Ken Stewart's Lodge is a dimly lit upscale restaurant and bar in Bath, a favorite haunt of local Republican bigwigs and businessmen. On the evening of December 19, 2008, a strange crowd filtered in: skinny guys with bashful smiles, pudgy dudes with pale skin, accompanied by the occasional female. An IT herd. These particular techies came from New Media Communications, the company that builds and services websites for America's most prominent conservatives, from Ken Blackwell to W. himself. Their boss had booked Ken Stewart's for their Christmas party. But the boss wasn't there yet. He was flying in from Washington, D.C. as his employees hit the bar.
His wife, Heather, a curly-haired woman with a sunny disposition, did her best to entertain the crew. But she was distracted. Her husband was due to land at Akron-Canton Regional any minute. The temperature was plummeting and it was overcast.
At 5:57, she got a text message on her phone: N9299N has arrived. The restaurant was not far from the airport and she expected to see him walk through the door by 6:30. When 8 o'clock rolled around and he still hadn't shown, Heather called his cell phone. Voicemail.
Maybe there was ice, she thought. Maybe there was a minor accident and he just skidded off the runway or something. She started to gather her things to go home. That's when someone in the group received a breaking news report on his phone: A plane had crashed en route to the Akron-Canton airport.
A call to the airport confirmed Heather's worst fear. Michael Connell was dead.
On approach, Mike had come in a little left of where he needed to be to land at runway 23. Air Traffic Control attempted to help him find a new course. Instead, Mike said he thought he could correct his initial approach. Then he asked if he could make a 360-degree turn. "Heading due north and climbing," he transmitted. Seconds later, he declared an emergency.
Two-and-a-half miles from the runway, in a suburban neighborhood full of upper-class homes, a man standing outside his house suddenly heard the loud banshee scream of a Piper Saratoga engine. It sounded as if the pilot was trying to accelerate. He watched two bright lights shoot out of the low cloud cover, pointing almost straight down. The small aircraft impacted in the front yard of a vacant home on Charolais Street in Uniontown, sliding across the lawn and smashing into the garage, where it caught fire. Connell died instantly.
Cliff Arnebeck is convinced that the crash was no accident.
Arnebeck is the lead attorney in the King Lincoln Bronzeville Neighborhood Association v. Blackwell lawsuit, which charges that Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell disenfranchised black voters in the 2004 election. Arnebeck believes conservative operatives, directed by Bush political adviser Karl Rove, rigged the '04 election in Ohio, using a network of computers designed by Connell. He suspects Connell's associates were also involved in the destruction of White House e-mails and may have influenced Florida's vote count in 2000. And he thinks that Connell was close to testifying about all of it when he died.
In July, Arnebeck had sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, requesting protection for Connell. "We have been confidentially informed by a source we believe to be credible that Karl Rove has threatened Michael Connell," the letter read. "That if he does not agree to 'take the fall' for election fraud in Ohio, his wife Heather will be prosecuted for supposed lobby-law violations." Months later, Arnebeck's source called back and warned pointedly that Connell's life was in danger.
Michael Connell was a Hoosier, the son of a pilot, a clean-cut Catholic boy who became passionate about conservative politics in college. By the age of 23, he was working as finance director for Iowa Congressman Jim Leach. He quickly earned a reputation for designing useful voter databases.
In 1988, Mike designed databases for George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign. Two years later, he was fired from his job as director of voter programs for former Indiana Senator Dan Coats for participating in a push poll, a survey that uses loaded questions to smear a candidate (such as when South Carolina voters were asked in 2000 whether they'd still support John McCain for president if they were told he'd fathered an illegitimate black child).
In 1994, Mike became press secretary for Rep. Martin Hoke, the first congressperson from Ohio to use e-mail to communicate with constituents, according to Connell's official bio. From there, he left to form New Media Communications in the basement of his home. He built Jeb Bush's gubernatorial website in 1998, then W's in 2000. He picked up local business too, building sites for Ohio Congressmen John Boehner and John Kasich.
Connell then started a new, nonpartisan company, GovTech, to build governmental websites. Heather Connell was the major shareholder in GovTech, allowing it to be certified as a female-owned business for federal contracts, though she had little to do with day-to-day operations. GovTech designed websites for the White House, the Department of Energy and the House Judiciary Committee.
In 2004, Blackwell awarded GovTech the contract to run the secretary of state's voting results website on election night. Connell built a network that would receive vote tallies from all the tabulating machines in Ohio's 88 counties and post them online in near real time.
But the system was not secure, according to documents released by the secretary of state's office. And late that night, as it became clear that Ohio would decide the election, some of the data coming in from the tabulators was routed to a private server in Chattanooga, Tennessee. That private server was owned by a company called Smartech (which also stored some of the White House e-mails that later disappeared). At the same time, something strange happened in Southwest Ohio. Even though the Edison-Mitofsky exit polls had shown Kerry leading Bush, the returns from that area of the state suddenly began to favor Bush.
