I’m back after weeks of sloughing off.
I wanted to fill you in on my search for what happened to Korean War medals that belonged to Gene Salay, because I left you hanging back in April.
You might remember Gene’s story. He was wounded, taken prisoner by the Chinese and freed after the armistice in 1953. Back home in Bethlehem, he graduated from Moravian College, worked a desk job at Bethlehem Steel and was Lehigh County’s veterans affairs director for 15 years. He died four years ago.
In April, during a ceremony to mark the ninth anniversary of the Korea/Vietnam Memorial’s Armed Forces Plaza at Lehigh Carbon Community College, Gene’s sister Margaret Szabo presented his Purple Heart and POW medals, plus other decorations, to the KVM, of which Gene had been a charter member. The KVM has no place to display them, so it turned them over to the 213th Regiment Museum at the armory in Allentown.
But it’s not as if Marge had her brother’s medals since his death in 2010. Instead, she’d gotten them from the U.S. Marshals Service, which had gotten them as a result of a federal criminal case against a financial adviser in St. Louis.
Marge got a letter in January 2013 from Gerald Auerbach, general counsel for the Marshals Service in Philadelphia, who said the marshals had Gene’s medals and would be returning them to her. She got them in November 2013 from the chief U.S. marshal in Philadelphia, John Patrignani, who hand-delivered them to her. I spoke with him earlier this month. He said he came to Bethlehem to deliver them because he’d read up on Gene.
“I wanted to handle this myself,” he said, “because I thought he deserved it. He lived his life the right way.”
He said Gene’s medals had been in the possession of Don C. Weir in St. Louis, a financial adviser who is serving a six-and-a-half-year term in federal prison for stealing some $12 million in precious-metal coin investments from 44 clients. He was convicted in 2009. (Here’s the story in the Riverfront Times of St. Louis: http://www.riverfronttimes.com/photoGallery/index/791349/2/)
Patrignani told Marge when he brought her the medals that Weir had had them.
The question is: How did Weir get them?
Patrignani suggested I call the U.S. postal inspector in St. Louis, Doug Boland, because Boland was one of the key investigators in the Weir case.
I spoke with Boland last week. He said Weir was an avid collector of military memorabilia, in particular stuff that had to do with the Korean War, plus Japanese and Russian military artifacts. He used the money he got from ripping off his clients to buy these collectibles, which included an autographed picture of Hitler.
Boland told me that when he asked Weir where he got Gene Salay’s medals, Weir said he bought them on eBay. But Boland said the transaction didn’t show up in the eBay records that investigators saw.
Wait, I have to back up here.
Why didn’t Gene have his medals?
Joe Zeller, a former state lawmaker and Emmaus mayor who was a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War and Gene’s friend, told me that some years ago Gene had gotten disgusted and said he was going to get rid of them.
Disgusted with what? Joe wasn’t clear on that.
How did Gene get rid of his medals? Joe thought he was going to trash them.
Well, there’s no smoking gun. Weir apparently bought the medals on the Internet or from a pawn shop. There’s no evidence anyone stole them from Gene, who had been my friend since the 1990s and whose “in their own words” story I wrote in 2003 for The Morning Call. Still, I can’t help but wonder what bothered him to the point he gave up awards the Army had bestowed on him for his sacrifice in the Korean War, which had been considerable.
He died with a bullet still lodged near his heart.