“I’ve just never heard of cars being bombed in St. Louis, that’s all.”
Jonathan Franzen, The Twenty-seventh City
Other than being attorneys who parked their all but identical, dark metallic gray Acura TLs one floor apart in the Carondelet Plaza garage in Clayton, Missouri, Richard “Rick” Eisen and John Gillis had little to nothing in common and had never met as of October 16, 2008. At about 11:15 that morning, a bomb exploded in the garage, seriously injuring Gillis. The bomb had been meant for Eisen, who at the time was in Chicago with his wife, belatedly celebrating their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. He was not parked that day in the garage.
In the days, weeks, and months after Gillis’s injuries, which he survived, he and Eisen would become aware of each other. How did each of them feel when he realized that the bomb had detonated on the unintended victim? Few of us would ever chance to reflect on such a situation, not that we would ever want to. But given that both Gillis and Eisen had endured such an extraordinary event, how did they look back on it after several years had passed, allowing time for Gillis to heal physically and for both at least to begin recovering emotionally? This question prompted me to call John Gillis one day and ask if he would grant me an interview about his experience. To my surprise, he agreed.
Shortly thereafter, I met Gillis and his wife, Nicki, in their Clayton condominium, which adjoins the parking garage. I broached the subject of the explosion as anyone would—as a trauma that would likely cause the survivor anxiety just to remember, much less to discuss. But Gillis quickly overturned my expectations. When I began with the apologetic phrasing, “I know this is difficult for you . . .,” he interrupted me—politely—with, “You know, surprisingly, it’s not difficult for me.”
“How can that be?” I asked.
“You tell me,” he replied.
“Don’t you think it was unfair that you were in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
“I don’t think of it in those terms. I think it was unfortunate. To me, it was an accident.” “I’m not traumatized,” he adds. He thinks of himself as “an unlucky, collateral damage guy.”
While his claim to not being traumatized by the explosion at first strains believability, it picks up credence as he tells his story. Gillis, a naturally level-headed man, is so calm as he narrates that he could be speaking of someone else. He is tall, lanky, and reserved, but open and gentle. Nicki, perhaps half his height, is his complement: outgoing and energetic.
Gillis, now 79 and retired from the Armstrong Teasdale law office in St. Louis, was 69 when he approached his car and saw celebratory helium balloons hovering over the gift basket. “I looked at it for a minute and thought ‘what in the world is this?’” says Gillis. “And then I decided it must be something the guy who parked next to me left there by accident.” He picked it up to move it. “The explosion blew me back into the driving lanes of the garage,” he remembers. “And I was covered with burning gasoline.”
“I was trying to figure out how I was going to put the fire out,” he continues. Rolling on the concrete floor wasn’t going to help. But the fire was intense enough to set off the garage’s powerful sprinkler system. “Isn’t that amazing?” interjects Nicki. That was one of two flukes that saved his life. The other was the failure of a second bundle of nail shrapnel to disperse when the bomb went off. It would probably have killed him had it scattered as planned. “I was very lucky,” Gillis insists.
Suddenly, “somebody came out of a stairwell,” says Gillis. “I’d love to know who it was.” The man was likely Steve Murphy, an attorney with the firm Devereux Murphy, who Gillis, on his way to his car, had noticed was parked several cars down. Gillis had called upon Murphy for help immediately following the explosion and recalls that Murphy left the scene, probably to get help, and then, according to Murphy’s own testimony, returned and asked Gillis if he could walk. “I told him I probably could, but I couldn’t get up,” recalls Gillis. “I couldn’t use my hands. They were, really, gone.” Once standing and moving out of the parking area down to the building’s lobby, he felt embarrassed about bleeding on the floor. “It’s funny the things you think at a time like that.”
The emergency squad on its way, Gillis addressed the group surrounding him, “Please, somebody call my wife,” and he recited the phone number. Someone responded, “She’s not gonna have time to get here,” to which Gillis replied, “No, we live right here, please call her.” Nicki arrived just as the ambulance did. “I may have been more traumatized than John,” she says. “To see him like that . . . he was pretty awful looking.” Glancing over at her husband now, she says, “I think we knew quickly that you were going to be okay, but I think the whole experience was traumatic. . . . I mean,” she looks over at me, “you can understand.”
