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The mysterious death of local Teamsters leader Rodger Whitehead

Motionless in the driver’s seat of his blue ’75 Maverick

“Rodger found out something that was going on, and that’s why they killed him. And maybe he had something in that bag that was incriminating to somebody.”
  • “Rodger found out something that was going on, and that’s why they killed him. And maybe he had something in that bag that was incriminating to somebody.”

About 5:15 Wednesday evening, March 7, Will Vukmanic arrived home from his job as a mail carrier and heard a strange sound coming from his locked garage. It was a low rumbling, like an idling car engine, and Will’s first thought was, oh no, it’s Rodg!

Coroner's photograph of Rodger Whitehead. Will reached through the open driver’s side window to shake him, and Rodger’s whole body moved. Rigor mortis.

Coroner's photograph of Rodger Whitehead. Will reached through the open driver’s side window to shake him, and Rodger’s whole body moved. Rigor mortis.

Rodger Whitehead rented a small apartment attached to the back of Will’s house on K Street, in a well-worn section of Sherman Heights. Just two months earlier, Whitehead had been installed as secretary-treasurer — top man — in Teamsters Local 481, officially named the Automotive and Allied Industries Employees, International Brotherhood of Teamsters

Rodger with Marianne Lachman, November 1983. He was sitting in his car in the drive-through line at the Jack-In-The-Box at 24th and Market streets when, according to the police report of the incident, a man came up to his car and asked, “Who you gonna vote for?"

Rodger with Marianne Lachman, November 1983. He was sitting in his car in the drive-through line at the Jack-In-The-Box at 24th and Market streets when, according to the police report of the incident, a man came up to his car and asked, “Who you gonna vote for?"

The local represents 2000 to 2500 employees, depending on the season, working for about 25 companies, including the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, Hertz and Avis car rentals, several tire companies, and Earl Scheib paint shops. Whitehead had led a reform slate of ten Teamsters who successfully ousted union leaders who had run the local for more than 20 years, and he had been the subject of the usual, maybe more than usual, amount of harassment, intimidation, and threats associated with Teamsters’ elections. So when Will realized it was probably Rodger dead or dying in the garage, he was not thinking suicide.

Marianne Lachman, 1990. Marianne recalls that the union meetings lasted “about seven minutes,” and anybody like Rodger who tried to ask questions was rebuffed.

Marianne Lachman, 1990. Marianne recalls that the union meetings lasted “about seven minutes,” and anybody like Rodger who tried to ask questions was rebuffed.

Will rushed to the side door of the garage. The padlock was missing, and the hasp was open, but the deadbolt was locked. He unlocked it and opened the door. The exhaust fumes seared his eyes and nose. Pulses of blue light flickered down between the spinning blades of the rooftop ventilator into the dark, cluttered garage. But Will could see Rodger’s shape, motionless in the driver’s seat of his blue ’75 Maverick.

Will hit the button for the automatic garage-door opener, but it just strained against the locked hasp. He hurried outside and undid it, then opened the garage door. Water from the Maverick’s overheated radiator was in a spreading pool on the concrete floor. Rodger’s head was tilted onto his right shoulder. Will reached through the open driver’s side window to shake him, and Rodger’s whole body moved. Rigor mortis. He switched off the ignition. “Rodger! Rodger!” he yelled, and shook him again. Finally, Will ran inside the house and dialed 911. “What should I do?” he asked. “Get him outside into the fresh air,” the emergency operator said.

Will tried this, but the car door was so close to the garage clutter he couldn’t pull Rodger out. The paramedics arrived just as he was about to push the car into the driveway. They took one look at the body in the Maverick and then spoke a code word over the radio. They didn’t try to revive him. Rodger Whitehead, 37 years old, was dead. The deputy coroner arrived and judged that by outward appearances and pending autopsy and toxicology tests, Rodger was a suicide.

