Sean O'Driscoll shares a chapter from his book "The Accidental Spy."
In this scene from the bestselling non-fiction book The Accidental Spy, trucking company boss David Rupert has been traveling to Ireland for two years after meeting an Irish American woman in a bar in Florida.
The woman, Linda Vaughan, was a leading member of both the Democratic Party and Noraid, the US political wing of the IRA.
Unknown to him, the Irish anti-terrorist terrorist Special Branch has been photographing him meeting Irish republicans Joe O’Neill and Vincent Murray in Donegal and Sligo. The Irish police were concerned that Rupert was bringing arms and cash from the US so they passed on the photos, and his details, to the FBI.
By the summer of 1994, Rupert had broken up with Linda Vaughan and was just about to start dating the love of his life, Irish American Chicago native Maureen Brennan.
Agent Ed Buckley pulls up at the Calumet Truck Plaza, 20 miles south of Chicago. It is a hot summer day in late July 1994 and the warm air is heavy with the acrid smell of diesel.
Calumet is the city’s largest truck depot, a self-contained town with 22 fuel pumps, a diner, shops, tattoo parlour, motel, and masseuse. It rests uneasily inside the old Dutch township of South Holland, which strictly prohibits Sunday trading and the sale of alcohol, and in which the truck plaza is a jarring and modern intrusion.
Buckley is holding an envelope in his hand, containing photographs from Ireland of David Rupert and Joe O’Neill. The Irish police have contacted Interpol about the mysterious American, and Interpol have contacted the FBI.
Buckley walks up the stairs to Rupert’s office. Lawsuits from the fatal crash have destroyed Rupert’s New York operations and he has moved to Chicago, one of America’s great trucking centres. His office shares a corridor with a tattoo artist, a masseuse and a preacher, all of whom offer redemption of some kind to the travel-weary trucker.
Inside the office, Buckley shows his FBI badge and puts the photos on the table.
“Buckley was like no other FBI agent. He was a real maverick type, hand on hip, pointing at me. His language was pretty coarse,” says Rupert. “He was really trying to impress upon me the seriousness of the situation, that I was seen with Joe O’Neill and Vincent Murray, another Irish republican, and that I was in trouble. To be honest with you, with everything that was going on in Chicago trucking, I was relieved this was about Ireland.”
Buckley, thick-set and frumpy, had spent a decade hunting out IRA gun-runners in Chicago’s large Irish community.
“He was acting the real blowhard, trying to shake me down with some scare story about how the FBI knew I was mixed up in Irish terrorism. I said, ‘Look, all trucker stories start with three things: a bar, a beer and a woman. In my case, that’s the Harp and Thistle, Guinness and Linda Vaughan.’”
Rupert’s attitude was deliberately guyish and light-hearted, but Buckley was not smiling. He told Rupert that if he wanted to stay out of trouble he should inform the FBI about what the IRA was doing in Chicago and in Ireland.
Buckley was known as the bulldog of the Chicago field office, the only one who would wander into a trucking depot unannounced and demand answers. He left after 10 minutes of questions and promised that he would be back.
“I didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time,” says Rupert. “I had so much going on, this guy was just another problem.”
Rupert was, yet again, recently divorced. This time the marriage had lasted six months. It was to a woman he met online named Jacqueline Decker – a tumultuous relationship that was to scar him for life. Even now, he finds it difficult to talk about, but it gave him a definite goal: to marry for love, and end the destructive cycle.
He had been flirting with the operations manager of the plaza, Maureen Brennan, who had rented the office to him for $300 a month. Maureen, quick-witted, slim and petite with brown hair and a bright smile, was from an Irish American family in the adjoining Dolton area of Chicago’s exurbs.
Her mother, second generation Irish, never fulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting her ancestral home.
For many Irish people scattered around the world, the death of thousands in Northern Ireland was not a backdrop to rebel ballads, but a deep and painful wound.
One day, Maureen saw her mother crying in the kitchen after the evening news. “I asked her what was wrong and she said, ‘Why are the Irish killing each other?’”
Maureen was pregnant at 19 and gave birth at 20 to her daughter, Dorie. She married Dorie’s father, against the wishes of her family, but it ended quickly. Her second marriage also rapidly ended in divorce and, at 22, Maureen turned up at Calumet Auto Trucking, looking for a job.
“I knew I was in a man’s world and so I had to work harder than anyone to prove myself. We used bleepers in those days and my bleeper was never of. There was a hundred staff and I had to solve everyone’s problems. After a few years, I was running the place.”
Being a pretty young woman who hosted 1,000 truckers every day was not easy.
“They were always flirting, with me and every woman. They were on the road a long time and they were lonely. They would always tell you that they had a big place back home and that they were well of. I just laughed.”
Maureen and the plaza owner, Eugene Suppelsa, liked to hire young men from the evangelical churches of South Holland for the garage and shops because they could be trusted, but their Dutch Calvinist faith clashed frequently with the immoral ways of trucking.
One day, she got a call from the garage manager saying one of the local boys was refusing to fix a tyre on a truck because the truck was carrying alcohol. Another refused to pump diesel for a beer truck.
“One time, I got a call from the store because one of the truckers bought a Playboy and the guy wouldn’t serve him. I literally had to run from downstairs, ring it up for this embarrassed trucker and get back to work.”
The plaza handled 1,000 trucks a day and pumped over one million gallons of diesel a month, and behind it all was a myriad of scams to boost profits.
