Five years ago Robert Ellis was charged with the most memorable assignment of his life: keep Saddam Hussein alive. A 59-year-old surgical nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Ellis had just arrived in Iraq for a tour with the U.S. Army. Now retired from the military, Ellis was at that time a master sergeant reservist with the 439th Military Police Detachment. He became Saddam's nurse.
For eight months Ellis visited Saddam twice a day, checking his vitals and forming a bond that left him conflicted. "My orders were to keep him alive and healthy," Ellis tells the Daily RFT. "By no means possible was he to die in U.S. custody. That was always on my mind. I was to do whatever it took to keep his spirits up and his blood pressure down, so he could go to the gallows a healthy man.
"I'm not in the habit of deceiving people, but that was my job. In the back of my mind I knew what was going to happen. That was a part of the conflict I experienced. We were going to all these great lengths to keep this man happy when we were going to kill him anyway."
With help from coauthor Marianna Riley, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, Ellis tells all in the recently published book Caring for Victor. ("Victor" was the military's code name for the former dictator.)
Saddam was executed in December 2006, after he was found guilty of dispatching death squads to slaughter his own people. More than 180,000 Iraqi Kurds are believed to have died during Operation Anfal, or "spoils," which is considered Saddam's most brutal ethnic-cleansing campaign.
Ellis was under strict orders not to engage in political discussions with the disgraced Iraqi ruler and says their interactions were friendly. Growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, says Ellis, helped him see Saddam's human qualities. As he puts it, "There are two sides to everybody."
For one thing, Saddam was a neat freak who was allowed to keep cleaning supplies in his cell so he could keep the floor spic-and-span. He drank from a water bottle without letting it touch his mouth.
"And he liked to read," recalls Ellis. "He was a prolific writer. He liked children. He'd save food from his meals and feed the birds every day. He had a garden — I initially thought it was a patch of weeds, but then I found out [an FBI agent] had given him seeds to plant — and he was always watering his plants. He said he'd always had a garden growing up."
Ellis says he saw little of Saddam's dark side. "Once he told me he didn't take particular joy from the things he did. He just had to make difficult decisions at different times."
After eight months Saddam was transferred to another facility and out of Ellis' care. The nurse remembers going to see Saddam at Camp Victory sometime later. "He kind of vented, because the way his cell was set up people could see him using the bathroom. He had been eating, and he took one of his wet wipes and took half the food off his plate to give to me.
"We sat there and ate [in his cell]. Eventually the guards came to run me off. He turned to wash his hands. I tapped him on the shoulder and told him I had to go. I told him to take care of himself. He told me to take care of myself, and that was the last time I saw him."
St. Louis, you may recall, has its share of connections to the vanquished strongman. It was a local auto mechanic named Samir who yanked him from his spider hole in December 2004 (See Chad Garrison's "I Punched Saddam in the Mouth," April 14, 2005), and another St. Louisan named Michael "Sonny" Trimble who led the Mass Graves Investigation Team (See Kristen Hinman's "CSI: Iraq," September 14, 2006), which assembled evidence to prosecute Saddam.
Police Satisfaction Depends on Where You Live
The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department has released findings from a satisfaction survey it conducted recently. The poll of St. Louis residents found that three in four people were "satisfied" with the operation of the department, and even more (86 percent) found police officers to be "pleasant and courteous."
The survey polled some 900 city residents. In general, residents of south St. Louis gave the cops higher marks than residents of north city.
For example, 80 percent of respondents in the Dutchtown, Holly Hills and Carondelet neighborhoods in south city felt satisfied with the overall competence of the department, compared to just 60 percent who felt that way in the north city neighborhoods of Baden, Walnut Park and Mark Twain.
The disparity was even more pronounced when residents were asked if they felt safe in their neighborhoods.
In the south-city neighborhoods of St. Louis Hills, Clifton Heights and the Hill, a whopping 91 percent of respondents said they felt safe in their communities. Compare that with just 51 percent of people who responded similarly in the northern neighborhoods of Fairgrounds Park and JeffVanderLou.
Drug dealing ranked as one of the chief concerns of respondents — with some 38 percent saying they were "unsatisfied" with the department's efforts to remove drugs from streets. As a result, the department says it now plans to focus more resources on street-level dealers.
Interestingly, the survey found that the best crime deterrent may be neighborhood residents — and not the police. The survey found that those people who felt "safe" in their neighborhoods overwhelmingly attributed it to neighbors looking out for one another or the presence of a Neighborhood Watch program.
Catch a Tiger by the Tale
For years now it has been widely thought that a lion and lioness guard the Delmar Loop's west end in University City. The lion is, after all, the city's symbol, and in the interest of gender equality, why not have a lioness there, too? The belief is so ingrained — and the cats are so far off the ground — that very few people know that the lioness is not actually a lioness at all.
She's a tiger.
And now a group of concerned U. Citians who call themselves Tigers for Truth are determined to spread the word.
"We're not angry at people for thinking it's a lioness," says Andrew Wool, the group's mastermind and leader. "Some of our best friends are lions, but that's a tiger."
Wool achieved a certain measure of fame last fall for selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Sarah Palin: Putting the 'Cunt' back in our Country." This time, he says, the Tigers for Truth movement is family-friendly.
The protests began Saturday, September 12 (incidentally, Wool's 41st birthday), on what was supposed to be the lions' 100th birthday celebration. The party, though, was canceled due to lack of funds and interest, but Wool and his group marched anyway, from Meshuggah Café to the so-called Lion Gates.
One member who had once served as his high school's mascot wore a tiger costume. Wool and three others marched beside him, wearing Tigers for Truth T-shirts and carrying boxes of Frosted Flakes bearing the image of Tony the Tiger. They distributed cereal to passersby, handed out fliers with facts about the U. City statues (and tigers in general) and collected signatures for a petition that demanded recognition of the tiger.
Signers were required to provide their name, height and favorite color. "It's a joke," Wool explains. "It's not legally binding."