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In Depth: Unsolved Arkansas Bombing

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THE MYSTERY

 

Some investigations frustrate because they produce no suspects.

 

Some frustrate because an obvious suspect is developed but there is not enough evidence to bring a charge.

 

And some frustrate because there are so many people with possible motive it is hard to know where to start.

 

Such may be the case with the now nearly 13 year-old murder of 52 year-old Johnny Rauch.

 

"I do know there were suspects that were looked at," says Grover Crossland, the current Resident Agent in Charge of the ATF's Little Rock field office.  "Obviously there was not enough factual information to do anything with that.  It doesn't mean that they did or didn't do it.  It's just that…you have to have enough facts to present to the U.S. Attorneys Office and prove a case.  And as of right now those facts have not been developed."

 

There was the obvious suspect…a businessman who carried a $500,000 life insurance policy on Rauch.  He filed to collect before Rauch's body was buried. 

 

Another possibility?  The businessman's partner/uncle…a man with a track record of collecting insurance money under suspicious circumstances. 

 

But there was also the former business partner being jointly sued after more than one project had gone awry.

 

There was the boss who threatened to kill not only Rauch but also his wife and son prior to Rauch's death. 

 

There was the father-in-law who watched his daughter dragged through bankruptcy due to Rauch's well-intentioned but rarely successful business ventures. 

 

There was the blue-collar worker, injured after Rauch's truck hit the garbage truck he was riding on…causing "severe, permanent and excruciating injuries." 

 

And there were two employees fired shortly before the bombing and several other contractors and customers who claimed Rauch walked away from unfinished jobs owing them money.  Some filed suit, most did not. 

 

Whoever left the package bomb on the doorstep of John and Linda Rauch's home on June 10th, 1998 is still out there.  A $20,000 reward, hundreds of interviews, scores of tips and strong hunches have failed to produce an arrest.

 

 

THE BLAST     

 

"9-1-1.  What is your emergency?"

"Help!"

"What's the problem?"

"9-1-1…there's a bomb!  We just opened it and it exploded!  I think my husband is dead!"

 

That is the call that Linda Rauch made only minutes after finding a package left on her carport steps.  It was addressed to her husband Johnny, former head of Linco Construction and now a sales rep working for All Seasons Roofing. 

 

The label on the package was type-written.  Neither Johnny nor Linda had ordered anything and neither was expecting a delivery.  But it looked official.  It looked O.K.  Johnny commented to Linda that it was a joke.  He began to open it on the kitchen table…Linda nearby…when it detonated. 

 

The bomb blew a two-by-three foot hole in the floor.  The explosion severely damaged Johnny Rauch's face, hands and legs.  He was airlifted to Baptist Hospital.  Part of a leg would be amputated, and 16 days after the blast Rauch was pronounced dead.

 

Investigators immediately began asking neighbors if they had seen any Fed Ex trucks in the neighborhood.  It would soon be determined that the package was dropped off by someone other than the postal service or a professional delivery service. 

 

Several days before the blast that would ultimately cost Johnny Rauch his life he served as best man in his son Justin's wedding.  Justin described Johnny Rauch as his best friend, as did his wife Linda.  Rauch's two favorite things to do were ride horses and play with his grandchildren. 

 

Neighbors immediately offered comments regarding Rauch's character and expressed disbelief that somebody would intentionally target him.  Family members said the same thing.  But soon investigators were tracking leads and discovering that Johnny Rauch's personal life was far smoother than his professional one.

 

 

THE MELBOURNE PROJECT

 

Johnny Rauch incorporated Linco Construction Company in 1993 with business partner Jerry Arnold. 

 

Two years later Linco would enter into an agreement with Cooper Management Corporation to build Pioneer Nursing and Rehab Center in Melbourne, Arkansas. 

 

The two million dollar project was soon behind schedule and fraught with problems.  A performance bond was not posted, architectural plans weren't being followed, subs weren't being paid, payroll was missed, material disappeared.  Linco left the project and another contractor was brought in to wrap things up 

 

Pioneer Nursing and Rehab Center held an open house in September of 1996.  In attendance at the ribbon cutting were owners Jim Cooper, his father Ben Cooper and his uncle Carl Cooper, as well as Bobby and Brenda Hargis. 

 

Cooper Management was not through with Linco.  It chased Rauch and Arnold back to Little Rock with a lawsuit…hoping to collect more than $200,000. 

