Case IX: Chapter 3: Conrad Alexander

 

Chapter 3: Conrad Alexander

Conrad Alexander was born to a middle-call working family in Albuquerque. He attended New Mexico Tech in Socorro by working a series of part-time jobs and graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering.  He joined New Mexico Electric Company upon graduation and entered their training program. It was company policy at that time for all new engineering employees to serve their first two years working in a series of field assignments.  The company believed that its engineers should learn the business “from the bottom up” by working in the day-to-day operations throughout the State. Alexander’s initial assignments took him to northern New Mexico where he first met Serafino Huerfano whose family had lived for generations in the scenic area around Villanueva.  It was during a major storm and subsequent power outage that the two young men became friends.  They worked long hours for several days to restore power to the areas affected by the storm.  Huerfano served as “guide and interpreter” as the crews worked with individual homes to insure safe operations as the power returned.

The following six months were spent in small towns in the southern part of the State and Alexander quickly discovered how different this predominantly agricultural environment was from the north.  He began to appreciate how the various parts of the State had their own perspectives about virtually everything.  These lessons would be invaluable as Alexander’s career with the power company advanced.

When the field portion of his training was completed, Alexander next began a series of assignments in the Company’s various power generating stations.  At the time, New Mexico Electric operated four major power generating stations, all of which used coal as the primary fuel.  Much of this coal used at the stations came from within the State from a series of relatively small mines located near the stations.

Upon completion of this initial two-year training program, Alexander was assigned to the Engineering Department in Albuquerque.  Now that his life was less nomadic, he decided he could settle down and proposed marriage to his high school sweetheart who had been waiting patiently for this time.

Donald Pearsall’s early life was much different.  He was born into a wealthy family in Albuquerque and attended the best schools possible.  He received his Electrical Engineering degree from Purdue University and joined New Mexico Electric at the insistence of his parents who saw this as a potential route to a political career. Unlike Alexander, Pearsall viewed the two-year training program as a complete waste of time. He knew that his rise within the corporation would be enhanced if he were able to demonstrate his engineering knowledge to Senior Management at corporate headquarters.

The career paths of Conrad Alexander and Donald Pearsall first crossed during their respective training programs when they were both stationed at the Company’s large coal-fired generating station near Farmington.  As young engineers, they were often assigned the over-night shift in the main control room which typically involved hours of tedium monitoring the myriad of dials and lights.  To pass the time, Alexander and Pearsall frequently engaged in lively discussions about the Company, its role in the State, its future and the future of the electric generating industry in general.

One obvious topic of discussion at Farmington was the role of coal in electric power generation.  Pearsall took the position that, because the United States had such large coal reserves, it provided an unprecedented level of security.  His argument was strengthened by the recent Arab Oil Embargo, which clearly exposed America’s vulnerabilities.  Alexander could not dispute these facts, but argued that the continued use of coal as the primary fuel for power generation had a variety of long-term negative consequences.  Air pollution from burning coal was the most obvious concern, but there were numerous problems with mining as well, such as safety and water run-off, etc.  Alexander reasoned that, if the Company continued to rely on coal as a fuel, it should vigorously look for ways to mitigate its negative impacts.  To Alexander, that only seemed reasonable.  But, Pearsall countered that such measures would be costly and that the consumer would never stand for increases in the electric bill. “They may say they want a clean environment, but they are unwilling to bear even a portion of those costs.”

This same general theme was often repeated as their time in Farmington dragged on.  Alexander realized that he probably would never change Pearsall’s perspective and the discussions became pointless. In Alexander’s mind, however, there should be innovative engineering approaches that could address both criteria of reduced environmental impact as well as maintaining an affordable cost for power.

When the two young engineers returned to Albuquerque and the corporate offices of New Mexico Electric, their respective career paths began to diverge.  Conrad Alexander was noticed by Graham Wright, who was Vice President of Engineering.  Wright became Alexander’s mentor and took a personal interest in his development.  It was at this time that New Mexico Electric changed its name to New Mexico Power & Light to better reflect the Company role for the entire State to not only provide reliable power, but be an economic force for good. Under Wright’s supervision, Alexander became involved with planning activities and the evaluation of new technologies.

Donald Pearsall’s career also advanced as the Company grew.  It seemed to Pearsall, however, that Alexander consistently received preferential treatment and that he was not receiving the recognition he deserved.  Pearsall was often vocal with his frustration about the situation which eventually got the attention of Manuel Uribe Vigil, a member of the Company’s Board of Directors.

Vigil had been a lobbyist for the coal industry for many years and eventually garnered a seat on the Board.  He took an interest in Pearsall and saw him as an ally in his efforts to keep coal as the Company’s primary source of fuel.  Vigil recognized Pearsall’s ambition and began to actively court him with large financial and personal gifts.

 

Sgt. Bernadette Armijo had continued to look into the backgrounds of Conrad Alexander as well as Donald Pearsall as Lt. Garcia had asked.  As she suspected, there was considerable information available concerning both men, particularly as they became senior executives at New Mexico Power & Light.  She compiled her information and took it to Lt. Garcia one morning soon after he arrived at his office.  “Well, Lieutenant, you were correct.  I was able to develop a pretty complete description of the two guys from Company records and newspaper and journal articles.  Alexander has been much more active in the community and has been involved with several major non-profit organizations for many years.  I suspect those activities helped him gain numerous promotions and eventually being named corporate President and CEO.  Boards tend to prefer Model Citizens, I guess. Pearsall has been more of an “inside guy” for the majority of his career and also mover rather quickly up the corporate ladder. It looks like he was always one step behind Alexander, which I’m sure was difficult for him to accept. One notable thing was Pearsall’s outspoken support for coal throughout his career.  At one point, he was in charge of evaluating nuclear power for the State and even had an assignment at WIPP in Carlsbad.  His conclusion, which was discussed briefly in an Annual Report, was that the Company should reject nuclear power for environmental reasons and stick with coal. I guess coal is the lesser of two evils, in my opinion.”