To say that his friends, family, and colleagues were surprised by Rodger’s death is a gross understatement. “If there was one thing Rodger was concerned about, it was communication,” explains his landlord and friend Will Vukmanic. And yet Rodger left behind no note to explain his suicide. He and his girlfriend, Marianne Lachman, were close friends who were talking about moving back in together; he still owed his best friend Joe Greenberg $100, and Rodger was not the kind of person to blow off a debt. “If he was going to kill himself, he would have made sure I got the hundred bucks,” says Joe. Rodger was not an impulsive person. “Rodger was the kind of person who thought everything through,” his mother explains. “I was anxious to go through his things to see if there was a book on suicide. Rodger would have studied it before he did it. But we found nothing.” All he left behind, other than questions, were a few personal belongings, including a large collection of campaign buttons, $348 in cash, and four money orders in the amounts he owed for his utility and phone bills.

The questions Rodger left behind form a hole from which no light escapes. Rodger was a Quaker who had little use for material things. He didn’t own a television, and when he took over as head of Teamsters Local 481, he had to be browbeaten into taking a yearly salary of $29,500; all he wanted was $25,000, less than half that of his predecessor. Rodger had no bank account, no credit cards, almost no bills. His personal life was not a mess from which he might want to escape. And although Rodger and his slate of reformers were handed a union that was on the verge of bankruptcy, the problems at work weren’t much different from those faced by any new group of local Teamsters officials. In fact, “Things were really starting to go his way,” Will recalls.

When Charles Kelley, the deputy coroner, arrived at the garage, Will told him about Rodger’s affiliation with the Teamsters, about some of the threats Rodger had received, that he had been beaten up about a month before by a person Rodger thought was involved with the Teamsters, and that he might have been under some pressure at work. “As soon as I found out who we were dealing with,” Kelley recalls, “I said, ‘We gotta look at this real close.’ I had grounds to believe that there was a potential for something other than suicide. We looked at that. But we found nothing.”

The coroner’s toxicology study found no alcohol, cocaine, opiates, tranquilizers, or methamphetamine in his blood. During the autopsy, the medical examiner carefully studied Rodger’s throat to determine if he had been choked into unconsciousness before he was placed in the car, but no such evidence was found. Rodger’s eyes were also checked for the small hemorrhages that might indicate he was knocked out by pressure exerted on his carotid artery, but there were none. What the examiner did find was a 95 percent saturation level of carbon monoxide in his blood, leading to her conclusion that Rodger committed suicide. Kelley contacted SDPD homicide investigators, who found no reason to open a criminal investigation.

“If he’d been murdered, somebody would have had to dope him or knock him out,” Kelley theorizes. “But he wasn’t doped, and we found no evidence of a choke hold. I’m not saying it wasn’t a possibility — it may still be a possibility; some guys are really sharp. But just because he didn’t leave a note doesn’t mean it wasn’t suicide. The majority of suicides don’t leave notes.”

Detective Don Strey of the San Diego Police Department’s Missing Persons Unit, which investigates all suicides, says, “I checked out the Teamsters angle, thinking maybe this was a homicide, but my sources say no, there’s nothing there. Most unions get grumbly when there’s a changeover, and some of them are violent. But this was suicide. I’m satisfied in my own mind that one of the major causes was, he took on a burden that was bigger than he thought it was, and he wasn’t prepared to handle the load of work. This, and the radical change in his lifestyle, he decided to take the easy way out and he offed himself.” To which Rodger’s friends reply: spoken like a true bureaucrat who knew nothing about Rodger’s makeup and who just wanted to close a case that was potentially very messy.

