After 2008's Ghost, the bestselling memoir of his early career as a State Department counterterrorism agent, Fred Burton turned his attention to an unsolved murder.
On a July night in 1973, in the quiet suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, Israeli military attaché Joe Alon parked his Ford Galaxie 500 in the driveway next to the single-story ranch house he shared with his wife and three daughters. Climbing out of the car, he was struck from behind by five .38 caliber bullets, one of which channeled through his aorta, killing him. Investigations by the Montgomery County Police Department and the FBI concluded that the fatal shot was delivered by a skilled marksman who then all but vanished. The investigators found no witnesses and little more in the way of clues, which was far as they would get.
Perhaps the gunman's only mistake was committing the crime near sixteen-year-old Burton's home. The violent episode would alter Burton's view of the world as a larger version of his sleepy, blue-collar bedroom community where nothing bad ever happened.
He remained haunted by the murder into adulthood. Entering law enforcement, as a police officer, he would often drive past the Alon house, wondering about the crime. When he first looked into the matter in an official capacity, in 1985, it was, as cold cases go, frozen and buried under a hundred feet of permafrost. It didn't even have a case file. Other than the police report, the only information available to Burton was relatively vague 1973 Washington Post coverage, on microfiche.
He subsequently discovered that all of the crime scene evidence -- notably the spent bullets and the victim's clothing -- had been destroyed. "That was a mystery," he recalls. "The FBI keeps evidence in its files going back to Capone."
Even more puzzling was Israel's uncharacteristic failure to swoop in on behalf of its own. After hearing story upon story of bureaucratic dead ends from Alon's daughters, Burton was moved to write a book offering an explanation. He expected to have a draft in six or seven months.
Characterizing the early part of his research as a series of stone walls, he says, "The most difficult part was everybody connected to the original case, for the most part, was dead."
Driven by a desire to help Alon's family find some closure, he broadened the definition of persistence, yet, one year later, remained in the dark. Then a light bulb blinked on in the form of an offhand remark by one of Alon's daughters. She recalled glimpsing an odd device atop one of her father's bookshelves -- it was black, she told Burton, about the size of a Pop Tart, with several rows of buttons across the top.
Burton suspected she'd seen a short-range communication device used to transmit encrypted messages, meaning Alon may have been a spy, likely for Israel, in which case myriad terrorist organizations and intelligence services -- including Israel's -- would have had motive to neutralize him.
Burton's trail took him back to the Cold War and turned into a series of cliffhangers until, two years past his original manuscript deadline, he arrived at a key clue. "I got very lucky in finding human sources close to radical Palestinian circles and willing to assist," he says. "At that point, the case moved from a working theory to pieces of granular intelligence that helped put together the puzzle."
The picture that emerged was one of Ali Hassan Salameh, a.k.a. the Red Prince, the charismatic leader of Black September, a special operations unit of the PLO best known for kidnapping and murdering eleven Israelis at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.
Through an ensuing investigation that dealt Burton as many twists and turns as in any five detective thrillers -- the publication date of his own book be damned--he established that Alon had indeed been an intelligence operative as well as a key player in the military alliance between the United States and Israel. Accordingly the Red Prince sent a hit team to Bethesda. The terrorist leader would be assassinated in 1979, but the triggerman, Hassan Ali, still survived. As a result of Burton's efforts, Alon's killer was brought to justice in early 2010.
Thus resolution came to the case at long last, accompanied by a feeling of tremendous release for Alon's family and an ending to Burton's manuscript. With extensive input from military historian John Bruning, the book, Chasing Shadows, is scheduled to be published, finally, on April 12 by Palgrave Macmillan.
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