A Brilliant Death: New Excerpt

A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum is coming-of-age mystery where young Travis Baron searches for answers about his mother's mysterious disappearance so many years ago (Available April 5, 2016). 

Amanda Baron died in a boating accident on the Ohio River in 1953. Or, did she? While it was generally accepted that she had died when a coal barge rammed the pleasure boat she was sharing with her lover, her body was never found.

Travis Baron was an infant when his mother disappeared. After the accident and the subsequent publicity, Travis’s father scoured the house of all evidence that Amanda Baron had ever lived, and her name was never to be uttered around him. Now in high school, Travis yearns to know more about his mother. With the help of his best friend, Mitch Malone, Travis begins a search for the truth about the mother he never knew. The two boys find an unlikely ally: an alcoholic former detective who served time for falsifying evidence. Although his reputation is in tatters, the information the detective provides about the death of Amanda Baron is indisputable—and dangerous.

Nearly two decades after her death, Travis and Mitch piece together a puzzle lost to the dark waters of the Ohio River. They know how Amanda Baron died, and why. Now what do they do with the information?

CHAPTER ONE

From the Steubenville, Ohio, Herald-Star, June 7, 1971.

Brilliant Senior Class SalutatorianMissing After Car Plunges into River

BRILLIANT—Rescue workers from five local fire departmentssearched the Ohio River today for the body of the BrilliantHigh School senior class salutatorian believed to have died shortly aftermidnight Sunday when the car he was driving plunged 110 feet over acliff and into the murky waters beneath Hunter’s Ridge just north oftown.

Authorities identified the man as Travis Franklin Baron, 18, of 138Nichols Drive, Brilliant.

Baron, who only hours earlier had addressed his fellow seniorsat his commencement, was fleeing police when he crashed through abarrier and went over the cliff. A police spokesman said Baron was lastseen driving at a high rate of speed on Jefferson County Road 19 nearthe entrance to Hunter’s Ridge Park.

By the time pursuing police arrived at Hunter’s Ridge, the car wassinking into the Ohio River. There were no witnesses to the accident.

Sources said Baron had reportedly been drinking at several graduationparties before the chase began shortly before midnight.

“Obviously, we don’t hold much hope of finding him alive,” saidBrilliant Volunteer Fire Chief Delmar Bernoski, whose son James alsoparticipated in the graduation ceremonies. “With all the rain, and theriver flowing so swiftly, his body could be 20 miles downstream by now.”

Ironically, Baron’s mother drowned in the river 18 years ago thisfall, not far from last night’s mishap. Amanda Baron was on the family’s cabin cruiser the night of Oct. 17, 1953, when it was rammed bya coal barge.

Her body and the body of a male companion were never found.

Shortly after noon today, divers located the car, a black, 1957Chevrolet show car owned by Travis Baron’s father, Francis M. Baron.However, the body had been washed free of the vehicle.

The senior Baron, a truck driver, was out of town at the time of theaccident.

Brilliant Police Chief Steve Maurer said Baron had reportedlyattended several graduation parties where alcohol was being served.Maurer said witnesses reported Baron had been drinking heavily.

Baron was at a graduation party on Grant Avenue when he becamebelligerent and got into a fight with a friend, whom Maurer refusedto identify. The chief said the host of the party asked Baron to leave atabout 11:30 p.m.

Baron apparently left the party on foot but returned a short timelater driving his father’s car, which, according to Maurer, he did nothave permission to drive. Brilliant Patrolman Cloyd Owens attemptedto stop Baron after it was apparent he was intoxicated. However, Baronfled from the offcer.

Owens chased Baron south through Brilliant to Riddle’s RunRoad. Baron then led the offcer four miles northwest to the intersectionof Riddle’s Run and State Route 151, where he turned back

east toward Brilliant. As they neared Brilliant, Owens said Baron hadstretched a substantial lead on the police cruiser. Owens said he wasat least a half-mile away when he saw the taillights of the Chevroletleave the road. By the time Owens reached the spot where Baron wentthrough the barrier to the park, the vehicle had disappeared over theembankment. Owens said he ran to the edge of the cliff in time to seethe vehicle’s taillights sink beneath the water.

Chief Maurer speculated that a combination of speed, alcohol, andunfamiliarity with the powerful car led to the tragic conclusion of apromising life.

“You’ve got to wonder what he was thinking,” Maurer said as hewatched rescue workers drag the river bottom for the body. “Here’s akid, the class salutatorian, with his entire life ahead of him, and he pullsa stunt like this. Now, everyone’s memory of graduation isn’t going to

be of the good times, but this.”

Baron also was a member of Brilliant’s cross country and trackteams and was a district wrestling champion in the 118-pound weightclass. He was the only child of Francis and the late Amanda Baron.

