The Sad Life Of The Brisket Bandit

Michael Brick: AUSTIN – The man behind the glass partition was famous. His photograph appeared on statewide news sites and national food blogs, wanted as the architect of a brazen scheme.

When officials requested public assistance in his capture last year, they accused him of stealing thousands of dollars worth of meat from at least 19 grocery stores. He most likely devised an ad-hoc black market, police said, among the legitimate middlemen who connect ranchers to trendy steakhouses and barbecue pits.

His name is James Cordell Avery. Headline writers called him the Brisket Bandit.

In an interview at the Travis County Correctional Complex, Avery slurred through the telephone. He looked disheveled and sounded confused. He wore a hard glare, a thick beard and a striped jumpsuit.

“I didn’t kill nobody, man,” he said.

That may be true. Homicide is not among the many crimes ascribed to his name. At a time of high beef prices and boundless culinary obsession, though, his case actually drew far more attention than most murders.

When You Share Your Life

Jessica Contrera (thanks, Michael): When 13-year-old Caleb LeBlanc’s death made the news this week, millions of people already knew him. He wasn’t a pop star, an up-and-coming actor or a child prodigy. He was a boy who liked to wear his hair floppy, play baseball, and belt out nonsensical songs about being a baked potato — all for an audience usually bigger than the population of his home state.

Caleb, whose parents said he died of an “undetected medical condition,” was the oldest son of the “Bratayley” clan, the YouTube-famous Arnold, Md., family. Their lives and their income revolved around creating 10- to 20-minute clips of their unremarkable moments: bouncing on a backyard trampoline (15 million views), walking the Ocean City boardwalk (10 million) or roaming the aisles of Walmart (22 million). Compare it to the Nielsen estimates for the record-breaking season finale of “Game of Thrones”: only 8.11 million viewers.

With cameras seemingly always rolling, family vloggers such as the Bratayleys let viewers come along for errands, birthday parties and doctor appointments. They let them comment on the soothing of crying children, the hunt for a new house or the selection of a baby’s name. With each video, the line between YouTube and reality blurs; strangers watching from afar start to feel like part of the family.

But inevitably in any normal, happy life comes some kind of bad news: The sickness of a cat. A miscarriage. Or, tragically, an unexpected death.

This week, the Bratayleys are faced with a question the new world of family vloggers will all somehow confront: If you live in front of the cameras, how do you know when to turn them off?

I Know We’re Done For

Patrick Rapa:

… About 24 hours before you read this, City Paper will cease operations. Like a lobster, we were purchased to be killed and consumed. For the purposes of this metaphor, my co-workers and I are the empty red parts.

The archives will go wherever they go. The people will scatter.

Listen: We knew what we were getting into, sort of. As much as we may romanticize the newspaper business, nobody mistakes it for a stable or lucrative career choice. Alt-weekly employees especially recognize the distinct un-marketability of their chosen model. We did unpopular things. We wrote about unknowns we thought should be better known. This is not a recipe for clicks.

We wanted clicks, of course. Clicks are nice. Clicks equal readers.

But we wanted them on our terms.

Looking For Answers

Justin George: As massive protest marches continued across Baltimore, the pressure was building inside police headquarters, and Commissioner Anthony W. Batts wanted answers — fast. Near midnight on a cool April night, he pressed six top commanders sitting at a conference table for details about Freddie Gray’s death.

A 30-person task force was interviewing witnesses, reviewing video and searching records in the days after Gray died, but crucial questions remained. Did Gray suffer an injury before his spine was damaged in police custody? Was he hurt while being dragged to a police van or was he malingering? Did police beat him?

Batts asked his commanders if they were aware of the growing tension downtown, where swarms of protesters had halted rush hour traffic that day. Demonstrators yelled and swore at police officers, chanting “No justice, no peace!” To handle the crisis, the Police Department had canceled vacations and ordered all officers into duty; the Maryland State Police also was called in to help.

“Are you guys paying attention out here?” Batts said. “And it’s going to get worse if we don’t give them some answers to something.”

Batts’ words on Thursday, April 23, added to the pressure that commanders and task force members felt as they hustled to answer a question: How did Gray die?

