Thomas Riha vanished in March 1969.
Riha was an immigrant from Czechoslovakia. He was also an associate professor of Russian history at the University of Colorado. He was briefly married to a woman named Hana, but they were in the process of divorcing. She had recently fled the couple’s Boulder house, smelling of ether and claiming that someone was trying to kill her.
On March 18, Riha failed to show up for his classes. The Boulder house was full of furniture and a collection of statuary. The table was set for breakfast.
The authorities supposedly received assurances that Riha was alive and that he’d left of his own accord. Some people claimed to have seen him in the early 1970s, in Czechoslovakia.
But no one really knows what happened to Thomas Riha, with the possible exception of the CIA, the FBI – and a woman who called herself Galya Tannenbaum.
Galya spun many yarns, claiming to be a secret service agent. She also claimed to know where Riha was. She disposed of his house, car and statuary collection. She was also the beneficiary in the wills of two Denver residents. Both the decedents had died of potassium cyanide poisoning.
District attorneys in Denver and Boulder filed criminal charges against her for forgery. When they searched her Denver house, they found a pound of potassium cyanide – and Thomas Riha’s driver’s license and passport.
Galya had several other names, a prior criminal record for forgery and theft, and a long record of mental instability. In June 1970 a judge found her incompetent to stand trial. She was committed to the state hospital in Pueblo, Colorado.
Eight months later, on March 7, 1971, Galya Tannenbaum committed suicide, using potassium cyanide.
It’s a fascinating case that has always intrigued me. I used it as a springboard for the second Jeri Howard novel, Till The Old Men Die. But the Riha case, with its echoes of Cold War intrigue, was not the novel I wanted to write. Real life is messy and sometimes it doesn’t have endings, as a good mystery novel should.
From the outset, I decided the professor in my book was already dead, and my private eye Jeri Howard would be instrumental in finding out who killed him.
Of course, I had to have a mystery woman.
By this time I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large Filipino-American population. While in the Navy and later in a civilian job, I had Filipino-American coworkers and I became interested in Filipino culture.
So my murder victim in Till The Old Men Die became Dr. Lito Manibusan, a Filipino-American history professor at California State University in Hayward, a friend of Jeri Howard’s father, also a professor. And the mystery woman, Dolores Cruz, shows up at the university some months after Manibusan’s murder, claiming to be his widow and demanding his papers, which have already been turned over to the professor’s nephew.
I don’t remember what my working title was. But one day I was talking with my friend Susan, whose significant other Mike, while not born in the Philippines, was raised there, immersed in the culture of that place. At one point in our conversation about the volatile nature of Filipino politics, Susan said, “It’ll never be over, not till the old men die.”
Perfect title, I thought. I even had one of the characters use the sentence in a conversation with Jeri Howard.