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Airing Our Fears

Harold Ford Jr. convenes anti-terrorism summit.

By Tony Jones

A recent incident at a pizza shop in Raleigh Springs Mall so alarmed Alicia Bradley, an employee at the Millington Naval Base, she reported it to a friend in law enforcement. Bradley related her experience at the Mid-South Anti-Terrorism Summit convened Monday by Representative Harold Ford Jr.

Bringing together professionals and managers with expertise in areas ranging from bioterrorism concern to what is needed in a home emergency kit, Ford's meeting at the Shelby County Commission offices sought to explain the preparation efforts under way to assuage fears such as Bradley's.

"I'd been there a couple of times before, so I stopped to get a sandwich," Bradley recounted. "The restaurant's television was broadcasting a speech by Osama bin Laden, but it was broadcast in Arabic and there was no English translation. That's what really seemed strange to me. I know there have been tapes on the news, but this seemed live. I have cable and I've never seen an Arabic-speaking station without a translator. But it wasn't just that. It was the way the guy was looking at the television like he was in a trance or something. Like bin Laden was talking directly to him."

Until then, Bradley says she thought the proprietors, whom she describes as friendly and polite, were Italian. Two younger customers came into the store. One of the teens asked the man who bin Laden was. Bradley said, "He turned around with this real big grin and told them, 'That's my brother.' The girl said, 'What?' And then he tried to laugh it off. But it really wasn't funny. Not at all. Now isn't the time to be making those kinds of jokes. If you could have seen the way he was staring at the television, you would understand why it was unnerving."

Tim Viertel, the Secret Service's chief agent for the Memphis area, says that though Bradley's experience may have been a "really bad joke," citizens should be vigilant about reporting such incidents.

"We would follow through by taking a profile of him, which would be used for future monitoring perhaps, but only if there was plausible reason to be suspicious," says Viertel. "We do not want the American public to become engaged in racial profiling, but we also have to be careful to remain vigilant, and this does sound like an odd incident. The smallest clue could lead to something. After September 11th we know that we must remain aware. This entire area is on alert. I cannot provide specifics, but the public should know that we're preparing response scenarios."

Ford says he will hold the meeting, which he termed "very productive," regularly, maybe even weekly. Ford added that "we need to coordinate the efforts under way so we can figure out a way to widely disseminate the information to the public. This morning made it evident that the agencies are reacting progressively. We have to better tie the efforts together to make the information available to the public."

Responding to news that Congressman Tom Daschle had received mail containing anthrax spores, Ford responded, "If we learn that these recent anthrax mailings have any connection [with the September 11th attacks], there is no excuse for that. Will this help accelerate a re-evaluation of our foreign policy? Most likely. I hope that some of my colleagues that have a great loyalty to the policy we now employ will be willing to study and reconsider some of their positions. I think Congress will do what is necessary to ensure our security, but I think there will be a great reluctance to sacrifice the principles of the freedoms that we enjoy in America and the promotion of democracy around the globe."

The city's strength as a medical center enhances our potential to respond to a biological attack, says University of Tennessee microbiologist Ritchie Fuselki. "The laboratory environment here is very prepared. We're at a high level of training, so in the event of a covert attack I believe the laboratory community is prepared to identify potential chemical agents."

BBQ Joint Goes Up In Smoke

By Lesha Hurliman

photo by lesha hurliman
The Public Eye, one of midtown's oldest barbecue joints, was consumed by flames last Thursday evening. The Overton Square eatery, which has been vacant for more than a year, was in the process of being sold to be renovated or more likely demolished. Midtown residents gathered around the blaze and watched smoke and fire pour from the roof. Firemen soon put out the blaze, but the words "a blessing in disguise" were heard from more than a few onlookers.

Kosta Varlas, famous for cooking ribs at the Public Eye, and 25-year patron Ralph Plumlee sipped beer together in a nearby parking lot, watching and reminiscing. "I was there 16 years," said Varlas, "I was there the day it closed. It's sad to see it go."

"It was the prettiest bar in Memphis," said Plumlee. "It was our pub."

The future of the site on Cooper seemed a concern to some of the crowd. "I hope they don't turn it into another parking lot. That's just what we need," said one onlooker. "Hope they get rid of it quick," said another, "so it's not an eyesore for months to come."

"There are no plans right now," said an Overton Square spokesperson, though admitting that "a parking garage is one of the ideas."

The fire department's arson unit believes the blaze started because of faulty wiring. This week, crews began clearing away the debris.

Workman Update

Expert questions forensic evidence.

By Mary Cashiola

A court-recognized forensic pathology expert testified Tuesday that he did not think the bullet that killed Lt. Ronald Oliver was fired by Tennessee death-row inmate Philip Workman.

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a Pennsylvania coroner who has been on panels to investigate the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. and estimates he has performed 14,000 autopsies over the past 40 years, said that Oliver's fatal wound did not show characteristics that one would expect with the bullet that supposedly killed him.

The bullet in question, described as silver-tipped, is .45 caliber, aluminum-jacketed, hollow-point ammunition. Because aluminum is softer than copper, Wecht testified it should have shown some sort of fragmentation or deformation.

"That bullet is essentially intact. It showed no flattening or mushrooming," said Wecht, "and the jacket remained in place."

Wecht said he agreed with earlier findings of the trajectory of the bullet that killed Oliver, but said the trajectory would be highly atypical with the bullet Workman is supposed to have fired. For one, he says thatWorkman's bullet probably would not have exited Oliver's body.

Wecht estimated that he has perhaps done a few dozen autopsies involving the same type of ammunition and "in all cases I can recall," he told the court, "the bullet has not exited the body."

