Theater of War

Theater of War

He traveled to some of the world’s most dangerous places to disarm militias, negotiate with gangs, and defy terrorists. But Bill Brookman was just a clown.

By Jessica Hatcher-Moore

The Atavist Magazine, No. 70

Jessica Hatcher-Moore is an award-winning journalist based in North Wales. Her work has appeared in The Guardian Long Read, Telegraph Magazine, Elle, The New Statesman, National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek. Prior to Wales, she lived in Nairobi. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Daniel Moattar
Photographs: Phil Hatcher-Moore (Mogadishu); courtesy of Bill Brookman (other locations)

Published in August 2017. Design updated in 2021.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

Sequined head scarves and dangling earrings shimmered as young people twisted and stomped to a hip-hop beat. The euphoric crowd’s dance floor was a decrepit basketball court ringed by painted concrete walls, their once bright tones muted by the relentless equatorial sun. One woman carried a large Somali flag—a sky blue background stamped with a single white star—that she waved in time to music emanating from the stage, or what passed for one: a corrugated metal canopy held up by wooden poles.

Rappers and singers performed sets, some in Somali, others in English. One musician taking his turn on the microphone gestured to a man controlling the venue’s hastily rigged sound system. Turn up the volume, was the mimed directive.

The sound guy demurred; he knew better. This was Mogadishu’s first public music show in 25 years, a milestone event that many people thought might never happen. The concert was already flirting with a blackout because of the Somali capital’s crumbling infrastructure, a consequence of civil war. Cranking the volume would risk overloading the system, which might grant the show’s enemies the cover of darkness.

Until a year and a half prior, Mogadishu had been largely controlled by the Islamist extremist group al-Shabaab, which made playing music punishable by flogging or even death. Al-Shabaab’s retreat had paved the way for the concert now taking place, an eclectic showcase of international and local artists who’d gathered to celebrate peace. But the extremists maintained a network of supporters who carried out suicide bombings and other targeted attacks. Concert organizers had received a barrage of death threats. For protection, they’d publicized the event like a flash mob, announcing the location only hours before the artists were scheduled to take the stage.

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One of these organizers stood out from the rest—the “old man,” as the fatigues-clad Somali security guards patrolling the venue called him. His name was Bill Brookman, and while reporting on the historic concert, I found myself following him closely because he was a curious, quixotic figure. He wasn’t an aid worker or a diplomat, and he certainly wasn’t a hip-hop artist. Brookman was a professional clown.

He was 57 and white, with a pink face drenched in sweat that plastered locks of curly gray hair to his forehead. Despite how the guards referred to him, he had a childlike demeanor, jocular and spontaneous. When he harangued one Somali guard for watching the concert and not the basketball court’s perimeter, he spoke English in a refined British accent, with the clipped diction and sonorous quality associated with boarding schools, fox hunting, and the Royal Ascot.

Brookman’s attire, however, was anything but proper. He wore black and white striped pants, bright red boots, an orange T-shirt with tasseled sleeves, and a green cravat embellished with silver charms. Black eyeliner had seeped into the creases beneath his eyes. In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticks, which he’d snuck through customs at Mogadishu’s airport—all the materials he would need to breathe fire.

In his hands were a plastic bottle of kerosene, a box of matches, and three Kevlar sticksall the materials he would need to breathe fire.

But where? He looked up at the concrete walls. They stood about ten feet high. If he climbed them, he’d be a sitting duck for a shooter. The show had been airing live on local television for two hours already; any half-decent jihadi, Brookman decided, would have identified the location and be on his way over, if not already lying in wait outside the venue. Brookman couldn’t very well breathe fire from the court, though. It wouldn’t have the same wondrous effect as if he were towering above the crowd. Drawing comfort from the weight of the flak jacket and helmet he wore over his kooky getup, Brookman prepared to climb.

“Bill!” a voice shouted from behind him. It was a local fixer who’d helped coordinate the concert. “No, Bill, you can’t go up in a helmet and jacket.”

“Why?” Brookman asked.

“It looks rude. It shows you don’t trust us.”

Reluctantly, Brookman took off the gear and handed it to the fixer. He took a draught of kerosene and held it in his mouth as he clambered atop the wall.

Mogadishu stretched out before him, its shattered buildings and curling coastline engulfed by the heavy night sky. Brookman lit his fire sticks, then filled his lungs to capacity and raised one of the torches toward the stars. The expulsion of kerosene and air that came from his mouth created a flaming tongue worthy of a dragon. For an instant all eyes were on Brookman, his exposed position illuminated by the fantastic burst of light.

Once upon a time, Brookman shared his talents—which along with breathing fire included pantomiming, accordion playing, juggling, and acrobatics—at local carnivals, weddings, and children’s birthday parties across England. What led him to Mogadishu more than three decades into his career was an idea so far-fetched that it just might be true: There are some things only clowns can do.

Clowning dates back to classical antiquity, when fools and similar characters were mainstays in theatrical comedies. The practice evolved through Italy’s commedia dell’arte, Shakespeare’s plays, the British harlequinade, and the modern circus. Humanitarian clowning, as Brookman’s business is known, puts the timeless, playful art to use in underserved or divided communities. The most famous practitioner is Patch Adams, who since 1971 has run the Gesundheit Institute, which sends volunteer performers to hospitals, schools, and slums around the world.

It would be easy to distill humanitarian clowns’ ethos down to a hackneyed idiom: Laughter is the best medicine. But their mission goes beyond that. They seek to build community bonds and convey civic messages. Often, to achieve those goals, they encourage audience participation.

If it sounds like bunk, there’s evidence that performance does work as a tool of social justice and conflict resolution. Allan Owens, a professor of drama education at the University of Chester, located near the border between England and Wales, told me that art and performance help people “make sense of things in difficult times and the passages that we go through.” Outside forces, including entertainment, also provide relief in tense environments. “Where relations get locked, it’s only by that third dynamic coming in that there can actually be some loosening,” Owens said.

In post-genocide Rwanda, theater became an important mode of commemorating the tragedy and aiding interethnic dialogue. One production staged by a public university presented different views on the genocide and invited audiences to intervene when they disagreed. Similar programs have been tested in fractured countries like Israel, El Salvador, and Bosnia.

Brookman once told me that “cultural baggage accrues around a lot of the art that is already” in a place, depending on who created it, who controls it, and who can access it. By contrast, clowning and its ancillary arts are neutral. “Circus skills are activities that are not tainted by anything—by class, creed, religion, politics, or history,” he said. “They’re completely fresh and open.”

Loughborough, England, 1978

“Do you, by any chance, play the one-man band?”

Brookman had recently graduated from university with a degree in fine arts, and he was interviewing at a theater company in Loughborough, a town in the British Midlands close to where he’d grown up—the son of a homemaker mother and engineer father. The company’s director had posed the question. In England, the tradition of the one-man band conforms roughly to Dick Van Dyke’s character Bert in Mary Poppins: an affable bloke weighed down by an array of brass instruments, a squeezebox, and a drum. Brookman could do many things, but playing the one-man band wasn’t among them.

“I do,” he answered anyway, trying to project confidence from beneath his thick mop of strawberry blond curls.

The director offered him the job. Brookman had two weeks to assemble a one-man band and learn to play it if he wanted to get away with the lie when he reported for work.

He approached an acquaintance, a loss adjuster for an insurance company who liked to make gadgets in his free time, and asked for help. The man spring-loaded a pair of hi-hat cymbals and rigged them to a colander that would serve as a hat. A string quoit worn around one arm attached to a bungee cord that, when pulled, caused the top cymbal to drop onto the lower one. A popular children’s television show at the time required participants to smash custard pies between cymbals, so Brookman made sure that his new headpiece was able to accommodate a pie, should the need to destroy one arise. The ensemble also had a cornet, an accordion, a banjo, a honker, and a wood-framed drum worn like a rucksack.

Once it was ready, Brookman set about learning to play the whole kit. “There’s a deflation of pomposity,” he recalled. “It honks, wheezes, buzzes.” He was good at it, though—so good that his homemade contraption took him well beyond the Loughborough theater company. It became his first ticket around the globe.

Brookman’s early career coincided with a wave of British entertainers who, fed up with the stuffy status quo of established galleries and theaters, turned to public spaces to stage their work. They embraced second-wave feminism, attended Ban the Bomb marches, and listened to the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. They performed cabarets and scrawled intricate graffiti on city walls. Brookman’s one-man band may have seemed quaint in comparison, associated more with working-class, postindustrial Great Britain than the punk scene. But he found a niche among the new artistic renegades—and audiences loved it. In the 1980s, he played gigs across his home country and as far away as Thailand, Russia, and the United States.

In 1988, Brookman was invited to perform at a festival in Asia. His departure coincided with the first-ever Red Nose Day, a biennial celebration in the United Kingdom when people are encouraged to wear a plastic clown nose and raise money, often by taking part in daft stunts, for an anti-poverty charity called Comic Relief. Brookman decided to break the world record for the longest distance anyone had ever worn a red nose. (In fact, there was no official record for the feat.) A photograph appeared in the Loughborough Echo, Brookman’s local newspaper, announcing his plan. “Plucky Bill intends to travel all the way to the sub-continent with his Comic Relief red nose on,” one article said. He was quoted as saying, “I give my word as a gentleman that I will not take the nose off during the trip.”

The BBC picked up the story, and a news crew followed Brookman as he clanked and honked in his one-man band onto his plane, a bulbous nose adorning his face. Its edges cut painfully into his nostrils, but he wore it for the duration of his journey to Delhi, where he disembarked for a long layover. Rather than sightsee, he put on an impromptu music show for children at a school for the blind.

When Brookman returned to Loughborough, he found an envelope waiting at the home he shared with his wife, an opera singer with whom he’d started a small theater company, and his two young sons. It was addressed in old-fashioned cursive. Inside was a letter and a check made out in his name from a woman he didn’t know. She’d apparently seen news coverage of his Red Nose Day stunt.

“I’ve heard about what you do. I think it’s wonderful. Have ten pounds,” the letter said.

Brookman opened a bank account and deposited the check. With the meager sum, the charitable Bill Brookman Foundation was born, with the mission to use the arts for social good.

His marriage ended not long after. Brookman’s travels kept him away from home, and his wife suspected infidelity—a charge he denied. On the day they separated, he walked out of the house carrying only a French horn and a plastic bag with jars of pasta sauce inside. The sauce was his wife’s suggestion; Brookman was a terrible cook, and she didn’t want him to starve before he got settled on his own.

Forlorn, Brookman tried to keep working. But when a job playing the one-man band and eating fire at a festival in Germany fell through, he faltered. “I couldn’t take the life of a freelancer,” he recalled. It was too grueling, too uncertain. He stopped performing and trained to become a teacher.

Before taking a permanent job, however, he decided to join a clowning tour to Russia organized by Patch Adams. Many volunteers on Adams’s trips were amateur performers, good-natured types willing to don costumes and makeup for humanitarian causes, so Brookman’s professional skills stood out. One day the group visited a Moscow hospital ward populated by young Chernobyl victims. Dressed like the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist—top hat, red waistcoat and tails, black trousers, and heavy boots—Brookman entered playing discordant notes on an accordion. He pretended to be as surprised by the sounds as the children were, with exaggerated facial expressions and abrupt body movements. Some of the youngsters giggled.

Brookman playing the one-man band. 
Brookman playing the one-man band. 

He approached a shy girl wary of the scene before her. Brookman took a notepad and pencil out of his pocket and, with a flourish, drew a circle on one of the pages. Then he passed the pad and pencil to the girl. With three careful movements, she added two dots and an arc inside the circle—eyes and a smiling mouth. Her own face broke into a grin.

Wonder and surprise of the sort written across the girl’s visage were what Brookman loved about clowning. Predictability, by contrast, was anathema to him. The more he thought about teaching, the more he knew that he wouldn’t be happy doing the same thing year in and year out. He threw himself into performing once more.

Brookman rarely said no to an opportunity for his company, which made money, or his foundation, which put on shows for free. In the 1990s, he taught circus skills to schoolchildren in New York State and clowned in hospitals in France. At home he ran juggling and maypole-dancing clubs and worked as a jack-of-all-trades: actor, puppeteer, musician. In 2002, his foundation took circus performers to Gujarat, India, where a devastating earthquake had killed some 20,000 people the previous year. Brookman packed his accordion and the accoutrements necessary to raise a maypole, which locals in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s largest city, would dance around and adorn with luminously colored fabrics.

Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris. His main inspiration was his maternal grandfather, Alfred Lancelot Wykes, a man he never met. During World War I, Wykes, whose family called him Lance, joined the Royal Flying Corps and flew a Sopwith Camel, a single-seat biplane that proved the most potent fighter craft in the Allies’ arsenal. After the war, Wykes set up a small factory in Thurmaston, Leicestershire, a village just over 100 miles northwest of London, where he produced planes for private use. When World War II began, the British needed a new surveillance aircraft, and Wykes’s model fit the bill. By 1945, his company had produced more than 1,600 planes, known as Austers.

Wykes didn’t live to see the end of the war, however. In 1944, as part of a military show, he flew an aircraft over a Leicestershire park in an aerobatic display. He executed a perfect loop-the-loop, until the point where he was meant to pull up. His wife and son watched as his plane came down like a javelin and burst into flames. His 14-year-old daughter, Brookman’s mother, who was away at boarding school, learned of her father’s death in a newspaper the next day.

Brookman didn’t take up humanitarian clowning for purely altruistic reasons. There were more complicated ones, rooted in family history and shaded with equal parts insecurity and hubris.

Wykes became the stuff of legend. His portrait hung above the staircase in Brookman’s grandmother’s large Victorian house: a short, stocky man with graying hair and kind features, dressed in a three-piece suit and clutching a pipe in one hand. Brookman, who was born in 1955, would climb into the dusty attic to play with Wykes’s medals and uniforms and the propeller of a Sopwith Camel, its wood blades smooth to the touch. In the dining room, a model of the same plane hung inside an inglenook fireplace. His grandmother would take Brookman into her arms and encourage him to blow so that the propeller would turn. The ritual was akin to praying at an altar. “It was symbolic of Lancelot, this man of untouchable honor,” Brookman told me. “That infiltrated my psyche. He was an utter hero to me.”

As a young man, alongside his artistic talents, Brookman nurtured a deep interest in war—one might even say he romanticized it. He devoured military-history books and films in his free time. A line from Lawrence of Arabia stuck with him: He remembered Prince Faisal, based on the real-life king of Greater Syria and Iraq, saying, “Young men make wars.… Then old men make the peace.” The generations of British men immediately preceding Brookman’s had fought in two world wars. He expected to be recruited if a third broke out. But that never happened. His youth passed with no supreme ordeal in which a man, in the old-fashioned sense of the word, could test his mettle and mortality.

So Brookman went looking for one, courting life-and-death scenarios other people were desperate to escape. By the time he started hopping from one international hot zone to another—Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Haiti—he was middle-aged. Making peace, not war, was his mission, and entertainment his favored weapon. All the while, the question of whether he was living up to the legend of Alfred Lancelot Wykes burned in the back of his mind.

Skenderaj, Kosovo, 2003

In 1998 and 1999, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo fought a brutal war against Slobodan Milosevic’s government. Kosovo freed itself from Belgrade’s political grip, but it also emerged from the conflict in a shambles. Much of its population was displaced or mired in poverty, ethnic tensions still roiled, and the government was in disarray. In 2003, Brookman booked a flight to Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. He wanted to help, though he didn’t know exactly how.

It was a rash, perhaps egocentric move to show up sight unseen with no real post-conflict experience and expect to do some good. He risked everything from stepping on one of the land mines littering Kosovo to burdening already-taxed aid workers. Brookman, though, didn’t ignore impulses; if he had one, he acted on it, for better or for worse.

Brookman devised a loose idea of what he wanted to achieve, gleaned from a military history of World War II. In his recollection, the book described how the Soviet army marked the war’s end in Leningrad with a dramatic display of unused signal flares. The soldiers were celebrating victory but also honoring the unfathomable loss of some two million civilians and soldiers in the city. Brookman wanted to create something similar in Kosovo—a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

He hoped that small-town connections would help him more than 1,200 miles away from home. The UN had a mission in Kosovo, and a man named Robert Charmbury who’d once worked in Nottinghamshire, not far from Loughborough, was the top representative for the international organization in Skenderaj, a poor municipality. Brookman had never spoken to Charmbury; if he sent a note in advance of his arrival—neither man could recall—it was only to say, I’m coming.

Skenderaj had served as a base for prominent members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and sustained enormous damage in the war. Afterward, a senior KLA commander, Sami Lushtaku, became mayor, a position he held even as he came under investigation for war crimes. (He was convicted and sentenced to prison, but later acquitted.) Skenderaj was gray and rainy when Brookman arrived, and he found Charmbury’s office in a shabby municipal building. A UN flag sat on the desk, which Charmbury would sometimes desert to play Ping-Pong with colleagues.

Brookman wanted to create a public spectacle that inspired collective awe and wonder. It has to be big, he thought, to make you look upward, to make you sigh.

Brookman got lucky; Charmbury didn’t find him rude or presumptuous. The UN official perched on his desk and listened to his guest’s idea: a multiethnic, weekend-long music and theater festival celebrating peace. Charmbury’s work brokering with local leaders to tackle grim privation was slowgoing and not always rewarding. Attempts at more lively initiatives hadn’t panned out. A two-day Mr. and Miss Skenderaj competition, for instance, had been canceled on the first night because of a power outage and on the second because of a bomb scare. “Bill offered a chance to do something special and memorable to cheer the local people,” Charmbury recently wrote in an email. Whether inspired, desperate, or some combination of the two, he agreed to the festival.

“I’m going to need a stage,” Brookman replied. Charmbury said the UN could help with that.

“There’s one other thing,” Brookman continued. “I would love to do something with aerialists.” Like in Leningrad, he wanted people gazing skyward. He’d researched the possibility of getting an aerial rig shipped over from Great Britain, but the cost and logistics weren’t looking good. “I don’t suppose you have any ideas?” Brookman asked. Charmbury said that he could probably sanction the use of a UN crane.

Brookman returned home and began putting together a show. He placed an ad in The Guardian calling for volunteers to join a circus trip to Kosovo. A trapeze artist signed on, as did a member of a Loughborough juggling club and one of Brookman’s sons. Back in Kosovo, a NATO-led peacekeeping force provided floodlights, and native Albanian bands agreed to perform.

The festival was scheduled for July 2003. With the appointed weekend days away, performers arrived in Skenderaj from London. They cobbled together stilts from any material they could find, erected a stage, and practiced the aerial show, which the trapeze artist would perform suspended from the UN crane. Brookman promoted the event in radio and newspaper interviews and walking tours through villages and towns. He carried placards and occasionally stopped to eat fire from Kevlar sticks in front of astonished onlookers.

On the first day of the festival, a few hundred curious locals showed up in Skenderaj’s main square. The first performers took the stage before a huge banner emblazoned with the word “United.” As bands, dancers, and other artists cycled through their performances, the audience grew. Brookman queued up and directed the performers, sometimes running on stage to execute a stunt or pantomime. By evening, when the aerial show was scheduled, more than 1,000 people packed the square. Suspended from the crane by a cord attached to his feet, the trapeze artist swung high into the dusky sky. Then he dropped down and scooped up a young boy from where he stood in the square clutching a candle. The move had been rehearsed at length, though the audience didn’t know it. Holding the boy close, the aerialist soared back up, eliciting screams and applause.

The morning after the festival ended, Brookman walked alone past the dismantled stage, then drifted around town. He noticed a house with walls pockmarked by bullet holes. It was the site of a massacre, a passerby said. Brookman fingered the scarred plaster. Then he ordered coffee at a café that offered a view of a field leading to the Klina River. As he looked out at the expanse, a pack of dogs stormed past, as if on a hunt. “Like headless horsemen,” Brookman recalled. Pets abandoned in the war coursed through the city in search of food.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, 2005

Two years after Sierra Leone’s devastating civil war ended, Brookman was sitting at home with his teenage sons watching the news when a segment about the country’s amputees aired. Hacking off appendages, the reporter said, was the signature atrocity of the 11-year conflict, fought between a corrupt, unpopular regime and unscrupulous, foreign-backed rebels. Some 20,000 civilians, many of them children, were missing arms, legs, lips, ears, or other body parts. Harrowing images of mutilated infants and teenagers filled the screen.

Like any normal person, Brookman was shocked. But a much odder notion popped into his brain, too: Surely a kid with no hands could still learn circus skills. Helping young amputees develop physical talents could rebuild the self-confidence lost along with their limbs. Brookman decided to test the idea on his sons and other children whom he coached in performance at a local community center.

All he needed was a diabolo—a free-running yo-yo shaped like an egg timer that can be spun, hurled into the air, and caught again on a string—a stick on which to balance a spinning plate, a pair of stilts, and some rope. With the rope, Brookman bound one boy’s bent arms so they ended at the elbows. To each truncated limb he tied the diabolo’s string. To another boy’s right arm, which was also tied up, he fastened the stick for the spinning plate. Brookman then challenged them to do tricks. After some trial and error, the boys were using the gear with ease.

Next, Brookman asked them to sit on the floor and bend their legs at the knees. He attached stilts to the joints and told them to try walking. They wobbled at first but gradually found their balance. This is going to work, Brookman thought.

Rather than just showing up in Sierra Leone, as he had in Kosovo, Brookman got in touch with the Single Leg Amputee Sports Association in Freetown, the capital. The organization sponsored soccer matches and other sporting events for people disabled in the conflict, and it agreed to meet with Brookman. In January 2005, carrying suitcases full of juggling balls, plates, and diabolos, he flew to Freetown.

Before leaving, Brookman wrote down the hymns he wanted sung at his funeral and gave the list to his assistant, Sally Renshaw, for safekeeping. Sierra Leone was more dangerous than Kosovo had been—armed gangs operated with impunity—and Brookman was preparing for the worst. He chose “When a Knight Won His Spurs” and “To Be a Pilgrim,” classic British songs about gallantry and faith. The latter has been used as a battle hymn by Great Britain’s special forces.

 He who would valiant be           
‘Gainst all disaster,           
Let him in constancy           
Follow the Master.           
There’s no discouragement           
Shall make him once relent           
His first avowed intent           
To be a pilgrim.

At a glance, it might have seemed that Brookman was seizing the tedious mantle of the prototypical white savior headed to Africa to make a difference and, if necessary, become a martyr. But melodrama in the service of others was Brookman’s business—his life’s work. He was prone to hyperbole whenever he spoke and often prefaced statements in our conversations with, “Now, this will sound awful, but.…” He recognized his penchant for self-aggrandizement, even as he barreled right into it. The choice of hymns was no different.

In Sierra Leone, Brookman visited schools and explained his idea of teaching circus skills to children. He was surprised to see only a handful of amputees. He asked if there were others. Without proper medical care, he learned, most had already died. Ultimately, Brookman would teach a young man missing one leg to hold a flaming torch in his hands as an aerial rig hoisted him up. Another man with no lower arms learned to balance a spinning plate on a long stick tied to one of his biceps. To have a bigger impact, Brookman was going to need a different project—and a team of locals to pull it off.

Pantomime of a gun misfiring.

One day he was having lunch at an outdoor café when he noticed that another customer, also a foreigner, was sitting alone. The man’s jeep was parked nearby, branded with a UN logo and the words “Arms for Development.” In typically forward fashion, Brookman approached the customer, a dark-haired French Canadian in his mid-thirties, and took a seat in a plastic chair at his table. Later, Brookman would describe the moment as if it were fated.

The man’s name was Daniel Ladouceur, and he was working on a new disarmament strategy for the United Nations Development Programme. Despite a government campaign to collect everything from anti-aircraft battery to AK-47’s to rocket-propelled grenades, there was still a lot of weaponry floating around Sierra Leone, particularly small arms and ammunition. Ladouceur’s job was to persuade communities to hand over guns in exchange for UN-funded development projects worth up to $20,000 apiece. So far it wasn’t going well. Ladouceur could see that distributing leaflets and posting placards wouldn’t advance the campaign. He was looking for a more creative, radical approach.

“What are you doing?” he asked Brookman.

“I’m doing circus skills,” Brookman replied, explaining his work.

“Have you got any ideas that could help us?” Ladouceur asked. “Anything you could do to get people interested in handing in their arms?”

Brookman took the question seriously. He scanned the ground until he spotted a few stones. He picked up three. “Let’s say I’m juggling hand grenades,” he said, giving Ladouceur a running commentary of the pantomime. “It goes wrong”—he let one stone land on his head—“and ow!” Brookman shrieked. “But let’s say I have a UN helmet on, and the stone lands in the hat. Then it’s safe.” He pretended to take off a helmet, flip it over, and use it to catch the stone. “People must give the grenades to the UN, else they’ll get burned,” Brookman continued.

Then Brookman pulled a honker from his canvas bag. It was an old-fashioned brass car horn with a large rubber bulb attached to one end. “You could go like this,” he said, drawing the horn up to his shoulder as if it were a rifle, arranging his face into a grimace, and squeezing the bulb—honk—as he mimed taking a shot. “And then this,” he said, aiming the honker but squeezing the bulb such that no sound came out. With a puzzled expression, Brookman flipped the honker around and peered into the imaginary barrel. As he did, he produced another honk, imitating a gun misfiring into his face. “Or how about you fashion a gun out of a balloon,” Brookman said, pretending to eye a target from behind a chair, “but you have a pin hidden in your lapel, so that when you take aim, the balloon blows up in your face.” He reeled his body back in mock pain.

“I suppose something like that could work,” he said more quietly, his muscles relaxing as the adrenaline drained away.

Ladouceur was intrigued. He knew of one-off, didactic plays staged to encourage disarmament, but Brookman’s sketches were simple, engaging, and replicable. “I had a feeling that this was a crazy idea,” Ladouceur told me, “but then the crazier the better, I felt.” He asked Brookman if he’d consider working for the UN, and Brookman said yes. It was exactly the sort of opportunity he’d been hoping to find.

In Sierra Leone with a cache of weapons.

To deploy the pantomimes, which Brookman refined and scripted, the two men envisaged a traveling troupe of performers. Brookman’s job was to recruit a local person to lead it. He short-listed six candidates who responded to a newspaper ad, then selected Albert Massaquoi, an actor who spoke three local languages as well as English. After Massaquoi learned to juggle, twist gun-shaped balloons, and lead discussions on disarmament, he and Brookman drove to remote villages to test his new skills.

Brookman documented the trip, during which Massaquoi performed in town squares and forest clearings, in a report that was nothing like the usual UN fare, full of Orwellian doublespeak and impenetrable syntax. Brookman’s account was candid, colorful, and written in the third person to mildly comic effect. “Bill is concerned that some drivers drive insensitively up-country,” he wrote, describing the UN employees who ferried him and Massaquoi. “Pedestrians are covered in dust or splashed and raced past in villages. Some of this is unavoidable. But to see a considerate driver in action shows it can be done.”

After the successful trial, Massaquoi recruited other performers. They took off like a traveling circus, turning up in more than 300 locations nationwide in an old bright yellow Land Cruiser. They collected any weapons communities were willing to give up. According to Ladouceur, they gathered more than 1,000 arms, including semi-automatics, hunting rifles, and chakabulas, crude, locally made guns. Finally, Brookman’s clowning was proving effective in the way he’d always hoped it would.

When Ladouceur was reassigned to Haiti, where the UN was struggling to contain urban guerrilla warfare, he asked Brookman to come. The clown was game.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 200

Brookman’s flight to Haiti was a bubble of serenity that burst as soon as he disembarked in Port-au-Prince, with its thick dust and exhaust fumes, blaring music and car horns. From the window of a taxi, Brookman spotted a dead body. At the Hotel Oloffson, a gingerbread-style Gothic mansion and an inspiration for Graham Greene’s 1966 novel The Comedians, foreign aid workers spilled onto shaded terraces overlooking lush, tropical gardens. Theirs was a rarefied club. When the guests went to bed, singing from nearby streets continued through the night, haunting four-part harmonies that drifted through Brookman’s open shutters. Occasional bursts of gunfire broke the melodic reverie.

The sounds represented what Brookman had come to do in Port-au-Prince’s bidonvilles, or slums: alleviate violence through music and art. Of particular concern was Cité Soleil, a shantytown of almost 300,000 people. Numerous gangs vied for control of the streets, killing their enemies and terrorizing civilians. Neither Haiti’s government, in chaos after a coup d’état, nor the police were up to the task of flushing them out. A UN peacekeeping force had arrived in 2004, but it wasn’t able to penetrate the compact neighborhood of flimsy buildings leaning together and overlapping like rooms in a house of cards. Whenever soldiers went in, gunfire from the gangs drove them back out. Several peacekeepers had been killed.

Desmond Molloy, an Irishman and former military officer working for the UN, was tasked with figuring out how to disarm the gangs—composed largely of young men, including many children—and help members transition into civilian society. It felt like an “impossible” job, Molloy told me, and it nearly broke him. The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields. On average, Molloy noted at the time, five kidnappings were reported in Cité Soleil every day. His team once met with more than 30 children who belonged to gangs, to discuss alternative ways of life. Within three weeks, Molloy heard that gang bosses had executed at least five for conspiring with the UN.

The gangs had tens of thousands of weapons in their possession. They used women and children as human shields.

Distressed, Molloy contacted Ladouceur, whom he’d worked with in Sierra Leone, and begged him to come to Haiti. The two men drafted a plan to adapt traditional disarmament strategies to a place verging on anarchy. But during a presentation of their ideas, flicking through PowerPoint slides, Molloy abruptly told the room full of UN officials, “I have to stop.” Haiti was in conflict, even if a proper war wasn’t raging. There was no peace agreement signaling any side’s willingness to disarm. Conventional UN solutions wouldn’t work.

Certain that he would be sacked from his job, Molloy was surprised when his boss allowed him and Ladouceur to come up with a new strategy—if they could do it in two days. Molloy and Ladouceur devised what they called community violence reduction, which they were soon allowed to implement. The plan prioritized the well-being of populations affected by gangs by helping people exit the organizations and supporting nonviolent culture in places like Cité Soleil. With no clear way of convincing gang leaders to gather at a negotiating table, Molloy and Ladouceur decided to approach them individually, using Haiti’s vibrant arts scene as a channel. Music was a language the gangsters understood; rap kreyòl, as Haitian hip-hop is known, was born of social discontent.

The UN, though, had a legitimacy problem. Nervous peacekeeping soldiers who were supposed to be protecting civilians rarely got out of their tanks. In January 2006, gangs had shot two of them dead—the third fatal incident affecting UN personnel in under a month. For community violence reduction to work, Ladouceur and Molloy needed outside help.

Brookman was the man for the job. Ladouceur asked him to set up an ostensibly independent organization—it was fully funded by the UN—through which local performers would tour parts of bidonvilles that peacekeepers couldn’t reach. Some Haitian officials were skeptical. “What are you doing bringing in foreigners to run carnival for us?” one asked when he heard the news. “You think you need to teach Haitians how to do carnival?” (The country’s weeks-long celebration leading up to Mardi Gras is legendary.)

Heeding the lessons of Sierra Leone, however, Brookman planned to draft Haitian entertainers and collaborate with them. After his first night at the Hotel Oloffson, Brookman got to work. Through newspaper ads and word of mouth, he found young, street-savvy performers who seemed capable of navigating both chords and conflict. Jerôme Jacques, a stocky, gregarious Haitian with an easy laugh and a beautiful singing voice, was chosen as the troupe’s front man. He and the other performers made bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the initiative’s name, Caravane de la Paix (Caravan of Peace). They removed the telltale blue logos from the UN vehicles they’d be using and painted the sides with murals inspired by voodoo art. Brookman taught them circus skills, including how to toss a diabolo that had been set on fire.

The caravan set their sights on Cité Soleil, which the UN was eager to access by any means possible. Each gang controlled a parcel of the slum; to secure a location for a show, the caravan would need approval from the relevant gang boss. Jacques decided to drive in to request a meeting with Amaral Duclona, a powerful leader who held sway over an area of the slum known as Bélécou. Among the most feared men in Port-au-Prince, Duclona was suspected of being connected to the murders of several foreigners. Yet Jacques had heard that he was surprisingly approachable and interested in development that might benefit Cité Soleil.

Haitian performers pose with caravan vehicles. 

On the road into Bélécou, Jacques and three other caravan members who’d agreed to join him were stopped and questioned several times. Once they arrived, about 30 young men blocked their path. Jacques asked where Duclona was. A cluster went looking for their boss while the rest stayed behind to watch the uninvited guests. Fifteen minutes later, a polished blue Honda convertible arrived and produced Duclona, a tall, heavyset man with a buzz cut and a silver chain around his thick neck. He and several armed men disappeared into a nearby building. Duclona found a room with a desk, where he sat with his guards flanking him, like a lord holding court. Only then was Jacques allowed an audience.

“We are working to promote the culture of peace,” Jacques told Duclona. “The whole community honors you as their leader, a great leader, a leader who exudes extraordinary sensitivity toward the people of the Cité.” But those people, Jacques continued, weren’t happy with the status quo of poverty and violence. He asked Duclona’s permission to bring the caravan into Bélécou to engage residents in music and performance.

The gang leader responded by comparing life in Cité Soleil to being in a prison. “The population lives in fear,” Jacques remembered him saying. Duclona also complained about the unearned reputation that slum residents had throughout Port-au-Prince. “People living in this area cannot move with ease around other parts of the capital,” he said. “Men and women, all are considered killers.”

He agreed to let the caravan come, with one stipulation: Jacques also had to get permission from Duclona’s brother-in-law, Évens Jeune—known as Ti Kouto (Little Knife)—a gang leader who controlled a neighboring area known as Boston. The two bosses had made a pact to prohibit public leisure activities as a method of controlling their communities, so Duclona couldn’t agree to the caravan’s request on his own.

Jacques drove with two of Duclona’s men to Ti Kouto’s house, all brick and glass with modern plumbing, air-conditioning, and a driveway in which new cars and motorbikes were parked. When he heard the pitch, Ti Kouto gave his agreement. Jacques left the slum and reported back to Brookman, anxiously awaiting news of the reconnaissance trip, that the caravan’s work was a go.

Two days later, the team loaded into its vehicles and set off for Place Immaculé, a square in Boston. Brookman trusted and admired his Haitian colleagues. He also felt responsible for them; he knew that they were risking their lives because he’d asked them to. But if something went wrong in the slum, there would be little he could do to protect them or himself.

The ride was rough. Gangs had dug trenches on either side of the road; known as “tank traps,” they made it nearly impossible for armored vehicles to pass. When the troupe finally arrived at Place Immaculé, the members cautiously spilled out wearing their orange shirts. Armed men loyal to Ti Kouto emerged from narrow alleyways. They’d been sent to provide protection.

The caravan split into two groups. One managed the curious crowd that had begun to gather. The other, led by Brookman, set up for the show. Every half-hour, Brookman sent a text message to a UN contact so that the official could monitor the caravan’s progress. He was walking a fine line; if Ti Kouto found out the troupe wasn’t a wholly neutral party, as it had been presented to him when Jacques first visited Boston, the caravan could be run out of the slum, even attacked.

Brookman kicked the show off with his accordion, pulsing the instrument’s keys and pushing and stretching its bellows. Several gunshots rang out close by, presumably a warning to the caravan from gangs hostile to Duclona and Ti Kouto’s. The band looked to Brookman for guidance and saw him play on. So they did, too. Later they learned that Brookman hadn’t heard the shots: The accordion is a strident instrument, and he already had hearing loss from years spent cocking his head toward it, the rasping notes blaring into his ear canal.

Jacques and another vocalist took up two microphones. Their first song, a catchy rock tune, beseeched the crowd to lay down their weapons, which the lyrics called “a great burden.” Women clustered near the troupe, with green and yellow buckets bearing laundry, food, and water balanced on their heads. They laughed and swayed to the music. Eventually men joined in, and as the crowd started to cheer, the band’s confidence grew.

Then the audience parted, making way for a lean, muscular man with tattoos and silver hoop earrings. Brookman’s heart fluttered; he wondered if the man was going to shut the show down—or worse. Instead, the man took one of the microphones and began to rap. When he finished, another man, this one skinny, wearing bleached dreadlocks and a leopard-print shirt, jumped in to replace him. The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

The caravan, Brookman realized, was engaged in an unprecedented musical dialogue with some of the most wanted men in Haiti.

At one point, he set down his accordion, picked up a small camera he’d brought with him, and gingerly took a photograph. Rather than get angry, the man in the leopard-print shirt exaggerated his performance gestures. Over the course of the afternoon, keen to document the caravan’s first success, Brookman took more photos of gang members, most of whom had elaborately tattooed arms.

When the troupe finished performing, members distributed T-shirts to the crowd, Brookman said a few words—translated by a local priest—about music being a common language, and the caravan packed up and left. That evening, Ladouceur asked how the show had gone. Brookman played down the fact that, in a matter of hours, the caravan had been able to get into a place the UN had been trying to access for months. “I met the gangs. I performed with them. Oh, and I got pictures of them all,” Brookman said matter-of-factly. “We were not expecting him to go that strong,” Ladouceur later admitted with a chuckle.

After that, Brookman moved in and out of Port-au-Prince’s most violent areas. Embracing the local rara street-festival tradition, he bought a number of bamboo trumpets, known as vaksen, that the caravan incorporated into its repertoire. Jacques continued to meet with gang leaders, explaining that the troupe could be trusted and asking for their blessing on the performances. Ever conscious of the abduction risk, Brookman and his team sketched a map on a translucent piece of paper that, when aligned with a satellite image of Cité Soleil, detailed the locations of gangsters’ houses and hideouts, the tank traps, and the safest roads. The caravan didn’t take it into the slum. The plan was to use the map as a bargaining chip: If a gang kidnapped one of the troupe members, the rest would threaten to give the map to UN soldiers unless their colleague was freed.

The idea was typical Brookman—madcap, but with a certain degree of logic. It also revealed that he was wrestling with his loyalties. He was dedicated to the UN, which he saw as a force for good in the world. To what extent should he be concerned with fidelity to his target audience, including hardened criminals? In Sierra Leone, the two sides had aligned more naturally, thanks to the civil war being over. In Haiti, they were foes.

With UN troops.

Complicating the dilemma was an August 2006 ultimatum issued to the gangs by then president René Préval: Surrender or die. This put UN negotiators like Molloy and Ladouceur in the difficult position of managing a peaceful disarmament process as the specter of a joint UN-Haiti military action loomed. Their team operated alongside peacekeepers with the common goal of overtaking the slums, but the groups had different mandates and often employed clashing methods. If an offensive were to start, as Molloy put it, “Our game is up.” At best the disarmament team’s work could forestall that moment, but privately its leaders held out little hope that would happen.

Still, they asked Brookman to do more—“because he was able to reach places and talk to people that nobody else was able to,” Ladouceur explained. The caravan began to encourage gang leaders to release its rank-and-file members for demobilization, a formal process wherein the young men would leave the slums and, in a UN facility, receive support and education in order to return to civilian life. Jacques again took the lead in negotiations. It was painstaking work, with little progress. Once, after a three-hour meeting, the leaders of a gang known as Base Egaré (Lost Base) told Jacques that they had no reason to trust that demobilization wasn’t a trick. Over the course of the fall, gang leaders agreed to hand over about 100 men to the UN. At the demobilization facility, Brookman helped them record music in which they articulated their grievances and expressed their desire for a new life.

In a matter of months, however, many of them would be dead.

One Friday in February 2007, Brookman received a phone call from Molloy. “Why don’t you come along and spend the weekend up at my place?” the UN official asked. He lived in a cool, leafy home atop a winding escarpment road some ten miles outside Port-au-Prince. Brookman agreed. “Where is the rest of the group—Cité Soleil?” Molloy asked casually. Brookman said his team was in a different city for a few days. (They had started performing regularly outside the capital.) “Fine,” Molloy replied. “Come and stay. Let’s meet for lunch tomorrow, then we’ll drive up to my place.”

During lunch, while Brookman ate pizza and drank a glass of wine, Molloy’s cell phone rang. Brookman listened to his boss’s side of the call, gleaning from the snippets of conversation that a complex military operation was under way somewhere in Port-au-Prince. Calls kept coming in that afternoon as the pair drove to Molloy’s home and after they’d arrived.

Curiosity morphed into disbelief as Brookman learned where the offensive was happening. “Got an op going down in Cité Soleil. They’re taking them,” Molloy said, referring to the gangs. Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships. In fact, the primary target was Ti Kouto, whom the head of the UN mission described to The Washington Post in its coverage of the operation as a “psychopath.” (Ti Kouto would manage to escape and flee south of the capital.) Molloy had known about the incursion in advance; it’s why he’d invited Brookman to his home, to ensure his safety. But the decision to move against the gangs hadn’t been his, he explained.

Some 700 UN troops were going after the groups with which the caravan had spent months building relationships.

Brookman understood. He’d been a UN contractor long enough to grasp the nuances of the unwieldy organization’s component parts, and he didn’t begrudge his boss’s position. Still, he was worried. He wondered if he would be taken for a spy, or if the rest of the caravan would. He was relieved that no hostage situation had ever prompted him to use his map. But he knew that if a gang leader wanted revenge on his enemies, even perceived ones, he would take it. When Brookman learned that more than 20 of the young men he’d worked with at the demobilization facility had died after returning to Cité Soleil, some specifically to fight the UN troops, he felt helpless.

He spent the weekend at Molloy’s, anxious and drinking heavily. When he left to rejoin the caravan, Brookman knew that the troupe would have to start from scratch to rebuild trust in the slum. More than ever, it would need to be careful to hide its UN affiliation.

But Brookman never went to Cité Soleil again. The Haitian government had asked to take over the caravan’s operations, so he spent his last few weeks in Port-au-Prince coordinating the transition. He grew increasingly neurotic, telling drivers to turn off the road if his car came close to a UN vehicle, lest a disgruntled gang member associate him with the men who’d invaded Cité Soleil.

When he boarded a flight out of Haiti, police escorted a handcuffed man onto the plane. Brookman craned his neck to see if he recognized the tattoos on his arms. Unable to make them out, he shrank into his seat. He could never get comfortable.

Loughborough, England, 2007

Brookman’s friends were worried about him. After he returned from Haiti, one of his foundation’s board members saw him hurl a piece of circus equipment in what seemed to be a moment of anger. Renshaw, his assistant, thought he looked drained. Brookman admitted that he sometimes thought he heard gunshots that weren’t actually there. When people suggested that he see a therapist because he might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Brookman acquiesced, though he was skeptical. What do you do apart from talk? he thought.

Then again, he had things he wanted to talk about—Haiti, and much more. 

His therapist, a woman in her fifties, worked in a sparsely furnished room in a converted farmhouse. Sitting across from her, Brookman confessed that he had an obsession with death, particularly the untimely demises of great men. Did she know that the composer Henry Purcell had died at 26? Alexander the Great at 36? There was also his grandfather who’d died in front of a crowd. After first mentioning him, Brookman kept talking about Lancelot Wykes. His grandfather’s ghost was always there, almost on his shoulder, Brookman said.

Performing at a festival in Britain.

The therapist told him that he was pursuing an impossible goal. Brookman felt he had to live up to his grandfather’s legacy in order to prove himself to his family, particularly his mother and grandmother. “You’ll never, as a human being alive now, equal a mythical character who’s dead,” the therapist said. As for his unusual knowledge of the age at which men died, she suggested that Brookman was desperate to achieve as much as he could as quickly as possible, in case his own life suddenly ended.

For all the light therapy shed, it did little to temper Brookman’s appetite for risk. “If somebody gives me a project, I just get excited. I get a rush of blood,” he told me. And Renshaw had been Brookman’s assistant long enough—on and off for 11 years—to know that when Ladouceur got in touch, “something international was afoot.”

When Ladouceur phoned one day in 2009, it was about East Africa. He wanted Brookman to visit Somalia, which was languishing without a functioning government. An African Union peacekeeping force was there, but al-Shabaab was on the rise, particularly in the south. In areas the extremists controlled, which would eventually include swaths of Mogadishu, they banned music, cigarettes, sports, gold teeth, bras, movies, the internet, and dancing. Women were forced to wear heavy black robes and were forbidden from working in public. People suspected of spying on behalf of the UN or any other enemy of al-Shabaab were executed, often in public.

Ladouceur wanted Brookman to go to the north, where two autonomous regions—Somaliland and Puntland—were relatively stable, despite rampant piracy and kidnapping. The UN was eager to stem the tide of extremism from rolling in. This wouldn’t be like Haiti; Brookman would be working with people who weren’t armed, encouraging them not to become so, rather than ingratiating himself with fighters against whom the UN might later decide to take a different tack.

He packed his bags.

Over the next four years, Brookman took several trips to Somaliland and Puntland. He rolled around in a tangerine-colored bus with local performers, staging shows that targeted young people, encouraging them to disavow violence. The threat of religious zealots loomed, and there were near misses: bomb attacks on roads the bus took, an accidental detour ten miles into an active minefield before anyone realized and the group had to anxiously backtrack. Many seasoned aid professionals and conflict journalists tone down their tales of closely averted disaster. Getting into trouble often means you’ve messed up and put other people in danger; drawing attention to fiascos as derring-do can be viewed as a mark of inexperience. Brookman, however, never self-censored. He told me stories in full color, with unabashed enthusiasm and, at times, vanity peppered with embellishment. He was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

Brookman was first and foremost a performer who saw life and the retelling of it as the ultimate theatrical production.

When Brookman got home from what was supposed to be his last trip, in late 2012, he sat with Renshaw in the garden of his home. He was spent. “I need to stop now,” he told his assistant. “I need a break.”

Not long after, Ladouceur called. He had another mission to Somalia in mind, this one to Mogadishu, where battles with international forces had cost al-Shabaab key positions; the militants had shifted to a strategy that prioritized car bombs, grenade attacks, and suicide vests over territorial control in the capital. Mogadishu wasn’t safe, but the worst was over. What better way to show it than a public concert to signal that al-Shabaab no longer held sway over the city, its culture, and its inhabitants?

Bloody hell, Brookman thought, I’m going to do another one.

He got off the phone and found Renshaw’s eyebrows furrowed in concern.

“Are you going to say yes?”

Brookman looked apologetic. “I have done so already,” he answered.

Mogadishu, Somalia, 2013

The Reconciliation Music Festival, as the planned event was called, had two enemies. First were the militants, and second was the national government that had formed in the wake of al-Shabaab’s retreat. While they weren’t members of the extremist group, many politicians were still hard-line conservative Muslims. A show featuring singing, dancing, unveiled female artists, and other religiously forbidden activities was frowned upon. “It is not possible to do music in Mogadishu,” an official told Brookman and two other festival organizers when they paid an exploratory visit to the city in January 2013.

On the same trip, the visitors went to Afgoye, a town reclaimed from al-Shabaab less than a year before. The terrorists were making their continued, if fractured, presence felt with regular attacks. As Brookman and his co-organizers were looking around the town, their security guards abruptly bundled them into waiting vehicles and ushered them back to Mogadishu as fast as the bumpy roads would allow. They were told that forces in Afgoye had arrested two or three armed al-Shabaab sympathizers suspected of planning an attack on the visitors.

The concert clearly needed local security support. That’s where the contacts and experience of Shiine Akhyaar Ali came in.

A trailblazing Somali rapper known to his fans only by his first name, Shiine was the festival’s mastermind. In the early nineties, when he was a child, extremists had killed two of his brothers and driven the rest of his family out of Somalia on foot. They traveled across semi-arid desert and eventually settled 700 miles away in Nairobi. Shiine learned to read and write, and he began to compose and perform poetry as a teenager. In 2004, when he was in his early twenties, he and several other Somali exiles formed a creative collective called Waayaha Cusub (New Era). The group recorded hip-hop albums that it performed live across Kenya and in other parts of East Africa; many of the songs promoted nonviolence and tolerance, and some called out the enemy by name. “Who is behind this trail of destruction? Al-Shabaab,” one notable track asserts.

Playing with fire.

By 2006, Waayaha Cusub had caught the Islamists’ attention. When one of the members, Zakaraia Ciro, traveled to Somalia to visit his dying mother, he was kidnapped and murdered. His dead body surfaced in a river, after which three of his bandmates quit in fear. Even in Nairobi the group wasn’t safe; men loyal to al-Shabaab lived among the Kenyan capital’s large Somali population. A street attack left a female member with a gash down the center of her face. In 2007, armed men broke into Shiine’s apartment one night. He managed to grab and break the light fixture on the ceiling of his bedroom, plunging the space into darkness. The men pinned him down and fired several rounds, only two of which hit home. The attackers left him for dead, blood pumping from an exit wound and a bullet lodged in his stomach. Shiine survived—and kept performing.

Brookman and Shiine met for the first time in 2009, when Brookman was traveling to northern Somalia by way of Nairobi. Shiine, who was garnering a reputation among admirers as a cross between Kanye West and Gandhi, wanted to bring live music back to Somalia and use it to promote peace. He and Brookman talked over coffee at a hotel, where they took an instant liking to each other. Brookman found Shiine, then just 26 and soft-spoken, with a square, boyish face and curly hair, to be confident and mature. Shiine liked Brookman’s humanitarian-cum-artistic work and came to see him as “a friend of the Somali people,” the rapper told me.

Four years later, the idea they’d discussed was finally happening. The UN had signed on as a funder Waayaha Cusub would headline, with an array of global musicians performing sets, including Afghan-American folk singer Ariana Delawari, Filipino reggae artist Jahm-Eye, Kenyan soul band Afro Simba, and Sudanese singer Alsarah with her band the Nubatones. There would be a series of six shows over the course of a week, leading up to one large concert that would be broadcast live on local television. Brookman’s job was to manage UN financing, but he also wanted to stage one of his aerial acrobatic shows and breathe fire during the performances.

To counter government opposition, Shiine went looking for allies. He knew there were no security measures, however large or costly, that could guarantee the event’s safety. “Mogadishu life is knowing that one day you’ll get bombed and you’ll die,” he told me at the time. “People are dying everywhere. The people around them are sitting drinking coffee. That’s the normal.” Yet he placed faith in the hands of two liberals inside Somalia’s intelligence apparatus: Ahmed Moalim Fiqi, the national chief, and Khalif Ahmed Ilig, district chief for Mogadishu. Both men promised to do everything in their power to protect the musicians.

In early March 2013, Brookman landed for the second time that year at Mogadishu’s airport, where the model and caliber of weapons one was traveling with were standard fields on immigration forms. Along with his fire sticks, Brookman smuggled in money, concealed about his person, to pay festival contractors. “I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!” he told me. Six armed guards picked him up in a truck, which then transported him at breakneck speed, guns sticking out at odd angles like the quills of an unkempt porcupine, through the streets of Mogadishu. At the City Palace Hotel, a low-lying compound with a quadrangle where guests on plastic chairs drank milky coffee or thick mango juice, Brookman underwent a rigorous security check: body scan, bag scan, extensive pat down. He was introduced to the local police commander in charge of his security detail. A tubby, goofy-looking man with a mouthful of gold teeth, the officer didn’t inspire confidence.

But Brookman had other things to worry about. The stage that the producer had arranged to be shipped in for the concert was missing, probably on a boat somewhere between Mombasa, Kenya, and Mogadishu’s port. The sound and lighting gear they’d ordered were also missing in action, as was a satellite dish rumored to be en route from Dubai. It would’ve been cheaper to import some items over land from Kenya, but it also would’ve required paying bribes to al-Shabaab.

“I came over with $30,000 stuffed down my knickers. Not all large denominations—wads and wads of it!”

Brookman’s idea for an aerial performance, meanwhile, raised eyebrows. “For us that’s very strange. We’ve never seen a lady dancing in the air,” Nur Hassan, a Somali journalist working as a fixer, told me. The security brass saw it as less strange than risky—a person flying through the open air was asking to be a target of terror. They insisted that Brookman not orchestrate the stunt, even though he’d already been training a local aid worker to dangle from a climbing rope and harness, practicing on the veranda of her Mogadishu home.

A few days into the event’s preparation, Brookman and other festival participants decided to check out the concert venue and visit Mogadishu’s fish market. Armed guards went wherever the performers did. Everyone needed a spot in a vehicle. With so many people to organize, departure from the hotel was delayed.

Just as the team was preparing to leave, news came over the radio: A car bomb had exploded less than a mile away, near Mogadishu’s presidential palace. The performers wanted to see the scene, so they drove over. Police and onlookers surrounded the smoldering shell of a public minibus and the charred wreckage of the bomber’s car. The minibus, with civilian passengers aboard, wasn’t hit intentionally, police said. It had been in the way of a car carrying Khalif Ahmed Ilig, one of the festival’s local guarantors. He escaped with minor injuries, as did some 20 other people. At least ten more, however, had died.

Brookman snapped pictures. He felt compelled to bear witness, but he also recognized that he was rubbernecking a disaster. He marveled at the force of the bomb: Only one wheel was still attached to the stunted chassis of the bomber’s car, and the bodywork was blown to bits. Cracks of gunfire—police shooting in the air to disperse the crowd that had gathered—reverberated amid Mogadishu’s crumbling brick and plaster walls. Brookman nervously scanned the street, worried the sounds might be hostile fire.

As the festival drew closer, threats multiplied. Shiine, who arrived from Kenya a few days after the car bombing, and the rest of Waayaha Cusub received menacing calls and text messages. Most promised that death was imminent. One day, Shiine said he received a small amount of prepaid mobile-phone credit shortly before a text that read, “Use this credit to say goodbye to your family.” He worried about the guards hired to protect him. They were undoubtedly poor locals, and al-Shabaab might try to buy them off, giving them more to harm Shiine or festivalgoers than the event’s backers were paying to keep everyone safe. In one incident, Shiine’s guards exchanged fire outside the hotel with men in a moving car. Intelligence officers later determined that it was an attempt to ambush the rapper.

Consulting with Somali policemen ahead of the peace concert.

The day of the event was chaotic. Much of the gear had still not arrived, so the festival team would have to make do with what could be sourced locally. Around the time that organizers announced the concert’s location via phone calls and text messages, I shared a car to the venue with Brookman. He already had on his performing outfit and eyeliner, not yet smudged. He was jittery, speaking as much to himself as to me.

