Howard's End

After nearly three decades on the run, a fugitive from the raucous anti-war era is outed

Penny Overton, a young reporter for the Scottsdale (Ariz.) Tribune, found it difficult to believe when Gary Tredway told her he was living under an assumed name. The confession came during her second en-counter with the City Council candidate.

During her first interview with Tredway, Overton had told the candidate she would need to verify the information on his résumé and campaign literature. When she informed him of this standard practice, Tredway "started getting really nervous," Overton says. The reporter tried to put Tredway, a well-known community activist, at ease by asking some softball questions about his family and education, but that only seemed to make the candidate more tense. "He was just sweating buckets the whole time," she recalls.

After their first meeting, Tredway made repeated attempts to contact her, but Overton says she failed to return the calls because she was busy covering a high-profile murder case. When she finally met with Tredway a second time, on Feb. 3, he first told her that there was a discrepancy in his college transcripts. Overton took this to mean that he had embellished his academic record. But as the interview progressed, Tredway revealed a much darker secret. "Eventually it came out," says Overton. "He just said, "I'm not Gary Tredway. I've been living under an assumed name.' My response was "You're bullshitting me,'" says Overton. "This guy is about as square as you can get. He's a Boy Scout."

Overton's story saying that the City Council candidate had a false identity ran in the Tribune on Monday, Feb. 7. Within days, the intricately woven deception had all but unraveled. Tredway was revealed to be Howard Mechanic, a federal fugitive wanted for his involvement in a turbulent demonstration that occurred at Washington University in 1970.

Mechanic, then a 22-year-old student, was convicted on federal charges for throwing a cherry bomb -- a powerful firecracker -- at firefighters who were attempting to extinguish a fire at the campus Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) building. The arson job, carried out by anti-Vietnam War protesters, occurred just after midnight on May 5, 1970, and was precipitated by the killing of four student protesters at Kent State University by Ohio National Guardsmen the previous day.

For Mechanic -- a native of Shaker Heights, Ohio -- the war in Vietnam had come home: Soldiers were killing students on campus in broad daylight. Although thousands of students cheered as the flames consumed the Air Force ROTC building, no one was ever charged with the arson. But Mechanic was one of the few charged for participating in the demonstration. Upon Mechanic's conviction by a jury, Judge James H. Meredith -- known for his tough law-and-order approach -- gave him the maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. After he lost his appeal in 1972, Mechanic jumped bail.

Mechanic lived with his secret for the next 28 years, settling in the early 1980s in Scottsdale, where he established an identity as Tredway, an apartment owner, health-food supplier and concerned citizen. While living in Arizona, Mechanic married and divorced under his assumed name and raised a son, who is now a 19-year-old student at a college in New Mexico. Mechanic's twin brother, Harvey, a lawyer in Los Angeles, has refused to say whether he was contacted by his sibling during his fugitive years. Attempts to reach Mechanic's father, who still lives in the Cleveland area, were unsuccessful.

Mechanic, who is now in federal custody in Arizona, declined through a spokesperson to be interviewed for this story. He has hired attorneys in Scottsdale and St. Louis, who have in turn retained a PR consultant to handle calls from the press. In addition, a Phoenix-area support group has been formed to lobby for Mechanic's exoneration on the basis of the exemplary life he has led. The ranks of his defenders include the Arizona chapter of Common Cause, a citizens-advocacy organization, which lauds Mechanic for working to pass a campaign-finance reform law two years ago (the law was struck down by the Arizona Supreme Court this week).

Mechanic's political activism spurred him to run for local office under his assumed name.

Mechanic, the idealistic student radical, still inhabited the body of this middle-aged Arizona landlord, and it only took a little coaxing by Overton to flush it all out. When the reporter, who was a toddler in 1970, began questioning the candidate about his past, she may have gained his confidence because of her knowledge of history. "I think he told me because we talked about the whole '60s thing," she says. When Mechanic said she wouldn't understand his plight, Overton told him that she had done a college thesis in American studies on how the media covered the Kent State massacre.

The long-kept secret had been exposed. Wire services and the Arizona Republic picked up on the story and the pieces of a long-forgotten footnote to the Vietnam War era were broadcast nationwide, rekindling a discussion about the anti-war protests and whether Mechanic still deserves to go to prison.

One of those most directly affected by Mechanic's flight in 1972 was Washington University English professor Carter Revard, who put up his house to secure Mechanic's $10,000 bail. Although he still faults Mechanic for skipping out, the now-retired academic saves his harshest criticism for "the lying scoundrels and ideologues" -- those who used the legal system to help dictate American foreign policy.

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