 

The first jury trial in January of 1997 was postponed.  A May 18th trial date was also postponed.  Rauch had been unavailable for depositions due to his exceedingly poor health, which included severe depression, cardiac arrhythmia, and hormone deficiency.  Rauch told the court he was seeing a cardiologist, urologist and psychiatrist.  The trial was reset for Dec. 7th, 1998.  But Rauch didn't live to see it.

 

Rauch had already been through bankruptcy once and now he was piloting a failing company.  Even if Cooper Management had won the civil suit, the chances of recouping much money by way of a judgment were slim.   

 

But the Cooper Management plan for getting repaid had a two-pronged approach. 

 

During construction a $500,000 insurance policy was taken out on the life of Johnny Rauch.  It is commonly called a "key-man" policy and helps ensure that a project is not set back or harmed if the man in charge suffers death or illness and cannot complete the job. 

 

Unbeknownst to Rauch, Cooper Management continued paying the premiums on that policy long after Pioneer Nursing and Rehab was completed and long after Rauch had left Cooper's employ. 

 

  

THE BUSINESSMAN

 

Jim Cooper is a past president of the Arkansas Health Care Association.  The organization serves as a lobbying arm for the nursing home industry.

 

It is not surprising that Cooper served as administrator of Pioneer Nursing and Rehab Center or that he has served in a leadership role for a statewide organization.  Cooper, a tall man of athletic build, has been a leader from an early age.

 

As a teen Cooper attended the Eddie Sutton basketball camp and in June of 1982 he signed with North Arkansas Community College to play baseball and basketball after excelling at both sports in high school.  Eventually Cooper would enroll at Harding University and graduate with a management degree in the summer of 1987.  Cooper would return to Melbourne and join the family business, which includes the ownership and operation of a number of nursing homes.      

 

Four days after Johnny Rauch was pronounced dead and before his widow had buried him, Jim Cooper submitted paperwork to Mutual of Omaha to collect on the $500,000 key-man life insurance policy. 

 

Why were the life insurance premiums paid long after the project was completed?  Cooper explained in a deposition:  "Well, that would be because we felt like…Pioneer felt like that Linco Construction and/or John Rauch owed our company in excess of $200,000 and that we would obtain a judgment against he and his company for that.  And as before, when we filed – when we obtained the insurance policy, really the only way the company would have been at risk was for him – if he would have died, we could have never recovered that money.  So we, Pioneer, decided to continue to pay the premiums."

 

The only problem Jim Cooper encountered was…Mutual of Omaha refused to pay.

 

Mutual of Omaha called Pioneer's effort to insure Rauch's life "a sham transaction."  The insurer noted that "Federal investigators have not ruled out the Plaintiff, its agents and employees as suspects in the death of Mr. Rauch."  It also argued that Pioneer "…never had an insurable interest in the life of John Rauch."

 

But in March of 2001 Federal Judge Henry Woods ruled against Mutual of Omaha, ordering the insurance company to pay up.  The Coopers and other owners collected more than double the amount they had hoped to collect with their civil suit. 

 

Jim Cooper said in his deposition that ATF investigators visited Melbourne and interviewed him within 60 days of the bombing.  Cooper said he thought his younger brother Robert was also interviewed even though Robert was an employee of Cooper Management, not Pioneer.  Jim Cooper did not think any other Coopers were interviewed by investigators. 

 

If true, that may have been a mistake.

 

 

THE UNCLE

 

The Cooper family is one of Izard County's most powerful and most respected.

 

A notice in the local paper for a Cooper family reunion put it this way:  "The Cooper family is a pioneer family in Izard County and is also one of the county's largest families."

 

But while some Coopers excelled at sports, some Coopers excelled at business and other Coopers excelled at politics, Carl Cooper seemed to corner the market on tragedy.  And insurance payouts. 

 

In December of 1981 Carl Cooper's home on Knob Creek Road…a stretch that has been populated by Coopers for generations…was destroyed by fire.  A front page picture in the local paper with a caption put it this way:  "The home of Mr. and Mrs. Carl Cooper was totally destroyed by fire last Friday morning, December 11th about 8:15 a.m.  No one was home at the time the flames started, apparently in the furnace room.  The home was a total loss, but several guns were saved."  Carl Cooper says that is not true...that not only did he lose his guns but his knife collection as well. 