“A three-hour live broadcast!” he screeched. “Who made that call? It might be me.” At another point, he turned in the passenger seat to face me where I sat in the back. “Do you realize what we’re doing?” he asked almost frantically, his eyes blazing with excitement and fear. “It’s going to be a grenade thrown over the wall,” he continued, imagining a simple yet deadly attack al-Shabaab could wage. “It’s not going to be a man with a gun, it’s not going to be a man with a bomb strapped to him.” Then Brookman stopped, struck by an idea. “I hadn’t thought of that—a VBIED!” The possibility that someone might rig up a vehicle-born improvised explosive device and leave it in an inconspicuous car next to the basketball court sent him down a rabbit hole of new fears.

When we arrived at the venue, women in head scarves were sweeping rubbish and dirt from the crude stage. Brookman channeled his energy into telling security personnel what to do. That he had no formal military training didn’t stop him from trying to seem like an expert. There were roughly ten guards standing outside the court’s walls. “If the enemy watches TV, they may bring a VBIED and park it,” Brookman told the men in fatigues, who listened—without comprehension, as they didn’t speak English—to his carefully enunciated words. “They may already have brought one.” (He forgot to order someone to check.) As he walked the court’s perimeter looking for security gaps, Brookman muttered to no one in particular, “I’ve got to show leadership.”

He spotted a young guard with angular shoulders slumped in a plastic chair, his phone clamped to his ear so that he could listen to the radio. Brookman yanked the chair from beneath him and wagged a finger, as if to say, Don’t be caught off guard. Another man standing on a soggy berm was playing a game on his phone. Brookman crept up behind him, snatched the device, and shoved it into a pocket of the man’s fatigues. Brookman mimed a quick lesson on staying alert, stamping one foot next to the other, as if in salute, and holding an imaginary weapon across his body in a ready position. The next guard had been paying attention; he was standing tall with a semi-automatic in his hands when Brookman approached.

The concert was set to start at 3 p.m. and last three hours—I had been told that it was too dangerous for it to continue into the night. By 4 p.m., though, a large screen and the sound system were still being set up. Attendees, mostly young people, sat around the court looking mildly interested. If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned. By the time the mismatched equipment, multiple cameras, and satellite feed had been set up, and the musicians played their first notes, it was a quarter past six. Clouds the color of pink cotton candy swirled across the sky.

If you’ve waited your whole life to see a concert, what’s a few more hours? I reasoned.

Jahm-Eye, the reggae artist, kicked things off with a song accompanied by acoustic guitar. The crowd swelled as wide-eyed arrivals came seeking the music they’d seen on TV or heard drifting through Mogadishu’s streets. When Waayaha Cusub came on, the crowd went wild. “I’ve never seen this before,” Abdullahi, an out-of-breath 13-year-old, told me. “I never liked music, but when I hear it I like it, because it makes me want to dance.” A woman in a white patterned tunic and fuchsia scarf took me by the hand and we danced.

When I saw Brookman next, he was still fretting—and furiously misquoting ancient Greeks. “Aristotle talked of kings and philosophers,” he said, meaning to refer to Plato and indicating that he didn’t have time to talk about how he felt because he needed to act. Next came an attempt at a line from Shakespeare’s Henry V: “When the blast of war blows in our ears, then is the time to imitate the action of the tiger.” It was as if he was using his literary heroes to steel his nerve. He concluded with some words of his own—“Al-Shabaab are angels of death with an incredible degree of commitment”—before hurrying off to check on the guards once again.

In the midst of the jubilation, Shiine began receiving a flurry of messages and calls from one of his intelligence contacts. They’d learned that al-Shabaab members were trying to cut the power lines to the venue. Their plan, inevitably, was to use the darkness to cause as much panic and devastation as they could. With only one exit—a flimsy metal gate opening out onto a mess of mud puddles left by a recent storm—the court wouldn’t empty quickly. Even one man with a gun would be able to kill a substantial number of people. Shiine encouraged the artists who’d already played to exit the court and go back to the hotel. Meanwhile, he kept getting updates from the intelligence officers.

Unaware of the unfolding security threat, Brookman stood looking at the concrete walls. Fire-breathing on top of them was without a doubt the craziest thing he would ever attempt to do. I’m going to stand up there as a taunt to al-Shabaab, he thought.

And up he went.

In the literary version of this story, here is where the hero would get cut down, sacrificed on the altar of his noble cause. When I saw Brookman on the wall, that scenario flitted through my head. For his part, Shiine thought it bold for Brookman to make himself a target at the venue’s highest point. By then, however, intelligence officials were assuring the rapper that the security threat was under control; police had arrested two would-be attackers.

Later, Brookman would describe feeling as though he was in a play, an actor inhabiting a character who courts disaster. When he sent flames into the sky, some piece of him even felt a fatalistic desire for al-Shabaab to shoot at him—if not hit him. It would be the most dramatic ending imaginable. But he quickly chastised himself for thinking so and leaned instead into the intense feeling that performing always brought, heightened by the scene before him, the crowd shrieking with delight.

The night was the kind that could melt even the most hardened cynicism. The concert was an unqualified success. As for Brookman, people in the crowd told me that for 25 years the fire of guns and bombs had vanquished Mogadishu’s spirit—and now this strange, reckless man had made fire into a triumph. I scribbled in my notepad, “Artists are brave, they dare to dream.” It was sappy, but also true.

Loughborough, England, 2017

Mogadishu was Brookman’s last heady cocktail of drama and danger. Ladouceur left the UN, and the organization didn’t call on Brookman again. One day, though, a letter arrived from a lawyer, asking if he would be a witness for Shiine. The rapper had applied for asylum. After 20 years of living in Kenya, his residency document had been revoked by officials in Nairobi as part of a controversial strategy to expel Somali refugees.

Scanning the material the lawyer sent him, Brookman’s attention fell on a clause entitled “Bombing of vehicle convoy, Mogadishu; March 2013.” It described the car bomb that had gutted the minibus shortly before the festival, the carbonized remains of which Brookman had seen. The legal statement claimed that Waayaha Cusub, which al-Shabaab may have believed was traveling with the festival team at the time, had been the probable target.

Shiine told me that had Brookman’s group not been late setting off that day from the City Palace Hotel, they might now be dead. “If they’d seen the white man?”—he paused to exhale—“They like that. They’re more interested in a white man than they are a Somali.” In killing one, that is.

When I asked Brookman about the matter, he agreed that it seemed plausible. If true, “then I went and filmed my own funeral,” he said, referring to the photos he took of the bombing’s aftermath. Melodrama aside, he confessed that the chance, however small, that he might bear some responsibility for the deaths of innocent people on the minibus distressed him. “I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill,’” he told me.

“I don’t know whether to take that responsibility to my maker or say, ‘You’re not to blame, Bill.’”

Like the UN, Brookman was imperfect and in need of modernizing. When I asked him once how he would respond to criticism of his work—a foreigner parachuting into places he doesn’t know to do theatrical work some people might find trivial—he answered solemnly, “Come along and join us, and see if there’s any animosity from anybody anywhere we go.” He’d always championed local artists and traditions, and he took seriously the possibility that his mere presence in a place could cause people harm. He offered to do whatever he could to support Shiine.

Brookman attended the asylum hearing in a nondescript office off Fleet Street. He felt proud to be British as his country offered Shiine a fair hearing. The court discussed the finer points of the case, ironing out the contradictions and debating the merits. By the end of the proceeding, Shiine’s asylum was granted.

Not long after, age proved a greater enemy to Brookman than any gang member or militant ever had. He suffered a heart attack at 60. He recovered but knew that his days of dangerous travel were likely behind him. He had to focus on taking his pills—and on getting married. In August 2017, Brookman wed for a second time at the church he’d attended for most of his life. His new wife was a woman named Madeleine, whom he’d known since he was a young boy but had reconnected with only a few years prior. After the ceremony, Brookman donned his one-man band and performed for his bride, family, and friends.

Not long before the wedding, I asked Brookman if he had exorcised his grandfather’s ghost. “No” was the firm reply. When he’d recently got word of a potential assignment in Sudan, he admitted, his “heart started to beat again.” Brookman told me that in his darkest moments, he wondered if he’d proved himself a man of valor. Making his dead grandfather proud may have been a “pathology,” but he’d been helpless to stop it from setting the course of his life.

After a brief pause, Brookman began to recite from memory Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a poem about an elderly hero, stalked by death, whose insatiable longing for adventure leads him out to sea on one final—and perhaps fatal—quest: “How dull is it to pause, to make an end, / To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use! … Come, my friends / ’T is not too late to seek a newer world.”

Then he jumped to the poem’s conclusion, his voice tinged with purpose: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

You can still catch Brookman performing around Great Britain, at big festivals like Glastonbury and smaller ones closer to Loughborough. Or you can pull up on YouTube what he calls the biggest production of his life: his 2016 appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, the popular variety competition show.

Brookman traveled to Liverpool, one-man band and candy-cane-striped stilts in tow, to perform before four judges, dozens of cameras, a studio audience of thousands, and a live TV audience of more than ten million. When he clanked on stage, a bewildered blond judge asked her colleague, “Is that a colander on his head?” The main camera showed a young girl in the crowd exclaiming, “That is amazing!”

As Brookman played, the audience—including his soon-to-be-wife, to whom he blew a kiss—cheered and clapped in time to the music. Two of the judges stood up from their chairs to dance. Ultimately, they would vote him on to the next round but eliminate him soon after. “You are exactly the kind of British eccentric we love,” one said.

YouTube video

“What’s your name, please?” asked judge Simon Cowell, the music producer notorious for his scathing commentary on American Idol and other reality programs.

“Bill Brookman.”

“How old are you?”

“I’m 60.”

“Bill, do you work?” Cowell asked.

Brookman hesitated for a fraction of a second, as if unsure how to answer, of which role to play. Then he found his voice. “I work for the United Nations,” he said.

The Devil’s Henchmen

The Devil’s Henchmen

Iraqi forces have killed thousands of Islamic State fighters. In death, what do they deserve? Seeking answers in the ruined city of Mosul, a reporter unearths a terrible crime.

By Kenneth R. Rosen

The Atavist Magazine, No. 68

Kenneth R. Rosen writes for The New York Times, where he joined the staff in 2014. He is a Logan Nonfiction Fellow whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, New York, and Foreign Affairs, among other publications. He has reported from the Middle East, North Africa, and across North America.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Photographer: Alex Kay Potter
Translator: Hadi Kebber
Special thanks: Tim Arango, Erin Banco, Rasha Elass, Dexter Filkins, Luke Mogelson, Kiran Nazish, Runa Sandvik, Douglas Schorzman, and many others whose names are withheld for security reasons.

Published in June 2017. Design updated in 2021.


A stone skitters down the hillside, clips a tangle of cloth, and stops short of a human’s lower vertebrae. Next to it, strewn in the dirt and grass of a sun-swathed wadi—one of thousands of small desert valleys scattered across northern Iraq—are a coccyx, femur, humerus, and elbow joint. Ribs soak in a puddle nearby. Each bone is a dirty, decalcified umber, like a masticated chew toy.

Hasan, a 24-year-old enlisted in the Iraqi Federal Police, stands on the sandy road that snakes along the wadi’s eastern edge. The air is thick with the smell of burnt rubber, bloated rigor, and oil fires. Hasan, who gives me only his first name, has stubble on his chin. He wears blue and gray fatigues and black combat boots, one of which he used to kick the stone that now rests near the scattered remains of a dead man. They are a fraction of what the ravine holds: A short distance away, near the hood of a destroyed Humvee, is another body, stripped of flesh but still braided with the scraps of a brown shirt worn at the moment of death.

That moment came in February, when it was much colder in Albu Saif, this village on a bend in the Tigris River a few miles south of Mosul. Iraqi forces swept through en route to reclaiming their country’s second-largest city from the Islamic State. Two months later the village is quiet. The northward view of Mosul, bisected by the Tigris, is dark, halting, and handsome. Lofted train tracks traverse Albu Saif before terminating on Mosul’s western side, where Islamic State militants are making their last stand. Some 340,000 people have been displaced in the past six months, fleeing the most intense urban warfare waged since World War II; another 100,000 will join them by mid-summer. Mosul’s main railway station is gutted. Concrete rubbish recalls where buildings once stood. Those that still do, and the people who’ve taken shelter inside them, hang on like corporeal tissue unwilling to decompose.

Hasan saunters along the road to show me more of what the liberation of Albu Saif left in its wake. A fully clothed skeleton lies prone on the hillside, frozen in what looks like an attempted escape from the wadi. It’s a strange relief to see something still lying in the place where it fell, appearing unmolested by nature or man.

“All that is left of them are bone,” Hasan says with cool bravado. He wears his camouflage cap with its brim tilted upward, his bootlaces loosened. He wipes a bead of sweat from his brow. “Our force came from above and passed them here. This is just what we found when we killed them.”

They were Islamic State fighters. Hasan’s unflappable demeanor tells me that he doesn’t give a damn about them and that I shouldn’t either. They were scarcely human when they were alive, just bone, flesh, and evil. Now I could kick a rock at them, too, if I wanted. Maybe Hasan expects me to.

He shifts his weight, plunging his hands into his pockets. He doesn’t make much eye contact as he speaks, and he never dwells on one detail of the battle that took place here more than any other: Soldiers arrived, encountered militants, killed them, and moved on. Whether this plain account is the product of shame, modesty, or trauma, I can’t say.

But what if he told me? Would I believe him?

About all anyone can trust in war is that everybody lies.

To gaze across the desert from Albu Saif’s pleated hills is to see the past as much as the present. The cursive paths of Nineveh province twist across pinched-earth berms and cut through plumes of smoke left by air strikes, artillery shelling, and mortar rounds. They lead to settlements that in some cases have shaped northern Iraq’s landscape for thousands of years.

The building block of ancient Mesopotamia was the mud brick, concocted from earth, straw, and water. The bricks were dry and stiff, valiant against the harsh Middle Eastern climate and its unrelenting heat. But they disintegrated over time. For a settlement to survive, surfaces had to be fortified again and again. Sometimes a village’s structures were razed and rebuilt. By design, the debris of what stood before served as the foundation for what came next: A new building rose from the ashes of another. The cycle repeated itself over centuries, the accumulations climbing upward like small mountain kingdoms reaching slowly for the sky.

Hasan looks at human remains on a hillside.

In Arabic, these mounds are called tels. Stripping them layer by layer would take you back in time. In the Kurdish city of Erbil, about 50 miles southeast of Mosul, the medieval citadel rests atop the remains of a civilization from the fourth millennium B.C. Destruction in Iraq has always been the genesis of preservation.

All of which would be a beautiful legacy were it not hidden beneath the country’s unshakable and unfortunate reputation for human viciousness. This trait receives the brunt of global attention. Iraq, like the wider region in which it sits, is seen as a spinning top of sectarian disputes, foreign invasions, mass atrocities, and terrorist insurgencies.

The latest of these scourges arrived in June 2014: the Islamic State, riding in shiny Toyota Hiluxes with machine guns welded to their beds. The militants overran Mosul as well as Ramadi and Fallujah to the south. Iraqi security forces dropped their weapons and fled, gifting the new arrivals with a bounty of ammunition depots, armored vehicles, and military installations. Close to one million civilians in Nineveh province were left under the extremists’ rule.

More than two years later, in October 2016, a coalition of armed forces—Iraqi, Kurdish, American, French, British, Australian—began to retake the city. By late January, eastern Mosul was declared fully liberated. Across the Tigris, Islamic State fighters settled into the Old City, a cross-hatching of narrow alleys and architecture hardly altered for centuries. The labyrinth is home to the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of his caliphate; three years later, his fighters would raze it.

It’s demanding, bloody work to dislodge an enemy from this urban maze, but now, in late April, liberation forces report that the number of militants in Mosul has dwindled to fewer than 1,000. By mid-June, the number will drop below 500. A trident offensive is under way to complete the mission of saving the city: Units of Iraqi special ops and police advance from the south, while Shia militias and the Ninth Armored Division of the Iraqi Army move in from the west and north, where the Islamic State’s black flags still twitch atop adobe structures in the desert stretching between Mosul and the Syrian border.

Death is pervasive, the scale of it astonishing. Several thousand civilians have been killed or injured in air strikes and frontline combat since the Mosul offensive began. In March, an American bomb reduced a home in the city’s al-Jadida district to a concrete pancake, killing more than 100 civilians; it was one of the deadliest incidents in Iraq since the American invasion of 2003. Islamic State fighters have launched chemical attacks, and their armed drones buzz overhead. Militants lob mortars without discretion, use civilians as shields, and execute residents who defy their orders or attempt to flee. Thousands of Iraqi soldiers are dead; thousands more are wounded. A hospital in Qayyara, a town just south of Mosul, has morgue refrigerators full of casualties. Other facilities keep bodies in rooms where the air-conditioning is set to about 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the lowest temperature the meager units can reach.

There is space earmarked for burials, including cemeteries in the Wadi Ekab and Wadi al-Hajar districts. Combat and diminished infrastructure make reaching many of the locations nearly impossible. Instead, people inter the bodies of loved ones, and sometimes those of strangers, in their backyard gardens, quiet and fertile respites amid mass ruin. Families bury children where they die, on the same afternoons and in the same places where they played hours before, wearing Disney T-shirts and kicking scuffed soccer balls.

What happens to the Islamic State’s dead—several thousand, according to Pentagon estimates—is a different matter. No one wants to talk about it. To this ancient, undaunted land, the manner of a death means little: A body, whether its soul was good or wicked, is debris upon which Iraq can rebuild once again. To inhabitants, though, the question of what extremists who have murdered, raped, and pillaged deserve in death has an obvious answer: nothing. Rid your home of evil, any way you can, then get on with life. A logical response, perhaps, but an ineffectual one. Pain runs deep in this terrain, and its stains keep accumulating, even after combat subsides.

Journeying through Mosul, I expected to witness retribution against dead militants masquerading as deliverance. But I didn’t—not immediately. I had to go looking for it, because, as in any war, Iraq’s living are hastily writing the narrative of the dead. Triumph grants them this privilege. They are setting the terms of what is right and wrong, factually and morally, in the mythology of the battle for Mosul. Out of self-interest as much as ideology, they are veiling or erasing their own cruelties with talk of oversight, collateral damage, and, above all, patriotism.

Bending the rules of war is the eternal exploit of victors. Breaking them is how heroes risk becoming the evil they pledged to vanquish. This is the lesson of Islamic State bodies, and the bones collecting filth in Albu Saif.


A Humvee with crude ballistics plates attached to its front skids to a halt near where Hasan and I stand. The moment that follows is one of chaos and questioning, shouting and misunderstanding, each individual figuring out who is who and what each wants, whether or not they should die. It is bedlam imbued with normalcy. From the front passenger side steps an Iraqi federal police captain, followed by a jejune soldier in faux Oakley sunglasses, keen to please his commanding officer. With his rifle the soldier sights the stark hillside, long cleared of any threats. Hasan salutes impassively in the heat.

The captain, who calls himself Salah, is proud, with his chest heaved outward and a broad stride. He surveys the area. He commanded the village’s liberation, which makes him a primary author of the story told about it to reporters like me.

Salah makes small talk. He says we are friends, brothers even, aligned against a common enemy. Triumph is near; the Islamic State will soon be finished. He and his men are doing whatever it takes to win. But we must understand: It is not easy.

He points down to the bones and the eager soldier hops to, heading toward the Humvee. The young man misunderstood his commander’s instruction, which was to walk down the hill. Salah grabs the neckline of the soldier’s flak jacket to steer him the right way, toward a small inclined trail worn into the earth. We descend into the wadi, where we choke on air that smells of putrefaction.

Salah wants to tell me what happened in this place where nothing seems to grow, only to wither. “It was raining,” Salah says, recalling the February battle with the Islamic State. He sketches lines in the air to indicate movements and punctuate moments. His Humvee’s windshield was a web of cracks from bullets smacking into it; shell casings arched from smoking rifle chambers; men shouted, radios fritzed.  “We lost the driver,” Salah explains, gesturing to the trashed hood in the ravine. Another of his men died, too.

“But we killed many of them,” he continues, referring to the militants. “The next day, I came to take the Humvee out and put some dirt on the bodies. I was afraid of bugs and diseases.”

“Yes,” Hasan affirms. “That’s right.”

There is no cavity in the earth. No bomb, mortar, or grenade detonated here. The militants must have been caught in a cluster—unusual for a fighting force that, as a tactical matter, keeps squad members spread out in combat—and then killed individually. Shot, most likely, either in the wadi or just above it.

“Let them decay,” Hasan says while I ponder the scenario. “We don’t know when it’s going to happen, but someone will come to bury them here.” Not anyone from the army or police, though. Salah and Hasan agree that cleanup is not their job.

On the eastern bank of the Tigris, just north of Mosul, sits a tel dating back to before 600 B.C. When archaeologists excavated the mound, known as Kouyunjik, in the 1850s, they discovered the library of Ashurbanipal, an Assyrian king. Inscribed on thousands of clay tablets was some of the world’s earliest known literature, including The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem about a king searching for the secret to eternal life. During the journey, Gilgamesh summons his deceased friend Enkidu to discuss the afterlife of fallen soldiers:

“Did you see the one who was killed in battle?”

“I saw him. His father and mother honor his memory and his wife weeps over him.”

“Did you see the one whose corpse was left lying on the plain?”

“I saw him. His shade is not at rest in the Netherworld.”

The same leitmotif infuses other ancient works, including The Iliad. At the end of Homer’s epic tale, Achilles slays Hector, leader of the Trojan army, and drags his body around the walls of Troy: “He pierced the sinews at the back of both his feet from heel to ankle and passed thongs of ox-hide through the slits he had made: thus he made the body fast to his chariot, letting the head trail upon the ground.” Achilles then refuses to bury the mangled corpse. The gods, horrified, intervene to ensure the safe return of Hector’s body to his family. The Iliad ends with the Greeks and Trojans agreeing to a truce so that Hector’s funeral may be held.

Respect for the dead later became a tenet of major religions, including Islam. Abu Bakr, the first caliph after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, instructed Muslim warriors, “Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies.” A Muslim who dies fighting is a shahid, or martyr. The Koran is vague on how one should be buried, but hadiths, sayings from the prophet that expound upon Islamic law, state that martyrs should be placed in the ground, without wrappings, steeped in their own blood.

In the modern era, the maxim that armies should respect the dead, even those of their enemies, holds fast in international law. The Geneva Conventions prohibit despoiling, mutilation, and other ill treatment of corpses. They also call for reasonable measures to be taken to bury bodies humanely. Meanwhile, the statute of the International Criminal Court considers committing “outrages upon personal dignity,” including that of corpses, a war crime.

Officially, Iraqi authorities have embraced millennia-old dictums in their confrontation with the Islamic State. In his “Advice and Guidance to Fighters on the Battlefield,” issued in 2015, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a leading traditionalist cleric, reminds militia soldiers of Islamic law: “Do not indulge in acts of extremism, do not disrespect dead corpses, do not resort to deceit.” According to local media, the independent Commission for Human Rights in Iraqi Kurdistan emphasized in a letter sent this winter to media outlets and Iraqi military groups that “improper actions against the dead are also human rights violations.” Bodies should be buried in easily identifiable places and according to international standards, with personal information put into glass bottles so their families can identify them later—even the families of Islamic State fighters.

However respectful and righteous, these measures are often impossible. Militants rarely carry identification, at least none that would prove useful or intelligible outside the caliphate; most go by noms de guerre. Many families are loath to look for relatives who left home and never came back, lest they become associated with terrorists. Others are too far away to even try. More than 20,000 foreign nationals have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with upwards of 3,000 hailing from countries in the West.

The vicissitudes of conflict also obstruct religious obligation. The majority of Iraq’s population is Shiite Arab, who bury their dead in the world’s largest cemetery: some five million plots on more than 4,000 acres in the city of Najaf, growing by 50,000 graves each year. In Mosul, however, Sunnis have long tipped the population scale. (The city has also played host to Christians, Jews, Kurds, Yazidis, and other minorities; so complicated were Nineveh’s demographics that, on a 1918 map of sectarian divides, T.E. Lawrence denoted the region with two question marks.) The Islamic State is also comprised predominately of Sunnis. Both sects require that bodies be cleaned (ghusl), shrouded (kafan), prayed over by a cleric, and buried as quickly as possible after death. Despite traditional reservations about organ donation, in beleaguered Iraq it’s encouraged; to save one man’s life is to save humanity.

A few months ago, some local officials suggested that Mosul establish a single graveyard for Islamic State fighters—a monument to their defeat and a place that families would know to come. Religious rites weren’t part of the calculation; efficiency and keeping hated bodies separate from those of innocents were. But what if people came to pray at the tousled loam, believing the men beneath it to be heroic martyrs? Creating a dedicated Islamic State burial site risked memorializing the crimes against humanity that dead fighters had committed. The idea was scrapped.

The pace of battle here is too fast anyway, the trajectory of fighting unpredictable. Bodies can’t be relocated systematically when the lines of combat are constantly redrawn. Mass graves—dozens of bodies thrust into open, earthly wounds—are often all that Mosul’s liberators can manage. They use bulldozers to hurriedly entomb dead militants, one atop the other, in rolling waves of dirt. No identification or markings are left aboveground. Excavation would be the only way to determine who lies beneath the topsoil: whose sons, brothers, husbands, and friends, after leaving home, perished in ignominy.

To be bulldozed into the earth is a bitter end but a better one, I’m assured, than the Islamic State would ever offer.

To be bulldozed into the earth is a bitter end but a better one, I’m assured by soldiers, than the Islamic State would ever offer. It too has employed mass graves, including one in the Khasfa sinkhole, five miles southwest of Mosul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies rest beneath dirt and water there, all executed by the zealots during their occupation of the city. Now the group supposedly kills its own wounded in retreat and carries the bodies away from battle to an unknown fate. “Sometimes they just take the head off,” says Ali Kasem, a federal police lieutenant, “so they can’t be identified in the future.”

We are riding in a convoy behind the front line in Mosul’s western neighborhoods when he tells me this. Kasem, a heavyset and cherubic man, sits in the rear of a passenger van adorned with a shoddy coat of spray paint in a camouflage pattern. His arms are spread across the back row of seats like he’s a prince being chauffeured in a chariot.

Despite what Kasem says, in at least some cases the Islamic State has buried its fighters in Mosul. There is a makeshift cemetery, I hear, in the basement of a building, dirt mounds scattered between the beams supporting the structure above. The police warn me that it’s too dangerous to visit. They won’t risk lives to show me the graveyard.

In the al-Tayaran district, the convoy stops near a food station: a truck with some flattop grills churning out falafel cakes and fried okra on samoon bread. Starving children, a few of the hundreds of thousands of denizens still trapped in the city, clang metal plates and pots. Some of their friends are buried nearby, having mistaken an improvised explosive device (IED) for a toy.

Down the street is a pair of 32-ton Caterpillar D7R bulldozers, two of the 132 sent over by the United States since 2015. Each one is worth some $200,000. Like golf carts on driving ranges, they have become targets—not of balls but of bullets. Graze marks and holes mar the machines’ plating and glass.

One of them is driven by a twentysomething man named Muhammad. He is bashful, timidly accepting the chance to speak about his new front-line job with the police. He’s been manning a bulldozer for only a few months. “Whenever they advance, I push,” he says. “We clean the streets of destroyed cars, explosive devices, mines.…”

Before he can say what else he clears away, his commander, agitated, cuts him off. When I ask Muhammad if he knows where any Islamic State fighters are buried, he glances at his boss, who waves him back to the Caterpillar. Muhammad turns a key and the machine coughs and groans to life. As it moves away, it passes a sullen man crouching on the pavement, ostensibly with nowhere to go, nothing to do.

The Kurds have a saying for when all hope is lost: “Even the devil has left.”


Captain Salah stands akimbo after recounting his victory in Albu Saif. The practiced tale is rife with false humility, worth telling a Western journalist and, perhaps, future generations of Iraqis who will grow up here. The dead fighters whose grisly remains we stand among were from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Iraq, maybe Germany, Salah says. But if they died in battle and didn’t carry identification, how does he know? I puzzle over this and, once again, how the fighters came to die where they did. A small viaduct cuts through the hillside, connecting the wadi to another that leads east toward the Tigris. The hollow concrete passageway is like an esophagus. The wind whispers through it.

Maybe the fighters maneuvered within the viaduct to ambush the liberation forces on the road above. They must have known, however, that striking from a low position and through an echoing tunnel was unwise. They would have been noisy sitting ducks for an elevated attack by Salah and his men. Perhaps, then, they battled head-on from the road and fell into the gully when they were shot in combat. Why, though, would they have exposed themselves to gunfire as a group, out in the open with nowhere to possibly retreat?

Through a translator, I press Salah to explain again, this time more clearly, how the battle transpired: How hard it was raining. How many fighters he encountered. What kind of resistance they put up, and from what vantage point. I also ask how he knows the nationalities of the men if they were killed on sight.

Hasan kicks another rock, and another. The soldiers who arrived in the Humvee begin to laugh among themselves. Hasan joins in. The eager soldier, still shadowing Salah’s every move and hanging on the commander’s words, reminds me of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I’m irritated by the irreverence.

Then Salah reaches for his phone and begins to chuckle, too. He has something to show me. It is something I want to see—but wish I didn’t.

Islamic State corpses charred and hog-tied, hung from utility poles or splayed on roads, used as props in selfies—these are just a few of the descriptions of defilement noted by journalists, aid workers, and other eyewitnesses since the start of the Mosul offensive. Iraqi troops, and maybe civilians, sometimes take justice into their own hands.

On the broad road that leads into east Mosul, I see one body strung up. Residents tell me this man was a militant; no one explains how he got to where he hangs. If there were more like him, disgraced in death, they’re gone now. Perhaps for the benefit of people like me, outsiders peering in. Phones, I come to learn, hold the full picture. Young soldiers in Mosul share images and videos of death like kids trading baseball cards on a playground. In one picture I’m shown, the bodies of militants are bound with heavy rope. In another, Iraqi soldiers are captured snapping their own photos of two corpses crumpled near a motorcycle.

Yet source after source tells me: Everything is done in accordance with the law. Dozens of police officers, municipal officials, and clerics provide an assortment of vague answers to the question of what happens to the Islamic State’s dead. “When we see them, we bury them,” one man says. Others talk of delivering bodies to doctors or asking the local health ministry to deal with them. “The NGOs come and take them” is another response.

“We have nothing to do with IS bodies,” says Mohammed Mahmoud Suleiman of the Iraqi Civil Defense. “We just care about the civilians.” A police major insists “it is obvious” if dead men were militants “from their beards, Kandahar clothing, and they have weapons with them.” If only weapons in Iraq were a rarity. If only men living under the Islamic State’s control are not forced to dress like their rulers, grow their beards the same way. If only civilians were not coerced into fighting for the Islamic State. In life, camouflage was a matter of survival; in death, it can be deceptive.

The extremists don disguises, too. They dress as police officers or shave their faces to infiltrate military bases or displacement camps on the outskirts of Mosul. They manipulate the urban battlefield, using civilians as armor and their streets and homes as trenches. Today, there are at least ten civilian deaths for every one combatant killed in war, according to the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP). A century ago, that ratio was reversed.

Justice is woefully finite and enduringly expendable. Innocents receive it when possible, but the distribution reaches only so many. It is easy to grow impatient in the game of hurry-up-and-wait. Bureaucracy as a rule lags behind the speed of fighting, struggling to gather proof of crimes before it disappears or is destroyed. Science is slow, too. The ICMP, created to excavate mass graves in Bosnia back in the 1990s, now operates in other places that are experiencing disaster, including Iraq. This isn’t its first stint in the country. Previously, it probed the mass graves left by Saddam Hussein’s murderous Baath regime.

Justice is woefully finite and enduringly expendable. Innocents receive it when possible, but the distribution reaches only so many. 

While the organization is practiced, the ICMP’s work is laborious: It gathers DNA samples from civilians, digs through burial sites, and compares the genetic material the living have provided with what it manages to procure from the ground. “People bury the dead randomly, so when the soft tissue melts the bones mix together,” says Fawaz Abdulabbas, deputy head of the ICMP mission in Iraq. “When we excavate, we don’t excavate full bodies. We excavate bone.” Genetic matches help families learn what happened to the missing. Ideally, they also provide evidence for criminal trials.

The group hasn’t started digging in Mosul; it could be months before it does. “This is a very long, complicated process,” Abdulabbas says. An understatement, given that he knows he’ll never finish the task—there will be corpses left unidentified in holes or lost piece by piece to the environment. Surely Islamic State fighters, viewed as the least important of all bodies, will make up a large percentage of those lost forever.

The ICMP began its work last year in Tikrit, some 150 miles south, where the Islamic State massacred 1,700 Iraqi soldiers in June 2014 at Camp Speicher. Video from the event shows soldiers lying in pits awaiting execution. Others take their last breaths on the bank of the Tigris. At the river’s surface, water buffalo still graze; beneath it are the bodies of at least 100 army cadets.

Other institutions seem to jump ahead dangerously on matters of justice, ushering wrongdoers through ad hoc proceedings. It is midday when I arrive in Qaraqosh, about 20 miles east of Mosul. It was Iraq’s largest Christian city until the Islamic State sent many residents fleeing and murdered others. The sun above feels hotter by the minute, as though concentrated through a giant magnifying glass on this already-blanched place. Dozens of people are milling around, because the United Court of Nineveh, once based in Mosul, has relocated here for now. Pop-up tents are arrayed with printers used to produce birth, death, and marriage certificates; papers issued under the Islamic State’s rule are invalid and must be replaced.

A pickup truck screeches down a street lined with yellow and green police cars. In the back are seven young men, their hands bound with thin cloth ties and their eyes blindfolded with the same material. The guards transporting them say they have confessed to being members of the Islamic State. They are unloaded and lined up outside a gate. When it opens, a small ruckus occurs: A woman shouts angrily, charging that the Islamic State killed her husband. The men, faces gummy with the feral muck of imprisonment, grab each other by the hems of their shirts as if bearing a pall. They shuffle forward, blind leading the blind, and the gate shudders behind them.

Once inside an administrative building, they are told to face a wall. Their necks look rough and vulnerable. An official with the Ministry of Interior, who doesn’t give his name, tells me they were arrested in Nimrud, an ancient Assyrian city 20 miles south of Mosul that now lies in ruins, carved lions and winged bulls toppled from their grand reliefs. I am instructed not to speak to the men. They are all doomed for Jahannam, or hell, anyway—what value are the words of the devil’s henchmen?

Suspected militants detained in Qaraqosh.

“They were arrested for joining and supporting ISIS,” the interior official continues. “After our investigation, we found they were not killers.” They’ll be judged for other crimes, namely supporting and promulgating the caliphate. They’ll press their thumbs on a blue inkpad and use their prints to sign their testimonies. “We provide them food and comfort,” the official says. “Their food is better than ours!”

The men look like teenagers. “Most of them are young,” the official tells me. “We have a juvenile court, too.” No one else mentions a forum dedicated to judging adolescents, who under international law are in a different class of defendants than adults.

I approach one of the prisoners. He moves his head, as though attempting to see through the blindfold, until he locates my voice. There is a tattoo on one of his forearms. In Arabic it reads, “She loved me and left me.”

He’s loved her, a woman in Mosul, for the past eight months. He tells me her name, but I shouldn’t seek her out. Anyone involved with a member of the Islamic State could become a target; a few weeks after my visit, there will be reports of local residents targeting the families of militants, of 11 blindfolded boys and men left roasting in the sun south of Mosul after suffering death at the hands of vigilantes.

“Yes,” the tattooed prisoner says, “of course I miss her.”

There are many stories of men and women supporting the Islamic State out of necessity, finding no better choice, no other route of escape from lives they cannot endure. Perhaps he was one of them, hoping to fill an unbearable vastness with mortal love and religious zeal. If he survives all this, maybe one day he will be reunited with the woman to whom he has pledged allegiance by inking his body. If he didn’t kill anyone, maybe he will be spared from the fate of professed murderers: a hanging in Baghdad.

Or maybe he will wind up dead, a casualty of war’s aftermath.

The men are taken a few blocks away to a formerly private villa that now serves as a courthouse. Up a stairway with golden railings, like a Jacob’s ladder to perdition, there are two adjacent rooms with a thin wall between them. In one, men and women plead to be reimbursed for the damages wrought by conflict: a destroyed car, a leveled home, lost possessions, a dead relative. In the other, captives are questioned. Judge Sadoon al-Hassan Yani invites me to witness those proceedings. “We want you to see,” he says, “that we have democracy.”

Lawyers wait for the suspected militants’ answers to align with the reports handed to them by the initial captors, men like Captain Salah. All the first reports are damning. There are no third-party testimonies, no physical evidence. Only confessions.

The judges and investigators sit in heavy clouds of cigarillo smoke. When satisfactory answers have been given, and a prisoner’s thumb stamped to paper as verification, the arbiters wave the man away to be processed in Baghdad. They pass their judgments with the same ease given to clearing their lapels of ash.


As he laughs, Salah swipes the screen on his phone with a pudgy finger caked with mud. Pictures appear, then slide away. He stops, finally, on a video and tilts his phone horizontally, to offer the fullest frame. The frozen image at the start of the video shows the ravine where we are standing. “There were seven of them,” Salah says. “They confessed.” Like the men at the court in Qaraqosh.

This is Salah’s own confession: Seven members of the Islamic State surrendered to him and his men in Albu Saif in February. Two were injured. “After we interrogated them, we took them here,” to the wadi, Salah says. “They are criminals of war, and we killed them.”

Some were led to where we now stand and executed by firing squad. To end one of the wounded men’s suffering, the captain says, soldiers drove over him with a Humvee. Salah plays the video. It scans the wadi, capturing bodies in torsion, clothes dirtied by the earth and puddles into which they had recently fallen. “Captain Salah, we do not have any wounded and no captives,” a voice off-screen says.

Salah swipes back to the photographs. One shows a fighter before he was executed, sitting in the back of a vehicle, his hands unbound. He appears to be talking calmly, even pleasantly, to the men who are about to kill him. This is how Salah knows the militants’ nationalities.

I look away from the phone and notice a vine creeping through a crack in the nearby viaduct. The tunnel is dark, and the light on the other side is a contrasting white blur, tall and rectangular like a distant tombstone.

There’s more to tell, more to erase from the first version of this story, the proud and palatable version. One of the bodies was set on fire, Salah says. It kept his men warm at night. The desert can drop to below freezing in February when the sun sets.

He explains, “It was too cold.”

The video Salah shared with the author is available to view here. Warning: The footage contains graphic images of dead bodies, some of which are unclothed.

Around the time of my visit, the humanitarian news outlet IRIN reported on a raging mental-health crisis in Iraq, exacerbated by “the barbarity of IS and almost three years of conflict involving heavy civilian and military casualties and mass displacement.” The battle for Mosul “is proving particularly tough, leaving Iraq’s armed forces mentally and physically exhausted.” They have “witnessed friends and comrades being killed or horribly maimed by the militants,” the report continues. “Some soldiers confessed to IRIN their desire to exact revenge on IS captives or corpses.”

There is no excuse for savagery. But there are explanations, however insufficient. Flyblown corpses are used for psychological warfare and for catharsis.

The IRIN report describes a federal police officer kicking the head of a dead militant, then setting the corpse’s hair and beard on fire. “You think you’re going to heaven?” he shouts. “There is only one place you are going, and that is hell!” Then he breaks down crying.

As I’m absorbing Salah’s confession, a brigadier general in the Iraqi Federal Police approaches me at a checkpoint near Albu Saif. He wears a ring with a turquoise inset and has a blue pen stuffed into his shirt pocket. He tells me about an incident in western Mosul during which a man he thought was a civilian tried to blow himself up. This man pressed the detonator attached to his suicide vest, but it failed, so he grabbed a gun and started shooting people. The brigadier general killed him.

“I wonder about how it affects me to kill all those people,” he tells me. “At the beginning, it was difficult to kill a person even if they were a criminal, because they were still people.” His eyes are marbled with tears that never run. A breeze catches some trash and twirls it in the air.

“It affects you psychologically,” he continues, “like if you kill a cat or dog with a car and you wonder if only you had not driven so fast, maybe this would not have happened.” But then you move on, appoint the blame to nature’s endless variables, tell yourself you couldn’t have avoided it.

I see the brigadier general’s spent demeanor in other, wearily moral men. Among them is Sayed Hazar, who commanded the Kurdish military police in eastern Mosul. He buried at least a dozen Islamic State fighters in that part of the city this winter, dragging them to shallow graves upon which he piled dirt in small pyramids, like settled hourglass sand. Sitting in his office in Erbil, he shows me his combat wounds. On one of his hands the skin is rippled and patched, the result of being too close to a car bomb.

“I couldn’t bring them coffins,” he says of the dead militants. His posture is stoic, his head unbowed, as he utters words that sound mundane only to people drained by catastrophe, alien to those who aren’t. “But I could bury them to protect them against animals,” Hazar continues. “For humanity I buried them, and after burying them we placed rocks for when the families come looking for them in the future, to help find them.” The rocks, planted near homes and shops and schools in Mosul, have no markings.

There’s also Munir Ahmad Qadir, heavyset and wearing a gray dishdasha. I meet him along some of the back roads of Gogjali, a neighborhood on the outskirts of eastern Mosul. He tells me that there’s a cemetery close by, one where civilians and militants are buried side by side. “It’s three minutes by car. Do you want to see them?” he asks.

“I couldn’t bring them coffins. But I could bury them to protect them against animals. For humanity I buried them.”

We navigate the worn dirt paths where grass grows only between the tracks left by previous cars for others to follow. As Mosul slips farther behind us, a green pasture appears ahead, stretching on a gentle incline toward an open sky. It’s peaceful here. At the far edge of the field is a low stone wall encircling a graveyard that seems well tended. Some of the graves date back to the Iran-Iraq War. “I am a cattle farmer, but I have been digging graves since I was 13,” Qadir says as we alight from the car. “My brother and the rest of my family, all of us buried the bodies for free. I know all of their names.”

He waves his hand over part of the land. “All these graves are from October. We do not care if they are Muslim, Yazidi, Shabak, whatever. We buried them for God,” Qadir says.

He points toward the only unmarked graves. “These are ISIS,” he says. Twelve in all, with stones stacked neatly around the edges. Some of the plots seem unreasonably small. “The body’s in a bag,” he says of one. “It’s just pieces of someone.”

The fighters were killed in air strikes in eastern Mosul. Afterward, residents in the area complained to security forces that the stench of death was overwhelming. If they didn’t like it, they were told, they should bury the bodies themselves.

So they did. No cleric was present, no ceremony was performed, and the dead still wore their clothes. But they were interred in a proper cemetery, which here seems like a rare form of compassion.


I don’t want to believe Salah’s second story until I can review the phone footage on my own, in private. In the wadi, he promises to send it to me. Days later, after some cajoling, it arrives on my computer along with the pictures he also showed me. Maybe he finally sent the materials to unburden himself in some small way of what happened in Albu Saif. Or maybe he thinks I have a perverse desire to bask in bloodlust.

Salah’s photos and video show what comes after extrajudicial killings: the final resting place of some of the most hated men on earth. One of the dead militants in the video is half naked, his lower body exposed. Others are twisted under or around each another. The only way for bodies to end up like that is to line men up and kill them. It makes sense now why the first version of the story made none at all.

I go back to Albu Saif to revisit the scene in light of what I now know happened there, to scrounge for whatever glimmer of hope and humanity the place still holds. The skies above the village and Mosul in the distance are slate gray, a stainless chromium backdrop to the ongoing battle against the Islamic State’s last redoubt. In western Mosul, the militants are fighting to the death as if they invite it.

Along the same route where I first encountered Hasan and Salah, I meet three young men who live in Albu Saif. My military minders don’t want me talking to them. They say it isn’t safe in the village, that it’s riddled with landmines. Throughout my trip, chaperones have only been interested in my speaking to residents who are returning to Mosul or police officers who tell of cleared zones, unwired bombs, and dismantled IEDs. Only the victorious need apply when it comes to the stories I’m allowed to gather. This time, though, they give up, get in their vehicle, and drive away.

I ask the young men about the Islamic State fighters who were stationed in Albu Saif during the group’s occupation of the village. Mohamad, a cattle farmer in his late twenties who says he worked in an appliance store in Mosul before the militants arrived, points to a destroyed house. “They were living in that one, and they had an office in that house over there,” he says, gesturing to another structure. “If you did not bother them, they did not bother you.”

The police captain who calls himself Salah.

One of the other men, who won’t give his name, says that some fighters forced local civilians to join the Islamic State’s ranks. “In front of our house, they had missiles,” the third man, 22-year-old Rajwan Mezher, recalls. “There was no work. Life was very difficult. When we could not find a piece of bread, ISIS was feasting.”

Some militants tried to flee when Iraqi forces came to liberate the village this winter, but they were killed in air strikes. “The dogs finished them,” Mohamad says. Around here many feral dogs are emaciated and sickly. Others, though, are fat and healthy.

I ask the three men about the bones in the wadi. I tell them the first story and then the second one, of humiliations and executions and desecrations.

“Yes, that’s true,” Mohamad says passively, as though confirming Salah’s confession as any old fact. The impact of tragedy is reduced by its recurrence. Eventually, it would not be unreasonable to feel nothing at all.

We talk a while longer. The men hope the main route into Mosul will reopen soon; they want to get vegetables and other food, perhaps not realizing that sustenance is scarce in the besieged city and that their best luck is in the displacement camps.

When we part, they wave goodbye as they walk along a narrow path traversing the wadi. They get my attention one last time, pointing into the earthen cicatrix. There are more bones, dead men I haven’t even seen yet.

It is growing dark. Before long, armored vehicles speeding past will look like they are chasing endless cones of light. I glance into the wadi once more before I go. Carved by centuries of wind and water, it is so heavy with dusk and silence and loss that it feels painfully alive. I hear a whisper but mistake it for a scream.

The Improbable Life of Paula Zoe Helfrich

She was the daughter of a U.S. spy, an exile from Burma, a flight attendant in a war zone, and half of an epic love story. But how much of that was true?

By Julia Cooke

The Atavist Magazine, No. 67

Julia Cooke’s essays and reporting have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, SalonThe New York Times, and Tin House. They have been anthologized in The Best American Travel Writing 2014. She is the recipient of a 2016 New York Press Club award and the author of The Other Side of Paradise: Life in the New Cuba, which features reporting on youth culture in Havana. 

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Jake Scobey-Thal
Photos: Courtesy of Rebecca Sprecher and Mary Uyeda

Published in May 2017. Design updated in 2021.


The four Burmese officers who came to the apartment that morning in 1963 didn’t break down the door. They pounded hard, though, very hard. When Paula Zoe Helfrich answered, they told her in no uncertain terms that she would board an evening flight out of Rangoon. She would not be allowed to return.

A steely new regime in Burma was causing outsiders to scatter. Indian merchants were gathering what earnings could be salvaged from their teak and rice mills before heading west. White expatriates weighed England versus Australia. Deportations of foreigners grew increasingly common. Still, Paula had assumed that her father’s stature would ensure her immunity. He had worked with the highest powers of Burma’s postcolonial government; surely his 17-year-old daughter would skim above any discord like fat on milk.

Besides, she was a native. Her parents were from Illinois, but she had been born in Rangoon. She spoke Burmese. She reflexively knew the differences in climate, language, and culture between the country’s highlands and ports. She had ridden elephants in the jungle and wore longyis, traditional wrap skirts. She had a job at a tourism desk in Rangoon’s stately Strand Hotel and a room in the apartment of a family friend. After work she and her boyfriend, a handsome Burmese student with revolutionary leanings, walked along the shores of Kandawgyi Lake, where dense foliage furnished private nooks. She loved how the pink evening light reflected off the nearby gilded Shwedagon Pagoda onto the lake’s flat water.

Disorder, the result of World War II’s aftermath and simmering interethnic conflict, had afflicted Burma for as long as Paula could remember. Consequences were visible: People displaced from the countryside lived in shantytowns along Rangoon’s fringes. In 1962, the situation took a dramatic turn. The military staged a coup and expelled international organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Asia Foundation. It banned Western-style dancing, horse racing, and nightclubs. That summer, troops stormed a Rangoon University meeting on democracy, killing dozens of people, according to human-rights groups. The next day, the regime blew up the campus’s student union. The situation became progressively dire as the months wore on.

The following September was when the officers came for Paula. She was ordered to leave because she had spent time with questionable people, namely her boyfriend. Her father didn’t put up a fight. She had less than 24 hours to pack her possessions, bid farewell to the love of her life, and stop for a bowl of mohinga, perfumed fish and noodle soup, on her way to the airport. When Paula told me this story, she described her deportation so vividly that I all but saw the officers’ broad shoulders in her doorway, the rutted roads jolting the car that ferried her to the plane, and her hands nervously gripping her knees as she rode.

She was heading to a place she’d never been and a family she’d never met: grandparents, an aunt and uncle, and cousins in Chicago. She would find the Windy City smelly and orderly, sometimes beautiful but too often cold. She had never experienced the sting of a Midwestern winter. She didn’t even own a coat.  

I once spent half an evening as Paula’s daughter. We met at a 2014 conference in Bangkok of former Pan Am flight attendants; she was the keynote speaker and I was researching a book. In her speech, she talked about growing up in Southeast Asia and feeling out of place in the United States when she was plopped there in the 1960s. She’d lived a series of interlocking adventures: traveling the world with Pan Am, helping evacuate refugees during the Vietnam War, running for office in Hawaii, self-publishing a novel based on her life, returning alone to live in Burma, now called Myanmar, as a middle-aged woman. Paula’s voice was silvery, musical, and rich with laughter. She was in her sixties, she told the group, but she felt like she was thirty. Her two daughters still asked her what she planned to do when she grew up.

The conference’s final dinner involved a river cruise. We drifted past the Thai capital’s skyscrapers, drinking wine and listening to the wafting music of a sequin-clad Elvis impersonator under a sky that threatened rain. At one point, I found myself sitting next to Paula on a crusty vinyl stool bolted to the boat’s aft. I was younger than everyone in the crowd by three decades and had grown weary of explaining my provenance. Paula noticed.

Paula and her daughters.
Paula and her daughters.

“Wanna be my daughter?” she asked conspiratorially, leaning toward me in a quiet moment. Her smiling face, eyebrows raised, was an invitation. “Sure,” I answered.

For the next hour, as people swirled by to talk to Paula, she introduced me as her offspring. It wasn’t an impossible sell—we both wore our curly hair loose and natural; we both had strong opinions and loud laughs. I watched as she explained who I was with zero doubt or hesitation ruffling her features. The other women nodded in understanding. I caved when I ran out of platitudes based on my thin knowledge of her. I finally admitted that we were not, in fact, related, and everyone was amused. No one asked who I really was.   

Paula struck me as magnetic and the rare person who, with no loss of kindness, acts first and considers how people might feel afterward. She seemed in full possession of herself, and what I felt that night was akin to envy, staring upward from my relative youth at this woman of boundless energy and verve. She captivated listeners with the details of life events that seemed stolen from fairy tales. Most striking was an epic love story: When she moved back to Myanmar, Paula told me, she found the teenage boyfriend that the deportation had cost her and married him.

What a magnificent coincidence, I thought, to anchor Paula’s story. The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia. Burma’s independence coincided with her birth and imbued her upbringing with adventure. Its slide into authoritarianism displaced her physically but couldn’t uproot her identity or her affections. Decades later, the country’s reopening drew her into its ebullient orbit and engineered an improbable reunion with a man she’d thought she would never see again. The arc of a life, punctuated by remarkable love, loss, and deliverance—it was a saga that I wanted to write.

The contours and formative incidents of her life, in Paula’s sweeping, confident telling of it, conformed with cookie-cutter precision to the grand currents of history in Southeast Asia.

I also wished to be as curious and bold as Paula when I eventually married and, I hoped, became a mother. She became more than a potential interview subject; she was a candidate for some personal pantheon of spirited women I could locate in my mind on demand, perhaps even call on from time to time. Paula spoke of my coming to visit her in Myanmar as inevitable.

She was right: After a year of occasional correspondence, I flew to Yangon, as Rangoon is now known. It was September 2015. “Aaaaah! Julia, yes!” came the cry from her bedroom when her husband announced that I was at their front door. Paula gripped my arm when she saw me. She’d lost weight since I’d met her, and her hair was less curly. Even so, her gaze possessed startling immediacy. She was impatient and impetuous by nature, but when she looked at you, she seemed to scan everything she found and settle on something—the piece of you that interested her most.

Paula still embodied the dichotomies that had initially drawn me to her: international and American, feminist and feminine, strident and warm, independent yet deeply connected to others. As I talked with her, interviewed friends and family, and explored documents pertaining to her past, another contradiction revealed itself, this one between fact and fiction. Put simply, not every detail of the stories Paula told me about herself was true. In some cases, veracity was less splendid, while in others it was more poignant. “Paula was a creative person,” her younger sister Mary Uyeda told me, “and there were times when that creativity exceeded reality.” Why was the truth of her objectively extraordinary life not enough for Paula, I wondered. Why did she need more?

Somerset Maugham, one of many writers to use Burma as a backdrop, once described it as having “a beauty not of nature, but of the theater.” When I met Paula, the country had become her stage for reclaiming the junctures of a life often shaped against her will. I didn’t know it yet, but I was part of her farewell performance.


In the archives of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, a samurai sword sits in storage, never before displayed to the public. It is believed to have belonged to Shojiro Iida, commanding general of the Japanese 15th Army in Burma during World War II. Aung San, the architect of Burmese democracy, gave it to Truman in 1946.

Memorandums between Truman’s office and the War Department reveal some hesitation over the president’s acceptance of the sword. To not take it risked alienating the man very likely to claim power in an independent Burma. To receive it would be to recognize his legitimacy while England still technically ruled the gangly country stretched alongside China and Thailand. In the end, Truman’s top military aide accepted the sword on his behalf.

Lieutenant Colonel Baird Helfrich was the emissary dispatched to gift the blade to the president. A lawyer by training, he had arrived in Burma in 1944, to lead a secret wing of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. He was tasked with infiltrating various groups of anti-English revolutionaries to identify those allied with the Japanese and cultivate others deemed susceptible to American influence. He fell in with Aung San, then a leader of Burma’s Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League, and “displayed outstanding acumen, diligence, and daring in obtaining information vital to the United States Government,” according to his OSS personnel file.

After the war, Baird returned home to Illinois, where he married a woman named Patricia “Pat” King who’d been a code breaker in the Navy. They honeymooned in China, then returned to the Midwest, where Baird continued his law career. In Rangoon, Aung San was assassinated in July 1947, six months before Burma achieved the freedom for which he’d struggled. The Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League vaulted into power nonetheless, with U Nu, an ally of Aung San’s, as prime minister. The new government quickly found itself navigating conflicts with ethnic minorities and political rivals fighting for their say in the country’s future.

