Season Two, Episode 06 – Vanished Status

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HOWARD MECHANIC: When I got out of prison on the six month county charge. I knew I wasn’t gonna serve the five years, and I had some time to really develop my plans. I was able to raise a little money and I had a collection when I was a kid of space memorabilia. Space covers, envelopes that would commemorate different space launches. Those were valuable. And I sold some albums and sold some other stuff. And I had some money put aside and got some documents with the help of some friends.

I was working in California and I got the birth date and where he was born of one of the people that was working there. Employee records, I was able to find out. And so I applied for a copy of his birth certificate, and then I changed the birth certificate. Back then, we didn’t have computers, so you had to sort of white out stuff and try to change it. And I went to a couple thrift stores and I couldn’t find the right typewriter that had the right type of type that would fit in. I was about ready to give up, and finally I found the right typewriter.

So I was able to change the document, make copies of it, and I built up an identity off of that. The birth certificate was– had a blue background. It was outta Los Angeles. And they did that cuz it was hard to photocopy it, and hard to make. I couldn’t use the copy that I made cuz you could see how it was adulterated and changed. But I figured if I made a copy of it, then you wouldn’t see all the markings and stuff on it.

So there was a guy living down the street. He was sort of a hippie type and we had talked before. And he worked at a print shop. And I went up to him and said, I’ve got a friend who has a problem and he needs a birth certificate made. He said, well, he’d take care of it for 50 bucks. I said, well, okay, yeah, that’s great. He printed it and then he gave me a hundred copies and said, I just needed one copy. He said, well, it’s no big deal, once you started printing. So I put ’em in the top of my closet, which ended up being a problem later on. Because somebody ran into a hundred copies of the birth certificate.

Which if there’s just one or two copies, people wouldn’t wonder what was going on. But when they saw a hundred copies, they wondered what was going on. I’m Howard Mechanic. I live in Prescott, Arizona right now. We’ve been here for about 13 years, and before that I lived down in the Phoenix area for about 28 years. Lived under assumed name after I got outta college, until I moved up here to Prescott. I was born in Cleveland in 1948 in a suburb of Cleveland, Shaker Heights, and a very good school system. I was lucky to be there, and that was in the fifties and sixties and it was just after the McCarthy era. 

SAMPLE: To make sure they don’t have communists teaching our sons and daughters of America.

HOWARD MECHANIC: There was a lot of conformity that was enforced by the government. If you associate with political groups that were considered to the left, then you could be suspected of being a communist. A communist sympathizer, a fellow traveler, any number of terms like that.

AUDIO CLIP: He has no freedom of thought, no freedom of. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: You could be blacklisted, you could lose your job. You just want to fit in. And that’s not just back then. That’s even today. They don’t want to stand out and be different. Yeah, I have an identical twin and we have a lot of experiences where we’ve been in conversations and then something would come up. We both say the same thing at the exact same time. That might be something totally different than what we were talking about. One thing that happened when my brother was not even near me, he was across town. He was riding a bicycle and he broke his leg.

When that happened, my leg started hurting real bad. NASA was doing an investigation and see if they could use telepathy for communication over long distances. We did some research with them. They tested us out to send messages and one of us would look at a printed symbol and the other one would try to draw a symbol or say what the symbol was. They didn’t really publicize it too much. I think they were concerned about taxpayer money going into that kind of thing. But they had some positive results. I didn’t have an independent identity until he went to Columbia.

I went to Washington U and were able to develop separately. The reason I chose Washington University, it looked like a very good school and looked like something that I was a good fit for. They gave me a full scholarship. Majored in political science with a minor in economics. I wasn’t really socially adept, which I sort of matured slowly. And I wasn’t into dating, probably afraid of girls. Then I tried to develop my own personality and one of my fraternity brothers was a guy named Fred. He was into progressive politics back then. And so I was never exposed to that much at all.

There’s some things that the country was doing that were not, right. Well, in 1967 there was a big change with a lot of people, and it was a combination of politics and lifestyle. You had the women’s Liberation Movement starting out at that time. The civil rights thing was going on at the same time. The anti-war movement was going on at the same time, so that was like a perfect storm. Well, I started out working against the war in 1967. The first thing I was doing was I helped start a draft counseling office at Washington University. And we were able to get funding. We studied the law and found out what they could do possibly to legally get out of the draft.

