Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk,
October 31, 1994
THE PECULIAR CASE OF THE LIFE, DEATH, BURIAL AND REBURIAL
OF ROBERT CHASTAIN WAS CHASTAIN'S DEATH FAKED SO THAT
HE AND HIS BUSINESS PARTNER, A VIRGINIA FINANCIER, COULD
COLLECT ON INSURANCE? THE FBI SEEMED TO THINK SO. AN
EXHUMATION LATER, THEY MAY NOT BE SO SURE.
Author: JOE JACKSON, STAFF WRITER
Estimated printed pages: 7
Who is buried under the simple tombstone in the middle
of a windswept cemetery in Purdy, Mo.
Is it, as the inscription states, Robert Lewis Chastain
- jetsetter, acquaintance to the rich and famous, and
business partner of Richard M. Hirschfeld, the Virginia
financier sentenced in 1991 to six years in prison and
fined $460,000 for conspiracy and tax evasion?
Or is it, as the federal government has hinted, a proxy?
To answer this, federal authorities from Virginia descended
on tiny Purdy early on the morning of Oct. 18 with a
court order to exhume the body in Chastain's grave.
The authorities - an FBI agent, an IRS agent and an
assistant U.S. attorney - came under a veil of secrecy.
They told those involved in the exhumation that they
were under a sealed court order from Virginia to dig
up Chastain. If anyone talked about the disinterment,
the agents said, they could be held in contempt of court.
They could go to jail.
Why now? Barry County residents asked. After all, the
question of who was buried in Chastain's grave had lingered
since his funeral on Jan. 5, 1990.
Nineteen days earlier, on Dec. 17, 1989, Chastain's
body had been discovered in a hotel room in Vienna,
Austria. He had told friends he was meeting Saudi royal
Mohammed al-Fassi to clinch a business deal. It was
just another meeting for the Missouri native who, with
Hirschfeld, wined and dined former boxing champion Muhammad
Ali and met secretly with deposed Philippines dictator
Instead, a maid found Chastain dead, a pill vial on
the table next to his bed. He was 39 years old and 5,000
miles from home. An autopsy performed in Vienna said
the former car salesman died ``by his own hand'' from
a barbiturate overdose.
In accordance with Austrian practice, Chastain was placed
in a steel container that was welded shut and flown
back to the United States. He was buried next to his
father. His former wife, Peggy Chastain, viewed him
through a small window set in the container. The body
was Robert's, she said. Hirschfeld, in court papers,
said the same.
The federal government disagreed. There was a good chance
he was alive, authorities hinted in court papers filed
in U.S. District Court in Norfolk. His death was faked
so he could avoid prosecution, so he could split $4.75
million in life insurance benefits with Hirschfeld.
``Chastain's `death' . . . is placed in quotes because
the circumstances surrounding his death are peculiar,
to say the least,'' said a brief filed in January 1991
in Norfolk by Assistant U.S. Attorney David Barger,
who prosecuted Hirschfeld. ``Chastain had a number of
insurance policies on his life totaling approximately
five million dollars. The death occurred approximately
two weeks after the two year limitation on recovery
for suicide. The defendant (Hirschfeld) was the primary
beneficiary on the policies, receiving approximately
4.75 million dollars.''
Hirschfeld claimed he never got the money. In 1993,
he petitioned the government to exhume Chastain and
clear up the mystery. He objected that, ``before imposing
the $460,000 fine, the Court concluded that the insurance
proceeds were part of the defendant's assets.'' He asked
for a sentence reduction but was refused.
During the same period, Peggy Chastain also asked the
government to exhume her former husband's body. She
told a reporter with the Springfield News-Leader that
she received a five-figure settlement from the insurance.
``Dig him up,'' she said in 1991. ``I told the FBI to
do it. But they haven't, because they're jerks.''
Now, the federal agents told the Missourians, there
was new evidence. ``The agents thought it wasn't Chastain
in the grave,'' one person familiar with the case said
last week. ``They thought he was at some coastal island.
They said that within the past few months some stocks
or bonds or cash formerly in his possession floated
to the surface. That's all they said. . . . That, and
we could be cited for contempt if we talked.''
People in the southwestern corner of Missouri are friendly
but independent. They don't like outsiders from the
East Coast coming in to tell them what they can and
So word got out. At 8 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 18, a backhoe
operator opened Chastain's grave. The body was whisked
away in a mortuary van to a pathologist in Columbia
- Dr. Jay Dix, who performed another autopsy on the
body. Federal authorities were told that if the body
turned out not to be Chastain's, then he couldn't be
returned to the family plot. He could be buried elsewhere
in the cemetery, but not in the grave of Robert Lewis
The Barry County coroner, Skip White, refused to talk
about the exhumation. ``I can't tell you anything about
it,'' he told The Joplin Globe. ``I am under a federal
court order from Virginia that prevents me from talking
about anything that has taken place.''
White told the reporter that he had a local judge look
at the sealed court order authorizing the exhumation.
The judge said, ``Just do it,'' White said.
Dix, the pathologist, also wouldn't comment. ``This
is an FBI case, and I cannot comment,'' he told The
Globe. ``I can tell you that I performed an autopsy
on Robert Chastain.''
On the day of the autopsy, all was quiet, and as time
dragged on the Missourians figured they would be told
to bury the body in another plot. But then, that night,
word came down: Put the body back in Chastain's grave.