The Union

Rich Nageotte met Rodger Whitehead last October, during the campaign leading up to the December 4, 1989, election of officers for Teamsters Local 481. They both worked at Lindbergh Field — Nageotte for Avis, Whitehead for Hertz. Before the campaign started, Nageotte knew of Whitehead only as that guy over at Hertz who had hair down to his waist (usually worn in a ponytail) and who smoked a pipe. “We’d gotten flyers about some people trying to organize and take over the union,” Nageotte recalls. “I was pretty disenchanted with the union myself — the rank and file hated the union management — but at first I thought, this is just another group of people who wanted to rip us off. But other guys went to a meeting and came back and said, ‘Hey, you oughta meet these guys. They’re for real.’ ” Nageotte eventually did meet them and was invited to join the ticket as a candidate for vice president, which he won easily. Then when Rodger died, Nageotte was appointed secretary-treasurer of the local.

Nageotte says that Rodger came along at the perfect time. One man, Willard Kline, had been secretary-treasurer of Local 481 since the 1960s. Kline retired in 1988, and the man named to replace him was William Martin, the local’s business agent in the ’60s, later appointed to a union officer’s post. Martin’s longtime crony Patrick Rossi was appointed president, which is second in command. For almost 20 years, these three men ran the union and never faced opposition inflections. These “white ballot” elections, in which only the incumbents’ names appeared, were held every three years. They paid themselves more than $50,000 a year apiece and were perceived by the union members as do-nothing toadies for company management. Nearly everyone complained about the weak labor contracts the local negotiated for them, but the rank and file either didn’t know or didn’t care that it might be possible to unseat the union leaders. Then Rodger Whitehead came along.

Whitehead had been a political activist all his life. He’d become a Quaker at Richmond High School (class of ’71) in Richmond, Indiana, because the Quakers were nonviolent and opposed the Vietnam war. He’d been arrested and jailed for participating in a war protest on the lawn of the White House. He’d attended every Democratic national convention since 1968. When he and his girlfriend, Marianne Lachman, came to San Diego in 1984, they proceeded to canvass for votes for a series of causes, including the nuclear freeze and various environmental initiatives. One thing Rodger learned over the years was how to run a campaign.

He took the job at Hertz after Marianne started working at Battered Women’s Services. Soon afterward, he began studying the history of organized labor and attending the once-a-month union meetings, and he became union shop steward at Hertz. Marianne recalls that the union meetings lasted “about seven minutes,” and anybody like Rodger who tried to ask questions was rebuffed. It took him weeks just to extract a copy of the local’s bylaws from the local’s management. Rodger was a personable guy, and people gravitated to him because of his growing knowledge of union rules. It was easy for him to come to understand how widespread was the disaffection within the membership of Local 481.

Union members found that most of their labor grievances were going nowhere. Rodger’s friend Joe Greenberg, who also worked at Hertz, says that if you had a problem at work, “The union management found out about it before you even went to them. I had a problem one time, and Rossi called me out of the blue and said, ‘Your boss is upset with you, but don’t worry, I took care of it.’ It was bizarre.” When Rodger became a problem to the union management by asking too many questions, Hertz changed his work schedule so that he had to punch in at 7:30 every evening. The monthly union meetings began at 7 p.m.

What really set the whole union management debacle into motion was the drug bust at the San Diego Zoo in December 1988. After a four-month undercover investigation, dozens of zoo employees, many of them Teamsters, were detained and searched. The zoo disciplined 39 employees for various offenses, including 19 who were fired. When the employees appealed to the Teamsters for help, “The union told everybody to plead guilty and forget about it,” recalls Randy Reiss, a Hertz employee who worked on Rodger’s campaign. Ultimately, the union did act to get five of the firings overturned; but some of the zoo employees who retained attorneys were told that they actually might have a better case against their own union for nonrepresentation than they would against the zoo.

While Rodger was beginning to organize some opposition to run against Martin, Rossi, et al., he joined a nationwide dissident group within the union, known as the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Membership rolls in this group are held in secrecy, but Rodger openly declared himself a member. Since the group was begun in 1976, scores of reform-minded Teamsters locals around the country have elected TDU members to office.

