I grew up in a typical American family with a mother, father, sister and brother. By the time I was forty-six I was the only one still alive. Sometimes I wondered why I was the lucky one, and my thoughts often took me back to my sister Eileen, who committed suicide at the age of twenty-seven. Eileen and I were close in age but we hadn’t had much contact with one another the last few years of her life. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and I filed it away in the sorrowful memory file as quickly I could. Nearly thirty years later, I set out to discover more about Eileen’s death. Secondhand Truth is the story of that undertaking. It is a tale of obsession and self-discovery and the elusiveness of truth — the most difficult journey of my life and one that I came to believe I was born to take.
I was standing in line, waiting to buy a beer at a Pirates-Phillies game, when I thought I heard my name on the public address system. It was just a flicker of consciousness, the kind of thing that comes and goes and never crosses your mind again, unless there’s a reason. My name is Jim Thomson. It’s a common name, short and easy to remember. Still, when I meet people, they often get it wrong. I’ll introduce myself and the person will smile and shake my hand and end up calling me Tim or Tom, last name Thomas or Johnson. It’s the kind of mistake we all make now and again. We get preoccupied; we’re daydreaming half the time, even when we’re looking someone in the eye. I remember my mother scolding me as a child, saying, “You hear what you want to hear.” Which is exactly what happened that night at the ballpark, my name blaring from the loudspeakers, the PA announcer asking Jim Thomson to please report to the information booth, and I, distracted by who knows what — a girl in a low-cut halter? the concessionaire asking me for my order? — ignored the summons.
This was nearly forty years ago, mid-September 1974, a balmy evening at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. I was a third-year graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, working on a Ph.D. in American Civilization. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, I had remained a loyal Pirates fan and went to the “Vet” in South Philly a few times each season to watch my old hometown team play. That night the Pirates took an early lead but couldn’t hold it. Even worse, Doc Ellis, the Pirates’ best pitcher, got hit in the hand by a line drive that ended his season. I’m sure that I stayed until the last out as I always do, a lesson I’d learned as a kid when my older brother Keith and I left a Pirates game after the eighth inning and missed an improbable game-winning rally.
I drove home from the stadium and parked in front of the house in the suburbs where my wife Connie and I had recently moved with our two-year-old daughter, Meg. As I was getting out of the car, Connie turned on the porch light and came out of the front door in a sleeveless yellow dress.
“Didn’t they page you?” she said.
“At the baseball game? I called and asked them to page you.” She came to the top step of porch and crossed her arms, clutching her bare shoulders as if it were cold out. I couldn’t tell if she was angry or worried. “I didn’t know what to do. I kept waiting and waiting for you to call.”
“Honey, what is it. What’s wrong?”
She sobbed and covered her face with her hands. I went up the steps and put my arms around her, my mind a jumble of horrors.
“Just tell me,” I said.
“It’s Eileen. She’s dead.”
Eileen, my sister. It was just words for an instant, the news of her death an abstraction, as if I’d been asked to consider the loss of something I’d always taken for granted. A world without birds, perhaps. A world without Eileen.
“She killed herself.”
“No. She wouldn’t.”
Eileen was twenty-seven years old, happily married to her high school sweetheart, Vic Zaccagnini. Barely five feet tall, she was cute and smart and spunky, the brightest smile in the room. She and Vic lived in San Bernardino, California and had bought a new house a few months ago. He was a cop; she was a secretary. They loved their jobs and were trying to have children. Eileen was devoted to our parents; she called or wrote home several times a week and sent dozens of photographs.
Tears rolled down Connie’s face. “With a gun,” she said.
Our mailbox was a wooden case that had once held some weather instruments on my ship in the Navy. I punched the mailbox and broke one of the slats on the louvered door. Connie looked frightened, helpless. I hadn’t seen Eileen in nearly four years.
“Did she leave a note?” I said.
