When a nuclear plant employee’s remains are found in the plant furnace, some say it was suicide, others murder.
Factory stored uranium for nuclear weapons
Twenty miles northwest of Cincinnati is the small farming town of Fenald, Ohio. For many years, the town’s main employer was “The Feed Materials Production Center,” also known as N.L.O. Unknown to the public, NLO was actually owned by the Department of Energy. From 1953 to 1989, it was one of the few plants in the United States that secretly processed high-grade uranium for nuclear weapons. Former N.L.O employee Harry Easterling believed the plant was safe:
“When I was hired, they said that it was a low level radiation plant. They told me there was nothing back there that would bother you and to just go on about your business. Don’t tell anybody what you were doing and everything would be fine.”
But conditions at the plant weren’t fine. In the fall of 1984, N.L.O. was rocked by scandal when a factory accident released massive amounts of radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. An investigation later revealed that, over the years, N.L.O. had released more than 200 tons of radioactive dust particles into the air and local water sources. Reporter D.C. Cole investigated the story:
“We had an environmental disaster. I think if you did a survey around the Fernald community now, you would find very few people who trust the government.”
Tons of radioactive materials leaked out
In June of 1984, just a few months before the N.L.O. disaster, one of the plant’s employees, Dave Bocks, died a gruesome death inside the factory. His family was convinced he was murdered, possibly because he was going to blow the whistle on the quantity of radioactivity the plant was releasing.
Dave was hired at N.L.O. as a pipe fitter in 1981, and quickly earned the trust and respect of his co-workers. Dave was divorced, but remained close to his ex-wife and three children. Casey Drake is Dave Bocks’ daughter:
“He was great. He would do anything for us. Kind as can be, loved his children, did his job.”
Dave worked the graveyard shift. On Sunday night at 11:00 PM, he met his rideshare partner and co-worker, Harry Easterling, in the parking lot at a local restaurant as usual:
Bocks’ keys didn’t melt, raising suspicions
“Dave got into my truck, we left, had a little conversation on the way to work. He had talked about vacation with his kids and bought a new lunch box for work. Everything seemed to be normal.”
Dave’s job was to inspect and maintain equipment throughout the factory. This included making sure that the safety pumps and dust collectors used in the uranium processing were working properly. Harry realized Dave was aware of what the factory was doing:
“Dave was a fairly quiet guy, but if you worked on a job, and it was high radiation level, Dave would tell you, ‘You know, that particular dust collector is fairly radioactive, so watch yourself,’ or, ‘That pump has a certain kind of acid in it so be careful when you work on it.’”
Only the maintenance crew and security personnel worked the graveyard shift. The production lines were shut down. At midnight, Dave reported to the maintenance room for his assignment. Harry recalls that the night began just like any other:
“Dave opened up his tool box and left his keys and lock on top. He went to one area and I worked on a job at another plant.”
A worker saw Dave and a supervisor in a parked pickup truck. He said Dave and the supervisor seemed to be having a “serious discussion”, but he could not tell what they were talking about. He noted that the windows of the truck were rolled up, even though the weather was hot and humid.
An hour later, the same witness ran into Dave on the factory grounds. He noticed that Dave was walking towards Plant 4, not Plant 8 where he’d been assigned. It was the last time Dave Bocks was seen alive. Later that morning, Harry Easterling became suspicious because he hadn’t seen Dave in hours:
“At approximately 7:00 that morning, we had a safety meeting in the conference room in Plant 4. We showed up for the meeting, but Dave wasn’t there. I walked back over to the maintenance building, put my tools away, and noticed that Dave’s toolbox was still open. I thought he was probably working overtime so I went in, made a few phone calls, but still couldn’t locate him. I went back out and told the security guard at the desk that Dave hadn’t come out, I was going home, and I would meet him the next night at the restaurant.”
