Released: July 26, 2015
Ten years ago, over three hundred men, women and children disappeared from a small town in Tennessee, never to be heard from again. In this seven-part podcast, American Public Radio host Lia Haddock asks the question once more, "What happened to the people of Limetown?"
Transcription by /u/weirdpanel Edit
US MALE: Reports of violence erupted today in the research facility known as Limetown, located in White County, Tennessee and home to over 300 residents.
US FEMALE: Emergency services have gathered to the isolated location as smoke rises from somewhere on the property.
The first time most people heard about Limetown was on the night of February 8 2004.
US MALE: 911 what is your emergency?
FEMALE CALLER: [Unintelligble ??I can't hear if anybody??]
USM: Hello? Are you there?
FC: Hello? Can you hear me?
USM: Yes ma'am. What is the nature of your emergency?
FC: We need emergency services in Limetown. The ambulance as well as the fire and police. Just send the whole [bleeped on tape] army!
USM: Ma'am, ma'am I'm going to have to ask you to calm down. [??male voice beside female caller's voice??]
FC: Turn it off! Turn it-
USM: Ma'am? Are you still there?
Seventeen minutes later, the first responders arrive to the outside gate, followed shortly thereafter by local new station WVPK where they uncovered the troubling reality: no-one was allowed access into Limetown.
US MALE: Samantha, can you tell us what's going on?
SAMANTHA: Thanks, Ron. We're standing at the outer security gates of Limetown and, as you can see, there is a large gathering of police officers and firefighters here but they are not being allowed into the facility.
USM: Not being allowed? What do you mean they're not being allowed? Who's not allowing them, Samantha?
SAMANTHA: Well, we can't get anyone to speak to us right now but we can see that there is a sizeable security presence on the other side of the fence and there seems to be an ongoing conversation –
MALE VOICE: Get back into your vehicle.
SAMANTHA: Can someone tell us what's happening?
MALE VOICE: Get back into your vehicle now.
SAMANTHA: Sorry, we're being told to clear the area now. There seems to be a lot of confusion.
The reason or reasons for their denied access remains a point of contention. The next morning there was no visible activity within the community.
US MALE (sound like helicopter in background): There is no-one on the ground that I can see but there does appear to be a large smouldering bonfire I would guess. There's one large stake in the ground. Hard to make out from here what I'm looking at.
For the next two days Limetown was dormant. All attempts at contact failed and on the morning of February 11th the security team left their post. Police officers on the scene were prevented, presumably by their superiors, from stopping the security team for questioning.
US FEMALE: The security at the front gate is now driving away from the facility. (engine noise) Sir! Can you tell me what is happening?
The gate to Limetown was left open. What the world discovered was the complete disappearance of every man, woman and child in Limetown. Three hundred and twenty seven people.
[press conference noises] US FEMALE: Officer, what can you tell us about the investigation? OFFICER: ##unintelligible## US FEMALE: Where is everyone? OFFICER: Don't make me ask you again. MALE: Nobody's here. US FEMALE: Nobody's here? What do you mean by that? MALE: Everybody's just gone.
The story exploded, gaining international attention.
[headlines from global news reports in several languages 02.55 – 03.15 References to prayer and alien abduction]
MALE VOICE: All I'm saying is they need to check those caves.
OTHER MALE: We have checked the caves, OK? Enough with the caves.
And then, just as suddenly as the story of Limetown landed, it evaporated back into the 24-hour news cycle, swallowed by the first legal same-sex marriage in San Francisco, the announcement of successful human cloning in South Korea, war in Iraq, or Afghanistan, marriages, scandal, weather, drugs. The story of Limetown became a tragedy among countless other tragedies. A ghost story you can barely remember.
My name is Lia Haddock, and I'm an investigative reporter with APR. I was seventeen years old as the events of Limetown unfolded and I became somewhat of a Limetown news junkie. In the spirit of full disclosure, it is also a personal story to me as an uncle on my father's side (granted, one I only ever heard stories about and never met beyond infancy), Dr Emil Haddock, was counted as one of the missing. All things considered, it is fair to say that Limetown and the questions it left in my family played a large part in why I became a reporter in the first place. The infamous photo of the devastated father collapsed to his knees outside the gates of Limetown, his hands pulling his hair in outrage and confusion, hangs on the wall above my desk. It seems I was always supposed to tell the story. So, without any further delay, the following report is the first of seven – that's right seven – part series on Limetown, starting with everything we know up to this point, then quickly moving to the people most affected and what it means to them today. Our aim? Simply to remember to honour, and to attempt to give a voice to the missing through the ones who loved them most and who cannot, who will not forget them. Please, stay tuned.
