By Michael H. Brown
In 1986, while writing a book called The Toxic Cloud, I paid a visit to New Orleans and once there stayed with a physician who, along with her husband, was active in efforts to expose such dangers. They threw a little barbecue so I could meet others of like interest and one was Dr. Victor Alexander, a Harvard graduate who’d served as a senior medical officer at the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington before moving to Louisiana — where he raised a loud alarm over pollution from the oil industry (coeds at one college complained of their nylons disintegrating) and where, in a bizarre turn of events, he was arrested and later convicted of a local bank robbery.
Needless to say, a doctor and former high-ranking medical officer holding up a bank — one near his office, no less — is bizarre. At the barbecue, he showed me photographs taken by bank security cameras, pictures he argued were of a man who bore striking similarities — a bit corpulent and round of face, with a dark beard — but was not him. He argued that it had been a frame-up (thus proximity to his office),an industry’s attempt to halt his crusade against their pollution and particularly the dangers of its key product, ethanol.
There was no question that the oil and chemical industries in the state-controlled politics and dealt severely with critics, especially physicians. Those who publicly warned of health effects were subject to government audits, and when it came to bucking Big Oil, Dr. Alexander was the most active doctor. He published articles about brain cancer, miscarriages, and other maladies — not at all to the liking of corporate executives who controlled many local and state politicians, including, during one period of my research, the governor.
Harassment was an open secret among medical experts, who naturally shied away from such research…
Not so Dr. Alexander — until, in May of 1985, he was apprehended by federal agents for the $2,600 holdup of the Central Savings and Loan Association at 710 Canal Street.
There were a number of mysterious details about that bank, starting with the fact that it was robbed four times in a three-month period, including the crime for which Dr. Alexander was arrested [see court document].
Two of the robberies occurred within just two days of each other.
Was something being staged?
The money was another issue. At the time Dr. Alexander was making at least what would be $230,000 a year in current value, exhibited no evidence of any sort of drug habit, and had no problem posting a $500,000 bail — yet somehow needed a couple thousand dollars so badly he kept hitting a bank that was on the same street as his office, risking his entire career. Police decided that he’d done it to finance cavorts at a local strip club…
Desperately trying to show me that he was innocent, Dr. Alexander showed me a grainy security camera photograph of the bank robber, who bore those highly distinct similarities, not just weight but with brunette hair and beard — but who, Dr. Alexander argued, had clearly different facial profile, as well as differently sized fingers. The testimony of identity experts (willing to show it was two different men) had not been allowed into the court. And so Dr. Alexander — a national star when it came to toxicology, and one who presented free workshops explaining hazards in the petrochemical workplace — was ready for several years in prison.
We agreed to meet again at a pancake place near the airport when I returned to New Orleans following a trip to Texas. I had flown in from New York, and was heading back. It was a Sunday morning. A few minutes early, I sat in a chair facing the door so I could spot Dr. Alexander. I still couldn’t decide if he was telling the truth.
Shortly after a waitress dropped off a menu, I saw him enter: stout, dark-haired, though dressed in a very debonair fashion — sporting a black suit. That seemed odd. It was a Sunday. I had no doubt it was Dr. Alexander, and waved to gather his attention.
There was no response. The man in the suit sat down and looked around nervously, glancing back and forth toward me when he noticed I was looking his way. Gently I waved once more, watching him. When he saw that I was fixed on him, he grew so edgy that — before ordering — he abruptly set down his menu, rose, nudged back his chair, and beat a path for the door, exiting the restaurant and leaving me totally confused. Why’d he leave? Why had Dr. Alexander not recognized me?
A minute or two later, the restaurant door opened and a man who looked very similar, but was casually dressed, entered and immediately noticed me, smiling as he quickly made his way and sat down at my table, a sheaf of documents and photographs in his hands. It was Dr. Alexander, but in colorful weekend attire. Except for the clothes, he could have been the other man’s twin. I asked what happened, if he had just been there and left — and he replied with a very befuddled look. What? What was I talking about? Lest he think I was crazy, I dropped the matter and we went about business – his argument that he was the victim of a frame-up.
I never did figure it out. Persecution? Good chance. Did Dr. Alexander have a split personality? Or might he have set it up so that I was confused — first with him in one attire, then another — duping me into believing there was a double? There was no evidence of that, and it would have been very difficult to have changed that quickly. He seemed like a good man to me. But then, who was his dead ringer? Was it the real bank robber? By a tremendous quirk in synchronicity, had he happened into the restaurant that morning and then, growing nervous because I was looking his way, and guilt-ridden, took off? I even wondered if it had been an angel — taking the form as his doppelganger to show me the truth of the matter (that there was another man, the real criminal, who greatly resembled him).
That’s what I wondered, and likely always will.
[resources: Lying Wonders, Strangest Things]