A senior vice president at the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) died last week from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, marking at least three people with ties to our state's ruling conservatives who have died under unusual circumstances in the past six months.
Ralph Stacy was in charge of strategic communications and was a chief lieutenant to BCA president Bill Canary. Montgomery police have released few details about Stacy's death, except to say they responded last Tuesday to a report of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at BCA headquarters. Stacy's funeral was on Friday.
We have described Alabama as Ground Zero for justice-related sleaze during the George W. Bush administration, and the state's political environment has been toxic for years. Republican Governor Bob Riley has documented ties to the Jack Abramoff scandal. And for about a year, Riley has been leading a crusade against gambling in Alabama, apparently to help protect the market share of his Choctaw gaming supporters in neighboring Mississippi.
A federal investigation is ongoing into gambling-related activities in the Alabama Legislature. And we reported 12 days ago that Leura Canary, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, might be planning indictments of 10 or more prominent Democrats as an "October Surprise" designed to have an impact on the November elections. Among Canary's possible targets are Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ron Sparks, a proponent of an education lottery, and gambling magnate Milton McGregor.
Leura Canary, a Bush appointee who still has not been replaced by the Obama administration, is married to Bill Canary, and the couple have been longtime Riley allies. But now one of Bill Canary's closest associates has turned up dead under mysterious circumstances--and he is not the first person with connections to the Riley administration to meet an untimely demise.
As Riley's two terms are winding down, bodies are piling up. Is that coincidence? Or has Alabama's political environment gone from toxic to deadly? And if so, what is driving it?
Ralph Stacy certainly did not seem like a prime suspect to commit suicide. He was 53, with a wife, Angel, and a daughter, Savannah. Friends and colleagues described him as a jovial man who was a popular speaker and didn't mind poking fun at himself. The Montgomery Advertiser wrote:
Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange said Stacy's personality made him stand out in any group.
"He was just so gregarious and so friendly," Strange said.
Randy George, president of the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce, noted Stacy's long commitment to chamber interests. That career also included a stint leading the Greenville Chamber of Commerce.
"He did a magnificent job," George said. "Ralph was one of those people who was truly bigger than life."
Stacy was a hefty man with a large smile who was just as likely to joke about his baldness as any other subject. That made him popular on the speaker circuit.
"He was a really dynamic and entertaining guy," George said.
Stacy had become an advocate for business as a young man in south Alabama. Wrote the Greenville Advocate:
Stacy, a native of Georgiana, was a well-known figure in Alabama through his work with the state’s 120 Chambers of Commerce. He was a popular emcee and guest speaker in Greenville and the surrounding area for events such as the annual Relay for Life and the Achiever Award program. His columns were published in The Greenville Advocate, where he worked as a reporter prior to serving as executive director of the Greenville Chamber.
Is Stacy's death part of a disturbing pattern? It's hard to tell, but we know of at least two (and maybe three) other cases that raise questions:
* Major Bashinsky--The 63-year-old son of one of the state's best-known businessmen was reported missing in early March. About two weeks later, his body was found floating in a golf-course pond on Birmingham's Southside, and his death was ruled a suicide. His father, the late Sloan Bashinsky Sr., was the CEO of Golden Enterprises, the maker of Golden Flake potato chips and snack foods. In the months leading up to Major Bashinsky's disappearance, the Estate of Sloan Bashinsky was involved in a lawsuit with W&H Investments of Birmingham, seeking an accounting of some $37 million the elder Bashinsky had invested with the firm--mostly in oil wells. A settlement was approved in the lawsuit on March 1, two days before Major Bashinsky was reported missing. One of the partners in W&H Investments is William Cobb "Chip" Hazelrig, who once had a campaign contribution to Bob Riley returned when it was discovered that Hazelrig was a founding partner of a company called Paragon Gaming. Both Hazelrig and Rob Riley, the governor's son, had ties to a company called Crimsonica, which is based in Tuscaloosa and run by a man named Robert Sigler.
* Zoa White--A former Riley campaign worker, the 69-year-old White was found dead in her midtown Mobile home on June 28. News reports have said she was beaten to death with a hammer. White had worked in the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) under Bill Johnson, who went from being a member of the Riley administration to one of the governor's harshest critics. Johnson was so close to White and her family that he helped notify friends about funeral arrangements. Mobile police recently made an arrest in White's murder, but they have said little about evidence found in the case. The prosecution will be led by Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, who is commander of Riley's anti-gambling task force. Suspect Carlos Edward Kennedy has been denied bond in the case and is represented by a court-appointed lawyer.
What about that other possible curious death we mentioned earlier? Suzanne (Pilkerton) Bashinsky-Ash, age 57, died in mid June in Birmingham. She was Major Bashinsky's stepsister and the biological daughter of Joann Bashinsky, who was Sloan Bashinsky Sr.'s second wife and now is director of Golden Enterprises. Associates of Joann Bashinsky were heavily involved in the lawsuit against W&H Investments. The only reporting on Suzanne Bashinsky-Ash's death has been a standard obituary, and we've seen nothing to indicate it was anything other than a natural death. But she was adopted by Sloan Bashinsky Sr., meaning two of his four children died between March and July of this year, within roughly four months of settlement in the W&H Investments lawsuit. The surviving children are Elisabeth Burford Bashinsky and Sloan Bashinsky Jr., a lawyer who lives in Key West, Florida, and has written extensively about Major Bashinsky's disappearance and death at the blog goodmorningfloridakeys.com.
As for Ralph Stacy, many questions remain about his death--and the Montgomery press corps seems to be in no hurry to answer them. Stacy's body reportedly was found at BCA headquarters. Where exactly was it found--inside the building, in his office, in a restroom, outside in a parking lot or deck? Who discovered the body? Did anyone witness the shooting? Did coworkers hear a gunshot? Does forensic evidence point to suicide? Did family members or friends see any signs that the outgoing Mr. Stacy was suicidal?
Perhaps most curious to us is the fact that Ralph Stacy died at work. It's almost as if someone was trying to send a message by having the death take place at the BCA headquarters. Was it Ralph Stacy--or someone else? And what message were they sending?