The Helfrich family.
The Helfrich family.

By the early 1950s, civil war had ebbed. Burma had a lively media and a growing educational system. U Nu aligned himself with anti-communists on state visits, and under General Ne Win, the army became professional and unified, able to squelch border skirmishes with the Chinese. Foreign interest in the country swelled. Burma was rich in natural resources and strategically located amid the Cold War dominoes of Indochina.

Baird sensed opportunity: A few years in Burma investing in various businesses and his family could return to the United States with the funds and connections to launch his political career. (If he still worked for covert services, Baird slid under such deep cover that today the CIA will “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence” of records on his postwar activities.) His wife found Illinois “much too quiet to suit,” anyway. So they decamped. “It all sounds just a bit monumental an endeavor,” Pat Helfrich wrote in her first letter to her skeptical parents, describing various projects and plans that she and Baird would undertake in their new home.

Paula told everyone she knew, even her children, that she was born in Burma. For some listeners, she added a dash of intrigue: Pat delivered the Helfriches’ first child in Rangoon, but Baird wanted the infant to have a passport indicating that she’d been born on American soil. Not long after her birth, he walked a few blocks from his downtown office, where he represented John Deere and other American businesses seeking a foothold in Burma, to a warren of townhouses and department stores. There, in a small, discreet office, he had Paula’s first passport forged. It said she was born in Peoria, Illinois.

This is the first fable to fall away from the scaffolding of Paula’s life. Her mother’s letters, which Paula collected and intended to publish, reveal that she was born in the United States: in Peoria, on August 15, 1946, one year to the day after the Japanese surrendered in World War II. The Helfriches’ next three children—Ellie, Stuart, and Mary—were also born in Illinois. Paula was five when the family moved to Burma. “Paula has come through the whole thing as casually as though she were just crossing the road,” Pat wrote to her parents.

On the other side of that road lay Technicolor longyis, gleaming pagodas, spicy curries, and more than 135 ethnic groups that testily comprised the country. It’s plausible that Paula’s early memories of the Midwest faded quickly and forever. Or perhaps she claimed Burma as her point of origin, knowing it was not, because it felt truer than fact.

A family of six stands in front of a wood-gabled, Tudor-style white house with that colonial incongruity between European architecture and surrounding tropical foliage. It’s April 1952; the Helfriches have arrived on an ocean liner from California to learn that their new home at 26 Park Road in Rangoon is occupied by another family, the result of a miscommunication with a Burmese friend of Baird’s who rented the house to them from overseas.

The knowledge that her family would be sharing a house with the Nicholses, Americans who were leaving for Madras (now Chennai) in India that September, startled but didn’t displease Pat. She had people to introduce her to life as an expat housewife. In letters home, she wrote of new activities and routines. The children gaped at the snake charmer at the Rangoon Zoo, splashed around at the Kokine Swimming Club, and admired a cream-colored Packard owned by a friend of Baird’s, with a horn that tooted “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” The humidity prematurely sealed Pat’s letters; bugs ate her books. Paula called the abundant lizards that flitted through the house “baby alligators.” Pat and Baird sat through daily Burmese lessons, but the words never stuck. The children took almost immediately to the language.

Paula attended classes for a time at a school called Methodist English, where her classmates included Aung San Suu Kyi, Aung San’s daughter. I spoke with the now famous politician’s schoolmate and former personal assistant, writer Ma Thanegi, who told me that though she’d known of Paula, they weren’t friends. The foreign children socialized less with the native Burmese than they did with their own.

Paula (left) and younger siblings.
Paula (left) and younger siblings.

Pat claimed to hate segregation, the backbone tenet of colonial life holding that Western children should grow up free of the polluting influence of locals. In her letters, she wrote of her own unlearning of American-ness. Though a Burmese servant could have gone to the outdoor markets for her, Pat shopped for her family’s groceries herself, learning how the religious affiliations of the vendors—Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim—dictated who sold what and when. She had a strapless gown made by a local tailor who used rattan cane in place of whalebone for the stays. Pat fancied herself a trendsetter.

Paula once described her mother’s letters as “chirpy,” but I sense tension in them, especially the ones from that first year: a bold young wife and mother in a far-off place writing home to her staid, well-to-do, disapproving “Mother and Daddy.” Pat described the dignitaries and business groups the Helfriches entertained; she effused about the government’s eagerness to adopt mechanized farming, which had helped Baird secure his John Deere contract. She wrote indignantly that clips her father sent her penned by a Chicago Tribune reporter—articles from that time describe Burma as a “land of sham” that “claims to be just about everything it isn’t,” where “officials can’t speak [their] own language”—didn’t match her observations. She’d met the reporter in the mere three weeks he’d spent in the country and found him chinless and haughty, like a British overlord. He couldn’t be trusted, Pat told her father. Still, she requested, please keep sending such “interesting—if ill-informed” articles.

Through all her writing ran two consistent threads: a commitment to adventure and unconventionality, and an acute awareness of how to shape the way other people viewed her life. Paula would inherit both qualities.


“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea, There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”

The first lines of “Mandalay,” Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1892 ode to colonialism, introduce readers to Moulmein, a port city in Burma some 200 miles overland from Rangoon. Moulmein is also the setting for George Orwell’s iconic anti-imperialist essay “Shooting an Elephant,” in which a British officer, who may or may not be Orwell himself, reluctantly kills an elephant that has rampaged a local market. “When the white man turns tyrant,” Orwell writes, “it is his own freedom that he destroys.”

By the mid 20th century, the city had bloomed into more than an object of literary appeal. It was an industrial hub, a signal of independent Burma’s economic rise. Workers floated felled logs down the Thanlwin River for the timber industry, and rice mills clustered along the waterfront. The Helfriches and their children—there were five by then—moved to Moulmein in 1956. Baird had business interests there and wanted to monitor them closely.

Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.
Riding an elephant at the Moulmein mill.

At his wood mill, two trained elephants worked from seven to four each day, scooping logs from the river and dragging them up the shore. The workday ended with the blaring of a horn. The elephants, accustomed to the sound, would stop lugging and stand still. In the evening humidity, which settled like a blanket around the shoulders, Paula and her siblings visited the animals. They’d touch them and giggle. Sometimes, Paula rode one and gave it orders to pick up planks of teak between its trunk and tusks. In her memory, “Moulmein was elephants,” she later told me. It was also the scent of fresh bread and coconut pancakes from an Indian bakery, and the Helfriches’ dark-wood longhouse on stilts. The children rode to school, which was run by Catholic nuns, in a rickshaw pulled by a donkey. Among some 2,000 students, they were the only Westerners.

Pat had invited her parents to visit Burma, at one point offering first-class passage on a luxury ship and sightseeing “from Moulmein to Mandalay to the Shan Hills.” Mother and Daddy’s rejection was not included in the cache of letters that Paula later collected. Another letter, though, indicates that the Helfriches booked passage back to the United States in 1957. They spent the summer visiting family and friends, road-tripping from Illinois to Virginia. They stopped in Europe on their way back across the globe. Pat was pregnant with her sixth child by then. En route to Rangoon, she suddenly went into labor. After an emergency landing in Iraq, baby Tommy was born at the American hospital in Baghdad.    

Before reading the letters, I had asked Paula whether she’d been to the United States before her deportation. “Never,” she’d told me, firmly shaking her head. “We had been on one trip to Europe, we’d gone through Rome and to different places in the European continent, and Paris.”

Her cousin John Miller remembers meeting her in Virginia on the trip she claimed she didn’t take. Paula would have been 10 or 11. Miller told me that he was disconcerted at how much of the chicken served at one dinner the young Helfriches devoured—gristle and sinew, pieces and parts that American kids discarded—and how their eating habits contrasted with their prim British accents.

Back in Burma, the post-independence government began to fracture. “It had always been a hodgepodge of competing interests, ambitions and loyalties, held together by the partnerships at the very peak, between U Nu and his chief lieutenants,” writes scholar Thant Myint-U in his history of Burma, The River of Lost Footsteps. “There was no clear ideological divide or really even differences over policy. It was more the story of friends and colleagues who after twenty years living and working at close quarters, through war and peace, were getting tired of one another.” In 1958, a weakened U Nu ceded power to the military; he would reclaim control two years later through a popular vote. The U.S. embassy began warning Americans when it was prudent to stay indoors. Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then, told me. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

Burma in the late 1950s was firm but wobbly, “like a bowl of Jell-O,” said Rhoda Linton, an American woman who taught at a missionary school back then. “You never knew what to expect. Things changed very fast or not at all.”

By then, the Helfriches had quit Moulmein for a farm up north in Burma’s hilly Shan State. Baird had overseen a rollout of John Deere tractors there some years earlier. Pat, intent on securing a good education for her eldest child, sent Paula to high school in Darjeeling, India, the summer resort of the British Raj. At Loreto Convent, a school where Mother Teresa had trained and Vivien Leigh had attended classes, Paula’s classmates included Nepali royalty and the scions of aristocratic families from Thailand and Bhutan. She learned to play field hockey and ride horses. She ranked among the top three students in her class, argued on the debate team, and acted in plays; she stepped into Bela Lugosi’s shoes to play the lead in Dracula and sang as Cousin Hebe in HMS Pinafore.

On vacations, Paula returned to Shan State. It felt prosaic beside Loreto, all farmland and a tangle of younger siblings. Cosmopolitan Rangoon, though, tugged at her, even as the political havoc there worsened. In 1962, a final coup entrenched Ne Win in power and landed U Nu, his ministers, and 30 ethnic chiefs in custody. The new military-run government abolished the constitution, disbanded parliament, and introduced the Burmese Way to Socialism, an ideology that prioritized state-run institutions and rejected outside influence. The government nationalized major industries, including rice farming, mining, and logging. Production quickly plummeted, and foreigners began leaving the country by the thousands, then tens of thousands, every month.

As a teenager in Burma.
As a teenager in Burma.

When she finished high school, Paula moved to the capital. Despite its tumult—or perhaps because of it—she loved the city. She enrolled in a typing course, where she sat at a small, flat desk amid rows of Burmese classmates, her wavy light-brown hair deflated by the tropical air. She learned shorthand and the feel of onionskin beneath her fingers. At night, wearing lipstick purchased at Bogyoke Market, she attended dances at the Strand under high ceilings with polished wood rafters and lilting fans. One day she met a charismatic young man, the life of every party. He waited for her outside her typing class on his motorcycle. The force of what she felt for him came as a surprise, and they hoped to elope, revising their plans on an almost daily basis in the constantly changing political climate.  

Paula felt alive: loved and in love. She also felt invincible—until the day those four officers knocked on her apartment’s door.


Seventeen-year-old Paula continued wearing longyis after arriving in Chicago against her will. She eventually began to dress in Western styles, but she couldn’t kick her foreign accent. Social codes mystified her: wearing shoes on shag carpeting; the way people said “come over anytime,” then looked at her funny if she actually did stop by. She missed eating rice at every meal. Paula had an American passport, but she play-acted at being an American.

She lived at her grandmother’s house, the two-story brick manse in Winnetka where Pat had grown up and where certain doors remained closed at all times. Grammy, as Paula called her, was convinced that the ghost of her recently deceased husband flickered through the house, lingering in rooms that she forbade her granddaughter from entering. “I expect that the effort to make Grammy understand about Burma is a hopeless pursuit,” Pat commiserated in a letter.

Adulthood was thrust upon Paula. She found work as a Pan Am receptionist; she had flown the airline to and from India during her school days. By the summer of 1964, when Chicago was rocked by race riots in the suburb of Dixmoor, Paula had secured a job as a travel agent and discovered that she could eat rice and curries at an Indian restaurant in the city. Not the same as in Burma, but not terrible.

Letters from her parents grew melancholy. Pat and Baird urged their eldest child to be forbearing; they certainly had to be. The industries in which Baird had invested were decimated by nationalization. His missives to Paula included requests to borrow money from her small salary to help the family stay in Burma, even as everyone they knew was leaving. The demonetization of currency in 1964 wiped out savings across the country.

The same year, all remaining ethnic Indians, including those whose families had been in Burma for generations, were expelled. Hundreds of thousands boarded boats and planes with nothing but the clothing on their bodies. By 1965, the Burma Socialist Program Party stood as the country’s only legal political entity; dissent was not tolerated. “This Ne Win bunch,” Baird noted in a letter, “are surpassing even our wildest thoughts on irresponsibility and goodies for one’s friends—and jail for thine enemies.”

Paula traveled to Maryland that year to welcome her younger brother Stuart to America; he would live with family friends in order to attend high school while the rest of the Helfriches prepared to return. Baird flew in a few months later to procure a job in Washington, D.C., and a house in the suburbs. In 1966 came Pat and the younger children, including a new baby named Cathy. They arrived in New York on a coal steamer after a month at sea. One particularly gruesome ocean swell had sent Cathy rolling across the deck in her lifejacket.

Paula, Baird, and Stuart converged on Manhattan to meet the remaining Helfriches at the harbor. They were thin and shabbily dressed. All the possessions they’d packed into their Burmese baskets fit with them in two taxis, which Paula told me carried them to the Waldorf Astoria. A friend had lent them an apartment for a few days.

In one of the final letters Pat wrote to Paula before the Helfriches moved, she described traveling from the Shan State farm to catch a train to Rangoon for a wedding. There was rain and a bus headed for the wrong destination. She finally found a potato truck and hopped in the back with five Burmese passengers. Clunking through the rain, after small talk established who they all were and where they were going, after the sharing of fruit and snacks, the Burmese began to sing. “As I watched … beautiful scenery pass and flash by, listened to the music, and realized that I was riding on a potato truck,” Pat wrote, “I had a funny and weird feeling. I was perfectly at home.”

Now the Helfriches’ Burmese experiment, all 14 years of it, was over.

Back in Chicago, Paula told me, she enrolled at Northwestern University. Her attention, though, was elsewhere. In her novel Flying, which Paula described as a thinly veiled memoir, the protagonist, Zoe (Paula’s middle name), writes a brokenhearted letter every day to her Burmese boyfriend. He is a guerrilla, fighting the new regime. Eventually, the missives are delivered through a sequence of shadowy messengers, winding up in either Burma or Vietnam. She never knows for sure where her boyfriend is hiding, and she never gets a letter back.

Around her neck, Zoe wears a silver coin on a tattered string, a gift from her boyfriend. An anthropology professor identifies the coin as a pendant. He points to its Buddhist iconography and asks how she came by the piece. Zoe “kept the details to herself,” the book reads. “Who would believe it?”

When they met again many decades later, Paula discovered that her long-lost love still enjoyed dancing, as they’d once done together at the Strand. Now, though, he preferred to wear a longyi and nothing else. Her husband the warrior, she said, “who I can’t for the life of me get to wear a shirt.”


Marriage to someone else, someone not concealed in a jungle, must not have seemed like the worst idea. It offered a new beginning, a dive into an adult life of her own making. Paula met a man, a Chicagoan of Polish descent, and they soon wed.

The marriage didn’t go well, and it didn’t last long. He was abusive. She didn’t speak of him much to anyone, not then and not later, I was told in interview after interview with friends and family; she never mentioned him to me. I imagine the unhappiness of that marriage falling around her like a veil. The turmoil, the feeling of powerlessness, must have been at once familiar and new. It fell to her to get out. So she did.

Paula divorced and, within a few years, started working at Pan Am again, this time as a stewardess. She met every requirement for female employees in the airline’s golden age: fluency in English and another language, at least two years of college, height over five foot two, trim, beautiful, extroverted, quick on her feet. Also: able to walk down an aisle in heels without wobbling, culturally aware, flexible yet bossy, witty, and afflicted by wanderlust. Paula wanted to return to Southeast Asia and visit other faraway destinations.

Who spoke Burmese? The stewardesses didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula.

Most of the women who signed up for Pan Am’s stewardess program had predictable language proficiencies: French, German, Spanish. Paula Zoe Helfrich, from Maryland, as she was listed in the training class of March 1970—all traces of Chicago and the Midwest erased—spoke Burmese. Later, on flight sign-in sheets where the women listed their languages before takeoff, those who came after Paula would glance up and look around in confusion. Who spoke Burmese? They didn’t expect to see this white woman, “cute as a bug on a pistol, obviously a very strong personality,” as one friend from that time described Paula to me.

During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.
During a Pan Am layover in Tahiti.

The itinerant lifestyle suited Paula. A crew flew together for a week or a few, passing days in Paris and Monrovia and Singapore and Sydney, then splintered apart for time off. On vacations, Paula went to the Amazon, where she trawled caves thick with monkeys. She went to Timbuktu, just because she could. Pan Am kept strict rules for its stewardesses’ appearance, and in company photos Paula’s hair is neatly tied under a prim hat. She cocks her head and wears an arranged smile. In personal photos, though, her long hair is parted down the center and cascades down her chest. The more implausible the setting or action, the more comfortable she appears. At a zoo, she grins with her arms slung around a snake a foot wide and several times as long, curled across her neck and shoulders. Wearing a bikini, she leans against the post of a thatched hut in Guam, legs crossed, sipping a mixed drink. Atop a curved rock with the sand houses of Timbuktu clustered in the background, her hands pick at desert grasses.

The Vietnam War was in its fifth year when Paula started working as a stewardess. Pan Am contracted critical support to the U.S. military, blurring the line—as it had during World War II—between private, profit-seeking business and government entity. At one point, providing services for the war effort in Saigon was Pan Am’s largest global operation. A stewardess had to be able to relate, as more than one who’d worked for the airline told me, to celebrities and CEOs, but also to refugees and immigrants boarding a plane for the first time, and to servicemen on their way into combat, holding in their chests the sharp knowledge of what they’d been drafted to do. The women carried identification cards designating them as second lieutenants in the armed forces; in the event of capture, they were to be treated according to the terms of the Geneva Conventions. After meal service, they would listen to tales of combat or play cards with soldiers heading for a stint of R&R. Sometimes, disembarking from a flight, they would glimpse bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage.

The early 1970s was also an era of skyjackings and political bombings; a stewardess had to remain composed on the knife’s edge of danger. All were trained in emergency procedures and casual diplomacy, taught to conduct themselves as surrogate ambassadors to the United States. In Flying, Zoe, who becomes a stewardess like Paula, knows how to tell a passenger to fuck off with “a ten-dollar sentence,” so long as she adheres to protocol and smiles.

When she had enough seniority to choose, Paula requested Pan Am’s Honolulu base as her home. She lived near the beach, and when she wasn’t flying, she spent time with surfers and musicians and Army vets. Then a tragedy took her to the very edge of the war.

Operation Babylift was supposed to be a series of flights paid for by the U.S. government to evacuate orphans from Saigon as North Vietnamese troops threatened the city in early 1975. Various humanitarian and adoption agencies would help place the infants and young children in homes across America. Similar missions had brought children from Germany and Japan at the end of World War II, from Korea in the 1950s, and from Cuba after the Bay of Pigs.

On April 4, minutes after an Air Force cargo plane carrying the first group of orphans took off from a base in Saigon, the flight crashed, killing dozens of children and adults. It would be over a week, the Pentagon reported, before another flight could depart. Horrified by the disaster, American businessman and philanthropist Robert Macauley mortgaged his New Canaan, Connecticut, house to cover the fee of chartering a Pan Am 747 to get the survivors and a few hundred additional orphans out of the country. A second plane, paid for by an adoption agency, would follow.

In Hong Kong, several stewardesses were informed that their plane would be departing for Vietnam, not continuing on its scheduled route. They were all offered the chance to stay behind rather than fly into a war zone; a few quietly took their leave. The night before the flight, the remaining women slept at a Hyatt hotel—or didn’t sleep at all, as one told me. On the bus to the airport they were silent. Among them was Paula.

In the air on the way to Saigon the next day, Paula mixed formula and set up cardboard cribs. The plane must have seemed cavernous: the cold, canned air with so few bodies to warm it, the rows of metal and fabric seats, the sense of a clock ticking toward inevitable pandemonium.

As it neared Saigon, the plane dove steeply to avoid possible mortar fire, causing the women’s stomachs to plunge. On the runway, the plane taxied past the wreckage of the Air Force C-5A. The stewardesses had been told to keep away from the windows, not to look at the charred gray metal set against waving palms and rice paddies.

On Operation Babylift.
On Operation Babylift.

The plane stopped. The doors were opened, and a blast of heat entered. Then people were rushing up the stairs. Children’s limbs were bare, their faces streaming. Soon the women who held the orphans had damp faces, too. “You didn’t know if it was sweat or tears,” Tori Werner, the plane’s purser, told me. The stewardesses helped pat the infants down to check for bombs and converted the upstairs cabin of the 747—where they usually served lobster thermidor and cherries jubilee to first-class passengers—into a makeshift sick bay. The children wore bracelets with their names and those of their prospective adoptive parents on one wrist, medical bracelets on the other. The Pan Am women read off diseases: polio, hepatitis, tuberculosis, chicken pox. Doctors from a Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Saigon who had been enlisted to fly with the children wanted to bring their nurses, but the women hadn’t been granted permission to leave the country. “We strip-searched the nurses and stowed them in the lavatory until after takeoff,” Werner told me.

The stewardesses loaded infants into cardboard bassinets and pushed them under the seats. They strapped in whomever they could. With some 400 children packed in, the pilot took off. The scent of vomit and loosened bowels filled the plane’s air. “That’s the smell of freedom,” Paula would remember crowing as the flight ascended, banking high in the sky.

After delivering the children to the United States, the flight’s crew was given two weeks off. Paula rested in Honolulu. Just one day later, though, she received a phone call. “Would you like to fly another babylift?” the voice on the other end asked. A flight had been chartered again.

This time the crew didn’t make it to Vietnam. Controversy had sprouted around the mission; children with living parents had been discovered among the rescues. Within a month, a federal class-action lawsuit would be filed alleging that many of them hadn’t been orphans. Years later some of the children would seek out birth mothers in Vietnam. Others would call the Pan Am stewardesses, by then retired, on Mother’s Day.

Paula signed on for other potential evacuations from Saigon in the waning days before the city’s fall. For two weeks, according to one fellow stewardess, Paula and a Pan Am crew waited at a base in Guam for assignments. Flights had to make it in and out of Saigon before nightfall; if they didn’t leave by 3 p.m., they wouldn’t leave at all. At three, the pilots and stewardesses could start drinking the tension away, before reliving the same anticipation the next day.

During those two weeks, on a flight to evacuate some Americans, Paula told me, she smuggled Vietnamese refugees on board. Because it was unofficial, you’d be hard-pressed to find their names in a passenger manifest. In Flying, she writes about a U.S.-chartered flight for a dozen aid workers; Zoe, enraged at the waste of so many empty seats, marches “in cold fury” to the Vietnamese Pan Am agent and invites him to put refugees on the plane. The plane returns to Guam with 100-odd Vietnamese bar girls and their half-American children. “A different kind of Babylift,” Paula writes. “They were all survivors, hard-edged and glittery, beautiful and absolutely fierce in their determination to make a new life—it did not much matter where.”

No one from Pan Am with whom I spoke remembered young Vietnamese women being evacuated on such a flight. Werner, though, recalled Paula getting off a plane in the Guam heat one day “just so upset. The crew had taken out only 22 people. They could have taken 150. People were desperate to get out. She thought it was very selfish.” In her fiction, it seemed, Paula had righted the wrong she’d been unable to prevent in real life.


Here is fact verifiable by the existence of her two daughters: In Hawaii, Paula married a fellow Pan Am employee. She stopped flying in 1976 and shifted to a position in management, then hopscotched to catering and, finally, to operations. Her husband tried to convince her to move to California, and she gave it a shot, but the mainland never stopped feeling foreign. They returned to Hawaii, a sort of middle ground between the country on her passport and the one she considered home. In 1980, Baird and Pat moved to Hawaii, too; most of the Helfriches would eventually converge there. Pat cooked Burmese food in her kitchen. When the menu included curry, her children would descend on her house.

Baird died in 1981. Paula told me she took some of his ashes and scattered them in Moulmein, though how and when is unclear. In the 1980s and 1990s, Myanmar was one of the most isolated countries in the world. Agitation and crackdowns were common. Aung San Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy (NLD), which won elections handily in 1990, but the military nullified the results and put Suu Kyi under house arrest for much of the next two decades.

With one of her daughters in Hawaii.
With one of her daughters in Hawaii.

To Paula’s two daughters, born in the early 1980s, Myanmar was a far-off place of wondrous tales whispered to them at night before bed. The elephants at the teak mill; lions that lived under the house in Moulmein; their uncles hunting deer or boar in Shan State. They also heard stories of the boarding school in Darjeeling, where the prince of Nepal had given their mother a rose. In winter, Paula told them, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom when she heard jackals howling at the moon, her feet light on the sharp chill of stone floors, her hands pushing a high window open. The windowsill was wide and sturdy, and she’d sit on it. The big, bright full moon hung above her. She would howl with the jackals.  

Paula and her husband divorced when she was about 50. She went back to school for anthropology and took her daughters to visit the convent in Darjeeling. Inspired by her involvement in the Transport Worker’s Union in her Pan Am days, she began to work for senator Daniel Inouye and soon became executive director of the Hawaii Island Economic Development Board. She had a knack for fundraising, event planning, and public advocacy. After a decade in politics, Paula decided to run for local office in Hilo. Her bid for county council was rebuffed; she lost to a lawyer after, as her daughter Laurien Helfrich Nuss put it, “being kicked around a bit” by the old boys’ club.

In Darjeeling, Paula told her daughters, she would steal out of her dorm bedroom at night and sit on a wide, sturdy windowsill. A bright full moon hung above her, and she would howl with the jackals.  

She retreated into daily life in Hilo. She had a boyfriend, daughters in and just out of college who visited regularly, and correspondence with Rebecca Sprecher, an old stewardess friend, with whom she jointly wrote chapters of what would become Flying. Still, the world beckoned.

In Myanmar, a series of 2007 protests incited a violent crackdown but also persistent rumors of infighting within the junta. Meetings held with United Nations officials and Suu Kyi presaged an opening. That year, Paula and Mary, her younger sister, signed up for a volunteer medical mission to the country: Mary was a nurse, and Paula served as a translator. On the plane, Paula stood up at one point and walked to the bathroom. When she returned, Mary told me, Paula announced that she was going to stay in Yangon after the mission.

She’d met someone in the back of the plane in line for the restroom who had offered her a job teaching English at an international school. He could help her get a visa. The long-ago deportation, apparently, wouldn’t pose a problem. She’d finished the heavy work of parenting, Pat had passed away in 2000, and she was no longer married. Why not go?

After the plane landed, Paula composed emails to her daughters: “Hey what do you think, your mom’s gonna move to Burma.” Laurien told me that she wasn’t surprised.

Some things from Paula’s childhood were familiar: the smells of burning wood and diesel fuel, of mohinga stalls on the streets; the multitude of ethnic groups sharing the same space. New, though, were the government minders who tracked Paula’s whereabouts. Whenever she saw them outside her apartment, she invited them in for tea. They never accepted.

Her first few years in the country coincided with increased sanctions and mass incarcerations of dissidents. Then, as though the bubble of strain hanging over the country had become so large that it could not help but quiver and burst, change began to happen. In 2010, Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years, leading to a shift from military rule to military-backed civilian rule. Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. In 2011, the government released thousands of prisoners and signed a law allowing unions and strikes. The next year, the NLD won 43 legislative seats—by the numbers not much power, but recognition of legitimacy nonetheless. The new president introduced economic reforms, liberalizing foreign investment and reducing state control over a swath of industries. International sanctions began to dissolve.

Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.
Paula’s 2011 wedding to Saw Phillip.

Paula taught English to children and translated for monks. She helped to reinstate a local Rotary Club and attended biannual reunions with Loreto Convent alumni. Occasionally, she wrote articles for a Burmese business magazine. She was involved in the Pan Am network through which I met her and gave a weekly talk at the posh Governor’s Residence Hotel, lecturing about Burmese history to guests sipping gin and tonics. She always wore a flower in her hair.

And then there was love. Paula had not moved back to Myanmar with the intent of finding it, but she did. She told Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, that she encountered the object of her affection—the man she told me was her teenage boyfriend—at a horse race in Bagan, an ancient town known for its temples rising like a toothy crown into the sky. Their relationship bloomed around a campfire. It was comfortable and new, daunting and exciting.

Her father had often referred to Myanmar as a “missed opportunity.” Paula didn’t want the same to be said of her own life. “She was going to fulfill that dream of marrying a Burmese man,” her sister Mary told me, “which she could not have when she was 16.”


In July 2015, Paula wrote me an email. “Hurry! I will return to Hawaii Dec with husband… this may be it as I have health issues. Nothing fatal but serious and $$$ challenges, dammit.” For several months, we’d been talking of meeting again; this would be my only chance.

I quickly booked my ticket and flew to Myanmar. I knew I would be chasing Paula’s past down streets renamed by the regime that kicked her out, looking for her childhood in crumbling buildings. I would also be tracing the blurry line between truth and fabrication in a mind given to embellishment.

After landing, I rode into Yangon watching its famous round pagodas glint above the trees. I saw glass and steel buildings that had been constructed in just the past few years, since the loosening of trade sanctions. On traffic medians, clusters of children played soccer, their limbs flashing under the streetlights.

The next morning, I hired a driver to take me on a tour of the city, a haphazard combination of nationally relevant locations and places Paula had frequented: the Strand Hotel and the sprawling university complex where she’d canoodled with her husband way back when; Suu Kyi’s house and her father’s enormous red tomb. The driver, Than Lwin, sketched out stories of student protests, like those in 1988 that percolated from the university out to monks, housewives, taxi drivers—seemingly everyone. He didn’t tell me about the thousands of people the government killed when it retaliated. At Suu Kyi’s home on Inle Lake, Than Lwin explained how an American man—“Fifty! He was fifty!”—swam across to meet the Nobel Peace Prize winner while she was detained. There was no sensationalism in his telling of history, just action and reaction plainly related, with human idiosyncrasy sprinkled in.

In Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with campaign bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

I had arrived in the lead-up to a general election, and Suu Kyi, still leader of the NLD, was running. I saw few campaign posters, but in Yangon’s endless, messy traffic, cars were plastered with NLD bumper stickers and flags. Privately owned vehicles, which had more than doubled since the loosening of import laws in 2011, offered the opportunity to mount an opinion.

After moving back to Myanmar.
After moving back to Myanmar.

Paula wasn’t answering her phone or email. She hadn’t come to meet me at my hotel as we’d planned. When I went to the Governor’s Residence to try to get her address, I was told that she hadn’t given her usual talk in weeks. I knew she lived in Thanlyin, a city of just under 200,000 people across the Bago River from Yangon. Than Lwin picked me up on my second day to go find her. As we sat in traffic on a bridge, he pointed out condo towers rising on the far bank; the 135-acre complex was financed mostly by a Singaporean firm. According to legend, he added, shifting easily to the ancient past, this was the same spot where Prince Min Nandar had been swallowed by a crocodile.

In Thanlyin, we went to the market, the municipal water office, two Buddhist complexes, and the local immigration office searching for signs of Paula. Than Lwin translated or spoke on my behalf. Finally, a pink-lipsticked immigration bureaucrat, one of 12 uniformed women in a room thick with wobbly stacks of manila folders, thumbed through a list of foreigners in Thanlyin—all on business, social, or meditation visas—and found Paula’s address.

My palms were sweaty when we pulled up to a concrete house with high white walls and metal gates. Her husband answered the door. So this was him, the stuff of romantic legend. He was tall, fit, and shirtless, just as Paula had described him. He chewed betel nut impassively as Than Lwin introduced us, and he spoke very little English. I saw behind him two suitcases splayed open on the floor at the edge of the nearly empty living room. Their departure from Myanmar was imminent.

Paula’s husband retreated into the house and waved me in. I stood in the living room with Than Lwin for a moment, then heard Paula’s high, loud voice as she walked in unsteadily to greet me. “We were just saying, When is Julia coming to visit?” she exclaimed. She was much sicker than she had let on in her email. Her legs had slimmed enough that, without the cane she used, they appeared unable to support her.

Her husband dusted off what little furniture remained in the living roomthey’d sold or given away the rest in preparation for their departure—and we sat down to talk. “I don’t know that I know,” I said, turning on my recorder, “how you two first met?” Finally, I would learn the full arc of their love story, of rekindled infatuation and the improbability of entering into a marriage they’d plotted as lusty teenagers.

In an instant, the myth crumbled. Paula said they’d met for the first time not long after she arrived in Myanmar. He was head of security at the school where she first taught English. Paula interrupted herself to speak in Burmese to her husband, who disappeared and reemerged with a glass of water and a pillow for her feet. “He’s Karen,” she continued, referring to an ethnic minority that has been fighting the government since the 1940s. He had once been a soldier in the Karen National Liberation Army.

I wanted to press her—I also wanted to do anything but press her. Paula was so ill, her home so bare, her husband so attentive, and my arrival so hasty. Our conversation drifted. Then, as if it could suffice, I returned to the topic of her marriage and kept my approach simple: So she hadn’t wed her teenage sweetheart, I clarified.

“Ah no,” she said brightly, as if she’d forgotten having said otherwise. “That was Allan.” He was Chinese-Burmese and had moved to Australia years before. She’d seen him once or twice when he’d come to visit Myanmar; he had five children of his own.

Her third husband’s name was Saw Phillip. He was a few years younger than her and handsome, with a broad, open smile. He was a fan of American country music, an avid cook of local delicacies like snake and eel, and a horse trainer. They spent four years circling one another, attracted but not interacting much, until they found themselves together at the horse race in Bagan. After they began to date, Saw Phillip didn’t wait long to suggest marriage; as a Christian, he didn’t approve of cohabitation before marriage. We’re too old to mess around, he told Paula as he proposed. In photos from their 2011 wedding, they wear velvety flower leis, stitched together by Paula’s daughters.

Paula and I spoke for an hour and made plans for interviews over the coming days. As Than Lwin and I drove back across the river, my mind felt thin and reedy. I tried to wrap it around the details of her life that Paula had shared and the fractures running through them. Perhaps, I thought, I could find mooring in Myanmar itself, something physical and true. Than Lwin and I headed back to Yangon, to 26 Naut Mauk Street, which used to be 26 Park Road, Paula’s first house in Myanmar.

It looked nothing like the photos I’d seen. A high fence had been erected around the house, and fancy cars sat in the driveway. Nearby, the occasional well-preserved colonial-era home faced others with walls so deteriorated that they resembled latticework. During the bad decades, I learned, the elite had allowed their houses to rot. An unpainted exterior let them live comfortably inside while seeming to remain equal with the population outside: a true facade. Now they were shells.

The remnants of Paula’s past were equally gutted in Mawlamyine, as Moulmein is now called, where Than Lwin and I drove on a sunny afternoon a few days later. We found Baird Helfrich’s teak mill, or what remained of it. The languishing structure had sat empty for years before it was finally bulldozed not long before we arrived. A towering smokestack, lumpy earth, and hunks of gray stone remained. Two stray dogs nosed the dirt. None of the neighbors knew what was going to be built on the empty land, but fresh orange bricks stacked in a pile augured some new structure.

I wondered what had happened to the elephants Paula so loved. As the economy worsened, I learned, elephants working at mills were sent into the wild to fend for themselves. But they’d lived so long in captivity that they starved. Supposedly, mossy hunks of elephant bones still litter the jungle around Mawlamyine.


There is another version of how Paula left Burma in 1963, less dramatic but no less devastating. The Chinese invasion of northern India the year before had put a stop to her classes in Darjeeling ahead of a holiday break; students had descended from the mountains on a train line clogged with munitions for the Indian army. When classes resumed in the new year, Burma’s government had tightened restrictions on foreigners’ movement across the country’s borders. Paula never graduated from Loreto Convent. She moved to Rangoon, took a typing course, and worked at the travel desk at the Strand—that’s all true. She was in love with Allan and she wanted to stay in Burma, even as it was falling apart around her.

In this version, the real one, triangulated from letters, the memories of family and friends, and her own contradictions, Paula was sent away—simple as that. Pat and Baird made the decision. Her parents needed permission from the government; any foreigner trying to leave the country would have had to fill out the proper paperwork. They did so, and then they put her on a plane to Illinois. Her younger siblings were told that she needed to expand her opportunities. She also needed to meet, as her sister Mary put it, other fish in the sea.

“We knew America was going to be a big change for you and that all of us are going to have to do some adjusting to get back into the swing of American life,” Baird wrote in a November 1963 letter to Paula, just a few weeks after she’d left. “We also think that some of your initial impressions will modify slightly, and hope that things are gradually settling down for you,” chimed Pat in the next missive.

As I read these letters, sitting on my couch in New York on spring mornings that were longer and brighter every week, I considered how something as objective as the sun in Chicago must have betrayed Paula. She’d never experienced seasons, other than dry and rainy. She wouldn’t have been used to the way daylight up north gets thinner as September moves to November, and how the sun races across the sky in December. The loss of light, along with the cold, would have felt foreign, perhaps like an alternate reality.

Autobiographical memory is among the trickiest of all psychological materials. The emotional content of an experience affects the way it becomes imprinted in the mind, which then erodes with age. Research also shows that the emotions we feel when looking back on an experience, along with the reasons we want to remember it, shape which details surface and which are forgotten. There’s other sculpting that occurs between an experience and its recollection. “Knowledge acquired after an event, and changes in our feelings toward and appraisals about an event, can lead to biases in how we recall emotional details,” psychologists Alisha C. Holland and Elizabeth A. Kensinger wrote in a 2010 study. Memory, then, can be factually inaccurate but also the truest window into how a person perceives her life.

The stories people believe about themselves depend on audience reception, too. Storytelling, as an evolutionary mechanism, is how humans transmit facts, using sticky emotional content to amplify instructive potential. In Paula’s narration of her life, I discerned call and response: People’s fascination with specific details, their evident desire for shock and awe relieved by romance and justness, influenced the tales she spun. I was one of these people who, with a needy ear, unwittingly encouraged her. “Mom knew so much about the world, fact-wise,” her daughter Laurien said. “She had this ability to tell stories and embellish or create them in such a way that they became these legends.”

Pain also played a part. “Coping mechanisms in dealing with emotional disappointment … can also influence memory,” Holland and Kensinger wrote. Laurien noted that her mother “found comfort in being able to almost psychologically reframe her trauma through telling a truth that felt right to her versus what was literally fact.” When I compare the facts of Paula’s life that I discovered with the version she told me, where there are inconsistencies there is also survival instinct, a need to persevere through chaos, to rationalize mistakes made, love sacrificed, and stability lost. Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

In Vietnam.
In Vietnam.

One of those structures was Myanmar itself, whose government all but erased the first decade of her life. The regime didn’t talk about or teach the history of the 1950s, except to say that the civilian authorities of the day didn’t care about nationalism and were risking the country’s future. State propaganda still paints the fleeting decade between colonialism and military rule with the same black brush; it is sometimes called the “time of trouble.” Than Lwin told me that he wanted to study history, but the university in Yangon was closed for much of the 1990s, when he was of student age, for fear of an uprising.

Only recently have efforts to preserve memories and revive open discussion emerged. Last year a collection of Burmese and Western academics relaunched the Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship. Christina Fink of George Washington University told me about an oral-history project conducted in 2010 for the NGO Internews: Several dozen elderly Burmese were interviewed about the postcolonial era. Their testimonies varied, but they spoke overwhelmingly of freedom of speech, vibrant media, and the aftermath of civil war. Each interviewee put different conditions on the publication of his or her interview: “not to be released until I die,” for instance, or “not to be published until full democracy is achieved.” The interviews have not been released.

Paula’s idea of home was plastic out of necessity. She remembered it one way, experienced it another, and lived, in her mind, somewhere in between.


“I’m making a list!” Paula exclaimed when I walked into her house for lunch on my last day in Yangon. At that point, I’d spent hours listening to stories in which dates shifted and anecdotes played out first in one setting, then in another. I had resolved to ask no more questions, only to be present. “A list of all the places I’ve been for you,” she continued. “I loved anything to do with weird places and blood and guts and gore.”

She numbered the list in shaky block letters. She started with the Yucatán, where she’d climbed pyramids and thought of Burma’s jungles, and then the Amazon. The Marquesas, Nepal, Huahine in French Polynesia, Syria. Just as she wrote “East Africa” next to number nine, her pen ran out of ink. I told her not to worry about it. She was writing on the back of an undecipherable lab report from Pun Hlaing Siloam Hospitals. It was stained with soy sauce from a feast Saw Phillip had prepared for us, which we had just devoured.

Each creative retelling of her past enabled Paula to take a step forward, bridging gaps in official narratives she did not write. Stories allowed her to generate fissures in the flat surfaces of power structures that she could not control.

I left Yangon two days before Paula and Saw Phillip were scheduled to depart for Hawaii. I spent my last sunset in Yangon walking its crooked sidewalks, sidestepping rusty splotches of betel-juice spit. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose party would win the election the following month, smiled down on me from posters that had finally sprung up during my stay. I ate a bowl of mohinga at a restaurant downtown. When he drove me to the airport that night, Than Lwin gave me a fossilized hunk of wood from his native village as a parting gift. “Maybe I am a reporter, too,” he said gravely as he shook my hand.

My arms had started to itch at dinner, and by the time I landed for a layover in Hong Kong, my entire face had swollen into a fair, if unpurpled, approximation of someone who’d lost a fistfight. I found a doctor, got a few shots, and remained in Hong Kong for 24 hours, until the swelling went down. The allergic reaction was minor, an entirely solvable bit of bodily treason, and yet the symmetry struck me—the taste of what Paula must have felt many times in her life: isolation, fear, and throbbing unreality, and then, when order was restored, a chasing sense of luck, confidence, even fearlessness.

Less than a day after I arrived home in New York, Paula landed in Hawaii with Saw Phillip. Her daughters met her at the airport and took her straight to the hospital. Within a day and a half, she had died. Liver disease was the cause. Rebecca Sprecher, her Pan Am friend, called and told me. The news struck me as both unbelievable and fitting: Paula’s death was sudden and tragic to those who knew her, but she had hurdled into it telling her own story.

The impact of a story—its spell—is unique to every listener. Different people were drawn to different aspects of Paula’s life. “She was an actress and a politician, too,” her sister Mary told me. “She was truly passionate.” Sprecher admired the combination of intellect and daring, how Paula read T. E. Lawrence and “had me reading the Raj Quartet long before Masterpiece Theater [adapted it]. She went everywhere, she had read everything, she knew everything…. I was in awe of her.” As perhaps the last person to hear Paula tell her story in full, I was rapt by the Herculean effort of remaining a woman who moved through the world with daring and panache even when outside forces threatened to disable those impulses.

“There is no Myanmar word for goodbye,” Paula wrote in the prologue she’d planned to publish with her parents’ letters. “One simply announces a departure.”

Love Thy Neighbor


Love Thy Neighbor

American evangelicals’ antigay gospel forced him to flee Uganda. Then Christians in California offered him a home. A refugee’s story in words and pictures*.

Story by Jacob Kushner

Photography by Jake Naughton

The Atavist Magazine, No. 66

Jacob Kushner is a freelance journalist who works in East and Central Africa, the Caribbean, and Germany. He writes about migration, foreign aid, human rights, and innovation in developing countries. His work has appeared in The New York Times MagazineNational GeographicPacific StandardNewsweekWired, and other publications.

Jake Naughton is a visual journalist working on stories about issues of identity. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times. Additional clients include BuzzFeedHuffington Post Highline, NPR, and Vice Magazine

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar

Published in March 2017. Design updated in 2021.

*Because media images have been used to target LGBT people in his home country, here, at the subject’s request, his face has been obscured.


Act I: Flight

Shawn Katusabe stood in the watchtower clad head to toe in body armor, a rifle in his hands. A slender, 24-year-old private-security contractor from Uganda with thick eyebrows and a winning grin, Katusabe had manned the tower in southern Iraq for five months. Every morning for several hours he peered beyond the walls, looking for movement. It was 2011, and Katusabe was accustomed to the realities of war. Three years prior, on the first night of his first tour in Iraq, Katusabe’s base had come under a mortar attack. He’d taken shelter in a bunker, “scared as shit.” His latest deployment was quieter: Scarcely anyone approached the perimeter he was tasked with protecting.

Katusabe’s partner on those watchtower shifts, he later recalled in an interview, was a friendly U.S. soldier from Michigan. The man was tall, well built, and attractive. They talked constantly. “Only two people worked in the tower,” Katusabe told me, “so we shared everything.” Or almost everything: On this particular day, Katusabe recounted, he finally got around to asking, casually, if the soldier had a girlfriend.

“No, I don’t have a girl,” the man replied.


“What about you?”



The pair exchanged small talk about American and Ugandan women for a few minutes. Then, Katusabe later told me, the U.S. soldier blurted out, “I love men.”

Katusabe was stunned. Did the other soldier know his secret?

His entire life Katusabe had been conditioned to guard the fact that he was gay. He was born into a conservative family; katusabe means “let us pray” in his native language of Luganda. As a child, he would sometimes dress up in his sisters’ clothes at home. “To my parents, it was just a joke,” he told me. As a teenager, he secretly dated boys. To deflect suspicion from his family, he pretended to have a girlfriend.

There was ample reason for secrecy: During Katusabe’s adolescence, foreign evangelicals, including prominent American figures like Scott Lively of Abiding Truth Ministries and Rick Warren of Saddleback Church, began visiting Uganda and spreading an emphatic antigay gospel. They proselytized that homosexuality was an abomination promoted by a nefarious international movement to upend traditional African values. It was dangerous to human survival. In Katusabe’s recollection, a central message was, “How are you gonna create if you have a girl and a girl or a man and a man?” The message seeped into Ugandan politics—Lively even issued a five-hour address to the country’s parliament in 2009—and conservative bureaucrats were eager to embrace it.

By 2011, the situation for openly gay Ugandans was dire. The government was considering the infamous “kill the gays” bill, which earned its moniker because an early draft called for executing people for the crime of homosexuality. That January, David Kato, a prominent gay-rights advocate, was beaten to death with a hammer in Kampala shortly after he won a lawsuit against a newspaper that had published the photos and names of alleged homosexuals under a directive: “HANG THEM.”

But perched high above the desert in Iraq, Katusabe was a long way from this cultural hostility and his religious roots. He trusted the U.S. soldier, because they’d spent so many long mornings in tight quarters. With barely any hesitation, Katusabe admitted that he liked men, too.

Things took off fast from there. The duo started working out at the base’s gym together. Before long, Katusabe told me, they were hooking up on their days off and in hours stolen between work shifts. They were careful to keep the relationship secret. The repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which banned openly gay people from serving in the U.S. military, didn’t go into effect until September 2011.  

When his tour ended, despite the harsh climate that awaited him, Katusabe returned to Kampala. The relationship with the man from Michigan ended, too, though they kept in touch on Facebook and WhatsApp. Katusabe fantasized about moving to America one day. He was infatuated with hip-hop culture and Hollywood action movies like Black Hawk Down. He settled instead for opening a boutique where he sold American-style clothing and an internet café where clients could watch American music videos on YouTube. He earned enough money to rent a small apartment. He also started dating a new boyfriend.

The men were discreet, but gossip bloomed quickly, eventually finding its way to the authorities. Occasionally, police would arrest Katusabe for his rumored lifestyle and force him to pay a bribe before releasing him. One day his mother called him crying. A family friend had ratted him out to her. Katusabe insisted that he wasn’t gay: It was a vicious lie, he told his mother, just “people talking shit” because they were jealous of his businesses.

In December 2013, Uganda’s parliament passed the antigay bill, with a prison sentence substituted for the death penalty. Local newspapers published more photos and personal information about people they’d decided to expose as being gay. That’s how Katusabe was betrayed—this time for good. “A friend called me up and said, ‘Hey man, you’re gay? It’s in the newspaper!’” Katusabe recalled. He was powerless to stop word from spreading.

The mall in Kampala where Shawn Katusabe’s shop was located.

Police ransacked his shop. A few days later Katusabe was riding home on a boda boda—a motorcycle taxi—when he spotted flames. His apartment was on fire. Rather than assess the damage, “I told the boda boda to turn around,” Katusabe said. If the people terrorizing him could find him where he worked and lived, they could find him anywhere. He realized that he had to escape Uganda.

Katusabe’s mother is from South Sudan, so he headed there, first to the capital, Juba, where he stayed with a cousin, and then to the town of Yirol, where he got a job at a bakery. One day a coworker asked if Katusabe was gay. In Iraq, Katusabe had heard the U.S. soldier’s confession before sharing his secret; this time he miscalculated. “I told him,” Katusabe said. “He was acting like a gay man.… How stupid I was.” The man told the bakery’s manager, who called the authorities. When they arrived, they beat Katusabe with the butts of their rifles and cut off his dreadlocks with sharp glass from a broken bottle.

“A friend called me up and said, ‘Hey man, you’re gay? It’s in the newspaper!’”

No longer safe in South Sudan, Katusabe went back to Kampala, where he stayed with his sister. It was just a stopover: He’d been in touch with a representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Nairobi. If he got to the Kenyan capital, the UNHCR told him, he could apply for asylum in the West. Katusabe’s sister helped him pay for a bus ticket, and he realized that he might never see her again. “I cried all the way to the bus,” he told me. He couldn’t bear to say goodbye to his parents, so he messaged them instead. “Please pray for me,” he typed. “I’ll be alright, and one day we’ll meet.”

Katusabe arrived on a deserted Nairobi street late one night in mid 2014. It was cool and raining. He had just 200 Kenyan shillings (about $2.50) in his pocket and the phone number of a UNHCR officer. He called and she answered. “I felt so good, like someone was waiting for me,” Katusabe told me, “like this is where I’m supposed to be.”

After briefly staying in a dirty, crowded transit center with other refugees, Katusabe qualified for a small living stipend and moved into an apartment with five other gay Ugandans. Kenya wasn’t necessarily safer for them; homosexuality is illegal there, too, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Police routinely extort or blackmail people they identify as homosexual.

Katusabe vowed not to repeat the mistake he’d made in South Sudan, outing himself to a stranger. For more than nine months he laid low. He and his roommates told neighbors they were students, and Katusabe even got a false ID card to prove it. “Every time we’d go to the UN for appointments, we’d say we’re going to school,” he recalled. “Everything was fake.”

While his asylum application was under review, a process that required numerous interviews and long stretches of anxious waiting, Katusabe received bad news from his sister. The police had visited his family’s home in Kampala and asked his younger brother, who was 20, where Katusabe was. He told the cops he didn’t know, though he did. “They said, ‘Well, you’re gonna go to jail until you figure it out,’” Katusabe told me. “He spent six months in jail. Every day they’d ask him if he figured it out.”

Up until then, “it was me who was suffering,” Katusabe explained. “I don’t want people suffering on my behalf.” He thought about going back to Uganda to give himself up in exchange for his brother’s freedom, but he worried about what the police might do to him.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on his guilt, though: Katusabe’s asylum request was approved in early 2015, and he was told he’d be moving to the United States. He was ecstatic at the thought of living in America but disappointed when he learned the precise location: Greensboro, North Carolina, a midsize city in a historically conservative state. “When in Uganda you talk about America, you see Manhattan,” Katusabe told me. “You see Disneyland, you see Hollywood.”

Katusabe boarded his flight to the United States that May, touching down in the Carolina Piedmont just a few weeks before the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision that made marriage equality the law of the land. Despite the goodwill surrounding the ruling, Katusabe was wary of being out: ministers from the U.S. had helped soak Uganda in the homophobia that had forced him to leave, and now he was a foreign, black, gay man in the American South.

Some of his cruelest critics, though, were fellow refugees. Katusabe enrolled in an evening class where he practiced his English skills for job interviews. Two other students, refugees from Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, began harassing him. “They were like, ‘Gays are not right, it’s not good. And if you’re an African you’re not supposed to do that, it’s not part of our culture,’” Katusabe said. Outside of the classroom he never felt safe, in part because he didn’t meet other gay people in Greensboro. He found the city lonely. Scanning the social-media photos of refugees who’d been resettled in larger, more vibrant cities didn’t help.

Those same digital networks provided Katusabe with an unexpected salve. He connected with gay Ugandans who had resettled in Long Beach, California, and they described how good life was near the shore. Everybody seemed to mind their own business. The city had a prominent pride parade, an openly gay mayor, and crosswalks painted to look like rainbows.

A network of local Christians had resettled these Ugandans. Many religious organizations across the United States support refugees, but this group was different. It was motley, for one, and its goals were highly specific: Working across denominational lines—evangelical, Episcopalian, Jewish—it was on a mission to aid the same gay people whose lives some U.S. religious leaders had helped destroy. Maybe, Katusabe thought, they could help him, too. He got in touch with a resettlement volunteer in Long Beach. Before he knew it, his case had been transferred and someone had bought him a plane ticket to California.

Katusabe was finally going to the America of his dreams. That’s what he hoped, anyway, as he soared westward over the country toward his new, unfamiliar home.


Act II: Arrival

The first thing Katusabe noticed about Southern California was the cars: Everyone drove everywhere. It was the afternoon when a volunteer picked him up at the airport, and he experienced Long Beach for the first time as it fleeted past his car window. He saw sleek, enviable sports cars and SUVs cruising around town. He wanted one of his own—preferably his favorite, a Jeep Wrangler. Katusabe knew he’d need to find a job in order to buy a car.

But he had more basic things to sort out first, like a place to live. When he arrived in California, Katusabe didn’t have a home.

Amy Valenzuela-Mier, 47, is a parishioner at St. Luke’s, a liberal Episcopal church in Long Beach. By the summer of 2015, she’d already helped resettle half a dozen gay Ugandans as part of the Christian network. Katusabe, though, posed a challenge. Because he had been in North Carolina originally, the federal funds provided to support him—about $1,125 for the first 90 days after arrival in America—had been exhausted. That made housing hard to nail down. “We’re in Southern California. It’s expensive here,” Valenzuela-Mier told me. St. Luke’s agreed to let Katusabe live at the church for 90 days, sleeping on the floor of an office while he looked for a job.

His first morning at St. Luke’s was a Sunday. When Katusabe woke up, he headed to the bathroom, which was in a community area where homeless people could eat and shower. Dozens of adrift men and women showed up on weekends. Katusabe could barely make his way through the crowd. “It stressed me out,” he told me. “I have no family, nobody. I felt like maybe me too, I’m homeless.”

