Murder Mystery – Disappearing Bodies in Subic Bay

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Not every headstone in Arlington National Cemetery marks a body. In the case of Ensign Andrew Lee Muns, a body can never be recovered: it vanished into the air over the South China Sea some forty-five years ago. While his body can never be recovered, it took thirty years for his honour to be restored. For this cold case, justice was a close call.

Over 94 years, Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines became America’s largest military base outside the continental USA. Although the Philippines had become independent in 1946, the town of Olongapo which abutted the naval base remained U.S. territory for more than a decade afterwards, and although the base became nominally a Philippine military base in the early 1960s, it remained de facto US territory for as far as the eye could see until November 1992.

In 1968 Subic Bay Naval Base, nestled in a placid deepwater bay surrounded by the verdant Zambales mountains, was a staging post for the Vietnam War. It was here that the notorious Tailhook Club was born. Housing a transient population of more than 4,000 mostly young, fit men in the prime of life, the base had more than its fair share of crime. Off-base there was sex and booze for the taking, both of whatever flavour one desired. It was the global R&R center of choice for naval personnel.

Liaisons with local girls were the norm and marriages so common that a special unit was set up on the base to teach Filipino women how to be American housewives.

USS Cacapon was a 7,470 tonne World War II Cimarron class fleet oiler, a floating gas station delivering bunker fuel to US Navy ships at sea. In the 1960s she was deployed to West Pac with a complement of 314 men. Newly assigned was 24 year-old Ensign Andrew ‘Andy’ Lee Muns from New Jersey, a payroll officer, which gave him access to the ship’s safe.

Muns was happy in the navy. In the last postcard he sent home he wrote: “The world is small and beautiful. The ship has been great — good officers, good crew. I’ve seen and done more in the last month than most people do in a year.”

On January 17, while USS Cacapon was anchored in Subic Bay, Muns disappeared. So did more than $8,600 from the ship’s safe.  He was last seen at 2:00 a.m. and failed to report for the 8:00 a.m. muster.

A perfunctory investigation was conducted. A man and money were missing. With no body or signs of a struggle, it was an open and shut case. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, the civilian agency which conducts FBI-style investigations for the U.S. Navy, came to the conclusion that he had deserted.

However, the NCIS investigator at the time, Special Agent Ray McGady, was not convinced.  In particular Muns’s subordinate, Michael Edward LeBrun, suggested that Muns had gone scuba diving between 2:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. In the dark.

There the case rested, although the family was convinced that Muns had not deserted and the USS Cacapon’s commander remained haunted until the day he died by the belief that foul play had occurred.

In the 1970s Muns’s family asked that Andy be declared legally dead. It would bring closure and, finally, the opportunity for a memorial service. Then came the trigger that would lead to Muns’s exoneration: The family asked for a Stars and Stripes to be formally presented at the memorial service and was refused: Muns was a deserter and thief, he had not been honourably discharged. Not only was the young ensign’s reputation in tatters, so was his family’s name.

Without new evidence the NCIS could not re-open the case.

Muns’s sister, Mary Lou Taylor, decided that enough was enough and decided to prove her brother innocence. By then, the mid-1990s, a new gameboard had come into play – the Internet. She came across a forum for Viet Nam war veterans and pleaded for people who had known her brother.  She was able to get the names and photographs of other crew members and a significant, over-looked fact: whoever had taken the $8,600 had left behind more than $51,000.

Muns’s desertion no longer made sense. Yet there was no sign of a body in the bay which, had he gone over the side, would almost certainly have been found.

Taylor tracked down the original NCIS investigator, Ray McGady, who remembered the case well. As it happens, fortune was working in Taylor’s favour.  McGady put Taylor in contact with the NCIS. In 1995 the NCIS had created a cold case unit, the Cold Case Homicide Unit, CCHU. Taylor spoke to Special Agent Pete Hughes for 45 minutes. He decided the case was worth following up.

Hughes and another Special agent, Jim Grebas, came to the conclusion that a murder had been committed and one suspect bubbled up to the top of the list: Michael Edward LeBrun. His suggestion that Muns had gone scuba-diving alone in the middle of the night seemed bizarre.

By now LeBrun was a real estate agent in his mid-fifties. NCIS investigators interviewed him three times, each time reading out his Miranda rights. Their suspicions grew but there were other potential suspects and leads which they followed for almost a year. They then decided on a full-court press to get a confession from LeBrun, and it almost cost them the case.

Special Agent Early of the NCIS and a highway patrolman visited Lebrun at his office on 21 September. He was asked to go to the Highway Patrol office. When he offered to go by himself he was told it would be better if he went in the patrol car. He was not under arrest and was told he could end the interview at anytime he wanted and would be allowed to go home afterwards. This time he was not read his Miranda rights.

Miranda rights exist regardless of whether the suspect is advised of them and, in this case, LeBrun was well aware of them and it was to become an issue later.

The windowless interview room had been carefully prepared. The walls were lined with poster-sized photographs from LeBrun’s life. Taylor had been flown in and another Special Agent prepared to pretend to be Muns’ cancer-stricken brother. The message was clear: “We know.”

If Hughes and Grebas couldn’t crack LeBrun now, they never would. It was their last chance.

For the next 33 minutes Agents Early and Grebas interrogated LeBrun. They pushed the envelope by suggesting that the statute of limitations on manslaughter had passed and that if the killing was ‘spontaneous’, he’d get away with it.

Finally he did confess, re-enacting the killing on video. Muns had discovered him robbing the safe and threatened to put him on report. LeBrun had attacked Muns, smashing is head against the deck and strangling him. He dropped Muns’s body into a fuel tank, where it slowly dissolved over time. Although the tanks had been searched, the body, probably covered in black oil, had not been found. LeBrun also threw the stolen money into the tank, knowing that it might carry his fingerprints.

After the interview he was asked if he wanted to apologise to Taylor and the agent pretending to be Muns’s brother. He did. He confessed, again, to Taylor and the agent and apologized. Then he was allowed to go home.

After he was indicted by a grand jury in March 2001, LeBrun set out to have the video of the reenactment of the killing suppressed and his confession declared ‘involuntary’. Had he succeeded there would have been no other evidence on which he could be convicted. Hearings took another four and a half years and the video was eventually deemed admissible.

In September 2005 LeBrun at last admitted the manslaughter and accepted full responsibility.

Surprisingly, he was sentenced to just four years and is now free.

The Muns family did get closure at last: on a fine, sunny day a black ceremonial casket on a caisson coursed through Arlington National Cemetery. On it was the American flag which was handed to Muns’ family with the gratitude of a grateful nation. The record of desertion was expunged and Muns’ honour, and that of his family, was restored at last.

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