Now, that question will be central to the trials of six police officers charged in the 25-year-old’s arrest and death. Prosecutors allege that officers did not put Gray in a seat belt after his arrest and failed to provide medical care that he requested — violations of department policy. The six officers, who are suspended, maintain their innocence.

As the first trial nears, authorities have not disclosed key evidence. But an exclusive look inside the police investigation — granted to The Baltimore Sun over the last nine days of April — reveals new details about the case.

Tragedy on deadline

AARON YOST and TROY BRYNELSON in the Roseburg, Ore. News-Review:

Hannah Miles sat on a plastic chair inside cavernous Douglas Hall, wrapped in a white Red Cross blanket, shaking.

A grief counselor spoke with her. Another approached with a cell phone and made a call for her. Ten minutes later, Miles was no longer alone.

Her sister Hailey wrapped her in a close hug. Her father, Gary Miles, a pastor at Christian Life Center in Roseburg, consoled her.

Hannah continued to cry, the shock from the shooting at Umpqua Community College still exerting a tight grip upon her.

She wasn’t alone among the displaced students, staff and children who were transported to the Douglas County Fairgrounds. Reunions — tearful, blessed, happy — were the general order of the day.



My Kidnappers

Bradford Pearson: Hello, my name is Brad Pearson. In March 2006, you were one of three people who kidnapped me in West Philadelphia.

I’m writing this letter not because I’m angry at you, or upset, or hurt. The opposite, actually. While the kidnapping and investigation were difficult for me, in the end they made me a stronger man.

I’m a magazine writer now, and I’ve always hoped to talk to you and Jerry and Mordi about that night, and what your lives have been like since. I’d either like to do that by letter or in person. I can travel to Pennsylvania to speak with you, if you’d allow me to. I also included my email address, if that’s easier for you.

Again, I’m not angry, and I’d really just like to talk.

Brad Pearson

Jerry’s response came first, less than a month later. Two pages, handwritten, single-spaced. All-caps block letters, except for the words “Sincerely, Jerry Price,” in cursive:

In your letter, you said ‘I don’t know if you remember.’ The truth is that I don’t think that I will ever be able to forget you. That day — your face plays over and over in my head constantly reminding me of the hurt, anger, sorrow and other feelings that I have caused you as well as the others.

Tyree soon sent a letter, too: “Being a dad in jail is really sad.”

I started looking at flights.

The End Of War

Mark Warren (thanks, Tim): The forces of Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi had been firing high-explosive ordnance into the city of Misurata for weeks—they’d been shooting tank rounds and they’d been firing rockets. Barrage after barrage. And lots of mortars. And among the 120mm mortars they had been firing were Spanish-made rounds that were a clustering munition that had never been seen in combat before. This was a serious problem, because we now know that the Spaniards had sold the mortars to the Qaddafi government just as Spain was preparing to join the international convention that banned them.

We know this because of the work of C. J. Chivers of The New York Times, also a frequent contributor to Esquire, whose expertise in ballistics and battlefield tactics—and nearly unprecedented experience reporting from war zones—has made him the most important war correspondent of his time. Chivers suspected that Qaddafi was using the Spanish mortars, and it was when he went to prove it that a NATO jet on a bombing run tried to kill him.

Searching For A New Life, Loss Along The Way

Robert Samuels: BUDAPEST — The train ticket would take Josef Majade to a place where he would be safe, but he no longer sought that refuge.

Instead, he lay his balding head against a heating vent at the Keleti train station and tugged a small scarf around his beard, gone gray. A bag of three yellow apples sat next to him, but he could not bear to eat. He had left Syria with a family of five, and now three of them were missing.

The trains to Austria or Germany kept coming. But each time, Majade opted not to go, longing for the family members whose passports were still inside his fanny pack.

“Some days I just get cold, and I wonder if they are cold, and then I burn on the inside,” Majade said. He couldn’t find his wife, his only daughter, 13, and his youngest son, 5.

“How could I start a new life without them? I feel so much shame.”