Arnebeck believes that the decision to steal elections can be traced back to spring 2000, when Bush lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain. That, he says, is when Karl Rove began to look for other routes to victory. Arnebeck's grand unifying theory involves Big Tobacco overthrowing Ohio's judiciary too, but that part is only relevant to the life of Michael Connell insomuch as it was Arnebeck's fight for a nonpartisan state Supreme Court that ultimately led the lawyer to take a close look at our election system in 2004. Arnebeck discovered that the system, built by a Rove ally, allowed the manipulation of votes.
"Michael Connell's business was involved in every aspect of this complex conspiracy," says Arnebeck. "In Florida [in 2000], they used Connell's micro-targeting system … to find the names of felons in neighboring states and then used those names to kick people with similar names off voter registries in Florida."
In 2006, Arnebeck sued Blackwell for disenfranchising black voters and has since used that lawsuit to call attention to everything that went wrong here in 2004. He's been joined in the cause by Stephen Spoonamore, a Republican cyber-security expert who knew Connell.
Spoonamore was monitoring vote tallies as they came in on Election Day in 2004. He recalls that day in a sworn statement that has become a part of Arnebeck's lawsuit: "I noticed a trend in a very few counties that at about 11 p.m. suddenly began reporting radically different ratios of Kerry to Bush votes, all in favor of Mr. Bush. This sudden rate of change allowing a tuning of the system resembled a fraud technique called an Intelligent Man in the Middle. This type of attack requires a computer to be inserted into the communications flow of an IT system. The computer … has the ability to change information at both ends of the system."
But that type of vote manipulation leaves tracks. If votes for a presidential candidate were flipped, there should be areas where seemingly Democratic voters appeared to have also supported the Republican's top candidate. In fact, 12 counties in southwestern Ohio experienced what has come to be known as the "Connally anomaly." In those 12 counties, C. Ellen Connally, who was running for chief justice of the state Supreme Court, received more votes than John Kerry. This would mean that large numbers of Bush voters in southern Ohio also voted for a black, liberal judge from Northeast Ohio whose campaign was seriously underfunded.
Through a public records request, Spoonamore gained access to the architecture of the system Connell built for Blackwell, which clearly showed a Smartech server in the plan.
"The computer system at Smartech had the correct placement, connectivity and computer experts necessary to change the election in any manner desired by the controllers of the Smartech computers," says Spoonamore.
Arnebeck also discovered that Connell had told the man in charge of IT support at the secretary of state's office to go home at 9 p.m. the night of the election. It was the first time that he'd been told to go home early on election night in over two decades. When Arnebeck asked Connell where he was on election night, he said he was home with his wife.
"No one has alleged that he was actually doing the vote switching," says Arnebeck. "But he was the architect that made it possible."
As the 2008 election neared, Arnebeck, fearing that the system used in '04 election was still set up and could be used again, held a press conference at which he connected Connell to that system.
Shortly after Connell was named as a potential witness in Arnebeck's lawsuit, Brett Kimberland, co-founder of the democracy-watchdog website Velvet Revolution, received the first in a series of phone calls from an anonymous source who claimed to be a concerned citizen inside the McCain campaign. "We were told that there were 10 teams in play in 2004 across the country, in an effort to rig the election for Bush," says Kimberland. "The tipster told us that even though the players were no longer there, the setup still existed in Ohio."
When the tipster told them that Connell was being threatened by Rove, Arnebeck attempted to get federal protection for him. But none was provided. However, a federal judge allowed Arnebeck to depose Connell the day before the 2008 election. Connell's lawyers asked that all conversations relative to alleged intimidation by Rove be sealed by the court, a request the judge granted. The transcript of that deposition has not yet been made available, but Arnebeck discussed the meeting in detail for Scene.
"He seemed to be evasive," Arnebeck says. "Initially, he told us that he had no role in Smartech being in the system on election night. But in his deposition, Connell admitted that he brought in Smartech as the server portion of his contract. So he changed his testimony from having no role at all to being the person completely responsible for it."
Arnebeck planned to call Connell as a witness when the case went to trial and believes this is why he's now dead.
"An airplane crash is one of the preferred methods of killing people. There are marksmen who know how to take out a small plane with a rifle. There are electronic devices that can scramble a plane's instruments. I'm told that there are devices that can alter the instruments' accuracy. A crash covers the evidence."
Initially, the media treated the crash as a freak accident, cool footage for the news. But when the reporters got wind of the identity of the pilot, it quickly became the lead story. 19 Action News had the best scoop: The reporter claimed that Connell "was told by a close friend not to fly his plane because his plane might be sabotaged. And twice in the last two months, Connell, who is an experienced pilot, canceled two flights because of suspicious problems with his plane."
That soundbite swirled around the blogosphere for weeks.
Arnebeck is still trying to figure out if he can move forward with his case. "If this is the price you pay for being a witness against Karl Rove, then it's going to be hard for us to get people to testify."
While he was supposedly rigging a presidential election back home, Connell was helping to bring democracy to foreign countries. As a member of the International Political Interactions project, Connell sometimes flew out of Bangkok to the Burmese border. Revolutionaries would secretly cross the border so that Connell could teach them how to get their message out over the Internet, according to his friend Randy Cole.
