A body believed to be that of a missing California National Guardsman has been found in a German forest near the military base from which he disappeared almost a year ago, a U.S. Army spokesman said Wednesday.
Army officials and German police are investigating the death of Spc. Mason Jacques Karl O'Neal, whose hands reportedly were bound and whose fatigue jacket was said to be tied around his neck.
O'Neal's disappearance had sparked a bitter disagreement between the National Guard and the Army. Army officials had branded O'Neal a deserter, stripped his wife and three children of military benefits and demanded about $20,000 in repayment for some back pay and benefits. National Guard authorities, however, had argued that O'Neal was disabled by psychological problems when he vanished, and that his family members--who live in Sunnyvale--still qualified for benefits.
A German forestry official discovered the body early Tuesday morning Pacific time, near the Grafenwoehr Army base, Lt. Col. Guy Shields said. O'Neal, a military policeman, had run away on July 17, 1997, while being taken to a base clinic for observation, Army investigators said.
Shields said the body was decomposed, but he declined to say if O'Neal had been bound or to discuss the possible cause of death.
"All I can say is that it was badly decomposed. While we have not confirmed 100% that it is O'Neal, documents found on the body gave us enough reason to believe that the remains are his," Shields said.
O'Neal's mother, Marika Dakkon, who speaks German, said police in Weiden, a town near the base, told her "that woodcutters found his body. His hands were tied behind his back with a belt, and his jacket was tied around his neck in a noose." The body was on the ground, she said.
A California National Guard official familiar with the case said O'Neal's hands were bound in front and not behind, and he confirmed that the jacket was "apparently used in the hanging." He would not elaborate, however, because the cause of death has not been established.
Dakkon, who lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., and her mother, Erna Steinbach, who lives in Whiting, N.J., and was born in Germany, have been in contact with German authorities and newspapers for the past 11 months, seeking help in finding O'Neal.
Days before he bolted from his escorts, O'Neal had complained to his brother, Army Reserve Maj. Derrick O'Neal, and his wife, Fatima O'Neal, that he felt his life was in jeopardy. In an interview earlier this year, Fatima O'Neal said that in their last telephone conversation, on July 14, 1997, her husband told her he believed "he was in danger and that somebody was out to get him."
Derrick O'Neal, an Army tank commander in the Persian Gulf War, also said his brother had expressed fears for his safety in a telephone call.
"He wouldn't give the names of those whom he thought were threatening him. But he kept saying that he was in danger," O'Neal said.
A "psychological autopsy" by an Army psychologist after O'Neal vanished determined that he suffered from paranoia, anxiety and fear of persecution. But an Army criminal investigator's report said that while the psychological autopsy concluded that O'Neal's "behavior would have been unpredictable," it also "showed no signs of [him] being suicidal."
O'Neal was among 125 soldiers with the 649th Military Police Company of the California National Guard sent to Germany in January 1997 as part of the U.S. peacekeeping force in Bosnia. The unit returned home in September.
Fatima O'Neal could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but her lawyer, Robert Mitchell, said "she is very distraught by this development."
"She didn't hear about this first from the Army. Mason's mother was notified first and she called [Fatima O'Neal] with the news. The military handled this very poorly," Mitchell said. "[Fatima O'Neal] learned about her husband's death from a telephone call, with her children around her."
Mitchell said the National Guard eventually sent two officers to notify the widow.
In April, after The Times reported O'Neal's disappearance and charges by National Guard officials that the Army had mishandled his case, Army officials reopened its investigation.
An Army spokesman who requested anonymity at the time admitted that mistakes were made in the Army's investigation. "This soldier's case didn't go through normal channels. . . . Mistakes were made that created confusion," he said.
Shields said that the second investigation of O'Neal's disappearance is still underway. But National Guard officials have said they are not optimistic that the new inquiry will change the Army's official position that O'Neal deserted.
Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) also has inquired about O'Neal and has criticized the Army for its handling of the investigation and treatment of O'Neal's family, who went on welfare after they were stripped of O'Neal's pay and benefits. They are still receiving welfare today.