"LIKE A POLE THROUGH MY GUT"
The Cessna 172 seaplane had run into a sudden, dangerous summer storm. Flying low above the lake country in northern Minnesota, the light craft, with the pilot and one passenger aboard, was being buffeted by strong winds and torrential rain.
The pilot called the tower in Hibbing. He said he had to make an emergency landing. In the brief, terse conversation, he indicated he would try to set the plane down in Sturgeon Lake, northwest of Chisholm. But at the last moment, tossed about in the howling wind and rain, the pilot apparently changed his mind and attempted to land in Dewey Lake, which was much smaller but nearer to his position. The Cessna approached the north end of the lake, close to the shoreline. It was 5PM, Thursday, August 25, 1977.
Certain officials of the United States government were keenly aware of the flight and its secret purpose. The two men aboard were not vacationers looking for a fishing camp, nor were they businessmen returning home. The pilot, Trenwith S. Basford, and his younger passenger, Mark A. Kirkland, were both special agents of the FBI.
Only two weeks earlier, Mark Kirkland had turned thirty-three. His wife, Julie, decided to throw a surprise birthday party.
"There was Mexican food, I hired a flamenco dancer. A lot of friends came, Boy Scouts, people from the neighborhood, and a few from the office." The couple's two little boys had a great time at the party. "Kenneth was two months shy of being three, Christopher was one year old."
The Kirklands had a good life together. They lived in Minnetonka, near Minneapolis, in an old, three-story farmhouse they were renovating. A devout Mormon, Mark was the leader of the local Boy Scout troop. Five years before, he had realized his lifelong ambition of becoming an FBI agent.
Normally clean-cut and clean-shaven, Kirkland was a striking figure at his birthday party in long, shaggy hair and a full beard. Julie knew why; her husband was undercover on a case. He had not told her a lot of details, but she knew he was trying to pass as a college student. "People at church, the Mormon church, questioned him about it," Julie said. "It wasn't common to have shaggy hair."
Julie was concerned about the case. It seemed to involve a lot more than college students. At twenty-five, with two small children, she worried that her husband's work might put him at risk. This was not an idle fear. Two years earlier, Mark's best friend and fellow FBI agent, Ron Williams, had been killed on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation near the tiny village of Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
Mark and Ron had served in Army intelligence together, joined the bureau around the same time, and went through training together at the FBI academy in Quantico, Virginia. Both were assigned to Los Angeles and then to Minneapolis. "Mark was best man at Ron's wedding," Julie recalled. "And he was out at the Oglala Sioux reservation when Ron was killed."
Then there was all the flying Mark was doing. Lately, he had been up on several aerial surveillances with Tren Basford. Julie deduced it was connected to the same case.
When he left on another surveillance two weeks after the surprise flamenco party, she admonished him gently. "I knew he was going up in the plane. I said, 'Don't be a kamikaze, don't push the plane to the limit.' He had a pat answer. He kissed me on the forehead and said, 'You worry too much.'"
That was on Tuesday. Now it was two days later. Julie Kirkland remembered every detail of that day. "In the late afternoon I had gone with friends, John and Geri Christianson, to the Farmer's Market to buy peaches and tomatoes. We were going to make some baskets for shut-ins at church. At the market it was a beautiful late summer afternoon, with a few rain showers, then sunshine and very pleasant, but I got this sensation of freezing cold and a sense of panic. Through my head the words were echoing, Go home. The Christiansons could see the panic in my face. I said, 'I have to go home. 'I got home, and the baby-sitter was there. And Kenny had been crying. I put Kenny on my knee and said, 'What's the matter?' And he said, 'Daddy's crying, Mom."'
Tren Basford's wife, Letitia, was also uneasy. As a pilot's wife, she paid close attention to the weather, and she knew her husband was flying that day. Despite the sunshine, the wind had come up. Gray, fast-moving clouds occasionally darkened the sky. "I was concerned that day because it was a very strange day with strong and conflicting winds. I was at the State Fair outside Saint Paul, and I didn't like the weather." The wind seemed to keep changing directions, whipping across the open fairgrounds.
Still, she knew her husband was a good and careful pilot. "He had held his pilot's license for ten years and owned his own plane for seven. He was experienced with floatplanes. I would stay up at our lake place in Canada all summer and he would fly up weekends." In fact, he planned to fly there when the surveillance was over. Letitia was to drive up, take their boat in, and meet him at the cabin, on Jackfish Lake.
