Boston Globe
Bob Sales, Globe Staff
September 9, 1973

 

Where are the listeners?

A journey from Fort Hill to Zabriskie to Cell 104

 

. . . Shock is the last resort, if you won't learn gracefully then you will learn by force, if you won't change when it's time to change then you will FORCE yourself to change and on the lowest level that is physical violence. Go to war, start a fight, get somebody to beat you up so that you can lay in bed for a few months and finally get some time to think about what you've been DOING, and what you've been NEGLECTING.
Mel Lyman, 1970.

 
Mark Frechette has spent the past week in cell 104, Charles Street Jail. He's had time to reflect on what he's been DOING and what he's been NEGLECTING.

Frechette and a companion, Sheldon (Terry) Bernhard, 31, were arrested Aug. 29 and charged with attempted robbery of the Brigham Circle branch of the New England Merchant's National Bank. A third man, Christopher (Hercules) Thein, 22, was killed by a policeman during the same robbery.
All three men were residents of the Fort Hill Community in Roxbury, followers of Mel Lyman.
Residents of the community are proud people. They're proud of their independence, of their honesty, or their workmanship, of their disdain for material things, of their family — which means each other.
Yet when the policeman arrested Mark Frechette, he felt alone.
"When we got to the station I felt like I didn't have a home," said Frechette, who has lived on Fort Hill off and on for the past five years. "It was hard. I didn't know what to say. I felt like telling them to just write me down as John Doe and put me away for seven years."
In 1968, after a frantic year in Cambridge during which he was arrested twice, his marriage broke up and the movie director Michelangelo Antonioni discovered him, 20-year-old Mark Frechette found a home on Fort Hill.
He found a leader in Mel Lyman.
"It was the first time I was ever in the presence of a person who knew exactly what I was like," Frechette said, recalling his first meeting with Lyman. "I said, 'Listen, this thing's happening to me. I'm going to do a film. Maybe when I'm out there I can find you some things.' Straightforward, like that."
The film he was going to make was "Zabriskie Point," Antionioni's first American venture. He was playing himself — an angry young kid of the '60s, a high school dropout who experimented with drugs and harbored deep anti-society feelings.
Frechette was the prototype. But he wasn't sure he wanted to go ahead with the project. He was earning $225 a week as a carpenter, contemplating a return to school, burning with a feeling of community spirit.
"Hollywood scared me," he said.
But Lyman and the rest of the Fort Hill community pushed him to make the movie.
He felt they could reap benefits, not the least of which was the sound equipment that could be bought with the $40,000 he was to earn in 40 weeks.
"I didn't know what I could get out of it," Frechette said. "I felt lucky if I could get out of it with my skin."
The movie was an artistic disaster and a financial flop. The experience was all negative.
"I knew something was missing and it really left me hungry," he said. "I finally walked off the set. We worked out a few changes. Most everything we worked out was left on the cutting room floor. It was really a rip-off."
The picture was followed by fights with directors, arguments with agents, another picture made in Italy. It was followed by tremendous disillusionment with Hollywood.
"They go on making films," he said, "even though they know it's a shuck. It's an incredible abuse of the one medium that demands the truth. It demands to see a person's character. Then people say it had a good script, the music was nice, the photography was good. That's all empty. It's a real sin."
Frechette returned east last July, full of plans to make a movie version of "Crime and Punishment" in New York in the fall. He returned to his friends from Fort Hill, spending most of the summer doing carpentry work on Martha's Vineyard with Thein.
Friends recall that Frechette was edgy for most of the summer, worried about whether the film would be made. Finally, it fell through due to lack of funds.
Frechette was disappointed. Yet, he claimed he was happy, surrounded by friends, working as a carpenter. But he wasn't happy with the fare on television and he was seething inside.
"It was more than Watergate," he said. "It was that and everything else. There's this panic about food disappearing. All of the energy, all of the food, the leadership, it's disappearing. Who's eating it? Why can't somebody do anything about it?"
The week before the attempted robbery, Thein and Frechette returned to Boston, the frustration of Watergate still on their minds, disappointed in society, worried about the plight of their own community.
"The anger was in those boys," said Jesse Benton, a long-time resident of Fort Hill. "It was real hard for them. We had 16 kids to feed, and we can't buy meat. To me, robbing a bank is like robbing the government. Everybody's money is insured."
The attempted bank robbery took place at 5 p.m., Aug. 24, a Wednesday. Police were summoned by an alarm and were confronted by a person wearing a security shirt with a patch on his shoulder.
The policeman approached the man and asked if everything was all right. The man in the security shirt had a gun concealed in a paper bag. He pointed it at patrolman Daniel Fitzgerald and said:
"Throw your gun in the middle of the floor." The patrolman and the man grappled with each other. The gun was exposed as the policeman fell to the floor. The police report said the gun was pointed at Fitzgerald.
At that point, Fitzgerald's partner, Maurice Flaherty, burst through the door and fired.
Christopher Thein was dead on arrival at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital.
"I've got questions I'd like to ask that guy who pushed the (alarm) button," said Frechette. "What was he protecting? This whole society is built on one premise — the collection, accumulation and preservation of money. Paper wealth, that's all. I don't care about money. I give it away as soon as I get it."
Three Smith & Wesson revolvers were seized as evidence. Fort Hill persons said the first chamber of Thein's six-chamber pistol was empty and feel this is evidence that he did not plan to use it.
Police said the guns were loaded. They would not comment about the empty chamber.
At the time of the shooting, Flaherty was asking no questions. All he saw was a man with a revolver pointed at his partner.
"Look, I'm telling you one thing," said Flaherty. "I don't enjoy killing anyone. But I don't feel sorry for the bastard, if that's what you mean. He was going to kill ... He was."
To his friends, Christopher Thein was a gentleman, incapable of shooting down another person in cold blood. They say this, knowing he was holding a gun in his hand. They say they knew him.
"The dragon killed him," said George Pepper, a longtime Fort Hill resident. "He could have shot somebody if he was going to. He could have...
"The only thing that meant anything to Chris was the kids. He was like one of the kids, like a real big kid. He didn't know he was going to get shot. He stopped that cop because he knew his friends were inside."
Two of Thein's friends, Frechette and Bernhard, a pianist, are now inside Charles Street Jail pondering their own future and the future of their community.
"I want to play music," said Bernhard, who hasn't had a job for several months. "I'm a simple man. This," he said, and he paused and lost his thought.
"There's nobody to listen," he said.
"Slowly, slowly, slowly they drive you bananas," Frechette said. "Seeing everything we'd done broke to pieces. Feeling an inability to continue. Just being killed by the lethargy of the rest of the country.
"In 1966, '67 and '68 there was something happening. There was incredible interchange. We haven't changed. Everybody else is gone. Where did they go?"


Mel Lyman