Sixth of eight parts
Don C. Weir Jr. was an investment adviser in a St. Louis suburb and, at times, a principal in several financial services firms. In 1999, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in eastern Missouri, he told clients they should invest in paper currency, gold coins and other precious metals. Dozens took his advice and authorized him to make such purchases for their accounts. But instead of holding onto them, he sold them behind their backs “to fund his lifestyle.”
Weir used the money to send his five children to college, fix up his home and add a pool, and make “significant contributions” to charities, among other things. He also bought baseball cards and military collectibles, in particular from the Korean War. To cover his tracks, he mailed his clients false statements saying their investments were growing in value.
It all came crashing down when the FBI nailed Weir for cheating his investors out of more than $10 million. In February 2009, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud. He suggested his collectibles be sold to compensate victims.
The next month, federal agents went to his home to get his baseball cards and war memorabilia, part of the treasure of his criminal enterprise. The goods included an autographed picture of Adolf Hitler from the 1920s and a cast-iron bust of Joseph Stalin. Agents also found a Cold War-era, Soviet-style landmine and some shells, all of which were inert.
Among the souvenirs seized were a Purple Heart and certificate, and Good Conduct and POW medals, all bearing the name of a Korean War veteran whose home was 870 miles away — Gene Salay.
That September, Weir was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison and ordered to pay $12.1 million in restitution. He was fifty-five at the time, the son of a World War II Army colonel.
How did Weir get Gene’s medals? In 2014, I asked a key investigator in the case, St. Louis Postal Inspector Doug Boland. Weir said he bought Gene’s medals on eBay, Boland said, but investigators found no record of the transaction.
Why didn’t Gene keep his medals? His close pal Joe Zeller told me that Gene had become disenchanted and planned to get rid of them. What was bothering him? Joe didn’t know. He thought Gene meant to throw his medals in the trash. If that’s what he did, could someone have picked them out, knowing collectors would want them?
In 2011, the U.S. Marshals Service held an online auction of Weir’s military collectibles, but Gene’s medals weren’t for sale. Federal agents held onto them because they were personalized, with “Gene Salay” engraved on the back. A check of Army records followed.
Agents determined the medals were authentic, that Gene had in fact earned them. With that, an effort to return the awards to him or a living relative got underway. Marshals learned that both Gene and his wife, Ellie, were already gone. Gene died in June 2010 at age seventy-eight. Ellie followed him six months later. She was seventy-seven. They had no living children. Their only child, a daughter named Lisa, died of cancer in 1997.
A marshal in the service’s Asset Forfeiture Division sought help from a veterans advocate in Ohio, who in turn contacted a well-connected, prominent Pennsylvania veteran. That was Joe Zeller. Joe was a politician and leader in the Allentown veterans community. He knew Gene’s three sisters, all of whom lived in the Lehigh Valley.
In January 2013, Marge Szabo got a letter from the Marshals Service, saying her brother’s medals would be returned to her. She got them later that year from the chief U.S. marshal in Philadelphia, John Patrignani. After reading about Gene, he brought the medals to her in Bethlehem. “I wanted to handle this myself,” Patrignani told me in 2014, “because I thought he deserved it. He lived his life the right way.”
Marge presented Gene’s Purple Heart and certificate, Combat Infantryman Badge and Good Conduct and POW Medals to the Korea Vietnam Memorial Inc., which Gene had helped to found. The ceremony was held in the spring of 2014 at Lehigh Carbon Community College, site of the memorial group’s Armed Forces Plaza. The KVM had no venue to display the medals, so it turned them over to the 213th Regiment Museum at the Curtis Armory in Allentown.
Six months later, Don Weir was released from a federal prison.
My 2003 “in their own words” war story on Gene is on the internet. So are two blogs I wrote about Gene’s medals in 2014, one about the KVM ceremony and a follow-up about how the medals were recovered. That was the end of it until the fall of 2017, when a message appeared on my blog site from someone I didn’t know. It read:
“I may have medals from Gene Salay.”
COMING NEXT: Finding a deputy sheriff’s stash
Amazing gave me chills and tears