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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.

Back in Naples, Fla., he had six months to do for breaking parole on his 1984 felony conviction. In many ways Carr was an ideal whistle-blower. A man society had firmly placed in the loser column was now holding forth in his Florida jail cell for a stream of eager journalists on U.S. policy in Central America: "The public is being lied to about what is going on down there," he told the Fort Myers News-Press with all the easy authority of a U.S. senator. "The money that is supposed to be going for the contras is actually going into the pockets of certain politicians. They are getting rich."

Something surely had cracked in his world, and so it was that on the morning of July 28, Carr, sitting in his Collier County Jail cell, would read that his brother, Edward Carr, 36, the Vietnam vet he had so idolized, had flipped out the day before. Edward, the newspapers reported, had emerged on the porch of his Naples home in full battle dress: helmet, a U.S. Army T-shirt, fatigues. Looking a bit like Frenchy Chauffard with his full black beard, the hefty Carr had taken potshots at a street light and at a police car, and while the local SWAT team deployed, Edward retired to his living room to watch a rerun of "MASH." Afterward, he told police that he was suffering "Vietnam flashback," and he was removed to the David Lawrence Mental Health Clinic for observation.

But Steven Carr had plenty of problems of his own to worry about. "I'm pretty sure they're going to dust me off when I get back to the States," he had said in a prison interview with the Tico Times, an English-language newspaper in San Jose. Prophesying his own death became a regular thing with him. "I'm not too popular with a lot of people because I tell the truth," he told a reporter. "I won't feel very safe walking down the street after this is over." To Frances Reynolds of the Fort Myers News-Press he said: "One of these days they're going to find my body. They'll probably call it a cocaine overdose."

Reynolds did not use that quote in the story she wrote, but it came back to her when she heard of Carr's death. "Well, Steven," she said to herself, "it happened just the way you said it would." The suspicion that he had been murdered was planted, to a considerable extent, by Carr himself.

THE END

A FEW WEEKS AFTER STEVEN CARR DIED, a story in the Nation reported that he had been found dead in a "Van Nuys parking lot" under "mysterious circumstances." This was written by Costa Rica-based journalists Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey. Asked what they based their description on, Avirgan said: "A lot of people didn't believe it was an accident." The difference between "Van Nuys parking lot" and the Panorama City driveway in which Carr actually died might seem slight, but it is indicative of the paranoia the Carr story inspired. A "parking lot" is a shade more ominous than a "driveway," more suggestive of foul play.

There was much to suggest that Carr had died exactly as the autopsy would state: of "acute cocaine intoxication." High levels of cocaine and its metabolite, benzoylecgonine, were found in his blood, bile and urine, the report said. But there remained unknowns and unknowables to be interpreted any way one wished.

Carr had come to Los Angeles directly after leaving prison in Florida. He had a sister in Reseda, and he had rented a room in an apartment belonging to a friend of hers. Why had he come here? He was afraid for his life, he told people. He imagined a "Cuban hit man" on his trail and is said to have slept with his lights on, his door locked.

Carr was scheduled to testify in two contra-related trials in Florida and, it was rumored, at some future congressional hearings. But how important a witness was he? At one point, when no one else was talking, he was very important; at the time of his death, increasingly less so. He was one of 28 witnesses scheduled to appear at a trial stemming from the 1984 bombing of an Eden Pastora press conference in La Penca, Nicaragua. Of his importance in the other case, involving alleged guns-for-drugs trading with the contras, Assistant U.S. Atty. Ana Barnett said: "We were not really relying on him as a prime witness."

He had a minimum-wage job lined up, but meanwhile he had gone in with a man he met upon his arrival in Los Angeles on $960 worth of cocaine. Ostensibly, this was for resale, but at the time of his death he had been on what witnesses said was a "56-hour cocaine streak."

The 22-year-old daughter of the woman in whose apartment he had his room was awakened by Carr at 3:25 in the morning. He was acting drunk, and she followed him outside. He said he had to get something from his car. Carr then collapsed in the driveway that ran between the apartment buildings. He went into convulsions, but before he died, the daughter heard Carr say, "I paranoided out. I ate the whole thing." It was a whispery voice, barely audible.

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