Murder On The Appalachian Trail

Earl Swift: It is a quiet, restorative place, this clearing high on a Pennsylvania ridge. Ferns and wildflowers carpet its floor. Sassafras and tulip trees, tall oak and hickory stand tight at its sides, their leaves hissing in breezes that sweep from the valley below. Cloistered from civilization by a steep 900-foot climb over loose and jutting rock, the glade goes unseen by most everyone but a straggle of hikers on the Appalachian Trail, the 2,180-mile footpath carved into the roofs of 14 eastern states.

Those travelers have rested here for more than half a century. At the clearing’s edge stands an open-faced shelter of heavy timber, one of 260 huts built roughly a day’s walk apart on the AT’s wriggling, roller-coaster course from Maine to Georgia. It’s tall and airy and skylit, with a deep porch, two tiers of wooden bunks, and a picnic table.

A few feet away stood the ancient log lean-to it replaced. When I visited this past spring, saplings and tangled brier so colonized the old shelter’s footprint that I might have missed it, had I not slept there myself. Twenty-five summers ago, I pulled into what was called the Thelma Marks shelter, near the halfway point of a southbound through-hike. I met a stranger in the old lean-to, talked with him under its low roof as we fired up our stoves and cooked dinner.

Eight nights later, a southbound couple I’d befriended early in my hike followed me into Thelma Marks. They met a stranger there, too.

All The Bob Johnsons

Some serendipity for you. I was searching for something today behind my desk at work and I found an odd envelope. Inside was a funeral program for my father, who died in November 2011, just a few weeks after my grandpa. Those months were kind of a blur, but I remember a woman pushing the envelope into my hands at dad’s funeral. I must’ve taken it out of my briefcase when I got back from Oklahoma and put it aside. Somehow it slipped into the crevasse between my desk and a wall.

There was a handwritten note on the outside.

“Ben, this was written by your grandpa and given to me. He was our Veterans Day speaker at Kellyville High School in 1999 and told me he did not like to talk about his experiences but would speak for me. He received an awesome standing ovation and many tears from guests and students. This is a story that needs to be passed on. In loving memory of your grandpa.”

Seventy years ago tomorrow, on Sept. 2, 1945, Japan surrendered to Douglas MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. Until today, I never knew my grandpa was in the sky above, flying cover. I’ve heard pieces of this story before, but not like this. I appreciate how unsentimental it is, and how the language is direct and unadorned. He was an engineer. I’m proud to share it.

In my senior year, in 1941, I was seated about where you are seated. But your history books tell you that was the year the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7.

I was 17 then. I enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant and began training in the B-29. I was later stationed in the Marianna Islands, in the western Pacific, bombing targets on the mainland of Japan, 1,500 miles away.


It was summer of 1945, July 19, and we were making a bombing run on the Mitsubishi aircraft factory at Osaka, Japan, and my good friend Bob Johnson from Minnesota was on another crew and was flying as our wingman. There were 42 planes in the formation, each carrying three 4,000-pound bombs. As we neared the target, the flack began in earnest. It was so heavy I believed you could get out and walk on it.

About 30 seconds from “bombs away,” our wing man took a direct hit and exploded. From my limited visibility, I could not see the fate of the crewmen or parachutes. I only saw huge pieces of the aircraft fly by. After bombs away, we took a hit in the No. 3 engine, feathered it and headed for home. Home that day was a little coral island called Iwo Jima. We lost the second engine about an hour out and called ahead for a straight-in approach. As we were taxiing in, my heart was heavy, not knowing what happened to Bob. Along the runway, you could see the price we paid for that tiny island. Seven thousand crosses marked the graves of Marines and U.S. infantrymen. I was 21, and I thought I was tough. I could hardly see the taxi way because of the tears in my eyes.

We got a new engine and some gasoline and flew home the next day.

We had a day or two off and our squadron commander gave us permission to paint a logo on our aircraft and we all voted for the right gunner, Milton Gross, from Philadelphia, to paint the picture. He chose the picture of a beautiful young lady, very tastefully dressed, and we called our aircraft The Victory Girl. Milton Gross was indeed an artist.


On Sept. 2, 1945, we flew cover for Gen. Douglas MacArthur as he steamed into Tokyo Bay aboard the Battleship Missouri and signed the Declaration of Peace with the Japanese and the War was over. I got home on Thanksgiving Day, 1945.