***

The time frame established for telling this story was simple: I wouldbegin the minute I was sure that Francis “Big Frank” Baron was dead.This plan was potentially flawed by the chance, albeit slight, that BigFrank would outlive me, but I liked my odds. Big Frank was twenty-fiveyears my senior and a health insurer’s nightmare. He was a hundredpounds overweight, chain-smoked non-filtered Lucky Strike cigarettes,and could take a twelve-pack out of the fridge and polish it off before

the last beer got warm. The possibility that he would outlive me wasnot a concern. My concern was for my own skin. If I wrote the bookwhile he was still breathing, Big Frank Baron would hunt me downand kill me. Simple as that. Given Big Frank’s history, this fear was notunfounded. He was a violent man, and I have retained in my memorythe vivid image of the day he backhanded his son for the heinous act ofasking for three dollars to go to the movies. After Travis had cleaned theblood from his face and the splatter marks from the refrigerator, we saton the steps of the back porch as he pressed an ice cube wrapped in abloody dish towel against a split and swollen upper lip. There were stilltears in his reddened eyes when he said, “I wish the bastard would die,but he’s so mean he’ll probably live forever.”

He didn’t.

On February 16, 1996, just before nine forty-five in the morning,Francis Martino “Big Frank” Baron dropped dead in a snow-coveredparking lot at the Shenandoah Truck Stop along Interstate 70 near OldWashington, Ohio. He had been heading west to Dayton with a loadof cardboard when he stopped at the Shenandoah to buy antacids forwhat the coroner later speculated was an incorrectly self-diagnosed caseof indigestion. Frank was north of three hundred pounds and had the

dietary discipline of a hungry alligator, so bouts of heartburn and indigestionwere not uncommon. But this was anything but indigestion.

He dropped to his knees in a slush puddle in front of his idling Kenworth,a perplexed look consuming his face. His brows converged andhis upper lip hitched. Perhaps he was attempting to analyze the eruptionwithin his chest, or perhaps he pondered the possibility that therewere, indeed, powers in the universe stronger than pure meanness. Whateverthe thought, it was only momentary, for the screen scrambled andquickly went dark. He was dead before his forehead hit the asphalt, theunopened antacids still wrapped in fingers the girth of summer sausages.

An autopsy would later show that he died of a massive coronary.

When I happened upon his obituary in my paper, the Ohio ValleyMorning Journal, chills raced up my spine like a million needle pricks.The obit was a sanitized accounting of Big Frank’s life, a couple of terseparagraphs stating that he had died suddenly and was survived by abrother, Leonard. He was preceded in death by his parents, Dominicand Esther, a brother, Anthony, and a son, Travis. Visiting hours wouldbe held just before services at William’s Funeral Home in Brilliant,

with interment at New Alexandria Cemetery.

What the obituary did not state was that Frank Baron was a loathsomehuman being who had ignored his only son and married at leastfive times. He had divorced three of his wives, one had died in a suspiciouscar crash on Dago Ridge, and another drowned in a boating accidenton the Ohio River.

Maybe.

Her body was never found, leading to wild speculation that shehad actually run off with her lover rather than face a lifetime of wakingup next to Big Frank. This was the favorite scenario of most residents ofBrilliant, as they were anxious to believe that she had escaped his wrathand was alive, happy and far from the Ohio River Valley. His only sondied in the river, too, and like his mother’s the boy’s body was neverfound. However, that is usually not the kind of information that endsup in a paid obituary, even for someone as despicable as Frank Baron.

There are many people in my hometown who would tell you thatthe death of Big Frank Baron at age sixty-seven was long overdue. Uponhearing the news of his passing, a goodly portion of these God-fearingChristians chuckled and said, “About damn time.” Even my ownmother, as charitable and forgiving a person as I’ve ever known, said,“Well, the son of a bitch is God’s problem now.”

I wasn’t the least bit sorry to see Frank gone, either, although I hadlong since moved from Brilliant, and it was only on the occasional visithome that I might catch a glimpse of him, or he of me. The last time Isaw Big Frank was in Kennedy’s Market less than a year before he died.He was standing at the counter buying Lucky Strikes and didn’t recognizeme at first. When he did, he snapped his head and frowned,a subtle reminder that, despite the passing years, he hadn’t forgotten,or forgiven. But his face was sallow, and the tired eyes were red andrheumy and had lost much of their venom. The arms that I rememberedas thick and muscled had turned fleshy and weak. He lookedto be exactly what he was—an old man whose best days had been lostto time and alcohol. He was no longer the intimidating figure of myyouth. It would have been easy to feel sorry for him, but sometimesthe years cannot diminish the bitterness, and that was the case withme and Frank Baron. I cannot sit here today and list one redeemingquality about Big Frank. Not one. Therefore, it was impossible to markhis passing with any sense of loss.

