Lost 9/11 flag mystery leads to Everett

The two Everett police detectives didn't know the flag was missing until a stranger rang the doorbell at Fire Station 1 on Rucker Avenue. The man handed over a plastic bag to firefighters, along with a tale that led the detectives on the investigation of a lifetime.

Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson (right) helps display a flag linked to a famous photo of ground zero in New York after the Sept. 11

By Diana Hefley and Rikki King

The Everett Daily Herald

The two Everett police detectives didn’t know the flag was missing until a stranger rang the doorbell at Fire Station 1 on Rucker Avenue. The man handed over a plastic bag to firefighters, along with a tale that led the detectives on the investigation of a lifetime.

Nearly two years later — on Aug. 4 — a curator from the National September 11 Memorial Museum made a quiet visit to the Everett police station. She collected the American flag and its rigging rope and hardware.

Detectives Jim Massingale and Mike Atwood breathed a little easier.

They had kept their promises and secrets. The flag was safe. It was headed home.

The museum expected to unveil the flag Thursday at a ceremony in New York City, near where three firefighters raised it over the rubble hours after terrorists brought down the World Trade Center. A photojournalist captured the moment, and his photograph became a powerful symbol of resiliency and patriotism after thousands lost their lives in the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

Everett police are cautious about claiming they’ve recovered the iconic flag. Their investigation leads them and others to believe it’s likely the same one raised at ground zero, they said.

“We didn’t have an agenda. We were never pressured to say it’s the flag. People will draw their own conclusions based on the investigation,” Massingale said Friday.

Lost to history

On Sept. 11, 2001, three New York City firefighters took a 3-foot by 5-foot U.S. flag from the Star of America yacht moored in the Hudson River. They raised the flag over ground zero, using electrical tape to bind together two lengths of rope.

Thomas Franklin, of The Record newspaper in New Jersey, was nearby with his camera. The photograph was printed around the world.

Within five hours of its raising, the Star of America flag and the halyard — the rope and the brass and silver hardware — were gone. Everett police documented that timeline from a video recorded at the site the evening of the attacks.

Another flag surfaced that for some time was believed to be the one from the yacht. That banner was taken on a tour of the Middle East on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. When it returned, the yacht’s owner and crew members realized it wasn’t their flag. That was the beginning of the mystery.

A stranger’s tale

When someone rings the doorbell at the station, every firefighter on duty answers. They don’t know what emergency could be at their doorstep.

On Nov. 4, 2014, a man stood outside Everett Fire Station 1, clutching a plastic shopping bag from Jo-Ann Fabric.

He said he was a Marine who had served in Iraq. A few days earlier, on Halloween, he’d been watching a show on the History Channel about lost historical artifacts. Host Brad Meltzer detailed the disappearance of the ground zero flag.

The man, who identified himself as “Brian,” claimed he had the flag and halyard.

He’d been given the flag in honor of his military service on Veterans Day 2007, he said. It came from an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A 9/11 widow had given the NOAA worker the flag, he explained.

He told the firefighters he didn’t want a reward or publicity. He hoped the flag would be returned to the people of New York City.

He said he was married and lived in Everett. He didn’t provide his last name or phone number.

Massingale had been with the department more than two decades. He served four years in the U.S. Army before becoming a cop. He was assigned to property crimes back in 2014. That fall his boss called the detective into his office.

“He came out white as a sheet,” Atwood said. “I kept asking him if he was in trouble.”

“No, I’m not in trouble,” Massingale said. “I’m going to need your help on this.”

Keeping a secret

The men had been partners for years. Massingale is skeptical. Atwood is more of a glass-half-full kinda guy. They tend to finish each other’s sentences.

The two detectives began their investigation using Google and You Tube. Plenty had been written about the flag and its disappearance. The detectives learned the flag’s owners were Shirley Dreifus and her husband, Spiros Kopelakis.

Meanwhile, their bosses knew the detectives needed room to work.

They didn’t want word to get out. The flag needed to be kept secret — and protected. It was stored in a separate evidence room with stricter protocols. There was a back-up location in case of an emergency, Deputy Police Chief Mark St. Clair said.

Early on, however, the History Channel learned of the investigation. To keep pressure off the detectives, the department brokered a deal. The production company provided some valuable resources, including flying the yacht’s second mate, Monica Rosero, to Everett to examine the flag and also hiring independent experts to look over the evidence, St. Clair said.

Massingale and Atwood enlisted the help of the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Marysville. They asked the forensic scientists to look for DNA on the Jo-Ann Fabric bag.

Moments after they left, forensic scientist Lisa Collins called them back. She’d been talking to David Northrop, a lab supervisor. During that conversation, his computer mouse got bumped, revealing his screensaver: the 9/11 flag. She confided in him.