At around 7:30 that morning, a furnace operator in Plant 6 told his supervisor that the casings in his oven were covered with a strange, sticky residue. The worker also noticed a strange odor. The supervisor apparently found nothing wrong and told the furnace operator to go back to work.
On the way to his next shift, Harry went to the restaurant to meet Dave as usual. It was Dave’s turn to drive, and his car was already there:
“There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary because he would go pull his car in and go get something to eat or get something to take for lunch and then come back to the car. I leaned up against Dave’s car, and I noticed that the fender was still cold. So I reached over, touched the hood and it was still cold.”
Harry was worried. When he got to work, he reported Dave missing and had a security guard pry open his locker. Inside the plant, an investigation had begun. Plant records show that at 5:15 on the morning Dave disappeared, the temperature in the furnace in Plant 6 had briefly dropped 28 degrees. This sudden change suggested that something “foreign” had been dumped into it. A worker also found what appeared to be piece of bone on the lip of the furnace. The Sheriff’s Department was called in and the furnace was shut down.
It took three days for the molten liquid inside to cool. When employees searched through the waste material, they found a set of keys. Former Hamilton County Police Chief, Deputy Sheriff Victor Carelli, investigated the case:
“The keys found belonged to the victim’s car. They also belonged to three padlocks of his, and one key we believed went into his residence but we couldn’t prove that because it was bent and not very good shape.”
If the keys pulled from the furnace were Dave’s, they would presumably have fallen in along with the “foreign body” at 5:15 AM. But if Dave’s keys were seen more than two hours later in his toolbox, how did they get into the furnace?
Investigators concluded that Dave was probably dead. Harry was stunned. He was also confused about Dave’s keys:
“When I left the plant to go over to the maintenance shop, his keys were in the box. When I left there, to go home, they were still in the box. I went home. When I came back that night, his keys were still in the top of his toolbox. The supervisor closed his box, put the lock on his toolbox and took his keys out of the lock. And from there on I do not know what happened to the keys.”
Besides the keys, investigators found a steel toe from a boot, part of an eyeglass frame, fragments of Dave’s walkie-talkie, and a stainless steel wire that was looped together in three oddly connecting circles. Also recovered were several pieces of human bone.
Investigators were unable to determine how Dave ended up in the furnace. They suggested that he might have committed suicide. Dave had a history of psychological problems, and around the time of his divorce, he had apparently tried to kill himself. Dave Bocks’ daughter, Casey Drake believes otherwise:
“I know my father did not commit suicide. He had purchased groceries for the week. He was planning a vacation with my younger brother and me for the following summer to Florida, and he had paid all of his bills for the month. There was no reason for him to commit suicide.”
Former N.L.O. employee, David Day agrees:
“He was probably lowered into the furnace and murdered. I can’t think of any other way that it could have happened. I don’t believe that it could have been suicide or that it could have been an accident.”
Investigative reporter, D. C. Cole believes he knows why Dave Bocks may have been murdered:
“I think he knew something. It’s possible that he was a whistle blower or was going to be a whistle blower. Plant 8 had released four times more radioactive contaminants into the environment than any other plant at the plant site. I believe that they could have either shot him, or they could have hit him with something and knocked him unconscious. They took the body back to Plant 6, where the furnace is. I would hate to think that he was conscious. I can’t imagine a more horrible death than that.”
According to former Chief of Police Victor Carrelli, the evidence for murder was never there:
“No one ever gave us any indication or reason to believe that foul play may have occurred.”
Harry Easterling hopes someone might come forward and tell what they know:
“There are probably people out there that know what happened, and there may not be. Either way, if they did, I doubt anybody would tell for fear of their life.”
In 1989, five years after Dave Bocks’ death, the N.L.O. was shut down. Sadly, years later, Dave’s family is still unable to lay him to rest. Dave’s remains are just a few bone fragments and are too toxic to be buried in the ground. They have been sealed in a drum, and shipped off to a Nevada test site to be stored with other radioactive materials.
How Dave died and why remains a mystery.