A killing reveals a hidden life to small town; Leonardtown residents stunned by revelations of neighbor's deception

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEONARDTOWN -- Michael K. Blankenship was all very nonchalant about his contacts and his accomplishments. He mentioned only casually that he was a friend of the Clintons, had helped write the last State of the Union address, was a Vietnam War veteran who recently rose to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve.

No, Blankenship -- a humble-looking mortician with big, roundish specs looped over two oversized ears -- never bragged. Whatever good things fell upon him, he would tell friends, were caused by his good luck and a loving, gracious God.

But then, not long after penning his will, the general was strangled.

And only after Blankenship was killed at age 49 and a 19-year-old soldier was arrested in his death was his true life revealed.

The revelations stunned locals in the heart of St. Mary's County, opening a window into the human condition that displayed grand deceit and ironic honesty; perhaps deadly greed and unquestioned generosity; violence and a secret sex life. "I wish ...," begins Merv Hampton, who is 70 and takes the time to search for the right sentiment about Blankenship, who had misled him for a decade. "I wish Michael had known he didn't have to exaggerate or hide to be popular or accepted. That's what I wish."

Blankenship came from West Virginia to Leonardtown in 1990, as close as anyone here can remember. He was gregarious, outgoing but not boisterous, almost immediately an asset to the community, volunteering at the local hospital and during all kinds of events sponsored the Rotary Club.

That nobody seems quite certain how the stories about his life began is testament to how effective he was in creating a past that was almost wholly untrue. Somebody mentioned to somebody that he knew Hillary Clinton, the story around town goes, and then somebody mentioned it to somebody else, and the word continued to spread until his supposed association with the first lady became a given.

'Good with families'

Blankenship, a certified mortician, took a job at Leonardtown's Brimsfield Funeral Home, mostly doing paperwork and attending to the grieved but also preparing bodies for viewing and burial.

"He was good with families," says the funeral home's owner, Edward N. Brimsfield Jr. "I knew him as a licensed mortician who did his job well, worked basically 9-to-5, and I know he was active in the community, but what he did when he wasn't working, I don't know."

One favorite nonworking activity of Blankenship's was wining and dining guests at the Cedar Point officers club, an exclusive lodge of sorts on the grounds of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, about three miles from his home in downtown Leonardtown.

Often dressed in a neatly pressed, dark-green Army uniform, he was a common sight on the base, waved through the guarded gate as the distinguished war veteran and rising reservist he purported to be.

"He marched in our parades, he marched in all the veterans parades," says John Romer, a Patuxent spokesman. "Whenever he was asked about his career, he had an answer. I know people asked him about Vietnam, and he had all kinds of stories."

Honor for soldiers

Last year, as St. Mary's Veterans Day parade ended, Blankenship took to the podium and offered fond words for fallen soldiers, for those who survived and those who still serve.

At about the same time, he was spending hours on the Internet, authorities now say, chatting with a young soldier named Jairo Francisco Torres, an infantryman assigned to the 5th Battalion at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, Wash.

Blankenship had told friends he was a widower, that his wife had succumbed years ago to cancer in West Virginia.

It was sad, of course, but somehow the story relieved his friends who had begun whispering among themselves about Blankenship's connections with young Hispanic men. He seemed to spend so much time with them, some of them known around town, some of them strangers introduced as friends.

That's how Blankenship had introduced Torres when the young man flew to Maryland to visit him.

Authorities say Torres, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child, visited Blankenship three or four times after they met about six months ago. They traveled to West Virginia at least once to visit Blankenship's mother and brother, and investigators say they think the older man once flew to Washington state to visit his young friend.

"They visited each other, wrote letters to each other, e-mailed each other and talked on the phone together," says Richard D. Fritz, the state's attorney in St. Mary's County. "It appears it was a relationship that moved very quickly."

'Very difficult'

Fritz says the relationship began in an Internet chat room. Investigators believe Blankenship may have become infatuated with Torres, who, a friend of Torres' says, had only recently told his family he was gay.

"His mother cried, and his father tried to be OK with it but it was hard, but his brothers said they still loved him," says the friend, who lives in Seattle and asked that her name not be made public. "It was a very difficult thing for him. He told me everything, things about boyfriends and everything, but he never said a word about this Blanken... -- whatever his name is."

Authorities say that Blankenship wrote to Torres and assured him their relationship would never end and that Torres apparently told his family about his cross-country love.

Blankenship told Torres, according to Fritz, that if the young man's family didn't believe their relationship was real, they could look at his will. In it, he said he left Torres everything: his house and a $250,000 life-insurance policy.

Then, toward the end of January, Blankenship wrote to a friend in California who apparently knew him better than the people amongst whom he lived. In the letter, according to Fritz, Blankenship wrote that he could not wait until Jan. 25 because "my lover is paying me a surprise visit."

Blankenship had also written to Torres, according to investigators. He told him about a newspaper article he had read. A gay man had met another man and taken him home, even though he didn't really know him. The stranger then killed his host and ransacked the house to make it look as if a robber had intruded and was responsible for the killing.