AUDIO CLIP:  The draft lottery, a live report on tonight’s picking of the birth dates for the draft.

What they had is they started a lottery. They picked numbers based on your birth date. If you got a low number, you are going. And if you got a high number, you’re not. Well, I got a high number, so I was out of the draft myself. September 14th. Some people had options that were pretty good and some people had options that, that were not good. They were between a rock and a hard place and having to make a decision. Did they wanna go to the war or did they wanna starve themselves, maybe to get down below the weight. The lowest weight that’s allowed. A lot of people went to Canada.

I worked every summer for the post office. After I graduated from high school they had tests every summer for positions to fill in for regular employees who were out. One test for the post office, and they had one test for federal employees to work for the summer. Well, one year I took the wrong test. They gave me a job working for the Defense Contract Administration, which was in the federal building in Cleveland. And that was during the summer when I was working with anti-war groups. Every day I would go through contracts for munitions and defense contracts.

Military probably issues, more contracts than anybody in the world. Nobody at the defense contract administration knew that I was actively involved in opposing the war. And they probably didn’t even know that I had much in the way of opinions. My position there was actually helping. Because of the information I could get I was actually helping to build some protests. So I figured I’d just stick it out for that summer.

The ROTC was a reserve Officer’s training Corps. Basically a way some students– they could take a few classes during college. And then when they graduated they had a fast track to be right in as an officer. And military would help pay their some of their bills for college too. That’s what the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps was. Then they spent a lot of time marching back and forth. And we thought it was funny so we go out there and start marching and disrupting their marches and saying different things. Finally, they stopped doing a lot of the marching.

They just stayed inside the building and did their thing. When you’re against the war and you have the closest thing right there next door to you– they’re training people to go to war. That’s an obvious target for your action. What people call the new left, that was at that time basically encompassing all kinds of groups that were left or progressive organizations. And the same thing with the term movement. Which is more of a general term also. 

AUDIO CLIP: Sisters and brothers. A year ago we blew away the Haymarket Pig statue. At the start of the youth ride in Chicago.

HOWARD MECHANIC: There was one group called the Weatherman, which is more of a group that was into violent activities. Even planning to fight the police.

AUDIO CLIP: The head of the police sergeant’s association called emotionally for all out war between the pigs and us. We accepted. Last night, we destroyed the pig again.

HOWARD MECHANIC: They ended up bombing various government buildings. They were never into killing people.

AUDIO CLIP: I think is far out and all Weathermen are far out. Could you explain that? They’re forced to be outlaws by the way the society is running. We think they’re great.

HOWARD MECHANIC: They wanted to bring the war home. That’s probably why I never really wanted to get involved in that. Was not interested in fighting and blowing up things. When I was a senior. I was called into the administration office at the college, and one of the administrators says, we understand you’re a Weatherman. And I says, I’m not a weatherman. What do you mean? Who told you that? And he said, well, we have to be careful about what’s going on in the campus. So you we’re gonna be watching you and just, we don’t want any violence here.

We found out that there were five undercover agents on our campus. And we didn’t have a large college. Imagine a college nowadays that has like 10,000 students having five undercover agents on the campus that were working with the FBI. I was friends with the guy. He had come around campus and I talked to him. After a while, I figured I’d bring him around to some of our activities into one of our things. Somebody came up to me and says, don’t bring him around anymore. We think he’s an undercover cop. Kent State thing is very pertinent because the Kent State killings– or four students were killed at Kent State was May 4th, 1970. 

AUDIO CLIP: The four persons were killed during a clash between students and members of the Ohio National Guard outside Taylor Hall near the University Commons. Where an Army ROTC building was burned down Saturday night.

HOWARD MECHANIC: A lot of people don’t realize why there were so many students marching around at Kent State that day. The reason is because, five days earlier, president Nixon went on the air.

AUDIO CLIP: Cambodia, a small country was suddenly. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: We were hoping he was gonna cut back on the war. Well, he made a speech announcing that they had expanded the war into Cambodia, a neutral country.

AUDIO CLIP: The time has come for action. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: He’s gonna expand the war instead of cutting back. All the colleges erupted, the demonstrations to really explode. We had a demonstration planned ahead, a couple days ahead and then Kent State happened that afternoon. So we started marching from one of the student buildings. I felt just like a lot of people that. That it was gonna be, it was gonna be an angry demonstration. People were very amped up. Marched over to the ROTC building and people were chanting, and then some people started running outta the crowd into the building.