Cole's wife, who ran the computer system at the church that the Connell family attends, introduced him to Connell. Shortly after, Connell put Cole in charge of GovTech. "Mike wanted Spoonamore to help him build what he was calling a 'black box,' something the people in Burma could use to shield their data from the authorities that were trying to track them down. "He liked to come up with the big ideas," says Cole. "It was usually my job to implement them." But the project was never completed, and Cole left the company last year to run for state representative.
Cole says that Connell never once hinted that he was involved in plots to manipulate votes. "There was nothing that led me to believe any of this is true. Mike lived a big life. But it was not nearly as exciting as these people make it out to be."
He was also a deeply religious man, attending mass daily and confession weekly. He even fasted three days a week; Mondays for his wife, Wednesdays for his wife's mother and Fridays for all the widows in the world. Every morning, he spent an hour praying before going in to work. He'd recently founded a new chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic public service organization.
"He had a way of understanding people," says David Grajzl, a local jeweler whom Mike befriended at church. "Someone would do something that just seemed bad, and it's easy to just write them off and not like them. Mike would explain how that person probably thought they were doing something good. He tried to understand their point of view. I admired him. I'm a better Catholic, a better father, a better husband because of him." Every year, the Connells went on mission trips through the church. They built houses and dug trenches and latrines. He was scheduled to meet with Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon to talk about expanding his mission work when he died.
"I remember being on one of those mission trips, broken down on the side of some desolate highway in South America," says Todd Westover, who also met Connell at church. "I was scared shitless, but Mike stayed calm, even though he was the one who broke the transmission. He said God will protect us. Have no fear."
Mike never intended to testify against Rove, says Westover, because he had nothing to say. "He thought the lawsuit was utter bullshit. He was caught in the middle. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, 'That's the dirty business of Washington politics.'"
None of Mike's closest friends remember him ever saying he felt threatened or that his plane might be sabotaged. The only time he canceled a flight was when he turned back to Akron when an engine made noises over Pittsburgh earlier this year. He had the engine serviced by local repairmen.
After her husband was named as a witness in Arnebeck's lawsuit, Heather Connell was hounded by self-styled online journalists. Some sent threatening postcards. One, a reporter for the website Raw Story, handed Mike's daughter a slip of paper asking Heather to meet her in a nearby park. The cloak-and-dagger approach frightened Heather so much that Connell called his lawyers and had them prepare a restraining order. Until she spoke to Scene last week, Heather had taken to siccing her dogs on anyone who approached her front door. She spends a lot of time in her husband's basement office these days, chain-smoking thin cigarettes and drinking Diet Coke.
"Maybe I'm the one that's crazy," she says. "The whole thing truly does sound like some spy novel. If there is some secret safe where Mike was keeping everything, I'd like to know where it is."
The basement office is full of Mike's notes to himself. "Operation: Good Dad: Find garage for '65 Supersport. Hunting test with boys. Work out with boys. Learn how to weld with grandpa" and "Things you do because you love your wife: saving to go to the holy land."
His shelves are lined with Bibles, sci-fi DVDs and books by Christian novelist Frank Peretti, who wrote about angels and demons warring over the souls of Earthbound humans. "He believed in good and evil," explains Heather. "And he believed that goodness would prevail in the end."
"Here," she says, lugging a large Tupperware container into the center of the room. Inside is everything that was salvaged from the crash. A dollar bill with Mickey Mouse's head on the front. A medallion of St. Michael. A rosary case. A New American Bible. A prayer book, charred around the edges. A note from Heather: "I love you."
"I picked up parts of his body from the lawn where the plane crashed. I have them in a box upstairs. That's how concerned the police and coroner were in investigating it as a suspicious death."
Heather says she confronted her husband about the allegations of vote flipping after the reporter from Raw Story came to the house. "'Tell me you didn't do this,' I said. He said, 'Heather, I didn't do anything wrong.' I'm not a tech person, but the way he explained it to me was that the feed went to multiple places on election night and appeared on some computers before it appeared on others, depending on the speed of the computer and how fast it could refresh. All it is is a backup. I don't understand how a backup server could be used to manipulate information."
Heather shakes her head and lights another cigarette. "Even if you wanted him to do something dishonest, he wouldn't do it," she says. "If Joe Mob wanted a website, he wouldn't do it. It wasn't all about the money. That's how he got on top."
She tries to stay off the web. She knows what's being said about her husband, but it's hard to avoid.
"The man's dead. Can't we at least let him rest in peace? These conspiracy nuts are addicted to this issue. But all they're doing is hurting his children and his family."
Upstairs, she points out the square box on the mantle holding her husband's ashes and admits, "I've been very angry. I don't understand why God took such a good person who had given so much. I'm a little angry that he's in heaven and I'm stuck here in this shithole Earth."
A moment later, she feels guilty. "God has a plan," she reminds herself. "God has a plan."
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