Did Mitt Romney Kill Leola Anderson in 1968 Car Crash? We Examine the Conspiracy Theories (PHOTOS) | The Daily Pulp | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida


Did Mitt Romney Kill Leola Anderson in 1968 Car Crash? We Examine the Conspiracy Theories (PHOTOS)

Did you hear about that fatal car crash Mitt Romney was in? The incident happened in France in June 1968, when Romney was serving as a Mormon missionary. It made the U.S. papers in 2007, but considering that the man is running for president, it's surprising that the story has been discussed so little in the current mainstream media. 

Now, just following Romney's swing through Florida, some conspiracy theorists are emerging and making major allegations: that Romney may have been at fault in the car accident that killed Leola Anderson and that reporters have been duped into glossing it over. 

Sound crazy? Hey, in a world in which presidential candidates have been known to hide their New Age mistresses and secret love babies, no rumor should go unchecked. 

People close to Romney -- including the dead woman's son -- have asserted he was not responsible for the crash, but the incident is old and murky enough that questions surrounding it could fuel anyone who wants to paint Romney as an entitled rich kid who escaped punishment. (Remember the gay bullying incident?) 

We combed through both internet rumors and published reports to sort fact from fiction. Here's what we found: 

Boston Globe reporter Michael Kranish is credited with first bringing the incident to light in a 2007 article. We could not find a link to the original article, but he retells the story in his book The Real Romney, cowritten with Scott Helman. The book describes how Romney was driving with his then-supervisor, mission President Duane Anderson, and Anderson's wife, Leola, in the front seat of a Citroen DS. He also had three passengers, fellow Mormons, in the back. 

The book asserts that "a Catholic priest in a Mercedes passed a truck at high speed, missed a curve near a post office, and smashed nearly head-on into their car." The book gives no attribution for this information but quotes Romney saying, "It happened so quickly that as I recall, there was no honking and no braking." Romney said he barely remembered the crash and woke up in the hospital. Passenger Suzanne Farel, who was in the back seat, is credited as saying that "they were driving slowly but the other car had come at them in a flash."  

A Washington Post story by Eli Saslow from 2007 included even more description: "Anderson was dressed in a dark business suit, and Leola wore high-heeled shoes, a white dress and a glimmering necklace with pearl-like beads." Yet the story does not clearly explain who provided these colorful details. 

According to the Post story, "a car heading north at about 60 mph missed a curve, barrelled over a hill and veered into Romney's southbound lane." It says the police officer who responded to the scene "found pearl-like beads scattered across the road." He thought Romney was dead and wrote "il est mort" in his passport. 

From the story: "During those first few days after the crash, Romney grieved Leola's death much more visibly than Anderson, visitors said."  

The New York Times went digging. Its 2007 story says that Romney had "six people in a car that would comfortably seat five."

The Times reporter, Michael Paulson, pulled up an article that had appeared in French newspaper Sud Ouest after the crash. It stated that the driver of the oncoming car was a 46-year-old named Albert Marie, from Sireuil, who was believed to be a Catholic priest.

Paulson's story suggested that by 2007, the priest had since died and that the two passengers who had been in his car could not be located. Paulson wrote that "a priest at the parish in Sireuil confirmed that the church's former pastor, now deceased, was Albert Marie." The rumor among Mormons was that the priest had been drunk, but Paulson could not confirm that. In the intervening years, Leola Anderson's son had become a friend of Romney's and asserted, "Mitt was not in any way at fault."

By then, any official accounts of the incident had disappeared.

From the Times story:
In one of three recent interviews about the accident, Romney said he believes there was a criminal proceeding against Marie, and that he recalls filling out an affidavit about the accident. His spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said in an e-mail, "the governor does not have any records from the court case against the driver of the other car in the accident in France." At the local police station in Bazas, officials said they do not have any records because they routinely destroy all documents after 10 years.
Now, the conspiracy theories are coming out.

Last month, a post by someone named "bontemps2012" on the liberal website Daily Kos alleged that Romney caused the crash and that he "recruited a small group of other missionaries to help him put the blame over on the other driver." The post claims that Romney was under pressure to be seen as squeaky-clean because his father was running for president at the time. It uses images from Google maps to show the curve where the crash ostensibly happened.

Yesterday, a (very amateur-looking) website by Joseph Cannon called Cannonfire contains another post that makes this storier even curiouser. It contradicts the New York Times story and says the priest from the other car is not dead -- he's alive and kicking at 90 years old. From that piece:

For what it's worth, the "priest" was then, and is now, a bishop; his name is not Albert Marie. Although Mitt Romney spoke French well, he apparently didn't understand how nomenclature works in France: The final part of a male first name may be a traditionally female name, attached with a hyphen -- and in religious families, that name is usually Marie. As it happens, the full name of the man Romney hit is Jean-Félix-Albert-Marie Vilnet.

Bishop Vilnet, who was at the Second Vatican Council, is still alive at the age of 90.

In January, London's Daily Mail newspaper ran a set of pictures from the 1968 crash scene and the hospital. They were taken by Andre Salarnier. 

In March, French newspaper Le Monde found Salarnier and his wife. The article calls them "French Mormons who often cooked 'coq au vin' and mushroom-stuffed crepes for the young Romney" and says "they received several emails from the candidate's entourage asking them to no longer speak to reporters about the 1968 accident."

The 2007 New York Times story says that only three people who were in Romney's car during the accident are still alive: Romney, Suzanne Farel, and David Wood. 

According to Wikipedia, Bishop Vilnet, pictured left, retired in 1998. 

The Daily Kos post encourages people to look at Salamier's pictures and compare the hospital picture that is labeled as Duane Anderson. It contends this is actually mislabled; that the image is of Bishop Vilnet (pictured more recently at left), and that this proves Vilnet was the driver of the oncoming car.

IMore similar images from Salarnier appear here.

Conspiracy theorists are debating the whole thing here

We looked at the geography. Wikipedia says Bishop Vilnet was "appointed bishop of the Diocese of Saint-Dié on September 24, 1964" and transferred to Lille in 1983. Saint-Die is in the northeast of France. Lille is in the north. And Sireuil... is in the southwest. All three cities are plotted on the map at left.

We emailed and called Florida representatives of the Romney campaign late Tuesday. No one had replied at presstime. 

News database Lexis-Nexis contained only 66 mentions of the names "Leola" and "Romney" -- and some of those were about Bobby Brown's ex-wife.

Sigh... It's times like these that we wish we had opened that darned satellite bureau in Bordeaux. 

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Deirdra Funcheon

Latest Stories