The bag turned out to be a dead end, but Northrop gave the detectives an invaluable lead. A colleague in the lab near Spokane happened to be one of the nation’s foremost experts on 9/11 debris analysis.

It was time for a field trip.

Story in the dust

Bill Schneck conducted a chemical analysis of trace evidence from the flag and halyard. Along the way, the detectives learned a bit about microscopic dust particle analysis: asbestos, mica, cement.

While waiting for Schneck’s report, detectives tried to find Brian. They released a sketch of him in late 2014. The police said they were looking for a man who had dropped off some property. They didn’t reveal exactly what.

Brian was described as white and in his late 30s to early 40s. He is about 5 feet, 10 inches tall and 180 pounds. He has brown hair, which he wears longer in the back.

The detectives scoured all surveillance footage available from businesses along Rucker Avenue and from city buses.

Atwood was alone in the office he shared with Massingale on Dec. 23, 2014, when his partner’s phone rang. Then his own phone rang. It was Schneck, who told him, “Merry Christmas.”

The scientist couldn’t declare it was the same flag and halyard, but he said the debris was consistent with dust from ground zero.

But Atwood and Massingale needed more than dust.

They had watched videos of the flag raising. They saw the firefighters wrapping the rope with black electrical tape. They tried to count the wraps, to compare with the rope they had, but that part of the video wasn’t clear. Something else was: The firefighters weren’t wearing gloves. The detectives knew the sticky side of electrical tape made a good repository for genetic evidence.

“We just went to DNA school a short time before that,” Massingale said.

There was no way they could unravel all of the tape.

“We didn’t want to destroy a potential historic item,” Atwood said.

They settled for peeling back a single inch and swabbing it for evidence.

The tape contained the genetic profile of an unidentified man.

They asked the New York City fire department to provide DNA from the three firefighters who had raised the flag. They asked nicely. This wasn’t a criminal case, and a judge’s order might not go over well with those who had experienced the tragedy up close.

Attorneys from Everett and New York City agreed the detectives would send the sample from the flag. There seemed to be no other option.

The detectives learned in June 2015 there was no match between the firefighters and the tape. They peeled back and swabbed the second and third inches. No additional genetic profiles were found.

They attempted to compare the DNA they did have with other people who may have handled the flag. Monica Rosero and Shirley Dreifus sent personal items belonging to their late husbands for testing, with no conclusive results.

The History Channel flew Rosero to Everett. She said she was 80 percent sure the flag was from the Star of America. She was more certain about the halyard.

Another Everett detective, Steve Paxton, took hundreds of photos of the flag for comparison.

All modern U.S. flags share certain characteristics: 13 stripes, a field of blue, 50 stars. In the video from ground zero, the tape on the rope had a tear in it. So did the tape in Everett. The flag in evidence and the flag from the yacht matched in size, nylon material and stitching.

The flying end of a flag is often folded over and stitched to prevent fraying. That step can create an over-set of the stripes between the two sides. The over-set, measured in fractions of an inch, was among the details analyzed.

The halyard was a stronger match. It had more unique features, especially the tape and the hardware.

The investigators didn’t want anyone to be able to come back and say they missed something. They were told that a former FBI agent and art fraud expert said that priceless paintings have received less scrutiny than the flag did in Everett.

“I feel very strongly that’s the halyard in the photograph,” Massingale said.

“I’m even more confident,” his partner responded.

Massingale added: “The flag is likely the same flag.”

With everything put together — the material, the trace evidence and the witness reports — there was finally enough evidence “that we are able to return that to whoever is claiming ownership,” St. Clair said.

“It all just lines up,” he said.

There are unanswered questions. Despite their efforts, they still don’t know who “Brian” is or how he ended up with the flag. They don’t know whose DNA is on the tape.

In recent months, the yacht’s surviving owner, her insurance company and the museum came to an agreement on the future of the flag. The museum flew someone out to take measurements to begin preparations for a new display.

Sunday marks 15 years since the Twin Towers were destroyed. The flag that spent two years in Everett police custody was scheduled to be unveiled at the museum in Manhattan on Thursday morning. Massingale, St. Clair and Schneck planned to be there.

A powerful hold

Massingale retired in January from the Everett Police Department after 25 years. He took a job with the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, patrolling a 64-acre reservation in north Snohomish County.

He kept investigating the flag case, often on his own time. The final draft of his report is dated Aug. 31, 2016.

It was one of the last cases he and Atwood worked together.

The detectives suspect that some will say they could have turned the flag over sooner. That’s not the way they see it. Like any other case, they followed the evidence, piece by piece. There was never any question about what they needed to do or why.

“We got to handle the flag several times. It was pretty powerful,” Massingale said. “It was powerful to hold it in your hands.”

They talked a lot about what the flag meant, to them and to their country during one of its darkest hours.

They wonder what it’ll mean to others, now that it’s home.

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