What makes the Limetown tragedy unique, what makes it worth a continuing discussion, in spite of the collective moving on, is the complete lack of context. In the ten years since, no one group or individual has taken responsibility. No explanations have been uncovered or given with any credibility and, most tragically, no survivors have been found.
Limetown was established in 2002 in an undeveloped region of White County, in the middle of Tennessee. The township was owned by Realore (?05.48), which we now know was a private corporation owned entirely by:
HUNTER GARRETT: ##Renard Brahms?## (05.58) or R. B. Villard, as his father dubbed him for the sake of efficiency.
That's Hunter Garrett, Mr Villard's biographer.
HG: Hello LH: Hi, how are you?
We'll get back to him in a bit.
TERRY HILKENS: Ground was broken on a corporate campus in the fall of 2002.
This is Terry Hilkens.
TH: I'm a reporter for the Spartan Sentinel in Spartan Tennessee and I have been loosely covering the Limetown story on and off for the past, well, 10 years or so.
LH: And Terry told me that Limetown was originally built to house up to one thousand researchers and their families.
TH: It was estimated to have cost somewhere between 1.7 and 2 billion dollars for the construction alone.
TH: Yeah, whoa. Like I said, nothing about this construction was secret or hidden. These numbers are public record. There were the necessary permits and forms filled out as well as the token acknowledgements to the public.
LH: So, what was the publically stated purpose, then?
TH: Well, that was always a little vague, but I think their PR director, if they bothered to have one, would tell you their intent was to gain a full understanding of the human brain.
LH: What? A full understanding of the – what does that mean?
TH: I have no idea and none of us did. This was, from the beginning, RB Villard's passion play.
Here's Hunter Garrett again.
HG: He privately revealed to his friends that he felt – and this is a quote mind you – that this could change the destiny of the species. Which explains the confidence he had in his investment.
HG: And the confidence he had in Oscar Totem, all of which ultimately makes him somewhat of a tragic figure.
LH: He's Don Quixote.
HG: Right, yes, yes! That's quite right.
When Villard's relationship with Dr Oscar Totem started remains unclear, but we do know that Dr Totem was named the lead researcher of the facility before construction even began. Back to Terry.
HG: The idea of an actual town, that is a community with restaurants, bars, a hardware store, even that ridiculous movie theatre, seems to have come from Dr Totem, who felt it needed the touches of home to get the brightest minds in his field to flock to the wilds of White County, Tennessee, I guess.
LH: It is rather remote.
HG: It's not exactly South Beach.
LH: What did his press release say? You have that, right?
HG: Yeah. 'We want this town to be a place that researchers and their families want to live. A place where work, family and fun come together for the betterment of the world.
LH: Wow. So he made it sound like Disneyland or something.
So, together with Dr Totem's vision and RB Villard's investment, it was built and they did, in fact, come. Researchers and technicians at every level of the neuroscience field, including my uncle, came from each corner of the globe, most leaving their current jobs, with others even coming out of retirement. There was a buzz, as it was described to me by those familiar with that initial recruitment. But the cause went undefined to everyone on the outside.
It should be made clear here that while the greatest mystery surrounding Limetown remains its final days, an almost equally frustrated question surrounds the town's real purpose. Why did it require such a massive undertaking? What about this particular research justified the amount of workers Dr Totem felt was necessary to execute it? Speculation ranges from basic curing of disease to the almost impossible task of brain mapping. The truth in this circumstance, however, remains uncertain.
The facility was opened on June 3rd, 2003. Three hundred and twenty seven people were housed there. Not only those in the neuroscience field and their families, but other personnel to actually run the town. Cooks, janitors, landscapers, plumbers, electricians.
TH: A lot of people pulled double duty.
LH: So, brain researcher by day, barber or janitor by night?
TH: Well, they'd alternate days, but yeah, basically. It was Mayberry, only it was run by some of the smartest people on the planet.
