"FOR THREE YEARS, I've had a feeling that if Chuck hadn't been on that plane, it wouldn't have been bombed," says Beulah McKee, 75. Her bitterness has still not subsided. But seated in the parlor of her house in Trafford, Pennsylvania, the house where her son was born 43 years ago, she struggles to speak serenely. "I know that's not what our President wants me to say," she admits.
George Bush's letter of condolence, written almost four months after the shattered remains of Pan Am Flight 103 fell on Lockerbie, Scotland, on Dec. 21, 1988, expressed the usual "my heart goes out to you" sorrow. "No action by this government can restore the loss you have suffered," he concluded. But deep inside, Mrs. McKee suspects it was a government action gone horribly awry that indirectly led to her only son's death. "I've never been satisfied at ( all by what the people in Washington told me," she says.
Today, as the U.S. spearheads the U.N.-sanctioned embargo against Libya for not handing over two suspects in the bombing, Mrs. McKee wonders if Chuck's background contains the secret of why this plane was targeted. If her suspicions are correct, Washington may not be telling the entire story. Major Charles Dennis McKee, called "Tiny" by his Army intelligence friends, was a burly giant and a superstar in just about every kind of commando training offered to American military personnel. He completed the rugged Airborne and Ranger schools, graduated first in his class from the Special Forces qualification course, and served with the Green Berets. In Beirut he was identified merely as a military attache assigned to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). But his hulking physique didn't fit such a low- profile diplomatic post. Friends there remember him as a "walking arsenal" of guns and knives. His real assignment reportedly was to work with the CIA in reconnoitering the American hostages in Lebanon and then, if feasible, to lead a daring raid that would rescue them.
McKee's thick, 37-page Army dossier contains so many blacked-out words that it's hard to glean the danger he faced. Surviving the censor's ink was his title, "Team Chief." Under "Evaluation," it was written that he "performs constantly in the highest-stress environment with clear operational judgment and demeanor . . . Especially strong in accomplishing the mission with minimal guidance and supervision . . . Continues to perform one of the most hazardous and demanding jobs in the Army."
For Beulah McKee the mystery deepened six months after Chuck's death, when she received a letter from another U.S. agent in Beirut. It was signed "John Carpenter," a name the Pentagon says it can't further identify. Although the letter claimed that Chuck's presence on the Pan Am plane was unrelated to the bombing, Carpenter's message only stirred her suspicions. "I cannot comment on Chuck's work," he wrote, "because his work lives on. God willing, in time his labors will bear fruit and you will learn the true story of his heroism and courage."