San Francisco Chronical 07.12.1986
Death in the Soviet Bloc
Questions surround pop idol's strange drowning
By David McQuay
In the eyes of the Russians, handsome, honey-voiced Dean Reed was the most famous American singer. People tore his clothes in the streets. Women cried over him.
The Kremlin applauded his nice words about Soviet politics, and he enjoyed a princely house in East Berlin, control over his music and films, marriage to a beautiful woman - in short, everything a star could want.
At 47, his hair graying and his voice tinged with a German accent, Dean Reed wanted another shot at America. He missed his friends, his daughter in California and his mother in Hawaii, and he missed the Colorado mountains. He had always retained his U.S. citizenship.
When he returned almost anonymously to the United States in the fall of 1985 for the Denver International Film Festival's showing of "American Rebel," an American-produced documentary of Reed's life, he realized how much he missed the United States.
It is possible that Dean Reed began to have doubts about the Soviet system; he privately told an old friend with whom he stayed, Johnny Rosenburg, of Loveland, Colo., that "the Berlin Wall is a disgrace."
Reed had grand plans, or perhaps grand illusions: release a record and film in America, write an autobiography, do a concert tour and live in the Unites States part or all of the year. Maybe he would go into politics. In an interview with Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" last spring, he said that if Gary Hart could run for the presidency, he could run as a Socialist candidate for Hart's senatorial seat.
He even told friends that he wanted to die in America.
On weekend of June 13-14, a London Sunday Times magazine correspondent named Russell Miller was scheduled to interview Reed in East Germany. On Friday, he telephoned Reed's home, and East German actress Renate Blume-Reed, the singer's third wife, told him that the interview would have to be canceled because Reed had been taken to the hospital. When Miller called again that evening, the telephone was taken from Blume-Reed while she was in mid-sentence. A man came on the line.
This is Mr. Wieczaukowski, he said, the co-director of the film Dean is going to shoot in a few days. Yes, Dean is in the hospital, he said. He might have to stay several days. Wieczaukowski gave Miller his home telephone number in Potsdam, a city about 20 miles from Berlin.
The next day, Blume-Reed told Miller that her husband would be kept in the hospital until Tuesday.
That Tuesday, Dean Reed's clothed body was found in a lake near his home. His car parked nearby. Miller dialed Wieczaukowski's number.
A woman answered. You have the wrong number, she said. There's nobody here by that name.
"Dean died the way he lived his life - like a mystery," Johnny Rosenburg says. "And why should he be any different in death than he was in life?"
The East German police first said that Reed committed suicide by drowning. Then when Reed's first wife, Patricia Reed, and his mother, Ruth Anna Brown, arrived for the funeral and started asking questions, the cause of death was changed to accidental drowning.
The police have suggested that Reed got sleepy while driving, pulled the car over by the lake, splashed water on his face to wake himself up and fell in and drowned. But Dean Reed was an excellent swimmer; as a teenager he had been a lifeguard, and at 47 he was in top shape.
His body was dressed in a heavy, fur-lined, blue-jean jacket that Rosenburg had given him and an overcoat, according to police investigators. But the temperatures in Berlin in humid mid June ranged from the high 50s to the 70s. Even in the middle of the night, a sweater would have been sufficient.
There were no bullet holes or knife wounds. The autopsy report mentions that nitrazepam, a tranquilizer akin to Valium, was found in the body, but that is not surprising: Reed took pills every night to sleep. He told some friends he took one a night; Patricia Reed said he told her he was taking four. The coroner told his mother that Reed has taken only a small amount of the sedative, not enough to be toxic.
However, the autopsy report says the quantities of nitrazepam "are clearly within the toxic range ...such doses have greatly sedative, almost hypnotic, effects which may support and expedite drowning."
There was also quite a bit of alcohol in the body, which is strange. Anyone who knew Reed said that he rarely drank; he had a stomach ulcer. Renate told friends that Reed had a glass of wine with dinner before he disappeared. But the blood-alcohol level in the body showed 2 milligrams. That is more than one glass of wine, said Dr. Michael Bennett, of the Rocky Mountain Drug and Poison Center.
Together with the pills, it "sounds like an overdose situation," he said.
The report says the body was under water for four days. When Patricia Reed and Will Roberts, who directed "American Rebel," arrived in East Berlin and asked to see the body, the coroner's office resisted, saying that it had been partially devoured by fish.
Finally, 11 days after Dean Reed had died, they were allowed to view the body.
There was a bruise on the forehead and a cut on the throat. The cut might have made during the autopsy. The face was blackened but not bloated. Odd, she thought. Four days in a lake and the body is not bloated?
Reed's American manager, Dixie Schnebly, thought things were so strange that she spent $ 37,000, she says, to send two private detectives to Berlin. They came back and told her: Dean Reed was strangled.
How did the detectives find this out? Schnebly would not say. She recently moved from Wheat Ridge, Colo., to Arizona, and has not returned phone calls.
With so many conflicting clues, everyone seems to have a different theory about how Dean Reed died. "Heck, I have 2006 scenarios," says Reed's mother. "And the last one seems better than the one before."
Here are six possibilities:
The theories about Dean Reed's death sound like the thriller "Gorky Park."
"Clearly he was watched; there's no doubt about that," said Kurt Campbell, a Soviet expert at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. "He never wavered from the line for a long time, and at the end he started to break away. My impression is at the end he started to waver. He became more and more dissatisfied."
But Roberts is not sure how much Reed wanted to move back to the United States. "This is something Americans like to believe," he said. When Reed revisited Chile, where he had lived in the '60s, he told Roberts, "Oh, Chile, this is my certain homeland. I'd like to live in Chile and be productive." And when they travelled in Argentina, Reed said, "Oh, I love Argentina."
Rosenburg was not surprised at Reed's untimely death. "He always felt that there was a bullet with his name on it," Rosenburg said. "He thought he'd get it here. He thought he was safe in East Germany."
"The irony," he says, "is that the system he trusted did him in."
Others are no so sure. "I don't think we'll ever find out," says Campbell.
In the end, all we have to go on is the police report: At 10 p.m. on June 12 Dean Reed left his home "after a domestic dispute." He did not tell Renate where he was going. At about 10:40 p.m., he called his film production manager and said he'd be over immediately. He was never heard from again.