Nathan Comp has long been a valued contributor to Isthmus, writing a slew of cover stories in recent years as well as a regular Q&A for The Daily Page called, hysterically enough, "Comp Time with [name of interviewee]."
Last June, to our great dismay, Nathan left Madison for sunny Philadelphia. But he has returned prodigal-son-like to the fold, with an article that reveals new information about the November 2004 disappearance of Fitchburg resident Amos Mortier. The Daily Page put some questions to him about that piece.
The Daily Page: How did you first become involved in writing about the disappearance of Amos Mortier?
Comp: After he went missing, I would hear spooky details about the investigation from friends and others. Then came a wave of marijuana busts in 2005 and 2006, and people peripherally connected to the case started going to jail. Jason Shepard's articles in Isthmus, which reported on the John Doe hearings and identified a suspect, further fueled my curiosity.
In 2007, I interviewed Amos' mother for an article I was writing for The Capital Times. Days later we met for coffee to discuss the disappearance. After that, I couldn't stop thinking about the things she told me. This, along with other details and rumors I'd heard over the years, made it a very compelling story to me.
We hear you are working on a book about the case. Can you tell more about that?
Amos' story touches on many great themes -- love, death, greed, betrayal and justice. It's a story about the limits of friendship, set against the backdrop of the drug war, or more specifically the war on marijuana. I think Amos' disappearance and the subsequent investigation really conveys the human toll exacted by the government's brutal effort to enforce an outdated marijuana policy.
I'm always intrigued by the darkness in peoples' hearts. In this case it's interesting to ponder the level of greed that may have prompted Amos' murder, but also the mean-spiritedness of law enforcement, particularly the DEA and the U.S. Attorney. Both operate with near impunity, and the federal secrecy rules almost always prevent information about federal drug investigations from being made public.
They were great. Jason asked the right questions and hit the right notes. They went a long way in humanizing Amos, which meant a lot to people. His articles really intensified the chatter around the case. For those who knew Amos, as well as the public, those articles have been the primary source of information about the disappearance.
How did you get the grand jury transcripts and police reports that provide the basis for your story?
I can't really talk about that. They were given to me on a promise of confidentiality.
What do you think is most significant about the information you uncovered?
They underscore just how clean Amos' disappearance was and all but confirm detectives are spinning their wheels, and have been for some time. It's a difficult case. There's so little physical evidence. In this CSI-era, investigators really have had to rely on their wits more than the state crime lab, and that is probably challenging for a small police department like Fitchburg's.
Most shocking, however, is that investigators seem to have taken the denial of the person we call "Brad Green" at face value. [A witness told the grand jury that "Green" had admitted to killing Mortier.] He never felt the kind of pressure lesser suspects have endured. I can't say he's guilty, but he certainly seems deserving of more rigorous inspection. Four years and six suspects later, "Green" does appear to be the last man standing.
Do you worry that your article might interfere with the ongoing prosecutions of individuals in the drug ring tied to Mortier, or with the investigation into his disappearance?
The investigation is in its fifth year. In that time, investigators have given the public little information about one of the most expensive investigations in county history. The relevant players already have the information. And it's always possible to find potential jurors who don't know anything about cases, no matter how much media attention they receive.
I did provide the DEA and Fitchburg Police Department with an outline of the story, so they had an opportunity to express any concerns about the information being made public. Neither agency expressed any concern.
What do you think happened to Amos Mortier?
Several theories have been tossed around over the years, but none are complete. Some have speculated that he was struck by a motorist who didn't want to face the cops. But it seems improbable that an event unrelated to his marijuana operation spurred his disappearance, especially on the same day he said his suppliers were coming to collect money. Honestly, I don't have any firm theories. In many ways, the investigation has only deepened the mystery.
Do you think it's possible, as his mother still hopes, that he's alive?
You can't rule it out. There are certainly people who make a strong case for why it's possible. But even they find it hard to believe that Amos would simply let his dog loose and leave his friends and family to deal with the fallout. But life is weird, and a lot of people every year simply peace out and are never heard from again. Has Amos joined that club? At this point, it's impossible to say.
So how do you like Philadelphia?
Philly is a great town, but I do miss Madison. Sometimes a lot. The east coast is interesting. I love the diversity (my neighborhood is a weird mix of Jamaican, Greek and College Kid). Several weeks ago, my girlfriend and I followed a blood trail we stumbled upon outside our building for nearly a mile. I never found a blood trail in Madison.
The people here are incredibly friendly and helpful. I was expecting a lot of boorishness and attitude. So, I was pleasantly surprised. Funnily, one of my co-workers told me he imagined people from Wisconsin to be fat and stupid. I hope I've defied at least one of those stereotypes.