Conduct Unbecoming

Bill Beachum, war hero and Disabled American Veterans honcho, had an out-of-control dream that may soon land him in jail. Question is, was he the only old soldier on a mission of greed?

To insiders, it raised a different question:

Was he going down alone?

David Hollenbach
Trustee Jerry Bay in front of a bankrupt DAV thrift store
Jennifer Silverberg
Trustee Jerry Bay in front of a bankrupt DAV thrift store

Beachum's year of infamy ended in November 1999, when officials from DAV's national headquarters whisked him into rehab and hired a private investigator to assess the damage.

Out in Windsor, Missouri, Beachum's friend Jerry Bay caught only the lightest spray of gossip: The St. Louis chapter was broke and some redhead was suing it.

Bay was out in the barn, methodically worming his quiet, heavily muscled russet and black Gelbvieh cows, when the call came summoning him to a January 10 meeting in St. Louis.

It was a three-and-a-half-hour drive, but Bay agreed automatically. He had the habit of doing, without hesitation or fuss, whatever was needed. When he was a fireman, he was the one who came home with his ears burned. Later he served as a deputy sheriff, a municipal judge, a DAV state commander. He liked helping veterans who'd been handed a raw deal. So when he went on 100 percent disability -- after two spinal fusions and the implantation of electrodes to intercept the pain -- he volunteered for DAV, helping Beachum organize service officers throughout the state.

On the surface, the two men had a lot in common. Both grew up poor, married young and went through hell in Vietnam. Once, Bay's tank hit two land mines and got ambushed by the Vietcong. Once, blood pouring from his ears, he managed to fire enough rounds to save his comrades' lives. He was seriously wounded twice and collected even more medals than Beachum.

But war wounds and tokens of honor had the opposite effect on Jerry Bay.

He came home passionate about fairness, convinced that a straight line ran between right and wrong. Death no longer scared him, but he'd sleep on a bed of knives to keep his conscience clean.

When Beachum wasn't drinking, he hung out with Jerry and his wife, Connie Bay, at the national conventions. When he drank, he avoided their eyes.

He hadn't looked at them straight for a long time.

When Bay walked into Jefferson Barracks for that meeting, he expected to talk about bailing the St. Louis chapter out of a financial mess. Beachum saw him and came over, already sodden, muttering something about doing it all for the sake of the DAV.

Before he could explain, the meeting began -- and swiftly turned hostile. Why was Beachum paying hush money to a woman who'd been a bottomless dancer on the East Side? How dare he spend all the chapter's money on a failing restaurant?

"We have lost track of our purpose," intoned the inspector general of the national DAV, Robert Gushee, who'd flown in from the organization's Cold Springs, Kentucky, headquarters for the occasion.

Gushee suspended the chapter and appointed three trustees from outside the chapter -- one of them Jerry Bay -- to clean up the mess.

Bay figured it would take maybe a month.

He spent the next two years driving back and forth between Windsor and St. Louis, pulling apart a tangled mess of misspent money, a drained pension fund, vanished life insurance policies, inexplicable property transactions and doubled or missing records.

He wasn't given to clichés, but by the time he'd read the investigator's reports, scrutinized the books and interviewed DAV employees, he was saying things like "Beachum's only the tip of the iceberg." He questioned the behavior of past officers, the management of the thrift stores, even the intent of the national organization's decision-makers.

Bill Beachum had indeed screwed up royally.

But other men's greed had given him permission.

Initially, all Beachum wanted was to give the chapter members a home, a place like the one they used to have on Kossuth Avenue, where they could meet to play cards or stuff envelopes, have a few drinks, talk to people who understood how years of drill and combat could shape the rest of your life.

Beachum found them Lemmons, a dim-lit little place on Gravois long famous for its fried chicken and lemon pie. He kept the owner, Joe Tucci, as manager but ignored the loyal bluehairs who lined up every Sunday.

Beachum envisioned a sports bar with leather couches and a four-star restaurant serving chateaubriand and bananas Foster.

"It was nuts," says Tucci. "I said, 'Bill, this is South St. Louis; this is an older clientele; these people want the chicken."

Tucci watched in amazement as Beachum, who'd agreed to pay $300,000 for the restaurant, wrote checks totaling $411,510 to Savbyo Construction to renovate it.

"We're talking about chicken," Tucci reminded him again, "$7.95 a plate."

Beachum signed off on a charge of more than $21,000 to install and light a donated flagpole. He spent thousands on the bar alone, a massive, lakelike oval of marbled burgundy Corian.

He and Jane Doe held hands across that bar. She called him at the office. They were seen dining together. At one of the chapter meetings, coworkers say, she came in wearing a gauzy top tied under her breasts and a pair of shorts. Older, chunkier women were heaving trays up and down the stairs. When they offered her a chance to help, she reportedly informed them that she was there to entertain.

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