For a little over eight months things, as undefined as those things are for our purposes, appeared to have run smoothly. Initially there was some mild regional interest in Limetown but, outisde of some anonymous chatter in the smaller corners of the internet, things proceeded without any substantial public scrutiny. And then very suddenly:
[911 call sample played]
In the end, these are the facts: three hundred and twenty seven men, women and children have vanished. In the ten years since, not one survivor has been located. In 2007 Nighttime Primetime scored an interview with Kyle Wolinski, a contractor who stated he worked on security detail at Limetown.
Female interviewer: So you're saying you have no idea what happened in those three days?
KW: We were just told to keep everyone out and shoot anyone who didn't listen. We rotated shifts at the perimeter, day shift, night shift, day shift, night shift, that morning we were just told to leave the gates.
Interviewer: Was there no security detail in the town itself?
KW: No. Not from our group.
Interviewer: Who told you to leave, then?
KW: I don't know.
Interviewer: You don't know.
KW: We never knew. A voice on a phone.
Interviewer: Then how were you paid?
KW: In cash.
Mr Wolinski also revealed in the interview that he and his fellow contractors had been held in detention for 18 months at Guantanamo Bay for questioning, an accusation later confirmed by the State Dept. Mr Wolinski could not be reached for comment for this story. His current whereabouts are unknown.
And then there's the aforementioned RB Villard, the former telecommunications titan and one of Forbes magazine's most wealthy men on the planet. The man who personally bankrolled the entire Limetown project, the man who should know more than anyone, revealed almost the least when called before congress in May 2004. Replayed here is the most infamous exchange with minority leader Pitney (?12.20).
Congresswoman: Mr Villard, you have yet to provide a single piece of useful information about the purposes of this institution. Are you honestly going to sit here and act like you don't know anything?
RBV: Congresswoman, I couldn't expect you to understand the invective and hysteria I've endured over the previous three months. I suppose it's not so different from the vitriol I have endured throughtout my entire career. I still believe that one day the work of Realore (?12.50) will be assigned its rightful place in the annals of history. And you, congresswoman, you and the rest of the inept #### will go down in the annals of nothing.
Congresswoman: Mr Villard, what do you mean 'still believe'?
Man: My client refrains from any further testimony.
RB Villard also could not be reached for comment as he has hidden from public view since the hearing.
Then there's Dr Oscar Totem, the relatively young neuroscientist in whom RB Villard invested. I could find no-one to speak on record about his life. But this is what we know: Oscar Totem worked in a private lab based out of Sydney, Australia, before being named the head researcher at Limetown. He has been universally described as brilliant but also volatile and difficult to work with. What cannot be denied is his almost child-like optimism. Played here is a clip from a speech he gave in 2002, at the International Neuroscience Conference in Sölden, Austria.
OT: Because I am an optimist when it comes to my fellow man, I do not think we are as limited or as powerless as we sometimes feel. We shouldn't look to the stars and feel small. We should look to the stars in defiance and be able to reveal the power, the magnitude, of the uniquely gifted human mind. The human mind. There is a mystery there we must live in, must thrive in. It is there, in the darkness, where we will find the light that unites us all. Thank you. [applause]
By all accounts, Dr Oscar Totem was a remarkable man, revered by some, feared by many but respected by all within his field. But, as stated earlier, no-one would go on record for any part of this story, perhaps out of fear of the potential link of their name to his. Despite his fall from grace, Dr Totem remains remarkable for another reason. His were the only human remains found in the town on the day of the disappearance. His teeth were recovered from the charred remnants at the base of the stake on the execution site. It is presumed he was burned alive. Why is the question no-one can answer, the question that no-one can answer at nearly every turn of Limetown.
The only meaning of Limetown remains subjective. Something each individual must piece together from chaos and project back onto its blank canvas. It's the tragedy like any real tragedy that forces us to confront our worst fears and exposes an underlying hope that there is a larger narrative to everything that there must be meaning in all. The moment it hits you, the same moment you attempt to rebuild again for better or worse, is where I started when I spoke with the families of the victims. While I did have a family member living in Limetown, because of familial disputes and distance, he was never much more than a man who had to be pointed out to me in photographs. Out of respect for their wishes, neither the family members I spoke to nor the victims will be identified in this montage of voices.
