A Death at Los Alamos
How a suspected suicide shed light on waste, fraud and abuse at America's nuclear weapons lab
On Jan. 24, 2003, Richard James Burick was found lying part way under his truck, dead from a bullet to the head. A .44 caliber revolver lay a few feet away, which according to some experts, was further than it should have been if Burick himself had pulled the trigger. That afternoon, before an autopsy or full forensic investigation was even started, the Los Alamos Police Department declared Burick’s death a suicide.
In a new book, Los Alamos: A Whistleblower’s Diary: Secret Colony, Hidden Truths, Chuck Montaño, a former auditor at Los Alamos National Lab, raises a number of questions about Burick’s death. Drawing on 30 years of experience as an employee at the Lab, interviews with friends and colleagues, and the Lab’s record of waste, fraud and abuse, Montaño makes the case that Los Alamos was more troubled than most dared to think.
Why, asks Montaño, was there never a full investigation into Burick’s alleged suicide?
Los Alamos is situated about 60 miles north of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and at the heart of America’s nuclear weapons complex. Much of the Manhattan Project’s work on the first atomic bomb took place at Los Alamos, and U.S. nuclear weapons have been designed and tested there ever since. This research is the lifeblood of Los Alamos County, which consistently ranks near the top of the country in terms of income per capita. As a whole, more of New Mexico’s economy comes from the federal government than any other state.
Before his retirement in January 2002, Richard Burick had been the Deputy Director for Operations at LANL. In his 25 years at the Lab, he gained access to some of the nation’s most sensitive nuclear weapons secrets. But, at the time of his retirement, there was mounting concern that the University of California, which operated the Lab, would lose its contract over safety and security issues.
In 1999, the Lab helped feed the FBI’s false accusations that a scientist named Wen Ho Lee was giving weapons designs to China. Then in 2000, hard drives containing nuclear weapons designs temporarily went missing when a nearby wildfire forced the Lab to evacuate. The drives were mysteriously rediscovered behind a copier in a secure room that had already been searched twice. That same year, Los Alamos failed a major security test in which mock terrorists attacked the Lab and succeeded in building a fake improvised nuclear bomb.
In an attempt to demonstrate accountability, in early 2002, the Lab hired a pair of former police officers, Glenn Walp and Steve Doran, to root out corruption. As Walp and Doran set to work, Burick was, by all accounts, enjoying retirement and pursuing his lifelong dream — ranching. He had acquired a 20,000 acre plot in southern New Mexico, along with horses and cattle. With the help of one of his former employees, Peter Bussolini, he planned to make it into a hunting destination.
Their fortunes soon took a turn for the worse.
Above and at top — scenes from Los Alamos National Laboratory. Larry1731 / Flickr & Wikimedia photos
In mid-2002, Bussolini and another Lab worker, Scott Alexander, were implicated in a quarter-million dollar embezzlement scheme. An FBI investigation found warehouses at the Lab stuffed with stolen outdoor equipment — ATVs, sleeping bags, radios, hunting knives and more. According to Montaño, LANL would have had no use for this equipment, which Bussolini and Alexander purchased using classified order forms and using false descriptions. For example, “rotisserie grill,” became a “basket positioner.”
Shortly thereafter, in early October, Burick sold his ranch for “one dollar and other valuable consideration.” At the end of October, Bussolini and Alexander were suspended from their jobs.
Things were not going according to plan for Walp and Doran either. In November, a memo detailing $3 million in “lost and misplaced” goods was reported in the Albuquerque Journal. According to Montaño, the memo also revealed that Los Alamos had a rule that Lab purchases worth less than $5,000 weren’t to be tracked. LANL fired them three days later.
As Montaño writes, “Since people rarely lost their jobs at LANL, what happened [to Walp and Doran] … would be inconceivable were it not for the fact that they were trying to fix problems institutional leaders didn’t even want to admit existed.”
Firing Walp and Doran turned out to be one of LANL’s bigger mistakes. Instead of preventing scrutiny that could jeopardize a new contract, the firings set off a round of congressional inquiries that resulted in a slew of high-level dismissals including the Director and Principal Deputy Director of the Lab. Public pressure on the University of California led to Walp and Doran getting their jobs back. As Doran told the Santa Fe Reporter in 2012, their first priority was to investigate Burick’s connection to Bussolini “hot and heavy.”
It’s worth noting that Burick didn’t just help steer LANL through these years of scandal, he was a main character in many of them. He personally fired Wen Ho Lee, led the evacuation during the fire where the weapons designs went missing, and was blamed directly by DOE for the Lab’s performance in security exercises. The Lab had plenty of reasons to investigate him.
On the morning of Jan. 24, 2003, a week after Walp and Doran were rehired, Burick was summoned to LANL for a meeting. The attendees and substance of that meeting are not known, but according to unnamed sources in Montaño’s book, Burick left upset. A few hours later, he was found dead. The police declared his death a suicide that afternoon.
A week later, the state medical examiner confirmed, “The manner of death is suicide.” He offered two possible explanations — a long battle with cancer or an investigation by the Lab. No note was found.
