Missing Man Was Barely Missed

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This is the small-town America of cliche. Folks leave their cars running when they pop into the drugstore. The city manager makes house calls to fix jammed VCRs. And when locals give directions, it sounds something like this: Turn right where Josie's dad used to live and then go on past the house that Noreen just sold and turn left where Paul's brother used to stay.

It's a town, in short, that feels like one big family.

So you would think a possible murder mystery unfolding in its midst would jolt Bellevue's very soul. It hasn't. In fact, few residents have taken much note--even though the case has twists aplenty. The reason: The alleged victim was a newcomer. And most folks here can't get all that riled up about his disappearance.

That indifference reflects a tension facing small towns across the heartland: With young adults leaving for bigger opportunities, towns are aging and fading fast. In order to survive, they need to grow--and that means attracting outsiders. And outsiders, of course, change the everyone-knows-everyone, no-need-to-lock-the-doors atmosphere many communities pride themselves on.

In Bellevue, the outsiders are refugees from cities like Chicago, drawn to the slower pace and quiet beauty of this town of 2,350. In other rural areas, the newcomers are immigrants attracted to factory or meatpacking jobs. But whoever they are, explains Iowa State University sociologist Paul Lasley, their very appearance raises the dilemma: "We want to grow, but we don't want to change."

That's just how many here feel. Their ambivalence is reflected in their response to the puzzling case of Greg May, who vanished from Bellevue last winter, a few months before his 56th birthday.

May was an intriguing man who "moved between two worlds," said his close friend Christine Zraick, who runs a luxury bed and breakfast here.

May, 6 feet tall and distinguished-looking, was conservative in his politics and polite in his manner. He was an antiques dealer with an excellent eye for Civil War artifacts. He was also a tattoo artist.

Friends said he spent much of his time prowling antique stores and flea markets for 19th century treasures, stashing his finds in a suitcase so battered that no one would suspect it held a decent shirt, much less a $30,000 Civil War firearm. He earned the money for such purchases by inking tattoos in a thick-with-incense parlor decorated floor to ceiling with naked women, snakes and other sample artwork.

A few months after May disappeared, some of his prized antiques began to pop up in odd places.

Several Confederate swords and Civil War-era uniforms, valued at $70,000-plus, showed up in an auction house catalog in Illinois. Then two of May's antique documents--letters written to a member of the Jesse James gang--were mailed as donations to Missouri museums. They were accompanied by a handwritten note signed "Greg May." The museum directors accepted the gifts with glee. Yet friends say May would never have donated such cherished items. They suspect a ruse. Bellevue police have subpoenaed the antiques as evidence.

Investigators won't call the case a homicide but say they have "at least some possible evidence" of foul play. Yet some locals have questioned whether the case is even worth pursuing.

May had lived here only a matter of months. Few in Bellevue knew him even to exchange small talk. If they had heard of him at all, it was in the gossip that whipped through town when May inquired about opening a tattoo parlor--a proposal that was quickly shot down as not in keeping with Bellevue's clean-cut image.

"It sounds sort of mean, but he wasn't considered one of us," City Administrator Loras Herrig said.

So when the police began to ring up unprecedented expenses to probe May's fate--including out-of-state travel and considerable overtime--Herrig said he began to hear some residents grumble.

But after informal consultation, City Council members agreed to press ahead with an all-out investigation. They were swayed in part by pleas from May's ex-wife, who lives in Southern California, and her two grown children. And in part by their innate sense that justice needs serving, even for a Chicago transplant.

"Whether we know him or not, he's our neighbor," Mayor Virgil Murray explained.

Perched on a bluff above the Mississippi River, Bellevue has attracted many a new neighbor in recent years, mostly big-city burnouts like May. There's great hunting and fishing, the view is spectacular and you can buy a four-bedroom home on the river for $160,000.

"We came here as a haven," said Larry Bay, 60, a retired truck driver from Chicago. After three years here with his wife, Carol, he still marvels that the neighbors are so friendly. He's never heard so many "good mornings."

Like the Bays, many urban refugees say they feel welcome here--but never entirely embraced.

"Bellevue is a town made up of what I call the us-es and the thems. . . . [But] we love it out here so much, we wouldn't give it up for the world," said Mike Cyze, 52, a writer from Chicago who brought his family here a decade ago.

The tensions between the newcomers and the old guard are mostly minor matters. An out-of-towner might suggest moving junker cars from the alley only to be told to lay off, those are Bob's cars and he doesn't have the money to take care of them. Longtime locals complain that some newcomers still act as if they're in an anonymous big city: They play their music too loud or let their dogs run loose or turn to City Hall to resolve a property line dispute instead of negotiating over homemade rhubarb pie.

Small stuff. But May might well have felt more a misfit than most.

With his passions for tattooing and expensive antiques, May stood out. Especially when he strolled Riverview Drive with his friend Douglas DeBruin, a burly ex-con tattooed from arms to thighs who goes by "Moose."

May and DeBruin shared a rental house and found jobs in a tattoo parlor across the river in Illinois. They would shoot pool in one of Bellevue's two bars at night and would swing by the Frontier Cafe in the morning for scrambled eggs and sausage patties. Waitresses remember May as a quiet guy, friendly but reserved. DeBruin was the boisterous one, always cracking jokes. They stayed pretty much to themselves.

Then sometime last fall, Moose's girlfriend, Julie Johnson, came to town and moved in with them. Waitresses noticed a change in Moose: He would sit alone in a corner with Johnson, looking somber and quiet. A few months after Johnson arrived, Moose was seen loading May's antiques into a yellow van. He told their landlord he and May were breaking their lease and leaving town. Then he and Johnson drove off.

May apparently already had vanished.

Police say "apparently" because they're not sure when he disappeared. He used to travel the country seeking out Civil War treasures. Plus, he had told friends he was considering moving to Florida; he was tired of the Midwest's bitter winters and fed up with the insularity of Bellevue. So, for a time, no one worried when he didn't show up around town. But when his ex-wife couldn't reach him for weeks on end, she called police. By the end of February, the hunt was on.

Detectives got their first--and so far only--break when Johnson allegedly put several dozen items from May's collection up for sale in an Illinois auction. They tracked her to Arizona and arrested her there, charging her with theft. She has pleaded not guilty and is in jail awaiting trial. Moose, meanwhile, was arrested for violating his parole. He is in a Wisconsin prison.

But if either has disclosed any information about May, police will not let on. All they will say is that they have not charged anyone with homicide. And that they are still looking for May, alive or dead.

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