Taken From Home

A Father, a Dark Secret, and a Brutal Murder

Eric Francis

St. Martin's True Crime

Chapter One

IT had just been one of those days.

The boss was out of town, so responsibility for over -seeing the entire 180-person Ametek Dixson manufacturing plant in the Orchard Mesa district on the southern industrial fringe of Grand Junction, Colorado, had been passed along to Michael Blagg, the factory’s director of operations.

Mike Blagg was the kind of capable, detail-oriented manager who would handle anything you asked him to do, so the small executive cadre at the plant didn’t question whether he could cope with a few days’ worth of extra duties, but at the same time there were some lingering doubts about whether Mike really had what it took in the long run to make it in the corporate world.

It seemed like an odd issue to be dogging a man who, at 38 years of age, had already been around the world, with an impressive record of accomplishments. Mike had graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in nuclear engineering, and joined the Navy in 1985. During Desert Storm, he’d done two tours of duty as a pi lot on Seahawk antisubmarine helicopters in the Persian Gulf and risen to the rank of lieutenant commander. He’d spent the last years of his naval career on the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk as a flight deck officer, where he’d supervised over 20,000 launches and landings of multi-million-dollar military aircraft without a single incident.

Mike’s decision in 1995 to leave the Navy and switch to civilian life had come as a surprise to his comrades on the "Battle Cat," as the sailors liked to call the Kitty Hawk. They felt confident that he had the dedication and leadership qualities that could have eventually made him a flag officer in the fleet if he’d stayed in the military.

Leaving the Navy after a decade of ser vice had required some soul-searching on Mike’s part, but he was in his early 30s, and Jennifer, his wife of four years, was having some difficulties with her first pregnancy. Mike knew that he’d been changing, maybe even evolving, largely thanks to Jennifer, who had lured him away from his younger, hard-partying Navy days. He’d been drawn further into Jennifer’s world of evangelical Christianity, with its emphasis on family values, and he knew that the skill sets he’d picked up in his fast-paced, life-and-death naval aviation career should be saleable ones in the business world.

Mike took to studying the principles of "lean manufacturing"—originally a Japanese concept pioneered at Toyota, where workers zealously sought to reduce waste and defects in order to maximize product "flow" and, of course, profits—and he worked at it with the same dedication and attention to detail that he used looking for anti-ship mines and enemy submarines in his helicopter out in the middle of the Persian Gulf at night.

When friends asked him what he did now, he would say he was a trouble-shooter, a problem-solver with "a black belt in lean manufacturing."

Yet even way out here, in his new job amongst the remote high desert plateaus on the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains, working for a company that was making over a billion dollars a year selling gauges and instrument clusters that were installed in the dashboards of large trucks and heavy machinery all over the globe, Mike still couldn’t shake the impression among some of his colleagues that his heart just wasn’t in it.

For all of the business world’s alleged enlightenment about "work–life balance" and the host of other buzzword-heavy concepts whose time had supposedly come, there was still a view that Mike was really more of a family man than a company man. His last job per for mance rating had just been "acceptable," and it was little things that were contributing to the impression of Mike as an executive who somehow was less than committed. Little things like what he was doing on the afternoon of November 13, 2001, as he strolled out the front doors of the factory clutching his car keys before most of his line workers had even punched out.

It wasn’t as if Mike was scooting out early on just any old routine day at the plant. Ametek Dixson was in the midst of merging some of the Colorado location’s operations with a newly acquired factory down in Mexico, and several pieces of the Grand Junction facility’s assembly line were about to be shipped south of the border. Tractor-trailers were scheduled to pick up the equipment later in the week, and numerous items needed to be inspected, packed, and recorded in order to ensure their smooth passage through Mexican customs.

While the rest of the merger process was underway, Mike and other members of the Colorado staff were also taking a crash course in the new software system that the Mexican factory used to manage their workflow. And though he was in charge of the factory and its special projects in the midst of this particularly busy week, Mike did what he did most afternoons right after four o’clock— he grabbed his coat and headed for home.

Any number of hard-charging business people might have debated Blagg’s priorities that afternoon, but on one level, Mike really didn’t care. If he’d wanted to prove to other people that above all else, he was a loyal team player, he could have kept right on signing up for tours in the US Navy. Mike had long since decided that, because he arrived early and took his lunch at his desk most days, he’d earned the right to leave mid-afternoon in order to be back home in plenty of time for dinner and a reasonable evening spent with Jennifer and their 6-year-old daughter Abby.

Besides, at that moment on this particular Tuesday afternoon, Mike was actually more distracted by a nagging concern over Jennifer and Abby than anything that was going on at work.

On most days, Mike had time to squeeze in two or three phone calls to Jennifer: first as a gentle double-check to see that she and Abby had actually gotten out of bed on time, so Abby wouldn’t be late to her Christian school across town; then maybe a quick hello around noon; and sometimes a brief check-in right before Mike left for the day, so Jennifer could firm up plans for the family dinner. But today had been different. Despite six or seven tries, Mike couldn’t get Jennifer on the phone. He’d ended up getting the answering machine and he left messages, but still she hadn’t called him back.

During the morning, Mike hadn’t been overly concerned. By the time the afternoon rolled around, things at the busy plant had been sufficiently distracting that he hadn’t had time to be much more than puzzled by the lack of response to his calls. But now, driving home, he had time to wonder. Mike couldn’t recall a previous workday ever going by without his being able to connect with Jennifer.

As the years passed, Mike had become more and more of a worrier, and the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon just two months earlier certainly hadn’t helped calm him any. The general sense of anxiety that had rippled across the United States in the wake of September 11 was still being felt—even clear out here in just about the last place Al-Qaeda would ever get around to attacking.

After 9/11, Mike had starting putting together a disaster plan for Jennifer. His job regularly required him to fly, so he thought it was the prudent thing to do. He typed up all of their emergency phone numbers, banking data, and insurance plans, and when he’d completed the fourth and final draft, he signed the document cover with the words, "I love you Jennifer. This should be all the information you need in case of a disaster."

Mike took a deep breath and decided to put all the missed calls out of his mind. Things were fine. If he hadn’t been caught up in an especially hectic day at work, he would have had time to make even more calls and then he would probably have gotten through. He would be home soon enough and Jennifer would probably have some funny anecdote that would explain what had come up to detain her and Abby … perhaps an unplanned lunch with friends that evolved into a shopping trip downtown. Mike knew there’d be an explanation. He would just have to wait and hear it.

Excerpted from Taken From Home by Eric Francis.

Copyright © 2008 by Eric Francis.

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

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