Katusabe also saw an opportunity to prove his worth: He volunteered to keep the community space clean and to organize a shower schedule. Reverend Ricardo Avila, the interim rector at St. Luke’s, described the new arrival as friendly and helpful. “But he seemed a little lost,” Avila added. “It must have been lonely and hard for him. He just longed to be somewhere settled.”

Still, staying at St. Luke’s brought hints of the America Katusabe had been looking for. During his second month staying there, he and another Ugandan refugee, a lesbian, witnessed a ceremony between two newlywed men. The happy grooms stood at the front of the church to receive a blessing from Reverend Avila. Katusabe was confused at first, then thrilled.

This is no longer Kenya, this is no longer Uganda, he thought. We’re in the U.S., we’re good.

A map at World Relief’s offices indicating refugees’ origins.

St. Luke’s had a progressive reputation on issues like marriage equality, but the same wasn’t true of every religious group in the coalition assisting gay refugees. Among them was a chapter of World Relief, the charitable arm of the National Association of Evangelicals. The NAE espoused antigay rhetoric around the globe for many years, including in Kenya. In 2006, infamously, a male escort revealed that NAE president and megachurch pastor Ted Haggard bought crystal meth and engaged in sexual acts with him, earning Haggard a stint in the public spotlight as America’s biggest hypocrite.

By 2015, the NAE had softened its official stance on gay rights, and Sandy Ovalle was a new hire at World Relief’s branch near Long Beach. I asked Ovalle if the gay Ugandans offered her organization something in return: a chance to right past institutional wrongs. We were in her office, where a copy of Sojourners, the progressive Christian magazine, sat on her desk and Jon Stewart’s America: The Book, a liberal satire of U.S. history, was on a bookshelf.

Ovalle, 31, insisted that aiding gay refugees wasn’t about redemption. “This is what we do,” she told me. “The Christian faith does call you to love people radically, whether you agree with them or not.”

Ovalle worked with Valenzuela-Mier to recruit housing volunteers at four local churches and a synagogue. The most unlikely seeming among them was Bill White, the evangelical pastor of City Church of Long Beach. White volunteered to take the very first arrival, a gay Ugandan man in his late twenties. “I remember thinking, This guy is in the pastor’s house of a fundamentalist church. How does he not think he’s going to be crucified or something?” Valenzuela-Mier said.

“I don’t know what Jesus you follow, because the one I follow says love your enemies, which I don’t think includes killing them.”

What she didn’t know was that White, 49, considers himself an LGBT ally. He has a brother who is gay. When he came out to his parents, they reacted by telling him he wasn’t welcome for Christmas if he had a boyfriend. In that case, White announced, his brother could come to his house for the holiday instead. White’s own son had since come out to the City Church congregation, and White had led discussions among his flock about homosexuality’s place in the lives of evangelical Christians.

When he learned that fellow evangelicals had aided in the persecution of LGBT people in Uganda, White told me, he felt “sick, sad, broken, angry.”

“I don’t know what Jesus you follow, because the one I follow says love your enemies,” he said, “which I don’t think includes killing them.”

Katusabe at home.

Thanks in part to the Christian network, which coordinated rides to recruitment sessions and interviews, Katusabe got a job at an auto-parts company off-loading heavy tires and other supplies from shipping containers. It took him a bike ride and two buses to get to work from St. Luke’s, and he was expected to arrive by 4 a.m. He hated traveling so far to do backbreaking labor for little pay. Within three weeks of starting the job, though, the company laid him off. He was back to where he’d started.

As he struggled to adjust, Katusabe sometimes drank. A slight person, it only took a few beers after work to get him buzzed. One day someone at St. Luke’s said they found him passed out in a stairway. Katusabe maintains that he was in his room—the office—but accidentally left the door open. He also forgot his keys to the church sometimes, which required him to wake up the groundskeeper. Within two months of arriving at St. Luke’s, Katusabe was starting to wear out his welcome.

Finally, in August 2015, Katusabe received good news: a volunteer had found him an apartment on the first floor of an artist’s loft. A few months later, he secured a studio on the ground floor of a small housing complex with a façade painted the color of faded terracotta. He’d have a bed, a bathroom, laundry facilities, and privacy. It was what he needed to feel like he could stand on his own two feet.

Someone in the resettlement network cosigned the lease and chipped in for the initial rent. Katusabe had just gotten a new job as a nighttime security guard at an oil refinery and soon picked up a second security gig at a local DMV. He started working 80 hours a week and paying his own rent.

In a few months, he’d saved up enough money to buy a used car, his dream since riding on California’s freeways for the first time. He asked Reverend Avila to put a blessing on it and to bless all the people he’d encounter on the road.     

A night out in Long Beach. 

Katusabe made friends beyond the tightly knit Ugandan and Christian circles in Long Beach and started going out on the town. He didn’t tell his new friends much about his personal life, though. He’d heard too many gay jokes and slurs at work. One coworker even suggested that if his son were gay, he’d kill him. I asked Katusabe if he thought the threat was real. “Man, everybody has a gun over here,” he said of America. “People do stupid things.”

He mostly blended into his new social group, dropping words like “man” and “bro,” commenting on women’s attractiveness, and sometimes even agreeing with homophobic remarks. Once, though, he suggested to friends that they grab a drink on Broadway, a street lined with restaurants, bars, and shops that traverses Long Beach. They laughed at him. That’s the gay part of town, they said. Another time a friend invited him over to drink some Coronas and watch a movie. A third man, a twentysomething student from Gabon, was there. In the movie, two gay characters kissed. “In Africa, they don’t allow that,” the Gabonese guy said. Katusabe suggested that everyone just shut up, watch, and drink.

Among the parishioners at St. Luke’s, however, Katusabe sometimes felt pressure to be more open about his sexuality. They invited him to LGBT community centers and pride events. A woman once asked Katusabe why he didn’t act like he was gay. “I said, ‘So you want me to be putting on high-heel shoes?’” he recalled.

Katusabe grew close with a member of the congregation named Tom Crowe, a six-foot-four, heavyset man in his mid-sixties with gray hair, glasses, and a booming voice. Crowe, who is gay, had been an LGBT-rights advocate for decades. Helping gay Ugandans was just his latest project. “He wore out his Volkswagen driving people to appointments and ended up having to buy a new car,” Valenzuela-Mier, a lesbian and activist as well, told me. Crowe housed two refugees, whom Katusabe started hanging out with. The group would watch TV, drink, and cook Ugandan food: matooke (boiled and smashed green bananas), ugali (made from white corn meal), and groundnut stew.

Crowe didn’t take no for an answer—if employees at local agencies or businesses wouldn’t make exceptions to help the refugees, his go-to line was, “May I speak to your supervisor, please?” Valenzuela-Mier said that because of his tough attitude, she’d heard him referred to as the General. Some refugees call him jaja, which means grandfather in Luganda. To Shawn he became Papa Tom.

“In the past, they went through a lot of hell,” Katusabe said of U.S. gay-rights advocates. “Maybe they felt like we still feel like in Africa.”

Sometimes Crowe overstepped, announcing that the people he was helping buy clothes or attend a doctor’s appointment were gay refugees. He was being supportive—like a proud father embarrassing his kids—but the Ugandans wanted to keep a lower profile. I once heard Crowe ask Katusabe, “What happened to your boyfriend?” Katusabe had never mentioned a relationship in our interviews. “Aw, you know, too much work,” Katusabe replied, shrugging it off.

Katusabe doesn’t fault Crowe for encouraging him to be more open. Crowe, after all, fought to create an America in which being gay isn’t a crime. “In the past, they went through a lot of hell,” Katusabe said of gay-rights advocates in California. “Maybe they felt like we still feel like in Africa.”

Katusabe with friends. 

One morning, as he sat on the bed in his apartment, I asked Katusabe if keeping his sexuality mostly private bothered him. “I want you to understand this,” Katusabe replied. “I lived in Uganda for 27 years, right? I’ve faked a straight life for over 27 years.” He seemed to be saying that not discussing his attraction to men had become the most normal thing he did.

Would he ever come out to his friends in Long Beach, I inquired, and what would they think if he did? “They will know it,” he said, meaning it’s only a matter of time. But he wasn’t sure when to tell them, or how. Sometimes he felt sanguine about doing it soon; in other moments, he said he needed more time. He imagined one close friend feeling bad upon finding out and saying something like, “Oh Shawn, we’ve been talking all about gay shit all the time and you never said anything!”

One of Katusabe’s tattoos.

To Katusabe, the relationship that ultimately matters “is between me and God.” On a Sunday morning last July, we pulled into the parking lot of St. Matthew’s, a Catholic church located a short drive from his apartment. He still attended mass, despite everything that Christianity—in particular American Christianity—had taken from him. St. Matthew’s welcomed gay parishioners, but unlike St. Luke’s it drew the line at marriage equality. “They talk about how the Bible describes love, how you love each other and respect each other,” Katusabe told me.

After mass I asked Katusabe if he thinks homosexuality is a sin. Catholics, he replied, “don’t teach you how to hate people—they teach you how to love people.”

“We’re religious,” he added. “But we have our own hearts.”

Katusabe wears his faith proudly: On the inside of his right arm, stretching nearly wrist to elbow, is a tattoo that read, “GOD IS GREAT.” On his other forearm, faded to the point of being barely visible, are the words “JESUS IS MY SAVIOR.” Someone on one of his Iraq tours did a poor job of inking that one. Katusabe told me that he planned to get it touched up soon.

Act III: All that Remains

I arrived at Katusabe’s apartment one morning to find him talking on the phone with his sister in Uganda. “Family issues, bro,” he said as he hung up. His mom was sick with tuberculosis. When I asked about the situation, he stopped me: “Let’s leave that.”

He doesn’t bear a grudge against his parents, even though his mother once told him she never wanted to see him again. “God didn’t throw you down on earth,” Katusabe said. “You passed through somebody to be who you are right now. Even if she gets pissed at me and curses me, I’ll always be like, ‘Mom, I love you.’”

“God didn’t throw you down on earth. You passed through somebody to be who you are right now.” 

He said he wanted to go back to Uganda one day, to prove to his family “that even though I’m gay, I can do all these things—take care of them—like a straight guy can do.” He added, “If the laws changed right now, the next week I’d be back.” (In August 2014, a Ugandan court struck down the antigay bill on a technicality, but homosexuality remains illegal.)

Katusabe suggested that Western culture might improve the situation back home. “Americans messed everything up” by nurturing homophobia, he said, but their influence could also be used for good. “Right now people watch American movies. They see gay people kissing each other,” Katusabe explained. Then he waved his arm in the air behind his head as if to clear away any worries. “Maybe someday they’ll hear about gay people and be like, ‘Ah, whatever. Not a big deal no more.’”

Katusabe in Long Beach.

He hoped this would happen in his lifetime, citing a vibrant Ugandan LGBT community that’s developed on Facebook. Pride parades also draw supporters, even though they often clash with police. Scott Lively, meanwhile, is the target of a lawsuit brought by a Ugandan LGBT coalition for committing crimes against humanity with his evangelism.

Or maybe change would come in the lifetimes of Katusabe’s kids, hypothetically speaking. “I wanna have a kid of my own blood,” Katusabe, now 30, told me. I asked him if that would require artificial insemination. “That’s so expensive,” he said. There are other options: A lesbian friend had sex with a man before flying to the United States from Kenya, because she wanted to be a mother and decided that was the only way she could afford to get pregnant. She gave birth to a son in Long Beach whom Katusabe sometimes cared for on the weekends. “But if I adopt a kid it’d still be cool,” he added. “I’ll try all the ways.”

Katusabe was happy in California: with his friends, his lifestyle, the volunteers who’d welcomed him into their churches. Yet he craved what was missing and lamented what he’d left behind. “I wish I could just see my family,” he said.

Since he’d arrived in Long Beach, his grandmother had died and a sibling had gotten married. Katusabe wired money for the wedding. He occasionally sent earnings home—when his family told him they needed it or on special occasions.  

“Whoever treated me badly, I forgive them,” Katusabe told me. “I’m living a new life.”

When the Devil Enters


When the Devil Enters

A town plagued by mysterious fires turns to science, the church, and the law in a search for answers.

By Ariel Ramchandani

The Atavist Magazine, No. 62

Ariel Ramchandani is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Economist, Wired, Afar, WSJ Magazine, and other publications.

Editor: Katia Bachko
Designer: Tim Moore
Illustrator: Dola Sun
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Caterina Clerici

Published in November 2016. Design updated in 2021.

In the middle of dinner, Antonino Pezzino discovered that his house was on fire. It was late December 2003, and Pezzino was at his home in Canneto di Caronia, a one-street town in the north of Sicily. The source was a fuse box, engulfed by flames so intense that they swallowed the heavy curtains that hung nearby. S’è bruciato tutto qui. All burned here. Pezzino, a 43-year-old insurance salesman, put out the fire and snapped a picture of what was left—a black and gray tangle of wires against a sooty white wall. Like the others on the street, the house was a refuge against the brilliance of the Sicilian sun and the sea—tight, shadowy interiors crowded with dark textiles, heavy wooden furniture, and framed photographs. A normal home, a normal fire. But then a few days later the kitchen fan caught fire, and the television, and other appliances, immolated as if by a secret hand.

Canneto di Caronia is an outpost of Caronia proper, a small town of about 3,400 people halfway between Palermo and Messina, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea. It is a city of bricklayers, construction workers, small-business owners, and contadini, farmers worn by years of work in the sun. Thirty nine people lived in a dozen houses along a road called Via Mare; another hundred residents lived in the surrounding hillsides. Dusty chickens cluster in green yards, and when you pass by, dogs bark and jump, rattling the chain-link fences. In the winter, heavy yellow and orange citrus dot the emerald green hillside running down to the sea, and the air smells of smoke and soap from farmers clearing their fields and from clothes drying in the sun. The homes on Via Mare stand pushed together like stucco-and-stone teeth facing the water, with terra-cotta roofs and wild gardens. A looping ramp connects them to the main road above.

In the weeks that followed, Pezzino’s neighbors—his father, his mother, his aunt and cousins, who lived close together in four or five attached houses—also experienced unexplained fires. Pezzino lived with his wife, Maria, and a son, Giuseppe, who was 15 at the time. Together with his father, Pezzino had built his home in the 1980s; now he assumed faulty wiring was to blame. At the end of January, he changed the wiring, but the fires continued.

The air smells of smoke and soap from farmers clearing their fields and from clothes drying in the sun.

Pezzino, who goes by Nino, is a large man with a heavy brow, a gray shock of hair, and a pointed chin. He has a skeptical but confident manner; he knows that the world is broken and that the trick is finding the right person to pay for the repairs. As the fires spread, the family began to suspect problems with the town’s electrical grid, which is run by ENEL, the national electrical and gas provider. Pezzino called ENEL, but the company was unresponsive. So one Sunday afternoon he called Pedro Spinnato, the mayor of Caronia. The two men were close. For a time after Spinnato was first elected, in 1996, Pezzino had served in his cabinet.

When Spinnato arrived, he immediately “understood that something was weird,” he recalled. Two electricians had tested the frizzled electrical system, but they couldn’t find the source of the flames, so they decided to cut power from the central plant to the houses until they knew what the problem was. But the fires kept coming, even with the electricity off. Metal, plastic, and insulation all burned. Throughout the village, outlets burned red hot through the holes—cords lit up like sparklers, an electrical motor melted. Appliances rebelled against their owners.

Mayor Spinnato called the main branch of ENEL in Palermo, the state government, and the Protezione Civile, or the civil defense, the Italian equivalent of the National Guard. “All the offices, institutions, and the people that can somehow do anything,” he said.

The little town was an inferno. Smoke poured into the sky, and sirens blared from one end of the street to the other. In the first three months of 2004, residents reported 92 fires. Firemen crowded into tiny rooms in tiny homes, onto the staircases. The homes had been built by the people who lived in them, or by builders they knew, and their houses and their carefully saved-for things were burning. Their blackened furniture sat in the street like a torched yard sale.

After the firemen came the press, crowding the tiny street with cameras. Pezzino became the portavoce, or spokesman, for the residents. “It is like we are living in a microwave,” he told the press. This became the town’s rallying cry.

One of Pezzino’s neighbors had installed a new electrical system just six months earlier, and it too caught fire. Later, recounting these events on an American program called The Unexplained Files, the man would recall mattresses catching fire as people slept on them. “Una cosa incredibile,” he said into the camera. “An incredible thing to happen in such a tiny village. We had never seen anything like this before.” In one scene, Giuseppe slides past a doorway in the Pezzino home in a heavy down coat, his eyes so wide with fear that you can see the whites. In another home, Pezzino’s aunt’s wedding presents, her photos, her silver, the linens made by her mother—all of it burned.

The train from Palermo to Messina goes through Canneto: The tracks run behind the town’s only road. That winter, residents noticed that when the train roared past, the fires would begin again, as though the railcars were setting them on their journey. “We didn’t know what to do,” Pezzino told me. “We were in the dark.”

On February 9, two houses burned. One of Pezzino’s neighbors rushed to the local police station with the bottom of his pants burned and his shoes on fire. An article in a national newspaper reported that he said the devil was burning behind him and then thrust his shoes into the hands of a police officer. His daughters’ bedroom had burned, charred black. He and his wife were afraid to leave the children alone in the house. They felt “fear, anger, and desperation,” his wife would tell The Unexplained Files, with her arms crossed in front of her chest. “When you lose everything, you become desperate.”

That day, Mayor Spinnato, along with the Protezione Civile, ordered the residents of Via Mare to evacuate. Spinnato is a thoughtful man of medium build, an architect by trade, well dressed, with curly hair and searching pale gray-green eyes. He lives with his wife and children in a home in Caronia Marina that is traditional on the outside and stylish and bright inside. He is an atheist and a democrat who does not believe totally in his party. He joked to reporters that the fires were punishment for the town electing a communist mayor, referring to himself. When he came into office, he was prepared for forest fires, flooding, even earthquakes. “But something like this, you wouldn’t imagine,” he told me. “Usually, you know the how and why. But we didn’t know these things, so we didn’t know how to face them.”


The residents were relocated to the Za Maria, the only hotel in Canneto, located on a hill directly above the village. They ate meals in the grand dining room, with stone floors and the sea sparkling beyond panoramic windows. Rosa Mirabella, Pezzino’s elderly aunt, who moved there after the evacuation order, told the Italian magazine L’Espresso, “I never stayed in a hotel before, and look at me now, here like a lady.” The article described Mirabella eating steaming maccheroni, fried calamari, with a carafe of local white, all paid for by the city.

Pezzino, who was evacuated to a nearby apartment, hated being away from his home. In his yard in Canneto, he kept tortoises and dogs, including a Cirneco dell’Etna, a pale-eyed bronze Sicilian hunting dog. “I was born here, always lived here,” he said. The evacuation, he recalled, seemed like a prison sentence. “When I used to go to bed, it seemed to me like I was trespassing,” he said. “A police officer with young children, very beautiful twins, lived downstairs. If I moved, I would wake them up. I was not used to the rules of the town.”

On February 11, the public prosecutor announced an investigation into the fires. For the residents, the inquiry seemed like a slap in the face, an accusation that someone from their small community had been responsible. They welcomed the chance to be exonerated.

Government investigators, engineers, scientists, and technicians monitored the homes in Canneto around the clock. On February 13, Massimo Polidoro of CICAP arrived in Canneto. CICAP is the Committee for the Investigation of Claims of the Pseudosciences, an Italian nonprofit. Polidoro, a psychologist, writer, and television personality, interviewed the stumped investigators at the Za Maria for CICAP’s magazine, The Skeptical Enquirer. He’s against superstition but also attracted to it. Canneto was a perfect research subject.

At the Za Maria, Polidoro spoke with Enzo Boschi, the president of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. Sicily and Italy have a lot of earthquakes. In September 2002, a 5.6-magnitude temblor shook Sicily, causing major damage in Palermo, the capital city. The next month, an earthquake rumbled through Molise, in southern Italy, killing 27 schoolchildren. Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, is about 35 miles from Canneto. The Aeolian Islands in the sea north of Canneto have two active volcanoes: Stromboli and Vulcano. As a result of all this seismic activity, volcanoes and earthquakes are a likely culprit for anything that goes wrong. But Boschi said there was no indication that the fires were connected to volcanic or seismic activity. “If indeed it were volcanic activity, the effect would not only burn some electrical wire,” Boschi said. “The internal forces of the earth cannot cause reactions of this magnitude, and especially in a tiny area.”

The technicians from ENEL and the railway also failed to find anything unusual. The telecom lines looked fine, too. A member of the National Research Council of Italy presented the idea that the fires could have been caused by “an abnormal increase in the electrical field.” Others were more skeptical and suspected a human cause. Sergio Conte, a telecom expert, told Polidoro that any electrical problems would come from the inner fibers of the cables, but when he examined the wires he saw that “the heat had only blackened and charred the outside,” he said. “At this point I realized it was not damage due to a malfunction.”

The inquiry seemed like a slap in the face, an accusation that someone from their small community had been responsible.

One person was quite sure of what had started the fires: Padre Gabriele Amorth, a Catholic priest in Rome, who held the title of honorary president of the International Association of Exorcists. On February 10, an Italian paper published an interview with Amorth about the fires in Caronia. Amorth said that “the first thing to do is to call a priest” to bless the houses. He told the interviewer that fires can happen “quando il demonio entra nella vita di chi gli permette di entrare,” or “when the devil enters in the life of a person who allows him entrance.” And he added that the cause could be black or white magic, “the preferred gateway to Satan.”

“This is a world that has abandoned God,” he said. Amorth also told the interviewer that he had seen this before, houses haunted by the devil and the devil manifesting through electricity. “Do not forget that Satan and his spirits have immense powers.”

Amorth’s declaration disappointed the local priest. “That is an absurd Satanic hypothesis,” the priest said. “The inhabitants of Canneto are hard-working people who struggle every day to bring home bread, not Satanism.” But it delighted the press. In Italy, journalistic conventions favor dramatic stories over hard news. And in such a deeply Catholic country, nothing provides as much drama as Satan. “The news was born because of Padre Amorth,” Spinnato told me. “He launched the devil. It becomes a fact of custom, a way to write a newspaper article.”

The article from L’Espresso, entitled—what else?—“Bezelbù si è fermato a Cefalù,” or “The devil stops at Cefalu,” documented the scene at the Hotel Za Maria, crowded with investigators, displaced residents, and international media outlets like the BBC. (Cefalu is a tourist destination, located about 30 miles west of Caronia along the coast.) The foreign press was just as culpable: Journalists came from Norway, Argentina, Denmark, and France, among other countries. Pezzino went on a German television show, which dedicated an hour to Canneto and another hour to the abominable snowman. When The New York Times came, Pezzino told them, “I’m Catholic. I believe in the devil. I don’t know why the devil is here.” The Times article was titled “Canneto di Caronia Journal: Electricity Goes Wild. Did the Devil Make It Do It?”

In the winter of 2016, I traveled to Italy and tried to meet with Padre Amorth. His health was failing, however, and he didn’t have time for me in his schedule. Instead, I arranged for a friend of mine, Roberto Rossi, to visit Amorth in March, at his residence at the Society of Saint Paul in Rome. He conducted exorcisms in another room in the same old brick building. “So strange,” Amorth said. “I don’t remember anything about that,” when Rossi asked about Canneto. At the time, Padre Amorth was 91 years old, completely bald, with rounded shoulders. Then, Amorth told Rossi about a series of exorcisms he had done: “The oldest woman that I am working with has been in sessions for almost 30 years, and she’s going to be free soon. I hope by the end of this year.”

“Most of the time, the devil acts as part of ordinary life,” Amorth said, but fires in houses are “a very extraordinary manifestation.” He said that doing “an exorcism on a house is one of the most difficult things for an exorcist to do. Many times the exorcist fails, and the only solution is to leave the house and move to a new one.” (In September, Rossi wrote me to say that Padre Amorth had died.)

In such a deeply Catholic country, nothing provides as much drama as Satan.

On the whole, the devil does not account for the intractability of poverty. Milan and the Mezzogiorno, a term for the eight southern regions of the country, are like two different nations. In fact they were, less than 200 years ago. Half of Italy’s poorest live in Sicily, and many have left. In the beginning of the 20th century, one quarter of Sicily’s population moved north or to the United States after nearly starving under the island’s feudal farming system. Between 2007 and 2014, seventy percent of unemployed Italians were southern.

For young Italians, the prospects of finding a good job are grim: In 2015, youth unemployment was at 54 percent. In the Italian language, there is a verb, sistemarsi, that means to settle oneself, to find a job. It is used when children start their own lives. In recent years, this has been elusive for young Italians. And so the towns continue to empty: Spinnato told me that he could estimate how many people had left the area by the queue at Caronia’s festival for its patron saint, San Biagio. The crowd walking up the hill was half as long as it once was.

In Sicily, one area of economic hope is tourism. At first, Spinnato saw the press as a way to bring visitors to Caronia, whose location he described as “in the periphery, and marginal.” Despite its cliffs and seaside, Roman stone walls and medieval towns with Saracen arches, the area has not benefited from tourism to the extent enjoyed by Taormina, or nearby Cefalu, or the Aeolian Islands, which one can see on a clear day from the beach near Canneto, like a crown in the ocean. The province of Messina, where the city is located, is one of the poorest areas in Sicily. Spinnato tried to show the press all these beauties: a medieval castle, a nearby forest full of rare plants, and the northern coastline.

Meanwhile, the situation at the Za Maria was deteriorating. The investigation on Via Mare blocked access to the hotel’s swimming pool. The innkeeper’s lawyers sent a letter to Spinnato and the government in Caronia asking for almost $100,000 in expenses incurred by the evacuees that had yet to be paid.  

On March 16, the fires returned. The investigators monitoring the area noticed other oddities as well: car locks malfunctioned, cell phones rang with no satellite signal. A car antenna became so hot that it cracked a windshield. Compasses went haywire.

The residents appointed a consultant, Francesco Valenti, an engineer from Capo d’Orlando, a city 25 miles up the coast. On March 31, he filed a 30-page document titled “A qualitative report and definitive solution to secure Canneto di Caronia.” In parts, the report seemed more like an exercise in literary analysis than empirical science. Valenti quotes Dante, Galileo, Wittgenstein, and The Leopard, the novel about Sicily by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. “In Sicily, it doesn’t matter whether things are done well or done badly; the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all.”

Valenti called the fires “eventi probabilistici impulsivi,” or unforeseeable electromagnetic events caused by roaming electrical charges, like lightning without a storm. Electromagnetic force is created by the interactions between electrically charged particles—think magnets clinging together or repelling each other when the charge is reversed. Valenti advocated removing the railway lines, changing the angles of the power cables, and fixing all the electrical systems above- and belowground in the area.

He ended the report with “Eppur si move.” “And yet it moves,” the words attributed to Galileo when he was forced to retract his theory that the Earth moved around the Sun, as if the cause of the fires was obvious and could be found by examining the spinning planet on which they stood. Two weeks later, he sent a letter to the city government, urging them to accept his research. “My work is not the homework of a student, but the hard work of a perspiring professional,” he wrote. “The mysteries are mysteries no more.”

His recommendations were not adopted, but the fires ceased of their own accord. In June 2004, the residents of Via Mare moved back into their homes for the Sicilian summer.


Although the flames were gone, the sense of mystery lingered. Valenti’s conclusion did nothing to quell international interest in the fires. The Caronia city hall was flooded with letters from people offering alternate explanations. Many of the letters were anonymous and opened with “I saw what happened on TV….”

This spring I read through the trove of letters. Even though most of them contained far-fetched notions, I wasn’t immune to the lure of Canneto theories, insane and plausible, riddled with typos, written by hand or typewriter, in tones formal or casual, and accompanied by drawings. Maybe one of these people, so invested in something that was not theirs, knew something about the world. I examined every letter for all the things people wanted to believe. I followed those same lines, tracing the inquiries of the curious.

Officials from different towns wrote to express solidarity, among them a representative of Bengtsfors, in Sweden, which was proud to be a sister in charcoal use, or from another Caronia in northern Italy, writing to say that the Caronias of the world must stand together. Working and retired engineers of all kinds offered their services. Pages of faxes came in with scientific theorems. Lise and Rose, a clairvoyant firm from Geneva, asked for a check or credit card to get started. One letter posited that the fires were a group hallucination: “The mind of man is a mystery.” Another assured Spinnato that you could set fires with mirrors even if the sun wasn’t shining. Another encouraged him to read Allan Kardec, a French spiritualist who conducted séances, in order to find the cause. Yet another sent pictures of an apparition of the Virgin Mary. A professor wrote about the similarity between the names Caronia and Caronte, the ferryman of the dead in ancient Greek mythology. He suggested that he and Spinnato collaborate on an e-book on the topic.

One letter writer from Vicenza, near Venice, wrote several times, attaching articles and charts about electromagnetic charges. The letter writer said that in 1989, a time of international unrest, there were similar problems in Vicenza, such as fuse boxes burning and car lights flickering. There is a U.S. Army garrison in Vicenza called Caserma Ederle. The letter suggested that NATO operations from that garrison may have been using radar at a frequency that affected the surrounding area. He said he’d sent his letters to the government, too.

Another letter, this one addressed to the Za Maria, was from Robert Fritzius, a retired U.S. Navy lieutenant and electrical engineer in Mississippi. Fritzius had written the letter in English and then fed it through Babelfish, an online translation site. He had become obsessed with the fires and started an online Think Tank where people could post information. (He also has a website mapping the 1918 influenza pandemic.) His theory was that Etna was “plugged up.”

(Photo: Caterina Clerici)

When I called Fritzius this spring, he pronounced Canneto “Ca-neato.” He explained that he was sure that volcanic gasses were involved in creating a type of spontaneous combustion. Fritzius told me about an engineer in Palermo who hypothesized that two fault lines crisscross under Canneto. “The fellow suggested that some of these volcanic magma and gasses might be heading there,” he said. “Once Etna did spill lava, the fires completely went away.”

The “fellow” turned out to be Aldo Barbagallo, a civil engineer at Palermo University, who told me that he found Fritzius’s hypothesis fascinating. He told me that the sea near Canneto “went by the name Contrada Fetente”—stinky district. “If you go scuba diving in the Aeolian Islands, as I did, you’ll spot some places where gas bubbles come from the bottom of the sea,” he told me. The bubbles were sulfur, he said, a volcanic gas, which might be evidence of a connection between the chain of volcanoes that make up the Aeolian Islands and Etna.

Fritzius also told me to look at a paper in an Italian science magazine published in 1932. The article, “Some Generality on Magnetics and Geomagnetics,” is referenced on every online forum about the fires as evidence of a link between the incidents in Caronia and aliens from outer space. The Unexplained Files episode even cited it as proof that there was a natural geomagnetic cause, something from the earth responsible for generating charge and zapping Canneto. But after many emails, I finally tracked down the article from the Istituto Geografico Militare. All it said was that there are magnetic and geomagnetic fields in Italy, and that the Italian military had noticed them as early as 1932.

I spoke to Malcolm Johnston of the U.S. Geological Survey to try and understand the science. He explained that although earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions, and volcanic activity can trigger earthquakes, the physics of each phenomenon is different. With a volcano, fires can occur when molten rock, lightning, and fiery ash flows of several thousand degrees move down the exterior surface at very high speeds.

I asked Johnston if earthquakes could produce electrical charge and cause fires. He said it was possible in special circumstances, especially if there was lightning. However, most fires attributed to earthquakes are caused by shorted transformers, ruptured propane tanks, and downed power lines—the effect of humanity being shaken the wrong way—and not the earth itself.

In October 2004, the seasons changed and the fires returned. Once more the smell of the sea mingled with the smell of burning. One night, Pezzino dragged Giuseppe from the flames. There were more destroyed couches, and now destroyed kitchens. In addition to the flames, pipes and tubes developed holes and burst, flooding homes with water. In Pezzino’s kitchen, the tubes under the sink were punctured. The newspapers came right away, and the Pezzinos let them into their home once more. “First we were at risk of burning, now we are drowning,” Giuseppe told Il Giornale di Sicilia, “right at the moment where we have discovered calm and our homes no longer make us fearful.”

There was another evacuation. It began in October 2004 and continued through June 2005. This felt like a lifetime. The townspeople thought they had been abandoned and wanted desperately to return home. They slept in the city offices to protest against the Protezione Civile and the regional government for their inaction; Spinnato stayed with them in solidarity.

The investigator, Valenti, posited that the holes confirmed his theory of geomagnetic activity. According to him, the holes, like the fires, were caused by a type of electrical currents burning through the pipes. Pezzino faulted the Protezione Civile investigators for not monitoring the town 24 hours a day, as they were supposed to. “Basta, ora siamo arrabbiati,” he said. Enough, now we are angry! Residents called the researchers “professoroni,” and on the street, old women scolded Valenti over his inability to solve their problems. He defended himself by once again referencing the trials of Galileo.

In April, the Italian government formed a new research group. Coordinated by Francesco Venerando Mantegna, from the Sicilian Protezione Civile, the new interdisciplinary team included chemists, physicists, geomagnetists, and professors. The team had the cooperation of the air force, navy, and police, alongside ENEL, the communications ministry, the rail network, and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. The INGV is taken seriously in Italy: In 2009, when the agency failed to predict an earthquake that killed over 300 people, an Italian court found seven of its scientists guilty of manslaughter, and one of them was sentenced to prison.

Venerando has sandy brown hair, blue eyes, and a resigned manner. His team flew military planes over the area, taking pictures of the town and the surrounding landscape with telephoto lenses. They sailed on a research vessel called the Galatea and analyzed the magnetic charge and chemical composition of the sea. Helicopters conducted radar and magnetic surveys on electromagnetic fields and monitored and mapped radio-electric signals and meteorological patterns. Instead of focusing only on Canneto, the team sought to understand if there were natural or artificial forces affecting the region, including the sea and the airspace above.

Soon, the team excluded natural causes; nothing in the realm of science proved unique when they compared Canneto with neighboring towns. Nor did they find anything unusual in the technical installations—railway lines, electrical lines, and so on. What they did find were increased levels of spontaneous electromagnetic activity that could not be attributed to natural phenomena. They decided that the fires had an artificial cause.

Electromagnetic radiation is made up of waves formed by a change in a magnetic field. These waves are found everywhere and operate on a spectrum, encompassing many forms of energy that bounce around in our world, ranging from visible light to invisible radio waves, from radar, X-rays, and satellite communications to microwaves and powerful lasers.

In May, Valenti issued a second report, on the possible health risks associated with the fires. This included electrocution and smoke inhalation, but also the damage that electromagnetic radiation can cause in human bodies. Valenti blamed the government for not adopting his suggestions. “I was right and everyone who opposed me was dead wrong,” he wrote. He faulted the city for letting the people back into their homes. The investigator also lashed out at Venerando’s team for failing to discover the cause despite abundant resources. Still, the following month residents were allowed to return to their homes once more.

Venerando’s team continued their investigation, undaunted by the criticism. No house fires occurred during their research, but in the mountains outside the town, they found two dense patches of grass that looked like they had been consumed by a fire that had come from underground. Venerando compared the burn marks on the grass with the marks on the power cords from Canneto and found the patterns to be identical: Whatever had caused the fires in the homes had also burned the plants. Aerial photos showed that Canneto and the plants seemed aligned in a straight path extending from the sea, into town, and up to the mountains, as though a channel of fire had torched all three. Their hypothesis was that the plants had somehow conducted the same bursts of electromagnetic waves as Canneto. On the coast below the town, hundreds of blue velellas, sea creatures similar to jellyfish, washed up on the beach. All this seemed to suggest that whatever was causing the fires was coming from outside. The researchers believed that Canneto and its surroundings were being struck by “pacchetti d’onda,” or intense bursts of electromagnetic waves of some kind, at such a large scale “that it couldn’t be generated by one person.”

Venerando told me that one of the strangest things his team had witnessed during their study was an incident involving a helicopter: As the team patrolled the area, something hit three of the aircraft’s rotor blades, rupturing the protective coating of each at the same point. They suspected a bird strike, but the researchers couldn’t find any biological traces, “not a drop of blood,” Venerando told me. At other times, the group noticed objects moving around in the sky. “On occasion they would disappear with great speed,” he said. “We are not in condition to scientifically define the phenomenon. We did not touch them; we did not get inside them. This is problematic.” His team also noted other unexplained phenomena, such as lights over the sea and lights moving in a formation from the sea to the land.

The press reported extensively on these flying objects. In addition to the devil, they now had definitive UFO sightings to fill their pages. “That’s the part the newspapers ran with,” Venerando told me, wearily.

After residents complained of pain in their extremities, Venerando recommended medical testing, but this never happened. He brought in a specialist who confirmed Valenti’s assertion that electromagnetic waves could have negative effects on people, and that electromagnetic radiation of the type they thought was affecting the area could have grave consequences. But all this remained in the realm of the unproven. “We can only pay attention to facts that are documented. We can’t go with a hypothesis,” Venerando told me.


In the spring of 2007, the government shut down Venerando’s study, for “economic and bureaucratic reasons,” he said. That winter the group asked the government to renew funding and presented a short report, “Caronia, enigma solo apparente,” or “Caronia, it only seems like an enigma,” a seven-page summary of their findings. The summary put forward the group’s working hypothesis, the pacchetti d’onda theory: The fires were caused by electromagnetic pulses of great power, coming from the direction of the sea near Caronia. The team believed that “experimental application of industrial technology not excluding the possibility that it could be an electromagnetic weapons system” was behind the fires, but they did not specify who the culprit was.

“Our mandate wasn’t to establish who was the author of these impulsive electromagnetic emissions,” Venerando said, “but how they could happen.”

I reached out to a number of scientists for this story. Some refused to speak with me on the basis that the link between the fires and electromagnetic waves was crazy: One university press representative said she was laughed at when she presented the topic to professors. Others I spoke to pointed out that electromagnetic energy is everywhere, present in radiation and lasers and harmful things, yes, but also microwaves, radio transmissions, sunlight, and wireless connectivity, making the preliminary results opaque, meaningless. “‘Electromagnetic waves’ means everything and nothing,” said Simone Vadilonga, an Italian physicist. “I can’t think of any sources of high electromagnetic emissions that would be able to cause fires except for a very powerful laser.” He pointed out that if the fires were caused by a laser or similar instrument, they would be unlikely to occur inside homes—rather, the laser would burn the exteriors.

After the summary was released, journalists began asking when the research group would release a complete report with all the data they had collected during their study. That report never materialized. Venerando told me it was because they didn’t want to generate alarm. It was “only for a matter of prudence and to avoid speculation or manipulation in the press,” he told me.

For Spinnato, the discovery of electromagnetic waves replaced the devil with something more scientific, and it fit with his experience and with what he witnessed. “We talk about superstition and magic,” he said, “but if you live [through the fires], you find that magic doesn’t exist, superstition doesn’t exist, and you look for the truth.” To him, the scientists were offering something more appealing: “Electromagnetic waves generated by a weapon pointed here from a satellite. That I believe.” But there were still more questions to be answered, questions the government refused to address. “What I don’t understand and nobody explained to me is, how does it happen?” Spinnato said.

In 2005, Canneto elected a new mayor, Calogero Beringheli. The Pezzinos and their extended family and neighbors moved back home, where they once again enjoyed their gardens and their pets. Residents filed claims for damages and tried to move on. Three years later, the prosecutor closed the case.

As residents in Canneto returned to their lives, one man, Antonio Mazzeo, an antimilitary activist and journalist who writes about corruption and weapons proliferation, was unwilling to let the weapons theory be. Mazzeo is currently being prosecuted for libel for documenting Mafia activity in Falcone, a town about an hour from Canneto. “Unfortunately,” he said about the lawsuit, “in Italy, this is ‘normal.’”

Mazzeo believed strongly that there had been a government cover-up in Canneto, especially given that the Tyrrhenian Sea is used by the U.S. and NATO for extensive air and naval exercises. He became interested in the fires when he saw Venerando’s summary and launched an investigation of his own. Mazzeo was sure the fires had a military cause, echoing what he had seen near other military bases. “If you add the negligent attitude of the government and of the Italian military authorities,” he said, “I am increasingly convinced.” But, he continued, “without access to the full text of the data set that suggests the cause is emissions of microwave beams, it is impossible to continue the investigation.”

Such a perspective might seem extremely paranoid, but Sicily has had a long and difficult relationship with foreign militaries, including the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, the Bourbons, and even Italy’s liberators from the north during unification. In the previous century, Italy and the United States turned a blind eye to corruption and the Mafia in Sicily, because the Mafia was anticommunist.

Mazzeo had other examples, including a series of military tests involving rocket launches, armament destruction, and mortar fire in Sardinia carried out by the U.S. and NATO, which led to health and environmental issues in the region. Most notable, however, for Mazzeo and generations of Italians, was an event called strage di Ustica, the massacre of Ustica. In 1980, a passenger plane crashed into the sea near the island of Ustica, killing all 81 passengers. After decades of investigations, lawsuits, and speculation, Italy’s top criminal court ruled that the plane was brought down by a missile.

Sicily has had a long and difficult relationship with foreign militaries, including the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, and the Bourbons.

More recently, an American military satellite, called the Mobile User Objective System, has been the object of criticism. Sicily occupies a strategic position between Europe and the wars in the Middle East. In 2011, the U.S. military announced plans to build a ground station for the satellite in Niscemi, in southern Sicily. The Sicilian public was strongly resistant to the project, and a No MUOS movement gained the support of mayors and city councils. An independent report from Torino Polytechnic, which is affiliated with MIT, emphasized the risk to ecosystems and public health, including the potential for cancers and lymphatic disorders. Palermo halted the project, but the Italian minister of defense challenged the regional revocation and commissioned a new study, which found no such danger. In April 2013, construction began.

Of course, MUOS couldn’t have caused the problems in Canneto, but the installation casts a long shadow in a region with a complicated military history. That history has created a culture of fear and distrust. It has left people feeling powerless, with no control of their soil and sky, unimportant in the greater machinations of the world.


Sicily in July is heaven. The sea is as warm as a bath, as dark as a gemstone. The fires returned in July 2014 and raged more violently than before. In one 18-hour period there were 48 blazes, six of them at the home of Lorenzina di Pane, Pezzino’s mother. An embroidery basket tucked away in a closet burned, and then a sofa bed. Loose wires caught fire, as did electrical outlets and a television. Residents slept outside, in shifts, so that someone would be awake to alert the fire department when there was an incident. One man and two women suffered inexplicable burns, and other people in the village experienced swelling and inflamed muscles. One resident told a reporter, “Now we feel that we are victims of something bigger than us.”

Summoned once again to inspect the electrical circuits, ENEL representatives thought it could be wires short-circuiting. But this seemed unlikely, as in some instances the wiring had been replaced after the first fires. A member of the local Protezione Civile echoed the maxim of the village, telling a Sicilian paper: “This area is hit by violent electromagnetic fields and we do not understand where they come from. It’s like living in a microwave oven.” The same article described Pezzino saying, “without anger or anguish,” that “we knew that the phenomena had never completely stopped, but after ten years, we were hoping for it. This is a hard blow for all of us. It means slipping back to the beginning of a drama that has already marked our lives.”

Toward the end of August, the evacuation order came again. Pezzino left, along with his mother and two elderly aunts, Catena Cangemi, 82, and Rosa Pezzino, 72. Pezzino took his wife and son to his in-laws in nearby Caronia Marina; his aunts went to stay with their families. They left in vans and trucks filled to the brim with their belongings. For a few days, the Rossellos, a neighboring family who needed a few extra days to organize their move, were the only inhabitants of Canneto. In a newspaper article from August 22, journalist Marila Re speculated that “this could be the end of Canneto. The end since 1958, the year in which the brothers Pezzino”—Antonino Pezzino’s father and uncle—“built their houses together, brick by brick.”  

On September 24 and 25, Pezzino recounted that there were some 50 fires per night and the fire department had had to call another town for backup. Two weeks later, Re was in Canneto along with other residents trying to help clean up the damage when a new fire started. It was “total chaos, fires coming as fast as you could put them out,” she told me. Before her eyes, a suitcase at Pezzino’s aunt’s house “dissolved.” Re had been coming to Canneto often to report but also as a friend, bringing food to whoever needed it. One day she was alone in the cellar attached to Pezzino’s house when it caught fire. She screamed for help. “I was afraid for myself, because I couldn’t breathe. Everything was dirty, there were so many things burning, abandoned.”

Another relative of Pezzino’s, Salvatore Rossello, had come back to town to pick up some belongings; the interior of his Fiat Bravo caught fire.

In the press, attention turned once again to Venerando’s report. Venerando blamed the government for disbanding his group. “They blinded us against our will,” he told a local newspaper; he still believed that the best hypothesis was that the fires were caused by an external source, possibly an electromagnetic weapon. He felt that more work was required to understand the problem. The reporter added, “The people who live here and who die here have a right to know.”

The Protezione Civile announced that there would be a new group to study the fires, working in tandem with the Ministries of the Interior, Defense, Health, and the Environment. At the announcement of the group, Mayor Beringheli said: “We continue to trust in the institutions and hope the new group will follow the old one.”

When the fires had started again, the carabinieri, the Italian military police, also began looking into the matter. The officer in charge was Capitano Giuseppe D’Aveni; he had joined the local force in 2014. Most of the officers who worked on the 2004 fires had moved on, and D’Aveni decided to launch a full and thorough investigation anew.

During my visit to Italy last winter, I sat down with D’Aveni in the lobby of the Za Maria, where I had set up camp, ordering espresso after espresso, which the hotel refused to charge me for. D’Aveni has a serious demeanor and sad, deep-set eyes. He arrived with two officers dressed in blue, white, and red uniforms, shoes shined.

The carabinieri told me that as soon as the fires broke out in July 2014, their first order of business was to install hidden cameras in Canneto. This was no small task, they explained, because the town wouldn’t be evacuated until late August, and everyone was out on the street all the time. It was almost impossible to set them up without anyone seeing. Still, four cameras had been installed on Via Mare, facing the homes and the street, and had been filming, 24 hours a day, for eight months.

D’Aveni had brought some of the footage with him for me to watch on my laptop. From a recording on September 24, I watched Pezzino and Giuseppe amble around at one end of the street, near a truck. The two men disappear for a minute behind the front of the vehicle, then walk away. A moment later, the men return to the truck and begin peering in the windows. Pezzino flings open the door, and the truck is smoking. On September 30, Giuseppe walks behind a shed across the street from the Pezzinos’ home. His father stands on the other side of the street, chatting with a group of men. Soon the men discover that the shed is burning—a plastic bag filled with clothing has caught fire. On the same day, Giuseppe appears to set fire to his uncle’s Fiat Bravo and his cousin’s Alfa Romeo, moving stealthily between the parked cars and a fire truck parked on the road. In one segment he walks in circles, checking to see if anyone is behind him with a quick turn of the head, ducking out of the frame the minute the car begins to burn. One of the carabinieri said to me with a tone of appreciation that Giuseppe moved like an acrobat.

All told, the police documented about 40 incidents in which Giuseppe, and in some cases his father, Nino, were implicated. They accused Pezzino of “sounding alarm” about certain fires and claimed that he had “criminal designs” and was working with his son. The police told me that from the outset they thought Giuseppe was acting suspiciously, trying to draw attention to the fires. He always seemed to be close by when they started. Flames would erupt in an area he had recently been in, and then he would make a fuss about it, alerting the press to come and see. And weren’t both men, Giuseppe and his father, showing the fires to the media like it was a tour of a haunted house?

Giuseppe is the Pezzinos’ only child. In 2014, he was 25 years old. “Everything was his,” Marila Re told me. Giuseppe has the same prominent brow as his father and a widow’s peak, with black spiked hair and a trim beard. At the time, his life, at least according to Facebook, was an endless parade of nights at discos with his friends, of drinks, food, and women, or playing in the sea. In his posts, he was sometimes crass and always effusive, sometimes writing in dialect, sometimes in Italian. He seemed like a playboy, his shirt buttoned low. Giuseppe is called Peppe, but in conversation everyone refers to him as il ragazzo, the boy, and in English they call him a boy, too. Giuseppe worked with his father, also selling insurance, but Re told me he didn’t really do anything at all.

After we watched the footage, D’Aveni’s deputies took me down to Via Mare to show me the street from their point of view. The policemen knew everyone we met. They greeted drivers of passing cars like old friends. About halfway down the street, we encountered Lorenzina di Pane, Pezzino’s mother and Giuseppe’s grandmother. She didn’t seem pleased to see the police but asked if we wanted anything, “Coffee, water, milk?” She tugged at her black turtleneck, saying she was overdressed for the day, which had turned very sunny. This ended the tour.

Weren’t both men, Giuseppe and his father, showing the fires to the media like it was a tour of a haunted house?

According to a press release from the carabinieri, Giuseppe set the fires in order “to raise the level of media attention and institutional attention.” They think that Nino concocted a scheme in which more and more fires would bring fame and money for the “Phenomena of Caronia.”

In mid-July, the carabinieri tapped the Pezzinos’ phone and recorded many conversations in which Nino spoke desperately about trying to get money for damages and to drum up interest in the fires, talking about television appearances and reimbursement. In one taped conversation, he mentions the Ustica massacre. At the time, the relatives of those who died in the crash were fighting the Italian government in court to receive millions of dollars in damages. “I got myself a lawyer who takes care of the massacre at Ustica. He knows what the fuck to do,” he says. In another conversation, he talks about compensation. When the person on the other line asks if he wants a new house somewhere else, he replies, “I don’t want a house. I want money.”

Anyone who lost property might also agitate for compensation, but police also recorded a conversation he had with his son about methods for setting the fires. They speak in guarded language, and Pezzino is worried that the police have monitored his son’s Internet searches.

Pezzino: I think they’ve seen something, Peppe.

Giuseppe: I don’t know.

Pezzino: Or maybe something on the Internet, something you searched for.… You looked for one of these incendiary powders or a laser.

Giuseppe: The only thing I looked for on the Internet was a winch, the one for the boat.

Pezzino: It’s called a laser jet.

In the same conversation, Pezzino also told his son, “It’s not about the insurance. This is very serious, they are going to throw you inside,” meaning prison.

The comment about the “laser jet” was widely reported in the press as proof of Giuseppe’s guilt. Yet a device, if one existed, was never found, and the police still don’t how the fires were set.

On the morning of March 5, 2015, Giuseppe was arrested and charged with arson, conspiracy to commit fraud, and sounding a false alarm. He was led to house arrest in Santo Stefano, one town over, where he stayed with an aunt. His Facebook page went quiet.

Peppe’s grandmother, Lorenzina di Pane, cried again and again to a reporter, “Non ci credo.” I don’t believe it. “If it had been my grandson to do what they said he did, we would all be rich because he would have extraordinary powers,” she said. She told the reporter that she had spent her 78th birthday in September among the flames. Peppe would never have caused that. “I can only say that it drops a bomb on me,” Nino Pezzino told the reporter.

The state had come into contact with the most important structure in Sicily: the family. As Sciascia wrote, “The only institution in the Sicilian conscience that really counts, is the family, counts that is to say more as a dramatic juridical contract or mind than as the natural association based on affection.”

In the wake of the arrest, three different camps emerged. One camp believed that Giuseppe was responsible for the fires in 2014 but not in 2004. Another believed he was responsible for all of them. And some still believed that what they had seen indicated another source of the flames.

The mayor, Calogero Beringheli, belonged to the third group. “I do not believe the resident to be guilty of some fires, and hope the continuing investigation makes it clear,” he told reporters. He promised to go back to Rome to fight for more attention and urged the government not to be swayed by the few incidents the police were sure Giuseppe was responsible for.

One of Giuseppe’s coworkers told the press that she was with him in the office when certain fires appeared. A member of the extended Pezzino clan who’d moved his family to Santo Stefano after his house was completely destroyed said, “I cannot believe that it was my relatives who set the fires. When I was burned, Nino wasn’t there, Giuseppe wasn’t there.”

Francesco Re, the mayor of Santo Stefano and the father of Marila Re, the journalist who had covered the events, had provided fire hoses during the blazes and saw many of the fires with his own eyes. “I am respectful of the judiciary investigation,” he told reporters. “But also having been an eyewitness to the flames that have attacked the attic, I am filled with doubts.”


During my visit to Canneto, people were still struggling with these beliefs. In the evenings, I would return to the Hotel Za Maria, where I was the only guest, and sleep in a room with a seaside balcony and a cross with a crucified Gesù above the wooden bed. There is a new walkway between the town and the hotel, cut into the side of the cliff. Workmen were preparing for the summer season; the pool was closed, the water green. The TV was always on in the lobby, and the elderly relatives of the innkeeper sat and watched in the afternoon. They did not turn when I came and went.

I ate the food the residents had eaten during their exile, sitting by myself in the dining room while the family who owned the hotel dined nearby. The innkeeper’s teenage daughter approached me, asked me why I was there. When I told her it was to talk to the people in the town, she wrinkled her nose. What could I possibly find out by talking to the few stragglers left in the town about old news? “Non c’è nessuno qui,” she said. There’s no one here. The town is empty now.

One afternoon, while I was walking down Via Mare, a woman at the top of the street, a few doors down from Pezzino’s house, leaned out of a balcony and gestured for me to come in. I told her my Italian was bad, but she ushered me in anyway and led me to the kitchen. Her husband, white haired and wearing a brown cap, set about making coffee.

She invited me to sit at a table covered in a bright plastic tablecloth. They introduced themselves as the Cuffaris and told me that everything was fine now in Canneto. “Ora siamo tranquilli,” now we are calm. Since the Pezzinos had been caught they could finally stop worrying. “The problem is they told so many lies.”

They began describing how horrible the fires were for the town and brought out a folder full of news clippings with pertinent information underlined in pen. In one article, a picture of Giuseppe Pezzino had devil horns drawn on him and the word “malefico,” evil. While we were talking, a relation of theirs named Filippo Casella arrived. The Cuffaris believe that Giuseppe is responsible for all the fires. But Casella holds Giuseppe responsible only for the 2014 fires. When I asked why, he says what so many others have: “I saw it with my own eyes.”

During my trip, I went to Rome to meet with Venerando, the investigator in charge of the interdisciplinary team, at his office in the INGV, located in a low, angular building south of the city. I was an hour late to the meeting, and by the time I arrived, most of the lights were off and the television monitors, which displayed earthquake and electromagnetic activity counters around Italy, provided the only light, illuminating the Italian and European Union flags hanging in the corners like giant sleeping bats. Venerando was dressed head to toe in bureaucratic blue. He seemed worn down, rumpled. Very early into the interview, he received a phone call. “My wife,” he explained. He told the caller that I had been stuck in traffic and had just arrived. And then, instead of hanging up, he set the phone on the desk so that the caller could listen as well.

