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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM BELLEVUE, IOWA

Missing Man Was Barely Missed

Mystery: Because he was a newcomer, Greg May's disappearance has stirred little worry in a town of 2,350.

July 17, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELLEVUE, Iowa — This is the small-town America of cliche. Folks leave their cars running when they pop into the drugstore. The city manager makes house calls to fix jammed VCRs. And when locals give directions, it sounds something like this: Turn right where Josie's dad used to live and then go on past the house that Noreen just sold and turn left where Paul's brother used to stay.

It's a town, in short, that feels like one big family.

So you would think a possible murder mystery unfolding in its midst would jolt Bellevue's very soul. It hasn't. In fact, few residents have taken much note--even though the case has twists aplenty. The reason: The alleged victim was a newcomer. And most folks here can't get all that riled up about his disappearance.

That indifference reflects a tension facing small towns across the heartland: With young adults leaving for bigger opportunities, towns are aging and fading fast. In order to survive, they need to grow--and that means attracting outsiders. And outsiders, of course, change the everyone-knows-everyone, no-need-to-lock-the-doors atmosphere many communities pride themselves on.

In Bellevue, the outsiders are refugees from cities like Chicago, drawn to the slower pace and quiet beauty of this town of 2,350. In other rural areas, the newcomers are immigrants attracted to factory or meatpacking jobs. But whoever they are, explains Iowa State University sociologist Paul Lasley, their very appearance raises the dilemma: "We want to grow, but we don't want to change."

That's just how many here feel. Their ambivalence is reflected in their response to the puzzling case of Greg May, who vanished from Bellevue last winter, a few months before his 56th birthday.

May was an intriguing man who "moved between two worlds," said his close friend Christine Zraick, who runs a luxury bed and breakfast here.

May, 6 feet tall and distinguished-looking, was conservative in his politics and polite in his manner. He was an antiques dealer with an excellent eye for Civil War artifacts. He was also a tattoo artist.

Friends said he spent much of his time prowling antique stores and flea markets for 19th century treasures, stashing his finds in a suitcase so battered that no one would suspect it held a decent shirt, much less a $30,000 Civil War firearm. He earned the money for such purchases by inking tattoos in a thick-with-incense parlor decorated floor to ceiling with naked women, snakes and other sample artwork.

A few months after May disappeared, some of his prized antiques began to pop up in odd places.

Several Confederate swords and Civil War-era uniforms, valued at $70,000-plus, showed up in an auction house catalog in Illinois. Then two of May's antique documents--letters written to a member of the Jesse James gang--were mailed as donations to Missouri museums. They were accompanied by a handwritten note signed "Greg May." The museum directors accepted the gifts with glee. Yet friends say May would never have donated such cherished items. They suspect a ruse. Bellevue police have subpoenaed the antiques as evidence.

Investigators won't call the case a homicide but say they have "at least some possible evidence" of foul play. Yet some locals have questioned whether the case is even worth pursuing.

May had lived here only a matter of months. Few in Bellevue knew him even to exchange small talk. If they had heard of him at all, it was in the gossip that whipped through town when May inquired about opening a tattoo parlor--a proposal that was quickly shot down as not in keeping with Bellevue's clean-cut image.

"It sounds sort of mean, but he wasn't considered one of us," City Administrator Loras Herrig said.

So when the police began to ring up unprecedented expenses to probe May's fate--including out-of-state travel and considerable overtime--Herrig said he began to hear some residents grumble.

But after informal consultation, City Council members agreed to press ahead with an all-out investigation. They were swayed in part by pleas from May's ex-wife, who lives in Southern California, and her two grown children. And in part by their innate sense that justice needs serving, even for a Chicago transplant.

"Whether we know him or not, he's our neighbor," Mayor Virgil Murray explained.

Perched on a bluff above the Mississippi River, Bellevue has attracted many a new neighbor in recent years, mostly big-city burnouts like May. There's great hunting and fishing, the view is spectacular and you can buy a four-bedroom home on the river for $160,000.

"We came here as a haven," said Larry Bay, 60, a retired truck driver from Chicago. After three years here with his wife, Carol, he still marvels that the neighbors are so friendly. He's never heard so many "good mornings."

Like the Bays, many urban refugees say they feel welcome here--but never entirely embraced.

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