“Black Hawk Down” author shines again in local “who-done-it” manslaughter


Mark Bowden is one of the more interesting American non-fiction writers of recent years. The former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer is probably most famous for “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.” The book, of course, was turned into a 2001 Ridley Scott film but it is more than just cliche to say the book was better than the movie. The movie was good and the book was great. A contributing editor at “Vanity Fair” magazine, his most recent work to catch my attention is set in my own back yard.

“The Body in 348” is a page-turner of a murder mystery even though it can be found on the May 2013 “Vanity Fair” Website. That, plus the fact that I already knew how the story ended. It is one of those stories that is full of “being all it’s not.” For one, the term “homicide” is a legal technicality. The real crimes, perhaps stupidity the one crime to which the killer could not be held, were more accurately manslaughter with perhaps a bit of obstruction hither and yon.

When I first heard that the death at the MCM Elegante hotel in September 2010 was being investigated as a homicide I found too many parts to the puzzle missing. That isn’t unusual here in Beaumont, Texas, where petroleum landman Greg Fleniken, was found dead near his hotel room door. For a quite some time now, this city of some 118,000 on the upper Texas coast, has not had the most inquisitive news media. This is especially true when it comes to crime stories. Local law enforcement has not had a reputation for an overabundance of cooperation in stories in which news people ask and cops answer. It has mostly been a go-along-to-get-along sort of arrangement between the press and police. That isn’t being hypercritical of the police. They are not expected to give away the keys to all the investigative secrets. The damning goes to timid editors, as well as TV news directors. Today’s story in the Beaumont Enterprise is well-written and what gave me the inspiration for this blog post.

But this homicide was even more sketchy than most that are reported on the market’s three TV stations, in its daily newspaper and two weeklies. The latter includes a tabloid that has been an organ for certain local trial lawyers and a tort-reform courthouse reporter planted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to help “shame” what has long been called a “judicial hellhole” for civil defendants.

Fleniken was doing nothing more odious that watching Iron Man 2 on the television when he met a most violent death, the cause of which was a gunshot wound to the groin that caused massive interior wounds and bleeding. It would take assistance from a private investigator Bowden introduced in a previous VF article to help a local detective determine that it was indeed a gunshot wound and not an ultra-violent kick in the crotch as the Jefferson County Medical Examiner had originally theorized.

This story isn’t one built from those typical TV-type private eye and local cop-style relationships in which each is out for their own agenda. Both private investigator Ken Brennan and Beaumont Det. Scott Apple both seemingly were a fortunate team. And even though Bowden notes Jefferson County pathologist Dr. Tommy Brown as initially reluctant to accept the gunshot wound as cause of death over a swift kick, the story shows how death investigations are often an exercise in inches and that natural folds in the scrotum were as good a hiding place for an entrance wound as one might find.

Lance Mueller and two other Wisconsin electricians were in the room next door to Fleniken drinking beer after a long day doing work at a local refinery. Other than getting buzzed, Mueller’s biggest mistake was bring up a 9-mm handgun from his vehicle and as can sometimes happen a round went through the wall and into Fleniken’s interior via his scrotum. They all went out to the bar after that, hoping, not foolishly as it turned out, that the gunshot through the wall didn’t hit anything or anyone. The next morning, the men knew that something bad happened as police were investigating the death.

Mueller was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. A story in today’s local daily said Fleniken’s wife is filing suit against the Elegante, its security firm, as well as Mueller and his coworkers.

So many fictional crime dramas and even the non-fictional ones have motives rooted in all manners of devious plots ranging from insanity to jealousy to greed. The so-called “misdemeanor murders,” crimes of stupidity are often overlooked as uninteresting with little to learn from the resolution of such tragedies. Leave it to a world-class writer like Mark Bowden who can take a borderline-accident and turn the story into a fascinating who-done-it with much that can be learned from something so senseless.