“I certainly would agree with that, Bernie.”

“Anyway, Lieutenant, that’s what I learned.  Both guys have been with the Company their entire careers and have both been very successful.  Alexander retired recently as President and CEO and Pearsall was named to take his place on an interim basis, pending Board approval.”

“Thanks, Sergeant.  Good job, as always.  I think I’ll try to get in to interview Graham Wright as soon as possible. Hopefully, he can provide some additional insight that wouldn’t be reported for public consumption.  I need to have a better understanding of the relationship between these two men.  I’m convinced that Pearsall was lying to me about his relationship with Alexander.”

To Garcia’s delight, his phone rang while Sgt. Armijo was still in his office.  “Good news, Bernie.  That was Wright’s secretary and he is available to talk with me in about an hour. I can use the information you developed as a starting point and hope Wright will provide the “color commentary.”

 

Graham Wright greeted Garcia warmly.  “It is unfortunate, Lieutenant, that we have to meet on such difficult circumstance.  Conrad Alexander was one of the finest people I knew and I am deeply saddened by his death.  I am particularly upset by the reports that he died under what you police refer to as suspicious circumstances.  I hope I can provide some information that will help with your investigation.”

“Thank you for taking time to see me, Mr. Wright.  I just have a few questions.  I am particularly interested in getting a better understanding of the relationship between Mr. Alexander and Mr. Donald Pearsall.”

“Why are you interested in Pearsall, if I might ask, Lieutenant?”

“At this point, Sir, I can only say is that Mr. Pearsall is a “person of interest” in my investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Alexander’s death.”

“All right, Lieutenant, I’ll accept your conditions.  Alexander and Donald joined the Company at approximately the same time and are two of the most competent engineers I’ve ever worked with.  I’m sure you’ve done your homework and know that both men held positions of increasing responsibility and the Donald is currently acting CEO, the position Conrad held before he retired.”

“It is important for me to understand the circumstances surrounding Mr. Alexander’s retirement.  The newspaper just said he retired for “health reasons”, but I realize that there may be other reasons that are not made public.”

“In this case, Lieutenant, it is the absolute truth. Conrad’s wife developed an aggressive form of breast cancer and he was taking considerable time off to care for her.  What is not so widely known is that he also was suffering from an incurable form of cancer. He realized that he could no longer be as effective as he wanted to be, so he resigned.  If the Board had had its way, he would have stayed on, but accepted his decision.”

“Thank you for clarifying that, Mr. Wright.  Now, back to the relationship between Mr. Alexander and Mr. Pearsall.  How would you describe their relationship?”

“As I mentioned, Lieutenant, both were good employees and competent engineers, although they had very different perspectives about the Company and its future.  I would say that Conrad was more forward-looking and that is the principal reason I chose him to lead the Company’s efforts to move away from coal and oil as primary fuels and develop alternative, cleaner sources.  Donald, on the other hand, remains committed to coal, despite its numerous environmental problems.  He is steadfast in that position and his argument is based almost entirely on the presumed security of the resource.  In my opinion, that difference in perspective started early in their careers and remained until Conrad’s retirement.  It seems likely now that the Pearsall will eventually be named CEO and that the Company will continue its reliance on coal into the future.  It certainly didn’t help that many of the pilot projects for clean energy that Conrad had championed were beset by a series of major operating problems and outright failures. To this day, I never really understood exactly why those projects didn’t fare better, particularly with Conrad’s effort and support.”

“Sir, can you tell me if there were any ill feelings between the two men?”

“None that I was aware of.  You have to realize, Lieutenant, that Conrad Alexander was an exceptional person. In all the years I knew him, I never heard him speak an unkind word about another person.  I suspect that Donald, on the other hand, was jealous of Conrad, almost from the beginning.  He felt that he was the better engineer and that he should have been ahead of Conrad, career-wise.  Pearsall probably is a better engineer, but in my opinion, Conrad was a better all-round person and that counts for a lot in my book.”

“Thank you very much for your time and candid comments, Mr. Wright.  You have my assurance that we will get to the bottom of this situation as quickly as possible.”

 

Garcia was satisfied with what he had learned from Wright, but was still no closer to a solution to Alexander’s death.  He agreed with Hernandez that the method of death would almost certainly indicate foul play, that is was very unlikely to have been self-inflicted. The presence of Pearsall’s name in Alexander’s planner at approximately the time of death was significant.  And Pearsall’s behavior and Wright’s characterization of his relationship with Alexander gave Garcia cause to suspect him even more.  Jealousy was a common motive for murder, but Alexander had retired and Pearsall would soon be CEO.  Why would an intelligent person like Pearsall take such a risk to murder Alexander? There was no need. It just didn’t all add up.

Garcia was still deep in thought when he entered police headquarters and didn’t see Tom Bowers walking quickly toward him.  “Lieutenant”, Bowers blurted. “I have some good news.  Bernie mentioned to me that she learned that Pearsall once worked at WIPP. That got me to thinking and I called a buddy of mine to see if I could get access to their personnel files.  I reasoned that they would do a background check and have fingerprints for anyone and everyone who ever worked there.  And, guess what?  I found a match to the prints on the electrical cord we found in Alexander’s mouth.”

“That’s good police work, Tom.  Do you think you could slow down a bit and tell me who those prints belong to?”

“Sorry, Lieutenant.  The prints belong to Donald Pearsall!”

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