In 1995, 50 years after World War II, the crew of The Victory Girl decided to have a reunion. I was retired, living on a ranch near Slick, Oklahoma, and I flew to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, walked into a conference room at the Holiday Inn and saw a crew I had not seen in 50 years. We were all wrinkles, baldness, aches and pains and we were missing four crew members. We sat down and unfolded pictures that told the story of the past 50 years.

An enlargement of the original crew was shown, and I said I would like to know what happened to Bob Johnson. I’d been wondering for all those years. You could hear a pin drop. A tear fell on an old photograph.


“You don’t know, do you?” one of the men asked.

“No,” I said. “I couldn’t see.”

“Well, we saw,” he said. “All the chutes came out ‘streamers.’”

The book was closed on Bob Johnson. At least now I knew.

We went around the room, each man taking time to relate what happened in the 50 years that had passed.

When it was Milton Gross’ turn, he passed around pictures of his family from Philadelphia and said when he got home he wanted to be an artist, so he enrolled in the Philadelphia Institute of Art, a prestigious art school, and graduated. He couldn’t find a job he liked and so he applied to the International School of Art in Paris and was accepted and went overseas to study. He graduated with an advanced degree, and while waiting on his Visa to be processed, a friend asked him to assist in helping his father with a seminar just outside Paris. Milton was to act as a chauffeur.

He said sure, and that evening he dropped off his passengers at a hotel and had about an hour to kill before getting the next load. He walked inside the hotel and there in the lobby he saw a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jewish girl, about 20 years old, acting as a hostess. His real life Victory Girl.

He introduced himself, and to make a long story short, began to date this young lady, and in due time, asked her to marry him.

But the real story is how she came to be standing in that lobby.

Ten years earlier, when she was 10 years old, she was a Jew living in Occupied France. Her father was a member of the French Resistance, sabotaging the German war effort, dynamiting bridges and railroads. He was caught, and soon shot by the Germans. When they went through his pockets, they found his home address and went to his house in a small French village. They kicked in the door and found a young mother making supper for a little 10-year-old girl. The mother was shot point blank, and the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl was thrown into an Army truck and driven to a German prison compound and tagged for the gas chamber. How you exterminate a little girl, I don’t know.

She was in the compound barracks, on the eve of being placed on a train, when a man came up to her in the darkness and asked her a question.

“Are you Amy Billenstein?”

She said, “Well, yes.”

The man said, “I’m your uncle and I have around my neck a green dog tag. I’m a Jew and a machinist and they are keeping me for work if they should need me. You have a red dog tag and that’s not good. I’m going to trade tags with you.”

So he took her tag and placed his around her neck.

“Let’s go outside,” he said. “I need to show you something.”

Outside, he pointed to the Big Dipper and showed her how the lip of the big dipper points to the North Star.

“Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “I’ve found a hole in the fence just big enough for a little girl to squeeze through, and when the guard passes the hole in the fence, I will put you through, and I want you to put that North Star over your shoulder and keep it there and go. You’ll be headed south. I want you to run straight south for three days until you come to a little village called Monet. My wife lives there and she will take care of you.”

In the darkness, they crept to the boundary fence, and as the guard passed, he handed her three crusts of bread he had saved and pushed her through. She ran across the road and hid in a clump of tall grass and then turned and waved goodbye. She turned and ran and ran and ran, all night long. When morning came, she stopped and licked some dew off the grass and ate one of the crusts of bread. Then off again, straight south. She stopped to drink water from a little creek and kept going. On the third morning, she saw no village but that afternoon she saw an old farmer hoeing in a little field. She ran up to him and cried, “Monet? Monet?”

“Yes,” he said. “I know Monet.”

He took her to the village and found her aunt. The aunt took her, raised her, put her through school, and she was working as a hostess in the lobby of a hotel when Milton Gross, my right gunner, walked in. She is now living in Philadelphia, has three children and enjoys her life.

What’s the price of freedom? All the Bob Johnsons, all those crosses along the taxi way on an island in the pacific, and all the lives lost during the war, all the wars. They paid for us. Paid with their lives. And the uncle, father and mother of Amy Billenstein. They paid the price for a little 10-year-old girl. Oh, what a price.

To you, it’s free. Hold it high.