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An American Contra : The Confused Life and Mysterious Death of Steven Carr

May 31, 1987|MICHAEL FESSIER JR. | Michael Fessier Jr. is the author of "In Search of the Chicken Cackler and Other Unlikely Missions," to be published by Capra Press.

WAR MAY BE HELL BUT THE idea persists that only by experiencing it can man fully test himself, find out what his real dimensions are. In the movie "Platoon," Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen, has left the order and purpose and safety of college to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. He is trying to pull himself out of the dreamy modern state of being not quite real, of feeling like a "fake human being." Steven Paul Carr had similar hopes for war. His brother had fought in Vietnam, and over and over, almost by rote (it became a kind of catechism), Steven Carr would tell people how much he hated "missing" Vietnam: "I would have gone in a minute."

By 24 Carr had been ejected from both the Army and Navy. He had a serious problem with cocaine and alcohol. As a high school dropout with a prison record and no real profession, he was what many consider the archetype of the contemporary soldier of fortune: a man with a great deal to prove and nothing to lose.


MELVIN K. ARNOLD COULD NOT hide his contempt for the man whose "equivocal death" had caused him such aggravation. To the Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective, the deceased was ordinary human flotsam, a young man, 27, who just couldn't hack the straight world, who got into cocaine and showed up dead. Arnold, 42, is a tense, busy, combative man with pale-blue eyes. The dead do not by virtue of being dead automatically engage his sympathy. One of the many reasons he had for not liking Steven Carr was the Marine Corps tattoo on Carr's left shoulder, described in the autopsy as "a polychromatic tattoo showing a skull with a dagger in its mouth, surrounded by red flames and the words 'USMC Death Before Dishonor.' "

"He was never in the Marine Corps," Arnold noted with heavy irony.

Arnold's phone is always ringing. It rang again. It was the FBI looking for a Gypsy with a glass eye. Arnold switched the call to the Gypsy expert at a nearby desk in his crowded Van Nuys Civic Center office and got back to Steven Carr. "I'll tell you the one true thing about Steven Carr: He was a snitch." Arnold paused for emphasis. "Out of all those who were involved in that stuff down in Costa Rica he was the only one who talked."

Here lay the crux of the judgment, then: In addition to claiming, via the tattoo, to be something he wasn't, Carr was also the thing that a policeman most depends on and most despises--a snitch, a turncoat. Then add the clincher--all the attention that Carr's death had attracted (causing all that aggravation to Arnold)--and you had the source of what the detective was feeling. "It's a prime example of how things get blown out of proportion and rumors and innuendoes cause such turmoil."

Carr, who had collapsed in an apartment house driveway in Panorama City, was pronounced dead at 4:05 on the morning of last Dec. 13. He was wearing a blue robe and gray shorts. A preliminary report filed by a coroner's investigator at 6:40 the same morning suggested that his death might have been either an accident or a suicide: "A possible o.d., cocaine," the investigator had scribbled. No note was found.

It was an "equivocal death," and Mel Arnold was assigned to investigate. The phone calls began. The first was from a lawyer for the Christic Institute, a liberal legal foundation in Washington, D.C. (It brought the successful Karen Silkwood suit against Kerr-McGee). The second was from the dead man's brother. The third was from the office of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). After that the reporters started in.

But what was this all about? It was a lot to put together from Mel Arnold's Van Nuys desk. Who was this guy to have Time and Newsweek, Mother Jones and the Nation, the New York Times, Spin, the Village Voice, the New Republic, Sen. Kerry and the Christic Institute so intently interested in the circumstances of his death? The final autopsy would take five weeks, and before its release stories circulated of arsenic found in his bloodstream and traces of caustic substances in his throat. There was a lot of talk of three inexplicable puncture wounds on his elbow.

Carr had ridden with an illegal arms shipment from Florida to El Salvador. He had fought briefly alongside some contras in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and he had talked to the press about his experiences. The suspicion was that he had been killed to prevent him from talking anymore and that a cover-up of some sort was being used to disguise this fact. Mel Arnold had no use for this suggestion.

Arnold is a marathon runner. On the wall behind his desk is a poster featuring a large running shoe and the line: "Worn and Tired but Worth It." A busy man, he began eating an early lunch at his desk. In five minutes he was due at a meeting. "Any more questions?" he asked.


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