Big Frank was the father of the boy who, for the first eighteen yearsof my life, was my best friend. I have never had as good a friend since,and I doubt I ever will. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think aboutTravis. I still miss him and the days when we roamed the hills of easternOhio. Travis Baron loved living, and he did it with more spirit than anyperson I’ve ever known. The obstacles that were hurled in the path ofhis short life would have completely discouraged others, but they onlymade him more determined.

The night after Big Frank’s obituary appeared in the paper, I wentto my basement officeand to a locked wooden trunk that was filledwith the treasures of my youth—photo albums, my varsity sweater, trophies,old ball caps, scrapbooks, and the like. Hidden in the bottomwas a black, hardcover tablet with the word “JOURNAL” embossedacross the front in gold block letters. It had been a graduation gift frommy grandmother Malone, and it was nearly full with my reminiscences

of growing up in the river town of Brilliant, Ohio. The book’s spinecrackled when I opened it to the scrawled notes about Travis and ouradventures, with newspaper clippings neatly pasted into place. I hadwritten everything I could remember about Travis. I didn’t want himto fade from my memory.

I made my first entry in the days after the car he was driving disappearedinto the Ohio River. It had been twenty-five years since Imade my first entry and five years since the last. The book I plannedto write—this book—was contained within the pages of the journal. Itincluded my personal memories, plus extensive interviews with ChaseTornik, Clay Carter, and others, which I had conducted on the sly andtucked away, waiting for the day when Big Frank would be no more.The last interview had been with Tornik while he lay dying of lungcancer at Steubenville Presbyterian Medical Center. We spoke for twohours, while he hacked blood into a hand towel and strained for breath.Despite the pain killers, his memory was resplendent, and I felt bad forthe life and reputation he had lost.

The journal contained my memories of growing up in Brilliant, aplace where being a varsity letterman or an Eagle Scout was still important.From the time I started first grade until the day I graduated, webegan each day with the Pledge to the Flag and the Lord’s Prayer, andno one ever made a fuss about whether it was constitutionally or politicallycorrect. It was just something you did.

Graduates of Brilliant High School hung their blue and whitegraduation tassels on their rearview mirrors and left them danglinguntil they had faded gray. Most Brilliantites had lived there all theirlives, and they supported the town. Everyone bought raffletickets fromthe Little Leaguers, chocolate peanut clusters from the Scouts, andlight bulbs from the Lions Club. On Saturday afternoons in the falleveryone went to the Blue Devils’ football games, which held nearly thesame magnitude of importance as a baptism.

I miss my hometown and those simpler times. But the Brilliant Igrew up in no longer exists. The steel mills up and down the river havefolded, and the once-proud communities that lined the Ohio Riverhave been reduced to decaying shells of grander days. I don’t get upthe river much anymore. As editor and columnist for the MorningJournal, most of my working day is spent in the officein Wheeling.My two young daughters seem to gobble up whatever time is left. My

parents moved to the Outer Banks of North Carolina a few years agoand, except for an occasional class reunion, there is no reason to goback. But, when I do go visit, I always take the back road by way ofHunter’s Ridge.

At the spot where the car left the road, at the entrance to the park,the adult Bible study class from the Brilliant United Methodist Churchplaced a white cross made of four-by-fours, with the initials “T.F.B.”—Travis Franklin Baron—on the crossbar. I helped Jim Gilmartin haulthe cross to the park entrance in the back of his International Harvesterpickup truck. We took turns working through the rocky earth with apost hole digger to get below the frost line, and dumped a bag of quick-drying

cement into the hole, along with water he brought in emptymilk jugs. When he was sure the cement was set and the cross true, heasked me to bow my head, and he said a brief prayer, asking God to giveTravis a better life in heaven than he’d had on earth. Two days later, Ileft for college. As the years passed and Travis Baron grew distant in thememories of many, the letters faded, the cross bleached out, and it waseventually claimed by the hillside.

Like the steel mills, Travis is gone. The loss of the mills and myfriend only serves to remind me of the fragile state of life, whether itwas a hulking, smoke-belching steel mill or an auburn-haired kid witha crooked smile.

 

“Excerpted from A Brilliant Death by Robin Yocum (Seventh Street Books, 2016). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.”

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Robin Yocum is the author of the critically acclaimed novels Favorite Sons and The Essay. Favorite Sons was named the 2011 USA Book News’ Book of the Year for Mystery/Suspense. It was selected for the Choose to Read Ohio program for 2013-14 and was a featured book of the 2012 Ohioana Book Festival. Yocum is also the author of Dead Before Deadline . . . and Other Tales from the Police Beat and Insured for Murder (with Catherine Candisky). He is the president of Yocum Communications, a public relations and marketing firm in Westerville, Ohio. He is well known for his work as a crime and investigative reporter with the Columbus Dispatch from 1980-1991. He was the recipient of more than thirty local, state, and national journalism awards in categories ranging from investigative reporting to feature writing.

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