By Jack Helbig
Five years ago local filmmaker Allen Ross seemed to drop off the face of the earth. He called his father in Naperville from Saint Louis on October 16, 1995, while he was shooting a documentary on the Mississippi River for Christian Bauer, a German filmmaker who had frequently employed Ross as a cameraman. About a month later someone in Bauer's office had a brief phone conversation with Ross and arranged to wire his final paycheck.
Then nothing. No phone calls, no letters. Ross had close friends in Chicago, though most describe him as painfully shy and difficult to know. As a founder of Chicago Filmmakers and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute, he was an active presence in Chicago's film community in the 1970s and '80s. When he moved to Oklahoma in 1992, he always made a point of staying in touch, but he never revealed much in the way of particulars. He was notorious for sending short, enigmatic postcards. Performance artist Robert Metrick got one in early 1994 that simply said, "I've resigned from life. Can't explain. I highly recommend it."
After the long silence, Ross's family hired a private detective, who tracked down some information about Allen's wife of two years, Linda Greene. She led a quasi-religious group called the Samaritan Foundation, which advocated a blend of holistic medicine and New Age practices. Members of the group lived together in Greene's house in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and in a rehabbed jail across the street. But after the group encountered legal problems, its core members relocated to Wyoming. In desperation, Ross's family consulted a psychic, who told them he'd return to Chicago before the end of 1995, but New Year's passed without a word.
In his absence, the rumor mill ran full tilt. Some said Ross had gone into hiding. Others believed he'd been murdered. Still others heard he was suffering from amnesia and living in Texas. The stories became more elaborate and improbable as they passed from party to party. In October 1998, I wrote a cover story for the Reader called "Where on Earth is Allen Ross?"
Now all the speculation about Ross's whereabouts may have reached an unhappy conclusion. In late July the Cheyenne Police Department held a press conference to announce that a body had been found buried in the crawl space of a house at 303 E. 17th, the Samaritan Foundation's last known address. "We are treating this as a case of homicide," Lieutenant Bill Stanford told the local press. He refused to provide the name of the victim, pending a positive ID, but admitted he had already contacted the Ross family.
As someone who spent years looking for Ross, I have only one question for the police:
What took you so long?
Linda Greene had started the Samaritan Foundation with her previous husband, Denis Greene, and soon after Ross's disappearance the Greenes began to accuse each other of foul play. Nearly three years ago Denis Greene told me his ex-wife had suddenly showed up at his home in Loveland, Colorado, in December 1995, in an agitated state. He said he'd grown alarmed by her behavior: "For quite some time, she had not been making sense to me." Linda Greene, he said, "spun what I thought was a pretty wild yarn....She told me that [she and Ross] had gotten into another marital dispute and she was afraid of him, and that she had done something to him that would ensure that he would no longer be able to hurt her."
Greene had contacted the Cheyenne police. According to Officer Dave Padilla, Greene told them "Allen Ross had been killed by his wife. And that Mr. Ross's body was buried in the crawl space."
Around the time Denis Greene contacted the Cheyenne police, someone identifying herself as Linda Greene faxed the police in Guthrie, Oklahoma. In her writings, Linda Greene referred to zombies, vampires, and the Antichrist. She warned her followers not to talk on the telephone because vampires would steal their souls through the phone lines. That's why she always preferred to fax. "She was claiming that people were out to get her and set her up for killing Allen Ross," said Guthrie police officer Rex Smith, who told me he'd last talked to Ross in May of 1995, when the Samaritan Foundation was first relocating. "We got that fax in the latter part of 1996....She had made accusations that Denis Greene and somebody else had killed Allen Ross. That she had nothing to do with it. That it had happened in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in November of 1995. That's where they'd find the body. It was really off the wall....Our hands were tied because we had no proof."
Spurred by Denis Greene's accusations, Padilla was among those who went to investigate the crawl space. "We dug and dug and dug," Padilla told me in early 1998, "and we didn't find a thing that indicated a body."
After that, the Cheyenne police appeared to regard the case of Allen Ross with great skepticism. In their files, he was strictly a missing person. There was no law against dropping out and starting a new life elsewhere.
Five years later, a dig in the same basement revealed, in Lieutenant Bill Stanford's words, "a body of a person who by the condition of the remains could very well have been there five years or longer." Their first clue was a shoe poking up from the dirt.
Why didn't the body turn up the first time they looked? "I have no explanation for that," Stanford says.
Why the police chose to resume their search after five years is an easier story to tell--attribute it to the power of television.
Since March of this year, Christian Bauer and local filmmaker Gaylon Emerzian have been collaborating on a film about Ross's disappearance. Emerzian met Ross when they worked together as editors on the TV program Wild Kingdom. Bauer had made his first film with Ross in January 1988. "I had been contemplating making a film about Allen for some time," Bauer says. "It was a real mystery, one to which I had a personal connection. But it was not until after your article was published that I decided to start a new investigation."