Venerando told me that he was not surprised by the arrest and complimented the carabinieri for doing an excellent job. At the same time, he didn’t think the fires in 2014 had the same origin as the events in 2004 and what he had witnessed during his study. “What happened last year has nothing to do with the events of 2006 and 2007,” he told me. He pointed out that the phenomena he had observed occurred over a wide radius, including the damage to the plants on the hills and the lights over the sea, not only in a few homes.

Venerando’s comments reflected a tension between the police and the scientists. When the carabinieri issued a press release about Giuseppe’s arrest, they lumped Venerando’s research in with the more insane theories, criticizing his belief in the “Phenomena of Caronia.” Venerando and his research group, the police contended, had not witnessed a single fire during their study—what could they know?

I had never sat across from so many people who said they had seen something impossible, or spoken to a scientist who postulated in all seriousness something so incredible.

The press reported that the events in Canneto ended up costing the government over $600,000. Venerando said one-fifth of the amount went toward his study, and the rest went to relocation costs, hotel bills, and reimbursement for destroyed property.

Many shared Venerando’s point of view, drawing a clear distinction between one set of fires and the other. A journalist who covered the events told me, “In Caronia, no one ever thought Giuseppe was guilty. The charges against him relate only to the last fires in 2014, and not even all of them. Those of 2004 remain unresolved.”

Marila Re didn’t hesitate when I asked her who had set the fires. “Giuseppe,” she said. Re is 34, with deep brown eyes. She is enthusiastic about learning English and loudly announces all thoughts as declarations—“Would you like to eat!”—and then smiles. Of all the people I spoke with, she was the only one who thought that Giuseppe set some of the fires in 2014 and some of the fires in 2004, worsening a natural phenomenon that wouldn’t have been amply destructive otherwise.

“It is like they exist simultaneously,” she said. In her mind, Giuseppe had noticed something strange happening and tried to capitalize on it. The cause seemed to matter less than the effect. “All these people have lost everything,” she said. “They don’t have homes, clothes, nothing.” And the fires led to a battle within the family and the town as people took positions on what had caused them and were exhausted by the trials the flames brought. They “were fighting a war among themselves,” she said.

When I asked her why she believed Giuseppe did it, she said, “His mind isn’t right, he’s pazzo,” making the cuckoo sign next to her head. “Peppe… guilty… crazy.”

For Massimo Polidoro, the investigator from the anti-pseudoscience organization, the arrest confirmed what he already knew. When he visited in 2004, he thought that the fires were obviously manmade. He also stressed that not a single fire took place when there was no one around. Even when they occurred after an evacuation, usually there was someone from the village who had decided to move home or was there to pick something up.

Before I arrived in Canneto, I was sure that the two men, Nino and Giuseppe, had simply gotten the better of everyone. But as I followed all the strange lines of inquiry, I got caught up in the side theories. I had never sat across from so many people who said they had seen something impossible, or spoken to a scientist who postulated in all seriousness something so incredible. I was taken in not by the Pezzinos’ story but by everything around it. The tapes, however, and the carabinieri were an excellent corrective, a reminder that the strange is often just human.   

For international audiences captivated by Canneto, the revelations about Giuseppe brought the story into the world of the prosaic. The fires were attributable not to the devil or UFOs or earthquakes, but to something more banal: a corrupt Sicilian character hoping to turn a profit and a lazy government that had had the wool pulled over its eyes. The journalists stopped coming.

When I visited last winter, Via Mare was still littered with burned items, alongside trash and old appliances, giving the street a downcast feel despite the flowerpots and the chickens and, beyond, the sea. Above the street was a large concrete building, unfinished, and the playground at the water’s edge was empty. Many of the houses on the street were shuttered and abandoned; after the destruction, it was too hard for some residents to come back. There are no more children in Canneto, and just ten people returned to Via Mare after the events in 2014. “Only we live here now,” said Pezzino, himself and his extended family, who make up the bulk of the people left on the half-empty street.

On my first day in Canneto, Pedro Spinnato, the former mayor, picked me up at the train station and brought me straight to the Pezzinos’ house. Lorenzina greeted me, holding my hand in hers for a moment too long, then sat in a chair near the door, almost disappearing into the shadows. Her son, a big man, sat at the table, leaning back, his hands behind his head.

Pezzino admitted that Giuseppe had set a few of the fires but could not understand how he could possibly be blamed for all of them. “I wish to understand how you could do them all at the same time, how you could manage and organize them,” Pezzino said. “I do not understand how.”

I asked him if he wished that Venerando would come back. “I hope yes,” he said. “I have to defend my son, at all costs. I can admit that he has done something stupid. He did most wrong thing in the world.” The prosecutor was only investigating some of the incidents, the ones that had been caught on video, but Pezzino said he was worried about the other fires, the ones that he said were still unexplained. “People need to understand,” he said, “I wasn’t there, for others my son wasn’t there.”

Pezzino showed me their destroyed appliances, a freezer with a burned ice tray, preserved from the day it burned. His demeanor had the same funhouse-tour affect that the police noted. As I walked through the house, I thought about Giuseppe’s appearance in The Unexplained Files, slipping past the doorway with wide eyes. What was he thinking? He looked so much like a victim, but could he have been the one responsible?

Pezzino told me that despite the trouble, he could not leave Canneto. “I like the wild life,” he said. I asked how much money he had received after the first fires. “If you paid 1,000 euros for a TV, they would give you 600 euros,” he said. “They used to pay 60 percent for what was bought new.”

Lorenzina took me to the garage. “It is all burned,” she said, pointing to a row of ruined appliances. Looking at them, I wondered why they’d kept so many ruined things. It seemed to be a way to hold on to the past, to the most defining event of their lives. They encouraged me to take pictures. In the attic, plastic chairs, all stacked, had melted. The water heater was burned, too, and the fire had spread to the wooden ceiling, which was blistered with black charcoal. “It is like modern art,” Spinnato joked.

The fires were attributable not to the Devil or UFOs or earthquakes, but to something more banal: a corrupt Sicilian character hoping to turn a profit.

During my stay, Spinnato was a wonderful tour guide—introducing me to everyone in town, taking me to see the damage—but he seemed reluctant to sit down for a formal interview, putting it off again and again. When we finally talked he wanted to meet at the beach, because it’s the most scenic place. But the surf was loud, so we sat in a nearby courtyard instead.

He told me that real estate values have dropped in the area, because of the fires and because their cause hasn’t been conclusively determined: Nobody wants to move into a neighborhood that might burn. At the same time, he felt that the story had gotten much smaller since the arrest. People are uninterested now that a riddle has been replaced by a common crime. “In the beginning, someone from the outside was curious about it,” he told me. After the arrest, “nobody was interested anymore.”

I asked him about the Pezzinos, a family he has been friends with for a long time. They are “a close family, relatively calm, loved by everybody,” he told me. And Giuseppe? “I don’t know him well.” He prefaced everything about Giuseppe’s involvement with “if you believe,” meaning: if you believe the Pezzinos were involved. He wanted to change the subject and showed me pictures he took while sea kayaking, which depicted the loveliness of the sharp rocks against the blue water.

Spinnato took me to see the Saracen arches and the Roman stones, as he did with the journalists who visited in 2004. On my last evening, he brought me to the San Biagio Festival, celebrating the patron saint of the hilltop town of Caronia. Among the majorettes in their white tights and the old men in hats and the heaving golden San Biagio statue on a pedestal, I asked Spinnato about the videos that appear to prove that the Pezzinos are involved. “Just those then, but no others,” he said, pushing ahead of me up a hill of cobblestones so quickly that I had to lunge to catch up.

When I returned home, I felt frustrated by these exchanges. I liked Spinnato, but how could someone who appeared to have so much love for his town, who noticed everything beautiful and everything not, seem unable to accept the Pezzinos’ culpability? I didn’t understand why he wasn’t angry at Nino, why he was so ready to accept his innocence. Spinnato, too, believed that what he had seen hadn’t been caused by human hands.


Pezzino has been indicted in both planning and setting some of the fires, while Giuseppe has been charged as the main arsonist. They are both on trial, though Giuseppe’s charges are much more severe. The defense had planned to ask for a plea bargain for Giuseppe, but when the prosecutor set the sentence at five years or more, the lawyers changed their minds. Giuseppe maintains his innocence. One of his lawyers, Domenico Magistro, wrote to me: “The trial will present an opportunity to clarify what happened, perhaps with surprising results.” If he had taken the plea deal, Magistro said, it would be like “closing the trial within a box labeled: ‘Pezzino is guilty for the fires of Caronia.’” It’s a gamble, but one they think they can win. If they lose, Giuseppe will also have to pay a fine to Caronia. (I wasn’t able to reach Nino Pezzino’s lawyer.)

In Italy, legal proceedings move glacially. In March, the hearings began. In April, the prosecutor called two witnesses who were involved in the investigation. The trial will continue in December with the cross-examination of those two witnesses. The defense plans to call 60 people to the stand, from all sides of the Canneto story: friends, experts, family members. Giuseppe’s lawyer will call a psychiatrist to explain the fires caught on video. According to the lawyer, “Pezzino says that a mental condition, which he is not able to rationally explain, guided his conduct.”

At the hearing in March, Giuseppe was ordered to stay in the area, but he is no longer confined to house arrest. Spinnato said that these days, Giuseppe “drives quietly in his car through the streets of Caronia Marina,” a nearby town adjacent to the sea. On Facebook, Giuseppe’s account is active again, and he posts often, pictures with friends and with girls. I wrote to him to talk about the case, but he declined. Magistro said he thinks the media influenced Giuseppe’s actions.

Massimo Polidoro, the pseudoscience investigator, told me that once the attention comes, it is hard to stop. He recounted the story of the Fox sisters, young girls in the 19th century who pretended that they were communicating with the spirit world. Everyone believed them, so they had to keep going. Eventually, they became famous mediums. “They were trapped in the role,” Polidoro said. “It took them 40 years to confess.” This made sense to me, too, that Giuseppe saw a way of bringing fame and money to his village and then found himself trapped.

When I asked Spinnato and others about the best outcome, I thought that they would want to learn the truth. But what they wanted more than answers, they said, was for the fires to never return. They have lived through them. They know how vicious they are.

There’s a void where everything people want to believe, every anxiety and every hope, rushes in. The stories, the pieces you can control, replace what actually happened.

Fires burn all the time in Sicily. Farmers use them to clear fields. Recently, the Sicilian press reported that Mafiosi tied burning rags to the tails of feral cats and sent them running into the woods in order to burn the trees down. Above the northern coast of Sicily, there is a forested mountain range called the Nebrodi. When it’s dry, the Nebrodi burns and burns.

The trial may yield answers, but not to the deeper questions, the ones that created the mystery in the first place. The metaphor is irresistible: Smoke gets in your eyes. When the government fails to uncover or reveal the whole truth, a culture rejects science, an economy leaves people behind, and politician after politician succumbs to corruption, epic solutions are required. But also, the facts are clear: They were caught on tape. Insurance: Pezzino’s line of work. The location of the fires: inside homes and confined to the area where the Pezzinos and their relatives lived. The fires stopped when the area was under investigation. The human desire for money, for fame. A young man with nowhere to go. The experience of the fires was so great that the resolution needs to be, too. Then there’s a void where everything people want to believe, every anxiety and every hope, rushes in. The stories, the pieces you can control, replace what actually happened.

“Nowhere has truth so short a life as in Sicily,” wrote Lampedusa in The Leopard. “A fact has scarcely happened five minutes before its genuine kernel has vanished, been camouflaged, embellished, disfigured, squashed, annihilated by imagination and self-interest; shame, fear, generosity, malice, opportunism, charity, all the passions, good as well as evil, fling themselves onto the fact and tear it to pieces; very soon it has vanished altogether.… The truth no longer existed.”

Codename: Chilbom

On a fall morning in 1976, a bomb exploded in the middle of Washington. The shock waves were felt for the next 30 years.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 59

Zach Dorfman is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, where he was previously senior editor of Ethics & International Affairs, the Council’s quarterly journal. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles TimesNational Interest, The Los Angeles Review of BooksThe AwlDissent, and American Interest.

Editor: Joel Lovell
Designer: Tim Moore
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Muna Mire

Published in July 2016. Design updated in 2021.

Shortly after 9:30 on the morning of September 21, 1976, a light blue Chevy Chevelle carrying three passengers moved along Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row, merging into the flow of commuter traffic around Sheridan Circle. The man in the driver’s seat was Orlando Letelier, an economist and fellow at a left-leaning think tank, the Institute of Policy Studies. In the passenger’s seat beside him was 25-year-old Ronni Moffitt, a fundraiser at IPS, and behind her was her husband of four months, Michael Moffitt, also 25, a researcher working with Letelier on issues related to the future of Letelier’s native Chile.

It was a small miracle that Letelier was there in Washington that morning, working at IPS, commuting from the house he shared in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and four sons. Six years earlier, he had been a close confidante to Salvador Allende, the democratic socialist elected president of Chile in September 1970. For two years, Letelier served as Allende’s ambassador to the United States. In May 1973, he became foreign minister, and three months later, as right-wing resistance to Allende was intensifying, he was appointed defense minister, in charge of a military establishment openly hostile to the president.

On September 11, 1973, that hostility erupted into a deadly coup led by military leader General Augusto Pinochet. Allende’s three years in office had been marked by intense social instability, fomented in part by the United States, which since 1962 had been covertly financing newspapers, political parties, and, eventually, neo-fascist paramilitary groups as part of its covert war against leftist political movements in Latin America. That morning tanks surrounded Moneda Palace, the seat of Chile’s presidency. Just before noon, the Chilean air force began strafing the building. A firefight ensued between military forces and pro-Allende snipers positioned around the palace. Rather than be taken prisoner or forced into exile, Allende, holed up in La Moneda, took his own life.

Over the next few months, more than 1,200 people—leftist politicians and government officials, union leaders, activists, and students—were summarily executed. Many were arrested, brought to detention centers, and then murdered, their bodies flung across Santiago thoroughfares and dumped along urban riverbanks. On the morning of the coup, Letelier rushed to the Defense Ministry to try to restore order. In an interview published posthumously in Playboy in 1977, Letelier said that the moment he entered the ministry, he “felt a gun in my back” and was quickly “surrounded by ten or twelve men,” all pointing their weapons at him. He was taken into military custody. That night, from his holding room, Letelier watched nearly two dozen executions in the palace courtyard. At 5 a.m., he heard a commotion outside his room. “Now it’s the turn of the minister,” one soldier said. About 30 minutes later, a group of armed men entered his room, one carrying a blindfold. Letelier knew immediately what was coming. While he was being led to the courtyard, however, an argument ensued between two officers over who was in charge. Letelier remembered one of his captors saying, “You’re lucky. They won’t give it to you, you bastard.”

Instead he was flown with other prominent political prisoners to a detention center on Dawson Island, a frigid, forlorn place in the Strait of Magellan, closer to the tip of Antarctica than to Santiago. Letelier was beaten, threatened with execution, and forced to perform hard labor in subzero conditions. He remembered Dawson as “an inaccessible, frozen hell.”

After three months there, Letelier, malnourished and greatly weakened, weighed only 125 pounds. Another six months went by before he was transferred to a less punitive facility north of Santiago. A year after the coup, he was suddenly released from military custody and sent to Venezuela, where the powerful governor of Caracas had been lobbying for his release. He rejoined his family there and was offered the research position at IPS, which was hostile to the junta and critical of U.S. intervention in Latin America.

When the bomb went off in Sheridan Circle, Orlando Letelier’s Chevelle was lifted entirely off the ground, flames roaring from its windows. An explosive consisting primarily of C-4 had been attached to the car’s I-beam, directly beneath the driver’s seat. The flaming vehicle crashed into a Volkswagen in front of the Romanian embassy.

Michael Moffitt regained consciousness in the back seat, overcome by heat and the stench of burning hair and flesh. His shoes were blown off his feet; at first he had no feeling below the waist. Gasping for air, Moffitt pulled himself through a shattered window and saw his wife standing with her back to him. He moved to the driver’s side to check on Letelier.

Moffitt found Letelier facing backward and wedged between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat. The bottom of the car had been blown out, and Letelier had been rotated 180 degrees, folded over like a piece of origami. When Moffitt tried to lift Letelier out of the car, he saw that his body was completely severed at the torso. Letelier would die within minutes.

Because Ronni’s back was turned to him, Moffitt hadn’t seen that his wife was clutching her throat as she stumbled away from the car. Nor did he realize that her face was badly burned and that a piece of shrapnel the size of a thumbnail had pierced her carotid artery. He looked away from Letelier, who Moffitt realized was hopeless, and watched his wife fall to the ground, blood gushing from her mouth.

Within minutes of the explosion, Sheridan Circle was swarming with hundreds of law enforcement personnel from several agencies—local D.C. police; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the FBI; the Secret Service; and the Executive Protection Services (responsible for safeguarding members of the foreign service) were all present. When FBI special agent L. Carter Cornick Jr. had arrived, about ten minutes after the bombing, his first thought upon surveying the crime scene was that it was a “nightmare.” Cornick didn’t know if the FBI had jurisdiction, but he began to work as if it did. He saw the remains of a man being loaded into an ambulance; a woman lying on the side of the road, an emergency worker attempting to revive her, to no avail; and a crazed man, covered in burns, “deafened and incoherent,” screaming about an organization called DINA.

It was still morning rush hour, and cars were backed up for miles. When another official tried to reopen part of the circle to vehicles, Cornick ordered them to cease immediately. “I said, ‘No! I don’t care what you do with traffic,’” he recalled. “‘The crime scene is here once.’” To make matters worse, rain had begun to fall, washing away particulate matter that Cornick knew would be crucial to the investigation. (Human detritus was eventually recovered from the roofs of nearby embassies, some 40 feet off the ground.)

As the FBI’s explosives unit fanned out across the area, Cornick learned that the bureau had been given jurisdiction over the case and that he would be running the show.

I met with Cornick last summer at his home in suburban Virginia. At 75, dressed in khakis and a crisp blue dress shirt, he’s still trim and youthful looking, an easygoing, natural-born raconteur.

A former marine, Cornick worked counterterrorism for the FBI for over twenty years. In the early 1970s, he helped solve armed robbery cases in Puerto Rico, then later investigated the 1983 American embassy bombing in Beirut that killed 63.

“Bombing investigations are inherently difficult to solve,” Cornick said, “because evidence is destroyed as well as people.” For 12 years, until his retirement in 1988, he led the FBI’s investigation into the Letelier bombing.

The only reason the FBI had any claim on the case at all was due to a law called the Protection of Foreign Officials Statute, which had only been written in 1972. And the foreign-ambassadors clause of the law, which gave the bureau the authority to investigate crimes committed against current or former diplomats, was only added at the suggestion of a junior State Department attorney. That Cornick would work the case was dependent on this minute legal detail.

Larger forces were also at play. During Watergate, the FBI—which investigated the break-in and eventually identified members of the Nixon administration and re-election campaign as culpable—was under tremendous political pressure. L. Patrick Gray, the FBI’s acting director, helped the Nixon administration delay the investigation in 1972, and so legitimate concerns about the independence of the bureau led to the creation of the major crimes unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. For the first time, and much to the chagrin of agents in the bureau, U.S. attorneys would work investigations with their colleagues from the FBI instead of merely prosecuting them. Watergate was handled this way, and the Letelier bombing was the second case to fall under the unit’s authority.

Early on the morning after the bombing, the FBI’s special agent in charge, Nick Stames, called Cornick into his office and told him he’d be working the case with the Justice Department.

“No, I’m not,” Cornick recalled saying. “I have no intention of working with the Justice Department. I don’t want some assistant U.S. attorney telling me how to run a case.”

The man who would become his partner was equally unenthusiastic. When assistant U.S. attorney Eugene Propper heard about the Letelier killing, his first thought was that it would become an albatross hanging around some poor prosecutor’s neck. “I remember sitting at lunch with a very good friend of mine, who was also an assistant U.S. attorney, saying, ‘I wonder who’s going to get that case,’” Propper told me when we talked last summer. “‘That’s not going to be any fun.’ And when the U.S. attorney spoke to me about it, he said, ‘Look, we’ve never had a case like this. We may never solve it no matter what you do. Give it your best shot.’”

Propper, who went on to coauthor a book about the killing, Labyrinth, in 1982, was only 29 when he was assigned to the most high-profile investigation in the country. Today he expresses shock at some of his own actions nearly 40 years ago. In his pursuit of the case, he even agreed to be led blindfolded to a meeting with a prominent anti-Castro militant in Miami. “I wonder what sort of insanity caused me to do that,” he said. But then he recalled that the militant told him, “If we wanted you dead, we wouldn’t have to blindfold you.”

Propper and Cornick met for the first time in Propper’s cramped office the morning after the bombing. They were an incongruous duo: Cornick clean-cut and clean-shaven, genteel, and deeply southern; Propper an outspoken, bearded, motorcycle rider from Long Island. For the next three years, the two men would work together on the case the bureau codenamed Chilbom.

Rescue crews and investigators at the site of the bombing, September 21, 1976. (Photo: Associated Press) 

Within two days of the bombing, an informant named Ricardo Morales told the FBI that he knew who was responsible for the killings. It was two Cuban brothers, he said—Guillermo and Ignacio Novo—living in Union City, New Jersey. Both were well-known anti-Castro militants, and both believed themselves to be—and were anxious to be considered—part of a much larger fight against communism that extended through all of Latin America and, indeed, in their minds, across the globe. When asked where his information came from, Morales, a high-ranking member of Venezuela’s intelligence services, said that he learned about the Novos from Dr. Orlando Bosch, an infamous anti-Castro terrorist, federal fugitive, and trained pediatrician also living in Venezuela. Morales, himself a committed anti-Castro militant, was a profoundly shrewd operator, at various times informing for the CIA, FBI, DEA, and Miami Police Department, all the while working for the Venezuelan intelligence agency, known as DISIP.

This arrangement was less unusual than it may seem. By the late 1960s, DISIP was populated by a number of high-profile anti-Castro Cubans. To this day there are lingering questions as to why the Venezuelan intelligence service would absorb so many foreigners into its ranks, given the obvious sensitivities of the job. It may have something to do with what American officials referred to in the early 1960s as the “disposal problem”—that is, what to do with Cuban militants who’d been trained by America to take on Castro and, now living in exile in America, were waging that fight on U.S. soil, in operations the U.S. government didn’t sanction and couldn’t control. As far back as the Kennedy administration, officials knew they had created something of a monster: thousands of highly committed anti-Castro foot soldiers willing to wage war across the hemisphere in the effort to defeat communism.

Such men were useful to the CIA, if they could be managed. But they often proved unwilling to abide by agency strictures. When I started discussing Morales’s and Bosch’s roles in the case with Cornick, he gave me a quizzical look, then asked, “Do you know how the Cubans got to Venezuela?” When I said no, he erupted, “The agency put them down there!” Cornick claims that the CIA placed Cubans “recruited by the agency to fight the good war against Castro” into Venezuelan intelligence. (I later asked retired CIA agent Jack Devine, who helped run covert operations in Latin America for over two decades and was stationed in Chile from 1971 to 1974, about Cornick’s claim. “He’s full of shit,” Devine responded. “Go show me. Prove it.” This was the only instance during our interview where Devine, who was otherwise guarded and deft in his responses, flashed a hint of pique.)

Given the thick web of relationships, some of which were still operational in 1976, between the Cubans in DISIP and the CIA (not to mention the vested interest the agency has to this day in not disclosing these ties), it’s hard not to consider Cornick’s assertion credible.

Guillermo Novo, November 1975. (Photo: Courtesy of

These Cubans in Venezuela were linked to the Novo brothers—the men who Ricardo Morales told the FBI were responsible for the killings—through an umbrella group called the Coordination of United Revolutionary Organizations. Cuban militants were notoriously splintered, and CORU—formed at a meeting in the Dominican Republic in June 1976, three months before the Letelier bombing—was an attempt to bring together the major exile groups and to coordinate future targets, there to put aside their differences and focus on shared enemies and goals.

There were a number of anti-Castro groups in attendance, among them the radical Cuban Nationalist Movement (CNM), represented at the meeting by Guillermo Novo and another of the group’s leaders, Jose Suarez, whose reputation for ruthlessness (his nickname was Charco de Sangre—“Puddle of Blood”) was widely known. Orlando Bosch, the source whose information regarding the Novo brothers had been passed on to the FBI, was also there. According to a declassified FBI telegram from late September 1976, Bosch had an agreement with the Venezuelan government: As long as he refrained from planning and committing terrorist attacks inside Venezuela, he would be allowed to raise money for anti-Castro activities (an agreement he violated four months after the meeting, in October 1976, when he and another Cuban in Venezuela, Luis Posada, conspired to bomb a Cubana Airlines plane, killing 73, including Cuba’s national fencing team).

At the time of the CORU meeting, Guillermo and Ignacio Novo were famous, or infamous, among the exile groups for their botched attack on the United Nations headquarters in December 1964. Using a bazooka, they launched a rocket across the East River, hoping to strike the General Assembly during a speech being given by Che Guevara. The Novos misfired, the missile fell into the river, and nearly two weeks later they were apprehended for the attack—only to be released in June 1965 because they were never properly processed by the NYPD. Farcical as the operation might have been, it foreshadowed a stunning wave of violence, all in the name of anti-Castro militancy, that would be carried out within the borders of the country most committed to stopping the spread of communism.

Between 1974 and 1976, there were over 200 bombings in the Miami area alone, including the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the local FBI office, the Dade County Police Department, and the airport. Five Cuban exiles were assassinated during this time.

For his part, after the botched UN attack, Guillermo Novo orchestrated a scheme to blow up a Cuban ship anchored in Montreal and to attack the Cuba booth at the Montreal World’s Fair in 1967. A trained chemist, Novo worked as a lab supervisor in a chemical company in New Jersey. In 1968, when he was expelled from the American Chemists Association after being convicted of possession of explosives, he turned to selling cars, at least during the day.

Jose Suarez, the Novos’ partner in the Cuban National Movement, also led a double life selling cars in New Jersey. Suarez was a colonel in Castro’s army before defecting to the United States in October 1960 and receiving training by the CIA for the Bay of Pigs invasion. According to an FBI informant at the CORU meeting, it was Suarez who told attendees that the CNM needed to “perform one more contract” for the Chilean government before they could cease operations in the U.S.

When Carter Cornick arrived at the bomb scene in Sheridan Square and heard Michael Moffitt screaming about DINA, the name meant nothing to him. But it meant a lot to Letelier’s family and colleagues at IPS, whom Cornick visited the evening of the bombing. They told Cornick they were convinced that the government of Chile, all the way up to President Augusto Pinochet, was complicit in the crime. And they all believed that DINA, short for the Directorate of National Intelligence, was the prime culprit.

DINA was Chile’s combined foreign intelligence agency and domestic secret police. In the years after the coup, DINA agents were responsible for hundreds of summary executions and nocturnal disappearances (in which, after the disappeared were murdered, their bodies were often loaded onto airplanes, their stomachs slit open to prevent floatation, and dumped into the sea). From late 1973 to 1977, DINA was led by Pinochet’s right-hand man, Manuel Contreras, who also served as a CIA informant during those years against leftist sympathizers in Chile. The CIA’s friendliness toward the Pinochet regime, and DINA in particular, manifested itself in other ways. A State Department official named Bob Steven, who was based in Santiago in the mid-seventies, said in an interview in 2001 that the CIA possessed what “amounted to a veto” over the State Department’s reporting on the country’s human rights abuses, making it nearly impossible for State Department officials in Santiago to transmit information back to D.C. about the regime’s use of torture or extrajudicial murder.

Orlando Letelier, Washington, D.C., 1976. (Photo: Museum of Memory and Human Rights)

As a former high-ranking member of the Allende government, Orlando Letelier still had important connections in Washington, through which he lobbied forcefully against the Pinochet regime. He was particularly close to prominent Senate liberals Ted Kennedy and George McGovern and congressmen Tom Harkin and George Miller. He spoke at the UN about mass torture being perpetrated by the regime and helped convince the Dutch government to cancel a $63 million investment in Chile’s mining industry. As Letelier’s stature rose, Pinochet and Contreras feared that he was becoming the unofficial leader of the opposition and that he would begin to form a government in exile.

That a military government with a history of murdering its enemies would seek to obliterate one of its most prominent critics should not have been shocking. But the Letelier killing was followed by a surprising suspension of disbelief in Washington. Many refused to consider that a foreign government would be so brazen as to commit a spectacular assassination a mere 100 yards from the Chilean ambassador’s residence. It is hard to imagine a less covert way of eliminating one’s adversaries.

The CIA quickly made clear that it was disinclined to view Chile as a suspect. Jack Devine, the retired CIA agent who was based in Chile from ’71 to ‘74, described the Letelier killing to me as one of those situations “where conventional wisdom and rationality sometimes gets in the way of intelligence.” The assassination was seen as so “outlandish,” he said, that the idea that the Chileans—our allies, after all—could have committed it was “almost incomprehensible.” Devine said that his view was shared by almost everyone he worked with in intelligence at the time. A declassified National Security Council memorandum, written the day of the killing, speculated that, “in view of Letelier’s role in the Allende government, right wing Chileans are the obvious candidates. But they seem to be too obvious, and we think that they would think twice about creating a martyr for the Chilean Left.”

The germ of an unlikely idea began to grow, nurtured by the ascendant conservative politics of the time: that Letelier was murdered by one of his own in an effort to discredit the Chilean regime. The day after the killing, the New York Times editorial board floated this possibility. Prominent right-wing intellectuals and politicians such as William F. Buckley, Jesse Helms, and Ronald Reagan, who hosted his own radio show at the time, all ran with the idea. Some even suggested that Letelier was a secret Soviet or Cuban agent.

In such a charged environment, federal investigators felt the political ramifications of the case acutely. They were attacked by liberals for not assuming the culpability of the Chilean government; they were attacked by conservatives for trying to demonize a steadfast ally in America’s war on communism.

“When we looked at the Chileans,” Propper told me, “we looked at the Pinochet government, which really came into effect because the CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

The State Department was also not enthused about the investigation. The prevailing stance at Foggy Bottom was one of passive, even hostile, noncooperation. According to Bob Steven, who returned to D.C. in 1977 to oversee the Chile desk, “The basic attitude was that we had approved the coup, that our interests were best served by a military regime, and that it was not in the U.S. interest to see the situation become inflamed or otherwise rattle the cage.” Nonetheless, Steven began to pursue the case vigorously and was censured by the assistant secretary through an intermediary. “He called me in and said, ‘Bob, we really think that we should let Justice take the lead in this.’ The signal was very, very clear: Lay off.”

“The CIA helped get rid of Allende. I met with people at the CIA who said, ‘What the hell are you doing? You can’t be pulling that shit up again.’”

Under this intense glare, Cornick and Propper turned their attention to anyone other than the Chilean government who might have a motive for the killing. “Everyone kept telling us, ‘DINA did it, DINA did it, DINA did it.’ Well,” said Cornick, “that and a dime will get you a cup of coffee in a courtroom.” Letelier had a reputation as a lothario, for instance (it was widely known that he was having a relationship with a well-connected Venezuelan woman); maybe he was killed by a jealous spouse. Another theory had it that perhaps he was involved with Ronni Moffitt, and so Michael had arranged for the murder. As Propper recalled, “The FBI felt quite strongly that they’d look like idiots if they investigated all this other stuff”—meaning leads that went back to the Chilean government—“and it turned out to be that his wife wanted him dead because he had an affair.”

These theories quickly proved baseless, while the chatter about the role of the Cuban Nationalist Movement was unceasing. Cuban diplomats at the United Nations, whom Propper met with in late 1977, claimed that Cuban intelligence had identified the CNM as the authors of the bombing. There was the talk from Orlando Bosch in Venezuela about the role of the Novo brothers. There was evidence that Bosch, Guillermo Novo, and Suarez had traveled together to Venezuela in December 1974, on their way to Chile to establish a relationship with the Pinochet government. There were also tantalizing reports from FBI agents working informants in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, as well as in Union City, of Guillermo Novo meeting with a mysterious tall, blond Chilean, a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services, just prior to the bombing.

In mid-October 1976, Propper brought Guillermo and Ignacio Novo before a grand jury. The Novo brothers denied knowledge of the killing. But Propper and Cornick became increasingly suspicious that if the Novos hadn’t killed Letelier themselves, they knew who ordered the assassination. So Propper tried to arrange a trip to Venezuela, in order to get Bosch’s official testimony about the Novos’ involvement and to procure hard evidence that Guillermo had traveled through the country. To Propper’s increasing frustration, though, Venezuelan officials, who now had Bosch in custody, stonewalled him for months, refusing to permit him to meet with Bosch.

Finally, in March 1977, after exhausting legal negotiations with the Venezuelans, Propper was granted permission to travel secretly to Caracas, but he was still denied a meeting with Bosch. He spoke with a DISIP official who said he had personally met Novo and Suarez, who were with Bosch in Caracas in 1974. Back in the U.S., Propper, now surer than ever that Novo and Suarez were key to the case, now called Suarez to testify at the grand jury. Suarez refused to cooperate and was jailed for contempt. He would remain in prison for nearly a year, until late March 1978—the longest possible jail time for the violation.

Propper and Cornick also began to close in on Guillermo Novo. Armed with proof that Novo left the U.S. illegally—his parole agreement from the attempted bombing in Montreal in 1967 forbade him from traveling outside the country—Propper arranged for a hearing on Novo’s parole violation in late June 1977. When the day came, Novo failed to appear, becoming a fugitive. It was a disastrous development for Propper, who’d finally caught Novo in a bind and planned to use Novo’s precarious legal situation to pressure him into talking. Now the man had disappeared entirely.

But other members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement did start talking—even bragging—to their associates about their exploits. Ricardo Canete was a small-time criminal in Union City with ties to the CNM. In the spring of 1977, Canete was caught counterfeiting U.S. currency and admitted that he had also provided false IDs to CNM members after the Letelier bombing. Canete, pressured into informing for the FBI, relayed conversations he’d had with two CNM members—a man named Alvin Ross, who told Canete he’d helped build the bomb that killed Letelier, and another named Virgilio Paz, who admitted that he’d taken part in the killing.

Canete feared for his safety. By sharing their exploits with him, Ross and Paz had purposefully brought him into the conspiracy. He could no longer claim that he merely provided these men with false documents; he was now an accessory after the fact to a double murder. One evening in March 1978, concerned that Canete would testify to a grand jury, Paz and Ross blindfolded him and drove to a windowless safe house. They took him to a room whose walls were lined with machine guns and threatened him and his family.

Of all the CNM members involved in the killing, Ross was the oldest. Paz, who was only 24 when the assassination took place, was almost two decades younger. But the two men had much in common. Paz, who was 15 when he fled Cuba in 1966, blamed Castro for the death of his father, a former officer in the Cuban military expelled after the revolution. Paz traveled with his family to Mexico City, en route to defecting to the United States. While in transit, Paz’s father contracted pneumonia and died. Settling in Union City—home to the second-largest Cuban population in the United States—Paz became involved with the CNM at a very young age. He was selected as the leader of its youth section, and was the director of its newsletter, El Joven Nationalista (The Young Nationalist).

Ross was a veteran and victim of America’s secret war against the Castro regime. Born to a British father and a Cuban mother, he fled the country soon after Castro’s final victory on New Year’s Day 1959. Like Jose Suarez and Luis Posada, he was recruited by the CIA to fight in the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Indeed, like Posada, he was brought to Guatemala by the CIA and trained as an infantry captain in anticipation of the invasion. (He claimed to the FBI that in Guatemala someone from the U.S. embassy gave him a phosphorus weapon disguised as a pack of cigarettes.) Ross was taken captive during the botched invasion of April 1961, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.

Paz and Ross detested Letelier for his socialist political leanings, but their eagerness to take part in the assassination went beyond their desire to rid the world of one more leftist.

According to Cornick, the CNM “wanted recognition by the Chilean government. That was the important thing in becoming a legitimate force in exile. That’s what they wanted. And the Chileans agreed to provide training. So there was a quid pro quo in there.” The hope was that cooperation with the Pinochet government, which was seen as a beacon of anticommunism and a regional leader, would catapult the CNM to preeminence among the Cuban exile community.

For Cornick and Propper, though, proving that the CNM was working directly with the Chilean government—connecting the dots between the men in Union City and DINA—was an ongoing exercise in frustration.

They did have one possible if puzzling lead, concerning two DINA agents entering the country in late August 1976, about a month before the Letelier assassination. Despite its general reluctance to get involved in the investigation, the State Department handed over to Propper and Cornick photographs and background information on the DINA agents—Juan Williams and Alejandro Romeral—who’d entered the U.S. through Miami with official Chilean passports.

The memo from the State Department recounted a bizarre diplomatic incident in Paraguay a month earlier: At the request of DINA head Manuel Contreras, two Chilean men using those same names—Williams and Romeral—had also applied for visas to the United States. As part of their cover, “Williams” and “Romeral” were going to travel to the U.S. as Paraguayan nationals. When a Paraguayan official informed the American ambassador, George Landau, about Contreras’s request, Landau grew suspicious. Why would intelligence agents from Chile, a friendly government, need to travel to the U.S. with false Paraguayan passports? It was well known that spies from friendly regimes used false names when they traveled, but not under the aegis of another government. Notifying the CIA and State Department, the ambassador rescinded the visas for Romeral and Williams, but not before copying the photographs of both men from their passports.

Then, prior to Williams and Romeral entering the U.S. with Chilean passports in August, the Chilean government informed U.S. officials, including the CIA, that the two men were planning to visit the country. This was not exactly an advisable strategy to carry out an assassination, thought Cornick. If DINA was planning on using these men to kill Letelier, why would they alert the U.S. government to their presence on American soil after they’d already botched an attempt to shroud their trip in secrecy?

Cornick checked immigration records and found no mention of Romeral or Williams passing through customs. For months it remained a dead end, until July 1977, when FBI agents showed the passport pictures to Ricardo Canete, the counterfeiter turned informant, and a jailed Cuban militant named Rolando Otero. In front of Cornick, Otero identified Williams as a Chilean colonel he met in February 1976. Separately, Canete identified Williams as the blond Chilean colonel he had seen meeting with Guillermo Novo shortly before the assassination.

Propper and Cornick now knew that Williams had been in the country. They knew that he was a colonel in the Chilean intelligence services. And they had a witness placing him with Guillermo Novo right before Letelier was killed.

Wanted poster for Virgilio Paz, 1978.

What they still didn’t have, though, was hard evidence that either man had entered the United States. So Cornick revisited the INS office in December 1977, this time with a team of FBI agents, scouring the facilities until they found documents showing that Romeral and Williams had indeed entered the country in August 1976. The problem now was that the documents also showed that both men exited the country on September 2, 1976, long before the assassination. If Williams left the U.S. then, how could he have met with Novo around the time of the killing?

Whatever the truth was about who these men were, and whether they were the same men in the strange Paraguay incident, Propper wanted to question “Williams” and “Romeral.” There was, however, the small matter of inducing the Chilean government to produce two primary suspects—covert operatives in that country’s intelligence agency—in a high-profile assassination. In February 1978, Propper sent a formal request to the Chilean government, imploring Chilean authorities to bring Romeral and Williams in for questioning regarding the Letelier bombing.

A month after Propper’s official request, the photos that he provided of Romeral and Williams were leaked by someone at the FBI to the Washington Star, a widely read daily newspaper at the time, and were subsequently published on the cover of the conservative Chilean daily El Mercurio. El Mercurio identified Williams—the “blond Chilean” who was not a Chilean at all. His real name was Michael Townley. Townley was the son of a Ford executive formerly based in Chile. He was born in Waterloo, Iowa. He was an American.

The release of the photos unleashed a torrent of information. An employee of the Organization of American States identified “Romeral” as Armando Fernandez, a captain in the Chilean army and DINA operative. Fernandez had a sister in New York. When agents questioned her, she confirmed that her brother had visited the U.S. in early September 1976.

As for Townley, FBI agents fanned out up and down the East Coast to question his friends, family, and business associates. They spoke to his father, Vernon, who now worked as a bank executive in South Florida. They visited an AAMCO auto-body shop in Miami, where Townley was employed as a mechanic in the early seventies, before the coup. And they stopped at a shady private-security equipment retailer, where, under the alias Kenneth Enyart, Townley appeared to have made a number of purchases of surveillance electronics on behalf of the Chilean government.

July 1979 issue of El Nacionalista, publication of the Cuban Nationalist Movement. (Photo: Courtesy of

But it was in Tarrytown, New York, a picturesque commuter village on the Hudson River, where the pieces all came together. Townley had a sister living there. When agents showed her the picture of the man identified as “Williams” and asked if he was her brother, she said yes and that he had stopped in for a brief visit—the first in some time—in September 1976. When agents asked to look at her phone records, she obliged. There they found a series of phone calls from the house in Tarrytown to Union City on September 19, 1976—two days before the assassination. The number in Union City was the home phone of Guillermo Novo.

On March 19, 1978, six days after FBI agents questioned Townley’s sister, Propper and Cornick arrived in Chile looking to make a deal with the Chilean government to let them take Townley back to the United States. They believed he was still in the country, likely being hidden by allies in DINA.

After weeks of stalling on the part of the Chileans, and intense legal wrangling between the two governments, the Chileans finally gave up Townley, and Cornick escorted him back to the U.S.

Townley was 33 when he orchestrated the murder of Ronni Moffitt and Orlando Letelier. He had lived in Chile since he was 14, eventually marrying a Chilean woman, Mariana Callejas—who would also become a DINA agent—and settling in Santiago. He was harshly anticommunist, participating in numerous acts of sabotage and helping to set up a bomb-making factory for a neo-fascist group, Patria y Libertad (which had received funding from the CIA) in 1972. In the spring of 1973, Townley, pursued by the Allende government, was forced to flee the country.

After the coup in September 1973, though, Townley returned, and within six months he’d become an official agent of DINA. The agency sent him on several missions abroad—to Argentina in September 1974, where he helped arrange the fatal car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife; to Mexico in the spring of 1975, to try to assassinate a group of leftist Chilean politicians; to Rome in October 1975, where he masterminded a failed assassination attempt on Bernardo Leighton, an exiled Chilean politician and his wife (the would-be assassin succeeded in maiming both); and then to Washington, D.C., in September 1976, to kill the man who may have been the Pinochet regime’s most vocal critic. In just a few years, he had gone from being an agitator and provocateur to a state-sponsored assassin.

When Propper and Cornick brought Townley back to the United States, investigators had an important decision to make. They could prosecute him for the murder of Letelier and Moffitt, or they could pressure him into revealing details of the larger conspiracy. “We had good circumstantial evidence.” Cornick told me. “We did not have, in my opinion, a prosecutable case. So what we did was we made a deal with the worst possible guy. The government never does that. But without it, we had no case.”

In exchange for pleading guilty to the crime of conspiring to murder a former official—with a maximum sentence of just ten years, and with the first opportunity for parole after three years and four months—Townley agreed to divulge all the details of the killing. His deal stipulated that he was only required to provide information regarding violations of U.S. law or crimes committed in U.S. jurisdictions; that he could not be charged by American officials for crimes he committed abroad while working for DINA; and that, finally, once his prison sentence was completed, he would be permanently resettled in the United States under the witness-protection program. The agreement was signed on April 18, 1978.

In a conference room at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia, Propper, Cornick, and other investigators sat rapt as Townley chain-smoked and paced the room, unfurling the details of the conspiracy. On behalf of DINA, Townley said, he and his wife, Mariana Callejas, traveled undercover to New Jersey in February 1975. There he met with Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and another CNM member at a restaurant in Union City. Townley said that if the CNM would assist in several planned assassinations, Chile could provide material support and training to the group. Novo, noncommittal, arranged a meeting in Townley’s hotel room the next morning.

Cuban Nationalist Movement logo. (Illustration: Courtesy of

Before the agreed-upon meeting time, the three CNM members burst into Townley’s room. Suarez pointed a gun at him and his wife. The other men rifled through his belongings, accusing him of working for the CIA and searching for clues about his true identity and affiliations. Eventually, following a period of interrogation, the men relented, and a tenuous alliance, characterized from that moment on by mutual mistrust and paranoia, was formed. Soon after the meeting in Union City, Townley and Callejas traveled to Florida to meet another CNM member, Virgilio Paz, who would then join Townley on his missions to assassinate Chilean socialists in Mexico and to kill Bernardo Leighton in Rome.

In June 1976, Townley met his DINA supervisor on the outskirts of Santiago, where he was assigned the mission to assassinate Letelier. “Try to make it seem innocuous,” Townley recounted his boss saying. “But the important point is to get it done.”

Townley flew into JFK on September 9, 1976, ready to oversee the assassination. He would later reveal in letters from prison that he carried with him liquid sarin, a deadly nerve gas, secreted in a Chanel No. 5 bottle, hoping that he might get close enough to Letelier to use it. In the airport, Townley met a DINA agent (Armando Fernandez, the “Romeral” to Townley’s “Williams”) who had been conducting surveillance on Letelier. According to Townley, Fernandez handed him a document containing “a sketch of Letelier’s residence and employment,” as well as his license plate number and information about the kind of car he drove and the route he followed on his daily commute.

Townley rented a car and headed straight for Union City, where he met Novo and Suarez and requested their assistance in assassinating Letelier. A few days later CNM leadership agreed.

Using the sarin properly would be difficult, so they settled on a car bomb. According to Townley, on the evening of September 14, Guillermo Novo and Suarez gave him and Paz C-4 compound, TNT, and a detonating cord. Later that night, Townley and Paz drove from New Jersey to Washington, D.C. They spent two days trailing Letelier. On September 17, they went to Sears to purchase more parts for the explosive. Suarez arrived the next day, and the three men assembled the bomb that night and decided to immediately place it beneath Letelier’s car.

On the way to Letelier’s home, Townley recalled, he “was informed by Paz and Suarez that they expected me to place the device on the car.” They wanted to ensure that DINA—and Townley himself—were “directly tied” to the plot. After some difficulty, he attached the bomb to the car’s undercarriage.

Townley flew back to New York early the next morning and traveled to Tarrytown to visit his sister, where he made the calls—the vital evidence that the FBI would later discover—to Novo’s home in Union City. On September 19, he met with Novo one final time, then flew to Miami, where two days later he would learn on the radio that not only had Letelier been killed, but so had an American woman in the car with him. In Miami, he met Ignacio Novo for a celebratory drink and then boarded a plane back to Chile.

By April 1978, Guillermo Novo had been a fugitive for ten months, since the day he failed to appear in court on suspicion of violating his parole. The FBI hadn’t stopped pursuing him, though, and neither had police in Miami and New Jersey. So when an officer in a Miami restaurant spotted a man wearing a shaggy brown wig who nevertheless strongly resembled Novo, he was immediately suspicious. The suspicion intensified when he realized that sitting with the man he believed to be Novo was another man he was almost certain was Alvin Ross. A third, unknown man was with them. The police tailed the three men to a hotel near the airport, informing the FBI about their discovery. They were told to hold off on making an arrest—a warrant was being drawn up for Alvin Ross, whose house in Union City had recently been searched, yielding a number of explosives and bomb-making materials.

Ross’s warrant came in late the next morning, April 14. Under surveillance by the FBI and the Miami Police Department, the three men were seen loading large bags into two cars, a gray Lincoln Continental and a brown Chevy Nova. Ross got into the Lincoln and drove in one direction; Novo and the third man took the Chevy in another. A police car soon pulled right behind the Lincoln, forcing Ross to turn into an Exxon station. Ross got out of the car, identified himself, and was placed under arrest.

Agents searched the car and found a pound of cocaine, as well as a scale, a .38-caliber Derringer, a stainless-steel .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with five rounds of ammunition, a loaded .45-caliber Detonics automatic with a clip containing six rounds, a loaded .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver with extra hollow-point rounds, a Gucci bag, a fedora, and birth certificates for a number of men. With a straight face, Ross said that he “did not know anything about the weapons and cocaine,” according to FBI reports. (Ignacio Novo’s wife later said it was powdered milk, part of a setup aimed at “discrediting the patriotic work being performed by the CNM.”) There was also a brown address book inside the trunk with the name Andreas Wilson in it, an alias of Michael Townley’s. Next to the name was Townley’s phone number in Chile.

Mug shot of Alvin Ross, 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of

The agents also found two blank checks and a New York State driver’s license for a man named Manuel Menendez, the third man they had seen with Guillermo Novo the previous night and earlier that morning. Menendez was a known member of a drug-smuggling ring that, according to a Miami Police Department intelligence report, brought 120 kilos of Mexican brown heroin into Newark a month, “a central figure in a drug organization that was so huge that DEA could not effectively penetrate it.” A single recent bust of this organization had netted 45 pounds of heroin and $400,000 in cash.

FBI agents and Miami police officers tailed Menendez and Novo until they stopped at a restaurant at the Holiday Inn Airport Lakes. They sat for about ten minutes. Then they got up and walked into the hotel lobby. Menendez exited the building, heading for a car in the parking lot, where FBI agents immediately intercepted him. Seeing the agents enter the hotel lobby, Novo turned around and walked to an elevator. An agent hurried to the elevator and rode with him, and when Novo pushed the button for the eighth floor, the agent—in what must have been the longest elevator ride of Novo’s life—waited for him to get out. As soon as he did, the agent asked for his ID. He took out a Florida driver’s license in the name of Victor Triquero. This was not persuasive, and although Novo attempted to continue denying his true identity, he eventually gave in.

After Novo was taken to the local FBI office in Miami, agents went through the contents of the brown Chevrolet and found a locked black Skyway suitcase in the trunk. Menendez denied that it was his. Then they asked Novo about it and whether he knew the combination. “Try 207,” he said. When they opened it, they found a dozen clippings of recent newspaper articles from the Miami Herald and elsewhere about Michael Townley’s transfer from Chile to the United States and his plans to testify about the assassination of Orlando Letelier.

The grand jury indictment was handed down on August 1, 1978, more than 22 months after the investigation began. It charged seven men—Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez in Chile, and Guillermo Novo, Alvin Ross, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz in the United States—with the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt. (Ignacio Novo was charged concurrently with perjury and failing to report a felony.) But only three of the seven were in custody: Guillermo Novo and Ross, and Ignacio Novo, who was arrested by authorities at his sister’s home in north Jersey. Virgilio Paz had disappeared, as had Jose Suarez, who had been in prison until the end of March 1978 for his refusal to testify in front of the grand jury. Released just a few short weeks before his indictment, he, too, had vanished.

The three Chilean DINA officials—Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez—were thousands of miles removed from American jurisdiction and would need to be extradited to stand trial, a remote possibility. The Chilean judicial system was thoroughly subordinated to the military regime itself, and judges were cowed. Following a formal request by U.S. officials for the three men in late September, Contreras, Espinoza, and Fernandez were brought before a Chilean judge in October 1978, where all three lied about their knowledge about the crime. A wave of bombings, widely seen as a warning against pursuing the case too far, shook Chile. The home of the chief justice of the Chilean Supreme Court was bombed. Then the home of the judge investigating that bombing was bombed. The Chilean Supreme Court formally denied the extradition request.

On January 9, 1979, the trial commenced in Washington, D.C., under judge Barrington Parker. The level of security was extremely tight: Judge Parker, Assistant U.S. Attorney Propper, and at least one FBI agent had been threatened. A man had stalked an agent’s fiancée, warning her to dissuade him from pursuing the case. Once, when the judge temporarily retreated to his chambers, the Novo brothers and Ross began to viciously harangue Michael Townley, who was then in the courtroom, in Spanish, calling him a “traitor,” a “faggot,” and a “son of a whore.” Supporters of the defendants were bused down from New Jersey, lending an air of menace to the proceedings. “Someone should cut out your tongue!” yelled a Cuban woman in the gallery to Townley.

Michael Townley, now the government’s star witness, patiently recounted the whole plot on the stand. The prosecution’s case depended on making him believable. But FBI agents and prosecutors knew that his testimony alone might be insufficient, since the defense would attempt to paint Townley as unreliable—he was, by his own admission, an assassin and spy in the employ of a foreign government. So they had to provide corroborating evidence.

“An idea began to creep into my mind,” Cornick told me. He approached some of his colleagues with an audacious plan: “I said, ‘Suppose we built another bomb, just exactly like the first one. And suppose we got another car and blew that thing up. Would we get the same results?” If the two cars looked similar, argued Cornick, it would prove that Townley was the maker of the original bomb and therefore establish his reliability as a witness. Cornick’s bosses were incredulous about the idea—he had to convince them of the wisdom of allowing a confessed murderer, who also happened to be an explosives expert, to build a bomb on the government’s dollar. They had to take the request for approval, which they eventually received, all the way up to the deputy director.

Aftermath of controlled FBI bombing, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of Carter Cornick)

Cornick then called an FBI agent in Detroit and asked him to get in touch with General Motors and see if they could buy a car to blow up. It turned out GM had exactly the model and color Cornick was looking for. They took Townley out of prison, chaperoned by U.S. marshals, and visited every place he patronized while making the bomb—one of which was a Radio Shack right behind FBI headquarters. Townley then built a replica of the first bomb, and they attached it to the car and detonated it in an FBI training center in Quantico. As the smoke cleared, Cornick looked at Townley. He had turned “white as a lampshade,” Cornick said. Propper was also watching him. “I’ll never forget the look on his face,” recalled Propper. “Like, ‘Oh, my God, I did that.’ He looked sick, like he realized what that could have done to somebody.”

When I visited him at his home, Cornick brought out a framed set of pictures to show me. On the left side of the frame were photos of Letelier’s car. On the right were photos from the exact same angles, but of the test car. They looked identical: crumpled, burned, rent in the same places. “When I saw the car,” said Cornick, “I was just dumbstruck. We were all dumbstruck, those of us who had been at the crime scene.”

The trial lasted five weeks. The evidence was overwhelming. In prison, Guillermo Novo and Ross had been engaging in loose talk about their role in the Letelier killing, and the CNM’s activities more broadly, and admitted their involvement to fellow inmates, who became witnesses for the government.