 

Three years later a historic cabin inherited by Carl Cooper's wife would burn to the ground.  This time the caption with the front page photo read:  "The historic former Jeffrey home in Mt. Olive burned to the ground Sunday, December 9th.  The possibility of arson is being investigated by the Izard County Sheriff's Dept.  The house and grounds have been under lease to a private hunting group from Jonesboro; but the house was unoccupied at the time of the fire.  In the event that arson is proved, Carl Cooper has stated that a reward of $500.00 will be offered for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the fire, with an additional $500.00 upon conviction."  The State Fire Marshall's office also assisted in the investigation.  No reward was ever paid, no cause was ever determined, and Cooper says the cabin was not insured.

 

Carl Cooper opened up the Tally Ho restaurant in Melbourne in 1991.  He soon followed it up with the Tally Ho II in nearby Mountain View.  But Cooper could not get a private club license that would allow him to sell liquor at his Stone County location. 

 

A newspaper article in December of 1995 details his third defeat in 22 months before the ABC board.  Cooper's restaurant manager is quoted in the article as saying "Carl wants out of the restaurant business."

 

In July of 1996 Carl would get his wish.  "Tally Ho II destroyed by early morning fire" was the headline in the Stone County Leader.  The fire broke out shortly after 4 a.m.  Current fire chief Kurt Decker was with the department at the time and says arson was suspected but could not be proven.  Cooper is quoted in the article as saying that he had "…made no decision regarding plans to rebuild and that he would wait for the insurance company and investigators to complete their work.  In the meantime, he said, he had been advised not to comment on the incident."

 

Carl Cooper was interviewed by ATF investigators.  "They asked me a bunch of oddball questions for about 15 minutes," Cooper now recalls.  "I had only met John Rauch two or three times.  Never really had a conversation with him.  I didn't even know the guy."

 

 

THE PARTNER

 

When Jerry Arnold was paid $10,000 by Johnny Rauch in March of 1996 for 51 shares of Linco stock, he felt he was cashing out.  Arnold also resigned as secretary/treasurer of Linco. 

 

But the companies crossed by Linco didn't see it that way.  More than one, including Pioneer Nursing and Rehab, named Arnold as a co-defendant when civil suits were filed in hopes of collecting money.

 

When Rauch died, so did those legal efforts targeting Linco.  And Jerry Arnold.

 

Jerry Arnold is now also dead.  He died in April of 2009. 

 

His widow Joanie says Jerry was interviewed by ATF or FBI agents twice in Benton following Rauch's murder. 

 

Joanie Arnold says she is not surprised that her late husband was included on a long list of possible suspects.  "Johnny screwed a lot of people over."

 

She is confident her husband had nothing to do with the package bomb.  When asked if Jerry ever shared his thoughts on who most likely killed Johnny Rauch, Joanie recalls that Jerry said "Johnny was working with some mountain people…some hillbillies…up north that he should not have screwed over." 

 

 

 

THE BOSS

 

When Johnny Rauch realized he wasn't cut out for leading his own company, he just needed…and wanted…a job. 

 

Walter Koon gave him that job. 

 

Koon owns Four Seasons Roofing and he hired on Rauch as a salesman.  Koon too was interviewed by investigators following Rauch's murder.  He figured it was because he was Rauch's employer.

 

But actually it was more likely because of a story Rauch's son Justin shared with investigators. 

 

Justin Rauch worked both for and with his father, and Walter Koon agreed to let Justin rent a trailer home from him.  But at that time in his life Justin admits he was more interested in partying and not real interested in paying his rent. 

 

This led to a heated telephone argument one day between Koon and Justin Rauch…an argument that both now agree happened.  But they disagree on one key element:  Justin claims that a drunken Koon threatened to kill not only him but Johnny and Linda Rauch as well if he didn't get his rent money. 

 

Justin told investigators he immediately hung up and drove to his father's home to warn them of this threat.  All parties agree that while Justin was there Koon did show up and that Johnny Rauch went outside to calm him down and that ultimately Koon was paid the money he was owed.     

 

Koon says he had nothing to do with Johnny Rauch's murder and he hopes that one day whoever killed Rauch is caught. 

 

In fact, he shared an interesting story of his own with investigators that pointed them in yet another direction.

 

 

 

THE FATHER-IN-LAW

 

Koon told investigators that three days before he was murdered, Johnny Rauch came to him and shared this comment:

 

"If I ever get killed, send the police straight to my father-in-law."

 

And that's what Koon did.

 

Charles Bennett is now 82 and afflicted with the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease.

 

He was grilled following the bombing by ATF investigator Glen Cook. 

 

While it is likely that Bennett admitted to Cook that he didn't care much for Johnny Rauch, Linda says she does not believe her father had anything to do with his son-in-law's murder.