It ran two sets of books, one for the government and one for Gene, the owner, who bought a new Porsche every few years and whose main passion was jazz accordion. When he wasn’t playing accordion in his office, he was enjoying the scamming that was systemic in the trucking business.
“One night he called me at 11pm and told me to get $10,000 from the safe,” says Maureen. “He was buying a stolen forklift worth $100,000 for 10 grand and needed the money fast. They scrapped the forklift’s serial numbers and used it in the plaza for years.”
Staff would steal from them just as easily. Maureen used a trucker’s cab for her own surveillance after food kept disappearing from the restaurant. One of the employees could be seen smuggling the food out in the linen basket and loading it into the back of his car.
In the afternoon, pimps would bring prostitutes up to the trucking plaza six at a time and collect them at 4am. The prostitutes, desperate and often addicts, would knock at the truckers’ cabs while they slept and ask them if they wanted company. It was the height of the 1990s crack epidemic. Some truckers would park further down the road to avoid the 2am knock.
“It was a hopeless situation,” says Maureen. “You would call the cops and get the hookers busted but they would bail out the next morning and be right back there that same day.”
The problem reached its worst point when Maureen’s immediate supervisor found one of the women inside the office building and chased her out onto the roof.
“We looked up and he’s holding her out over the ledge and he is shouting, ‘Do you want to die? Do you want to die?’ We had to go up there and talk him down from it.”
In a city that was still reeling from a crime wave, the threat of violence was a regular hazard in Rupert’s office. As his business expanded, more and more drivers would come from the poor neighbourhoods looking for work.
“I told one of them he’d failed a drug test and he got real mad and pulled this small knife on me. I said, ‘First of all, look at me. You are not even going to penetrate my belly fat with that thing and the second you do it, I will drop-punch you to the floor.’”
Rupert’s preoccupation was in proving to himself, after three divorces, that he could find love.
The same week as FBI Agent Buckley’s visit, he was planning a motorbike trip with one of his truckers, John Orndorf, and Orndorf’s wife, Nancy.
Maureen remembers it well. “I was passing through the diner and John asks me if I wanted to go on a bike ride with them to Wisconsin that Sunday. I knew John was married and his wife was right there, so I figured this was Dave’s way of asking me out.”
That Sunday, Maureen rode hundreds of miles on the back of Rupert’s oversized motorcycle all the way to Wisconsin and back. By the time they made it back to South Holland, they were dating.
Within a few days, he asked her to come with him to Ireland, promising her they would stay at Ashford Castle, the country’s most beautiful hotel, and tour the west coast.
Maureen accepted immediately.
She had never been outside America before, except for a disastrous honeymoon in Acapulco with her second husband. Her whole life had been lived within a five-mile radius – from her home in Dolton to the truck plaza. She drank with work mates but everything else went to college tuition for her daughter Doreen.
“So we arrive into Joe O’Neill’s pub in Donegal and there is this dog, Rebel, sitting on the bar stool and the place is wall-to-wall IRA posters. It was all threatening stuff. And women were coming in with prams and dancing around while Joe is up on stage singing all these IRA rebel ballads. I thought, ‘Jesus, what is this?’”
Maureen Brennan was meeting Rupert’s new world.
“I liked Joe, he was this good old boy from the old IRA, that’s how I saw it at the time,” she says.
“Then we drove down to Vincent Murray’s place and it’s more Republicans and more rebel ballads. We had a good time, and I just got into it. I’ve lived my whole life in a man’s world at the truck stop, so this was just an extension of that. I drank up with the rest of them. I loved Ireland, the friendliness and the beauty. We both wanted to be there.”
David drove with Joe O’Neill to visit the Republican Sinn Féin headquarters in Dublin, where they picked up some arts and crafts made by prisoners – Celtic design bodhrans and miniature harps, to take back to Donegal.
On the way back, Joe said that he had to meet Ruairí Ó Brádaigh and several of the Continuity IRA army council at Ó Brádaigh’s house in Roscommon. Rupert wasn’t allowed to attend, so Joe dropped him off at a hotel in Roscommon town for an hour.
Rupert knew better than to argue. He sat in the lobby listening to the muzak. In his wallet, he discovered Ed Buckley’s business card: “Ed Buckley. Agent. Federal Bureau of Investigation”, with the FBI and Justice Department logo. It was a serious lapse – one that would have got him killed had it been discovered.
“I knew the FBI had this rule – never flush anything down a toilet unless you flush it three times because it can float back up again,” said Rupert. “I was worried about doing that, so I just took the card out of my wallet and ate it. I had it chewed to pieces and swallowed by the time Joe came back to the hotel.”
David and Maureen flew back to Chicago four days later. Agent Ed Buckley drove to Calumet to see David. The mainstream Provisional IRA had just declared a ceasefire. President Clinton was heavily involved in brokering a potential peace deal and wanted to know if the ceasefire would hold, or if disaffected IRA members would break away and restart the bombings.
“Buckley is all worked up,” says Rupert. “He says to me, ‘the FBI will pay for the trips to Ireland for you and Maureen. You just have to tell us what’s happening.”
“I thought, ‘Hey, if I can sucker the FBI into paying for our trips, great.’ We both loved Ireland, so why not? I didn’t know anything anyway, so let the government sponsor us in Ireland.”
That night, he told Maureen about the FBI visits.
She was astounded. “It was like something out of this world, the FBI following our movements and wanting to pay for our trips. To be honest, after 20 years as a woman in the trucking business, nothing scared me. It was exciting and if the FBI pay for us, great. Looking back now, I had no fucking idea how deep into this thing we would go.”
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