Lisa Stanley stopped talking for a moment. Puffiness surrounded the teaching assistant’s eyes as she sniffled into a
A hurricane and a death. This had to be a tough few days for her, Kevin Pierce thought to himself.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Where were we?”
The insurance investigator gently reminded her of the last question he had asked.
“Oh, right,” she said with a nervous laugh. “Dr. Hebert was spending a lot of time in the new Sociology Department
offices after the hurricane. He’d been acting secretive and keeping his door closed a lot. Normally, he was a bit
paranoid that he was being watched, you know, after all the press he’d gotten before, but recently it had gotten
worse. He complained of headaches and chest pain. I told him he should see a doctor but he wouldn’t. ‘Real men
don’t do that,’ he said,” she recalled, a small smile sliding briefly across her face.
Pierce recalled the stories about Dr. Kenneth Hebert, a former wunderkind who had earned a biology degree from
Harvard at 19 and a PhD in sociology from Princeton by 23. A fully tenured Stanford professor at 31, Hebert briefly
became a minor celebrity in certain political circles when his affiliation with an extremist group resulted in his removal
from teaching. The subsequent lawsuit reportedly settled north of $5 million, but led to his exile at Southeast Florida
University, a sleepy fourth-tier college in Boca Raton.
“And when was the last time you saw him?” Pierce asked.
“Well, I found him,” she said and paused. Her dark brown eyes glistened.
“Before that, I mean.”
“The night before he died. He was working late because we had a generator.”
“OK – I know the police are working on the possibility the generator caused carbon monoxide poisoning. Who set
“Maintenance people for the university. It was a few feet outside the door.”
"Is the generator still there?”
“It might be, but we did get power back yesterday – they probably haven't taken it away yet.”
Pierce asked a few more questions then concluded the interview. As he packed away his recorder, Stanley spoke up.
“Everyone tells me to get an attorney. I guess people assume I was having an affair with Dr. Hebert and that I did
something to him because he wouldn’t leave his wife. If anything, she’d be the type to murder him – she was
always calling the office, really mean on the phone, like she suspected me.” She sniffled again.
Pierce believed her. You had to believe someone going into a field as manifestly non-lucrative as sociology. Still, he
knew some people lied brilliantly.
The investigator walked to his generic rental car, and drove from Stanley’s apartment in West Boca to the main
campus of Southeast Florida University. Debris piles lined the road, waiting for overwhelmed sanitation trucks to
visit. Jagged trees, stripped by the storm, dotted the yards he passed. Despite the damage, Boca was a beautiful
place, albeit in a superficial way. It was a bit incongruous to him that the mostly tasteful haven of the nouveau riche
stood on the former site of a huge military base in World War II and – it was rumored – a secret government Cold
Pierce pulled onto the campus and grabbed a map from a helpful student at the visitor’s center. He headed past
soccer fields and newly constructed buildings to a more remote part of the school where the buildings were not so
pristine. In looking at the campus guide, it actually noted that Building H-12 was one of three structures on campus
left from military days. It had been unoccupied for decades and only minimally used for storage the times when it
was utilized, that is, until it became the new home of the Sociology Department.
He parked and took out his phone. Pierce called the college maintenance department and left a message on their
answering machine. He followed that with a call to the police department and found the autopsy report would still
be several days away. Then he called Hebert’s widow.
Pierce identified himself and gave his condolences.
“How can I help you?” she asked curtly.
“I was checking into your husband’s death and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions?”
Mrs. Hebert cut him off. “Why don’t you ask that little tramp? I put Kenneth through grad school, back when we had
nothing. Then he gets some money, and suddenly he wants someone younger. Look, I’ve got nothing to say to
you. Talk to my lawyer.” She gave him the attorney’s information and promptly hung up.
After making some notes, Pierce emerged into stiflingly-hot September air that covered him like a blanket. H-12
actually still looked like an old barracks building. Paint was gone in places, and much of the exposed timber looked
rotten. In contrast to the activity in the rest of the campus, he saw no one.
Pierce walked to the door of the building and was surprised that it opened. He moved down an eerily quiet corridor
past a wall decorated with posters for studying abroad. Dim florescent lights gave the interior a soft, artificial feel.
Water stains marked most of the ceiling tiles. A dingy tan leather sofa sat on one side of the corridor, a college
newspaper from a few days earlier tossed haphazardly to one side of it.
At the end of the corridor, the investigator reached the Sociology Department. This time the door didn’t open. He
looked around cautiously then extracted a credit card from his wallet. Pierce inserted the card by the lock, gave a
push, and the door yielded. He flipped on the lights.
The Department clearly wasn’t taking up a huge amount of the university budget. The main office was just as
dilapidated as the rest of the building, with heavy metal desks and filing cabinets that looked like they could have
been left from the military days. In the far left corner, a slightly open door carried Dr. Hebert’s name. Pierce went
Nothing looked out of the ordinary. Outside the office window, a generator sat a few feet from the building,
seemingly not close enough to let fumes into Hebert’s office. He noticed, though, torn grass by it, probably from
when the machine had been manhandled into position by maintenance personnel.
Pierce saw another door that he presumed was a closet. A stack of boxes blocked it. He moved them aside and
entered. The door opened onto a short dark hallway that ended in a nearly empty room. Sunlight passed through a
small dirty window onto a floor covered with dust fully an inch thick. In the dust, Pierce saw footprints that led to a
small black safe in the corner. The lock to the safe was broken, and the door hung bent and ajar. He walked over
and pulled it open.
A pile of faded envelopes lay in the safe, a torn one off to the side of the others. When he touched it, a fine white
powder fell into small pile. Pierce looked closely at it. A sweet, strong smell rose up. Suddenly, dizziness overtook
him. He started to fall and staggered to brace himself against the wall, then lurched through the office, down the
hallway and outside into open air. Pierce sat on a concrete bench and put his head between his legs. After a few
deep breaths, the symptoms passed. He took out his phone and called the Boca Raton Police Department.
A half-hour later, a blue Chevy Suburban pulled into the parking lot, trailed by a Boca Raton police cruiser. Two men
in dark shades and black pinstripe suits stepped out.
“Kevin Pierce?” the taller of them asked.
“I’m Ed Jones,” he said, not even making an effort to conceal that he was giving a false name. “Slowly and carefully,
I need you to show me what you found.”
The two men took hazmat kits out of the Suburban and followed Pierce, stopping several feet back from the door in
“You can wait outside,” the taller one said.
The Boca cops stood, arms folded, watching Pierce when he emerged.
Fifteen minutes later, the agents came out, carrying several sealed bags.
“How long were you in the room?” Jones asked.
“Only a minute. I started to feel dizzy so I left.”
“I need you to stand still for a moment,” he said. He looked closely at Pierce’s pupils then took his pulse. He
nodded to himself.
“I want to confirm that you found nothing in this room – correct?” he said.
Pierce stared at the agent.
“I think you should confirm that,” one of the Boca cops said.
The investigator looked at them for a moment. “OK – I agree. Nothing was in there," Pierce said finally.
“Thank you. You can go.”
Pierce walked to his car and drove away slowly from the building. He breathed in the cool conditioned air and
headed to I95 to get a flight from PBI back his office in Jacksonville.
The next day, Pierce looked at the online Palm Beach Post. A small story buried in the local section mentioned that
the police investigation ruled Hebert’s death as accidental. Pierce closed his file, and shook his head. Sometimes,
he thought, accidents do just happen. And sometimes it’s not our enemies but our own lack of restraint that brings
the damage. Who knows what Hebert was thinking or what he wanted to do? As with so much of life, the picture
would remain incomplete.