Sunday, December 26, 1999

BOOKS: Unraveling mysteries in Saline County murders


The Boys on the Tracks: Death, Denial, and a Mother's Crusade for Justice, by Mara Leveritt, 370 pages including notes and index, St. Martin's Press, $25.95.

     Finishing Mara Leveritt's new book, The Boys on the Tracks, can leave a person depressed. But that's not because it's a sorrowful book that you wish you wouldn't have read. It's because the exhilarating, eye-opening, thought-provoking ride it took you on has come to an end, and you want more. You want the remaining questions answered. You want the mystery solved.
     But while the book doesn't provide any definitive answers for what happened to two Saline County teenagers on a dark stretch of railroad tracks early Aug. 23, 1987, it certainly provides some substantial possibilities.
     Yes, it's a true story--"true crime," if you prefer. But it's not the sort of true-crime drama that relies on cheap, sensational references to pools of blood and hardened cops. It is, instead, a straightforward, engaging and extensively researched account of a real-life unsolved mystery and one woman's relentless pursuit of justice. Concentrating on intricate dealings and their emotional and political consequences rather than unnecessarily gruesome details, it reads more like a psychological thriller--one that makes a reader think and calculate and sympathize all at the same time. And all while keeping the pages turning--even long past midnight, on a work night.
     While the events it brings to life are intriguing, most of them have been reported before in newspaper articles scattered over the years. But never have they been put together so carefully and cohesively so as to allow a reader to fully comprehend the links between them, and in the process, to understand their significance.
     Those who have read or heard the sporadic news accounts of the forever-evolving saga of the boys' deaths may have felt at times as though they couldn't see the forest for the trees, that there was undoubtedly a lot more going on than was publicly known. But by organizing the massive amount of material into a coherent, chronological and highly readable narrative, with footnotes for those seeking the origin of various facts, Leveritt allows readers a tree-top view of the forest. And what a forest of secrets and lies it is!
     The fact that the characters are real-life people, many of whom still live in the community, makes the story even more compelling.
     While written in the third person, the book is told largely from the perspective of Linda Ives of Benton, whose son, Kevin, was one of the two boys killed on that otherwise innocent summer night more than 12 years ago. Kevin Ives was 17 and his friend and fellow victim, Don Henry, was 16.
     The book opens with the boys being run over by a train at about 4 a.m. as they lay motionless on the tracks, unresponsive to the frantic train crew's attempt to rouse them with a horn while unsuccessfully slamming on the brakes. It then goes on to recount details that anyone who lived in Arkansas at the time, or for several years thereafter, probably knows, but that anyone who had never heard of the case would find equally fascinating.
     There is, of course, the declaration by former State Medical Examiner Dr. Fahmy Malak that the boys died accidentally while in a deep sleep caused by smoking too much marijuana. There is the public disbelief and outrage that follows. There is the ordering of new autopsies by an out-of-state pathologist. There is the unwavering public support of Malak by then-Governor Bill Clinton. There are the eventual official findings that the boys were homicide victims, probably slain before being lain across the tracks, and Malak's resignation. And there are all those other mysterious deaths that summer in Saline County.
     But the devilishly calculating activities of former Saline County Prosecutor Dan Harmon, now a convicted felon serving 11 years in federal prison on unrelated charges, takes center stage. The book introduces the readers to Harmon, then an up and coming Saline County lawyer, as he was widely perceived at the time: a hero who swooped in and acted as a special prosecutor to lead a grand jury investigation into the deaths--an investigation that he promised would solve the mystery once and for all.
     Meticulously, Leveritt takes readers through the gradual changes in Harmon's public image while simultaneously detailing the law-enforcement machinations that were secretly, silently swirling around him at the time that he basked in public admiration.
     We see how easily Harmon fooled not only the Ives and Henry families, but the public as well. We see how likable he was, and clever and how hard it was to accept that he might be something other than what he portrayed himself to be. And we see how, gradually, a different side of him came to light and led to his prison term for racketeering, extortion, conspiracy and drug convictions.
     By telling it all largely through the eyes and heart of Linda Ives, Leveritt offers a fresh glimpse of the distraught, often demanding, mother that readers of past articles may have come to perceive. Instead of seeing her as a shrill woman whose son's death has driven her off the deep end, readers see a rational, intelligent woman who remarkably manages to somehow keep her sanity amidst the most insane of events. We see how she forges on with a remarkable determination to get to the bottom of her son's death, and wish that we could find that same strength if ever it is necessary.
     Even when Ives' beliefs venture outside whatever private theories the book may have sprouted in the minds of individual readers, the readers can understand how Ives came to believe what she does. She can no longer be dismissed as crazy or hysterical, as some may at times have wondered about.
     Which brings up another element of the book. While it leads readers toward some of the author's obvious conclusions, especially where certain federal authorities and their cache of tightly guarded secrets are concerned, it also offers a broad enough picture that readers are free to jump off the path at any time and draw their own conclusions--to accept a little or a lot of what the author or Ives may believe.
     In fact, while sympathetic to Ives, Leveritt doesn't necessarily agree with all of the grieving mother's conclusions. Leveritt even reveals respectful disagreements between Ives and her husband on the links, or lack thereof, between certain events. In the process, she makes the couple more touchable and Ives' sometimes high-volume crusade more understandable and sympathetic.
     The book is by no means a quick read. It gets more complicated as it progresses, sometimes prompting a reader to backtrack and re-read, to make sure one set of facts is understood before attempting to digest another that will play off the first. But that's not to say it's written in a difficult way. It's not. It's written in about as easygoing and digestible a manner as this sordid, complex string of events could be told.
     By the time the book gets into the subject of purported drug and gun-smuggling operations at the tiny airport in Mena in Polk County, a few readers may want to roll their eyes, fearing they've reached "conspiracy theory" territory. But Leveritt presents an interesting compilation of research on the subject that can really set a mind to wondering.
     Rooted in obviously extensive research, the book's theories are not easily dismissable as mere conjecture. Though the public may never know exactly what--or who--killed the two friends, or whether a string of bizarre events across the state can actually be linked to the deaths, one thing is certain: the story of whatever might have happened is interesting.
     There are a few readers who may not appreciate the book--Harmon and former U.S. Attorney Chuck Banks come to mind. But it's a good choice for anyone looking for some insight into the long-standing mystery of the boys' deaths, or for anyone looking for the kind of book that lures you in and holds you hostage until the end, keeping your mind wandering back to its pages in between readings and long after.

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