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  • Part 17: Murder in Atlanta

  • By the end of 1978, RSNA had held its annual meeting at Chicago's McCormick Place four consecutive times. However, some Society members, particularly those who did not live in the Midwest, had been asking the RSNA Board of Directors to schedule a meeting in another region of the country. Society membership had surpassed 10,000 and the newly organized Board of Directors wanted to be responsive to members' needs. Consequently, RSNA leaders planned to hold the 1979 meeting in Atlanta, the 1980 and 1984 meetings in Dallas, and the 1981, 1982 and 1983 meetings in Chicago. The 1984 meeting was eventually held in Washington, D.C.

    Atlanta had recently become a workable site for the RSNA Scientific Assembly with the opening of additional hotels and the new Georgia World Congress Center, which was promoted as a symbol of a revitalized South. The Society's Director of Scientific Meetings, George Schuyler, had determined that the Center could house all the technical exhibitors and had enough conference rooms for Refresher Courses and Scientific Sessions. However, it lacked a huge auditorium comparable to the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place for the heavily attended Sunday Film Interpretation Session. But Schuyler, with his usual efficiency, was arranging to hold that session in another building in Atlanta and was scheduling special bus service to transport meeting attendees from the convention center to that building.

    RSNA leaders were looking forward to the annual meeting. It was to feature the first Categorical Course on Radiation Therapy, organized by Frank L. Hussey Jr., M.D., and a Scientific Exhibit about the use of magnetic resonance in medicine, presented by Paul C. Lauterbur, M.D. But by summer 1979, while RSNA was preparing to hold its Scientific Assembly in Atlanta, one of the worst crises in the Society's history erupted.

    Crime and Repercussions 

    In late June, as the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM) held its annual meeting in Atlanta, SNM officials confirmed 15 incidents in which meeting attendees were either assaulted or robbed.

    The worst incident occurred on June 28. Marc R. Tetalman, M.D., a young RSNA member from Ohio, was attending the SNM meeting. That evening, he, his wife and James Martin, a representative of the Eastman Kodak Company, had dinner at a downtown Atlanta restaurant. Upon leaving the restaurant, they decided to walk the few blocks to their hotel. During the walk, they were accosted by a man brandishing a gun who demanded money and valuables. Dr. Tetalman resisted since he recently received his watch as a gift. The thief fired his weapon. Dr. Tetalman was killed. Martin, who had tried to protect Dr. Tetalman, was severely wounded.1 

    Subsequently, RSNA, with its meeting to be held in Atlanta five months later, received countless calls and requests from Society members and technical exhibitors to send a message to Atlanta's city officials, hotels and convention bureau by transferring the 1979 meeting to another site. RSNA President William T. Meszaros, M.D., and the Board of Directors realized it was too late to move a meeting the size of the RSNA Scientific Assembly. When members and exhibitors became aware that the meeting could not be held in another city, they demanded cancellation of the meeting. To complicate matters, the media were depicting Atlanta as a city in chaos. News reports claimed that Atlanta's crime problems were racially based. Approximately 200 vacancies in the police department could not be filled due to a court order related to suits of discrimination and reverse discrimination in the city's hiring policy for police officers.

    The Board of Directors decided the Scientific Assembly would be held only if RSNA could get a promise of tight security from Atlanta city officials. Otherwise, Dr. Meszaros realized he would have to break commitments to exhibitors and paper presenters.

    Police on Every Corner 

    Consequently, Society leaders were in immediate contact with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Department of Public Safety Commissioner Lee Brown demanding assurances of safety for RSNA meeting attendees. On August 8, 1979, Dr. Meszaros, Schuyler, Executive Director Adele Swenson, Board Chairman Milton Elkin, M.D., and Board Liaison for Annual Meeting Arrangements Richard G. Lester, M.D., met with Mayor Jackson, Commissioner Brown, law enforcement officials and representatives of Atlanta's convention and tourism industry.

    >RSNA officials indicated that security in Atlanta was too tenuous for the Scientific Assembly and suggested they would cancel the meeting. Atlanta officials, realizing the importance of the RSNA meeting to the city's economy, engaged the Society leaders in hours of discussion and ultimately committed to an increased presence of uniformed police on the streets, around the World Congress Center and near the hotels to be used by RSNA meeting attendees. Said Mayor Jackson to the RSNA delegation, "Doctors, when you are here for your meeting in November, police officers will be coming out of your ears," to which Dr. Elkin replied, "That is just what we want!" 2 

    To their credit, Atlanta officials immediately went into action. They got the courts to allow the filling of the vacancies in the police department. Undercover police officers were to be put into uniform and unmarked police cars were marked. Georgia Governor George Busbee promised state troopers would assist city police. The managers of the downtown hotels promised to expand their uniformed security staff.

    During September, October and early November, Schuyler and other RSNA staff periodically visited Atlanta to monitor the implementation of the city's commitments. In addition, RSNA hired private security firms to supplement city and state services. The Society also had additional signs printed to post at the Georgia World Congress Center reminding meeting attendees to remove their name badges once leaving the convention center so as not to be easily identified as out-of-towners. Requests were also printed in various meeting publications asking attendees to take taxis even if traveling a few blocks.

    The decision by RSNA leaders to go ahead with the Scientific Assembly in Atlanta did not please some Society members or technical exhibitors. A few members threatened to attend the meeting armed. Some technical exhibitors threatened a boycott.3 

    November 25-30, 1979, the weather in Atlanta was pleasantly warm. The city was decked in Christmas decorations. Police seemed to be on every corner. The 65th Scientific Assembly and Annual Meeting of the RSNA was held without an untoward incident affecting any Society member. Dr. Hussey's Categorical Course on Radiation Therapy was a success. Dr. Lauterbur's Scientific Exhibit was the radiologists' first introduction to magnetic resonance imaging—a new modality that could help visualize anatomy by using a strong magnetic field rather than ionizing radiation. Yet attendance was down from the 1978 Scientific Assembly and some meeting attendees inwardly grumbled about the intrusiveness of the security measures.

    RSNA leaders did not plan to hold the Scientific Assembly in Atlanta again.

    References 

    1. Tristan TA. Personal communication. 6 Aug 1993.
    2. Elkin M. Crisis in meeting selection. [In] RSNA Remembered: Reminiscing with Adele—1985. Oak Brook, IL: RSNA, 1985:39-44.
    3. Elkin M. Personal communication. 11 May 1995.
    1979 RSNA President William T. Meszaros, M.D. (right), with 1979 RSNA Gold Medalist Robert E. Wise, M.D., 1974 RSNA President

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