Maine Sunday Telegram (Portland, ME)
December 5, 2004
Sherry Sullivan's father vanished in 1963 while attempting a covert mission against Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. Decades later, she remains on a quest to find out what happened to him.
Author: JOSIE HUANG Staff Writer
Dateline: STOCKTON SPRINGS
In a nook above her art gallery, where a tabby cat sleeps soundly as heat roars from floor ducts, Sherry Sullivan is busy chasing down a mystery. Here, illuminated by the glow of her computer, reading glasses perched on her nose, Sullivan works into the night amid filing cabinets and bins filled with more than 100,000 pieces of paper. Folders bulge with yellowed newspaper clippings about Cuba's communist dictator, Fidel Castro, and intelligence reports from U.S. government agencies, with many passages censored by black marker. More than 100 books sit along one wall, with titles including "Spycatcher" and "The Fish is Red: The Story of the Secret War Against Castro." Sullivan has scanned them all, looking for clues. When she hits an impasse, she looks to a wall posted with inspiring quotations from Gandhi and the Bible, and a shelf lined with Virgin Mary and Buddha statues she's collected over the years. From one of her files, she pulls out a crayon-and-construction-paper card she made as a child. A neatly drawn jail cell adorns the front of the card. "Are you here," she had written. A magenta heart pierced by an arrow floats over the empty cell. Sullivan's quest for answers began when she was 7. For years, she thought that her father, Geoffrey Sullivan, an anti-Castro fighter who disappeared during a 1963 flight over the Caribbean, was alive, if not well, in a Cuban prison. As time passed and his spot at the dinner table grew colder, Sherry Sullivan wondered if he had been executed. Forty-one years later, she is still in the dark. Unbeknown to many in this quiet midcoast town, Sullivan is a guiding force for dozens of Americans who believe their fathers died as covert operatives working for the U.S. government in its undeclared war against Castro. Sullivan became licensed as a private investigator because she couldn't afford to pay for one, and steeped herself in the shadowy world of spies and government special operations. To share her knowledge and offer support to others, she formed a nonprofit group in 1988 for "forgotten families." "I grew up thinking that I was the only kid on Earth who had a daddy missing like that," said Sullivan, a soft-spoken woman who inherited her father's penetrating blue eyes. "Then I realized, 'Oh, my God. There are other kids out there' - that's why I started this." Historians say that during the 1950s and '60s, hundreds of families lost loved ones to covert anti-communist activities that were either sponsored by or known to the government. Some families accepted the men's deaths, but others grew suspicious. All these families want now is the truth, Sullivan says, but intelligence agencies will neither confirm nor deny any connection to the men. "Your family is broken apart and society doesn't acknowledge you," Sullivan said. "Not only does it not help you but it tries to sweep you under the rug, then nail down the rug. "It's a very lonely place that we've been." The year that Geoffrey Sullivan disappeared, Bobby Vinton topped the pop charts, "Cleopatra" premiered in movie theaters and Americans had just come back from the brink of nuclear war. The Cold War, the ideological battle between the West, led by the United States, and the communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union, had continued since the end of World War II, reaching a fever pitch in the early 1960s. In 1961, the U.S. government sponsored a failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs by anti-Castro Cubans. The following year, President Kennedy demanded that the Soviet Union remove ballistic missiles it had secretly installed on the island. After a weeklong standoff, Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba reversed course and crews dismantled the missile sites on the island. Cold War tensions between the two superpowers eased in 1963, but historians say secret operations against Castro did not end. Many of the fighters were Cuban exiles. Others were American conservatives like Geoffrey Sullivan, a Korean War veteran from Connecticut who had served eight years at the former Loring Air Force Base in Limestone. Sullivan, who had moved his wife, Cora, and daughter to his hometown of Waterbury, was known to attend patriotic rallies. It may have been there that he met Alex Rorke, a wealthy New York journalist and leader of the U.S. Freedom Fighters. Rorke hired Sullivan as his pilot and the pair went on to make what the press then called "freelance" raids on Cuba, including leafleting missions. Newspapers also widely reported their attempt to bomb a refinery near Havana in April 1963. On the morning of Sept. 23, 1963, before the pair was scheduled for another mission, Sullivan took off his St. Christopher medal and handed it to his wife. He didn't want anything on his body that would identify him, his wife later recounted, and had told her before that he would take poison pills if he were ever captured. The next day, Sullivan and Rorke took off in a twin-engine Beechcraft from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. After revising their flight plan several times, they refueled on Cozumel, an island off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, apparently bound for Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Reports last placed them in Belize. And then there was no trace of them. In Waterbury, his family grew panicky after he didn't return in five days as he said he would. Seven-year-old Sherry couldn't wait to see her father. He was the more fun-loving of her parents, a daredevil who flew his plane under the St. John River Bridge when the family visited his wife's relatives in Allagash. He took her shopping, brought her to school. Rorke's politically connected family told Cora Sullivan that the pair had been captured in Cuba. Then, six months after their disappearance, word came that they had been discovered in a Cuban prison and would be coming home. On the night of Sullivan's scheduled return, wife and daughter waited at his mother's house, and waited and waited. Until her early teens, Sherry would regularly wind up her father's watch, which frequently stalled. "I kept thinking it would keep him alive," Sullivan said. Elegant glassware and still-life paintings by local artists adorn the warmly-lit Penobscot Bay Gallery in Stockton Springs' Main Street. Then there are Sullivan's paintings - oils of women, some nudes, all alone and set against backdrops like a desolate beach, or a forlorn sky. "There's a theme of loneliness, abandonment," she said. Six years after they vanished, both her father and Rorke were presumed to have crashed and were declared legally dead, so their families could collect Social Security benefits, she said. While Sullivan still believed her father was alive, a sense of loss pervaded her youth. Her mother did her best to support them by working as a