Most of the Los Alamos community, including Burick’s widow, believes it was a suicide, but Montaño, Walp and Doran aren’t convinced. They say the Lab would have done anything to save itself, and that based on where and how Burick’s revolver landed, it is unlikely he was the last person to touch it. The weapon was found about a yard past his feet, but, Doran told the Santa Fe Reporter, “Burick would have lost all muscle control instantaneously and simply dropped the gun, not lobbed it several feet from where he was standing.”
What’s even more unusual, according to Montaño, is the condition the revolver was found in, with the cylinder open and an unspent round ejected. According to a pair of weapons experts interviewed by Doran — David Williams, a former FBI agent who testified in the Oklahoma City bombing trials, and Michael Stamm, a retired Michigan State Police officer and professional expert witness — that is “absolutely impossible.”
If Burick pulled the trigger, Doran says the recoil should have also bruised his hand as the bullet entered his brain and his body went limp. The medical examiner found no such injuries.
These inconsistencies warrant an investigation, argues Montaño. Were Bussolini and Alexander stealing outdoor equipment to stock Burick’s ranch? Did the FBI’s investigation into the equipment scare Burick into selling the ranch? Did a Lab investigation connect Burick to Bussolini and Alexander, and perhaps precipitate his demise? Why didn’t the police wait for an autopsy to declare the cause of death? If it was a suicide, then what explains the location of the gun?
There may be no relationship between these events, or as Montaño suggests, the Lab may have obfuscated the truth to protect itself. Given the importance of Los Alamos and the gravity of the implications, these issues need a more thorough accounting than they have received to date.
Montaño’s new book, along with new details learned by the Project on Government Oversight, suggest that at the very least, there is more to the story of Bussolini and Alexander, and the FBI investigation that felled them.
A model of the Fat Man atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Dimonite / Flickr photo
When the FBI arrived at Los Alamos in early 2001, Burick was still in his role as Director of Operations, with Bussolini directly under him. According to those who worked with them, Bussolini and Alexander actively embezzled Lab property and routinely threatened coworkers who they thought might blow the whistle. This was well before the FBI honed in on the outdoor equipment or the investigation was public knowledge.
According to POGO sources, Bussolini was indulging his fantasies of mob life. “Pete was obsessed with mobsters … he wanted to be seen as a Don,” claims John Jennings, who worked for Bussolini and helped the FBI put him in jail. According to Jennings, Bussolini kept a picture of Marlon Brando as the Godfather on his wall, and distributed goods stolen from the Lab as a way of currying favors in the Los Alamos community.
Jennings began working for the FBI in July 2002, but nearly blew the investigation in late September when he mentioned it to a mid-level Lab official. As a result the Bureau closed in on the two employees that it had enough evidence to put away — Bussolini and Alexander.
POGO’s sources claim that when the noose tightened, Bussolini and Alexander went to extremes to protect themselves. They went so far as to plot a power failure for a top secret building that would give them cover to snoop on investigation documents undetected.
They were violent and verbally abusive as well, POGO sources said. Alexander threw one employee into a wall. On the day he was suspended Bussolini said to Jennings,“I hope to God you had nothing to do with [this], cause I’d kill you if you did.” According to POGO sources, the pair bullied a Lab intern named James Stewart to the point of depression, and eventually suicide.
In 2005, Bussolini and Alexander struck a plea bargain with federal prosecutors. The government dropped 26 charges in exchange for guilty pleas to conspiracy and mail fraud, and $39,401 in restitution to the University of California. Bussolini served six months in jail, and Alexander the same amount of time under house arrest. Today, Bussolini splits his time between New Mexico and South Carolina. Alexander’s whereabouts are unknown.
These details paint a more complicated picture of Los Alamos in 2002 than the one that emerged before Congress, in the media, or in court. When a former top national security official dies a conspicuous death, it’s reasonable for citizens to expect a full accounting. That’s especially true when that official had a checkered past, or close ties to others who do.
Many of Burick’s peers remain in leadership positions at LANL. Under their watch, two employees stole millions from taxpayers, bullied and abused subordinates, and made a mockery of the security features in place at one of the nation’s most important defense facilities. LANL is a crucial design lab for U.S. nuclear weapons and produces key components for the stockpile, builds technology to monitor the weapons of other countries, and is an enticing terrorist target.
Were it not for the connections between Burick, Bussolini and Alexander, and the peculiar circumstances of Burick’s alleged suicide, there would be no reason to revisit this case. However, in the years since Burick’s death, two things have remained constant. First, the frequency of scandals and abuse at Los Alamos, and second, many of the people in leadership. According to Montaño, some even helped quash the original investigations launched by Walp and Doran.
Montaño writes, “The commitment to impose accountability in Los Alamos had always been too shallow, too short-lived, too politically tainted to be effective.” If that is ever to change, a new investigation into Richard Burick’s alleged suicide would be a good place to start.
This article originally appeared at the Project on Government Oversight, where Jacob Marx is a researcher.