Third Reich, manufacturing coffins, sorting confiscated Jewish clothing that was shipped to Germans who had been bombed out of their homes by the Royal Air Force, and splitting locally mined mica. The conditions were cramped and squalid, leading to outbreaks of typhus and other diseases. Malnutrition claimed thousands of lives, as the Germans kept the Jews on starvation rations or worse. Torture and random murders were part of everyday life at Terezin.
In June 1944, the Germans allowed the International Red Cross to visit the camp. In preparation for that visit, Terezin received a propaganda makeover designed to convince the Red Cross that conditions were not only humane but luxurious. Faux stores were created within the fortress and stocked liberally with imported goods, food, and consumer items. Washrooms were constructed, and the Jewish inmates were given better clothing and told to behave. The window-dressing paid off. The Red Cross reported there were no problems at Theresienstadt. A propaganda movie was made, using a Jewish director and Jewish inmates for actors, that showed how well and humanely the camp functioned.
A few months later, the Germans shipped two-thirds of the Theresienstadt inmates to Auschwitz, including Joe's mother and sister, where they were all murdered. The director and all of the actors who took part in the propaganda film were among those slain.
By the time the Soviet Red Army reached Theresienstadt in May 1945, only 17,250 starving and disease-wracked Jews remained alive. Of the 15,000 children sent to the ghetto and camp, fewer than 100 lived to see the Soviets liberate the camp.
Joe Placzek survived the war, thanks to his father's foresight and decision to send him abroad. In England, Joe watched the war unfold. He studied in English schools, learned the language, and thrived despite his separation from his family. His parents, brother, and sister were never far from his mind. After the war ended, he traveled back to Brno, where he discovered that the Nazis had virtually annihilated his community and family.
He learned first of his father's death, then that his mother and sister had survived the hell of the Terezin Ghetto only to be gassed at Auschwitz, most likely in a mass extermination in the fall of 1944. Only his brother, his uncle Georg the Princeton professor, and another uncle survived the war.
* * *
At first, Joe tried to settle down in Brno and learn a trade. He decided to become a jeweler, but that did not last. As he reached manhood, Europe's surviving Jews fled the Old World for the hope of a new nation in Palestine. Fighting between these Jews and the Palestinian Arabs raged throughout 1946 and 1947. The British found themselves caught in the middle, alternating between trying to suppress the Jewish resistance and mediating between the Jews and Arabs. Neither approach worked.
After all their suffering in Europe, the Jews wanted to return to their original homeland—they wanted their own nation again. The last remnants of the Jewish people saw this as their only hope. Hitler had almost wiped them out. Now they would make their stand and fight for independence.
The resistance, called the Haganah (the "Defense"), needed weapons, and lots of them. Wealthy Jewish donors, including many Americans, funneled money to the Palestinian Jews so that they could purchase machine guns, rifles, and ammunition. Most nations refused to sell arms to the Jews, but the Czech government obliged. Starting in June 1947, the Czechs sold the Haganah some 35,000 leftover German rifles and 5,500 machine guns. The Jewish underground in Europe smuggled these weapons past the British blockade of Palestine to get them to the desperate resistance fighters.
The weapon sales proved to be the springboard for further Czech support. Male and female Jews eager to join the fight made their way to Czechoslovakia, where they formed an infantry brigade. The Czechs armed the unit and provided extensive training. The effort solidified the relationship between Israel and Czechoslovakia and led to even more military support in the months to come.
In 1948, with most of his family dead and his people in peril once again, Joe Placzek abandoned his peaceful jeweler's life and joined the Jewish underground in Czechoslovakia. That spring, the Jews declared the establishment of the State of Israel. The pronouncement sent shock waves across the world and triggered a war in the Middle East. Attacked by Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, the nascent Jewish state faced extinction. More than anything, the Israelis needed an air force to protect its cities and military bases. The Haganah had flown some light aircraft—basically Piper Cubs equipped with hand grenades and rifles—but the Israelis lacked modern combat aircraft and the pilots to fly them.
Excerpted from Chasing Shadows by Fred Burton, John Bruning. Copyright © 2011 Fred Burton. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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