All occupants of the Carondelet Plaza office building, as well as of the nearby Ritz Carlton Hotel, felt the physical shock. The buildings were evacuated as office workers and hotel employees sat on the surrounding grassy spaces, in the autumn sun, awaiting word of what had happened and wondering when they would return to their routines.
When Gillis awoke, his hospital bed was flanked by two ATF agents who took turns prodding him to stay conscious and answer questions. “I was really groggy,” he says. His status as a VOV, “victim of violence,” meant that he could be visited by only immediate family. Nicki recalls with amusement what a distant relative of hers was told when he went to the hospital to pay John a visit. The receptionist looked at some papers and told him, “Well, they’re not here, and you’re not on the list.”
The first question everyone asked Gillis was, of course, whether he could think of anyone who might have motive to hurt him, a question that, however essential, he couldn’t afford to contemplate. “I was injured,” he says. “I was hurt. I wasn’t really thinking, ‘Is somebody out to get me?’ I was thinking, ‘How am I going to get through this?’” But when federal agents probed into whether he had any enemies, he says, “I couldn’t think of anybody who’d want to do that.”
Nicki recalls that all of St. Louis was shocked at the news—“blown away,” she says, then adds, “Don’t use that one!” Almost immediately, “People really rallied.” The Gillises have a wide social network in the city, owing partly to their belonging to two different congregations, representing two different faiths. John is Catholic; Nicki, reared Presbyterian, is now Episcopalian. In one of many coincidences that characterize this larger narrative, John once chaired the board of directors at the Aquinas Institute—a school founded by Dominicans—where Nicki received her training as a spiritual director.
Today, the fire’s toll might not be noticed on Gillis’s face and hands unless the observer knew to look for it. But during his initial hospital stay, which lasted two and half weeks, he was in a bad way. During that time, he received his first series of skin grafts. “The most intense pain I remember,” he says, was at the site of a skin graft taken from his right thigh for use on his hands and forehead. When his dressing was changed, he says, “I was trying not to yell, but I couldn’t help it.” The inside of his throat had been so badly burned from inhaling hot gas that he couldn’t speak. No one knew at first whether he would recover his voice, but in about a month, he estimates, he did. Neither he nor Nicki hears a difference in the way he sounds today. He had no recollection of injury to his right leg until the U. S. Attorney heading the prosecution, Carrie Costantin, showed him pictures of the “little tattoos” where small bits of debris had induced bleeding. “My ears were burned down to cartilage, and they came back,” he says. “My hair and eyebrows were pretty much gone, and they came back. We’re resilient animals.”
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While Gillis was laboring to survive the explosion, Rick Eisen and his wife, Marci, were at a taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago. The subject was severely neglected children, hardly the appropriate choice for their anniversary celebration. “It was horrible,” Eisen recalls.
I met Eisen in his office—Growe, Eisen, Karlen—in downtown St. Louis, to listen to his version of the story. This interview was very different from speaking with the Gillises in their Clayton living room. Eisen was polite, but guarded. He declined my request to record the conversation, and, in narrating, he privileged spare facts over color. Even so, a human tale laced with peril unfolded as he recounted his experience.
Eisen’s peculiar doubling with Gillis emerges even in his choice of words for what happened when he returned to his hotel that Thursday at about 5:00. “My phone was literally blowing up,” he says. Eisen at the time was working with the Husch Blackwell Sanders law firm and parking in the Carondolet Plaza garage next door. His friends, aware of where his office was located, were calling to make sure he was alright.
During the rest of that weekend, while Eisen and Marci remained in Chicago, investigators were speaking with everyone in the office building. A team of about 50 personnel, including AFT, FBI, and local law enforcers, assembled in the Ritz Carlton, just a few doors down from the parking garage, to investigate what they feared was a terrorist act.