(female) I was standing in my kitchen.
(male) I was in my office, just sitting down with my coffee.
(female) My sister called me in my car.
(male) I was sitting right here where I'm talking to you.
(male) I was at the grocery store.
(female) I still see her face everywhere. I don't want to, and then I worry if I don't.
(male) It's like someone just, I don't know. Took my arm from me. How do you live without an arm? You keep living but everything else is just that much worse.
(female) I have had issues since his disappearance. I can't feel. [crying] I'm sorry.
(female) The car was hers. It's sitting out in the backyard. We covered it with a tarp about a year after she was gone. I like to go inside and just sit.
(male) He said dad, I'm scared. That's all. That's the last thing she ever said to me. I'm haunted by the ghost of ####(?17.35)
(female) He told me he was sorry. He didn't say why. I think they knew something. No-one can convince me different.
(female) I couldn't understand her. Bad reception. My last conversation with my daughter had bad cell reception.
(male) I dream about him. He talks to me. We talk about everything and nothing. He says he's doing well. Then I wake up. That's the reason I'll fight to do it all over again. I know one day I'll see him.
When each family member was asked: Do you think your loved one is still alive? There was a surprisingly unanimous response
(male) Yes, absolutely.
(female) Yes, she is.
(female) I know she's alive still. I can feel her.
(male) It's the only thing that keeps me going.
(female) He's not gone. I know they're coming back.
When I spoke with now retired federal agent
RON CALHOUN: Ron Calhoun, and I worked with the federal bureau of investigation during the Limetown incident.
Ron told me that the sense of optimism shared by the victims was pretty standard in an unresolved case like this.
RC: Yes ma'am. When people don't see a body and have no reason to think their loved one has been harmed, it is pretty standard for the grieving party to hold out hope. At least in my experience. As they should, specific to this case.
LH: As they should? You personally believe that they are still alive?
RC: Yes ma'am.
LH: Why do you believe that?
RC: Well, I worked for the FBI for nearly 32 years and in 32 years time you can see some pretty troubling things to put it delicately. You grow a pretty thick skin to most stuff. And I have worked many crime scenes involving disappearances or kidnappings or other events of that nature but nothing, nothing sticks with me like Limetown. There was nothing left behind. We dusted for prints, combed every surface for hairs, fingernails, hell even some spit somewhere on a toothbrush. And look, look we have visual proof there was a large population on February 8th and on February 11th it was like no-one ever was.
LH: What do you make of that?
RC: That this was purposeful. It was following a plan. And it was done masterfully. I have never seen anything like it.
LH: I'm sorry, I don't understand how 327 people could be moved under complete surveillance without anyone noticing.
RC: Well, now you've hit my cut off of understanding.
LH: No ideas, no theories?
RC: As far as I'm concerned those yahoos selling plastic alien ships and Rapture trinkets out next to Limetown have as good an idea as any. Not a day goes by I don't think of it. Did we miss something? Did we all miss something? I don't know. I don't know.
My first view of Limetown, what remains of it, was on a bright autumn day last October. I was with Terry Hilkens again, this time in the field.
TH: Well, it's just over the ridge here. You can see the top of the central research facility.
My first impression of Limetown. That's it?
LH: Wow, yeah, I see it. It's a lot smaller than I imagined it would be.
TH: Yeah, that's pretty common for people. Camera adds 10 pounds I think. This electrified barbed wire fence is new. The original perimeter was about a mile back but otherwise take away a decade of unchecked wildlife and youthful vandalism and you're seeing it. That is Limetown.
LH: The houses literally all have white picket fences.
TH: Yeah, the dream within the dream.
LH: Can we get closer?
TH: Oh, absolutely.
We walked through the abandoned streets towards the central research facility, past the beautiful homes with their fenced-in yards now turned against them, past the shops, the restaurants, all of them empty. Hollow.
LH: So where did the name Limetown actually come from?
TH: Uh, from the caves. All these houses are connected to caves they are built over for temperature control. The facility itself was built deep into the earth, presumably using the caves as a way to cheaply keep their mass of electronic construct things from overheating. So limestone caves, town built sort of into the caves. 'Course the rumours go that the caves might have been used for other reasons but...
LH: What other reasons?
