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Craig and Carol Kilmer – of all the bit players in the Conrad Black trial, they’ve got to be the bittiest. Until I called Carol Kilmer in Kirksville, Missouri, they didn’t know they were players at all. Carol Kilmer was barely aware there even was a trial. She’d heard that Black was in some sort of trouble in Chicago. 

The trial hinges on the question of whether Black and Radler, who a few years ago sold off hundreds of the newspapers they’d acquired over the years, benefited illegally from noncompete payments that went into their pockets rather than to Hollinger International. Yes we did, says Radler, who’s pleaded guilty, turned state’s evidence, and now says he lied right and left to conceal his deals.

But Black’s attorney Edward Greenspan wanted to make the point that in the newspaper world there’s nothing exceptional about old owners being paid not to compete against new owners. Onto the courtroom screen he projected a list of American towns where Black and Radler had paid noncompetes when they bought papers there. Kirksville, for instance. Craig and Carol Kilmer weren’t names likely to strike fear into the hearts of big-timers like Black and Radler. Yet each had received $100,000 when Black and Radler’s American Publishing subsidiary bought the Kirksville Daily Express and the weekly Kirksville Crier in 1990. The Kilmers owned the Crier, a shopper.

Greenspan was making a point Radler had no particular need to respond to, but he spoke up anyway. “Carol Kilmer happens to be one of the most formidable potential competitors I’ve ever known,” he told the court. “We would never have bought that paper without a noncompete payment with Carol Kilmer.” 

From the witness whom both sides of the Black trial wish us to perceive as a sleazeball, it was an odd burst of something that sounded like conviction. I called Carol Kilmer. “Weeklies aren’t supposed to beat dailies and kick their ass. I owned my market — me and my staff,” she told me. “Just the fact I had all the grocery stores and all the meat accounts showed [Radler] I knew my stuff.”

Kilmer owned the Crier with her husband, but she ran it alone while he made his money in cattle and construction. After the sale she stayed on and managed the Crier for American Publishing until 1998, when Black and Radler unloaded it in one of the big deals that eventually would get them indicted. “I got paid to play for a decade,” Kilmer said, “and I called it a college education I couldn’t have bought anywhere in the country. I was left to run the operation to the best of my ability and I was in charge of it.” The new owners gave her numbers and she met them. Once a year American Publishing hailed its “superachievers” — managers who’d topped last year’s profits by 10 percent or more. “I missed that twice in eight years,” she said.

“Nothing was ever, ever put at me sideways,” Kilmer told me. Her operation was clean as a whistle and that’s how American Publishing wanted it: “Like I was fond of saying — I want every damn dime I got coming and I don’t want any damn dime I don’t have coming.” When auditors showed up they didn’t scare her. “They hired this high-powered outfit out of Saint Louis that would look through your books for a week. I told my bookkeeper, ‘You just give them everything they need.’”

Conrad Black was only a name to Kilmer, but Radler came to town from time to time. Kilmer said, “My dealings with him were straight up. He was everything corporate America should be.” 

On April 11, 1994, the Kilmers’ four-year-old daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. “The company stood with me while I had to live at Saint Louis Children’s Hospital for 105 weeks of chemo,” Kilmer said. “And that was the ultimate test for me personally with American Publishing. Under federal law they only had to hold your job 18 months. There was a meeting — it was Caitlin’s second year of chemo — and I’ll tell you, David came right through the pack and took a hold of my hand and said, ‘How is Caitlin? I want to hear how things are going,’ and he sat by me at lunch. I figured he knew, but he really knew, you know what I mean? He said, ‘Carol, you didn’t have to be here today. I didn’t expect you to be.’ And I said, ‘David, I’m trying to keep up with my job so I can keep my job.” 

I’d told Carol Kilmer her name came up in Black’s trial, but I hadn’t said how or why. Now I filled in all the blanks and read Radler’s words to her. Kilmer was floored. “David pleading guilty!” she said, absorbing the news. “That just speaks for his integrity.” Later she called Radler’s lawyer in Chicago, Anton Valukas, and left her number.

Her David Radler doesn’t begin to resemble the man in the witness box. Could Radler have changed so much in a decade? Perhaps he’s always been, like most of us, a person of parts. When lawyers tear someone to pieces and put him back together again in front of a jury, there are always a lot of parts left over.