But it was Townley’s testimony that made the case. When the jury went into deliberations, they asked for two items: the telephone receipts indicating when Townley had called Novo from his sister’s home in Tarrytown, and the pictures of the two destroyed cars. They found the defendants guilty on all counts. Guillermo Novo and Ross were each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Ignacio Novo was sentenced to eight years in prison, with the potential for parole after 32 months.

Finally victorious after a multiyear odyssey, FBI agents and prosecutors began saying their goodbyes. They ran into the lawyers for the defense, who, according to Cornick, were “as good as it got.” Exchanging pleasantries and shaking hands, the Cubans’ lead attorney turned to Cornick and smiled. “You got it all right,” he said, “except for one thing.”

“What he meant was who pushed the button,” Cornick said to me. “I though it was Suarez. It was Paz.”

Protesting the jailing of Guillermo Novo, New York City, 1979. (Photo: Courtesy of

Virgilio Paz woke up the morning of April 14, 1978, ready for a normal day at the car dealership where he worked. Leaving his apartment, he realized that he was low on cigarettes, so he decided to stop at a convenience store located at the corner of 48th Street and Bergenline Avenue in Union City. He double-parked his car and walked into the store, making small talk with the shop’s owner.

On the front page of the newspaper, kept on a small bench by the shop’s window, The New York Times was reporting that Michael Townley had been deported to the United States. Paz bought the paper, rushed home, and handed it to his wife. He knew immediately that Townley would talk. He gathered clothing, papers, money. He phoned a CNM sympathizer and asked him to call his workplace and tell his bosses that he was ill. He told his friend that he would need a ride out of town. That he would fill him in on the way. And then he was gone.

The Chileans and Cubans who perpetrated the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt believed that they were carrying on a proud legacy of resistance to tyranny; that the revolution that shook Russia in 1917 only presaged further horrors elsewhere; and that the paramount lesson of the 20th century was not found at Auschwitz in 1945 but in Spain in 1936. Augusto Pinochet even viewed himself as a latter-day Francisco Franco.

Through DINA, the Chileans formed alliances with like-minded organizations abroad: French and Italian neo-fascists, Corsican criminal syndicates, even German crypto-Nazis now living in Chile. (Colonia Dignidad, a German commune in rural Chile founded by the serial child molester and ex-Nazi Paul Schafer, was used by DINA as a detention and torture center. Schafer connected DINA agents to ex-Nazis working in West German intelligence in order to hunt down Chilean dissidents in Europe.)

This sense of existential threat was shared by many in the Cuban exile community in the United States. It was also largely ignored by U.S. law enforcement officials, considered a matter of “local interest” reflecting narrowly provincial Cuban concerns.

The misunderstanding on the part of the Americans approached a type of willful myopia. An article from the April 4, 1978, edition of the Miami Herald (“Home Held Bomb Gear, FBI Says”) describes the electronic circuit boards found in Alvin Ross’s home in Union City. Accompanying the article is not a picture of Ross but of Guillermo Novo, walking out of a courthouse in a light-colored suit and open-necked shirt. Facing the camera, his right hand is raised. His pointer and middle finger are forming a V. Below the picture is the caption: “Guillermo Novo Flashes Peace Sign.” This was an egregious misreading of the situation.

Victory, not peace, was the organizing principle of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and its fellow travelers, and victory could only be achieved through a war waged “throughout the roads of the world.” La lucha—the struggle, the fight—could know no bounds. The question was, who was prosecuting that fight, and how, and with whose support?

It’s well documented, of course, that the U.S. government, largely through the CIA, long supported anti-communist activities throughout Latin America. But the Americans’ relationship to the individuals and terrorist groups and repressive regimes that carried out those activities—as well as the relationships of all those entities to each other—were often opaque, at best, and thick with suggestion.

Take those between the 2506 Brigade (composed of veterans of the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion), the Cuban Nationalist Movement, and the Chilean government. In April 1975, the 2506 Brigade bestowed its first annual Freedom Award to General Augusto Pinochet. In December of that year, exiled Cuban leaders in Union City held a meeting attended by over 2,000 people in support of the Chilean junta.

In late April 1978, the lawyer for Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross said that he was no longer representing them and that the 2506 Brigade would be covering their legal fees. A 2506 Brigade manual detailing surveillance methods, as well as bomb-making techniques, was recovered from Ross’s apartment (he, too, was a Bay of Pigs veteran trained by the CIA in Guatemala) after his arrest. These instructions included guidance on the proper use of TNT, C-4, and plastic detonating caps, all of which were used in the bomb that eventually killed Letelier and Moffitt.  

Leading up to the trial, the president of the 2506 Brigade wrote to major New York newspapers, declaring that the charges against the Novos and Ross were totally false and that their indictment was a bald attempt to persecute “Cuban Freedom Fighters.” A local merchant association sponsored a rally in Union City to protest the Novos’ and Ross’s jailing, and there were subsequent rallies held in Manhattan. On the day the trial began in January 1979, members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement walked up and down Berganline Avenue in Union City, intimidating shopkeepers into closing their stores to show solidarity with the jailed men.

These self-declared freedom fighters also unleashed a wave of terror within the U.S., the country that had given them refuge. Over a 48-hour period in December 1975, the city of Miami was shaken by thirteen separate bombings. In September 1978, the Cuban National Movement, under the nom de guerre Omega 7, bombed the Cuban Mission in New York City. The following month, it bombed a store across from Madison Square Garden and the offices of a Spanish-language newspaper in Manhattan. On March 25, 1979, bombs went off at John F. Kennedy Airport, at a pharmacy in Union City, and at a social service agency for Cuban refugees in Weehawken, New Jersey. These were followed by the bombings of the Cuban Mission in Washington, D.C., a cigar factory in Miami, and a travel agency in Puerto Rico in July. Between 1975 and 1983, Omega 7 carried out over 45 bombings in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, and at least four assassinations, including a Cuban diplomat who was gunned down in his car in Queens on September 11, 1980. This is an American reality nearly impossible to fathom today.

On the morning of October 3, 1979, Hernan Cubillos, the Chilean foreign minister, entered the ultra-exclusive River Club in Midtown Manhattan and sat down for breakfast with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Under Nixon, Kissinger had overseen the campaign to destabilize Allende’s Chile and bring the military to power in September 1973.

By late ’79, though, relations between the United States and Chile had grown much more strained. Two days before this breakfast, the Chilean Supreme Court had rejected the U.S.’s extradition request for Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez, and had ordered them freed from the military hospital they were being held in. The State Department howled in protest. Many on the left in America demanded that the Carter administration sever all diplomatic ties with the Pinochet government and institute punitive sanctions against the regime.

The contents of the conversation between Kissinger and Cubillos, which I discovered in Cubillos’s personal papers, have never before been made public. According to Cubillos, who sent a classified telegram to the Chilean Ministry of Foreign Affairs summarizing his meeting, Kissinger had “harsh” words for Carter’s policy of encouraging democratization in Latin America. “What do we gain,” Cubillos reported Kissinger saying, “in replacing the military if it’s going to be left in the hands of the communists?” He added that the current administration’s treatment of the Pinochet regime was a “disgrace.”

A never before publicized account of a conversation between Henry Kissinger and the Chilean foreign minister Hernan Cubillos. “When I mentioned the Letelier case and indicated our puzzlement at the fact that the United States did not respect Latin America’s legal institutions, he admitted we were right: that the Chilean legal decision was correct, but that this was not a legal problem so much as a political one. “It needs to be managed,” he said, “with political judgment.” Apologizing for his frankness, he said this was a bad case for us, and had been badly managed politically. He added that his only advice was that we treat the current United States administration with “brutality.” He suggested “this is the only language they understand.” He repeated this same idea several times during the conversation. He later said we should make our positions public, and move forward decisively.”

Kissinger also disparaged a number of high-level State Department employees—undersecretary Patt Derian was “stupid”; assistant secretary Viron Vaky was a “fanatic,” a “very dangerous element”—and gave advice on how Chile’s military regime could improve its image in Washington. He promised to speak on behalf of Cubillos with Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. (“If he worked with me he would be a good element, but I don’t trust him by himself,” Kissinger said.) He advised Cubillos to try lobbying senator Howard Baker and to not spend much time on senator Jesse Helms. (Helms was too far to the right for his opinions to be useful in swaying public and political opinion.) He gave Cubillos the names of figures at prominent think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Institute for Strategic Studies, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Cubillos asked about how the Chilean government should handle the ongoing Letelier case. It was a difficult question to answer, Kissinger said, because “the Carter administration is making enemies of its friends, and making friends with all its enemies.” He told Cubillos that the decision by the Chilean Supreme Court to deny the extradition request was correct. The Letelier case was “not a judicial problem, but a political one.” And “‘it needs to be managed,’ Kissinger said, ‘with political judgment.’”

The next administration will very likely be a Republican one, Kissinger said. According to Cubillos, he then used the idiomatic Spanish to say, “Until then, you will have to amarrar los pantalones”—resort to tough measures. “His only advice,” noted Cubillos, was to treat the Carter administration “with brutality.”

“This is the only language that they understand,” said Kissinger.

According to Cubillos, Kissinger returned to this idea “numerous times” over the course of their breakfast, which took place two days after Chile had denied the U.S. government’s extradition request for three men charged with murdering a former diplomat, and an American citizen, in the heart of Washington.

On September 15, 1980, the D.C. appellate court reversed the verdict against Guillermo and Ignacio Novo and Alvin Ross. There would have to be a retrial because some of the government’s evidence had now been deemed inadmissible. The defendants had talked loosely while in prison about their role in the bombing, including to government informants. But when those admissions of guilt were used in the trial, the appeals court ruled them “deliberately elicited.”

Propper calls the appeals court’s ruling a “horrible decision.” The anger rises in his voice even now as he speaks of it. “The case would never be reversed today,” he told me. “It was a very liberal court that came up with a theory [about the use of informants] that I think is completely bogus.” He worked on the case for years, solved it, and brought at least some of the perpetrators to justice—only to be defeated on technicalities. Still, the prosecution had an avenue for legal recourse: the appellate court’s decision could be brought before the Supreme Court on appeal. Propper, who was now in private practice, lobbied the solicitor general’s office to take the case.

Celebrating the acquittal in Union City, New Jersey, May 1981. (Photo: Courtesy of

But the politics of the case had changed, as had the country’s priorities. Carter, who had made human rights a cornerstone of his administration’s foreign policy, had given way to Reagan—whose election caused the Chilean military to “dance in the streets,” according to the U.S. ambassador there. And the new administration, pursuing a policy of aggressive anticommunism, treated the Chilean military dictatorship with forbearance, even admiration.

Bob Steven, the State Department official who’d been based in Santiago, was now working at the department’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Washington. Steven recalled a closed-door conversation he had with his then superior, Elliott Abrams, in which he brought up Letelier. “I just mentioned Orlando Letelier and the case and how it had affected and complicated the relationships we were having with Chile,” Steven recalled. Abrams looked at him, he said, and simply commented, “‘Wasn’t he some kind of a communist?’ In the context of the conversation we were having, I interpreted it, and I think correctly, as saying, ‘What difference did it make if he got assassinated? He probably had it coming.’”  

Elsewhere, the center was not holding: In Iran, where a revolutionary Islamic regime had overthrown the shah and upended America’s entire strategic calculus in the region; in Afghanistan, where a group of mujahideen had launched a holy war (with CIA backing) against the Soviet empire; and in El Salvador, where a ruthless oligarchy (supported by the U.S.) had suppressed a left-leaning opposition demanding land reforms, sparking a civil war that went on to kill 70,000. Looking out on a world loosed by anarchy, U.S. officials saw countries like Chile as potential stabilizers, perhaps a little impertinent at times, but an integral part of the anticommunist firmament nonetheless.

The solicitor general’s office declined to appeal. For Propper, this was much worse than the original reversal—“I was appalled,” he told me—because it meant that the Justice Department was letting the case die. Pleading with officials in the department, he reminded them that the Letelier case had involved a spectacular act of terrorism perpetrated on the streets of Washington, D.C., and that it led to a multiyear criminal investigation with many international ramifications. “I said, ‘Guys, this was the biggest criminal case in the country at the time.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, but we have a lot of issues to look at up there and this particular issue is not a big one.’” To this day, Propper is convinced that if the Supreme Court had taken the case, it would have reversed the appellate court’s ruling.

And so, in early May 1981, the second federal trial of Alvin Ross and Guillermo and Ignacio Novo began. By the end of that month, they were acquitted on all counts related to the murders.

In one final strange turn of events, in May 1983, Michael Townley was paroled from prison, after serving a mere 62 months. Eugene Propper told me something that had never been reported before, that “some prison official or trustee or someone” had mistakenly revealed Townley’s identity as a material witness for the government, thus putting his life in danger, so Townley had to be whisked away early into witness protection.

By the mid-1980s, then, not a single man named in the original indictment for the murders of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, one of the most high profile acts of terrorism ever perpetrated in America, was in prison. Jose Suarez and Virgilio Paz were still at large. The Novo brothers and Alvin Ross had been released on appeal and acquitted. Michael Townley was living a new life under U.S. government protection. Manuel Contreras, Pedro Espinoza, and Armando Fernandez were in Chile, protected by the Pinochet government.

These dynamics all changed with a single phone call. In early January 1986, U.S. attorney Larry Barcella received an urgent message from Alfredo Etcheberry, a prominent Chilean lawyer employed by the U.S. government to handle extradition requests and other legal matters regarding the Letelier case. Etcheberry was calling about Armando Fernandez, the DINA agent who had tailed Letelier in the weeks leading up to the assassination. Through an intermediary—Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary—Fernandez had reached out to Etcheberry. Fernandez said he wanted to change his relationship with the United States; he was tired of living under a cloud of suspicion and wanted to be able to travel freely throughout North America and Europe. He said what he wanted, most of all, was to “clear his name,” which had been besmirched by his association with the Letelier case. He wanted to defect. In exchange, he was willing to provide testimony about Contreras’s and Espinoza’s—and perhaps even Pinochet’s—foreknowledge of the killings, and about the subsequent cover-up.

For Barcella, Fernandez’s account of the assassination was “light years beyond anything” any Chilean had previously admitted. Though as deputy chief of mission George Jones, who was stationed in Santiago at the time, recalled: “We had no way of knowing if this was a setup or what it was … there were all kinds of problems.” Jones said there was intense skepticism about whether anything could ultimately be done. “How on earth is this guy going to be gotten out of Chile?” he said. “Being an army officer, is he going to walk up to the airport and fly to the United States? That is not at all likely.” (Active-duty military officers required special permission from their commanders to leave Chile. According to Fernandez, a plane was once forced to return to Chile in mid-flight because there was suspicion that he was on it.) There was also the question of what guarantees Fernandez would demand from the U.S. government.

Still, U.S. officials were enthusiastic about pursuing Fernandez. It was now Reagan’s second term, and human rights had become a more explicit part of the administration’s foreign policy. The U.S. had begun to distance itself somewhat from the Pinochet regime. In fact, the CIA had recently launched a formal inquiry to determine whether Pinochet was himself responsible for the killings. (The 1987 CIA report, the existence of which was kept secret until October 2015, strongly concluded that Pinochet was culpable. The report itself remains classified, but a memo to Reagan from secretary of state George Schulz, who read the report, states that the CIA has “convincing evidence that President Pinochet personally ordered [Contreras] to carry out the murders.” Schulz’s memo also concludes that “Pinochet decided to stonewall on the U.S. investigation to hide his involvement” and continues to do so, including through the possible “elimination of [Contreras,] his former intelligence chief.”)

In order to communicate without drawing attention to their negotiations, U.S. officials and Fernandez’s handlers in Chile developed an ingenious solution. Fernandez had a sister who lived in New York, and she would serve, along with an American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, as his emissary to U.S. officials. But first they needed to be completely apprised of what Fernandez knew about the murders and what kind of deal he was willing to take.

In March 1986, Fernandez wrote his sister a letter, which was passed discreetly out of the country in a classified diplomatic pouch. The letter instructed Fernandez’s sister to call him and announce that she was thinking of taking a trip to Chile to visit family. In Chile, Fernandez would relay all the pertinent information about the case to his sister, along with his conditions. She would then meet with U.S. officials in New York. She made the trip in mid-April, and soon thereafter the settled on the general contours of the deal.

State Department officials realized, though, that they couldn’t rely on intermediaries to conduct the complex negotiations still to come. In Santiago, Deputy Chief of Mission Jones decided to arrange a secret face-to-face meeting with Fernandez. As Jones recalled, “The ambassador … didn’t want anybody else at the embassy, except for the station chief, to know anything about this. … We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones arranged for the meeting to take place at the apartment of an embassy secretary, whose flat was unlikely to be bugged. On the afternoon of the rendezvous, he abruptly dismissed his driver and bodyguard. “I said, ‘That’s all for today. Nothing else on the schedule.’ They thought it was very peculiar that I was home at that hour of the afternoon and peculiar that I wasn’t going anywhere else.” As soon as the men were out of sight, Jones grabbed a bottle of Scotch and hailed a taxi to meet Fernandez, where they began to work out the logistics of a further meeting to take place outside Chile, in Buenos Aires.

“We were so concerned that if somehow word got out, Fernandez would disappear into a cell and never be seen again until you heard the noise of the firing squad.”

Jones informed Fernandez that his contact there was going to be CIA. The agent at the rendezvous point would have a rolled-up magazine next to him. Jones also gave Fernandez a “contact phrase” so Fernandez could be sure of the agent’s identity. As the meeting date neared, though, Fernandez balked, worried that it was too dangerous to leave the country unless it was for the last time.

On January 14, 1987, after more than a year of planning, Fernandez finally met with a group of senior representatives of the State Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and FBI at an empty apartment leased by the embassy commissary. (Because of fears that Cornick would be recognized in Santiago, he joined a secondary team operating out of Buenos Aires.) U.S. officials arrived in Santiago with a cover story about needing to interview a State Department employee. Fernandez’s American lawyer, Axel Kleiboemer, flew in for a Chilean “vacation.” It was agreed at that meeting that Fernandez would flee Chile for Brazil before making his way to the States. “The CIA station had checked and found out that his name wasn’t in the Chilean lookout book,” recalls Jones, meaning he wasn’t on any kind of airport watch list. “They had someone who had access to the airport computers and established that as near as they could tell, if Fernandez tried to leave, his name wasn’t going to come up on any kind of screen. So he decided he was prepared to risk it.”

Over the next few days, U.S. officials, along with Fernandez and his representatives, moved from safe house to safe house, negotiating the final details (among them that a female agent meet Fernandez at the airport in Rio to make it seem as if he had a Brazilian love interest). Finally, during a 2 a.m. car ride through Santiago—they had run out of safe houses—Kleiboemer told the Americans that they had a deal, conveying a message from Fernandez: “I will be in Rio Thursday. Or I’ll be dead.”

On January 22, Fernandez boarded a Santiago-to-Rio flight undetected. He was met in Rio by a team of FBI agents and State and Justice Department officials. Kleiboemer warned Fernandez that the lead U.S. attorney there, David Geneson, “hated” Fernandez. “He wants to put you in jail for the rest of your life,” Kleiboemer said. “If he catches you lying, that’s where you’ll be. So tell the truth. Anything you say will be tested by polygraph.” The Americans interrogated Fernandez for three days and subjected him to repeated polygraph tests that lasted up to ten hours at a time. Reporting back to Washington, the Rio team bragged that interrogators had “done a splendid job of breaking down Fernandez’s defenses.”

Fernandez admitted to conducting surveillance on Letelier in September 1976. He said that Contreras and Espinoza had overseen the operation, and that Pinochet himself had advance knowledge of the killing. He also said that he had been ordered by his military superiors to lie to U.S. investigators. He would not, however, admit to knowing in advance of the mission’s ultimate objective—the assassination of Orlando Letelier. (Fernandez claimed that he was told his mission was simply to surveil Letelier, since Letelier was suspected of attempting to set up a government-in-exile. It was only later, he said, two or three years after the killing, that Contreras told him that Pinochet had ordered the killing.) For Larry Barcella, who knew the case better than anyone still working in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, this was, “of course, a lie.” Barcella’s skepticism was borne out by the polygraphs, which agents said found “consistent signs of deception in Fernandez’s disclaimers.”

But the political value of Fernandez’s testimony—it allowed U.S. officials to pressure Chile for the extradition of Contreras and Espinoza, to formally request civil damages on behalf of the Letelier and Moffitt families, and to demonstrate American resolve against terrorism—outweighed the legal or moral ambiguities. Fernandez continued to deny advance knowledge, and he provided just enough cover (he was never made aware of the plans, he claimed, but he “supposed” that’s what the mission could be all about) for officials to maintain the fiction. On Wednesday, February 4, Fernandez arrived in the United States. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of accessory after the fact, with a maximum sentence of seven years.

He served seven months. He was a free man in America, living under witness protection, by the end of the year.

The story fed to the press upon Fernandez’s arrival was that he felt dishonored and mistreated by the Chilean regime, that he had a guilty conscience, that he wanted to do something to make his dead father proud. It was not that Fernandez was already wanted by Argentinean authorities in connection with the 1974 assassination of a dissident Chilean general; or that by 1987 he had publicly admitted his prior membership in a military squad known as the Caravan of Death, which was accused of a series of prisoner massacres in northern Chile in 1973; or that it was clear by then that Chile was slowly transitioning away from military dictatorship.

No one discussed that Fernandez had received intelligence training at Fort Gulick, a U.S. military facility in the Panama Canal Zone, which meant that the very skills he had employed in the plot to assassinate Letelier may have been taught to him by the American government. The story was that he had fled under duress, not that he had been aided by Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary, who happened to be an antagonist of Manuel Contreras. The story was definitely not that, as early as May 1979, Willoughby had traveled secretly to Washington with a message: in exchange for prosecutors dropping the charges against Fernandez and Espinoza, Pinochet would be willing to hand over Contreras. And it was most certainly not that, by 1979, Pinochet believed conflict with Contreras, who was openly provoking and challenging him, was inevitable. The story was justice, penance, and progress, not calculation, interest, and survival.

On April 12, 1990, almost exactly a month after Chile returned to civilian rule, FBI agents and police in St. Petersburg, Florida, surrounded a modest home on a quiet residential street. Then they telephoned the house and told Jose Suarez to come out.

Suarez, who had been a fugitive for 12 years, was living an anonymous life with his young wife and infant child. FBI officials said they had received the information that led to his arrest in early April. His wife claimed that they had lived in Florida for seven years.

Less than a week later, Suarez’s lawyers entered a not-guilty plea before a U.S. magistrate in Washington, D.C. A trial date was set for September 10, 1990. Over a decade had passed between the original indictment and Suarez’s capture.

A Jose Dionisio Suarez Legal Defense Fund quickly materialized in Miami, Tampa, West Palm Beach, New Jersey, and California. Four Miami radio stations held a marathon fundraiser on behalf of the defendant. Guillermo Novo appeared as a special on-air guest, soliciting aid for his erstwhile comrade in the Cuban Nationalist Movement.

Prosecutors brought Michael Townley, who was still living under witness protection, in for questioning. The case against Suarez was utterly dependent on Townley’s testimony. But Townley’s relationship with the U.S. marshals responsible for his protection was “strained,” remembers Eric Dubelier, one of the U.S. attorneys overseeing the case, and he was making increasingly unreasonable demands in exchange for his testimony.

According to a number of declassified documents, Townley said he was unwilling to testify at all unless the U.S. government promised to shield him from potential extradition to Chile, Argentina, and Italy. He had good reason to fear for his freedom. In fact, on the very day Townley was paroled in the U.S. in 1983, Argentina formally requested his extradition in connection with his role in the 1974 car bombing of the dissident Chilean general Carols Prats, which killed Prats and his wife. At the time, a U.S. attorney found that Townley’s prior plea deal, which guaranteed protection against further prosecution within the U.S., implied protection from such requests. Now Townley was scared that what he revealed on the stand could subject him to further legal action.

Townley’s conditions riled officials at the highest levels of the U.S. government. The Department of Justice had never in its history agreed to protect the recipient of a plea deal from extradition to a country where the United States had a mutual extradition treaty in force. It could put the U.S. in violation of its international legal commitments and encourage other countries to deny American extradition requests. Nevertheless, senior officials in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Justice Department were willing to concede to Townley’s demands, given the import of the case and his centrality as a witness.

Officials in the State Department were not as pliant. They were upset by the original 1978 agreement with Townley (which had been drawn up without their input) and infuriated that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had not consulted with them now before assenting to Townley’s conditions. The matter traveled up the bureaucratic chain until, on August 28, 1990—less than two weeks before the trial date—deputy secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger wrote an extraordinary letter to attorney general Richard Thornburgh, registering “in the strongest possible terms” his “personal objection to the unilateral action taken by the U. S. Attorney.” In an earlier draft of the letter, he had said that he was “prepared to go on the record rejecting the assurance provided to Mr. Townley unless I receive a full explanation as to the basis for the actions in the case.”

Dubelier told me that he never expected there would be a plea. But on September 9, 1990, one day before the trial date, prosecutors announced that Jose Suarez had agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to murder a former official. As part of the deal, his wife would be protected from charges related to her harboring a fugitive. Suarez would serve no more than 12 years in federal prison.

With Suarez’s conviction, four of the five Cubans connected to the murder of Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt had seen their day in court. There was only one remaining fugitive, Virgilio Paz.

Paz heard the news while sitting in a liquor store parking lot in West Palm Beach. It was late February or early March 1991. His phone rang—a former member of the CNM, who knew Paz’s true identity, calling to say that America’s Most Wanted was going to air an episode devoted to Paz on April 19. His story would be broadcast into millions of homes. “What are you going to do?” asked the man from the CNM. “Why don’t you get the fuck out of there?”

Paz called his ex-wife and told her the news. On April 19, he took her and their children to a safe house nearby. They watched the program together there. It showed a picture of the two of them on their wedding day.

His family stayed in the safe house for a few days after the show aired. Paz slept at home, alone. But he went out in public all over West Palm Beach. He wanted to be arrested in public, he later wrote, “to avoid losing control of the situation,” fearing that if he did, “someone’s finger would slip on the trigger of an automatic weapon.”

On Monday, April 22, Paz prepared for work, assuming that he would be arrested that day. As the owner and operator of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, he had several teams of workers on the job on a given day. He decided to supervise one of them in the field—something he rarely did—in Boca Raton, just to remain in public view. There was no sign that his identity had been revealed. Nothing. He retrieved his family from the safe house and brought them home.

The next morning, he surveyed the surrounding area for signs of police or the FBI. He took his son to school and headed to work. The offices of Greenheart Landscape Maintenance were located on Industrial Avenue in Boynton Beach. Paz knew that it was the worst possible location from which to escape—lined with storage facilities and ending in a cul-de-sac that abutted a canal. But he didn’t plan on running, in any case.

His instincts were right; this was where he would finally be apprehended. Before long he was surrounded by parked cars. Agents poured out of them, pointing their guns at him. A helicopter circled overhead, an armed FBI agent leaning out over one of its skis.

Paz, sitting behind the steering wheel, slowly reached his hands upward to the roof of the car. An agent walked up to Paz’s car, opened the door, and pointed a gun at his left ear. He pressed the gun firmly against Paz’s head and told him to hold the steering wheel tightly with his right hand, then to slowly reach around with his left to unbuckle his seatbelt. Paz complied, and the moment the belt came unsnapped, the agent pulled Paz out of the car and handcuffed him.

Paz’s time in South Florida had been remarkable for its unremarkableness. He was the picture of a solid citizen: a member of the Inter-American Business Association, and the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Palm Beach County, and the Cuban-American Club of West Palm Beach. He employed more than two dozen people at Greenheart Landscape Maintenance, which he’d owned since April 1986. Since 1980, he lived under the name Frank Baez, although he’d tried out other aliases, including, for a time, Ronaldo McDonaldo.

How could a man with such a high profile remain completely clandestine to his friends and neighbors, and to the community of expatriates and exiles of which he was a part? How many people knew about his past and countenanced the lie?

On September 12, 1991, Paz was given the same plea deal as Jose Suarez—a maximum sentence of 12 years for the crime of conspiracy to murder a foreign official. He called the murders a “horror” that changed his life forever. But during his arraignment he smiled and waved to the crowd of Cuban expats who’d gathered to support him at the court house in West Palm Beach. “Viva Cuba!” they cried.

Paz served a little less than seven years and was released in May 1998. Suarez was also freed around this time.

But neither was quite free yet. In 1996, the Republican Congress passed a law, signed by Bill Clinton, that subjected noncitizens, including legal permanent residents, convicted of violent crimes to be automatically deported. The day Paz and Suarez left prison, they both were taken into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Like all Cubans in INS custody, their situation was unique. The United States and Cuba had no working extradition agreement. There was no way to process Cuban detainees and certainly no guarantee that the Castro regime would wish to repatriate them. The law required deportation, but there was nowhere to actually deport men like Paz and Suarez.

They found aid from the Cuban American National Foundation, the country’s most influential Cuban lobbying group. Under the tutelage of its founder, Jorge Mas Canosa, CANF became a bastion for anti-Castro hardliners. Mas himself fought in the Bay of Pigs and had an accommodating attitude toward the men on the extralegal fringes of the exile community.

CANF’s lawyers argued that Paz’s deportation—even if possible, which it was not—would violate the UN Convention Against Torture, since Paz would almost certainly be brutalized by the Castro regime.

In June 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that the INS could not indefinitely hold detainees from countries with whom the United States lacked an extradition agreement. There were roughly 3,400 people eligible to be immediately freed by this decision, but attorney general John Ashcroft seemed determined to take advantage of a loophole stating that those detainees who were considered “dangerous criminal aliens” or “terrorists” were exempt from the ruling—that such men could, in fact, be held indefinitely. Those definitions proved broad enough that the vast majority of detainees remained in custody, though their connection to terrorist acts were questionable at best. By August 2001, only 300 detainees had in fact been released. One of the very first was Virgilio Paz.

CANF was deeply connected to local politicians, including two Cuban-American Republican members of Congress from South Florida, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. They, in turn, had important connections of their own, including Jeb Bush, then the state’s governor, who had a nuanced understanding of the truculent politics and fierce loyalties among South Florida’s anti-Castro Cuban community. In 1990, he successfully petitioned his father to free Orlando Bosch, widely considered responsible for the 1976 Cubana Airlines bombing that killed 73, among many other terrorist acts. (George H.W. Bush was intimately acquainted with the details of the Cubana bombing: it, like the Letelier killing, occurred when he was head of the CIA.)

According to the journalist Ann Louise Bardach, in 2001 Jeb Bush also successfully lobbied his brother to secure the release of Virgilio Paz and Jose Suarez. On August 14, 2001, Suarez walked out of an INS facility in Bradenton, Florida. “This is a fantastic day,” he said, “because I’m going to embrace my family and my children.” Less than a month later, the politics of terror in this country would shift seismically, but not before a few “men of action” in South Florida found themselves treated, yet again, to an especially soft landing.

For Michael Moffitt, the years following the assassination were unbearable. He was obsessed with the details of the bombing and became an insomniac and an alcoholic. He eventually put his life back together, remarried, and started a family. But over a decade after the bombing, he said that the smallest event—“a scene in a movie, a car, noise, a smell, dreams, or even a random image”—brought memories of the day rushing back. He obsessively checked his vehicle for hidden explosives, afraid to get in the car with his own family.

No one prosecuted for the Letelier and Moffitt murders served more than 12 years for the crime. Michael Townley and Armando Fernandez both presumably still reside in the United States under the witness protection program. Guillermo Novo, Jose Suarez, and Virgilio Paz all live freely today in South Florida. Alvin Ross lives in New Jersey. Ignacio Novo died in 2004. Guillermo Novo was arrested, along with Luis Posada, the Bay of Pigs veteran and co-mastermind, with Orlando Bosch, of the Air Cubana bombing, in Panama in 2000 for attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro. Posada and Novo were released under murky circumstances in 2004.

 From left: Alvin Ross, Guillermo Novo, and Virgilio Paz in 2012. (Photo: Courtesy of

These men still associate with one another. A 2012 photo, posted on an obscure website devoted to Cuban exile politics, shows Novo, Ross, and Paz together at a restaurant. Pictures from another such site show Suarez and Posada at an April 2015 meeting of militants in South Florida. Even more recent Facebook pictures show Paz and Suarez together.

Manuel Contreras and Pedro Espinoza, the two DINA masterminds behind the killings, have faced harder times. When Chile began its fragile transition back to democracy in 1990, civilian officials proved surprisingly dogged in their pursuit of justice. In 1991, both Contreras and Espinoza were sentenced to prison for crimes connected to the Letelier assassination. They were released in 2001. In 2005, they were incarcerated yet again, this time for much lengthier convictions. Contreras was sentenced to roughly 500 years in prison and died there in August 2015. Out of all the alleged perpetrators named in the 1978 indictment, it is the two men who stayed in Chile, who were never tried in America, who faced the most time in prison.

None of this is to minimize the effects of the FBI investigation. Manuel Contreras was removed from DINA—indeed, DINA was dissolved and entirely reorganized—because of American pressure. The day after Paz pleaded guilty in a D.C. court, a Supreme Court justice in Chile’s newly democratic government reopened the Letelier investigation. Nor were the effects limited to Chile.

“What the U.S. did in investigating this case has had enormous, enormous impact in Latin America,” John Dinges, an expert on Pinochet-era Chile, and the coauthor of Assassination on Embassy Row, a 1980 book about the Letelier killing, told me. “The beginning of the uncovering of all these human rights crimes—of Operation Condor, of the internal workings of the security services, all of that began with the FBI investigation. It was the first penetration of the interior workings of these intelligence forces. There’s a direct line between the FBI investigation and the enormous amount of information that we have now.”

The Letelier case also helped transform the way the FBI handles terrorism cases. It is hard to imagine this in the post-9/11 era, but terrorism was simply not a bureau priority in 1976, at least not like it is today. Much has changed since then. “You can call the Letelier case terrorism,” Propper remarked to me, “but it’s not terrorism like terrorism exists today. It was a foreign government deciding to get rid of one of its own citizens, and they were stupid enough to do it in the United States. There was a logic to what they did, even if it was a stupid logic. They weren’t planning to kill Ronni Moffitt. That was the Cubans, who didn’t care.”

The men who pushed the button almost certainly knew that the Moffitts were in the car. When Paz was released, he held his press conference at the CANF offices. He called the murders a “grave human error.” Sitting with his attorneys in August 2001, Suarez also said he regretted the bombing, “especially” the murder of Ronni Moffitt. Empathetic gestures of this sort can leave one legally vulnerable, however, and so they have to be carefully qualified. “He’s sorry in a humanitarian way,” Dario Diaz, one of Suarez’s attorneys, immediately stated to the Tampa Tribune. “The same way we’re sorry for Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandi.”

These expressions of remorse were feints, acts of performative contrition. The truth was, is, much more unyielding: “Now,” wrote Virgilio Paz on his Facebook page in April 2015, “looking back retrospectively after all those years, it’s worth asking ourselves: was it worth pursuing what we thought was our duty? Was it worth the risk and everything that we left behind? Was it worth giving up or losing our youth, families, and bringing suffering to our loved ones? Was it worth giving up the economic future that we could have achieved? Was it worth it? Yes, for me it was, because I think that we did what we thought was our duty as CUBANS.”

Cartoon from La Nacionalista. From left: Ignacio Novo, Alvin Ross, and Guillermo Novo. (Illustration: Courtesy of

On this point, at least one old “comrade” from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, Alvin Ross, agreed. “Si, Virgilio,” Ross replied to the Facebook post. “It was worth it, and it will be worth it till your last breath.”

Here it all was, alive as ever—Castro’s New Year’s Day revolution of 1959, CIA training camps in the jungles of Guatemala, blood of the patria soaking into the beach at the Bay of Pigs, jets thundering over the boulevards of Santiago, a car erupting in flames in Sheridan Circle, the bombs going off in American cities, month after month, for years, all in the name of la lucha, the struggle.

“Si, Virgilio,” Ross continued. “Tu lucha was worth it.”

A Note on Sources

In 2000, President Clinton ordered the release of thousands of Chile-related documents as part of what became known as the Chile Declassification Project. This includes “documents produced by the CIA, DOD, NARA, NSC, FBI, DOJ, and the Department of State.” In October 2015, President Obama supplemented this release with hundreds of new documents. Much of what appears in this article is the result of sifting through this trove.

I also interviewed a number of individuals associated with the case, though former government officials, as well as law enforcement agents, refused interview requests, often multiple times. Repeated requests for interviews with former members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement were similarly denied.

I am indebted to two books published in the 1980s, Assassination on Embassy Row, by John Dinges and Saul Landau, and Labyrinth, by Taylor Branch and Eugene Propper. Both books are key pieces of the historical record. I am also indebted to Without Fidel and Cuba Confidential, both by Ann Louise Bardach; The Pinochet File, by Peter Kornbluh; The Condor Years, by John Dinges; Legacy of Ashes, by Tim Weiner; and Miami, by Joan Didion.

Through the Library of Congress, I found the invaluable Oral History Interviews, conducted through the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. I also read many hundreds of pages of court documents, as well as newspaper and magazine articles, from 1973 to 2015, including from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Tampa Tribune, New York Daily News, Hudson Dispatch, and Associated Press, as well as New York Magazine, among other sources. The nonprofit National Security Archive has done path-breaking work on Pinochet-era Chile, and many other countries and I benefitted greatly from their work.

I also conducted research at the Hoover Institute Library and Archives at Stanford University, where I found the George W. Landau Papers and Hernan Cubillos Salato Papers, which provided new and illuminating details about the case.

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The Mastermind Episode 7: The Next Big Deal

The Mastermind Episode 7: The Next Big Deal

A shroud of secrecy, a legal gambit, and a mystery solved.

By Evan Ratliff

Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

After Paul Calder Le Roux was captured in 2012, his status was guarded with fanatical secrecy by the United States government. His location and even his lawyer’s name were known only to federal law enforcement. At first his clandestine status made sense, of course: Through at least mid-2014, Le Roux was essentially an undercover DEA operative in U.S. custody. By virtue of his phone calls and emails, agents were able to build elaborate sting operations around the fiction that he was still out in the world.

The illusion was fragile. As early as December 2013, the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported that Le Roux had been arrested. Fortunately for the DEA, that story was published in Portuguese and didn’t spread widely. Then, a year later, The New York Times discovered that Le Roux was the cooperator behind the takedown of Joseph “Rambo” Hunter, arrested for plotting to kill a DEA agent. Le Roux’s time as a government asset was over.

The secrecy around Le Roux continued, however, propelled by its own internal logic. His name may have been made public, but Le Roux’s entire case file remained sealed. So did significant portions of the prosecution against Hunter, his team of would-be assassins, and the group of Le Roux functionaries arrested for trafficking North Korean meth. Soon many of those cases ended with guilty pleas, obviating the need for Le Roux to ever testify. I’d been following the cases since Hunter’s arrest in September 2013, and as one defendant after another admitted their guilt, I realized that I might never see Le Roux in a courtroom.

Then, in late 2015, a pair of lawyers in Minneapolis, Joseph Friedberg and Robert Richman, came up with a legal gambit to pull Le Roux out into the open. Their client, Moran Oz, had run Le Roux’s call center in Israel. In a federal indictment in Minnesota, Oz was charged with 83 counts of prescription-drug crimes and wire fraud. The case was based in part on communications between Le Roux and Oz, who believed that his boss was at large when in fact Le Roux was in U.S. custody, calling and emailing at the behest of the DEA.

Joseph Friedberg (left) and Robert Richman, who represent Moran Oz, devised a strategy to force Paul Le Roux to appear in court. (Photo: David Joles/AP Photo/The Star Tribune and Leila Navidi/The Star Tribune)

Digging through the evidence, Richman realized that the U.S. Attorney’s Office had collected some of those calls and emails without a warrant. He filed a motion to have the material suppressed, arguing that federal law required at least one party in the communication to consent to the monitoring. Richman knew that Oz hadn’t given his permission. Had Le Roux? The government produced statements from DEA agents claiming that he had. But Richman and Friedberg argued that Le Roux himself needed to testify to that fact. The judge overseeing Oz’s case agreed and ordered the government to produce Le Roux.

Here, after two years of chasing his shadow, at first online and then on the ground in numerous locations around the world, was my chance to see Le Roux face-to-face. I bought a ticket to Minneapolis and arrived on a clear, frigid early-March morning. The hearing was across the river in St. Paul, and walking to court through the city’s habitrail-like aboveground tunnels, I ran into Richman and Friedberg. They showed me a copy of what appeared to be a fake arrest record for selling cocaine, seemingly generated by the U.S. Attorney’s Office as a cover story for Le Roux’s transfer into the local jail. It was evidence that Le Roux was nearby—and of how far federal prosecutors had gone to keep him under wraps.

The authorities appear to have produced a fake arrest record in order to bring Le Roux to Minnesota quietly. 

“Le Roux’s lawyer filed an emergency motion to seal the courtroom,” Richman told me. In a sealed letter to the court, the lawyer argued that Le Roux’s family would be put in jeopardy by allowing the media to report on the proceedings. I took a seat in the back of the courtroom, alongside some local reporters and Oz’s wife, and waited.

Oz arrived sporting a dark, trim beard, a yarmulke, a black jacket, and jeans that covered up the court-ordered electronic monitoring bracelet on his ankle. The bracelet was a condition of his bail, ensuring that he didn’t leave Minneapolis, where he’d arrived some 18 months before. His wife moved their three kids to the U.S., after a battle with American immigration officials, and the family had been embraced by members of the city’s Jewish community. Some had loaned them an apartment and a car and came to the hearing to support Oz. For someone about to see the man who’d threatened to have him killed, then set him up to be arrested, Oz looked cheerful.

He joined Richman and Friedberg at the defense table, across from Linda Marks, the prosecutor in charge of the case at the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch, who had flown in from Washington. The judge opened the hearing by noting that “the court has received a request from an attorney to close these proceedings.”

“Let me turn first to Mr. Oz’s counsel,” he continued. “Do you continue to assert your constitutional rights to have an open hearing, Mr. Richman?”

“Yes, your honor,” Richman replied. “I find this procedure somewhat baffling.” Le Roux, he pointed out, was a government informant. That his attorney would petition to close the courtroom was strange, at best. Le Roux’s name was public, and court hearings are typically sealed at the behest of the government, not a private attorney. “This is a matter that has generated great interest,” Richman continued. “There are members of the press in the back of the courtroom, as well as Mr. Oz’s family.”

Richman pointed out that Le Roux’s identity had been revealed over a year before and “no harm has fallen on the family. And that document”—meaning the attorney’s letter—“also suggests that the government has taken steps to protect the family.”

This was news: It was the first time anyone had acknowledged that the U.S. government was working to protect Le Roux’s family even as it tried to keep him out of court. Now the moment had arrived that could decide whether Le Roux would ever be asked to publicly answer for his past, from the murders to the arms shipments, and for his work on behalf of the U.S. government, from the Joseph Hunter plot to the North Korean methamphetamine setup. As the judge considered the motion, I realized that this decision could determine whether, after so much time trying to piece together his existence, I might ever see Le Roux in the flesh.


For a year, I’d been trying to understand what it was that Le Roux had accomplished as an informant that warranted the level of secrecy surrounding him. That tenure began in September 2012, soon after he stepped onto the DEA’s chartered plane in Liberia, bound for New York. He arrived north of the city at the White Plains airport the next morning, out of public view and into a new life of public service. In Manhattan federal court a few hours later, he was appointed a public defender named Jonathan Marvinny. “I was on the case for a while, and now I’m not,” was all Marvinny would tell me when I called him a few weeks ago.

Le Roux faced two indictments: The first one was in New York, where the main charge was conspiracy to import meth into the U.S., a product of the fake drug deal he intended to pull off in Liberia. In Minneapolis, he was accused of violating the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, wire fraud, and money laundering in connection with RX Limited, the online prescription-drug organization that had made him his fortune.

The morning he arrived in New York, Le Roux signed a proffer agreement, a common arrangement that allows individuals to admit wrongdoing without threat of prosecution. Essentially, Le Roux couldn’t be charged with any additional crime he confessed to the DEA or U.S. attorneys. Not only did he agree to spill what he knew, but he also decided to assist the government in bringing down associates like Joseph Hunter and Moran Oz.

In the ensuing years, very few people would be privy to exactly where Le Roux was held, but my two law-enforcement sources Jody and Sol (not their real names) told me that Le Roux was placed in special custody in New York City. The DEA immediately put him to work concocting irresistible, and imaginary, deals with new partners from South America. After Le Roux helped the agents create a Gmail account to mirror his address,, agents from the DEA’s Special Operations Division could also act the part of Le Roux themselves.

The agents needed a judge’s approval to pull Le Roux out of confinement, to transport him either to a DEA office near JFK airport or, in at least one case, to the airport Hilton. (In one inexplicable security slip, someone allowed Le Roux’s record to remain searchable on the Bureau of Prisons site. “Paul Leroux”—without the space—was listed as “Released On: 09/04/2013,” perhaps an artifact of one of those occasions when he was moved outside jail.) From these offices and hotel rooms, Le Roux would reach out to his former employees; if his handlers needed him to make late-night calls to other parts of the world, they might keep him overnight.

According to one source with direct knowledge of these sessions, Le Roux was an enthusiastic participant. “He clearly considered himself to be the smartest person there,” this source told me. “But he had a humor about him, too. He was clearly trying to provide the information so that he would not spend the rest of his life in jail.”

For the better part of 2013, the DEA and U.S. attorneys kept Le Roux busy orchestrating the stings against Joseph Hunter’s assassination crew and the former employees Le Roux had enlisted to procure and ship North Korean meth. Both operations required months of careful planning, executed at a delicate pace—deals good enough to keep the targets on the hook, but not so good that they became suspicious.

On September 24, 2013, the Narcotics Suppression Bureau of Thailand thwarted the plot to ship meth from the Philippines to Liberia. (Photo: AP Photo/Banmuang Newspaper)

The RX Limited prescription-drug case, led by an investigator named Kim Brill, was a lower priority. But eventually, the agents decided to corner members of that operation as well. In 2013, Le Roux emailed Moran Oz, the former manager of his Israeli call center, to set the trap.

By the time Le Roux reached out to him, Oz had moved on from his strange role at the center of the prescription-drug business. It had been four years since he was floating in the waters off the coast of Manila, dodging gunfire from Le Roux’s enforcers. And it had been nearly two years since Le Roux asked him to wind down the call center and sell off the furniture and computers. He had left that life behind, almost.

Periodically, he wrote to Le Roux to ask about severance payments for former employees. As the company wound down, Le Roux had wired two-thirds of the money, which was owed under Israeli law, and promised that the rest would come later. Oz felt bad for the lower-level employees who’d been stiffed, including friends hired by him and Alon Berkman, the other longtime Israeli employee who ran the call center.

Then, in September 2012, Le Roux disappeared. There were rumors in the organization that he might be in Australia or Brazil. “We knew something had happened,” one former manager told me. “We prayed that he was dead.” Oz contacted Shai Reuven, one of Le Roux’s right-hand men in the Philippines; Reuven told him that the boss had gone underground.

Oz, meanwhile, was building a house in Jerusalem and starting a new business. Together with a few partners, he was working to open a burger place in Tel Aviv. But he felt responsible to the people who were owed money, most of whom had never heard of Paul Le Roux. “He was getting phone calls from employees saying, ‘You shut down the company, you disappeared, you have to pay us, by law,’” a close friend of Oz’s, whom I’ll call Rafael, told me. So Oz was relieved when Le Roux reappeared in 2013. Then in early 2014, Le Roux called to say that he had the money. He just needed to see Oz in person to finalize the transfer. In March, Oz agreed to meet him in Romania.

Oz invited Rafael to come along on the trip; they had an Israeli expat friend in the country whom they visited often. Rafael took a few days off work, and they flew to Bucharest, spending two days hanging out and gambling in the local casinos. Oz won a few thousand Euros at his preferred game, roulette.

Oz was supposed to meet Le Roux on the third day, but as the time approached he grew nervous. He asked the friend in Bucharest if he could arrange security, “just to make sure that there are no surprises.” “He was worried that the boss was going to do something to him,” Rafael said. They managed to find a couple of burly bodyguards they could pay by the hour.

Le Roux had set the meeting at a large hotel not far from the airport. Oz, Rafael, and their friend arrived in the morning, and Oz and his bodyguards walked to a distant part of the lobby, out of sight. Rafael and the friend waited at the lobby entrance; after a half-hour, Oz texted to say that his boss hadn’t shown up yet. When Rafael texted a while later, Oz didn’t respond.

Worried, they decided to look for him. They found him at another hotel entrance, surrounded by several men and at least one woman. Oz explained to Rafael that they were plainclothes police officers, that they’d shown up looking for him and wanted to take him to the station to ask questions. The bodyguards seemed to have slipped away.

The officers asked Rafael and the other friend to accompany them to the station, and the three men climbed into the back of an old unmarked car. Oz seemed terrified. “Look, they don’t wear police uniforms,” he said in Hebrew. “I hope it’s not one of his tricks.” He was afraid the cops were actually Le Roux’s men.

The two were relieved when they arrived at a Bucharest police station. Oz’s local friend found him a Romanian lawyer while Rafael went to their hotel to retrieve their passports, hoping the whole thing could be cleared up by the evening. After he returned, the lawyer told Rafael that his friend had been arrested on behalf of an American agency. The woman at the arrest had been Kim Brill, from the DEA, the brains behind a seven-year investigation into RX Limited.

“Go back to Israel, meet Moran’s parents, and tell them to get a good lawyer,” the attorney told Rafael. “Because they are going to move him to the U.S. for a trial.”

Moran Oz would be among the last of the former Le Roux employees lured into U.S. custody by their old boss. In three years, Le Roux’s clandestine handiwork generated at least 11 arrests in addition to Oz’s. The DEA picked up at least seven more without his direct involvement.  

The ensuing prosecutions were divided among three groups. Oz and the former employees of RX Limited had been indicted in Minnesota, where they would be prosecuted by Linda Marks from the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Branch. The five defendants—Scott Stammers, Philip Shackels, Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, Ye Tiong Tan Lim, and Adrian Valkovic—whom Le Roux had coaxed into supplying North Korean meth to a bogus Colombian cartel would be prosecuted in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan.

The Southern District would also try Joseph “Rambo” Hunter’s crew, which Le Roux had helped lure into monitoring drug shipments and plotting to kill a DEA agent for those same “Colombians.” Within a few days of Hunter’s arrest in Phuket, Thailand, in late September 2013, he was extradited to New York and charged with conspiracy to murder a law-enforcement officer. So too were the members of his assassination team, Denis Gögel and Timothy Vamvakias, who’d been picked up in Liberia preparing to carry out the hit. The last two, Slawomir Soborski and Michael Filter, had been arrested in Estonia and were extradited in the ensuing months.

All of the New York defendants had been busted in reverse stings, set up for airtight prosecutions. The participants had been told that any drugs would eventually be sold in New York, for example, to make sure that the U.S. would have jurisdiction to prosecute them. The meetings with the “Colombians” had all been taped, creating evidence that was almost impossible to dispute. And the DEA had let the plots proceed almost to completion, to show the defendants’ intentions to see them through.

Joseph Hunter’s appointed lawyer, a New York criminal defense attorney named Marlon Kirton, hoped to exploit Hunter’s history with Le Roux. In January 2015, he filed a motion asking the judge to dismiss the case partly on the basis of duress, arguing that Hunter had only gone along because he believed Le Roux would kill him if he didn’t. Years before either man was arrested, Hunter claimed that Le Roux threatened him and his family, in connection with a Malian gold deal gone bad. “Mr. _________ literally killed and threatened his associates with the full knowledge of his other associates,” Kirton wrote in the motion. Le Roux’s name was still officially sealed, and Kirton was required to blank it out despite the fact that The New York Times had revealed it a month earlier. “How then can law enforcement use this man to engage the same person as part of a reverse sting operation? What choice did Mr. Hunter have? The answer is death, death of a family member or continued membership in the group.”

Joseph Hunter, extradited from Thailand, claims that he agreed to plot the killing of a DEA agent only because Le Roux had previously threatened him. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit) Credit: From left: Adam Samia, Carl Stillwell, Joseph Hunter

The government called those claims “uncorroborated,” although later, Lulu, Le Roux’s relative who knew and worked with Hunter, confirmed to me that the threats did take place. But the government argued that even if Le Roux had threatened Hunter, it was at a much earlier time, and that Hunter could have quit the organization or gone to the police.

Several weeks later, before the judge in the case could rule on Kirton’s motion, Hunter changed his plea to guilty.

So it went, over the course of 18 months, with the rest of the defendants. Timothy Vamvakias and Dennis Gögel pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder the DEA agent and received 20 years apiece in federal prison. Michael Filter, charged only with surveillance of a plane carrying cocaine, got eight years. Slawomir Soborski still awaits sentencing.

Adrian Valkovic, the “ground commander” of the North Korean meth gang, was sentenced to over nine years. Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, the middleman between Le Roux and Ye Tiong Tan Lim, from the Hong Kong criminal gang that planned to supply the meth, received a seven-and-a-half-year sentence. Peralta’s girlfriend was pregnant when he was arrested, and he now has a two-year-old son he’s never met. Stammers, Lim, and Philip Shackels have yet to be sentenced.

In Hong Kong, which had once been the financial hub of Le Roux’s operations, Le Roux’s Israeli employees were prosecuted by the Hong Kong government. Doron Zvi Shulman, who managed Le Roux’s gold stores there, pleaded guilty to two charges of “property known or reasonably believed to represent the proceeds of an indictable offence” and was sentenced to more than five years in prison. Omer Gavish and the other Israeli guards denied any knowledge of where the gold had come from but were convicted of the same offense and sentenced to between four and five years apiece. At least two of them were released early and returned to Israel. Through an intermediary, they declined to speak with me when I traveled there in February.

Joseph Hunter, meanwhile, is currently scheduled to be sentenced in mid-May, facing a possible life sentence on each of the four murder and drug counts to which he pleaded guilty. Kirton has asked for a lower sentence of ten years, arguing that Hunter was entrapped and that he worked for Le Roux because of the threats. Kirton has also filed reports from a psychologist diagnosing Hunter with severe PTSD from his time in the military and as a contractor in Iraq. The filings assert that Hunter had sustained that trauma in part by participating “in classified missions for the United States government,” which Hunter refuses to discuss. The government has called those claims “speculative” and argued that there is nothing causal between Hunter’s PTSD and his crimes, which “involved careful long-term coordination with others in connection with the planning and carrying out of international murder-for-hire conspiracies.”

