The Whistleblower

Cobalt Strip – the root of all evil in my story

I am getting behind on my story posts! The prompt for the Sturgis Library Writing Group last week was to write about a piece of mail you received, in any genre. A couple of years ago, I began writing writing a series of fiction stories, based on true events, using a young reporter working for a fictitious Pittsburgh newspaper (The Manchester Press & Journal). This young reporter hopes to someday become a sports writer covering his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. But in the mean time, because he is relatively new, he keeps getting assigned to a hodgepodge of stories. The only “sports” type story he wrote about was a pigeon race held at a place called “World of Pigeons”, located in a small town in the north central Pennsylvania coal region. My story is sprinkled with Pittsburghese, a language I became fluent in. At the end of my story, I will reveal the real events this story is based on.

The Whistleblower

Sly from the mailroom interrupted my line of concentration in crafting a brilliant story about the cow patty bingo tournament I had witnessed at the Washington County Fair.

“Yo Rookie!  Looks like yinz got a fan.  There’s a real letter, addressed to you personally, mixed in with this stack of junk mail.”

Even though I have been with the Manchester Press & Journal for almost three years now, Sly still referred to me as “Rookie”.  

“Thanks Sly.  Even junk mail is typically addressed to me, though.”  I called the mailroom guy Sly because he was anything but Sly.  He liked me calling him Sly, but he wasn’t sly enough to note it was a slight.

Stuck in the fold of an ad telling me if I could draw the pictured lumberjack I would be eligible for a scholarship to some obscure art school, was a plain white envelope.  The address was from someone named Hamilton in Strabane Township, about 20 miles SW of Pittsburgh.  It seemed to me that most people from the Strabane area called Pittsburgh “Picksburg”, and I wondered if they spelled it that way.  Seeing Pittsburgh spelled correctly on the envelope dispelled any doubts I had.

I debated opening the letter, was it hate mail?  I wasn’t in the mood for hate mail.  But my curiosity got the better of me so I slit the envelope, pulled the contents out and began to read.  Astounded by what I read, I had to read it a second time and went from astonished to mystified.  The letter was sent by a fellow named Steve Hamilton.  He said he’d met me when I wrote a story about an industrial accident that occurred in the factory he worked at.  I vaguely remembered him.  In the body of his letter, he was essentially blowing the whistle on his company, specifically on a co-worker and a few people on its management team.  He was accusing them of stealing raw material and scrap and selling it for personal gain.  He referenced an incident where 10 tons of cobalt strip shipped to a company in Ireland for conversion into industrial diamonds never arrived.  When the crates were opened, they were full of sand.  That story did jog my memory, but I didn’t realize it involved the company Steve worked for.  He said about two months after that disappearance, two managers bought up-scale homes in Canonsburg and his co-worker was tooling around in a Datsun 280Z.  He said he would like to meet to show me some Polaroid photos he took as evidence and gave me a phone number to call, and a specific time to call, which made me believe I’d be calling a pay phone.  Making the call at the requested time,  the traffic noise in the background confirmed the pay phone guess.  Steve asked if we could meet in “Picksburg” he didn’t want anyone he worked with seeing him talking to a stranger, much less a reporter.  I suggested we meet at my favorite dive bar, The Three Deuces at 222 Federal Street.  They had great kielbasa sandwiches and Wednesday was pierogi night.  I asked him if he wanted to talk to the police, I was good friends with a couple of Pittsburgh’s finest and assured Steve they would be discreet.  He hedged a bit, then agreed.  It being Monday, we would meet in two days on Pierogi Wednesday.

The Three Deuces, 222 Federal Street on Pittsburgh’s North Shore. A favorite meeting place for my characters. Sadly, the Three Deuces was torn down several years ago.

A visit to Three Deuces is an experience that ends in sensory overload.  Directions to it were easy, cross the Roberto Clemente Bridge and the bouquet of kraut and kolacz will draw you to its doors.  The air in the bar was so dense with smoke from the grill and cigarettes, it would have resisted a chain saw.  I found the bar by bumping into it and was greeted by Eddie Stanko, the owner of Three Deuces and now a good friend.  