But within a few days of the bombing, FBI agents, who were already searching Milton “Skip” Ohlsen’s residence in connection with felony gun possession, mortgage fraud, and other suspected violations, saw evidence of Ohlsen’s animus toward Eisen, who had represented Ohlsen’s ex-wife, Michelle, in her divorce proceedings. They found, in addition to evidence of the other suspected crimes, a hit list of sorts, including Eisen; Michelle, Ohlsen’s ex-wife; Joel Hollenbeck, the ex-husband of Ohlsen’s current girlfriend, Kimberlee Hawley; and Paul McElligott, an enemy Ohlsen had made by mistreating Paul’s brother, Pete. According to an application for a follow-up search warrant, the investigative team also observed “police-type gear, including clothing, an EMT badge, police belt with a holster and handcuffs, a smoke grenade, a bullet proof vest, and radios.” FBI agent James Glynn described Ohslen to me as a “policeman wannabe.”
On the Monday following the bombing, agents from the ATF, the FBI, and the St. Louis County Police Department approached Eisen to ask whether he knew Skip Ohlsen. Then they went to examine his car. When an ATF agent saw its resemblance to Gillis’s, he said to Eisen, “You need to have a conversation with your wife.” Says Eisen, “That’s when I believed it was really serious,” although, he adds he felt “a little bit of disbelief.” Ohlsen was, at this point, not in custody.
Marci, for her part, “was very concerned,” more so than Eisen. He believes her background as a social worker accounts for her viewing the situation differently. Their house in Chesterfield, situated on a half-acre, had an open back yard shared with three or four others. They hired a rent-a-cop to watch their home for 24 hours a day over 10 days’ time. Eisen started varying his daily routine and nabbed his son’s car, which was left at home because, as a first-year student at college, he wasn’t allowed a vehicle on campus.
Because the security guard was hidden a few houses away, the Eisens’ daughter, Abby, who was still living at home, remained unaware of the family’s situation. Eisen remarks about his children, “We made a conscious decision not to tell them any details.” They did, however, set some ground rules. They instructed Abby not to touch any package that was left outside the house. Although usually curious and inquiring, she accepted the mandate without question. She must have sensed some urgency.
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Just why Eisen became Ohlsen’s target in the garage bombing isn’t clear. “I wish I knew the answer to that,” he responds when I ask him, “Why you?” Although Eisen adds, “I sensed he didn’t like me,” likelier candidates might have been Joel Hollenbeck and Paul McElligott, who, by the time of the bombing, had each rained bile on Ohlsen through independent web sites set up for the purpose of exposing him and tarnishing his public image.
Hollenbeck’s motive was self-protection. Ohlsen once phoned him, he told me, and “essentially said he was going to take everything away from me.” Subsequently, Ohlsen had tried to frame him repeatedly for drug possession and for abducting a woman and a child who turned out to be Hollenbeck’s own mother and daughter. Fearing for his daughter’s welfare during visitations with her mother, Kim Hawley—Ohlsen’s girlfriend—Hollenbeck filed for one temporary restraining order to keep Ohlsen away from himself and another to prevent Hawley from exposing his daughter to Ohlsen.
Although the web site through which Hollenbeck published accurate facts about Ohlsen’s criminal past may have fueled Ohlsen’s escalating wrath, Hollenbeck saw it as another way to protect himself. “I was going to do everything [I could] in my interest and my daughter’s interest,” Hollenbeck says. “I couldn’t run, so I made it clear that I wasn’t going to back down from him.” When federal agents searched Ohlsen’s residence in connection with the garage bombing, they found evidence, including fake ids in Hollenbeck’s name, that Ohlsen may have been trying to frame Hollenbeck for that crime, too.
