Somersworth, NH -
I caught wind of the Clinton office hostage situation in Rochester just after 2PM today, while the US History class I was substitute teaching half-heartedly watched a video about the Roaring 20's. My gmail inbox turned white at the top with a new item from Off the Bus asking if it were possible to get out to the scene of the crime to do a little bit of citizen journalism. I told OTB that I could be in Rochester by 4:30, and they told me to run with it.
So I picked up my laptop and my digital camera and burned rubber toward the seacoast. My editor, Neil Nagraj, was giving me updates on the story over the phone as I drove an hour due east to Rochester without a map. I was going purely on instincts, road signs and telephone directions. It was one of those afternoons.
By the time I veered off of Rte. 4 and onto US 202, it was beginning to be widely reported that a man named Troy Alan Stanley was the alleged hostage taker based on the report of a family friend given to FOX News's Carl Cameron. Whereas the original purpose of my trip was to bear witness to the growing media circus revolving the hostage situation, my new assignment was to find background on Mr. Stanley.
Just as Neil was giving me directions to turn right onto US 202A through the center of Rochester to find Stanley’s house, I hit the first of many roadblocks. Much of the town center of Rochester was cordoned off by local and state police, and sitting directly across the lane I was slated to turn on to was a police car parked perpendicularly with an office standing alongside and directing traffic away from 202A.
I hung up the phone, pulled the car over, and ran over to the officer for guidance. She directed me all the way around the city to Rochester Hill Road, where ten minutes later I would find the apartment complex where Mr. Stanley lived. I climbed the stairs to the second floor to where I was told his apartment would be, turned to my left and walked to the end of the hallway. When I finally shifted my gaze to the appropriate door, my heart dropped in my stomach. There were clear indications around Stanley’s apartment of unusual behavior. Was this the residence of America’s Most Wanted man?
I stumbled down the hallway a little ways and knocked on a door to ask some neighbors about him. Three of them were sitting together eating fish and chips and happily obliged my request for background on Mr. Stanley. Just like the media in downtown Rochester, they instantly and excitedly jumped on the Stanley guilt bandwagon. Although the neighbors asked to remain anonymous, they nevertheless bombarded me with dozens of stories about the man that I won't report here because of his innocence, but that were telltale signs of schizophrenia and potentially clear windows into the mind of the hostage taker.
As a result, everything seemed to fall into place. A tormented man with a history of lashing out at neighbors and habitually engaging in generally twisted activities fit the profile of what we were all looking for incredibly well. So well, in fact, that it seemed almost too good to be true.
"You won't believe it," I told my editor over the phone after I left the apartment building. "This guy has quite a story."
I recounted all the things that the neighbors had told me. Neil suggested I talk to the apartment managers to find out a little bit more about their tenant, possibly a photograph or a personal reference. I walked across a field, the grass just beginning to crisp with the cold evening air, and rang a doorbell. A woman answered the door.
"It's not him," she told me. "My husband was just inside the building. Stanley walked into his apartment not two minutes ago."
Not sure what to think, I returned to my car, called my editor and told him the news. "Go ask again," he told me. "Find out for sure."
Just to make sure, I went back. This time the apartment manager himself arrived at the door. He reiterated that Stanley was in his apartment as we speak, and pointed to the light on the second floor window facing the driveway. He suggested I go talk to him myself if I didn't believe him.
I thanked them for their time and walked away from the house. After all the hoopla, it turned out that the most wanted man in New Hampshire was sitting in his apartment, victim of false media reporting and fear at the hands of his friends and family. It was like an episode of Scooby Doo, and I had just spent an hour chasing a Red Herring. The most obvious answer, fueled by a mixture of storytellers from around town, isn't always the best.
With this in mind, and spurred on by a request from the HuffPo to talk to Mr. Stanley about his feelings on the widely reported accusations, I summoned the courage to walk back into the apartment building and up the stairs to Stanley's room. I thought for sure he would be angry, and potentially volatile given the nature of they hysteria from earlier in the day and the description I had been given less than a half hour earlier. How could he not be?
On the contrary, Stanley was quite calm and far from menacing. He told me had no comment on the incident, and then launched into a five minute sermon about his past. Our discussion was short only by my insistence on giving him his peace. His mental illness shone through the entire story.
On the bright side, I felt relieved that the terrible misunderstanding didn't seem to affect him, he still had the same worries on his mind that his neighbors and relatives had described. But on the other hand I was incredibly saddened at the idea that his illness was so severe that such would be the case in the first place.
Down the stairs, along the driveway and into my car, I drove back to downtown Rochester, or at least as close as I could get before the police blockade. By this time, the identity of the actual perpetrator had become news. It was a man named Leeland Eisenberg. The hostages had all been released and I could hear the police radio announcing his capture as I stood in the crosswalk next to the State Trooper who was directing traffic near the blockade.
My editor called me just then, and we discussed the next course of action. The research team back at headquarters was looking into Eisenberg's background and awaiting further news from the authorities and the other media outlets. I was resigned to walk the streets asking if anyone knew the guy, and thinking about the things that had happened so far.
At the pizzeria, in the comic book shop and on the sidewalk nobody knew anything about Eisenberg. Maybe he was from out of town. But the more I walked around, the more I gathered that most of the people in sleepy Rochester this cold winter night were media types.
