America at Night Files


FILE #20
The Life, Death, Burial, and Reburial of Hirschfeld's Partner Bob Chastain

After Bob Chastain's mysterious death in Vienna in December 1989, reportedly by suicide, Richard Hirschfeld collected nearly $5 million in key-man life insurance benefits. Five years later, suspecting Chastain's death had been faked to allow Hirschfeld and Chastain to split the insurance proceeds, the FBI dug up the body in Chastain's grave.

Virginian-Pilot, The (Norfolk, VA)
October 31, 1994
Edition: FINAL
Section: FRONT
Page: A1
Estimated printed pages: 7
Article Text:

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 Ferdinand Marcos.
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 cannot do.
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 Chastain.
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, is vindicated.
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 years.
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 friends.
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.
Color photo
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