“I don’t know. I only talked to your mother for a little while. Your dad was still at work. She said she was going to wait for him to get home before she told him.”
I sucked blood from my knuckles, such a welcome and temporary pain.
I said, “I better go call.”
My parents’ line was busy. I tried my brother Keith in upstate New York, but his line was busy too. Connie and I sat down at the kitchen table. She told me my mother had called from Pittsburgh about 7:30 to say that Eileen was dead. The conversation was short, a blur of emotion; she wasn’t sure if the confusion was hers or my mother’s, but Connie hung up thinking that Eileen had been killed in an automobile accident. It wasn’t until she spoke to Keith’s wife a short while later that she found out it had been a suicide.
Connie told me she put Meg to bed, then called the stadium.
“I asked them to page you,” she said, “but they didn’t want to do it. I don’t know why. I just kept pleading with the guy until he promised.” She shrugged. “Maybe he just said that to put me off.”
Why hadn’t I inquired about the page at the ballpark? Did I think only doctors got summoned? The parents of lost children? Or did I have some subliminal understanding that this message could only lead to heartache, to some life-changing event? Whatever the reason, it earned me two-and-a-half hours of not knowing, a period of time when the most important thing on my mind was the outcome of a baseball game. I pictured Connie sitting there alone with the news about Eileen, waiting for my call.
I phoned my parents again and my father answered.
“Hello?” he said. It was a question — one half hope, as if this might be the call that would undo everything, Eileen on the other end of the line, telling him it was all a mistake; the other half dread, as if he expected another blow, some new weight added to his unbearable sorrow.
“It’s me, Dad.”
“Jim,” he said, relief and disappointment in a single syllable.
“This is crazy. I can’t believe it.”
“No, neither can I. I keep thinking maybe… if only I…” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’ll let you talk to your mother.”
“Hi, Jim,” Mom said. “Connie told me you went to see the Pirates.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. I should have—”
“Oh, no, honey, that’s all right. I had the game on the radio. It was a comfort, knowing you were there.”
The way she said it made me feel like a little boy again, and I let go and cried.
The next day Connie and Meg and I drove to Pittsburgh. Details about Eileen’s death were sketchy, but one thing haunted me: Vic was in the house with her when it happened. How could we be certain that it was suicide? That Vic had nothing to do with her death? My parents, who were nearly catatonic with grief, asked me to talk to Vic and sort it out. I had known Vic Zaccagnini since he was sixteen years old. His mother had become my mother’s best friend. When Vic arrived from California for the funeral, he and I sat down in my parents’ kitchen and talked. The story he told me was long and sad, but the gist was simple: Eileen had been having an affair with her boss, and when that fact was revealed, she shot herself in a fit of remorse. Vic met my eyes openly, his face filled with anguish and bewilderment. He answered all my questions, never stumbling or contradicting himself, and I believed what he said. I told my family what Vic had told me and we got on with our lives as best we could.
* * *
In 2001, with more than a quarter-century of changes behind me – Connie and I divorced, my father and Keith and my mother having all passed away — I started to write a novel based loosely on Eileen’s death. After working on the project for several months, I decided to try to get a copy of the original police report, hoping it might give me some insight into my sister’s final days. Would the report still exist? I wondered. Would the police let me to see it? Through the Internet I found a private investigator named Darryl Carlson in Los Angeles to help me in my search. When I first spoke with Darryl, he asked me straight out if I had any reason to suspect foul play. I told him I did not, I just wanted to find out as much as I could about what exactly had happened. Darryl said he’d start poking around without contacting the police, and I made plans to fly to California from my home in Massachusetts to meet him in person. In the course of his initial investigation Darryl came across a paralegal, Cheri Flint, who said she had a friend in the San Bernardino Coroner’s Office. Cheri’s friend got her a copy of Eileen’s autopsy protocol, which had a set of the police reports attached. In the San Bernardino Public Library, Darryl, Cheri and I sat down at a table and started to go through the documents she had uncovered, each of us taking notes and sharing our impressions. The story these documents revealed was much different than the one Vic had told me in my parents’ kitchen. The case looked much less like a suicide than the cover-up of a murder, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department ignoring one piece of condemnatory evidence after another in order to protect a fellow officer.