In the spring of 1999 he began to hunt down financing for his documentary, first trying to sell the idea to German TV. "I met with a lot of skepticism when I first suggested doing a film about Allen," he says. "'Who is this guy? What does it mean to audiences that you made seven films? What are you going to find out? What do you do if you find Allen and he doesn't want to tell you the story?'"
Eventually, Bauer was able to get some money from German television and a German and French cultural organization. The rest would come out of his own pocket. He hired Emerzian as his producer, and for the next seven months the two chased down every lead. They enlisted a pair of private investigators and interviewed everyone they could find who knew Ross. Soon they were buried in different versions of the story. Many people were willing to share information, but not everyone wanted to speak on the record. And most of what they heard turned out to be strictly rumors.
"I would sift through these stories," Emerzian says, "and sometimes there would only be this one little nugget of truth."
Early on they interviewed Denis Greene, who was happy to cooperate but less than happy about being filmed. The pair encouraged him to go back to the police, but Emerzian describes their dealings as a "comedy of errors": "He would call Lieutenant Stanford and leave a message or the police would call him back and he wouldn't be available."
The filmmakers found themselves returning repeatedly to Ross's family for help. Emerzian says she worked closely with Allen's sister-in-law, Susan Ross. "She was very helpful....There were some records only the family could get access to, like his bank records."
Allen's father, Laurids Ross, a retired chemist who worked at Argonne National Laboratory, had told me in 1998 that Allen had $8,000 in a bank account that hadn't been touched since it was deposited. When Emerzian brought this fact once again to the attention of the Cheyenne police, the investigation was reopened.
But the presence of the documentary crew may also have caught their attention--it had captured the interest of MSNBC.
"MSNBC found out about our film through a newspaper story that ran in the Daily Oklahoman," Bauer says. He and Emerzian had pitched their story to the newspaper, hoping publicity would protect them from danger. "It seems silly in retrospect," Emerzian says, "but we wanted to have the press write about us when I was going to Oklahoma in case I disappeared. I really believed no one would dare hurt us if everyone knew we were there."
MSNBC wanted to film Allen Ross's story for a new show, Missing Persons, to be aired this fall. The call to Bauer at first looked to be a godsend--they were running low on money, and the cable network suggested pooling resources. "We were in a difficult spot," Bauer recalls.
And the filmmakers' search was making progress. Last Memorial Day, one of their production assistants, Devin Williams, was paying a visit to the Cheyenne home of the Samaritan Foundation and discovered Ross's movie camera in a neighbor's house. Still, no one expected a body to turn up--after all, the police had already dug up the crawl space. At most, Bauer says, "We hoped that the police would find traces of a crime having been committed."
Then in June Bauer conducted a phone interview with Linda Greene after Emerzian got a number from a source she "would rather not reveal."
They reached Greene at an Oklahoma number belonging to a cell phone. "She claimed to be in New Orleans," Bauer says. "I am not sure I believe her." (According to a recent story in the Sun-Times, Cheyenne police profess to know where Greene is but decline to reveal her location.) "I was amazed that she answered the phone," Bauer says. "She was so phonaphobic, you know." He says Greene relayed a disjointed story involving government mind control that "contradicted every story we had heard until then."
Bauer made plans to film the fields around Cheyenne by helicopter, hoping to find where Ross's body might be buried. "I was also looking into doing an archaeological dig at the city dump, because we had heard rumors that Allen's body had been dismembered and disposed of. The Cheyenne dump keeps records, and you can find out where in the dump the garbage has been placed and how deep it is. It would have cost me $10,000, but I would have done it if it uncovered Allen."
Meanwhile their discussions with MSNBC were disintegrating. "They were very, very pushy," Bauer says. "We were not able to get a contract with them. They did interview Gaylon for the show, but she refused to sign the waiver" that would have allowed them to broadcast the interview. Bauer and Emerzian feared the cable network was planning to go it alone. The Ross family was having its own problems with the MSNBC crew. Laurids Ross says his son Brad also "refused to sign the contract."
No one has heard from MSNBC's Missing Persons in more than a month. Yet the police have still not positively identified the body.
"They tried to do that with dental records," Laurids Ross says. "But his dentist didn't have a set of full-mouthed X rays. He only had an X ray of one tooth, and that wasn't enough."
Laurids Ross says he's fairly certain the body is his son, though the police are waiting for a DNA test. "They took a blood sample from Brad. Brad was Allen's twin brother. They weren't identical twins, but they were close enough I guess for those tests."
If the body turns out to be Allen Ross, Emerzian says, the mission of the documentary will change. "I want justice to be served. I want the person or persons who did this to pay for their crime."
Bauer says the news is still sinking in. "On the day they announced that they had found the body, Gaylon called me at two o'clock in the morning. I was editing some of the footage into a teaser to take to investors when she called. It was so strange because we had an image of the house on the editing computer when she called.
"Allen's mystery has become a very ugly story."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.