Tren Basford was a straight arrow. A tall, quiet man, he was looking forward to his retirement in four months after serving thirty-five years in the FBI, mostly during the era of J. Edgar Hoover. Born in Red Lodge, Montana, he had been raised in Minnesota, his father was a dentist, his mother an English teacher.
When he was only thirteen, while on his paper route, he saved a man's life. The Minneapolis Evening Tribune ran his picture, and the headline told it all: BOY SCOUT SAVES VICTIM OF GAS POISONING, SUPS AWAY AFTER "GOOD TURN." The man, A. H. Warner, had been working on his car in his garage when he had been overcome by carbon monoxide. Young Tren heard Warner's wife cry for help, and he performed artificial respiration on the unconscious man for ten minutes before an ambulance arrived; then, quietly, he left.
He met his future wife at the University of Minnesota, where her father, August Charles Krey, was head of the history department. They dated for five years, then married in 1941, after Tren had graduated from the university's law school. He joined the FBI in 1942, working in Newark, Baltimore, and New York during World War II. He handled everything from espionage and sabotage to criminal work. In one of his first cases, Basford joined the search for the eight Nazi saboteurs who landed at Amagansett, on Long Island, and at Saint Augustine, Florida, by submarine during the war; all were captured, and six were executed. Basford was transferred to Minnesota in 1957, where he investigated bank robberies and other criminal cases.
Coming home was a happy assignment for Basford, who loved hunting, fishing, and flying. Every year when the walleye season opened on May 15-probably the biggest holiday of the year for Minnesota fishing enthusiasts-Basford was in the lake country. During hunting season, he brought back venison, wild duck, and pheasant.
Letitia, whom everyone called Tish, knew little about her husband's work. She did not know why he was flying that day. "I simply assumed he was working on an important case. It was none of my business. I go back to Hoover's day, when if you were asked what your husband's business is, you said, 'He works for the government.' During the war, I couldn't get a library card because I wouldn't tell them where he worked. Tren never told me very much about what he was doing."
In the days before Basford got his plane, he and Tish traveled by car and canoe "around the Gaspe and Cape Breton Island, all though Maine and the Maritimes, up to Yellowknife and across Canada to Alaska. We portaged into wild lakes and watched the northern lights. We always took the small roads and the unfrequented ones."
As the years went by, Tish Basford had more reason to admire the quiet, handsome man she had married. "He helped to rehabilitate some of the people he had arrested. We had ex-felons using the band saw in the basement and calling him when they had troubles. He was a kind, thoughtful, and compassionate man."
Julie Kirkland still had the odd, cold sensation when she returned from the Farmer's Market. She felt growing apprehension that something had happened to Mark. She cleaned the house, made dinner for the kids, gave them baths, and put them to bed around 8 PM.
Then she made her first call to the bureau. Most often, on an aerial surveillance, the plane would put down for the night wherever the target stopped, and the agents would go to a hotel.
"Usually when they got into a hotel, they could patch me through," Julie said. "I called the bureau operator, and she was shaken. I asked, 'Can you patch me through?' She was very nervous and said, 'I don't believe they're back to their room yet. I'll have them call you.' I waited another hour and called again. The feeling of coldness returned. The operator again said they are not at the hotel. She said, 'I'll have to have someone call you.'
"I waited and called the bureau again. This time I was aggressive. I said, 'Give me an FBI agent now! She blurted, 'I think someone's on their way to talk to you.'
"Sometime between eleven and midnight, there was a knock on the door. John Shimota, an agent and a dear friend, and Dave Flanders, the assistant agent in charge, were there.
"I believe it was John Shimota who told me. But I knew. When they were banging on the door, I said, 'I've got to answer that door.' I just couldn't bring myself to answer the door. Then I heard one of the agents talking about breaking a window. So I had to go to the door. When I opened it, I said, 'I know, you guys.' They looked kinda surprised. They asked me to sit down. I said I wanted to know what happened to Mark. They kept asking me to sit down.
"They said, 'There's been an accident. Honey, you've got to sit down.' I said, 'He's gone, isn't he?' And John said, 'Yes, he's gone.' And he held me in his arms.