beautician, but money was tight and they lived in the projects of Waterbury, where drugs were plentiful and neighborhood kids became strung-out at 12. At age 17, convinced that she would "die otherwise," Sullivan left Waterbury for her grandmother's home in Allagash. Since then, she has lived mostly in the Bangor area, working as a bartender or waitress and raising a daughter, Heather, on her own. Her mother and half-sister from her mother's second, short-lived marriage, joined her later. They were a tight nucleus of women, but something was missing. During Christmas 1984, realization swept over Sullivan as she ate a meal with the women. "I looked around the family table and there were no men," Sullivan said, tearing up. "It's still hard to talk about sometimes." Sullivan, who at 29 was the same age as her father when he vanished, began to dig into the past, and wrote the first of some 20 letters to Castro. With help from a friend, Bangor-based lawyer Carl McCue, she used the Freedom of Information Act to extract more than 800 pages from the FBI with information on Rorke and her father, though one-third of the passages had been blacked out. In 1987, she filed two lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Bangor against nine federal agencies, one for herself and another for a Maine family who had lost their father in an apparent covert mission. Sullivan claimed the government was wrongfully withholding information. Then in 1993, after the cases had been moved to the Court of Appeals in Boston, the court ruled that information could not be released because of national security. Sullivan - who had devoted much of the six-year span to promoting her crusade, founding "Forgotten Families of the Cold War" and even appearing on television's Unsolved Mysteries in 1990 - was crestfallen. "What could hurt national security? I don't know why they would consider something as harming our country by letting families know what happened to their missing loved ones." By that time, the Cold War had become an anachronism. The Berlin Wall toppled in 1989, marking the end of communist rule in East Germany and creating a domino effect in Eastern Europe. In 1991, the Communist Party lost control of the Soviet Union and the nation splintered into Russia and other independent states. After she lost her court case, Sullivan focused on running her bar, Cowboys Bar and Grill in south Brewer, and occasionally served papers in her capacity as a private investigator. But she still yearned to gain legitimacy for her father. In 2000, she sold the bar and bought an art gallery in Stockton Springs, where the pace was slower and she could devote more time to her search. With the advent of the Internet, Sullivan reconnected with many of the families via e-mail. Research became easier and she launched a Web site, www.forgottenfamilies.com, an entry point for people who contact her. She also writes a newsletter and has spoken to students, veterans, chambers of commerce. She has given talks to the Maine chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers, as well as JFK Lancer, a group that has linked anti-Castro activists to the president's assassination - though Sullivan makes a point of not connecting her "Forgotten Families" with any conspiracy theories. In September 2003, Sullivan organized Forgotten Families' first conference at her gallery, attracting several member families, researchers and people she's interviewed and befriended, such as members of her father's search parties. During the conference, she held a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of her father's disappearance. Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Tinkham II, then the commander of the Maine National Guard, read a proclamation from Gov. John Baldacci, and local veterans presented her with a military flag. She laid flowers at the grave marker she had obtained through the help of Sen. Susan Collins. It was inscribed with the letters "M.I.A." - recognition by the Veterans Administration, Sullivan said, for her father's sacrifice to his country. Now she is planning next year's conference, and hopes to bring even more families to Maine. "She's really the heart and soul of that organization," said Janet Ray Weininger, a member from Miami who lost her father, a pilot, in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Weininger recovered her father's body in 1979, after it had been desecrated at a Cuban morgue. She made national headlines this year when she won an $86.5 million lawsuit against Castro. Because she now knows the truth about her father, as horrible as it was, she calls herself one of the "lucky ones" in the group. It's questionable whether the other members will ever find out the truth, experts say. Until relations are normalized with Cuba, the U.S. government will use national security as a reason to withhold information, said Tom Schwartz, a Cold War expert in the history department at Vanderbilt University. In some cases, Schwartz said, the government may not know the whole story. More information could come to light when Castro, who is in his late 70s, dies, just as secrets were uncovered in Russia and Eastern Europe after the Cold War ended, Schwartz said. "But there's no guarantee," Schwartz said. "He's designated his brother as his heir, so we may be faced with a Castro government for a very long time and these families may not live to see the type of resolution they want." Sullivan, who became a grandmother in 2001, remains undeterred. She said any shred of news empowers her. "Finding out information is healing, even if you don't have the ultimate answers yet," she said. "l've learned a lot about the history of covert operations. I've also been able to interact with the families." She is chronicling the search for her father in a book, titled "Chasing Dad's Shadow." "There's a part of us that longs to have our daddies back, even though we have kids and grandkids," she said. "I wouldn't have wanted him to have suffered, but in my heart, I know I would want to look in his eyes." The message she wrote inside a card to her father as a little girl, she said, has not changed: "Please come home soon." Staff Writer Josie Huang can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Staff photos by Doug Jones A 1960s newspaper clipping showing Geoffrey Sullivan, left, and Alex Rorke, discusses a reward that has gone unclaimed. Rorke hired Sullivan as his pilot; they made what the press called "freelance" raids on Cuba, including leafleting missions. Among Sherry Sullivan's files are U.S. government intelligence reports, with many passages censored by black marker. Historians say hundreds of families lost loved ones to covert anti-communist activities in the 1950s and '60s. Sherry Sullivan's files related to her father include some 100,000 pages. At top is the military flag veterans gave her at a 40th anniversary observance of her father's disappearance. Beneath a portrait of her father, Geoffrey Sulllivan, in a room above her Stockton Springs art gallery, Sherry Sullivan discusses her decades-long search to learn his fate.
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