The purpose of TDU is to “democratize the Teamsters and get it back to unionism,” explains Ken Paff, a TDU national organizer based in Detroit. He declares, “The reason we exist is, we charge the whole setup was rigged” to perpetuate the leadership of corrupt union officials. The TDU is despised by the Teamsters’ old guard, in part because the TDU intervened in the racketeering case the federal government brought against the Teamsters international union in June 1988 and helped force the Teamsters to agree to a first-ever election of the top leadership by the 1.6 million members of the union. In the past, the international’s officers were voted on by delegates from each Teamsters local, but the rank and file had no say in who the delegates would be. Those jobs went automatically to a local’s officers. Now, however, delegates are elected by the rank and file and must declare which international candidates they support before that election.

The government had charged that the Brotherhood of Teamsters had been more or less taken over by the Mafia, and prosecutors wanted to put the union into the hands of a trustee. “But the Rodger Whiteheads of the union stood up,” Paff says. “We didn’t want receivership, we wanted the right to vote for our own leaders.” The case was settled on March 14, 1989. The election of the international’s officers is set for December 1991.

Whitehead’s affiliation with TDU, combined with his long hair, persistent manner, and obvious popularity among the rank and file, did not endear him to Local 481’s management. Rodger had vowed not to cut his hair until Ronald Reagan left office, but the election of George Bush wasn’t enough of a change, so he kept the hair. But last August, after he decided to run for secretary-treasurer, he decided the long hair had to go.

This still didn’t stop the charges of “commie,” “druggie,” and “homosexual” from being thrown at him by loyalists to Rossi and Martin. And he received telephoned threats every week. Randy Reiss heard one of them, which was left on Rodger’s telephone answering machine. “It went something like, ‘Give up the campaign, because if you win, you’ll never take office,’ ” Reiss reports. Will Vukmanic, Rodger’s landlord, says the tires on Rodger’s motorcycle were slashed several times. Reiss tried to get Rodger to report the threats and intimidation to the police, but he refused. “He said, ‘Hey, this is the Teamsters. They pull shit like this. You gotta take it in stride,’ ” Reiss relates. “Rodger thought it was just some idiot.”

When the election took place on December 4, the only surprise was the margin of victory for the reform slate. Whitehead beat Martin 390 to 257. The margin for the rest of the slate was even larger. The winners were elated, until they took office on January 2 this year.

The new officers discovered that the old officers acted in predictable Teamsters fashion: they left the local’s bank accounts nearly empty. On December 29, Martin and Rossi had checks cut for themselves totaling about $29,000, money they claimed was accrued vacation pay for the years 1974 to 1986. There wasn’t enough in the accounts to cover what they said they were owed in vacation pay for the years 1986 to 1989. Two days after leaving office they filed claims for this money, about $35,000, with the California Labor Commission. “The perception was, they were trying to bankrupt the union,” says Randy Reiss. But after hearings this spring, the commission upheld the claims.

When Rodger and his cohorts took office, Local 481’s bank balance was about $5000. The longtime bookkeeper who ran the office quit when Martin and Rossi left and didn’t train a replacement. In the files, they found receipts for $250 lunches at Lubach’s. A tall stack of grievances had piled up. And the new officers discovered that the local, which collected about $40,000 a month in dues, had no tangible assets. It didn’t even own the building it occupied on Adams Avenue. Rodger, who had quit his job at Hertz in late December, decided to forgo his salary for the first month so the union coffers might be built up more quickly. He asked Will to give him ten extra days to pay his rent, and he borrowed $100 from Joe Greenberg.

Rodger reacted to this turn of events in a manner that was considered natural by those around him. “Rodger was distressed and felt inadequate and expressed his feeling of inadequacy,” explains Rich Nageotte. “He had ambitious plans, like steward training and other things, that he wasn’t going to be able to do right away because of the financial situation. But he wasn’t despondent. He wasn’t reacting differently from the way other people would have.”