On Oct. 20, federal authorities did not return to Purdy
Cemetery when the man who was apparently Robert Chastain
was lowered, again, into his grave.
Acquaintances say that Hirschfeld, at least partially,
Federal authorities will not comment. Barger would not
return a reporter's repeated calls. The FBI in Norfolk
and Kansas City would not comment. Marie Parker, a press
officer with Barger's office in Alexandria, said: ``We
can neither confirm or deny anything that might possibly
be under investigation.''
In death, as in life, Chastain's and Hirschfeld's fates
are tied. During Hirschfeld's 1991 trial, the bulk of
the charges revolved around what Hirschfeld did or did
not do with Chastain. Now that Hirschfeld is nearing
the end of his sentence and has reportedly been released
to a federal halfway house, the issue of whether Chastain's
death was phony pops up like a Halloween zombie.
Hirschfeld was unavailable for comment.
The men met in 1979 during a Utah business deal and
quickly became friends. It was easy to see why Chastain
was drawn to Hirschfeld, friends later said. After graduating
from high school in 1968, Chastain sold real estate
in Florida, financed cars in Utah, married three times,
had three children. A fan of James Bond movies, Chastain
dreamed of someday being a success, Peggy said.
Then Hirschfeld introduced him to the world of which
he'd only dreamed. Chastain was financing deals for
Hirschfeld's client al Fassi, dining with Muhammad Ali.
He traveled with two passports and two driver's licenses.
He lived his dreams, Peggy said.
Hirschfeld, too, long had a passion for intrigue. In
1987, he and Chastain reportedly tricked deposed Philippines
dictator Marcos into confessing plans to retake his
country. Chastain posed as an international arms dealer
and Hirschfeld taped their conversation.
The government said there also was evidence that Hirschfeld
once carried phony British passports during a cloak-and-dagger
mission in which Hirschfeld says he worked for the State
Department. Hirschfeld claimed in court he was helping
the U.S. Marshal's Service to capture a man wanted for
murdering an Iranian dissident in Maryland in 1980.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the FBI and IRS started
investigating Hirschfeld's business deals. In 1991,
a federal jury convicted Hirschfeld on three counts:
conspiring to defraud the IRS, conspiring to defraud
the Securities and Exchange Commission, and filing a
false income tax return in 1984.
The main charges focused on an alleged phony $2.1 million
lawsuit settlement that Hirschfeld took as a deduction
on his 1984 income tax return.
Hirschfeld made the payment in the form of 75 million
shares of penny stock to Chastain, who by then had sued
him for defamation and slander. Within days of the settlement,
Chastain sold the stock for $250,000, with the securities
continuing to weave through Hirschfeld's control. Chastain
ended up with only $30,000.
Nearly half of the $250,000 reportedly went to Stephen
Goren, a disbarred stockbroker, who testified that he
helped Hirschfeld arrange a public stock offering. The
government said Hirschfeld tried to disguise Goren's
payment by having Chastain buy the rights to a worthless
screenplay, titled ``Airheads,'' from Goren.
Yet by the time Hirschfeld was tried, Chastain - an
important witness for both sides - could not testify.
He was dead.
Court records showed that by 1989, Chastain's life was
nearly out of control. The IRS was investigating both
his lawsuit against Hirschfeld and his tax records -
he hadn't filed tax returns since 1981. He had divorced
for the third time, from Peggy. He and Hirschfeld reportedly
were at odds. Deals in Europe had soured and assets
in some companies were frozen by authorities. He was
about to declare bankruptcy for the second time in seven
Then, in October 1989, his life got even stranger. He
flew to Bermuda, where he bounced some checks. The police
arrested him for fraud and threw him in jail, where
he met Richard Ang, a Singapore native accused of passing
$80,000 in bogus travelers checks. Somehow, he persuaded
Ang to lend him $5,000.
But Ang the counterfeiter was also Ang the informant
for the Drug Enforcement Administration. If you ever
get in trouble, Ang reportedly told Chastain, call my
By November 1989, Chastain had paid his debts and left
the island. Now his life entered its final, frenetic
phase. In the last two weeks of his life, he crisscrossed
the country, trying to raise money, trying to make deals.
He hit Miami, Fla; Portland, Ore.; Salt Lake City; Virginia
Beach; Toronto; Las Vegas; Norfolk; New York; and Vienna.
On Dec. 16, he checked into the Vienna Hilton. Peggy
Chastain said he carried two passports - one in his
name, the other issued to Melvin Purvis, the legendary
``G-man'' with the FBI. He called Peggy and wished her
a merry Christmas. Then he reportedly sat down and wrote
several suicide notes.
He wrote to Peggy: ``It's 4 p.m. . . . I am going to
set in motion the final action which will make up for
all the grief I have caused.''
He added as a postscript: ``I sold my passport and here's
some extra money.'' He put $180 in Libyan currency into
an envelope and sealed it, then told the front desk
he didn't want to be disturbed.
The next day, the maid found him dead in his bed. The
money had disappeared.
The autopsy in Vienna concluded: ``Mr. Robert Lewis
Chastain died a violent/unnatural death due to medication
overdose by his own hand.''
It could be murder, Peggy Chastain told The News-Leader
in 1991. It could be suicide. But either way, her wayward
former husband was dead.
The Last Days of Robert L. Chastain
Source: Springfield (Missouri) News-Leader
For complete information see microfilm.
Copyright (c) 1994 The Virginian-Pilot
Record Number: 9410310053