TH: Any you can think of. There's an entire conspiracy industry built on the main road a ways back here, looking for campfire spook stories. They have shirts, tree ornaments, all kinds of stuff. There was actually a problem with people getting lost in the surrounding cave systems because they fancied themselves spelunkers I guess. Actually had to seal several cave entrances to keep people out.
The domed research facility is at the far end of town, built directly into the hill with only its front end visible. It almost feels dynamic, as if the structure is actively crawling from the earth, or being dragged back down into it again. Everything about it says: keep out.
TH: Anyways, you can see this has been closed down to the public. Well, never really open to the public, but now...
LH: I have to say this is a pretty eerie place.
TH: Well, as soon as this facility could have been boarded up and locked away it was. The only reason it hadn't been destroyed outright is to give the illusion of hope, which is to say you are not alone in feeling spooked.
LH: Hope is the last thing I feel standing here.
TH: It's not much to look at, that's for sure. You wanna check out one of the houses?
Standing in one of the homes I was struck with how normal everything was. Not just furniture arrangement or other aesthetic touches of domesticity but the overwhelming feeling of being a voyeur in someone else's home while they quickly ran to the grocery store. Photos on the walls. Clothes in the closet. Even junk mail sitting on the kitchen table.
LH: They got mail?
TH: Sure, yeah.
LH: I guess I just assumed they didn't get mail.
TH: Why do you say that?
LH: I don't know, it just seems very...
TH: Against the idea of the entire venture as you know it?
LH: Yes. Like, these people were supposed to be off the grid.
TH: Right. And nothing says 'grid' quite like a Sears catalogue. The mail would come in one very large delivery to the guard shack we walked past by the fence and then they would distribute it within the town themselves. No-one was hiding. That gets lost in time a bit. This town was not hidden from the world. It was built in plain sight. It operated in plain sight. We knew something unique was happening but no-one really cared, not until after of course. Why would they? It's hard to think about now but these were real people. Are real people. Sorry, I'm an optimist
To say these houses were pristine images of the past would not be accurate, however. Animals and intruders alike had certainly taken their shots before the lockdown of the site. But the most noticeable thing and the most difficult thing to ignore:
TH: The smell, right?
LH: What is that?
TH: It's dry rot. All the living quarter houses have them.
LH: Is that due to the abandonment or...?
TH: That's part of it, yeah. But the full answer is actually pretty silly. The designer of this city was given a pretty healthy budget to work with. That mean constructing this town of beautiful well-built homes made of the best materials. However, in doing all this, for whatever reason, they forgot to put kick-out flashing on the gutters. It was a simple oversight but every time it rained, water would feed right into the walls. Dry rot is a misnomer, it comes from wet conditions and then if left untreated it spreads like cancer. While the people lived here I'm not sure any of them even noticed – not enough time to. But over the years since, all these houses have become just riddled with it. These beautiful shrines to the American Dream just rotting from the inside out. All these brilliant minds, all these geniuses of industry, the future this, the future that. And they didn't plan for the rain.
When we arrived at the site of the execution all that remained was the stake buried in the ground. A dark memorial to the madness of that night. Seemingly out of reverence, no plants surround the base. The only reminder of tragedy can be found in the darkened wood of the stake from the flames. Terry remained silent as we got closer, his demeanour changing from tour guide to reverent observer.
LH: What do you feel, standing here?
TH: I feel exactly how I feel about all of this.
LH: Which is how?
TH: Like I've stared at something too long and I don't know a damn thing.
And that was supposed to conclude part one of my report. Then something happened.
[mobile phone rings]
TH: God. Sorry, my heart's pounding.
LH: It's OK, take your time.
TH: How do I start? OK. I have someone you need to talk to.
LH: What do you mean?
TH: She's on the other line.
TH: Lia, it's a survivor. She wants to speak to you and only you. I'm going to put her on now.
LH: Look, Terry, I don't understand. Why does she want to talk to me? I feel we should tell someone.
TH: [moans] No!
LH: Excuse me?
TH: Ms. Haddock, you and I, we are the only ones to speak. No-one else. I'm sorry it has to be this way.
LH: How could I believe you?
TH: I'll leave the details with ##Mr Hogans## (?27.59).
LH: Terry? Is this real?
TH: Are you still recording?
LH: OK. Stop recording.
-- ends 28.15