A true story of their final days on the Florida seashore, when a water cannon destroyed a suspicious package later found to contain miniature portraits by the celebrated American painter Gilbert Stuart
One summer afternoon not so very long ago, the police department of Holmes Beach, Florida, a village on the Gulf Coast a few miles north of Sarasota, took custody of an insignificant-looking package that immediately caused extreme apprehension around the little white station house on Marina Drive.
The package was about ten inches square and a couple of inches thick—roughly the size and heft of a one-pound box of chocolates. It was wrapped in brown paper and sealed with packing tape, like an ordinary item from the post office, and there was no mark on it—no address, no postage stamps, no statement of contents, not even a manufacturer’s logo.
Given its modest bulk, the package was not intrinsically alarming. There was no reason to suspect it contained anything dangerous, but on the other hand, there was no reason to assume it did not. Events far and near had created a sense of caution among the half-dozen men and women of the Holmes Beach Police Department. As they made their rounds of the sandy lanes and trailer parks of Anna Maria Island, guarding the lives and property of surfers, strollers, and visiting snowbirds from Ontario and Michigan, they thought from time to time about the menace of unknown enemies who deliver death in pill bottles, panel trucks, and ordinary brown-paper packages. Barely fourteen months had passed since the horrendous bombing of the Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City. The notorious Unabomber had mailed lethal offerings to several victims in many parts of the country, and just a few weeks before, down in the town of Plantation, a woman had been killed by the explosion of a harmless-looking bundle delivered to her home. Even in a modest seaside resort like Holmes Beach, muffled in pink oleanders and feathery casuarina trees, one could not simply ignore the disturbing implications of an unidentified parcel that had popped up in the heart of the village, without warning and without explanation.
One of the outnumbered all-year residents of Anna Maria Island, a forty-three-year-old woman named Patricia Comkowycz, had brought the mysterious object to the station. It was quarter to five on a hot and breezy Friday in June, and Mrs. Comkowycz was eager to get home. She parked her white Chevrolet station wagon in the shade of the hibiscus bushes at the foot of the steps behind the station, and her school-age daughter trotted the package inside and laid it on the counter.
“We found this in our car,” the girl said—or words to that effect. The duty officer, Patrolman James Cumston, asked her to have her mom come inside and help him fill out a desk report. He dated it 06/14/96 at 1642 hours and titled it “SUSP I,” suspicious incident.
“I didn’t tell them it was suspicious or I thought it was this or that,” Mrs. Comkowycz said later. “I just told them I’d found it in my car, and that was all.”
To her the package did not necessarily seem dangerous, just out of place. In any case, she said, she’s not the kind of person who pays a lot of attention to radical politics, bombings and shootings, and things like that. She’s a married woman, a mother, with a full-time job as a teacher’s aide at one of the local elementary schools. On her way home that afternoon, driving her daughter and another little girl, she had stopped by the S&S Plaza, a small shopping center on Gulf Drive that houses the dry cleaners and the health food store and the branch post office. She had parked on the side street, just around the corner from the post office, and left the car unlocked and the windows open while she and the girls did a couple of errands. When they got back to the car, there was this package in the back seat, sort of hidden under some newspapers, and her daughter’s friend, getting in, said, “Hey, what’s this?”
It happened that the police department was only two minutes away, a couple of blocks north, on the way home. After giving Officer Cumston her name and address and the location where the parcel had materialized, Mrs. Comkowycz drove home and fixed dinner, leaving the mystery in the hands, as she saw it, of the proper authorities.
The proper authorities—Patrolman Cumston and the departmental dispatcher, Greg Gebhardt—notified the chief of police, Jay Romine, and the chief agreed that Mrs. Comkowycz’s package certainly demanded attention. He ordered Gebhardt to take it out to the vacant lot between the station house and the next-door Public Works Department, cordon off the area, and telephone Lt. George Harris at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, over at the county seat in Bradenton. Lieutenant Harris was the head of the sheriff’s hazardous materials squad, known as HAZMAT. He was a bomb expert, and he would know how to deal with the situation.
While waiting for HAZMAT’s white response truck to make the twenty-minute drive from Bradenton, the proper authorities of Holmes Beach kept an eye on the package. From the window of the station they could see it lying there, exactly where Gebhardt had gently placed it, against a cinder-block wall, among the Public Works Department’s brown plastic recycling boxes. The secret of its origin, its ownership, and its inexplicable appearance in Patricia Comkowycz’s station wagon remained tantalizingly obscure. As Chief Romine told a reporter from the daily newspaper in Bradenton, suspicious-looking packages need to be handled “properly,” and this was a package that certainly warranted suspicion. What was it? Who had put it there? And why?
In truth, the owner of the package—or of its contents, at any rate—was at home that day in San Francisco, where she has lived for many decades without participating in a bomb plot, an armed insurrection, or even a minor disturbance of the peace. Leone Baxter, a woman of prominence, respectability, and conservative inclination, is the widow of Clem Whitaker, Sr., a masterful lobbyist and political strategist, with whom she founded the firm of Whitaker and Baxter—also known as Campaigns, Inc.—the first public relations firm devoted entirely to politics and the first to manage every aspect of a political campaign. The late Carey McWilliams, a former editor of The Nation who wrote about California politics, said of Campaigns, Inc.: “Its slogans are works of art, and its manipulation of public opinion is something to excite wonder and amazement.”