"When it hits a hard bone, like the rib of an adult male, there's a greater propensity for some kind of deformation," said Wecht. "It's not really designed to exit the body. That's the whole concept for its origination."

Another "highly atypical" piece of evidence was, according to Wecht, the entrance wound, which was significantly larger than the exit wound.

"Especially for a bullet that has struck a rib and is going to be tumbling. [The bullet] is highly unlikely as the missile that struck Lt. Oliver's chest."

Earlier testimony by the prosecution had said the smaller exit wound could be explained because it resulted from only a fragment of the entire bullet. However, a post-mortem X-ray of Oliver's body revealed no fragments inside.

Under cross-examination Wecht said he could not testify to absolute medical or scientific certainty and that he had been hired by the defense to testify in the case.

Pledging Allegiance

Board wants daily recital.

By Mary Cashiola

Shortly after a man who described himself as a "businessman, a father, and a patriot" came before the Memphis City Schools board Monday night to ask that all students say the Pledge of Allegiance at school, a resolution stating as much was fast-tracked by the board.

James Martin, wearing a shirt emblazoned with American flags, said he was shocked at the lack of respect young people have for the flag.

Commissioner Lora Jobe proposed a resolution shortly afterward asking for a policy that would require students and faculty to say the pledge each morning. The rules were suspended so the board could discuss and vote on the proposal immediately.

"People have a right not to," said Commissioner Sara Lewis, "but every red-blooded American has an obligation to [say the Pledge]."

After the resolution passed, citizens in the audience gave the commissioners a smattering of applause.

The resolution asks that the policy have an option for non-participation as mandated by federal law.

city beat

A Study In Contrast

Low-end retailers' profits soar while high-end firms plummet.

by John Branston

If it is now the patriotic duty of Americans to get out and shop, then the performance of two Memphis retailers, Fred's and AutoZone, suggests that working people are rallying around the flag.

The rich, meanwhile, need to get it in gear. Pricey retailers like Saks, run by part-time Memphian and University of Memphis alumnus Brad Martin, are in a tailspin.

The contrasting performance of the low-end and high-end retailers this year is startling.

Martin was a dazzler. After college, he went into politics and became the youngest member of the Tennessee General Assembly. Then he went into retailing and turned Proffitts into one of the most successful department store chains in the South. In 1998 he bought Saks Fifth Avenue, the very essence of high-end New York retail. The national media ate up the story of the charming Southerner who took such a bite of the Big Apple.

There are no Saks or Proffitts stores in Memphis, but Martin continued to maintain a home and key business contacts here with Morgan Keegan and Memphis-based Southeastern Asset Management. Morgan Keegan's research department recommendations helped push the stock price to over $40 a few years ago. Southeastern Asset Management bought into Martin's story in a big way. The parent company of the Longleaf family of mutual funds owns 27 million shares of Saks, or 19 percent of the company. Warren Neel, the current commissioner of finance and administration for the state of Tennessee, is on the Saks board of directors.

Martin himself owns another 3.6 million shares. He earned $2,603,721 last year, about half what he made in 1998 when Saks' stock price peaked. Saks even paid its former chief operating officer, Robert Mosco, $1,875,000 when he resigned last year.

What has Saks done to justify such salaries? Not much. Sales have grown to $6.5 billion a year, thanks to the merger. But Saks had income of only $75 million last year, and its three-year income growth is negative 45 percent. The stock price is around $7.75, down 27 percent this year and more than 80 percent off its all-time high. A $100 investment in Saks in 1996 was worth $122 five years later, compared to $255 for the Standard & Poor's 500.

Fred's, on the other hand, caters to a low-income clientele that has probably never even seen the inside of a Saks. The typical customer is a single woman making less than $30,000 a year. She spends just $11.60 each visit, but Fred's sales were up 25 percent in September, and its net income has grown 15 percent a year for the last three years.

Fred's stock price is up nearly 100 percent in 2001, and in the five previous years it was up 432 percent. The company's modest CEO, Michael Hayes, doesn't make enough to pay Brad Martin's taxes. When Hayes and other investors bought Fred's 12 years ago, his salary was set at $200,000 a year, with no bonus and no stock options. It hasn't changed since then.

Another Memphis company that caters to working people of modest means is also having an exceptional year. The stock price of AutoZone has doubled this year. Comparable store sales are up 8 percent.

CEO Steve Odland says it's "sort of a myth" that AutoZone does better when the economy is bad.

"The company doesn't seem to be tied to any economic cycle," he said recently.

Maybe not, but the stock keeps right on climbing.

What's ahead for the local economy? Some of the most eye-opening comments came from University of Memphis economist Richard Evans at a meeting of the Memphis City Council's Budget Committee Tuesday.

Evans said local sales-tax revenues were down 2.8 percent last year, which means "as far as local retail, we were in a full-blown recession." Had it not been for the big property-tax increases in the city and county, "it would have been a very bad year indeed."

He then turned to the current Memphis economy and the impact of the terrorist attacks. Saying he hoped that terrorists would not hear him, Evans said he finds it hard to believe that crazies are not putting powdered anthrax into FedEx envelopes and packages.

"I just can't believe that it is not already in the news," he said.

Evans noted that the government's anti-terrorist scenarios have included a terrorist attack on the FedEx hub.

"FedEx is such an obvious target that we may suffer quite severely," he said.

Evans said it is unlikely that "we will get away without any disruption of our local economy" given the possibility of terrorism, the added cost of security to businesses and the airline industry, and the downturn in tourism, which he said is in a "depression."

Others, however, have suggested that FedEx will pick up business because of new restrictions on passenger airlines that carry mail. The U.S. Postal Service plans to shift more business to cargo carriers such as FedEx and UPS.

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