When I tallied the results of Le Roux’s cooperation—at least the part of it in the public record—I wondered what it really amounted to. The DEA had captured a prized criminal they’d been after for the better part of a decade, then spent several years and tremendous resources setting up the people beneath him. In legal circles this is called “cooperating down.” He’d given them three people, including two former U.S. soldiers, willing to kill a DEA agent for money, and eight more happy to help import drugs. But the DEA knew that Le Roux had ordered at least a half-dozen murders and had been the mastermind behind arms and drug deals that dwarfed what his flunkies had been prepared to carry out.

Carl David Stillwell (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

Perhaps the most confounding case was the brutal murder of the real estate agent Catherine Lee. In late 2015, I traveled to Taytay, the city outside Manila where her body was found. In the case file at the local police station, I found a note indicating that the DEA had been there several months after Hunter’s guilty plea, to investigate Lee’s killing. Witness accounts and other evidence helped U.S. attorneys charge Adam Samia and David Stillwell with the murder. Arrested last July in Roxboro, North Carolina, they are currently awaiting trial in New York.

Adam Samia (Courtesy of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office)

But the person who had allegedly paid Samia and Stillwell $35,000 each to carry out the assassination, in retribution for a real estate deal Lee had failed to carry out, was Paul Le Roux. The person who had allegedly arranged for the murder, and the guns with which to carry it out, was Joseph Hunter. Neither Le Roux nor Hunter have been charged with Catherine Lee’s murder. Whether they might be witnesses in the case none of the defense attorneys seemed to know.

The government, meanwhile, continued to protect information concerning Le Roux with almost pathological secrecy, even as his identity and exploits found their way into court documents and international news. Spokespeople from all parts of the DOJ have declined to speak on the record, citing the fact that cases involving Le Roux are still pending.

Many of the defense attorneys began to wonder if there was a larger issue in all the secrecy, something more than just Le Roux’s cooperation in the sting operations. In 2014, the anonymous developers behind TrueCrypt, the decade-old, unbreakable open-source disk-encryption software originally based on Le Roux’s code, had suddenly announced that the technology was no longer secure. Encryption experts puzzled over possible explanations, and I wondered if it might have something to do with Le Roux’s arrest. Perhaps Le Roux was helping the government break his own code, but then the TrueCrypt announcement could have been a coincidence.

In a closed proceeding in August 2013, Le Roux dispensed with Marvinny, his appointed attorney, and hired a New York criminal lawyer named Bernard Seidler. Sometime later he fired Seidler and hired another attorney, whose name has been sealed. One defense attorney told me that when they asked federal prosecutors how to contact Le Roux’s new lawyer, they were told that the information wasn’t public, because that attorney feared for their own safety. No one I spoke with, including a former federal prosecutor who had worked on sensitive terrorism cases, could find any precedent for sealing an attorney’s name when the defendant’s is public. The secrecy “is ludicrous,” Robert Richman, one of Moran Oz’s attorneys, told me.

After his arrest, Oz spent two months in an overcrowded Romanian jail, housed with seven other inmates in a stifling seven-by-ten-foot cell. One of his cellmates had a heart attack and died. Oz’s family hired a local lawyer to fight his extradition, but the hearings were all conducted in Romanian, and Oz often had little idea what was going on. His only contact with the American government was through the agents who had questioned him briefly after his arrest. According to what he later told his attorneys, he was baffled that the U.S. had used Le Roux to get to him and not the other way around. He would have helped them, he said, if they’d asked him. He told them about how Le Roux had ordered him thrown off the boat and shot at. “You’re hunting people that feel like they are dead wherever they go,” he said.

Finally, on the last day he could be legally held in Romania, a judge overruled Oz’s opposition to extradition and he was put on a plane to the U.S. He was held at the Sherburne County Jail, outside Minneapolis. His family back in Israel pitched in to hire a pair of prominent Minneapolis criminal defense attorneys, Richman and Friedberg.

One morning last November, I met them in a downtown Minneapolis high-rise. Friedberg, a garrulous litigator with pronounced jowls and wispy brown hair, exuded a witty charm that had served him well in some of the most high-profile criminal cases in the city. Richman, quiet and reserved, has parted gray hair and a reluctant smile. He had taken on much of the heavy lifting for the upcoming trial. “This case is extraordinary,” he said. “There are a million documents and probably tens of millions of pages.” He was trying to grapple with “the web of internet connections and phone connections and bank connections,” he said.

In addition to Oz, the indictment included a menagerie of Le Roux associates. Three of the defendants, including Alon Berkman and Shai Reuven, were still at large overseas. (The third, Lachlan Scott McConnell, was later picked up by the Philippine Immigration Bureau and now awaits extradition.) Omer Bezalel, an Israeli who served as a logistics man for RX Limited, had been lured to Romania at the same time as Oz. Not long after he was extradited to the U.S., in 2014, Bezalel was released on bail to a halfway house and walked away, presumably out of the country. He hasn’t been seen since.

Federal prosecutors indicted Moran Oz, Alon Berkman, and nine other defendants in the RX Limited case. 

One defendant, Jonathan Wall, has already pleaded guilty. Wall, an Israeli-American who’d once worked as a call-center manager for Le Roux in the Philippines, was arrested in Kentucky. He had returned to the States a few years earlier and worked for Le Roux from there, providing him with “hard goods” as variable as cars, computer servers, dive equipment, and a private plane. The arrests also included three doctors who had prescribed drugs for the network and a pair of pharmacists, one of them Babubhai Patel, the Detroit-area businessman who was soon convicted in an entirely separate Medicare fraud case.

In Oz, Richman and Friedberg were representing the only major figure from inside Le Roux’s operation willing to take his defense to trial. Oz freely admitted that he ran CSWW, Le Roux’s call-center business in Israel. He knew that the company was part of the RX Limited network, which had sold millions of prescription drugs for hundreds of millions of dollars. His email address,, turned up again and again in the messages gathered under warrant by Kim Brill and the other Minnesota investigators. But Oz asserted that he’d always believed the business was legal, and that many people in the office used his email account to deal with customer-service issues.

Oz also told Richman and Friedberg about the incident in which Le Roux had him thrown off a boat and shot at, and they thought it could form a basis for a duress defense. The problem was, how would they get Le Roux into court to prove it? As in the other cases, prosecutors had declined to produce their star cooperator and said they had no plans to call him as a witness. “The government is embarrassed,” Richman said. “They don’t want to admit that he is involved.”

Then Richman hit on the idea of making a motion to suppress the phone calls between Le Roux and Oz, arguing that neither had given consent for them to be recorded. If the government wanted to prove that Le Roux did so voluntarily, Richman said, the man himself would need to say it under oath. On January 15, the judge handed down a decision on Richman’s motion: “IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that Defendant Moran Oz’s Motion to Produce Government Informant Paul Calder Le Roux for a Motion Hearing is GRANTED.”

So it was that in early March, I was sitting in the St. Paul courtroom wondering if Le Roux’s attorney’s last-minute plea to close the hearing would succeed and Le Roux would stay hidden yet again.

“I am going to deny the request,” the judge finally said. “Nothing has been established that would override the strong interest that the defendant has in a public proceeding.”

Linda Marks, of the Consumer Protection Branch of the Department of Justice, prosecutor on the Oz case (Photo: Partnership for Safe Medicines/Flickr)

And with that the hearing began. First, Linda Marks, the U.S. attorney, called two DEA agents to testify about Le Roux’s arrest. Then it was Richman’s turn. “Your honor,” he said, “we would call Paul Calder Le Roux.”

Le Roux entered the courtroom through a side door, escorted by two plainclothes United States Marshals. He wore a gray, slightly unruly beard and a billowy lemon yellow T-shirt over orange correctional pants. He looked heavier than he seemed in the few photos I’d been able to find. Later, my sources sent me more images of him, and I realized that it was likely he’d actually lost weight in custody.

The Marshals unshackled his arms and pointed him to the elevated witness stand. He scanned the courtroom intently as he settled into the leather-back chair, as if puzzled by who had shown up to see him. For a moment we locked eyes, but he quickly moved on, expressionless.

If Le Roux’s lawyer was in attendance, they didn’t make their presence known. So, in a confusing legal setup, Le Roux was functionally represented by Marks, as if he was an agent of the government.

Richman approached the podium and began by asking Le Roux his profession.

He thought for a moment. “Essentially,” he finally said, “I worked as a programmer for many years.” That was certainly one way of putting it.

For the next hour, Paul Calder Le Roux was forced to answer publicly, for the first and potentially only time, for his endeavors of the past decade. As Richman calmly and sometimes amusedly fired questions at him, Le Roux leaned back in his chair, his arms folded. When he answered, he bent in close to the microphone, his tone polite, cold. “Please restate it, if you would,” he said numerous times, his Zimbabwean accent still strong. The judge at one point agreed with Richman that he was questioning a “hostile witness,” but Le Roux betrayed no emotion beyond a periodic hint of annoyance at what his demeanor implied was the stupidity of the questions.

But his testimony also provided confirmation of the facts—or, in some cases, Le Roux’s versions of the facts—that I’d been chasing for years. Le Roux admitted that he had created the encryption software E4M but denied that he had developed TrueCrypt, its famous progeny. He confirmed some of his aliases, including Johan Smit, Bernard Bowlins, and John Smith. He admitted having organized the 200-kilo cocaine shipment on the JeReVe, out of Ecuador.

The casualness of Le Roux’s admissions was striking. Besides the two real estate agents, he admitted that he also ordered the murder of Dave Smith with a flat-toned “that’s correct.” The judge didn’t allow Richman to ask whether Smith had first been placed in a freshly dug grave. (Later a U.S. law-enforcement official told me a different story of Smith’s demise, one that offered an ironic counterpoint to Smith’s incident with Oz. According to the official, Smith had been thrown out of a boat and then shot. Le Roux himself had fired several bullets from a .45 as Smith floated in the water, already dead.)

Then Richman walked Le Roux through his decision to cooperate with the U.S. government, fishing for evidence that he’d done so under pressure from the DEA or in exchange for promises that he could, for instance, avoid the death penalty.

“The government has given no assurances in the plea deal,” Le Roux replied, sounding well practiced. “They simply state that they will make it known to the court if I’m truthful and I provide information that’s of substantial assistance.”

When he’d first decided to cooperate, however, Le Roux acknowledged that he’d only been facing charges in the meth deal he’d traveled to Liberia to finalize. The possible sentence was ten years to life, but as Le Roux helpfully pointed out to Richman, the recommended sentence was “only around 12 years.” Richman prodded at why such a light possible sentence would induce Le Roux to instantly cooperate.

Q. You knew that your legal situation was far worse than just a methamphetamine charge, correct?

A. In what way?

Q. Well, for example, you ordered multiple murders, correct?

A. Yes, that’s true.

Q. And, for example, you ordered the murder of a Filipino customs agent, correct?

A. That’s not correct.

Q. What is not correct about it?

A. The individual wasn’t a customs agent.

Q. So it was a real estate agent, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. And then there was a second real estate agent, correct?

A. Correct.

Q. Who was also murdered on your orders, correct?

A. That’s true.

Q. And you know that there are two individuals, Mr. Samia and Mr. Stillwell, who are under indictment for one of those murders, correct?

A. That’s correct.

Q. And do you understand that if you were charged in that case, you could face potentially the death penalty?

MS. MARKS: Objection, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Overruled.

THE WITNESS: Charged where in respect to that case?

MR. RICHMAN: In New York.

A. I’m not aware of how the laws relate to that case, so I couldn’t answer that.

Q. You don’t know whether you could face the death penalty if you were charged with a murder in the United States?

A. I don’t know the law here, so I couldn’t answer that. If you say so.

When it came to other countries’ laws, Le Roux claimed a rather detailed knowledge. He was vulnerable to criminal charges in the Philippines and Ecuador, he admitted, the latter “since the cocaine shipment originated there.” But he’d committed no crimes in Brazil, he said, because it “lacks a conspiracy law.” As for his adventures in Somalia, he said, “Somalia lacks any government, so I am not concerned about whatever actions took place there because they are not crimes.”

Le Roux also showed a keen awareness of his own media coverage. “We were not growing any hallucinogenics in Somalia,” he responded to one question. “This is something reported in the press which is not accurate.” When Richman asked him about the quantity of gold that had been confiscated, he replied that “I can only go by what’s been reported.”

By this point, it seemed like Richman had achieved his goal. He’d flushed Le Roux out into the open. If he called Le Roux as a witness at Oz’s trial, he’d clearly be able to establish his criminal and murderous past. Richman tried one more gambit. “Isn’t it true that you had a reputation for killing people who stole from you?” he asked. Le Roux replied, “That is an exaggeration.” Richman had nothing further. After a brief cross-examination, in which Marks reestablished that Le Roux had agreed to have his phone calls and email monitored, the hearing was over. Two Marshals reshackled Le Roux and escorted him back through the side door.

Outside the courtroom, Friedberg seemed almost triumphant, even though ultimately they would lose the motion to throw out the phone and email records. “Certainly, the phone calls will come into evidence, we always knew that,” he said. “Getting a look at this guy is worth a lot to us.” The defense team still plans to call Le Roux as a witness in Oz’s trial, scheduled for October.

There was another bombshell hidden in Le Roux’s testimony, one that held a key to the incredible secrecy surrounding him. As part of the proceedings, Marks introduced documents outlining some of the crimes that Le Roux had admitted to, including one that startled everyone: Le Roux, it seemed, had confessed to selling technology to the government of Iran. In a charging document that Le Roux pleaded to, the allegation reads:


Later, both Sol and Jody, the law-enforcement sources who had been briefed on the case, confirmed to me that Le Roux had sold, or at least claimed to have sold, some sort of missile-guidance systems to Iran. The revelation was of a piece with other rumors I’d heard about Le Roux from high-level employees, including that he’d become increasingly interested in ventures in North Africa and the Middle East, and that he’d also dispatched a deputy to Pakistan, looking to buy and sell weapons. In addition to helping the U.S. government take down former employees, he’d promised them information about his Iranian contacts.

Everything beyond that, Sol and Jody told me, was classified. Whether it was truly helpful to the U.S., Sol was skeptical. “His pipe dream was that he was dealing directly with some general in the Iranian army, and Iran was talking about building missiles for nuclear weapons,” he told me. “It would have been front-page news. But people in that world think they are bigger than they are.”

What will the U.S. government do with Paul Le Roux now? With everyone I talked to, from former managers in Le Roux’s companies to Philippine federal agents—in coffee shops in Manila, over lunch in Tel Aviv, and during late-night encrypted chats—the conversation ultimately came back to that question. They feared that someday he would end up back on the street, with access to millions of dollars that he’d squirreled away around the world; this fear led most of them to demand anonymity in exchange for speaking to me.

Part of Le Roux’s case file was unsealed in March, after the St. Paul hearing. For now, his fate lies with Loretta A. Preska, a federal judge who will decide his sentence. It’s unlikely that Preska will do so until the other cases in which he could be called as a witness, including Oz’s and the Catherine Lee murder prosecution, are concluded. Le Roux’s possible futures range from life in prison—on a combination of the meth, Iran missile-technology-sales, and prescription-drug charges—to as little as ten years. He will not be charged for any of the seven murders he admitted to after signing his proffer agreement, although the judge is allowed to factor them into his sentence.

If the case follows the path of other cooperators, an attorney from the Department of Justice will stand before Preska and argue that Le Roux’s cooperation entitles him to a lesser sentence. There is a chance that he could get less prison time after admitting seven real murders than some of his former employees got for plotting two imaginary ones. He would only be the latest in a long line of famous cooperators, from heroin trafficker Frank Lucas, whose cooperation was later memorialized in American Gangster, to mob enforcer Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, who earned a five-year sentence by helping bring down John Gotti. But as Le Roux himself noted in his testimony, there are no guarantees.

In the past few days, I was finally able to confirm with multiple sources the identity of Le Roux’s current attorney, the one who requested to close the courtroom in Minnesota: Joseph DiBenedetto. Based in Manhattan, DiBenedetto is known for taking on highly publicized criminal cases, including the defense of John Gotti’s brother Peter, once accused in a plot to kill Gravano. He also appears regularly on Fox News and in other media outlets to discuss legal cases in the headlines. He did not return my phone calls or emails this week about Le Roux’s case and why, in this instance, he had chosen to work anonymously. Nor did the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District respond to my inquiry about why DiBenedetto’s name is mysteriously absent from Le Roux’s unsealed case file, which includes the names of his two previous attorneys.  


If and when Le Roux is released, federal authorities could place their former asset in witness protection. They could deport him, setting him adrift to find a new life—or restart his old one. Officially, the DEA confiscated only $300,000 from Le Roux, on top of the Hong Kong gold seizure. In his testimony, Le Roux claimed that this constituted “the bulk of my assets at the time of arrest,” but I was hard pressed to find someone from his former organization who believed him. Sol told me that the DEA had found one Le Roux bank account with $8 million in it, which was drained before they could seize it. By whom, he said, they have no idea. “He’s betting he’s going to do ten years,” Sol told me, “and he’s got millions.”

One source in Manila told me that not only were there tens of millions of dollars of Le Roux’s gold buried in the Philippines, but that the government was racing Le Roux’s former associates to find it—a modern version of Yamashita’s treasure, a supposed cache of loot left by the Japanese after World War II that has spawned decades of fruitless hunts.

Buried gold aside, most former Le Roux employees I spoke with believe that he has hidden millions, money he could use to reconstitute his empire. Last week in an online chat, I asked Lulu whether he thought Le Roux would come after him if and when he was released from prison. “Yes,” was his full reply. Did he think there was any chance that Le Roux’s time on the other side of the law could change him? “I really doubt it,” he said. Le Roux “loved what he did and wouldn’t give it up. I think it was fun for him, I think he really wanted to be the biggest thing. He wanted the infamy.”

What Le Roux wanted and why is a subject I’ve asked dozens of people about. For some the answer was obvious: money. He was corrupted by it, enamored with his power, enraptured by the feeling of it flowing toward him, more than he could ever spend. Others speculated that his drive was fueled by something deeper—his feelings about being adopted, or another childhood affront for which he was forever exacting an imprecise revenge. For my part, I always suspected that part of the answer lie in his life as a programmer. Le Roux had found his place inside code, a universe in which he could bend reality to his will. It seemed to me that he tried to apply the detached logic of software to real life. That’s why the DEA schemes must have appealed to him as much as his own. His approach was algorithmic, not moral: Set the program in motion and watch it run.

But Lulu’s comment about infamy stuck with me. Perhaps that wasn’t Le Roux’s aim at first, but over time it became something he coveted. Le Roux had known all along that he’d get caught—ultimately, the program could only lead to one outcome. But that meant that I, too, was part the design.

One afternoon, two months ago, I met an Israeli former employee of Le Roux’s at a quiet upstairs table in a café inside a Tel Aviv mall. I’d had a difficult time persuading this man to talk to me at all. He was free of Le Roux’s organization, on to new things. He hadn’t been indicted in the prescription-drug case, despite working in one of the call centers, although he said he planned to wait a few years before traveling to the U.S., just in case. I asked him this question, too: What did Le Roux want? “He wanted to be the biggest ever caught,” he said.

As we said good-bye, he told me, “What’s important is that justice be done, for what Paul did.” Then he leaned in, pointing at my notebook. “If you publish this story, ultimately you are giving him what he wanted. And by talking to you I guess I am, too. This is what he wanted. This story to be told, in this way.”

Read the latest updates on “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 6: Eyes Everywhere

The Mastermind Episode 6: Eyes Everywhere

How a retired American soldier became a brutal enforcer for an international cartel.

By Evan Ratliff

Visit the main page of “The Mastermind” series.

Among Paul Le Roux’s former employees, Joseph Hunter was perhaps the most mystifying. He was also the man whose story had pulled me into Le Roux’s world in the first place. And like Le Roux himself, Hunter was often described in larger-than-life terms, a remorseless mercenary who was bred by the U.S. military, then went horribly rogue. On Le Roux’s behalf, he’d allegedly arranged the murder of Catherine Lee, the Filipino real estate agent, and bragged about it, critiquing the assassins for their tactical blunders. He was, in the words of one Le Roux employee, “a real hardass”; he picked up the improbable nickname Rambo, and he looked the part. In photos he was a hulking, barrel-chested man with a gaze that alternated between penetrating and vacant. As an assassin he was famous the world over, but the further I delved into Le Roux’s empire, the more complicated the story seemed. 

A former soldier from Kentucky, the 47-year-old Hunter was one of a few Americans in the upper reaches of Le Roux’s operation, which was full of Israelis, South Africans, and Brits. Hunter had enlisted in the Army in 1983 and joined the Rangers two years later. But in 1986, a friend in his unit was killed during a training exercise. Hunter, deeply traumatized by the death, was medically discharged from the Rangers after just eight months. He spent the rest of his 21-year military career as a drill sergeant and sniper instructor, with posts in Germany, Panama, and Puerto Rico, rising to the rank of sergeant first class. By his own description, Hunter also worked as “a special-reaction team commander, serving high-risk warrants, doing law-enforcement training, and providing security for doctors and nurses.” Hunter earned both a National Defense Service Medal and a Global War on Terrorism Medal. His home state named him a Kentucky Colonel, an honorific reserved for Kentuckians “unwavering in devotion to faith, family, fellowman, and country.”

Discharged in 2004, Hunter returned to his hometown of Owensboro, a city of 50,000, with his wife, his two boys, and a pair of dogs. His mother and sister lived nearby. Law enforcement seemed like a logical next step, so he took and passed the New York City police exam, but decided the city was too expensive. Instead he got a job as an inmate counselor at the Green River Correctional Complex, an hour drive from home.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were at their peak, as were the jobs with private security firms, which promised large paychecks and the chance to see real action. Bored with civilian life, Hunter quit the prison in 2006 and signed on with Dyncorp, a McLean, Virginia, contractor with close ties to the U.S. military. After a two-year stint, he spent another year with a similar outfit, Triple Canopy.(The Panama Papers leak recently revealed that Triple Canopy, which has received more than a billion dollars in U.S. government contracts over the past decade, operated a series of shell companies overseas.) Hunter’s assignments included providing security at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and investigating suicide bombings.

While he was in the Army, Hunter’s family had found him increasingly short-tempered. His time in Iraq, by his own account, exacerbated his moodiness and explosive anger. He had trouble sleeping and startled easily.

In 2007, a former soldier introduced Hunter to Le Roux, describing him as a wealthy South African businessman looking for security personnel. Hunter jumped at the chance to leave the war behind. Soon he was traveling the world for and with Le Roux, from Mali to Hong Kong to Brazil—work for which he acquired a fake Zimbabwean passport with the name Frank Robinson and a South African one as Andrew Hunter.

Le Roux employees who crossed paths with Hunter were often struck by his presence. In our chats, Lulu, my source in Africa, told me that he’d met Hunter during one of Hunter’s early assignments. Some of Le Roux’s employees had either lost or stolen more than $1 million in a bad gold deal, and Hunter was dispatched to Zambia to locate them and collect the debt. According to Lulu, Hunter eventually “came back with nothing.”

Hunter would later claim to have experienced Le Roux’s wrath firsthand, saying that his boss had threatened to kill him after Hunter’s own gold deal went bad in Mali. Lulu confirmed that threat to me and recalled that Hunter and another employee eventually sorted out the losses with Le Roux.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Hunter was involved with the gold business, one of Le Roux’s sprawling gambits on the continent. The operation bought gold at a discount from small-scale miners and then smuggled it out of the country to be stashed away or sold for a profit in the legal gold market. Lulu told me that one of Le Roux’s right-hand men, Shai Reuven, had once been robbed of a significant sum when he’d traveled to the country to buy gold. “You can’t go to the Congo with a bag full of cash and expect to come out with it,” Lulu said. Hunter was hired to make sure that didn’t happen again.

“Hunter seemed very professional actually, wanted to get in, do what he had to do, and get out,” Lulu said. He’d encountered him again in Hong Kong and in Manila. “He was quiet, didn’t say much, didn’t look you in the face,” Lulu told me. “He wasn’t a cowboy. But he had this dark, ominous presence.”

I got a similar reaction when I brought up Hunter with Gil, my source in Manilla, who once had a high post in Le Roux’s organization. In the two hours that we talked, Hunter’s was the only name that seemed to genuinely rattle him other than Le Roux’s. “He was a loose cannon,” Gil said of Hunter; they’d done several operations together, until Gil refused to work with him anymore. “He was always a very angry person, somewhat disturbed mentally. I wouldn’t deal with him because he just wasn’t right.”

Gil told me that Dave Smith, Le Roux’s former head of security, had fired Hunter “because he was considered too hot headed.” In 2010, Hunter returned to Kentucky. But Smith’s opinion was soon overturned, after Le Roux discovered that Smith had been selling off some of the company’s gold for himself. Le Roux had Smith executed, and Hunter returned to the organization in 2011. “Well, Dave got killed for stealing money, and then I took his job,” was how Hunter summed it up later for some new recruits. Stealing from Le Roux was, he observed, “the number one thing that will get you killed.”

“Everybody says, ‘No, I’ll take the money and I’ll hide. I’m not scared,’” he continued. “If they don’t find you, they’re gonna get your family. They’re gonna get your children, your mother, your father.” As it happened, “they” often included Hunter and his men.

Hunter had first joined Le Roux’s organization while it was rapidly expanding, but by the time he returned, Le Roux’s downfall was already quietly in motion. Soma, one of the three medications that fueled Le Roux’s online prescription-drug business, had been declared a controlled substance by the U.S. government. Le Roux was delving deeper into large-scale criminal activities to make up the lost profits, directing an organization rife with paranoia and violence. “That one year, we killed nine people,” Hunter told the recruits, possibly exaggerating for effect but, from the killings I’ve been able to confirm, probably not by much. As the bodies piled up, Le Roux moved underground, and in September 2012, he disappeared entirely. 

Then, in late 2012, Hunter suddenly got a flurry of calls and encrypted emails from Le Roux. He had a new project, a big one, involving a group he would refer to only as the “South American partners.” Le Roux wanted Hunter to assemble a team of skilled, reliable ex-military men who could handle what Le Roux referred to as “specialist jobs.” Hunter knew exactly what kind of work he was talking about.

At the same time, other Le Roux employees around the globe were hearing from Le Roux as he launched himself into several new ventures. One of those employees was Scott Stammers, a security contractor who worked for Le Roux in Manila. A 43-year-old Brit, Stammers sported a shaved head and a goatee, and had retained his English pallor despite several years in the tropical climate. He coordinated gun- and drug-related operations for Le Roux and was skilled at sourcing everything from heavy weaponry to methamphetamine precursor chemicals and the cooks to prepare them.

Scott Stammers worked for Le Roux in Manila. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Le Roux wanted Stammers to help put together a meth deal for his new South American associates. Stammers had previously managed a sizeable meth shipment from Ye Tiong Tan Lim, a balding Chinese man in his fifties with wire-rim glasses who purportedly operated an import-export business, actually a front for a criminal organization in Hong Kong. Now Le Roux wanted Lim to provide drugs again.

Le Roux also reached out to Allan Kelly Reyes Peralta, a 39-year-old Filipino who had once worked as a manager at Sid’s, Le Roux’s bar in Manila. Peralta’s role in the organization was pure happenstance; Dave Smith had met Peralta in the coastal town of Barretto, just outside Subic, when Peralta was the manager of a dingy tiki bar called the Blue Rock Resort. Smith hired him to work at Sid’s. (In perhaps the most bizarre chain of connections I encountered, I learned that John Nash, the mysterious figure who was the last person to see two of Le Roux’s alleged murder victims alive, had been the head of security at the Blue Rock. Later, authorities discovered that “John Nash” was the identity of a deceased American and arrested him in a dramatic raid just steps from the Blue Rock. Nash now sits in a Philippine prison, refusing to admit his real name or country of origin.)

Peralta had met Lim through his brother and had served as an intermediary between Le Roux’s people and Lim for the first meth deal. Now Le Roux wanted him to do so again for the South Americans. Sid’s closed in 2009, and by the time Le Roux got in touch with Peralta, he was out of work. Peralta agreed to make the deal.

Peralta contacted Lim and invited him to meet Le Roux’s associates. In early January, Lim and Peralta traveled to Bangkok, where the two South Americans disclosed that they were senior figures in a Colombian cartel, looking for a large amount of high-quality meth. They wanted the drugs to be shipped to Liberia, but they planned to sell them in New York. First, however, they’d need to test a sample.

The request didn’t faze Lim. “My boss,” Lim said, “only gets [it] from the original source.”

That source, Lim had told Le Roux, was North Korea. It was an unverifiable claim but not a far-fetched one. According to a congressional report, the country’s contribution to the meth trade dates to the mid-1990s, when heavy rains wiped out its thriving poppy production, opening a lane for lab-made drugs. By 2007, North Korea was producing “10-15 tons per year of the highest quality product for export,” the report notes, usually smuggled across the border into northeast China. North Korea’s meth manufacturing has long been reported to be either tacitly approved or even sponsored by the state. In 2013, however, the State Department observed that “state-sponsored drug trafficking may have ceased or been sharply reduced, or… the DPRK regime has become more adept at concealing state-sponsored trafficking of illicit drugs.”

Lim made a similar point to the Colombians. “The North Korean government already burned all the labs,” he told them, “to show the Americans they aren’t selling it anymore.” But, despite the crackdown, Lim said that his organization had roughly one ton of ultra-pure North Korean meth to offer. “Only our labs are not closed,” he said. The Colombians asked to visit the labs inside North Korea to verify its origins, but Lim said that non-Korean speakers would raise suspicions.

The next month, Lim provided two small meth samples to Peralta, who delivered them to Philip Shackels, a tattooed Brit in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Stammers had been communicating with both the Colombians and Le Roux by encrypted email. The cartel wanted the samples sent to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and Stammers took charge of shipping the meth there. Shackels and Stammers sent the samples by FedEx, and Stammers emailed the tracking number to Le Roux. On arrival they tested at 96 and 98 percent pure, respectively. The deal was on.


By March, Joseph Hunter had spent several months collecting and sorting résumés from mercenary fighters around the globe. He forwarded his top picks to Le Roux for approval. Eventually, they settled on three men.

Dennis Gögel was a 27-year-old German former soldier who’d been raised by his grandmother in Stadthagen, a manufacturing city in northern Germany. His mother died of asthma when he was a small child, and his father abandoned him; he’d joined the army, he later said, “to take control of my life.” He’d served in an elite unit, the equivalent of the U.S. Army Rangers, deployed for peacekeeping in Kosovo. Upon his discharge, in 2010, he’d shifted into private security, first in Afghanistan and then in Africa, working as an anti-piracy specialist on boats threatened by Somali pirates. When Hunter approached him about joining what he called “a highly specialized security group to protect and secure high-profile clients,” Gögel recalled that “Hunter and I built a strong bond as he took me under his wing. After a short while our relationship expanded, and I began to view Hunter not only as mentor but as a father figure, something I never had before.”

Prior to joining Le Roux’s organization, Denis Gögel worked as a security contractor guarding ships from Somali pirates. (Photo: Facebook)

Gögel, in turn, connected Hunter with another former German soldier named Michael Filter, who had left the service in 2010. He’d bounced around, managing a bakery and doing a bit of roofing. With young twin daughters to support, he “felt useless because he wasn’t able to find a proper job,” his sister Nancy later wrote in a letter recounting the period. Then, in early 2013, Filter got a call from Gögel, who said he knew someone who was putting together a security team. Filter saw it “as a possibility to do something useful and be able to provide for his girls properly,” Nancy recalled.

The third team member, Slawomir Soborski, was a Polish ex-policeman. He’d worked for 15 years in the military and in civilian law enforcement, and would later claim to have “provided protection for President Bush and Pope John Paul II while in Poland.” He had drifted into contract work, and eventually joined the French Foreign Legion, but struggled to make ends meet. In February 2013, Soborski received Hunter’s job solicitation from a friend in the Foreign Legion, and he wrote to Hunter directly. “I am convinced that my experience, commitment, and professionalism, confirmed by my references, will lead to the success of your company and mutual satisfaction,” he said. His résumé included such qualifications as “sniper,” “close-combat specialist,” and “parachutist.”

Slawomir Soborski worked as a policeman in Poland and a security contractor before a friend connected him to Hunter. (Photo: LinkedIn)

Between the three of them, Hunter felt he was ready to get to work for the South Americans. He wrote to Le Roux that Soborski and Gögel in particular were “two highly qualified individuals that will get a lot of stuff done for us.”

Hunter and Gögel, in turn, exchanged a series of charged-up emails about the job.

“I full understand what ‘Ninja’ means and I’m available for your request!” Gögel wrote. “See you soon, I’m ready to go Hard.”

“I told the client you are my number 1 guy for this job, so don’t let me down!!!” Hunter responded.

“Ready to rock hard!” Gögel replied.

In March, Hunter traveled to Phuket, Thailand, and met Le Roux’s South American contacts at one of Le Roux’s houses, a one-story stucco ranch with a red terra-cotta roof near the Loch Palm Golf Course. Afterward, Gögel, Soborski, and Filter arrived for their first in-person meeting. Hunter had told them to dress like tourists for the trip—“nothing military police looking”—and had wired them expense money for their tickets.

Once everyone was present, Hunter disclosed the identities of their clients: two men from a Colombian cartel, associates of Le Roux’s, whom they would know only as “the Boss.” Hunter told them that the Colombians had said “you’re gonna see tons of cocaine. You’re gonna see millions of dollars. You’re gonna see gold.”

The team’s work could include collecting money from people who hadn’t paid the Colombians, carrying cocaine, or “bonus work,” the term within Le Roux’s organization for paid assassinations. “Once a mission is received, that mission becomes sacred to you,” Hunter told them. “You will accomplish it to the end at all costs.”

For the next hour, Hunter delivered a sermon extolling mercenary life under the Boss, pausing only for the occasional “yeah” from his team. “It’s just like a military mission,” he said. “You see James Bond in the movie and you’re saying, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ Well, you’re gonna do it now. Everything you see or you’ve thought about, you’re gonna do. It’s, it’s real and it’s up to you. You know how the government says, ‘If you work through the government, ah, if you get in trouble, we don’t know you?’ Same thing with this job. No different, right? So that’s how it is. Same thing you do in the military, except you’re doing for these guys now? If you get caught in war, you get killed, right? Unless you surrender, if they let you surrender, or if you get, you know, the same thing. This is—everything’s just like you’re in war enemy territory now.”

Hunter’s soliloquy wandered from dramatic recounting of his own exploits to detailed instructions on kidnappings and assassinations. “When we did it, we did it all,” he said. “We hand-grenaded, threw it, hand-grenaded the people’s houses. We ah… not kidnapped a guy, but we conned him to come with us. We put him in the ocean, shot at him; he gave us the money back. Ah… assassinated people. Ah, what else we did? We smuggled gold. We smuggled weapons. Ah… We took weapons from Jakarta to the Philippines on the ship.”

“You gotta use your head,” he continued. “You never know what the scenario is gonna be. If you gotta kidnap somebody to recover funds, you know how you gotta plan a kidnapping, right? Knock the fucking… you knock the guy out in your minivan or your SUV. You already gonna have a place to hide, right? A place to hold him. You just gotta drive there and get to the place, and then once he’s inside the building it’s no problem. You’re gonna handcuff him and all that shit, and then I’m sure he’s gonna give you the money, right, or arrange for the money right away. If you have to waterboard him, it’s easy, you just put a wet towel on his face and pour water on him about, you know, 15 to 20 seconds till he talks.”

Ultimately, he told them, it was each man’s decision whether he could handle the demands of this kind of job. “They’re going to come back tomorrow,” he said of the Colombians. “If you’re here tomorrow, you’re in.”  

The next day the Colombians returned to the house, where the whole team awaited them. The cartel representatives were similarly explicit in their expectations. “You do whatever you have to do,” one of them said. “If we call you and say, ‘This fucking guy ain’t gonna pay,’ that’s it. We want you to be magicians.… You disappear people.”

At first, though, the Colombians had more pedestrian jobs for the crew. They announced that they were moving a large shipment of drugs from Thailand to China and needed “counter-surveillance” on the operation to determine whether the Thai police were monitoring the boat. Gögel, Soborski, and Filter traveled to Koh Samui, a port city on an island off the coast of Thailand, and photographed the vessel as it sat docked in the harbor.

Hunter remained at the Phuket house, in close communication with Le Roux and the Colombians. After five days, Hunter told Le Roux that, based on the reports, he was not impressed with the Colombians’ ship’s crew. “The guys are continuing to watch the boat. No detection of any surveillance as of yet,” he wrote. “No one comes out of the cabin during the days. The Captain is going to another boat every night and picking up some guys and then they go out partying.”

After the Koh Samui job, the Colombians wanted the team to travel to Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean just east of Madagascar, to provide “counter-surveillance of several important meetings.” Hunter drew up a budget, $15,000 for expenses, including travel and international driver’s licenses, plus a “telephoto lens that can reach 100 meters for facial recognition and plate numbers.”

That April, he dispatched the team. The first meeting in Mauritius was between the Colombians, an arms buyer named TC, and Scott Stammers and Philip Shackels. TC was in the market for guns, which Stammers had agreed to provide, sending along a “sales package” that included photos of machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. In exchange, the Colombians wanted Stammers to buy 15 surface-to-air missiles. Gögel, Filter, and Soborski kept watch outside as the three parties finalized the deal.

Stammers sought to obtain surface-to-air missiles from this catalog for the Colombians. (Photo: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York)

The next day, Stammers, Shackels, and the Colombians met with a pair of Serbians. The topic of that meeting, as Le Roux explained to Hunter in an email, was “some product that we lost recently in the South Pacific.” He was referring to the disappearance of the JeReVe, Le Roux’s boat, which had washed up on a reef in Tonga in the fall of 2012 with $120 million worth of cocaine and a dead Slovak onboard. The loss seemed to have sent Le Roux into deeper hiding; after he had made arrangements for the boat to depart from Ecuador, none of his associates ever saw him again.

Now Stammers was looking for a new supplier to replace Le Roux’s lost shipment. The Serbians said they were interested in funneling 700 to 1,000 kilos from South America to Australia, Stammers told Le Roux afterward.

Stammers (left) and Shackels during a trip to Thailand to meet with the Colombians. (Photo: U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York)

Hunter’s team returned to Thailand, and he conducted a full debriefing; in the manner of a football coach reviewing film, he “pointed out some minor mistakes,” he reported to Le Roux. “I will send you a slide show of some of the surveillance they did, so you can see their work.”

Looking over the surveillance photos, Hunter noted that he “knew two of the guys there for the meetings”; that is, he recognized Shackels and Stammers, whom he’d met before within Le Roux’s organization. Yet Hunter had no idea that the two men had also come to Mauritius on Le Roux’s behalf. Later, that detail struck me as an extraordinary example of the compartmentalization that I’d heard Le Roux required, something his employees must have been accustomed to. Here were two major operations, involving the same Colombian cartel, yet Le Roux’s teams seemed to have little or no awareness of one another’s involvement. Their paths crossed without a whisper on Mauritius. The same wouldn’t be true when they crossed again later.

In mid-May, Stammers and Shackels returned to Thailand to meet with the Colombians about the logistics of the meth shipment. Lim had told them that he’d been forced to move his stockpile out of North Korea and to the Philippines for safekeeping. The shipment would travel from there to Thailand, then on to Liberia. For the Thai portion of the trip, Stammers brought on a man named Adrian Valkovic, a former member of the French Foreign Legion who worked in private security and was the sergeant-at-arms for the Outlaw Motorcycle Club in Bangkok. Valkovic, whom Stammers called the “ground commander” for the shipment, would be marshaling eight armed comrades from the club to protect it.

In a meeting with Lim and Peralta, the Colombians proposed starting off their relationship with a 60-kilo shipment of meth, at $60,000 per kilo.

“My friends, can you do the 60, a little bit, a little more, like 100?” Peralta asked.

The Colombians agreed, and over the next few months, the group held a series of meetings in Thailand to sort out the details. In emails about the arrangement, they referred to the drugs as “car parts.”

Tim Vamvakias was assigned to guard Le Roux’s stash of prescription drugs before Hunter recruited him. (Photo: LinkedIn)

In the spring of 2013, Hunter proposed adding another member of Le Roux’s organization to his crew. Tim Vamvakias was an American who’d grown up in a violent household in San Bernardino, California, dreaming about a career in law enforcement. He’d joined the Army during the Gulf War, left to study at the University of California at Santa Barbara, then returned to active duty as a military policeman. An expert K-9 handler, he’d worked in bomb detection and on a SWAT team. He left the military, hoping to join the police force in Phoenix, but he failed a physical due to an unspecified health condition. He fell into a depression, got divorced, and signed on with Dyncorp and then another security contractor, using dogs to hunt for improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan. Eventually, his health cost him his job again. Unemployed and temporarily homeless, he’d joined Le Roux’s organization sometime in the late 2000s, connected through a colleague from his contracting days.

Now 41, with slicked-back hair and prominent eyebrows, Vamvakias had been stationed by Le Roux at a stash house in Texas. For $7,500 a month, Vamvakias guarded a large supply of tramadol—one of the three main prescription drugs that helped float Le Roux’s online pill business. (In 2011, Le Roux had decided to fulfill orders by smuggling pills from Mexico.)

Hunter thought Vamvakias, whose nickname was Tay, could be of more use on the security team. Le Roux agreed to a transfer and a raise, $10,000 a month with Hunter’s crew, Le Roux said, as long as he was willing to engage in “bonus work.” “I told Tay previously that his salary would be 10K starting the 1st of May,” Hunter wrote to Le Roux on May 6. “He has confirmed that he will do bonus jobs.”

In May, the Colombians had another task for Hunter’s team: more counter-surveillance, this time of a plane in the Bahamas that was scheduled to deliver 200 kilos of cocaine to the U.S. Vamvakias arrived in Thailand to join the team, and Hunter made him leader of the mission.

Around the same time, Le Roux informed Hunter that he and the Colombians had found a snitch in their organization. On May 30, Le Roux wrote to Hunter at an address for Jim Riker, one of Hunter’s aliases, about someone leaking to the DEA and the Australian Federal Police:

From: john <>To: Jim Riker <>Sent: Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:50 AMSubject: Re:

… the situation is our contact in the f b i in ecuador has been looking into the jereve incident for us, the man who is responsible has been providing tips to the d e a and a f p, he is a boat captain that is working for us, he does jobs for us mainly in the carribean and in africa, he was the one who handled the jereve for us, and leaked the info to the u.s agent, him and a particular agent are problems for us, this is a priority job that will pay allot of money, i need your suggestion on the best way to handle it, I need your input on what is needed to fix this issue asap as we already lost 3 shipments and allot of money, please be advised he does not know anyone except his handler but he knows some of our boats, so we need to get this issue resolved before we loose more money, sis this something your team can handle? or should i assign it to my south african guys, the jobs will probably be in africa as the captain is based there

“My guys will handle it,” Hunter replied, meaning Vamvakias and Gögel. “Are you talking about both the Captain and the agent or just the Captain?”

“Both are a problem, both need to be handled,” Le Roux replied. He also laid out the incentives: “Informer is 200 000 and 500 000 for the agent,” he wrote. Hunter would get $100,000 for organizing the hit.

“They will handle both jobs,” Hunter replied. “They just need good tools.”

In Hunter’s budget and detailed equipment list for the operation, he outlined what that meant:

From: Jim Riker <>
Date: 7/6/2013 11:02 AM
To: “john@fast‐free‐” <john@fast‐free‐>


Here is a list of items needed for the job. It includes everything that they can think of, because they don’t exactly know the plan and how it will be executed, that’s why it’s so much.

Two Submachine Guns with silencers (Mac 10, MP5, P90, MP7,,,something small) Magazines for the Weapons

Two .22 pistols with Silencers (these are a must)

Magazines and ammo for these

One 308 Rifle with Scope and Case for it

Ammo for it

Two Level 3A Concealment Vests

2 GPS’s for the evac (one for each guy)

2 Black Guy Masks (like the ones we have, but all ready in county)

2 Two way radios preferably with ear pieces and push to talk capability

2 Motorcycles at least 250cc with helmets that have a black tinted visor

2 Cars or SUVs with tinted windows

Stolen License plates for both motorcycles and Cars

Once they are in place and have a plan additional items might be required depending on the assesment

A source connected to Soborski provided this photo of him posing on the beach. Data embedded in the photo shows that it was taken in Nassau during the surveillance trip.

In June, the team, absent Hunter, traveled to the Bahamas for the surveillance job. It was a leisurely gig, and Soborski posed for photos on the beach in Nassau, shirtless and with a drink and cigar in hand. The crew scouted out a surveillance location behind a chain-link fence off a runway at the Nassau airport and watched through a car window as the bags of cocaine were loaded onto a small private plane. Once the plane departed, they called the Colombians with a report.

After seeing off the plane, Vamvakias met with the Colombians at a hotel. They had brought along photographs and dossiers on the DEA agent and snitch and explained that they wanted the job done in Liberia. Vamvakias texted Hunter that the Colombians were insisting that Soborski and Filter be involved in the mission, as well. “My first question is whether our pay will be the same,” Vamvakias asked.

In early August, Stammers, Lim, and the Colombians decided to do a dry run of the meth shipment using a container of tea. Their emails in preparation contain an absurd but highly serious debate about which type of tea to use; the team selected a cheap variety of Oolong since “it is just for a test run for the 100 car parts,” the Colombians pointed out, and they were going to throw it out anyway. Soon after, they set the ship on its way from Thailand to Liberia.

In mid-August, while the tea was still en route, Stammers met with the Colombians in Phuket and laid out “Operations Plan Alpha,” complete with photos of the docks where the meth would be loaded, maps of its route Liberia, and details about where and when the boats would stop overnight. The plan included a $15,000 contingency to bribe a “Political Safety Asset,” whose supposed purpose, Stammers noted in an encrypted email to Le Roux, was “to be active in case an incident arises and political weight is required to smooth the way” in the Philippines. “This person is the wife of the National Police Director General,” he claimed. The Colombians, meanwhile, were to transfer $6 million for the meth to Hong Kong as soon as it arrived in Thailand.

They would send the drugs via yacht from the Philippines to the Thai port of Laem Chabang, where they’d be moved onto a larger ship for the trip to Africa. Valkovic, the “ground commander” in charge of providing motorcycle-gang members for security, proposed that the transfer take place in a marina, under the cover of a photo shoot. They had considered making the transfer at sea, but Valkovic advised that it was too dangerous because U.S. naval ships regularly anchored in the bay. “Americans,” he said, “have their eyes everywhere.”

In Thailand, Hunter’s team met with the two cartel representatives to finalize arrangements for the assassination of the DEA agent and the snitch. Even though they’d worked together for eight months, Hunter had the pair searched and took their electronic devices, then insisted that the meeting be held outdoors as an extra precaution against being recorded.

Hunter, Gögel, Vamvakias, and the Colombians reviewed the assassination plan step-by-step. (Soborski and Filter had instead been assigned to travel to Estonia to provide security on a weapons deal.) They studied photos of the targets, discussing how to enter and leave the country undetected. Gögel and Vamvakias would have both cars and motorcycles at their disposal. Hunter had purchased the “black guy masks” mentioned in his email: latex masks specially designed to conceal the wearer’s race. They’d tried them on, Gögel said, and even when they closed their eyes the masks “were blinking with us.… Even with real hairs and everything. That’s perfect stuff.”

Gögel would lead the planning of the murder—“you run the show,” one of the Colombians told him—and suggested that with the right weaponry, they could make the job look like a robbery. “I think we’ll probably have to gonna get up close to ’em,” Vamvakias noted. “You know what I mean? To make sure it gets done.” Among the weapons that Hunter had suggested, they settled on German-made MP-7 machine guns. “If I can get those MP-7’s, that’d be awesome,” Vamvakias said. “That’ll guarantee whatever gets in that kill zone goes down.”

In late September 2013, the meth was ready to leave the Philippines. On the 24th, Lim and Peralta convened at a hotel in Patong Beach, in Phuket, to await its arrival. The next day, Stammers, Shackels, and Valkovic sat down for a final logistics run through with the Colombians. “All the main players are now on the ground,” Stammers emailed Le Roux, “standing by for meet coordinates and time.”

The coordinates never came. Instead, officers from Thailand’s Narcotics Suppression Bureau swept in a few hours later and arrested all five men.

On September 24, 2013, the Narcotics Suppression Bureau of Thailand thwarted the plot to ship meth from the Philippines to Liberia. (Photo: AP Photo/Banmuang Newspaper)

Six miles away, at Le Roux’s Loch Palm villa, Joseph Hunter was awaiting updates on the Liberia job when a dozen commandos from the NSB arrived, led by the deputy police commissioner. The size of the arrest team was probably overkill; Hunter was the only team member home, apparently unarmed. They handcuffed him and led him outside, then sat him on the ground by the front door while cops and police officials posed beside him. In images that would soon run in newspapers around the world, Hunter appears expressionless, his hands cuffed behind his back. He is dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt with a Springfield Unathletic Dept logo and an image of Homer Simpson asleep on a couch. When I first saw the photos, beneath headlines about Rambo’s plot to assassinate a DEA agent, they almost looked staged in their absurdity.

Hunter in custody of the Thai police. (Photo: Thai Immigration Police)

Five thousand miles away, at the same time, Soborski and Filter were picked up by local authorities at a hotel in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. They’d been doing reconnaissance in advance of a supposed meeting about a weapons deal. The men were transported to a former Soviet prison; the cops roughed up Soborski enough that he would later require abdominal surgery.

That same morning, Vamvakias and Gögel stepped off a plane at Roberts International Airport in Monrovia ready to assassinate the DEA agent and the snitch. The Colombians were supposed to be expecting them, ready with the weapons, masks, and vehicles they’d need to carry out the job. Instead, as the two men disembarked, a group of Liberian police were waiting, and the would-be assassins were quickly transferred into DEA custody and flown back to New York.

It was a year to the day since Paul Le Roux had made the same trip, with the same result.

Three days later, the Department of Justice held a press conference in Manhattan to announce the success of the sting operation involving Hunter and his assassination squad. The Colombian cartel representatives had been DEA informants, expertly directing a manufactured plot.

“The bone-chilling allegations in today’s indictment read like they were ripped from the pages of a Tom Clancy novel,” said Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York. “The charges tell a tale of an international band of mercenary marksmen who enlisted their elite military training to serve as hired guns for evil ends,” Bharara said. He unspooled a condensed version, from the early meetings with the fake Colombians, to the latex masks and the guns, to the point when, as he put it, “the DEA had seen more than enough.”

YouTube video
Press conference announcing the arrests in Thailand, Liberia, and Estonia. 

I watched a video of the press conference back in 2013, as transfixed as the rest of the world by what sounded like an extraordinary criminal and a brilliant investigation. But there was something confounding about the narrative, something that nagged at me. How had the DEA known that these men were prime targets for a sting operation involving the murder of an agent and a snitch? Was the agency hanging out fishing lines around the world, advertising assassinations in the hope of finding someone willing to bite? The story seemed to stop with Joseph Hunter, the sui generis international hit-men squad leader. But what special insight had put the DEA onto him to begin with?

The situation grew even more confounding two months later, when the DEA announced the arrest of Stammers and company in connection with the meth deal. “This investigation continued to highlight the emergence of North Korea as a significant source of methamphetamine in the global drug trade,” DEA administrator Michele Leonhart said in a press release. Curiously, there was no mention that the two cases were related. Only the Washington Post made the connection: An anonymous law-enforcement source told the paper that the North Korea meth defendants were “part of a sprawling international drug trafficking ring led by a former American soldier, Joseph Manuel Hunter, who has separately been charged with conspiring to murder a Drug Enforcement Administration agent.”

I wouldn’t find out for another two years that the official’s statement had perhaps been a calculated bit of misinformation; the government, of course, knew all along that there was someone above Hunter. But even at the time, the arrests generated as many questions as answers. One of those answers lie buried in the indictments of the two cases, soon unsealed at the federal court in the Southern District. Both referred to an unnamed additional person in the sting, labeled variously as a “narcotics trafficking partner” or just “Individual-1.” Whether this was the same mysterious figure in both cases was impossible to tell. I puzzled over the potential connections for a few weeks and then, as the cases settled into the years-long grind of the federal court system, put them on the shelf.

Over the ensuing months, the six defendants in Thailand and the two in Estonia were all extradited to New York City. Each member of Stammers’s group faced multiple charges of conspiring to import methamphetamine to the United States. Hunter, Gögel, and Vamvakias were accused of graver crimes: conspiracy to murder a federal law-enforcement agent, among others. Soborski and Filter were hit with drug charges related to the Bahamas cocaine shipment for which they’d provided surveillance.

Awaiting trial, the defendants were left to grapple not only with the potential for significant prison time, but also the fact that everything they had planned had been a hoax, an elaborate piece of theater put on at the expense of the gullible and the greedy. There was no agent or snitch, no New York buyer for 100 kilos of the purest North Korean meth. Nor was there any cocaine on the Bahamas flight they had so carefully surveilled. The Phuket house had been wired for sound and video by the Thai police at the request of the DEA, a hard drive tucked under the kitchen counter. The “Colombians” had managed to record the other meetings by wearing wires—wires that Hunter had failed to detect. All of the teams’ email communications, with their macho posturing and detailed ops plans, were being simultaneously collected by the DEA’s Special Operations Division.

Perhaps the strangest fact of the whole charade, however, was something that Hunter and Stammers must have realized immediately but the world would wait years to find out. Paul Calder Le Roux, the man they alternately feared and admired—the man who’d brought them all into this scheme to begin with—had been in U.S. custody the whole time. What’s more, he had been playing the lead role in the show.

Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.

The Mastermind Episode 5: He Got Greedy


The Mastermind Episode 5: He Got Greedy

A yacht called ‘I Dream’  washes up in Tonga with some drugs and a grisly cargo.

By Evan Ratliff


Paul Le Roux always knew that the end would come, or so those inside his organization told me. Some believed that the sheer vastness of his criminal appetite implied that he was all but daring law enforcement to take him down. Others remembered that Le Roux talked for years about how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was on his trail. They’d always assumed he was boasting, exaggerating his importance.

There were also times when it seemed like Le Roux was considering getting out. In an online chat, sent to me by one of his former employees, he discussed disappearing into a new identity as early as 2008. “I need a dead body certified as me,” Le Roux said. “The body should have a certificate saying ‘died from multiple gun shot wounds.’” He also wanted a birth certificate under a new name, one that would work not just once, but for a lifetime.    

