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COLUMN ONE : Portrait of a POW Hunter : One photo has given Jack Bailey the finest moment in a strange journey. His odyssey may serve as a road map to the MIA crusade and its dubious cottage industry.

August 07, 1991|SCOTT HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, many people considered Jack Bailey the best of men.

He was praised as a humanitarian who had aided thousands of Southeast Asian refugees, hailed as a hero who had given desperate people a chance to live. One missionary called him "the most genuinely compassionate man I ever met."

Then that Jack Bailey seemed to all but vanish, sinking into the murky realm where Americans haunted by Vietnam try to raise the dead--the presumed dead, that is. Jack Bailey, POW hunter, traversed a path of hope and delusion that has left him branded by critics in the Pentagon and elsewhere as a man who traffics in tragedy.

Now Bailey--an old fighter pilot who fell from grace, a 68-year-old Don Quixote driven by an obsession--is hoping that Army Capt. Donald G. Carr, if not his ghost, will help him reclaim his lost honor.

Donald Gene Carr was a Green Beret who disappeared in Laos on July 6, 1971. And it is Carr, Bailey insists, who has reappeared in the photographic image of a grinning, middle-aged man.

The photograph that Bailey is showing to the world--one of several that recently have rekindled interest in the question of missing soldiers--represents what many believers and skeptics alike consider the most intriguing evidence to date suggesting that at least some of the more than 2,273 Americans who disappeared in the Vietnam War may still be alive, perhaps still captive.

Twenty years after his brother's disappearance, Matthew Carr insists that the man in the photo is his brother. Donald Carr's former wife and son share that belief, as does a forensic anthropologist who conducted a detailed, computer-enhanced comparison of Bailey's snapshot with old photos of Carr.

Authorities with the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, which oversees official POW-MIA research, have cast strong doubt on other putative POW evidence that has surfaced recently. But as yet, the agency's researchers simply don't know what to make of Bailey's photo, said Navy Cmdr. Ned Lundquist, a Pentagon spokesman.

Even if the grinning middle-aged man turns out to be just another Caucasian missionary, the photo has given Bailey the finest moment in his strange journey.

His odyssey could serve as a road map through the POW-MIA crusade. Bailey has become a middleman in a multimillion-dollar POW-MIA cottage industry. His charity alone has raised more than $3.3 million, records show. Bailey says he has never personally profited from his efforts.

In the Spotlight

Yet the controversial Bailey is now the movement's man of the moment, conferring with members of Congress, appearing on national television, meeting the Washington press.

Standing before 14 television cameras in a Capitol Hill press conference, Bailey ticked off his reasons for believing that the photo is authentic. He told of an acquaintance in the Laotian government who claimed to have access to an American prisoner. He explained how he provided his Laotian source with a blue knit shirt, a cheap wristwatch and a camera, along with instructions to take a picture of the man wearing the items. He explained that his source later told him the man's name was "Gar."

He triumphantly produced results of the photo comparisons by Michael Charney, head of the forensic science laboratory at Colorado State University. The bone structure and even the contours of the ears--"lobes, helix, concha, tragus"--matched, Charney's report said.

Both Bailey and Matthew Carr began to weep as they described Donald Gene Carr as a man who apparently had suffered brain damage.

"He's kind of like what you would call right now the village idiot," Matthew Carr said.

Skepticism abounds, however. Hopes have been raised and crushed before. Officials point out that Laos is not as closed to outsiders as it used to be. Many foreigners--including about 3,000 Americans--visited the country last year. Some skeptics suggest that Charney is less than objective, noting that he has previously criticized the Pentagon's handling of MIA cases.

Finally, there is the Bailey factor. He has recovered partial remains of a few missing servicemen, but Pentagon officials said he was a nuisance whose efforts have consistently done more harm than good.

"I just don't have a great deal of faith in him," retired Army Gen. Eugene Tighe said in a recent interview. Tighe, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, is considered a key ally by POW-MIA activists because of his stated conviction that some POWs were left behind and his criticism of research methods. Tighe said he fears that if Bailey "is behind all of this," the resolution could prove "very, very cruel to a lot of people."

But the relatives of Donald Gene Carr want to believe.

"Anybody who's going to tell me that Col. Bailey's rescue is a phony, they'd better think again," Matthew Carr declared.

"I'm real happy Col. Bailey's doing what he's doing," Donald Gene Carr Jr. said.

Not that they know much about him.

"This guy," Donald Carr said, "just came out of nowhere."

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