Paul McElligott, who has long been aware of Hollenbeck but has never met him, maintained a separate, independent web site dedicated to exposing his view of Ohlsen’s sketchy past and questionable character. McElligott, worthy of a profile all his own, defies a thumbnail sketch. Under the screen name “kracker,” McElligott linked broadcasts about Ohlsen on MySpace to Hollenbeck’s anti-Ohlsen site and added elaboration, including a warning to prospective employees for a business involving mixed martial arts that Ohlsen was trying to start. McElligott told me his motive for his attacks was Ohlsen’s failure to pay his younger brother, Pete, wages he was owed. Pete and Ohlsen had once been best friends, but they fell out over the matter of the money, which Pete views as symptomatic of myriad stresses on Ohlsen that were causing him to unravel. “Things got ugly” for Ohlsen, says Pete, as a result of his divorce and loss of child custody, his failing business and personal debt, the discovery of a stolen gun in his car when he was stopped for speeding, and possibly drug abuse.
Paul McElligott has long ridiculed Ohlsen’s smarminess and haplessness. When I ask other people who have known him first-hand what Ohlsen’s like, they often comment on his good looks, slight physique, and smooth demeanor. But they usually quickly add something about his conceitedness and ineptness. U. S. Attorney Carrie Costantin, who prosecuted the garage bombing, refers to Ohlsen ironically as “secret agent man,” alluding to his attraction to intrigue that’s actually over his head. “He likes to be important,” she says. “He likes to think he knows more than anyone.” Rumors of Ohlsen’s past as a CI (confidential informant) would seem to play in to such fantasies, but Costantin told me that, although she is familiar with the rumors, she’s never seen them validated. Although Ohlsen’s been known to fool some people some of the time, and although the danger he’s posed to people like Gillis and Eisen is considerable, he eventually tends toward incompetence in nearly any situation. In the case of the garage bombing, he evidently failed to look at the license plate of Gillis’s Acura before targeting it as though it belonged to Eisen.
Ohlsen’s selective obliviousness may run in the family. While I was in the midst of interviewing people involved in this story, I received a call one afternoon from Skip’s father, Milton H. Ohlsen II. He was checking in to be sure I understood the truth about his son. I had come across indications in my research of the elder Ohlsen’s having changed careers repeatedly, most recently to the ministry, and of his inconsistent contributions to the cause of Skip’s legal representation. In some instances, the younger Ohlsen seemed to have a team of the region’s best attorneys. In other cases, Skip was represented by a public defender.
On this particular day, the father was ready to defend his offspring to me. When he ventured, “You know he’s innocent, don’t you?” I responded, “But he’s been convicted.”
“He was set up.
“Why would that be?”
“The FBI planted evidence.”
“Can you be more specific?”
The conversation took a sharp turn in another direction as I did my best to extricate myself from it.
Milton Ohlsen had the itch to call me because Skip had let his father know I’d been trying to reach him in prison to ask him for an interview. Whether the father was vetting me at Skip’s request or independently, vetting me he was. Skip and I continued an email correspondence through Corr Links for months after the call from his father. He led me to believe he’d welcome me as a visitor at McCreary Federal Prison in Kentucky, and later—after he was moved to the Williamsburg Federal Correctional Institution in Salters, South Carolina, because of mysterious threats to his wellbeing—he kept up the same impression. But he eventually disappeared from my view, leaving me with a taste of his elusiveness and the bravado whose flimsiness his father’s protectiveness had exposed.
Many who knew Ohlsen before he went to prison had previewed these and similar traits to me as reasons for distrusting and disliking him. When I ask Paul why he hates Ohlsen so intensely for behavior that Pete isn’t nearly as exercised about, he responds, “I don’t hate anyone. I despise people, but I don’t hate them.” That said, he appears to have a general contempt for Ohlsen. “I knew right out of the gate that he was a scumbag,” he says. “It was just a vibe.” He also seems to resent Ohlsen’s looking down on him. At one point, when Paul confronted Ohlsen face-to-face about Pete’s back wages, Paul says, “He laughed at me. That’s what set me over the edge. He laughed at me.”