“There’s a guy with a big rent in his head askin’ for yah.  He’s in the booth you reserved.  I don’t mean to be nebby, but will the detectives be joinin’ yinz?”

“Yes,” was all I said. 

Eddie jammed an ice cold Iron City in my hand and said, “Try not to stare at the gash in his head, it might make him self conscious.”

“Thanks, like that’s all I’m going to see now.” 

Sure enough, Steve had a big cut on his head and a black eye.  Asking if the thieves were on to him and roughed him up, he said, “Nah.  My wife and I were at dinner celebrating our anniversary.  I said I wanted a divorce and she hit me with an ash tray.”

“Nobody will ever accuse you of being a romantic Steve.  That’s for certain.”

“My crook co-worker is her brother-in-law.  She knows what he’s up to and has dished up huge quantities of grief on me for not getting involved.  It’s gotten really bad.  I am not a crook, so I wanted out.  This is my reward.” He pointed at the cut on his head.

My Pittsburgh PD friends, detectives Pat Martin and Jack Rowan, joined us.  Their eyes flew wide when they saw Steve’s horrible head wound, but they said nothing.

We listened intently to Steve’s tale.  He laid out a dozen Polaroids he secretly snapped of his co-worker sneaking Cobalt scrap out to his car.  He had another batch of photos showing the two managers overseeing the loading of coils into a curiously unmarked truck.  When asked why he didn’t go to the higher authorities within the company, Steve said he thought they may be involved as well.  His wife had let something slip about the plant manager buying a summer home in the Outer Banks.  Suspicious of everyone, he felled compelled to reach out to me.

After hearing Steve’s story, Pat & Jack sat back, deep in thought.  Jack leaned forward and said he and Pat were going to have to run this past the Chief of Police.  Federal laws were violated, this was under the purview of the FBI.  Pat looked at me and said, “We can’t say anymore, your involvement ends for now.  If a story breaks, we will do our best to make sure you get the scoop.”  Thanking Steve for his bravery and me for involving them, they disappeared into the smoke.  

Out of the fog appeared Eddie holding a tray with a plate of pierogies and two frosty Iron City beers.

The FBI did conduct an undercover operation and sure enough, the corruption not only involved the plant manager, but also the regional sales manager and group vice-president.  True to their word, Jack and Pat did pull strings for me to scoop the story and I made the short drive to the factory to interview other management and hourly personnel.

While hammering the plant controller as to how he could have missed the large quantity of unaccounted materials and revenue, a motion outside the picture window in his office made me pause my line of questioning.  It was Steve Hamilton sprinting past.  A woman was chasing after him, but her high heeled sandals hampered her pursuit.  Picking up a rock, she screamed “You bastard!” And threw the rock at Steve, catching him between the shoulder blades. Roberto Clemente would have been proud. 

The controller turned to look back at me.  His eyes were bulging and his mouth agape.  He was trying to form words.

“They’re getting a divorce,” I said.

*Notes*: this story is based on true events. Forty two years ago, a work colleague was terminated for stealing and selling cobalt scrap for personal gain. The majority of the earth’s cobalt is mined in the Republic of Congo. Civil War erupted there in 1980 and the price of cobalt skyrocketed, almost quadrupling in price. The guy I worked with tried to cash in on the boon. Although he was never caught red handed with the goods, there were strong eyewitness accounts that led to his dismissal.

The story of the guy Steve (not his real name) getting brained with an ashtray after telling his wife he wanted a divorce is true. I was the first one to see him when he arrived at work and he told me his story. A short time later I saw him sprint past my office window, his wife chasing after him pelting him with rocks. Those decorative, white landscape type. She had a good arm!

Ernie Stricsek

The Sturgis Library Writing Group

February 20, 2023

6 thoughts on “The Whistleblower

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s