Miss Baxter would have been chagrined to know that a parcel belonging to her was terrorizing the authorities of Manatee County, Florida, and she would have been appalled to learn what the authorities were planning to do about it, for the brown paper package did not contain a bomb but an exquisitely framed pair of miniature portraits of George Washington and his wife, Martha, presumed to be the work of the celebrated American painter Gilbert Stuart, whose best-known likeness of the first President adorns the one-dollar bill.
The pictures, only 3 1/8 by 4¼ inches, painted in watercolor mixed with a tiny amount of adhesive on whalebone ivory, had once belonged to Joseph E. Davies, a millionaire lawyer and Democratic party functionary, whom President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1936. During Davies’s two years in Russia, the pictures hung side by side in Spaso House, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Moscow, and were widely admired. Although their provenance was not documented, they were taken on faith to be one of six pairs of miniatures of General and Mrs. Washington believed to have been painted by the prolific Stuart, the other five pairs having been identified in museums and private collections.
After Davies’s death, in 1958, the miniatures passed to a nephew who gave them to Miss Baxter in settlement of a debt. She hung them proudly in the lobby of her office, Whitaker and Baxter’s world headquarters, in the penthouse of the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Like Miss Baxter’s well-polished 1959 Silver Cloud Rolls-Royce, the paintings went with her to Republican cocktail parties and fundraisers up and down California, and she occasionally lent them out to give cachet to public events sponsored by worthy causes. (As McWilliams observed, Whitaker and Baxter had run so many “fabulously successful” campaigns over such a long period of years that they had built a vast network of friendly alliances, contacts, feeders of information and even patronage. Miss Baxter came to believe that her pictures contributed significantly to the financial and social success of innumerable gatherings.)
Among the acquaintances whose public service Miss Baxter supported was her friend Fred Burrous, a former CaIifornian who now maintains an office and vacation hideout in a trailer park in Bradenton Beach. Burrous too is a patron of worthy causes, including Earth Day International, an organization seeking efforts to free the world of poverty, pollution, and violence. It occurred to Miss Baxter that Burrous might find a buyer for the portraits and use the proceeds for his charities, and she entrusted George and Martha to him when he was in California several years ago.
The results of his effort were disappointing. Although the pictures have since been convincingly attributed to Stuart and valued at forty-five thousand to sixty thousand dollars by accredited fine arts appraisers, Burrous could not find a buyer. In moving to Florida, he lost track of them, found them tucked into a box of dish towels, and decided at that point that he had better send them back to Miss Baxter.
On the afternoon when Patricia Comkowycz found the mysterious package in her station wagon, Burrous had driven over to the S&S Plaza in his gray late-eighties Subaru station wagon, intending to dispatch George and Martha to San Francisco. He parked just outside the post office, which shares a flat-roofed turquoise stucco building with Linda’s Sunny Side Up café, the Touch of Class Dry Cleaners, the Barefoot Trader’s Beach Shop, and, right next door, a package-wrapping service called Pac ’N’ Send. Burrous had with him Leone Baxter’s mailing address on a slip of paper.
At Pac ’N’ Send they did a very nice job of boxing and wrapping the portraits, but by the time Burrous picked up his order and headed next door it was a few minutes after four and the post office had closed for the day. After tossing the package into the station wagon, he went around the corner to a row of racks behind the post office and bought a copy of USA Today. He did not notice that the station wagon into which he had put the package was not gray, was not a Subaru, and was not his.
The next day was Saturday, and the post office was open only from nine to noon. When Burrous couldn’t find the miniatures in his car, he drove back to Pac ’N’ Send to see if he might have left them there. At the wrapping shop they asked him, “Haven’t you seen the newspaper?”
A headline in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune said, SUSPECTED BOMB WAS JUST A PORTRAIT.
It emerged that the HAZMAT unit from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office had arrived at police headquarters, Holmes Beach, shortly after five o’clock Friday afternoon. Lieutenant Harris of the bomb squad had taken a wary look at the package in the cordoned-off area among the recycling bins behind the Public Works Department. A portable X-ray machine that the HAZMAT carried in its response truck had revealed small nails inside the box. Lieutenant Harris had gotten out a water cannon, stood at a safe distance, and aimed the gun at the package.
Officer Cumston’s report of the event concluded: “The box was blown and the contents revealed. It was a packaged picture of George Washington. The remains were placed into Property. The nails were from the frame of the picture.”
Fred Burrous came on Monday to claim the residue.
Recounting “the sad and humiliating story” in a letter to his “dear Leone,” Burrous wrote that he was “mighty miserable” and was “so sorry that I could have done such a dumb thing.
“In speaking with the local police,” he went on, “I found that Martha is completely gone. George is about half there.”
When the remnants of the First Couple reached San Francisco, Miss Baxter handed them over to her lawyer and friend, Richard Stratton, who contacted Baxter’s friend the art dealer Herbert Hoover, who had known the tiny George and Martha back in the partygoing days when they were all there. He concluded that even the morsels that had survived were representative of the work of Gilbert Stuart “at his best, with his most celebrated subject.”
Miss Baxter’s lawyer filed an insurance claim.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, Mrs. Comkowycz, and the Holmes Beach Police Department regard the case as closed. In their view, you simply can’t take chances nowadays with unmarked packages in your station wagon.