Things escalated to a certain point. They have a thing called a cherry bomb. It’s about the size of a cherry. Somebody threw two or three of those. Next thing we knew the building was on fire. The fire department came out. By that time the fire was pretty well engulfing the building anyways. Some people were, I guess, throwing rocks at the fire department. Destruction of property is not violence as far as my definition goes. And that’s the only thing that happened that night. People were destroying military property, but it’s not violence. The police knew that we were gonna have the demonstration.

They had paid photographers there with lights and everything. It was like being on a sound stage. And they were taking photos, people walking into the building with something burning in their hands. They had no photos of me. The next day I was arrested for that. They charged me with throwing a firecracker. Under this 1968 Civil Disobedience Act. It is against federal law to interfere with police or fire personnel protecting a federal function during a civil disorder. So we were a test case for that law. Test case means that it validates the law.

They wanted to validate that law in the courts and make sure it was okay for them to pursue it. And they had no evidence except for this one guy who said, it came from my vicinity. This is the guy who flunked outta school. Brought back on academic probation and ended up being a clerk for a federal judge. Obviously paid off. They had other witnesses. They talked about how there was a riot. They talked about how people were throwing firecrackers. They talked about how there’s a fire. The jury’s here, and well look at all these bad thing, and here’s the guy they’re charging.

I was sentenced twice. A six month sentence in the county jail, and then the federal government decided that wasn’t enough. And then they threw the book at me for five years for that. I went to prison to serve the six month sentence. I was treated pretty badly. A lot of the guards from ex-military, and they basically treated us like traitors. They told the other prisoners not to talk to me. It was mostly African-American in the prison.

Authorities were concerned about what the black community was gonna have rebellions. So they told them, do not talk to Howard, or you’re gonna be in trouble. I had one guard who came up to me and said, if I get a chance, I’m gonna put a bullet in your head. Obviously it wasn’t that easy having to deal with serving time when you’re in that kind of condition. When I got out, I was still on appeal on the five-year sentence. I was out on bond at that time. And I was thinking, can I do five years and should I do five years? By the time I got out, I had pretty much made up my mind.

I wasn’t gonna serve the five years. A lot of people think there’s no alternative. You get five years and that’s the only choice you have in life. And you don’t make any choices. You just do what you’re told. I didn’t take that choice. A few friends, not too many who I discussed it with. And one of them helped me set up an identity and– quite a bit easier than it is today. He gave me documents and he told me, well, this is somebody who died. Which is the way you needed to do it. You don’t wanna have the same documents as somebody else. That causes all kinds of problems.

The name of the person was Gary Raymond Treadway for about four years, and I changed to Gary, Robert Treadway. When I left St. Louis, I didn’t wanna take the bus right from the terminal, cuz they might have had my picture there at the terminal. So we took a ride about 30 miles outside of St. Louis and went to the bus station there. When the guy dropped me off at the bus station, I told him, well, if there’s a roundup, I’ll be the only one that’ll be still out there.

They wouldn’t know to look for Gary Treadway. I was working with a friend who had a business out in Santa Cruz, California. I got a California driver’s license. Told people I went to school in Chicago at Northwestern. And I had no siblings and my parents, they were killed by a drunk driver. So that was sort of end– end that discussion. If I saw a policeman, I’d be very nervous and I’d go on the other side of the street and walk away. I watched the fugitive on a regular basis.

AUDIO CLIP: A fugitive and innocent victim of a blind justice.

HOWARD MECHANIC: It just made me feel melancholy.

AUDIO CLIP: Hide, and lonely desperation. Changes his identity.

HOWARD MECHANIC: We tried to make contact with the FBI, on a couple occasions, and they weren’t willing to negotiate. If I had turned myself in first, then they’ll talk. And that wasn’t something I was that interested in. The FBI was able to age, progress my picture over the 28 years. Got a picture of my brother and they just put it on their posters. All the time I was in contact with my parents. Initially it was indirect through friends. But I didn’t wanna be too close contact for various reasons. It ended up the last few years when I was living as Gary Treadway, I had an apartment hotel, and they would come out every winter and live in the apartment next to me.

