Remains possibly long-lost brother of Howard Dean

On a visit to Laos in 1974 presidential candidate's younger sibling vanished

November 19, 2003|By Matea Gold | Matea Gold,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean confirmed yesterday that a joint U.S.-Laotian task force has likely discovered the remains of his younger brother Charles, who was kidnapped and slain while traveling through Laos 29 years ago.

Dean, who journeyed to Southeast Asia last year to visit the site where it was believed his brother was killed, received the news several days ago. He and his two other brothers told their mother Monday night.

The discovery resurrects a painful chapter in the life of the former Vermont governor, who was 25 when his brother and an Australian friend, Neil Sharman, were captured during a trip through Laos in September 1974. After months of uncertainty, the Dean family learned from Asian contacts in mid-1975 that Charles Dean was probably dead, but they knew little about the circumstances until recently.

Dean was uncharacteristically introspective yesterday about how the loss of his brother affected him.

"I never really had time to grieve; it's very hard to grieve when you don't have a body," a somber Dean told reporters traveling with him on a plane from Bedford, N.H., to Houston.

But he said the loss of his brother caused him to be "much more careful about my personal relationships ... being much more careful to tell people that I loved them when I did," he said. "It made me more demonstrative about my emotions."

Dean also said his brother's death was so traumatic he had anxiety attacks in the early 1980s, which motivated him to seek therapy for about a year.

Dean still wears a belt that belonged to Charles, and said his brother's disappearance still haunts him.

"You always think about it," he said. "That never goes away."

Dean said the items found at the site in Laos, a rice paddy a few miles from the Vietnam border, give him confidence that his brother's grave has been located.

"This experience is very hard for us, but it's a good experience, in the end ... because it does bring closure."

Pentagon officials said they cannot confirm that the remains are those of Dean's brother until they complete a forensic analysis of the bones and other items found at the site in Bolikhamxai Province in central Laos.

Along with substantial skeletal remains, investigators with the Pentagon's Joint Task Force - Full Accounting - which seeks to recover the bodies of American prisoners of war and those missing in action in Vietnam and other wars - found a pair of shoes that resembles those worn by Charles Dean and a POW/MIA bracelet he wore to commemorate a soldier lost in Vietnam, Dean said.

The discovery came to light on a day when Dean delivered a speech in Houston summarizing the insurgent themes of his campaign. He accused President Bush of employing "Enron economics" by pushing the agendas of the wealthy - including those who have contributed to his campaigns - over the needs of ordinary Americans.

But the focus of the day shifted to the discovery in Laos.

Just 16 months apart, the two brothers shared a bunk bed as children growing up in New York and then attended boarding school together in Rhode Island. They went to different colleges - Howard to Yale; Charles to the University of North Carolina. During those years, they both moved to the political left, much to the disapproval of their staunchly Republican family.

Idealistic and gregarious, Charles Dean served as president of the student body at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and then went on to work as the county chair for Democrat George McGovern's 1972 presidential bid.

But McGovern's sound defeat by President Richard M. Nixon disillusioned and angered Charles Dean, who decided to head off on a backpacking trip to Asia.

At the time he was seized by Communist Laotian forces, Charles Dean was 24 years old and had been backpacking through Australia and Asia for about a year. During a trip down the Mekong River, he and Sharman were taken off a ferry and held by Communist forces in a dispute over a camera he was carrying, according to Howard Dean.

He was held in a local police camp for at least three months, and managed to smuggle out a photo of himself, which eventually reached the U.S. Embassy in the Laotian capital.

Howard Dean, who was living at home at the time, working as a stock broker and taking night classes to prepare for medical school, got the phone call that his brother was captured.

Through his father's contacts with a group called the Asia Foundation, Dean said the family received a letter in May 1975 that indicated Charles Dean was likely dead. The family held a private memorial service for him in Sag Harbor, N.Y., at a family cemetery. They eventually learned that on Dec. 14, 1974, Dean and Sharman were handcuffed and transported from the camp in a truck. That was the last time they were seen alive.

A few years ago, a witness told investigators that he saw the bodies of two young men tossed inside a bomb crater along that road near a bullet-riddled shack used by a North Vietnamese construction battalion.

During a trip to Laos in 2002, Dean visited the site, which had been turned into a rice paddy. He spoke to the witness, who said the North Vietnamese killed the two young men.

The former governor said he and his family plan to travel to Hawaii Nov. 26 for a repatriation ceremony.

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