Paul’s continuing disparagement of Ohlsen on Pete’s behalf is even more puzzling in view of the brothers’ estrangement from one another. The way Pete tells it, he was alienated from his brother when, on April Fool’s Day one year, Paul called him and pretended to be having a heart attack. Paul, nevertheless, remains protective of Pete. “He’s a good kid,” says Paul, who now lives in Columbus. “We don’t see eye to eye.”
Ohlsen filed for a temporary restraining order against both Hollenbeck’s and McElligott’s web publications. He also sued them for a total of nine counts, including libel and civil conspiracy, and sought millions of dollars in damages. The suit was eventually dismissed.
Despite Ohlsen’s animus toward Hollenbeck and McElligott, he nevertheless unleashed his violence on Eisen. And when I asked all three if they were surprised at the violence, they all said “yes.” They hadn’t seen it coming. “I did my job,” says Eisen in reference to representing Michelle Ohlsen in the divorce proceedings. “I didn’t represent Michelle any differently than I had anyone else. It was just a little more complicated.” That complication had mainly to do with Ohlsen’s passive-aggressive, uncooperative actions on the path to making the divorce final.
At a deposition in March of 2008, Ohlsen had been largely nonresponsive. “I’d ask him a question,” recalls Eisen, “and he’d ask me a question back.” Eisen believes that “he viewed it as a game.” The deposition paused repeatedly while Ohlsen’s lawyer consulted with him. Finally, they rescheduled the deposition for the following week, at which time Ohlsen didn’t materialize. The night before, he’d been arrested for speeding in Ladue, a posh suburb. He was discovered to have a series of unpaid parking tickets, but far more problematic, he had a Glock pistol in his car. It was reported stolen, and, Ohlsen, a convicted felon, was committing a felony by merely possessing it.
Ohlsen’s criminal record, dating to the 1990s, was part of what Hollenbeck and McElligott were striving to make public online. It had gone undetected during the years 2004 to 2006, when Ohlsen had enjoyed life as an inward of some Missouri politicians, including Lieutenant Governor Joe Maxwell, Governor Bob Holden, and Missouri State Senator Maida Coleman, who once paid him $12,000 in consultation fees. He worked on campaigns, hobnobbed, and looked for opportunities to ingratiate himself. In 2004, after failed attempts to attach himself to Jeff Smith’s run for U. S. Congress in the Democratic primary, Smith’s campaign finally engaged him as a third-party participant. His mishandling of a postcard denouncing the poor track record of Smith’s opponent Russ Carnahan resulted in a complaint to the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against Smith for two campaign violations.
That Ohlsen collaborated with members of Smith’s campaign in covering up the violations was the least of his worries. In addition to having been convicted for felony drug possession in 1996, by 2008, when the bombing occurred, he had been brought to the FBI’s attention by Michelle Ohlsen, who, having long since accused Ohlsen of domestic abuse, continued to feel endangered by him. Believing he was stalking her, she had summoned FBI agent James Glynn to her home through a mutual friend. When Glynn visited her on 6 October 2008, ten days before the bombing, she produced plentiful evidence of Ohlsen’s white-collar crimes and referred to an audio tape of Ohlsen’s attempt to strangle her.
She also handed over numerous recordings of his interactions with others, some of them illegal. He was apparently obsessed with recording any and all of his conversations, including those with a supporter of Jeff Smith’s about covering up the campaign violations from the FEC. On the basis of that evidence, the investigation into those violations would be reopened, except now the FBI would be involved in what had become a felony—a case of conspiracy obstruction of justice among Smith and others. The law had caught up with Ohlsen and those with whom he’d collaborated.
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Still intrigued by how John Gillis could have escaped trauma from such severe injury, I ask him if anything had ever traumatized him. “I don’t remember anything really traumatizing me,” he answers. He sees himself as a problem-solver. If he’s on fire with nothing but concrete in sight, for example, he’ll ask himself how he’s going to put out the fire, rather than panic at being on fire. “I think I would be much more traumatized had this happened to Nicki,” he says. Nicki adds, “He handles everything pretty evenly.” When I follow up by asking whether his religious faith might contribute to his balance, he says he thought that might be true, at least as it operates in the background of his personality.