"I'd been living with it for hours. I kept saying, 'This cannot be happening to me. This can't be true. What about my boys? They'll never know their father.' I was very upset. I didn't cry for about an hour. I felt like someone had rammed a pole through my gut. I can't explain the physical pain I felt."
The first call to the Saint Louis County sheriff's department had come in at 5:05 PM from Fred McLeod, who lived on the west side of Dewey Lake. He had heard something and believed a plane might have crashed in the lake. A moment later, a woman who lived at the lake called in with a similar report. Deputy Sheriff John Anderson and Nick Milkovich, the twenty-four-year-old township police chief, jumped in Anderson's squad car and headed north for the lake. On the way, the Hibbing police department radioed that an eyewitness had reported a plane upside down in the northeast side of the lake, with only its tail above water.
By 5:25 PM, the officers were at the scene. The yellow and white Cessna, with the aircraft number N84260 clearly visible at the rear of the fuselage, was resting upside down in about twelve feet of water. In the laconic language of the sheriff department's report, there was "no visible sign of life."
The plane had crashed directly in front of the lakeside home of George Pajunen. According to the official report, "Pajunen stated he heard a plane flying low, then a loud noise and then silence." Several residents went out in small boats to try to rescue the plane's occupants, but there was nothing they could do. One eyewitness thought the plane had tried to land twice and on the third attempt had lost power and plunged into the lake. Other residents reported it had been raining hard and that there had been fog in the area when the Cessna crashed. Deputy Anderson also noted the fog.
To Nick Milkovich, the most telling evidence that the plane had had engine trouble was that it had gone down so close to shore. Milkovich had flown a lot in floatplanes, and he knew that normally a pilot tried to land into the wind and to stay well clear of trees, which meant that the plane ordinarily touched down toward the center of a lake, not near the shore.
Milkovich also had reports from residents in Chisholm, to the south, who said the plane, its engine sputtering, had a few minutes earlier flown low over the town, as though it might try to land in Longyear Lake right in Chisholm.
More deputies arrived. The county medical examiner and divers were summoned. The plane's floats seemed to have exploded, and the fuselage was twisted, indicating that the plane had gone into the water nose down and flipped over. The pilot and his passenger had died on impact, still strapped in by their seat belts.
Tish Basford was sorting laundry when they came up the walk. John Otto, the special agent in charge in Minneapolis, and his wife, and Basford's partner, Frank Grady, and his wife, arrived around 10: 30 PM.
"When I saw them," Mrs. Basford said, "I knew. I think every law-enforcement wife knows it might happen at some time. John Otto was unbelievable, I will never forget his great kindness.
"I do not blame the bureau, it was an act of nature. Tren never had to face the ravages of old age, disease, and futility. He died in his prime, being useful and doing what he most liked to do."
The FBI, the Minneapolis Star reported the next day, said that the two agents were "on routine investigations" at the time of the crash. The FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, Arthur Sullivan, professed not to know "where they were flying from or their destination." Sullivan seemed to go out of his way to assure reporters that Basford had "worked his entire career in what we call criminal matters, not security cases." The Minneapolis Tribune similarly reported that FBI officials said the agents "were on routine business at the time, helping Duluth authorities in a number of cases." The Saint Paul Dispatch said the FBI explained that the two men "had been in Duluth assisting agents there for several days." These stories and others did not indicate that anyone in the news media had questioned why, if the agents were working in Duluth, their plane had crashed some seventy miles northwest of that city.
The FBI's statements were a cover story. In fact, Kirkland and Basford at the time of their deaths had been conducting airborne surveillance of a University of Minnesota professor. The professor had been driving north, toward the Canadian border, with his wife and two children. Other FBI agents in cars had been trailing the target on the ground.
The FBI made a calculated decision to mislead the press and the public about the circumstances of the deaths of the two agents. For years, even the agents' wives and families were told nothing. Until now, the secret has been kept.
The bureau could not afford to divulge the truth, for the crash of the Cessna threatened to unravel the longest-running espionage case of its kind in the history of the cold war, an extraordinary drama that had begun two decades earlier.
The University of Minnesota professor was a Soviet spy, a trained agent of the GRU, the Glavnoye Razvedyvatelnoye Upravlenie, the Soviet military-intelligence agency.
The existence of the case was known only to the president of the United States, his national-security adviser, and a handful of federal officials.
At the highest levels of the United States government, it was code-named Operation SHOCKER.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cassidy's Run by David Wise. . Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.