In January, Rodger contacted Tom Bernard, a Teamsters business agent in Denver, soliciting him to come out and work at 481. Bernard has worked for three newly elected secretary-treasurers, “and the situation here wasn’t new,” he says. “But I hadn’t seen a local whose finances were bled this badly.” Still, the feeling of inadequacy felt by new union leaders is common, according to Bernard. Before he moved from Denver, he spent time talking with Rodger. “I wouldn’t have come to work here for anybody I thought would be a quitter,” he declares. “Rodger was committed to principle, the kind of person I could depend on, and I liked his ideas.” All of his friends said the same thing in different ways: Rodger was stubborn, persistent, not a quitter.

But Rodger may have experienced some vertigo when he first took office. After several months of high-intensity campaigning, with a lot of people around him, suddenly he found himself isolated in an office with just one other person. “He came in right at the top, didn’t have a real good chance to see what he was in for,” says Nageotte. “During the campaign we met together a lot, then when he finally got into office, people went back to their families and regular jobs. He didn’t have that reinforcement. In Rodgfer’s mind, it was all of us working together to be elected. For the rest of us, we were working to get him elected.”

He may also have been frustrated because of his leadership style. A naturally timid person, Rodger wasn’t given to making quick decisions about anything. “He was a Quaker. He was into consensus decision making,” says Bernard. “He went to extremes in trying to get everyone involved in even minor decisions. It made things real cumbersome.” If he did kill himself, it was an uncharacteristically decisive act for him.

At the same time, as always happens when a new regime takes over a local, there were high expectations among the rank and file. Ten union contracts with various companies were due to expire in the first six months of the year, but Rodger had no experience in negotiating contracts. There was an increase in grievances that people probably had held off filing under the old union bosses, because they felt it was futile. Criticism began to filter up. Rodger started calling his mother at odd hours, talking about a “whispering campaign” against him. He wanted to computerize the office, but there wasn’t enough money, so he had to operate with the same antiquated system he had campaigned against. The newly elected executive commitee of Local 481 had even talked about having to raise dues, which filled Rodger with trepidation. “And Rodger didn’t even trust banks — here’s a guy responsible for thousands and thousands of dollars who doesn’t have a checking account and pays his bills with money orders every month,” Nageotte observes. “We were just trying to keep our heads above water, for no money, and the reality of the situation set in fast. It’s easy to see how a guy could get overwhelmed.”

Even though he may have felt as if walls were pressing in on him, suicide still doesn’t make sense to his friends. The day before Rodger died, the union had won a small victory by getting a continuance on the vacation pay issue in a hearing before the state labor commission. Early that same evening, he had gone to a dinner meeting attended by many other Teamsters secretary-treasurers from West Coast locals. Tom Bernard walked with him to his car as Rodger headed for the meeting, and he seemed “in good spirits.” Joe Greenberg talked to one of the men who was with Rodger at the dinner, who reported Rodger to be in a jovial mood.

Rodger called Joe Greenberg that same night, a little after eight. He and Joe often grabbed a pizza and watched a video at Joe’s place, and Joe had called him earlier in the day inviting him over. Rodger had said he was too busy. But Greenberg recalls, “He called that night and said, ‘Is it too late to come over and watch a movie?’!’ It was. Greenberg had to get up at 4:00 a.m. to go to work. Rodger apologized for being short on the phone earlier in the day.

“No big deal,” Greenberg rejoined. “Let’s get together later in the week.”

“Okay, I’ll look forward to that,” Rodger replied. That was the last time Greenberg talked to his friend.

Rodger also called another friend, Jim Joiner, the night before he died. Joiner, a senior bear-keeper at the zoo, had been elected to the union’s board of directors on the reform ticket. “He called me a little after nine that night and apologized for calling so late,” Joiner says. “He was just touching base on the hearing that was held that day. He said that the continuance gave us a chance to come up with more material to fight those guys.”

Rodger’s death the next day was “a total shock” to Joiner. Like most of Rodger’s friends, Joiner thinks the police should have investigated it more fully or at least talked with the union officials who worked with Rodger up to the time of his death. “Rodger loved to talk on the phone, loved to leave long messages and notes. He had a beautiful speaking voice and was very eloquent in words. Why wouldn’t he leave some kind of note?”