"Don't let that happen to you," Blankenship wrote to Torres, according to the state's attorney. "Don't go getting yourself picked up."

On Jan. 25, a young man stood at a ticket counter at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and presented a card identifying himself as Antonio Duran Marco. He was heading to Reagan National Airport.

Blankenship drove there to pick his friend up.

Matter for courts

What happened next will be for the courts to decide.

According to prosecutor Fritz, the young man identified as Marco was Torres. Within 15 minutes of arriving at Blankenship's home, Fritz says, Torres pulled out a piece of rope. about the circumference of a clothesline.He wrapped a piece of the rope around each hand, tossed it over Blankenship's head around his neck and squeezed.

The young man left the house in Blankenship's car and then, perhaps remembering the letter he had received, returned to the house and ransacked it, trying to create a scene that resembled a robbery, authorities say. He drove to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, left the car running in the passenger dropoff lane and flew back to Washington, investigators say.

"Let's put it this way," Fritz says. "There was a brand new handgun that belonged to Blankenship sitting, in the open, on a dresser. No self-respecting robber I've ever heard of would leave a gun like that behind."

Help from Navy

When authorities checked on Blankenship after his employer became concerned because he didn't show up for work, he lay dead in his bathroom, his eyes open, the life he had invented about to be exposed. On his computer screen was taped a handwritten note: "FAG."

With help from naval investigators, authorities replicated the hard drive from Blankenship's computer. That's how, Fritz says, they discovered the circumstances under which he and Torres had met, their correspondence, the supposed motive for the young soldier to kill the general he had so admired, maybe even loved.

"There's no evidence Torres was setting him up from the beginning," Fritz says. "We just don't know. We do know he thought Blankenship really was a general and that he really had named him in his will. A house and 250 grand? That's motive enough to kill for a lot of people."

Torres quickly became the only suspect. When St. Mary's authorities informed the Army's Criminal Investigation Division that Torres was a suspect in a killing, Army investigators approached him.

Yes, Torres said, according to Fritz, he was gay and knew Blankenship, but he had not been in Maryland in January and certainly didn't kill anybody. The Army discharged Torres after he acknowledged being homosexual, and investigators from the St. Mary's Sheriff Department watched him while he worked loading and unloading boxes at a Bedroom Superstore in Seattle and lived with his friend.

"I knew he was being investigated, and I asked him if he was scared, and he said, 'No, because I didn't do nothing, don't even think I did nothing like that,'" the friend says. "I believe him. I could just tell from his frame of mind that he didn't do it."

Arrest last month

On March 28, authorities arrested Torres and charged him with first-degree murder and robbery. Last week, he was extradited to Maryland and is being held without bail in Leonardtown.

Before a memorial service for Blankenship -- at Christ Church in nearby Chaptico on Jan. 29 -- Hampton and his friends thought to notify the White House of his death.

The White House said nobody there, let alone Hillary Clinton, had ever heard of Blankenship. Then, a call to the Army revealed he had not served in Vietnam, was not a brigadier general, was not even in the Army Reserve. He had been a soldier, though, serving from 1970 to 1973. In the service, he baked bread.

Romer, the Patuxent spokesman, says Blankenship was admitted to the officers club years ago and renewed his membership annually. Authorities there don't know how he got his original membership, but they note that among the items found in Blankenship's car was a device for creating fake identification.

"He buffaloed a lot of people," Romer says. "Us included."

A good neighbor

An Army spokeswoman, Martha Rudd, said it's not unusual for people to falsely claim to have been in the service and not unheard of for someone to exaggerate what their service had been. "But we just don't get people running around claiming to be a general," she said.

Hampton, Blankenship's friend, says that despite the deceit, he was a good neighbor, an important part of the community who visited the sick, cared for the poor. "The general" had been scheduled to be installed as the next president of the Rotary Club of Leonardtown.

"We're still in a state of shock," says Hampton, who once had his picture taken at the Navy's annual "Blessing of the Fleet" at Patuxent while Blankenship stood next to him in general's garb.

"We're absolutely dumbfounded," he says. "Of course, in retrospect, it doesn't make sense that more questions weren't asked. It's just, maybe it was, he was 'hail fellow well met.' But you look back. He was supposed to be in the reserves, but he never seemed to go away for Reserve duty. We didn't know what his unit supposedly was. We really didn't know much about him at all as it turns out."

The truth of Blankenship's life was just beginning to emerge several days after his death, when the church services for him were held in Chaptico. His body was prepared at the funeral home where he had worked. The mourners opened with the hymn, "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee."

The church was packed, the pews and the aisles, for the man who had helped them, had fooled them, had hidden parts of his life and made up others. They listened to readings from Revelations, but nobody spoke of the lies.

There was talk and tears and a closing hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," and then Blankenship's body was driven back to West Virginia, to be put to rest, his hands folded over his suit, a civilian one.

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