Packs of television reporters scurried around doing the same thing I was doing, only more aggressively and with a bigger camera and a better dressed inquisitor at the helm. It was then that I fully realized that I was part of the media circus myself. I turned around and headed back toward my car.
On the way back there was a candlelight vigil for World AIDS Day at a church next to the police blockade. I stopped and helped them fill their white paper bags with cat litter as a counterbalance for the wind while they lit votives and placed them inside. Their event was drastically reduced in guests and stature by the hostage tragedy, but they were joyfully moving on as planned. All things go on.
Sure enough, I got a call moments later with the location of Leeland Eisenberg's home. I had a second chance to find a back story on the troubled man who had caused such an uproar in the media, and so much stress and heartache in the friends and families of the hostages.
I left Rochester driving south toward Somersworth, coincidentally right past Mr. Stanley's apartment. Mr. Eisenberg lived alongside the same exact road, a mere two and a half miles south toward Dover. By the time I arrived, after inquiring at a Dunkin Donuts and a gas station to find out exactly where Eisenberg's trailer park was located, the place was a zoo.
Now at my second suspects house of the night, the locals were equally as forthcoming about their neighbor as the earlier bunch, but had no qualms about going on the record. Much to my surprise, and the television reporters beside me, their words were mostly positive. While George Isaacson, Lucie Sunkduag and Erik Carlsen all acknowledged the domestic disputes between Eisenberg and his wife, they were also quick to point out his usually sunny demeanor.
"He was a very pleasant man. It is a complete shock to me," Isaacson said.
"He was never down," noted Carlsen. "He always seemed lively and up."
Sunkduag's take was that "he always said hi. He was always well dressed when he went to the store."
When I asked about his walks to the store, I found out that they were quite frequent. Every day, in fact. And what did he get when he was there? Beer.
"I knew it wasn't the hard stuff," said Sunkduag, "because the grocery store down there only sells beer and wine. He goes there every day, nowhere else."
Carlsen observed that Leeland "was drunk 24/7."
Having picked up on this pattern of Eisenberg's lifestyle, I immediately became interested in a small detail. The mainstream media were disseminating these instant reactions to millions of people all over the world, so I figured I was best served asking around elsewhere to find out the question that all the sudden consumed me. What kind of beer did Eisenberg drink to escape his problems and fuel his domestic violence?
I asked the neighbors, but they could only testify to having seen brown paper bags. I wondered to myself, was it Bud bottles or maybe tall cans of Keystone Ice? I thanked the neighbors for their time, left them to do their live television interviews with the local and cable news reporters on the scene, and decided to head down to the local convenience store to investigate.
Under a clear, cold sky, I followed Eisenberg's nightly path. It was about a three minute walk along a busy country highway and through a car dealership over to the Maxi Mart convenience store and gas station, home to a Domino's Pizza, a standard assortment of candy and chips, and of course a cooler full of beer and a tall rack of cigarettes behind the counter.
There were four people behind the counter when I arrived, the two co-owners, one of their wives, and a friend. They were taking turns dealing with customers and jovially bantering with one another. Perfect, I thought. It was just the kind of welcoming family business where the habits of the regulars might be recalled with some degree of clarity, and a little bit of conversation was part of the deal every time you bellied up to the counter for a sale.
After a brief and confusing struggle to describe Mr. Eisenberg to the shop's owner, Pierre Salfini, we finally agreed that Leeland, a short, thin, mustachioed man of about fifty was both the regular customer who came by around 6PM every day as well as the man who entered the Clinton campaign office some seven hours earlier claiming to have a bomb strapped around his chest.
"I think he was in here this morning," said Ali Ghaddar, the store's co-owner, with a bemused look.
"This may sound strange," I said to Silfani. "But I want to know what kind of beer this man bought when he came in here every day."
"He always bought uh, Natural, natural…" he trailed off.
"Natty Light?" I chimed in.
"Yeah, Natural Light," Silfani recalled. "Six packs. And he smoked either Basic Menthol or Pall Mall menthols."
Ghaddar spoke up from behind. "It was Pall Mall."
"Yeah," Silfani agreed. "Pall Mall. But definitely menthols."
The store owners gave almost identical testimonies on their perception of Mr. Eisenberg as his neighbors. "He was very nice and polite. Always well dressed."
While they chatted about the odd circumstance that they habitually sold legal doses of stimulants and depressants to a man who it turns out was quite disturbed I snuck off to the back of the clean, brightly lit store. I wanted to get a look at the beer cooler. Natural Light, coincidentally, was the first beer that ever got me drunk seven years ago. I knew of its allure. Sure enough, in the lefthand corner of the bottom shelf was the tell-tale soft gray and baby blue sheen of Natural Light.
Walking back to the counter, I asked how much the Natty Light six packs went for.
"$2.99," Ghaddar told me.
"And the smokes? The Pall Malls?"
He looked back and turned to me with an ironic smile on his face. "Same price."
Eisenberg may have been one of the better dressed customers at the Maxi Mart, but he bought the cheapest beer and the cheapest cigarettes they had to offer.
As I walked out of the convenience store I found myself whistling along with the song playing on the radio, The Police's "Message in a Bottle". Just a castaway, and island lost at sea. Another lonely day, no one here but me. I can only imagine that is how it felt a lot of the time for the two men who were involved, one wrongfully and the other correctly, in today's hostage fiasco in Rochester.