They’d be out there for like two months. Eventually, when I decided to leave in ’72 and I got on a bus and I bought a ticket for Albuquerque. It was September and I got off the bus and it was cold. I asked a bus driver, why is it so cold? And he said, well, that’s the way it is this time of year. And I said, well, where is it warm? And he said, well, you’re gonna have to maybe go down to Phoenix. And I ended up in Phoenix.

The next 28 years I lived within three miles where I got off the bus. Started my own business. It’s a natural health food business and actually I still have it. At that time, the natural food industry was really growing and I was able to get a couple products to start distributing to stores. And then it built up from there and I was distributing a lot of products. We had a Federation of Southwest cooperatives, so I started working with those organizations. It was a little difficult when I first moved out to Arizona and the Vietnam War was still going on.

And a friend of mine said, well, we’re going out to this anti-war demonstration. You wanna come? And I said, well, I’m not really into that. A couple years after I got involved in the health food business, and every summer there was a convention for the business, and I went out to the convention and I ran into Ben Zaracour. He was a president of our student council at the time. When I was a senior, he was president, so we were friends. He saw me at this convention around the corner, and I saw him at the same time.

Well, I sort of backed up and turned around. I saw he was following me. I just came up to him. I said, hi, Ben. How you doing? We went over and talked and he could have turned me in or he could have just walked away. That’s the way he described it. He decided to be my friend. I got married around 1980 and then we had a kid. Well my son, he was probably about eight or nine and I had the movie Berkeley in the sixties, free speech.

AUDIO CLIP: He stood up there, the police took him away.

HOWARD MECHANIC: It showed people being arrested and demonstrating against the war. And I showed him that movie so he could get idea of what was going on and what happened. After the movie I told him, I was involved in that kind of stuff when I was in college and they charged me with throwing a firecracker and I didn’t do it. But they gave me five years and I had to live under a different name. So he says, what’s your real name? Continuing with my business and I started slowly getting involved in some, some issues in town. Forming the Green Party in Arizona.

We passed a Clean Elections Law, which is a statewide initiative that we passed. And I helped write the initiative and I was treasurer of the campaign. That was back in 1998. By that time my face was out there pretty much. I was in the newspaper there just was nobody who recognized me. As these things went along, I figured, well, I’m pretty much beyond getting caught now. That’s when I went for City Council, which was a mistake. A lot of people think I did that cuz I wanted to get caught. Why also would somebody who’s a fugitive run for city council? I just was trying to do what I could for the community. And worked on so many things up in that time and people kept were asking me to run for that and I was sort of naive about it. Scottsdale Tribune is a local paper and they were just interviewing all the candidates. 

AUDIO CLIP: What we really do is just make sure you haven’t lied to us and make sure you really are who you say you are. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: The reporter who is Penny Overton, and she asked about my background and stuff and I tried to divert it into different areas as I usually do. And I thought it was working out okay. 

AUDIO CLIP: And then there was just silence and he was looking down at his feet and he has hands on his hips during something that should have been easy

HOWARD MECHANIC: Now that’s the end of the interview. We’re gonna follow up with another story or we’re gonna do background checks. 

AUDIO CLIP: And we will check your voting records. Check your criminal record, we’ll check your your military record. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: When I was running for office, I listed Franconia College in New Hampshire. And the reason is that college closed except they still had the archives. I was not in the Franconia archives. They knew there’s something wrong with my background from that. There was some time passing. I figured she was gonna get information that wasn’t gonna be good for me and It’d be made public. I had actually called her up, told her I wanted to talk to her about something. So I told her I was dropping outta the campaign. Couldn’t just say I’m not interested anymore. I had to come up with something that was not visible. Figure I had to say I was pretty sick that I had leukemia. That was the only thing I could come up with.

AUDIO CLIP: The fact that he was covering his past lie with another lie made it easier to pull the trigger. Yeah. It showed that this fellow hadn’t learned a damn thing over the last 25 years. He was still lying in order to save his butt. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: That caused more problems. Because people thought I was trying to get sympathy. She said she was still gonna do the story. Things were sort of spiraling outta control. She had called me a couple times and said college records don’t exist. And I’m gonna have to go with the story, and somebody else is working with me on it. My picture was on the front page the next day or two in the paper. I thought about for about five minutes leaving, but I figured I wasn’t gonna do this again. I’m just gonna have to turn myself in and get this dealt with. The FBI was in town.