Rodger had Christmas dinner at Joiner’s house and had become good friends with the military retiree. “He was such a gentle person. He apologized to me. He knew I was retired military, and here he was a draft protester. I said, ‘We’re not running on a draft protest; as long as you don’t burn a flag in front of me, we’ll get along fine.’ ” Joiner might not have known that Rodger was also a war tax protester who never filed a federal tax return. Will Vukmanic filled out his W-4 form for him, on which Rodger insisted that no exemptions be listed. Will told him, after computing his state taxes for him, that he was probably due about a thousand dollars from the feds, but Rodger refused to file for it. This tax issue was the one skeleton Rodger thought might be used against him as a candidate or later as the head of the union. Will says Rodger was prepared to resign if the question was ever raised.

Although suicide doesn’t make sense to him, Joiner has a theory about what might have caused Rodger to kill himself. “He realized he was in over his head,” Joiner speculates, “and he didn’t want to go before his board and quit. That’s the only thing I can come up with. Maybe he was too embarrassed to come back to us and say, ‘Guys, I just can’t handle it....’”

The Girlfriend

Marianne Lachman recently graduated from law school and is now awaiting the results of her bar exam. Shortly after Rodger’s death, she decided she would try to use her training as a lawyer to begin an official investigation into the case. She believes Rodger was murdered. “This whole thing was so uncharacteristic of him,” she insists. “He was a fighter. His dignity as a person mattered to him more than almost anything else.” She rifles through the dozens of cards, letters, and notes Rodger wrote to her over the years. “He was so in love with me,” she remarks, fighting back tears, “and we were on the verge of getting back together. He wouldn’t have done this without leaving me a note.”

Marianne and Rodger first met in 1981 in New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they both worked for the League of Conservation Voters. They ran campaigns for independent candidates, operated phone banks, conducted door-to-door canvassing operations. In 1984 the league didn’t have an office in San Diego but decided to set up a temporary “parachute campaign” here in support of Roger Hedgecock in his runoff election against Maureen O’Connor. Marianne was asked to go to California and run the campaign. When she returned to New Jersey, she persuaded Rodger to come out to San Diego. “Rodger was an expert in canvassing, which is a high-burnout, high-turnover job,” Marianne explains. “His goal was to reform canvassing into a profession, so people could do it for years and make a living at it, so all kinds of community organizing could be done.” After taking a six-week, cross-country train trip to San Diego, their plan was to stay here for a short time and then move to Oregon, which was more friendly territory for liberal activists. But Marianne began a job counseling battered women, and Rodger took a liking to the city. One day when he was out registering voters for the Democratic Party, he ran into a woman who told him there were jobs at Hertz’s Lindbergh Field office. He started there as a vehicle transporter, moving cars. He later got a job as a garage man, making about $22,000 a year.

Rodger and Marianne broke up in 1987 but remained close. She loved his sense of humor (friends say he did a killer Groucho Marx imitation) and his commitment to equality and justice. “There was a spiritualness about him. He tried to practice the Quaker principles of love and understanding with every person he met.” She is convinced that he was killed either because he, along with Tom Bernard, represented a dangerous trend in the democratization of Teamsters locals in California (Bernard had sued the Teamsters for, among other things, taking a contract out on his life) or because he discovered something about the union that he was going to expose.

Marianne finds particular significance in the fact that Rodger was beaten up four blocks from home on January 31 of this year. He was sitting in his car in the drive-through line at the Jack-In-The-Box at 24th and Market streets when, according to the police report of the incident, a man came up to his car and asked, “Who you gonna vote for? You know who you’re gonna vote for, don’t you?” Rodger assumed the man was talking about the upcoming intra-union election for the head of a Teamsters regional body called the joint council. Before Rodger could answer, the man punched him in the mouth, grabbed his necktie, and pulled his keys out of the ignition. Rodger rolled up his window and squeezed the man’s arm until he dropped the keys and ran.

