When Judge Carlson calls, I always know that the job is going to be interesting, and when he called me this time in the dead of night I just knew that this particular case is going to be 'unusual'. He had the talent for pulling the one 'odd ball' court filing out of a stack of about 100 other nearly identical ones, that seemed to have 'special features' of interest to him.
The judge is a great guy and has given me a lot of business over the years and I've learned to trust his 'nose for mischief'. If he thought something "stank" it almost invariably did. He wasn't the best Federal bankruptcy judge in the State of New Hampshire for nothing, even if he always did have a lousy sense of time. Just because he read case briefs until 3AM every morning didn't mean everyone would be awake and eager to chat too.
"Harlan, what do you know about Flair Aviation?" He asked me. I didn't know much, but I'd heard the name before and recited what I could remember.
"Started up right after World War II by Avery Flair, an Army Air Corp pilot and a bunch of his wartime grease monkey maintenance friends. They decided to design and build small commercial and military transport planes and found a nice niche market until the late 1980's. They've had some hard luck since then, supposedly. He died a few years back when his private plane crashed didn't he? They're up north in the White Mountains somewhere ... not a great place to be flying planes if you ask me. Since you're asking me about them I assume they've filed for bankruptcy?"
"Yes, a Chapter 7; it looks like they want to close up shop for good. They've been mostly shut down already for the last 2-3 years since the son-in-law that was running things died in a crash while testing one of their latest prototypes. Can you be in my office at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning and be prepared to drink a lot of coffee?"
Sure, not a problem at all, especially since the Judge only bought Jamaican Blue Mountain and had a yuppie $1000 coffee machine in his office to brew it in. It was amazing how many folks routinely 'just stopped in to say hi' each day also grabbed a cup of his coffee while they were there.
The "War Session" that Friday morning was long, involved and very productive. Together with a couple of US Attorneys, a senior assistant to the State Attorney General, and a junior prosecutor from the office of the Attorney General of the US that was a genius at sniffing out traces of fraud, we sat until early evening reviewing all of the filed bankruptcy documents, and all agreed with each other. Something did 'stink', but we couldn't put our fingers on it. The company seemed to absolutely haemorrhage money its last couple of years. Fraud? Incompetence? Plain old vanilla Misapplication of Funds? No one could tell for sure.
A conference call with the FAA accident investigators responsible for the inquiries into both plane crashes was both enlightening and futile. They were both indeed "a bit suspect", but had been at the end attributed to 'pilot error', a 'possible fuel contaminate' and 'poor flying conditions' for Avery Flair's crash in 1989, and both "engine failure" and 'pilot error' for the death of his son-in-law, Donald Lloyd Wright a few years ago in 1995. But for each case the investigators did have their doubts and "sabotage' did weigh heavily in each of their minds ... they just couldn't prove anything. Both cases were considered "closed, pending future evidence".
The 1995 crash of Don Wright and two other company employees was in an especially hard to reach area of the mountains and bad winter weather had prevented the investigator from spending more than 45 minutes total at the crash site, most of which was already snow covered. By spring his investigation budget had been exhausted and his supervisor had 'more important' cases for his investigation time, and so the case had been reluctantly closed.
This was about par for FAA civilian crash investigations. Chalk them up to pilot error unless a big fat smoking gun could be otherwise found. The White Mountains are kind of a strange place to begin with, and are known for their suddenly changing winds and other erratic meteorological phenomena. Plane crashes in the area are not uncommon, and often very hard to get to for a proper forensic post-crash examination. Often, the very hard mountain stone scatters the wreckage so widely upon impact that reassembling the wreckage is nearly futile and not FAA cost effective for small 'personal' accidents that don't involve commercial passengers.
Like I thought earlier, it wouldn't be my choice for a place to spend your life flying planes - especially brand new experimental and unproven planes. Avery Flair was a different kind of character though and had a set of balls bigger than most folks. Certainly things went down hill fast for his company after his death.
The court had already approved an independent third-party "Bankruptcy Manager" for Flair by the name of Steve Kreifelt, who was now in charge of all daily operations and expenses and responsible for liquidating all of the remaining company assets. I would be assigned to work under him 'theoretically', but in actuality I would be directly working for the US Bankruptcy Court - District of New Hampshire, with a peculiar dual reporting to the State's Attorney General's office. The judge was pulling out all of the stops for this one,
My job was to 'find the fraud and probable multiple homicides' that this case reeked of, and I was given signed Court Orders and Warrants giving me vast legal powers to conduct my investigation and an operating budget more than sufficient to track down any lead I felt was promising. I did get some interesting last minute candid advice from the Judge and the senior Assistant to the Attorney General for the State of New Hampshire.
"The Governor", I was told, "is watching this case closely and has a 'personal interest' in it." He was a longtime friend and hunting and fishing buddy of Avery Flair's, and wanted Flair Aviation 'saved' if it was at all possible, for 'Melissa's sake' if nothing else." Also at least three different US Senators were showing an interest in this case as well, each citing national security reasons for keeping Flair functional, if at all possible. If I needed anything to successfully complete this investigation I was to have it. Penny pinching (always a necessity in some of my more normal jobs) was not even to be considered an option. If I could find 'Avery's killer' every cent in the Federal and State Treasury was 'available for my use'.
I had my orders now and I had every conceivable tool at my disposal to do my job, and I was now chomping at the bit to get to work. This was what I did best, forensic accounting, and I was good enough at it that I had been able to work for myself as a 'consultant' for about 5 years now. I had a growing stable of private corporations that I did 'flash audits' for, and I was getting an increasing amount of work from the Bankruptcy Courts. Usually involving fraud or possible 'fiduciary mismanagement' cases like this one.
I phoned my new 'boss' Kreifelt, and made arrangements to meet him bright and early Saturday morning at a little bed and breakfast in the small town of Berlin, which was close to Flair's factory. I was told that "the path had been cleared for me" and that he understood that I would be bringing along a few friends.
This was an understatement. I'd made about five very productive phone calls already this morning before calling him and assured him we'd all have a very busy, but hopefully productive weekend.
The drive from Concord up to Berlin, nestled up in the White Mountains, wasn't especially fun in the dead of night even in the nice early summer weather we'd been having and took longer than I had expected. I was already pooped when I checked into my B&B and somehow found a way to shut my brain off from thinking about the case long enough to get a few quality hours of sleep.
It was going to be a very long weekend.
Bright and early at 9 a.m., Steve arrived and I introduced myself, Harlan Hartley, to him and he and I had a long strategy session over breakfast. The pathway had indeed been well cleared in advance for me, Steve had thrown 'a fit' over the rodent problem in both the corporate offices and at the manufacturing plant saying that he 'couldn't sell this dump' with mice running around everywhere. He had shut everything down (not that much was happening anyway) and sent everyone home with orders not to return until Monday until the exterminators were done. In fact the exterminators were 'on-call' now and just waiting for the go-ahead to start their pest treatment, but Steve and I had some fun prepared that would happen first.
He also commented that he had 'orders from the Court and above' to drag his feet as much as possible to give me time for my investigation, and that he was encouraged to make as many enemies as possible and try to stir up as much trouble as he could while he was there to be my 'lightning rod'. Angry people in this business often make mistakes, and we were hoping for a lot of them.
About 10:30, my other critical team player for the opening act of our drama arrived on stage with his supporting cast of actors and actresses, all hungry after several hours on the road, so a second breakfast was enjoyed by all as we prepared our final weekend battle plan of action.
.... There is more of this story ...