A killing reveals a hidden life to small town

Leonardtown residents stunned by revelations of neighbor's deception

April 09, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN -- Michael K. Blankenship was all very nonchalant about his contacts and his accomplishments. He mentioned only casually that he was a friend of the Clintons, had helped write the last State of the Union address, was a Vietnam War veteran who recently rose to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve.

No, Blankenship -- a humble-looking mortician with big, roundish specs looped over two oversized ears -- never bragged. Whatever good things fell upon him, he would tell friends, were caused by his good luck and a loving, gracious God.

But then, not long after penning his will, the general was strangled.

And only after Blankenship was killed at age 49 and a 19-year-old soldier was arrested in his death was his true life revealed.

The revelations stunned locals in the heart of St. Mary's County, opening a window into the human condition that displayed grand deceit and ironic honesty; perhaps deadly greed and unquestioned generosity; violence and a secret sex life. "I wish ...," begins Merv Hampton, who is 70 and takes the time to search for the right sentiment about Blankenship, who had misled him for a decade. "I wish Michael had known he didn't have to exaggerate or hide to be popular or accepted. That's what I wish."

Blankenship came from West Virginia to Leonardtown in 1990, as close as anyone here can remember. He was gregarious, outgoing but not boisterous, almost immediately an asset to the community, volunteering at the local hospital and during all kinds of events sponsored the Rotary Club.

That nobody seems quite certain how the stories about his life began is testament to how effective he was in creating a past that was almost wholly untrue. Somebody mentioned to somebody that he knew Hillary Clinton, the story around town goes, and then somebody mentioned it to somebody else, and the word continued to spread until his supposed association with the first lady became a given.

`Good with families'

Blankenship, a certified mortician, took a job at Leonardtown's Brimsfield Funeral Home, mostly doing paperwork and attending to the grieved but also preparing bodies for viewing and burial.

"He was good with families," says the funeral home's owner, Edward N. Brimsfield Jr. "I knew him as a licensed mortician who did his job well, worked basically 9-to-5, and I know he was active in the community, but what he did when he wasn't working, I don't know."

One favorite nonworking activity of Blankenship's was wining and dining guests at the Cedar Point officers club, an exclusive lodge of sorts on the grounds of the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, about three miles from his home in downtown Leonardtown.

Often dressed in a neatly pressed, dark-green Army uniform, he was a common sight on the base, waved through the guarded gate as the distinguished war veteran and rising reservist he purported to be.

"He marched in our parades, he marched in all the veterans parades," says John Romer, a Patuxent spokesman. "Whenever he was asked about his career, he had an answer. I know people asked him about Vietnam, and he had all kinds of stories."

Honor for soldiers

Last year, as St. Mary's Veterans Day parade ended, Blankenship took to the podium and offered fond words for fallen soldiers, for those who survived and those who still serve.

At about the same time, he was spending hours on the Internet, authorities now say, chatting with a young soldier named Jairo Francisco Torres, an infantryman assigned to the 5th Battalion at Fort Lewis, outside Tacoma, Wash.

Blankenship had told friends he was a widower, that his wife had succumbed years ago to cancer in West Virginia.

It was sad, of course, but somehow the story relieved his friends who had begun whispering among themselves about Blankenship's connections with young Hispanic men. He seemed to spend so much time with them, some of them known around town, some of them strangers introduced as friends.

That's how Blankenship had introduced Torres when the young man flew to Maryland to visit him.

Authorities say Torres, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a child, visited Blankenship three or four times after they met about six months ago. They traveled to West Virginia at least once to visit Blankenship's mother and brother, and investigators say they think the older man once flew to Washington state to visit his young friend.

"They visited each other, wrote letters to each other, e-mailed each other and talked on the phone together," says Richard D. Fritz, the state's attorney in St. Mary's County. "It appears it was a relationship that moved very quickly."

`Very difficult'

Fritz says the relationship began in an Internet chat room. Investigators believe Blankenship may have become infatuated with Torres, who, a friend of Torres' says, had only recently told his family he was gay.

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