When he got home, Will saw his bloody face and noticed that his necktie had been torn in two. “The knot was left hanging around his neck, but the rest of the tie had been torn off at the seam,” Will remembers. “Do you know how hard the guy had to pull in order to tear the tie in half like that?”

Shortly thereafter, Rodger asked Marianne to go shopping with him. He was colorblind and needed help to match his clothes. Marianne laughed when he said he wanted to buy clip-on neckties. He didn’t tell her why he wanted them. She found out about the beating incident several weeks later.

Another reason Marianne is extremely suspicious of the coroner’s declaration of suicide is the shoulder bag. Rodger’s friends say he and the bag were inseparable. He even took it with him into movie theaters. It was stuffed with notes, tapes, pamphlets, magazines, boycott lists, granola, Kleenex, manuscripts, his personal phone book, anything that was important to him. But after Rodger died, the bag was found empty in the trunk of his car. Also, a valise that he used was found empty on the seat beside him. What happened to his personal papers?

Marianne claims that Rodger never put his shoulder bag in the trunk of his car, and Will Vukmanic confirms this. One explanation for the disappearance of the material he most identified with is that Rodger, in setting ready to kill himself, also decided to destroy the contents of the bag precisely because they were a representation of himself. That Wednesday was the day the garbage men came through Sherman Heights. Perhaps Rodger made sure they took away that cherished part of himself. But why would he not also throw away the bag itself? Marianne speculates that “Rodger found out something that was going on, and that’s why they killed him. And maybe he had something in that bag that was incriminating to somebody.”

It’s true that Rodger was habitually conducting a kind of intelligence gathering. One section of his bedroom was given over to the audio tapes he made of his conversations with a variety of people, using a tape recorder hidden in his shirt. Will says he heard some snippets of these tapes, “And you couldn’t believe some of the stuff he had on people. People at work, supervisors, yelling and screaming at him, and he’d just nod and smile, because he was taping all of this. He taped everything, because if people came up to him and wanted to talk about grievances, he wanted to know exactly what they had said. We’d been talking about cataloguing some of this stuff just before he died.”

The Mother

Joanne Sipe, Rodger’s mother, has all those tapes now, as well as Rodger’s huge collection of campaign buttons. She also has the tie that was torn from his neck. Over the phone from her home in Richmond, Indiana, she said that she’s been going through the dozens of tapes trying to find some clue to his death. So far all she’s come across is an angry male voice saying he’d been “fucked” by the union and going on and on about how screwed up the union was. It sounds like a threat to her.

Mrs. Sipe says, “We’ve just had very mixed feelings. Rodger wasn’t the suicidal type. His two sisters — a sister and a stepsister — can’t believe he killed himself. And you know how sisters study out brothers.” Rodger’s mother finds it curious that nothing unusual was found in Rodger’s blood or his organs, given the fact that he had called in sick to his office the day he died and had vomited while he was on the telephone. “He was sick all night and day before he died. I smelled the vomit near his chair when I got out there. But the pathologist’s report found nothing. They tested his stomach, and there was nothing to indicate he’d been ill.”

Mrs. Sipe says she talked to her son many times during the campaign and after he took office. He was extremely excited that he’d won, and even when he told her that the previous union leadership had left very little money in the accounts, “he didn’t seem under pressure when I talked to him. We’ve wondered if he realized what he was going to face when he got elected. But Rodger wasn’t naive, and he’d had to work long hours in stressful situations before. He knew how things worked.” He did seem to be hurt by the “whispering campaign,” his mother recalls. “He said they called him a druggie and a homosexual. He was perturbed about it. He was sensitive to criticism, and he never liked people to talk about anybody behind their back. He felt sorry for people. But I can’t believe that he’d commit suicide because people were criticizing him. I don’t understand this. I guess I’ll take it to the grave with me.”

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