 

"We were estranged at the time of Johnny's death.  Daddy liked Johnny at first.  He even gave us land to build a home on (two doors down from him and his wife Freda).  But my dad thought real workers had nine-to-five jobs.  Johnny preferred to work for himself.   That resulted over the years in a bankruptcy for us, several lawsuits and later the loss of our home.  Over time Daddy soured on Johnny.  He would run him down to anyone and everyone.  I told him that when he was running Johnny down he was running me down…that Johnny was my husband and I have chosen him."

 

Linda felt she had no choice but to cut herself off from her overly critical father.

 

Of course this didn't sit well with Bennett, an Arkla gas air conditioning service man who had retired early at age 55 and had entered into a period of life where he really didn't have much to do. 

 

But murder his son-in-law with a package bomb…a bomb his daughter carried into the house and was in the same room with when it exploded?  Linda says no way.

 

 

 

THE INJURED BLUE-COLLAR WORKER

 

Bobby Hudson had no idea that Johnny Rauch had been killed in 1998 by a package bomb.

 

In fact, Hudson had no idea who Johnny Rauch was until it was explained to him when and where he and Rauch had crossed paths.

 

In December of 1984 Hudson was working for the Pulaski County Road and Bridge Department and riding on one of the county's trucks when another truck driven by Johnny Rauch struck him from the rear. 

 

A lawsuit filed by Hudson claimed that he "…sustained severe, permanent and excruciating injuries to his head, neck and back, and to his body as a whole."  It went on to allege medical expenses, loss of earnings and mental anguish.

 

All standard legalese says Hudson now.  He collected money from the insurance company and not only had trouble remembering his personal attorney but the accident itself. 

 

"I only met John Rauch two times…once at the wreck and once at the deposition.  You are the first person who has ever called and asked me about it."

 

Hudson admits that his injuries weren't nearly as bad as what his lawsuit described and he certainly had no motive to harm Rauch.  But he agrees that ATF agents would have had no way of knowing that unless they had questioned him…something that never happened.

 

  

THE FUTURE    

 

There were other disputes and lawsuits:  an excavator in Pine Bluff, a machinery company in Little Rock, unfinished churches and schools. 

 

It is important to note that although some of the individuals named here were interviewed by ATF agents, no one has been named as a suspect and no one has been charged with a crime.  And there were many, many more people interviewed.  Three months into the investigation 120 people had been questioned.   

 

But the tips dried up long ago.  The ATF's hot line has gone cold.  Now, however, the case is about to get a serious second look.

 

"We're reviewing it now and seeing if there is some possible stone that has been left unturned," says Crossland, the new ATF resident agent in charge.  "We'll revisit every technique that we have available to us.  And we will probably go back and, you know, re-interview some people.  See if we can't get some more information and stimulate some interest in the case.  Hopefully a witness or somebody will come forward and give us some information that can help us."

 

Glen Cook.  Bill Buford.  Stuart Lowrey.  Jeff Brzozowski.  These are the names of some of the ATF investigators who have already taken close looks at the case file.    

 

New agents and leaders must familiarize themselves with the unsolved murder of Johnny Rauch…with all its twists and turns…assuming they have the time or inclination.  

 

Other solved cases give the family of Johnny Rauch hope.

 

For example, Michael Toney was convicted 12 years after three people in Texas were killed by a briefcase bomb. 

 

Pam Phillips and her lover Ron Young were also convicted of using a bomb to commit murder 12 years after the fact.  Phillips husband was the target.  Insurance money was the motive.

 

Theodore Kacyzynski…the Unabomber…killed three and injured two dozen over an 18 year span before he was caught.  His brother turned him in. 

 

It took 22 years to crack a bombing murder in West Virginia.  Two suspects were convicted.  Again, it was the brother of one of the suspects who broke the case.

 

And then there is Randeep Mann, the Arkansas doctor convicted in the attempted murder of the chief of our state's medical board.  It demonstrates that the ATF agents here have what it takes to build a case that leads to a conviction.  Does it give the agency motivation or momentum to help solve the Rauch case?

 

"Our investigators are self-motivated individuals.  We take a lot of pride in our work.  So it really doesn't give us any more momentum to solve it.  But by you bringing it forward we're going to take a new look with new eyes."

 

A $20,000 reward is still on the table for anyone who offers information that leads to an arrest and conviction.  Once upon a time that offered hope to the family of John Rauch. 

 

But after 13 years, hope is a fading thing.

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