They had a US Marshall from St. Louis came out. They agreed that they wouldn’t take me back to St. Louis, that I could stay in the Arizona area while the courts handled the proceedings. I had five years. Then they start throwing other charges on me on top of that. Falsifying a passport application, falsifying social security documents, falsifying driver’s license, running a illegal campaign. When I turned myself in, I had already been convicted. I already lost my appeals. There was, there was go direct to jail. There was no bond or anything like that, so I went direct to jail.

The second time was totally different than the first time. The first time the guards were like, they were treating me like a traitor. The second time they were treating me like a lost animal here who shouldn’t be in prison. Public opinion was against me for the first two days. But then after people started seeing what was going on. Five years for a firecracker that I didn’t do.

AUDIO CLIP: I am here to ask all of you to help us bring Howard home. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: My friends came outta the woodwork from college and they developed a campaign for me. Getting things in the paper, and my friends started getting information out. They spent a lot of time contacting representatives, congressional people, senators to write letters.

AUDIO CLIP: Is he gonna go to prison for five years because they thought he threw a cherry bomb. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: We were able to negotiate all those other charges away. The fact that I was involved in the Clean Elections campaign was very helpful. I had a good reputation for 28 years. I also made a lot of donations. I’ve always donated about 50% of my income to charity. President Clinton was in office. We had applied for a pardon. And traditionally presidents give pardons right before Christmas time, which he did. He issued a bunch of pardons and I was not on the list. We were a little upset about that. One of my attorneys had a friend who was the ambassador to England. And the ambassador to England talked to the president about me. On top of all this campaign that we had going on. 

AUDIO CLIP: My fellow Citizens, tonight is my last opportunity to speak to you from the Oval Office as your president.

HOWARD MECHANIC: Clinton stayed up basically all night before the last day of his presidency working on pardons. I was issued a pardon a couple hours before he left office. 

AUDIO CLIP:  And all the work I had done as president. I’ve tried to give all Americans tools and conditions to build the future of our. 

HOWARD MECHANIC: That morning I was in Lompoc Prison, and that afternoon I was in the Phoenix airport. Had about 30 people meet me at the airport. So that was pretty quick. It’s sort of hard to deal with different names. Where I had all my social security payments under Gary Treadway and I wanted to set it up under Howard Mechanic. So if I needed Social security in the future, I’d have a record of all my payments. Presidential Pardon Goes a long way. Let’s put it that way. I have a document and on it it says pardon listed Howard Mechanic Alias Gary Treadway. As soon as I showed that to the Social Security Administration, they said, no problem. There was a lot of interest in the media on this case. It was a Dateline story. 

AUDIO CLIP: Cogan, who stood right next to mechanic that night says, Howard is innocent, didn’t throw a cherry bomb. He did not throw a cherry bomb.

HOWARD MECHANIC: Larry Cogan was a graduate student at the time, and he was a friend of mine. And he was involved, in the anti-war movement. 30 years later on National TV larry Cogan admitted that he was the one who threw the cherry bomb. 

AUDIO CLIP: Who did throw a cherry bomb. I did. You did? Yes.

HOWARD MECHANIC: We moved to Prescott. We wanted to get out of the Phoenix era for a couple reasons. Well, this is a very conservative community and I’m not gonna be able to run for office here. It’s just not something that’s gonna work out for me. Unfortunately, you know, we, we’ve made some progress along the way, but, a lot of the major issues, we haven’t made a lot of progress. The basic framework, I think hasn’t changed. You have a couple hundred people who control 20% of the wealth in the country. When you have that kinda situation, and it spills over into the control of politics and economics in the same hands. Working against the war.

And a lot of people, the only thing they saw were the protests and they thought that’s what we were doing, were protesting. And that was certainly part of what we were doing. But we would be sitting in offices and like I say, I was a draft counselor and I would sit in an office and talk to people and work with them. And people need to protest, but then they need to move on into other things too. Not just protest the system, but help make some changes. For the 28 years, I had recurring nightmares of being chased, being caught, being taken away, and I’d wake up in a cold sweat.

As soon as I turned myself in, nightmare, just automatically went away. I’ve always told people I would never recommend somebody live under an assumed name. It’s not something that I go out and, and say, this is a good decision for people. It was a tough decision for me to make that decision to live as a fugitive, to live on an assumed name. But it was a right decision for me.