1974: Charles Dean and Neal Sharman

On or about this date in 1974, a young American traveler — or perhaps intelligence agent — named Charles Dean and his Australian friend Neal Sharman are believed to have been executed in Laos by the Pathet Lao guerrillas.

The 23-year-old Dean was in the midst of a protracted post-university globetrotting when he was apprehended with his friend traveling down the Mekong River in the war-torn country. They were held in captivity for three months — long enough for the family to learn they were detained, and Dean’s father to fly to Laos to negotiate in vain for his release.

Charles Dean’s older brother Howard, perhaps the most prominent death penalty survivor in the United States, subsequently became governor of Vermont and is now chairman of the Democratic Party’s chief national organ.

Coincidentally, it was also at about this point of the 2003-04 presidential election cycle that Howard Dean, then the frontrunner for his party’s presidential nomination, learned through DNA analysis that remains recovered in Laos were indeed those of his brother. Twenty-nine years after his execution, Charles Dean was repatriated and buried with military honors.

Dean had remembered the loss in his campaign autobiography:

[Charlie] wrote me a letter about what it was like to sit outside his bungalow [in Laos] at night, listening to the thump of distant artillery and the muffled explosions as the shells hit the ground. I almost wrote him back, saying, “What are you thinking? Get out of there — it’s not safe.” Then I reminded myself that he was a twenty-three-year-old who was capable of making these judgments himself. I’ve often wished I had written that letter, although I don’t think he would have changed his mind had he read it.

There was speculation that Charlie was in Laos because he was working for the CIA and I think my parents believed that to be the case. Personally, I don’t think he was employed by the U.S. government in any capacity, but we’ll probably never know the answer to that question.

Charlie’s capture and death were the most traumatic events of my life. They have eaten at me ever since. You never get over something like this; all you can do is live with it. It was awful for my two other brothers and me, and it was far worse for our mother and father. It was so painful for my father that he rarely spoke of it afterward.

One of the feelings that accompanies survivor’s guilt is anger at the person who was killed. You are angry because your loved one left you with this terrible loss. I had never understood why Charlie had gone to Laos and stayed there so long.

I often think about the courses our lives might have taken had Charlie been around. One thing is certain: I’m sure that, had he lived, he’d be the one running for president and not me.

Update: Gov. Dean’s December 2012 tweets on his family’s loss:

@executedtoday It was Dec 14. Charlie was my younger brother. He would have turned 63 on April 5, 2013. view original

@executedtodayHe was likely killed by North Vietnamese operating inside Laos. I have been to the site of his execution thanks to JTFA view original

Australian Neil Sharman was captured with him in September, 1973 and also died with him 38 years ago today view original

On this day..