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Written by Francisco Alvarado, BT Contributor   
March 2018

Vet’s untimely death leaves questions about a covert life

A Film_1camera tracks behind a frumpy, short homeless man with a bushy mustache, wearing a floppy camping hat, T-shirt, and jeans as he crosses an intersection at NE 199th Street and 29th Place in Aventura. A time stamp appears on the screen: 3:30 a.m. May, 9, 2015. The lens pans to the man’s face as his brown pupils widen at the sight of oncoming headlights.

The filmed reenactment cuts to actual news footage of a yellow tarp covering the body of Richard Flaherty and the site of the horrific hit-and-run accident that killed the 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran. “A pair of joggers spotted his body in the bushes around 7:00 a.m. Saturday,” says an ABC reporter, “although police believe he was hit hours before his body was discovered.”

Crime scene photos of Flaherty’s lifeless hand, his blood-stained backpack, and his legs flash across the screen.

Two weeks before his death, Flaherty had met with then-Aventura police officer and aspiring documentary filmmaker David Yuzak for lunch at a local Subway. Yuzak had known Flaherty since 2001, shortly after he joined the police department, but the pair had maintained only a casual relationship.

By the time both men finished had their sandwiches, Flaherty had opened up about his travails, and they had a handshake agreement for Yuzak to produce and direct a film about the veteran’s life. And even though his subject died before filming began, Yuzak (who retired from the department last summer) spent the past two years tracking down Flaherty’s family members and old friends, and chasing down leads about the vet’s remarkable life, to finish the film.

“When we first started meeting, I would just take little notes,” Yuzak says. “I wanted to do it right and hire a professional cameraman to film Richard. I ran out of time. Originally, my thought process was that it ends here. But being that he’d been left on the side of the street like roadkill and the woman who ran him over wasn’t prosecuted, I felt his story had to be told.”

Film_2The Giant Killer, as the film is called, shows Yuzak on the big screen as he works to unravel Flaherty’s story. Interviews with people who knew the vet intimately are interspersed with reenactments of Flaherty’s days in the jungles of Vietnam and living under a tree in Aventura.

The final product is a poignant critique on the physical, mental, and emotional damage that sends some war veterans on a path toward isolation from the rest of society.

“My only goal was not to hide some of the stuff in Richard’s life, but to tell his story as honestly as possible,” Yuzak says, “to let the audience understand what happens when we send our sons, daughters, cousins to war. We get back a person who’s going to need a lot of assistance. When you’re asked to kill people and watch your friends die, it takes a terrible toll.”

Yuzak’s movie is being distributed as pay-per-view on Amazon, iTunes, and OnDemand. He spoke to the BT after a screening of The Giant Killer at the Savor Theater during the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival on February 11.

The first half of The Giant Killer documents Flaherty’s rise from Army reject to pint-size killing machine for Uncle Sam. Standing just four-foot-seven and weighing about 100 pounds, Flaherty won a waiver so he could join the Army. He eventually became a 101st Airborne platoon leader in Vietnam, where his heroism earned him multiple decorations for bravery. He closed out his military career as the shortest member ever to serve in the Green Berets.

Flaherty earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, a National Defense Service Medal, and a Combat Infantry Badge serving his country. Walt Yost, a former Green Beret captain who took over a unit Flaherty commanded and was interviewed by Yuzak, says on camera that his former war buddy was a tough-as-nails yet affable soldier.

“He had a demeanor about him that commanded respect, and he had a great sense of humor,” Yost says. “Being short, he had a little Napoleonic attitude. But that carried him in his career in the military.”

Although he survived Vietnam despite his wounds, the war took a toll on his psyche. Later in the film, Yuzak uses a voiceover actor to read the written statements Flaherty gave to mental health counselors at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Miami to show he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Among the cruel memories that haunted Flaherty were recollections of finding the dead body of a female Viet Cong rebel lying next to a baggie containing her makeup and perfume bottle, as well as seeing the exposed brain matter of a fellow U.S. soldier seconds after being shot in the head.

For The Giant Killer’s second act, Yuzak chronicles Flaherty’s return home, which begins in 1971 in New York, where he met Jyll Cohn, a 21-year-old who became Flaherty’s first true love and the source of his initial unraveling. Cohn died in a single-car accident four years later, after the couple had relocated to South Florida.

That tragic event would send Flaherty spiraling into alcoholism, which led to run-ins with the law. He was busted, among other arrests, for carrying a concealed weapon, selling cocaine, and selling silencers to an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Ironically, the gun charge put Flaherty into service for his country again. Although he had no choice, he agreed to work as an informant against a pair of corrupt Green Berets, Master Sgt. Keith Anderson and Byron Carlisle, who were trying to sell stolen military explosives and ammunition to South American drug traffickers.

Working with then-undercover ATF agent Fred Gleffe, Flaherty helped set up a fake buy with Anderson and Carlisle, who were subsequently arrested, charged, and sentenced to 40 years in prison in 1985. During the undercover sting, Flaherty became giddy when he opened a bag filled with the C4 explosives that Anderson had provided, Gleffe recalls in the film.

“He was like a kid in a candy store,” Gleffe says. “I remember him picking up a block of C4 and smelling it, and saying, ‘Ahhh, what a great smell.’”

From there, Yuzak dives into Flaherty’s descent into homelessness. Friends and family members talk about the vet’s chronic insomnia and alcoholism. His brother, Walter Flaherty, remembers how he and their cousins tried to help the war hero keep a roof over his head.

“He was carrying a lot of scars from the war, and the fact he was out on the streets made it worse,” Walter says in the film. “We had set him up with a condo, but he sold it and went back out on the streets.”

As the documentary seems to wind down, Yuzak lets the audience in on a stunning twist. While rummaging through a storage unit Flaherty kept at in Aventura, he finds Flaherty’s passport, stamped with entries from recent trips to danger spots around the world.

Between 2008 and 2012, Flaherty had traveled to Jordan, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, and Venezuela. Yuzak never really discovered the truth about Flaherty’s journeys, but he and others interviewed in the film speculate he was doing contract work for the CIA, or perhaps a private paramilitary firm. A letter Yuzak received from the CIA states that the agency would not confirm or deny any involvement with Flaherty during that four-year span.

Yuzak’s film also insinuates that the person who ran over Flaherty and left the scene of the accident should have faced serious consequences, but didn’t.

Leslie Socolov, a 60-year-old stenographer with the Miami-Dade Police Department, turned herself in to Aventura authorities the day after she killed Flaherty. Before she did that, she had passed by the accident scene and seen the tarp covering a man’s body, but did not immediately come forward. She only revealed herself as hit-and-run driver following a conversation with her boss.

During the investigation, Aventura detectives found out that she’d called her insurance company minutes after the accident to file a claim because she had “hit something.” In the film, investigators explain that state prosecutors declined to file charges against Socolov because they believed her story that she didn’t know she had hit a person.

Yuzak, who has had bit parts on the TV show Burn Notice and The Glades, says when Flaherty opened up to him during their Subway lunch, the veteran was being treated for skin cancer. The ex-cop believes Flaherty was feeling his mortality.

“I really believe that he wanted to get it all off his chest,” Yuzak recalls. “I think he believed he didn’t have much time left because of his cancer. He wasn’t going to hold anything back.”

 

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