His acceptance of his fate seems complete, a closed chapter. It even extends to a kind of gratitude for being in his position, rather than Rick Eisen’s. “I think it would be harder for me if Rick Eisen had been bombed by someone trying to get me,” he says. Eventually, the two of them talked. Eisen explains that, for months after the bombing, “I was advised not to say a word to anybody, by law enforcement. So I did not.” But sometime in 2009, an article about Ohlsen appeared in the Post-Dispatch that seemed to clear the way for the two men to communicate. That was when Eisen called Gillis. “We had a very nice conversation,” recalls Eisen. When he apologized for what Gillis had been through, Gillis echoed Eisen himself, “Rick, you’re just doing what you’re supposed to do as a lawyer. There’s absolutely no need to apologize.”
At Ohlsen’s plea hearing in September, 2012, the two lawyers finally met face-to-face, first, with their wives present, in a closed meeting with U. S. Attorney Carrie Costantin. At the hearing, Ohlsen, who originally pled not guilty to charges related to the bombing, changed his plea as a result of negotiations with Costantin. In exchange for a guilty plea, he would serve 20 years in federal penitentiary, as opposed to the 30 years he was likely to be handed if he went to trial. The government had a strong case against him.
Gillis still remembers seeing Michelle Ohlsen, Eisen’s client in the divorce proceedings, at the hearing. When she approached the Gillises, says John, “She was a delight.” She told them she’d been worried about them for four years. “It was very touching. It really was.” Gillis also recalls Michelle’s displeasure at Ohlsen’s turning to her repeatedly and mouthing, “Call me.”
Neither Eisen nor Gillis attended Ohlsen’s sentencing hearing, although Costantin conferred with Gillis before making her recommendation to the court. As a lawyer himself, Gillis was struck by her inclusive gesture. When she asked him how he felt about a sentence of 20 years, he says, “If that seemed appropriate to her, it was fine with me.” In keeping with his exceptionally cool regard for the incident, he says, “I was not out to get vengeance.” Nor has he concerned himself since with follow-up details of Ohlsen’s life. “I’ve learned as much as I really want to know.”
Since the conclusion of the case, Eisen and Gillis haven’t remained in touch, though they often each hear compliments about the other’s character and professionalism from third parties. If Joseph Conrad had written a novel about what happened to these secret sharers, he would have delved into Eisen’s version of survivor’s guilt and Gillis’s virtual self-sacrifice. If Freud got hold of the story, he might use it to illustrate the principle of the uncanny—could we even conceive of one attorney’s car being confused with another’s to the effect that a bomb exploded on the “wrong” one? In Brian De Palma’s hands, the plot would revolve around the intrigue of the bomber’s identity and the fantastical intertwining of the two victims’ lives. Gillis’s near beatific calm and willingness to let go, and Eisen’s own maturity, however, make this a parable of something less dramatic and sensational, although every bit as rare. Call it perspective. Gillis understands the difference between what he can control and what he can’t, and he sees the inappropriateness of blaming Eisen and the futility of getting back at Ohlsen.
In this regard, he would appear the mirror double of Paul McElligott, who continues to produce mp3 spoofs in which a speaker, posing as Ohlsen, dispenses advice about such topics as “How to make top-quality prison hooch” and “How to screw people for fun and profit.” McElligott’s wounded pride at having been laughed at is as inexplicable in its magnitude as Gillis’s apparent lack of ego. Either man could be seen as averse to introspection, oddly alienated from himself. But in his measured, collected way, Gillis recognized one element of his ordeal over which he could exert control and from which he could exact compensation: the liability of the Carondelet Plaza garage, where a man in a red poncho was video-recorded leaving a suspicious gift basket, bedecked with helium balloons, next to his car. The defendants named in his personal injury lawsuit number three corporations and three individuals altogether. The amount sought would underwrite the production of more than a few home-made mp3 send-ups and, after having reimbursed Gillis for his medical expenses, might even leave enough for a brand new Acura. Rationality may be its own reward, and then some.
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