Cheri paused when she came to the last sheet of paper, holding it close to her chest so I couldn’t see. “This is a photograph,” she said. “You might want to brace yourself.”
“Go ahead.” I shrugged. “At this point I’m ready for anything.”
It was a grainy photograph in black and white: Eileen from the shoulders up, lying dead on a coroner’s table, her short hair tousled, one eye open, her lips parted as if she were trying to speak.
* * *
I spent the next four years trying to discover the truth about my sister’s death. This is the story of my journey and my obsession. If this were one of those cold case files you see on TV, some tireless police investigator tracking down every lead while forensic scientists decode the mysteries of blood and hair and gunshot wounds, the story would end with a definitive answer: Truth beyond a reasonable doubt rendered by a court of law, the verdict sealed by the tap of a judge’s gavel.
But this is not a TV case, and I must offer fair warning to the reader who only wants stories with tidy endings in which nothing is left unresolved. Every seeker does not find an answer to his questions, and my quest has left me with only second-hand truth — the imperfect conclusions between what I know and what I believe. Between my mind and my heart.
Still, I don’t regret a single step of my journey, the last leg of which took me to a motel room near the Seattle airport, on my way to meet Vic Zaccagnini for the first time since the day of Eileen’s funeral more than thirty years before. Darryl had called Vic and set up the meeting. I sat by the desk in the motel with my mouth dry, one knee bouncing nervously while I doodled on a message pad. Darryl said we should go to the meeting empty-handed, no notebooks or hidden recording device. The only exception was a copy of Eileen’s letter in my shirt pocket, the one she had written to Mom and Dad the morning of the day she died. I was fairly certain Vic did not know the letter existed, and I wanted to see the look on his face when he read it.
Darryl checked the big Rolex on his wrist. “You ready?” he said.
I nodded. “What about these?” I gestured toward the thick file of police reports.
“Bring them along. We’ll leave them in the car. Maybe Vic will want to look them over.”
We put on our coats and walked outside to the rental car. It was a dank February evening, pink haze around the arc lights in the parking lot. I pulled out onto the road.
“How far’s the restaurant?” I said.
“About three miles. You can’t miss it. It’s up on the right.”
“What’s it called again?”
“That’s a terrible name. Sounds like bad luck.”
“Judas’s purse plus interest.”
We stopped at a red light, the windshield wipers mewling as they cleared away the mist.
Darryl and I had agreed that I would do most of the talking. I said, “You want to have some sort of signal in case I get off track?”
“Okay, I’ll just jab you in the leg with my fork.”
I grinned. He was trying to get me to relax. The two of us had become extremely close in the four years we’d been working on the case and Darryl had long ago stopped charging me for his time. The driver behind me tapped his horn. I looked up and saw the green light and eased ahead.
I said, “Is Vic definitely bringing his wife?”
“He said he was. We want her there, Jim. It’ll be two on two. Helps keep things in balance.”
Another mile up the road Darryl pointed at the sign for 13 Coins. I pulled into the parking lot. The only space I could find was on the far side of the building. I turned off the engine and let out a long breath like an athlete before a race. Darryl put his hand on my shoulder.
“We’ve come a long way, Jim,” he said. “You’re gonna be fine. Just take it nice and slow.”
The two of us walked across the parking lot toward the restaurant in the chilly night air. My feet felt heavy and sluggish while my mind raced ahead. I recognized Vic the moment I stepped through the door. He was standing alone near the hostess station, his face in profile. He turned and saw me, lifted his chin in recognition and gave me a wary smile. My journey had taken me back to its beginning. I took a step toward him, wondering if the hand he held out to me was the hand that held the gun.