The time between my submitting a Gray Matter and its appearing in print often varies, so I don't know whether this will be the last column of 2005 or the first of 2006. In any case, it is not a story with which to draw a year to a close, nor is it one with which to hail a New Year. It is, purely and simply, a story that should never have had to be told at all. I recently wrote about Rob Stethem, the young Navy diver brutally slain in the 1985 Beirut hi-jacking. This past December 20, a brief, low-key Associated Press story, headlined "Germany Frees Terrorist Who Killed U.S. Navy Diver" came across the wires. It seems the time had come for a mandated review of the case of the terrorist, who had served 19 years of a "life sentence" (that's becoming an oxymoron, isn't it?)
My son from Des Moines, a friend of young Stethem's father, recently sent me this information. He's usually a calm, unflappable sort, but he was livid. The Frankfurt prosecutor's spokesperson was not very forthcoming, according to the piece. She simply said the man had been released from prison and had left Germany.
Richard Stethem, retired Navy Chief, and Marathon native, had told my son in an earlier conversation that the government had flown him and his wife to Germany to witness the terrorist trials in 1998-1999. In fact, Mrs. Stethem (Patricia) attended every day of the trial in Frankfurt, which stretched for nearly a year. As Germany has no capital punishment, and extradition to the United States was refused, life imprisonment was the stiffest possible sentence. At the time, the Stethems fretted that he might eventually be released, either for political reasons or by some legal quirk. It didn't happen at once but now it has.
The total injustice of the situation is beyond my grasp. It's encouraging to learn that the family has still not given up on the case. They have just been notified that the man is now in Lebanon. Patricia Stethem hopes to meet with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to ask her to pressure Lebanon to extradite him. A State Department spokesman said that the United States wants Lebanon to turn him over -- a hopeful sign.
Meanwhile, the Stethems have moved to a different Maryland city which they declined to identify to the press since several people involved with their son's murder are still at large. When they visited Robbie's grave at Arlington National Cemetery on Christmas Day, Patricia Stethem is reported to have said, "I told him, 'We'll be after him. We won't let it rest.'"