Le Roux either never got the birth certificate or never used it. Instead, when he started to feel that his time was short, he put into action another, even more elaborate plan. By early 2012, authorities in the U.S. began closing in on Le Roux’s operations. That spring, he exchanged his haven in the Philippines, with his established routines, paid-for police protection, and network of employees, for a new home base in Rio de Janeiro.

Le Roux seemed to see Brazil as a trapdoor to a fresh start: Soon after he arrived, he set about generating new business. The first involved a boat, transporting $120 million in cocaine from Peru to a buyer on the other side of the Pacific.

As he finalized the arrangements for the shipment, another lucrative offer presented itself. A trusted associate* of Le Roux’s contacted him to say that he’d met a representative of a Colombian cartel that wanted to build a large-scale methamphetamine operation in Liberia. On May 11, Le Roux’s associate flew to Rio for a meeting. The Colombians wanted precursor chemicals, a facility, and a chemist for making meth, in exchange for which they would supply Le Roux with cocaine.

In September 2012, Paul Le Roux traveled to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, to meet with a representative of a Colombian cartel. (Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters Pictures)

The Colombians requested a sample of the product Le Roux could help them create. A week later, he gave the associate his bank account number, and the Colombians wired payment for a 24-gram sample of meth. Le Roux sent the sample to Liberia and supplied a tracking number. The Colombians tested the meth and found that it was clean, nearly 100 percent pure. They were ready to make the trade: 100 kilos of meth for 100 kilos of cocaine.

*A year after this series was published, it was discovered that this was a former employee who had overseen the Somalia operation, recruited by a section of the DEA’s Special Operations Group known as the 960 Group, to return to Le Roux’s organization with the fake deal in hand.

All that was required to complete the deal was for Le Roux to travel to Liberia and meet with the cartel representative. He caught a commercial flight to Monrovia, the Liberian capital, and touched down on September 25, 2012. As was often the case with Le Roux and his businesses, the swap was a bold plan, almost too over the top in its complexity. Only this time, Le Roux wasn’t the one pulling the strings.


For many months, I tried to convince someone in U.S. law enforcement to talk to me on the record about Le Roux. Several divisions of the Department of Justice, the DEA, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington and New York all repeatedly refused to speak with me. My phone calls and emails were met with variations on “no comment.” Kent Bailey, the acting head of the DEA in Minnesota, who I’d heard had been involved in the case, declined to connect me to any agents involved and referred my inquiries to Lawrence Payne, the DEA’s spokesman in Washington. Payne’s response was polite but firm: “There isn’t any information that we can confirm, deny, or discuss right now,” he said. Much of the evidence pertaining to Le Roux was still being held in sealed court filings, and as long as the cases remained open, no one in federal law enforcement would officially say a word about him.

But then, over the past few weeks, I spoke to two law enforcement officials with extensive and direct knowledge of the Le Roux case. One of them, whom I’ll call Jody, I met in a New York City bar one March afternoon after we were put in contact by a mutual acquaintance. Another, whom I’ll call Sol, called me after reading the first four parts of this story. Both had been briefed on the specifics of the Le Roux investigation, and they provided an inside look at the DEA’s five-year pursuit. They agreed to speak to me on the condition that they not be named, given the pending prosecutions and the fact that they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Their independent accounts confirmed one another’s and echoed what I had already learned from hundreds of pages of court documents both in the U.S. and overseas, as well as from my interviews with defendants, their families, and defense lawyers with access to parts of the government’s investigation. In total, these sources revealed how the U.S. brought down Paul Calder Le Roux. Through their accounts, I also discovered how close he came to escaping its grasp. “I’ve had a lot of drug cases,” Sol told me. “But Le Roux? He was by far the smartest drug dealer I’ve ever dealt with.”

A decade before the national opiate epidemic made headlines, the DEA had seen online pharmacies funneling prescription medication onto American streets. The agency responded with Operation Baywatch, Operation CyberRx, Operation Lightning Strike, Operation TexRx, and Operation Control/Alt/Delete, a series of attempts to shut down a thriving industry of rogue pharmacies, also known as pill mills.

In the summer of 2007, an investigator in the DEA’s Minneapolis–St. Paul office named Kim Brill was making undercover online purchases of phentermine, a prescription appetite suppresant with amphetamine-like effects. One of the shipments arrived from Altgeld Garden Drugs, a pharmacy on the South Side of Chicago. Brill and a partner obtained a warrant to search the store, and in the back they discovered FedEx boxes full of medications.

The DEA got a warrant for FedEx’s records and found that a single company was paying to ship those packages all around the country. It was called RX Limited. According to one indictment, “approximately one hundred pharmacies throughout the United States had also shipped under RXL’s FedEx account. RXL’s most frequently sold prescription drugs were Fioricet, Soma (carisoprodol), and Ultram (tramadol), and their generic and brand-name equivalents.”

Over the coming months and years, Brill and her colleagues embarked on the painstaking work of building a case against RX Limited. The evidence they compiled would ultimately amount to millions of pages of documents, according to one defense attorney involved in the case. Brill was a “diversion investigator”: Unlike agents tracking street narcotics like cocaine and methamphetamine, her focus was on legal drugs being diverted into illegal markets. According to both Sol and Jody, she was also exceptionally diligent, with a natural aptitude for making connections other investigators failed to spot. On RX Limited, she often worked alongside a DEA special agent named Travis Ocken, a clean-cut Nebraskan who had come to the agency by way of the Lincoln police force. Both of them were supervised, a source told me, by Bailey. (For simplicity’s sake, I will refer to the collection of Minnesota investigators who worked on the case as “the agents.”) Working with DEA offices as far-flung as Detroit, New York City, Newark, New Jersey, and Hong Kong, the Minnesota agents set out to unravel RX Limited’s operation.

To understand that network required a slew of strategies, Jody told me, a combination of tracing “the FedEx account and who opened that, and various email accounts, various affiliate programs—finding out who the affiliates were, who is paying those people—finding out where the servers were.”

The shipping account was a foot in the door: Among the 100 pharmacists using the account was Charles Schultz, the 74-year-old who owned two family-run drugstores in Oshkosh and Monroe, Wisconsin. Agents eventually determined that he shipped over 700,000 prescriptions on behalf of an RX Limited subsidiary. Another was Babubhai Patel, a pharmacist and businessman in his late forties who controlled 26 pharmacies in the Detroit area. According to a federal indictment, in addition to shipping drugs for RX Limited, the government alleges that Patel helped RX Limited set up credit card processing operations in the U.S.—another trail for the agents to follow.

In October 2007, Brill began making controlled buys on RX Limited websites, using accounts created by the DEA. When each package of pills arrived, it included a label indicating which doctor had prescribed them. That led the agents to physicians like Elias Karkalas, who operated a 15-year-old family practice in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and whose indictment now reads like this:

On or about December 2, 2008, ELIAS KARKALAS authorized a sham prescription for the dispensing and distribution of Fioricet or its generic equivalent to an RX Limited customer, an undercover investigator in Minnesota, with whom he did not have a bona fide doctor-patient relationship and who stated on the submitted customer questionnaire that the Fioricet was being ordered to treat knee pain.

“It took a while to put all the pieces together,” Jody told me, not least because RX Limited wasn’t a single site but a conglomeration of hundreds, with similar-sounding names like and Some of those sites were affiliates, marketing sites recruited by RX limited to funnel customers to the company in exchange for a per-order fee. 

Screen shots of some of RX Limited’s affiliates.

The names of these sites could change in an instant. RX Limited’s marketing strategy was essentially to send spam email to any address it could find. When service providers blocked those sites for bulk-email infractions, RX Limited and its affiliates would open up new ones, which in turn would be blocked. It was an endless game of cat and mouse. In the early days of RX Limited, employees purchased individual web domains at public sellers like GoDaddy. Later, RX Limited spawned its own domain-selling company, ABSystems—the equivalent of opening a printing press for web addresses. But instead of selling those addresses to others, ABSystems generated them by the thousands, virtually for free, exclusively for RX Limited.

John Reid, a researcher at Spamhaus, an independent organization that tracks spammers and fraudulent websites, described such efforts as a kind of “snowshoeing.” By creating thousands of sites, Reid told me, ABSystems spread the load the way a snowshoe distributes your weight. “If you register 10,000 a week, the moment one goes bad, you just switch to another one,” Reid said. Spamhaus keeps a list of the worst spammers so that email providers can easily block them. After years of collecting data on RX Limited and its affiliates, Spamhaus noted that, at times, more than a quarter of the domains on the block list were generated by ABSystems. By 2012, a private organization that tracks online pharmacies called LegitScript estimated that ABSystems accounted for more than half of the rogue online pharmacies in the world.

As I listened to Jody and Sol explain how the DEA agents had peeled away the layers of RX Limited, it felt eerily similar to the process I would undertake a decade later in my reporting. Companies and websites were registered under a myriad of monikers, real and fake. My files are filled with dozens upon dozens of names and address, in Florida, Panama, the UK, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, and the Philippines, a database of criminals, rubes, and fictional aliases like Ario Galvydis and Gherghy Jiku.

As Brill began cataloging these names, one kept popping up again and again in important places: Paul Calder Le Roux. “Before Le Roux started putting accounts in other people’s names, he had his name involved a little bit,” Jody told me. A few of those I had encountered myself: Le Roux’s name attached to a Florida company cited in a 2008 FCC complaint, for instance, about a marketing call made to someone in the National Do Not Call Registry. Others were buried deeper, on FedEx records, credit card processing accounts, emails, and banking records that only a search warrant could unearth.

The agents didn’t even have a photograph of Le Roux. But the scope of the operation they now attributed to him was so vast that the Department of Justice placed Le Roux on the U.S. Attorney’s Consolidated Priority Organization Target (CPOT) list, an internal index of the DOJ’s top targets. CPOT designees, like Sinaloa cartel head Joaquín “El Chápo” Guzman and Taliban-affiliated heroin trafficker Bashir Noorzai, are considered “the most prolific international drug trafficking and money laundering organizations” by the DEA. Le Roux was the first person ever included on the list based on prescription-drug operations alone.

It took Brill and her colleagues years to develop the evidence establishing Le Roux as the kingpin behind the organization, with some of the connections so faint that he almost avoided detection altogether. “If he had gone the anonymous route a little bit earlier in the enterprise, we would have no chance of figuring out who was really behind this,” Jody said. “It would have just taken too long to get past that first layer.

“He got greedy,” Jody continued. “He probably could have closed up shop in 2006 or 2007, been a rich millionaire, and never have been investigated at all.”

The financial hub for Le Roux’s operations, investigators quickly discovered, was Hong Kong. At any one time, tens of millions of dollars from American customers were coursing through bank accounts of Le Roux–controlled shell companies there, with names like GX Port, Vischnu Ltd., East Asia Escrow, Ajax Technology, and Quantcom Commerce. These were connected to central accounts held by Le Roux, which wired money around the world to cover various operational expenses, including call centers in Israel and pharmacists like Schultz.

Each new person I spoke to had an ever larger estimate of the size of this empire. According to the U.S. government, RX Limited earned between $250 million and $400 million a year at its height. Those figures might be hard to trust, given the government’s incentive to maximize the value of their busts, both for public relations and to enhance the sentences of anyone convicted. But then some of Le Roux’s employees are convinced that he was a billionaire.

Whatever the ultimate amounts, Le Roux needed more than everyday banking. He needed a way to clean the money coming in, to obscure its illegal origins, and transform it into something untraceable.

Gil, the former Le Roux employee whom I met in Manila, explained to me how the system worked. After expenses were paid, much of the remaining money was funneled into hard assets: primarily gold bars, but also diamonds and small round granules of silver called grain, all of which was stored in Hong Kong before being shipped to the Philippines, where it was delivered to Le Roux. And a literal fortune in gold and jewels called for a high level of security.


In 2009, Doron Zvi Shulman was 23 and just out of the Israeli military when a friend from his former unit told him about a “security job” in Hong Kong. Fit and handsome, with a penchant for wraparound sunglasses, Shulman was born in Zimbabwe and spent his formative years in Australia. A dual Australian-Israeli citizen, he came to Israel for military service, where he was selected to join an elite special-forces unit called the Duvdevan.

A subject of some controversy and intrigue, the Duvdevan—which means “cherry” in Hebrew—specializes in undercover work amid Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza. Most famously, its agents have dressed as Arab women to infiltrate Palestinian militant groups in order to capture or kill high-value targets. It was natural for former members of the unit to drift into international security work, and Shulman became the latest to pass through a Duvdevan pipeline into Le Roux’s organization.

Shulman’s initial job in Hong Kong was to guard properties and valuables owned by Le Roux, for which he was paid $5,000 a month. Before long, however, he became one of Le Roux’s point men on the ground, conducting transactions for at least ten of the shell companies, which at one time held some $220 million between them. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, three of these companies acquired $30 million in one-kilogram gold bars from Metalor Technologies, a Swiss gold dealer housed in a sparkling glass tower.

Doron Zvi Shulman, a veteran of the Israeli army, worked for Le Roux in Hong Kong. (Facebook)

Gil told me that Le Roux owned a collection of houses and condos in Hong Kong used almost exclusively to manage his hoard of precious metals. Each house contained a safe where the gold, silver, and diamonds were stored until they could be relocated to the Philippines. Sometimes the entire safe would be transported by boat. Other times bags of gold bars were flown by private plane back to Manila. “It was a constant influx of money turned into gold,” Gil told me—money primarily coming from prescription-pill customers in the United States.

In January 2012, Shulman hired a 27-year-old named Omer Gavish to guard a house in Hong Kong. It was located on Nga Yiu Tau street in Yuen Long, a rapidly developing district in the northwest part of the city. Gavish had served in the Duvdevan along with Shulman and, after he left the service in 2009, traveled the world doing contract security work, including two years in the Philippines. He was living in Israel when an acquaintance connected him with Shulman; the gig paid $3,000 a month, plus travel, to protect the Yuen Long house.

After four months in Hong Kong, Gavish had to renew his tourist visa, so Shulman bought him a ticket back to Manila. When he returned on May 1, Gavish found that his post had been taken by another Israeli. Gavish called Shulman to straighten out the issue. But Shulman seemed to have disappeared.

In Minneapolis, the DEA investigators were homing in on Le Roux. In 2009, they’d traveled to Manila in the hopes of convincing the Philippine government to monitor him on wiretaps. The local authorities never followed up. When the arms ship MV Captain Ufuk was intercepted off the coast, Sol told me, the DEA “knew that Le Roux was behind that shipment right away. Because La Plata Trading and Red White and Blue Arms”—companies tied to the shipment—“connected back to ABSystems, and the websites were registered to him.”

Le Roux’s addition to the CPOT list in 2009 meant additional resources to track the flow of money and more opportunities to get to the man himself. The investigators had obtained warrants to monitor email addresses being used to contact doctors and pharmacists in the operation’s network. It was through those emails that the agents discovered RX Limited’s customer-service centers in Israel, which traced back to the email addresses and 

But it wasn’t enough to make a case. “The real problem is, if all you are doing is getting email accounts, people are going to say ‘someone is using my identity.’ It’s hard to have someone say ‘I saw so and so send that email,’” Jody said. What they needed were informants or another way to understand how Le Roux worked in real time. “You’ve either got to have someone on the inside—and at that point we didn’t have anybody—or you need a wiretap.”

CPOT resources provided for extensive phone taps, which allowed agents to see how Le Roux’s pharmacy business began to suffer as federal laws caught up with the pill-mill phenomenon. After FedEx shut down RX Limited’s main account, Le Roux sent two employees to the U.S. to find alternate ways of shipping the medications. According to Jody, Babubhai Patel, the owner of the 26 Detroit-area pharmacies, was allegedly heard on DEA wiretaps “telling Le Roux’s folks that they need to pay more money because things are getting too risky.”

In 2011, the DEA declared Soma, one of RX Limited’s three bestselling drugs, a controlled substance, which meant that pharmacies needed special DEA approval to dispense it. Le Roux lost a significant chunk of business, forcing him to close down his call-center operations in Israel.

Still, the man at the top proved elusive. “We hoped that we might get Le Roux on those wires,” Jody said. “But it became clear that he was not going to talk on those phones.”

Even as the DEA was desperately searching for a direct line to Le Roux, former members of Le Roux’s organization were desperately searching for a direct line to the DEA. Le Roux had become more ruthless, commanding employee loyalty through fear and intimidation. But sometimes his threats backfired.

One morning in Manila, I sat with Gil, the former high-level Le Roux associate, at a Starbucks as he described how the paranoia of working with Le Roux nearly drove him out of his mind. Back in 2011, Le Roux practically admitted to Gil that he’d killed Dave Smith, his right-hand man: “I didn’t need Dave. You’re lucky I need you,” Le Roux told him. Soon after, Le Roux sent Gil to the U.S. to register some new companies. When Le Roux asked him to return not long afterward, Gil began to wonder if he would be the next to die. 

Listening in on wiretaps between Gil and other members of the organization, Sol told me, “you could hear it in his voice that he was troubled.” The agents prepared a plan to recruit Gil as an informant against Le Roux. But before they could make contact with him, he’d flown back to the Philippines. 

On arrival, Gil was so overcome with stress that he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. After a few weeks, he decided to turn Le Roux in. Even sitting across from me several years later, he still had the nervous energy of a man who spent years looking over his shoulder. Gil told me that he contacted a friend in military intelligence, who put him in touch with the FBI. “They were excited” at first, he told me. “And then it dried up.”

The same happened with Robert McGowan’s initial approach to American authorities. McGowan, a Zimbabwean who had worked with Le Roux on a timber project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, found his name attached to ABSystems and other firms. McGowan had emailed an attorney friend in the U.S. in 2010 to ask whether there was any possibility of getting his name removed from Le Roux’s companies, and he tried again in 2011. He’d discovered that his identity was attached to Southern Ace, the company cited in a UN report as a backer of a Le Roux–funded militia in Somalia. The attorney told him he’d reach out to an acquaintance in law enforcement but couldn’t promise anything.

Several months later, McGowan got a call from the FBI. When I spoke to him recently, McGowan told me that soon afterward he also heard from the DEA. Both Jody and Sol confirmed that McGowan had approached the agency and that he’d been employed as an asset in the investigation.

I asked McGowan what motivated him to help the DEA. “Because of them stealing my identity and using my name and my details without my permission,” he said earnestly. “That to me was just not on.”

Lulu, the source who’d told me about Le Roux’s early life, had also been angling to get the attention of law enforcement. He first tried to turn in Le Roux, his relative and former employer, in late 2009. He’d emailed an address through the website of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and said he had information about an Australian and Zimbabwean citizen, based out of the Philippines, who was dealing in weapons and drugs.

When I first asked Lulu, in an online chat in mid-March, why he’d decided to go to the authorities, he said sardonically that he “was feeling a bit insecure” that Le Roux “was trying to blot me.” Le Roux believed that Lulu had some connection to $1 million that he’d lost in Africa, but when Bruce Jones, the captain of the MV Ufuk, “got blotted” in the Philippines, Lulu’s fear spiked. There was another reason: Le Roux had used the name of a person related to Lulu to register a company connected to one of his arms deals. Lulu wouldn’t specify except to say that the relative was put into a potentially deadly situation through the revelation that they owned a company behind a weapons shipment.

“That’s why I ratted him out,” he said.

Lulu was living in Africa at the time. An AFP agent agreed to meet him in Johannesburg, and Lulu brought along a friend who had also worked with Le Roux and was willing to talk. After hearing their stories, the agent put them in touch with an American CIA attaché there. “We had a few meetings with them, but they didn’t seem interested,” Lulu told me. A year passed.

“Then something changed,” he said, and “they got real excited”

By early 2012, the DEA agents had Le Roux in their sights; they just needed more direct evidence linking him to the prescription-pill business. But as they reached out to agency after agency around the world, hoping to build international cooperation to capture Le Roux, they realized that they had underestimated how thoroughly he had secured his freedom. Both Sol and Jody told me that the U.S. suspected that someone in one of the Philippine police agencies—the Philippine National Police or the National Bureau of Investigation—tipped Le Roux off to the U.S. investigation.

They were unable to provide further specifics, but their accounts were consistent with what I’d heard before. Other sources told me that Le Roux doled out money to police and other officials and spent over a million dollars to avoid prosecution in the MV Ufuk affair. (Gil, for instance, told me that he believed Le Roux had bought off contacts at the highest level of the government and even paid to have certain friendly officials installed in their posts. As I was writing this story, another source told me that Le Roux had hired a former NBI official to be in charge of distributing bribes to law enforcement.) By late 2011, Le Roux was preparing to make the jump to Rio de Janeiro.

I first came across Le Roux’s Brazil escape in a newspaper article by Marco Antonio Martins in Folha de S.Paulo. In December 2013, Martins noticed something the rest of the world had missed: Le Roux had made two short visits to Rio in 2011 and 2012, before settling there permanently in May 2012. He was joined by several Israeli associates, who brought along, according to Martins, over $1 million in American currency.

In an online database, I found the 2011 registration for Rainbow Force, a company Le Roux set up in Brazil, purporting to have ten employees and provide “custom programming services.” It was based in a bland 20-story office building down the street from the harbor. Martins also reported that Le Roux had bought a pair of luxury apartments. He lived in one with a Filipino girlfriend, Cindy Cayanan, and their newborn son, along with a nanny. (On immigration forms, Le Roux—who was still married to Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, a Dutch citizen—claimed Cayanan as his wife.) The other apartment was for a Brazilian mistress, whose name I also found on the Rainbow Force registration, with whom Le Roux had reportedly fathered a child soon after his arrival.

In Rio de Janeiro, Le Roux and Cayanan settled in a luxury apartment along with their infant son and nanny. (Brazilian Law Enforcement) 

At first the DEA saw Le Roux’s move to Brazil as a setback. Along with a constitutional provision barring the extradition of its citizens, Brazil provides similar protections to parents of Brazilian children. “He went to Brazil because he thought it was the easiest place to avoid extradition,” Jody told me.

I asked if they believed that Le Roux had a child in Brazil for the sole purpose of creating a safe haven to avoid extradition. “That’s my understanding,” Jody said.

It turned out, however, that Brazil also gave the DEA an unexpected advantage. Brazilian law allows authorities to obtain an “informal” wiretap for several weeks without a warrant, and then use the evidence acquired from that tap to file for fully sanctioned surveillance. Now they just needed someone who could get Le Roux on the line and verify his voice. That’s when they turned to Robert McGowan.

Several months after McGowan initially made contact with law enforcement, a DEA agent asked him to call Paul Le Roux. Less than a year before, McGowan had traveled to Manila to confront Le Roux about pulling the plug on a timber operation. Now, with the DEA on the line, he called him up to urge him to restart the company. “They didn’t coach me or anything,” McGowan told me. “I just dialed the number and talked to him.”

Local police followed Le Roux as he met with his associates in Rio. (Brazilian Law Enforcement)

At the same time, the DEA enlisted local police to follow Le Roux, who could be found in his usual shorts and flip-flops at a nearby mall, meeting with deputies, including Manila-based Israeli Shai Reuven, who served as one of Le Roux’s right-hand men.

The Rio wiretaps were a revelation, a treasure trove of leads and evidence, a chance to finally hear from the man himself. Here was Le Roux, living with his girlfriend and another mistress abroad, urging Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui to stop buying real estate. As Jody recalled it, Le Roux warned her that property was too easy to seize if he was arrested. When his wife seemed to discount that possibility, he reminded her that “I’m not running a fucking McDonald’s.”


The DEA caught much more than just domestic disputes on the wiretaps in Rio. In April 2012, according to Sol, they heard either Le Roux or an associate discussing a large shipment of fertilizer passing through Hong Kong. The agents tipped off the Hong Kong police, who raided a warehouse in Tsuen Wan, north of the city. There they discovered 24 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, divided into 960 bags labeled as sodium chloride. It was enough to create an explosive ten times bigger than the one used in the Oklahoma City bombing. According to local news reports, police discovered Doron Zvi Shulman’s name on the warehouse lease and the shipping documents for the fertilizer.

On April 30, 2012, the cops converged on the office of Ajax Technology, in an office tower on a busy downtown street lined with banks, and took Shulman into custody. While Gavish tried and failed to reach Shulman, the police were searching Shulman’s apartment in a complex called Laguna City. There they found bank records for other Le Roux front companies, the deeds to the Yuen Long property and another stash house, and five kilos of silver grain.

Hong Kong police search one of Le Roux’s stash houses (Oriental Daily News)

Shulman’s lawyer would later argue that, because of Shulman’s military background, “he was trained to follow orders without any questions,” and when told “to look after some valuables in Hong Kong, he did it diligently without any question. Being simple and without experience in finance, he landed himself into deep trouble.”

The trouble for Le Roux, however, was just beginning. Shulman’s arrest set off one of the more cartoonish episodes in the years-long pursuit of Le Roux by the authorities. On May 1, the day after Shulman’s arrest, two Israelis in Hong Kong received a call from their South African boss, “John”—likely Le Roux himself. John told them it was time to liquidate some assets. The only problem was, those assets were locked in safes inside the two stash houses, and neither one of them had the keys.

First they tried getting into Shulman’s apartment, but when they arrived, they found it sealed off by the authorities. So John told them to use brute force: They went to a hardware store, bought some metal-cutting tools, and got to work. At the Yuen Long house, they found that the safe was embedded in a wall. Using a crowbar, they pried it free and then cut a hole in the back, discovering—to their surprise, they would later claim in court—181 gold bars, which they placed into duffel bags.

When they arrived at the second house, they were met by another Israeli dispatched from Manila. After a locksmith dismantled the gate, which he himself had recently installed, the Israelis set to cutting open the safe behind it.

By May 2, the now three and possibly four Israelis—the Hong Kong court documents are somewhat confusing on this point—took 342 gold bars, worth around $20 million, and climbed into a taxi. On John’s instructions, they drove to Chungking Mansions, a sprawling 17-story gray edifice widely regarded as the cheapest immigrant lodging in Hong Kong, and checked into a youth hostel.

Over the next two days, together with a Filipino named Gordo who had also arrived in the intervening time, they alternated taking the gold back to Metalor, where it had originally been purchased. They unloaded 85, then 32, then 64 of the bars, depositing over $9.4 million in an account of Cycom, a Le Roux–controlled company. 

On April 30, Hong Kong police arrested Shulman at the offices of Ajax Technology. (Oriental Daily News)

Meanwhile, a baffling collection of Le Roux operatives converged on Hong Kong, either in a frenzied attempt to keep Le Roux’s massive store from slipping away or, as Le Roux would later claim, to get some for themselves. Besides Gordo, there was someone traveling under the name John Miller, who collected corporate documents for Cycom and then disappeared. There was an Eastern European who was arrested by authorities on May 2 but immediately jumped bail and flew to Rio. There was also a mysterious South African referred to only in passing in the court documents, and another Filipino arrested at the airport holding bank-transfer records for $8 million. He, too, jumped bail.

As the Israelis desperately tried to hide the remaining gold, scouting a new house in Yuen Long, the police were on their trail. Investigators found the CCTV footage from the two houses, which showed men loading heavy bags into a cab. The police tracked the men around the city, and at 2:45 in the morning on May 7, the remaining Israelis were arrested in a raid at Chungking Mansions. In their possession were five bags containing 161 gold bars, plus four five-carat diamonds and receipts from the previous days’ sales.

In May 2014, a judge in Hong Kong found Doron Zvi Shulman guilty of money laundering and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Three days later, Le Roux’s wife, Lilian Cheung Yuen Pui, was arrested trying to enter Hong Kong on her Dutch passport, carrying a bank slip for a $300,000 transfer to Cycom. I couldn’t locate a record of her being prosecuted, and no one I spoke with seemed to know why. But Le Roux’s fertilizer “Sol told me. “I think he got duped.”

While the Hong Kong police were working to seize as many of Le Roux’s assets as they could find, the DEA agents in Brazil were listening to him try to refill his coffers. From Rio, Le Roux was making plans to send 200 kilos of cocaine on a ship called the JeReVe to a buyer in the South Pacific. Based on conversations the agents overheard, they believed that the vessel would leave from Ecuador. Le Roux and his associates bought the boat and transported it from Panama to Ecuador, then arranged to bribe Ecuadoran coast guard officials.

The JeReVe, according to an advertisement I found preserved online, had been listed for sale a year before in Panama for $105,000. Its previous owners had sailed the 44-foot luxury sailboat around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean before giving it up. The boat’s name was French for “I dream.” “JeReVe is ready to sail and to give a lot of pleasure at his next owner,” read the listing. In August, the boat arrived at its Ecuadorean berth, prepared to carry Le Roux’s lucrative shipment.

Le Roux couldn’t have known that this new venture had made him a narco-terrorist in the eyes of the U.S. government. Until he had fled for Brazil, his case had been the province of the DOJ’s Consumer Protection Division, the federal prosecutors that handle pill-mill cases, and the Minnesota investigation team anchored by Kim Brill. But the revelation that Le Roux was into large-scale narcotics dealing, together with his arms-trafficking adventures in the Philippines and Somalia, suddenly made Le Roux a target for the DEA’s narco-terrorism investigators. These agents were part of the agency’s Special Operations Division, working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York, in Manhattan. In recent years, the DEA has vastly expanded its operations around the globe, based on the DOJ’s calculus that drug traffickers represent a security threat to U.S. interests.

In Ecuador, DEA agents distracted the crew of the JeReVe and placed a tracking device on the craft before it departed, with only a captain and first mate on board. After a brief stop off the coast of Peru, it began its journey across the ocean. The DEA planned to follow it to its destination and then bust the buyers as well. But as the JeReVe neared the Cook Islands in late September, the tracking device failed, and it disappeared from the agency’s radar.


To capture Le Roux, the DEA needed to get him out of Brazil, preferably to a country that wouldn’t require an extradition proceeding before letting agents bring him to the U.S. They came up with a scheme to lure him abroad: the meth-chemicals-for-cocaine deal with the Colombian cartel, introduced to Le Roux by a trusted associate. The Colombian cartel was a fake, and the associate was coached to lay the deal out carefully for Le Roux. It had to happen in Liberia, he was told, and he had to make sure Le Roux understood that the meth would be sold in New York—a ploy to ensure that the charges would stick back in the U.S. Five

Le Roux, meanwhile, had every reason to turn the invitation down. He was, as far as he knew, safe in Brazil, protected from extradition. (Later, he would demonstrate his fine-grained knowledge of Brazilian law, noting, “As far as I’m aware, Brazil lacks a conspiracy law, so I do not believe any crimes were committed in Brazil.”) The JeReVe was en route to its destination. The pharmacy business was on the rocks, certainly—particularly without the Hong Kong accounts—but there was still money in the Philippines, and his network remained in place.

But Le Roux’s appetite exceeded his caution, tipping into megalomania as he evolved from an online gray-market entrepreneur to an old-school crime boss, expanding into weapons, cocaine, and meth and ordering murders without a second thought. Among employees there had been rumors that he was importing drone parts into the Philippines to make his own drug-delivery vehicles, and the DEA overheard him discussing the use of remote-controlled submersibles to transport meth chemicals from Hong Kong to the Philippines. The Liberia deal catered to his unquenched ambitions to remain a major player. He bought a ticket to Monrovia and arrived on September 25.

It was a variation on a trap the DEA had set before, for other narco-terrorism suspects, all over the globe, and Le Roux walked off the plane into its delicately poised jaws. The next day, he was swept up by Liberian police. His first response, according to court testimony by James Stouch, a DEA agent who participated in the operation, was to offer a bribe to the Liberian police. It didn’t work; the Liberians handed him over to the DEA agents, who explained that he would be taken to the United States. “I apologize in advance, but I do not want to get on your plane,” he told them, and then made himself as heavy as possible. Getting him into a van, Stouch later said in court, was like “trying to move somebody that’s just kind of described as dead weight.”

Halfway to the airport, however, Le Roux switched tactics, said Stouch. “He just essentially said he was no longer going to resist and that he would cooperate with our commands.” According to the DEA, Le Roux waived his Miranda rights somewhere over the Atlantic and agreed to tell them everything he knew. This wasn’t a total surprise: Jody told me that on the wiretaps Le Roux talked like a man who knew that “at some point he felt like he was not going to get away forever.”

Still, the whole bust seemed as surreal as much of Le Roux’s operation had been. Here was a man calculating enough to father a child in Brazil in order to avoid extradition, who then took a chance on traveling to Liberia for a meth deal. “It really was a stupid mistake,” Jody said.

Through 2011, Lulu had continued talking to U.S. authorities. Their interest had perked up, he suspected, when he’d mentioned that Le Roux had servers in Brazil. The DEA sent a team to meet him in Africa. Eight agents came the first time, from a variety of agencies, and then some months later two DEA investigators came to ask more questions. Among the groups were Brill, Ocken, and Stouch, and Lulu related to them the same tale that he told me after contacting me last month.

Then, after months of silence, in October 2012, those same agents suddenly arranged for Lulu to fly to Minneapolis. There he told his story to a federal grand jury that had been convened to indict Paul Le Roux on charges of wire fraud, money laundering, and conspiracy to illegally import prescription drugs. Afterward, they took him to a Vikings-Titans game. “Thoroughly enjoyed it,” Lulu told me. “That running back was excellent.”

After several days at sea, the JeReVe disappeared from the DEA’s radar. (Australian National Police)

Six weeks after Le Roux was arrested, two recreational divers found the JeReVe washed up on a shallow reef off the shore of Luatafito Island, one of a cluster of tiny uninhabited atolls in the northern part of Tonga. The yacht was lying on its side, saltwater lapping against its brick red hull and broken tiller.

One of the divers climbed onto the clean white deck of the ship and made a grisly discovery. At the helm was the badly decomposed body of a man. The divers fled the ship, climbed into their own boat, motored to the nearby port of Neiafu, and called the local police.

Bad weather rolled in, and the authorities couldn’t return to the JeReVe for two days. When they did, a group of shorts-wearing officers examined it. Inside the hull, they found a pile of clear garbage bags filled with dozens of neatly wrapped brown plastic bricks. All told those bricks contained 204 kilos of cocaine, worth over $120 million on the street in Australia, where authorities suspected the drugs had been headed. It was, according to the Tongan government, the largest drug haul ever confiscated in the South Pacific.

Aboard the JeReVe, local authorities found neatly tied plastic bags filled with brown bricks of cocaine. (Australian National Police)

After the boat had disappeared from radar, authorities from the U.S., Australia, Tonga, and the Cook Islands had coordinated a massive search. Despite the fact that the yacht had been found by accident, they declared its seizure a victory for the Pacific Transnational Crime Network, an international cooperative aiming to stop the flow of drugs from South America to Asia, often in small boats like the JeReVe. “By using our networks and working together, we were able to prevent over 200 kilograms of cocaine from entering our community,” an Australian customs official said.

Tongan authorities identified the dead man on board the JeReVe by passport as the second mate, a 35-year-old Slovakian named Milan Rindzak. They also found other passports on the ship, along with a few hundred American dollars, some Dominican pesos, and a handful of Polish zloty. At first the local police asserted that there was no foul play in Rindzak’s death but, following an autopsy, amended that conclusion to “cause of death inconclusive”; he had been dead for days, if not weeks. The captain of the boat was never found.

For months afterward, the Tongan police tried to locate Rindzak’s next of kin in Slovakia but were unable to track down anyone who would claim his body. Finally, in January 2013, they buried Rindzak’s remains in a local cemetery overlooking the placid blue waters of a harbor called the Port of Refuge.

When the DEA plane landed in New York, Le Roux was assigned a court-appointed attorney and placed into secret custody in New York City. The day after his arrival, he signed an agreement stating his intention to plead guilty to the methamphetamine charges, which granted him immunity against other crimes that he might admit to. Then he promptly admitted to, among other offences, arranging or participating in seven murders.

But the DEA agents did not hold a press conference announcing that they had caught a singular criminal, a man who’d transformed himself from an internet pill mogul into a drug and arms dealer and murderer. They did not make a tour of morning shows as they debriefed Le Roux about his past and the strange connections he’d made along the way.

Instead, the DEA said nothing. The agency had other plans, which required that no one know that Le Roux was off the street. Unlike a typical organized-crime case, in which authorities might flip lower-level participants to inform against their bosses, the U.S. was preparing to invert the pyramid. They’d caught the man at the top of the food chain, and now they were about to work their way down, cloaked by a blanket of secrecy.

Le Roux had quickly transitioned from kingpin to informant. “It was obvious that my situation was a bad situation,” was all he would say when, later, he was asked in court why he’d flipped so easily.

The agents wanted Le Roux to continue communicating with his associates and employees as if nothing had happened. “We were trying to maintain the image that he was still free and moving about, specifically in Brazil,” agent Stouch later recounted.

There was only one problem: All of Le Roux’s email passed through his own server,, which he had designed to periodically destroy his messages. The agents needed to mirror that email address so that they could preserve all of Le Roux’s communications as evidence. Fortunately, there was one person in the room technically proficient enough to execute such a maneuver. And he seemed happy to be back in the game, even if on the other side.

Later, at a court hearing in Minneapolis, Le Roux was asked whether he had consented to the DEA monitoring his email after his arrest.

“Yes,” he said, leaning into the microphone, with a slight air of condescension. “I set it up.”

The Mastermind Episode 4: Absolute Fear


The Mastermind Episode 4: Absolute Fear

How the programmer became an insatiable tyrant.

By Evan Ratliff


On August 20, 2009, Mar Supnad, a 31-year-old reporter for the Manila Bulletin, got a tip from a police source: A large shipment of illegal weapons had been seized from a ship off the coast of Mariveles, a port city in Bataan province, three hours west of Manila. When Supnad arrived at the site, his contacts told him that the day before, a local fisherman had alerted customs officials to a suspicious cargo ship anchored near the coast. When three port officers motored out to the vessel, they noted that it lacked a national flag, although the word “Panama” was painted on its hull.

They boarded the ship, called the MV Captain Ufuk, and questioned the captain, a South African named Lawrence John Burne, who explained that the rest of the 13-member crew were from the Republic of Georgia and spoke no English. One officer noticed 20 large unmarked wooden crates on deck.

When Burne was unable to produce a cargo manifest for the boxes, the officer called his superiors. Soon, a team of customs agents arrived on board with reinforcements from the Philippine National Police and the coast guard. In three of the crates, they found 54 assault rifles. A fourth contained 45 bayonets and 120 empty gun magazines.

Supnad’s sources told him that “at least 16 boxes had already been unloaded and fetched by other, smaller crafts,” he recalled recently, as we sat together in the headquarters of the governor of Bataan. In interviews with authorities, Supnad learned that this cache of weapons had filtered out into the country. It was an election year in the Philippines, and officials feared that the influx of guns might portend a rash of political terrorism. Some believed that the weapons were destined for rebel groups operating in the southern part of the country, including militants from Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group linked at the time to Al Qaeda. The news of the illegal shipment, Supnad told me, “exploded like a bomb.”

On a December morning last year, I drove from Manila to Bataan to see Supnad after I read his reporting on the gun shipment. The events that followed the interception of the Ufuk struck me as a turning point in Paul Le Roux’s history. They mirrored his shift from a kind of gray-market entrepreneur, making hundreds of millions of dollars in online pharmacies, to an insatiable tyrant atop a global crime cartel of his own invention.

The MV Ufuk affair was, as well, the nexus of the kind of indiscriminate violence that would become Le Roux’s hallmark, and the beginning of a chain of events that would culminate in his downfall. Mar Supnad himself would become a player in that story—and nearly pay a very steep price.



On the morning of my visit, Supnad was at his side job, as the media adviser to the provincial governor. He has closely cropped black hair and a pair of wire-rim glasses, and wore a bright orange and black checked shirt with a pen clipped between the buttons. Despite a perpetual furrow between his eyebrows, he exuded a preternatural cheer, even when describing the deadly consequences of his story. “As you know, our job is to expose, no matter whose toes we step on,” he told me. “As journalists we get threats, intimidation. But it’s what we must do.”

On a black leather couch beneath a portrait of the governor, Supnad recalled what his police contacts told him in 2009: that during interrogation, Burne revealed that he had very recently taken over for another captain, a British sailor named Bruce Jones. By the time the port officers had pulled alongside the Ufuk, Jones was long gone, as were the 16 crates full of weapons. The guns were bound for a Manila gun dealer called Red White and Blue Arms Incorporated.

The evening before the ship was intercepted, a small yacht called the Mou Man Tai had motored out from the nearby Subic Bay Yacht Club, taken the weapons and Jones onboard, and sped off into the night. The Mou Man Tai was found a few days later anchored off a remote fishing village. But neither Jones nor the guns were there, and Jones became the subject of a nationwide manhunt.

Five days after the seizure of the MV Ufuk, Supnad got a call from a family friend named Joe Frank Zuñiga. A prominent local lawyer, Zuñiga said that he was representing Bruce Jones, who was currently hiding in a forested area of the mountains above the coast. He wanted to meet with Supnad for an interview, to “tell to the world that he has nothing to do with the illegal shipment of guns.”

The next day, Supnad drove into the mountains above the coastal city of Subic Bay. It was dark when he arrived at a small house, where he met Jones and Zuñiga. The three drove to a nearby restaurant. A photo from the meeting shows them sitting at a table with a red and white checked tablecloth, Jones in a light yellow T-shirt. The dirty-blond mane of hair he wore in the widely circulated photos of him had been cut short. Supnad recalled that Jones seemed distressed to the point of tears. “I am not a terrorist,” he said.

Jones told Supnad his life story: He was 49 years old and had come to the Philippines in 1993 from Bristol, England. He was married to a 25-year-old local named Maricel and lived just outside Subic, the home of a former U.S. naval base. When Jones’s predicament was reported back in Bristol, a hometown friend described him as a “lovable rogue,” and his former employer at the Bristol Ferry recalled that Jones had “an eye for adventure.” There was “clearly something about his character,” he added, “that meant he was prone to get caught up in a bit of trouble.”

Jones told Supnad that trouble arrived in August 2009, when a fellow Brit named Dave Smith approached him about sailing a ship from Turkey to Indonesia to the Philippines. A Manila-based company called La Plata Trading would pay for the journey and supply the crew. Smith arranged for Jones to fly to Turkey and purchase the MV Ufuk, a rusty but seaworthy 2,400-ton vessel. Along with a Georgian crew, Jones sailed down the coast of Africa, stopping in Ghana and Congo before rounding the Cape of Good Hope and heading for Indonesia.

At a dock in Jakarta, he picked up the cargo, a shipment of weapons from a company called PT Pindad, and set out for the Philippines. Jones told Supnad that he believed the shipment was legitimate: He had been supplied with an end-user certificate—a document in the arms trade establishing the legitimate destination for a weapons purchase— indicating that the guns were meant for a buyer in Mali. Around 50 Indonesian police and soldiers supervised the pickup. (Later, I found a classified cable from the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, released by WikiLeaks, revealing that the gun sale had been approved by the Indonesian Ministry of Defense.)

As Jones piloted the ship toward Bataan, however, he got a call from the owner of La Plata Trading, a man he’d never met, telling him to delay bringing the ship into port. The next day, he was told to steer the ship closer to Subic Bay and wait to dock. When the Ufuk had been in a holding pattern for several days, Jones began to worry. His wife was pregnant, due any day; Jones told the owner he wanted to get off.

That night, the Mou Man Tai, with Smith on board, brought a rubber speedboat alongside the Ufuk. Jones was replaced by Burne, the South African captain, and the 16 crates of guns were removed. The smaller boat took Jones back to Subic.

When the news broke that the ship had been seized, the press labeled Jones the brains behind the shipment instead of his employers, a large-scale organized-crime group that extended far beyond La Plata Trading. Terrified, Jones fled into the mountains.

“He told me that this syndicate was well financed,” Supnad said, its alleged owner “holding three kinds of passports.” Jones was willing to spill what he knew about the people who had hired him, he said, if the government would provide him with protection.

Supnad published the revelations on August 26, 2009, under the headline “British Captain of Arms Ship Seeks Protection.” Two weeks later, Jones surrendered to the Bureau of Customs, accompanied by Zuñiga. According to a report from the Philippine Office of the Special Envoy on Transnational Crime, “Jones told investigators that he was hired by La Plata Trading Inc. through the help of Smith last August, to buy the vessel worth $800,000 in Turkey and the Indonesia-made assault rifles and pistols for $86,000.”

In February 2010, the Philippine government charged 37 people—Burne and the entire Georgian crew, plus Jones—with illegally bringing the guns into the Philippines. But the indictment also covered the owners of La Plata Trading and Red White and Blue Arms, including “David Smith a.k.a. Dave Smith,” “Michael T. Archangel,” and one “Johan a.k.a. John Paul Leraux.”

Zuñiga requested that the Philippine Department of Justice place Jones under witness protection and made another public plea for his safety. “Mr. Jones is afraid for his life,” Zuñiga told a reporter. “He is a victim and not a suspect.”


In his brief dealings with Le Roux’s empire, Jones had glimpsed enough to be afraid. During the period between 2007 and 2011, Le Roux’s businesses had begun to metastasize, expanding simultaneously into logging, precious metals mining, gold smuggling, land deals, cocaine shipping, and arms dealing. These activities were spread across dozens of shell companies registered all over the world.

As I mapped Le Roux’s sprawling network, different parts began to intersect. Israelis associated with the call centers in Tel Aviv were deployed to run international logging operations. They recruited their friends, who were dispatched to Hong Kong to guard houses full of gold or to Brazil to set up front companies. Names that I’d seen on documents of organizations related to Le Roux’s pharmacy operation showed up in businesses connected to arms trafficking or money laundering.

The person who tied many of these threads together for me was Lulu, the relative of Le Roux’s who contacted me in early March. In a series of online chats, Lulu told me that by the early 2000s, he and Le Roux had fallen out of touch. Then, in 2007, Le Roux approached him about a job. Over the course of a single year, Lulu came in contact with several of Le Roux’s operations and became familiar with many of the players—Joseph Hunter among them—whose names would later surface in American court documents.

In March of this year, a former employee of Le Roux’s also forwarded me 80 pages of online chat logs with Le Roux, who called himself Johan. In them, Le Roux discusses operations as varied as moving gold out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, purchasing a plane, and seeking suppliers of rocket-propelled grenades:

[6/21/2008 6:09:03 PM] johan says: RPG-7 two units needed with 20 rounds, 10 grenades, plastic explosives, 4 MP5’s with 2 15 clips ammo each, it is just a sample order to check if i can supply, i need it delivered in mozambique, i will take it from there to asia myself

None of my sources knew how Le Roux got involved in the weapons market, but his organizations were staffed by ex-soldiers and mercenaries. Among his top echelon, Le Roux was closest to a man named Dave Smith. A British native, Smith had done security work in Iraq and then for a risk-management company in the Philippines. He allegedly carried an American passport, leaving some associates confused as to his national origins. Le Roux had hired Smith sometime before 2008 and elevated him to a kind of all-purpose deputy and consigliere, trusted to coordinate gold shipments around Africa or arrange for the dispatch of an inconvenient person. It was Smith who, in 2009, stood over Moran Oz, floating in the waters off Subic Bay, and threatened to kill him.

One of Le Roux’s former employees whom I met in Manila—to ensure his safety, I refer to him as Gil—recalled that Le Roux had once told Smith, “I live vicariously through you.” Le Roux mostly sat behind a computer; Smith was a man of action.

People like Smith gave Le Roux access to the network of international security contractors that spanned the globe after the contractor-aided wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I was forwarded an email from a friend that was working in Iraq,” a South African who joined one of Le Roux’s companies told me. “They were looking for snipers and close-protection personnel. I sent my CV and was flown to Manila a week later.”

Such recruits could be involved in anything from protecting smuggled shipments to arranging the transportation of prostitutes used for bribing government officials in Papua New Guinea:

[6/8/2008 5:17:59 PM] johan says: major business in PNG need to come up with a white chick

[6/8/2008 5:18:07 PM] johan says: promised it to a government minister there

[6/8/2008 5:18:11 PM] johan says: vital to my business

In the chat logs, there were countless such discussions, a documented trail of acts that the perpetrators were simultaneously trying to ensure could never be documented. Le Roux was paranoid about security, but not quite paranoid enough. “It is ok to talk normally as Skype is encrypted,” he says at one point, then changes his mind and asks his correspondent to download an encrypted messenger program or use an email service that Le Roux himself had built.

The messages also capture Le Roux’s encyclopedic knowledge of various industries. At times I was numbed by the sheer banality of his sprawling criminal network as I paged through thousands of words about customs issues in the Congo, copper prices on the London Metal Exchange, and arrangements to buy certain brands of logging winches.

At other moments, however, they reveal Le Roux’s chilling attitude toward violence and how increasingly capricious he could be in meting it out. In one conversation, Le Roux casually inquires whether a man who owes him money has any children.

Lulu told me that while he was working for Le Roux, he developed a growing suspicion that he too was at risk. Two Le Roux hires in Africa lost a considerable sum of money in a scam, Lulu said, and Le Roux blamed him. At one point, Le Roux ordered him to Manila and then failed to show up at a dinner meeting. That night, Lulu heard that another associate had been arrested on what he believed to be a bogus drug charge. Lulu immediately went to the airport and caught the next flight to Hong Kong.

He picked a hotel and checked in, assuming he was safe. Then the landline rang. “It was Paul, asking me why I’ve run away,” he told me. “I put the phone down, checked out, and rushed to the airport.” The first flight was to Bangkok. “Same story,” he told me. This time it was a Le Roux associate on the line.

With no idea how he was being tracked, Lulu hid at a friend’s apartment in another country while he tried to figure out Le Roux’s intentions. In one online chat, Lulu told Le Roux, “I thought you were hunting me.” Le Roux responded with a smiley face. “Buddy if I was hunting you,” he said, “you would be dead.” 

Lulu told me that he never saw Le Roux again and “spent the next five years in absolute fear.”


Mar Supnad’s account of his meeting with Jones was a coup, cited in the national and international press. But soon Supnad began receiving threats. The first one was “friendly,” he told me: A journalist colleague invited him to meet at a Starbucks in Subic Bay. He offered him 500,000 pesos (around $10,000) to stop writing about the Ufuk. “The emissary,” Supnad would later write in an article recounting the bribe attempt, “told this writer that top PNP [Philippine National Police] and DoJ [Philippine Department of Justice] officials will handle the gun smuggling case provided there will be no more exposé on the newspapers.”

Not long after came a second offer: Someone from the “syndicate” behind the gun shipment approached Supnad’s editor and suggested that Supnad take a three-month trip to Hong Kong or Macau, fully paid for, rather than write any more stories about the Ufuk. Again Supnad said no, and his editor agreed. “Just continue writing what you know about the smuggling,” he said the editor told him.

Supnad started varying his route to work and avoiding the Subic area entirely. He changed the plates on his car regularly and entered and exited his residence cautiously. Sometimes he wore a wig. He heard rumors that the syndicate had paid off a police official, to the tune of 30 million pesos, to make the Ufuk case—and the charges against one “Johan,” the man behind it—go away.

Bruce Jones, by contrast, gradually let his vigilance lapse, confident, according to Supnad, “that the syndicate was no longer running after him.” By September 2010, it had been a year since Jones had told investigators what he knew, and he decided to venture out. On the morning of September 21, Jones drove his wife and son to the Marquee Mall, in Angeles City, another former home to a U.S. military base outside Manila.

They were meeting a friend, an American named John Nash, for lunch, along with Nash’s wife. Jones and Nash knew each other from the expat circles in Subic Bay, where Nash ran a security company that, among other things, supplied bouncers for local bars and security for a Sea World–type water park called Ocean Adventure. The area is favored by former soldiers, drifters, and expat men pursuing cheap tropical lodging and an active sex trade. A local reporter told me that if people “had some problems with some other expats, they go to him,” referring to Nash. He spoke five Filipino dialects fluently, and rumors swirled—possibly created by Nash’s own dubious bragging, the reporter said—that he’d been in the CIA. Few people believed him, the reporter said, but at the very least “he was well connected.”

According to the police report of the events of September 21, at 2 p.m. the group departed from lunch, Jones and his wife in their gray Mitsubishi Lancer and Nash following a few minutes behind. They planned to meet up at the nearby Mountain Clark Firing Range.

Bruce Jones’s car was ambushed on Don Jose street. Jones died before authorities arrived on the scene. 

As the car turned down Don Jose street, 100 feet from the entrance to the gun range, a red Honda XRM motorcycle pulled up behind it, with two men in helmets riding in tandem. As the vehicles approached a speed bump, the motorcycle zoomed in front, blocking the car’s path. The man on the back leaped off, approached the car, and fired into the driver-side window. The gunman climbed back on the motorcycle, and the men sped off in the direction from which they’d come.

Jones was hit multiple times, and one bullet passed through his body and struck Maricel in the back. He fell over on top of her, vomiting blood. Maricel froze, terrified, and then opened the door and climbed out.

She frantically called Nash, who raced down Don Jose to where the Lancer was parked, pulled Maricel and her son into his car, and drove to the hospital. The baby was unhurt, and doctors quickly stabilized Maricel. Jones died slumped across the passenger’s seat, his wife’s shoes still on the floor next to him.

Five years later, I stood on that spot with Roberto Manuel, the officer who conducted the initial investigation into the crime. We could hear the popping sound of guns from the firing range just down the street—ideal cover for a midday assassination. According to the police report, investigators found four .45-caliber shell casings and a deformed bullet near the car. Manuel showed me some crime-scene photos he’d taken that day and demonstrated with hand motions exactly how far from Jones’s window the gunman must have fired: close enough to ensure accuracy, he said, but not so close as to shatter the window.

There was little other evidence, however. Tandem motorcycle riders are a common style of assassination in the Philippines, not least because helmeted killers can speed off without being identified. That same day police questioned Nash, who gave his full name as John William Nash, Jr., a 49-year-old American working as a “consultant” in the Subic Bay area. Nash said that Jones had told him he’d received repeated death threats and had noticed strangers near his home, whom Jones believed were connected to his “employers” on the Ufuk.

Nash told police that he and his wife had lingered for a minute after lunch, putting some packages in the trunk of their car. He recalled receiving the call from Maricel and arriving to find “Bruce already bloodied and lying at the front seat of his car.”

Transcript of John Nash’s interview with the police after Bruce Jones’s murder.
Transcript of John Nash’s interview with the police after Bruce Jones’s murder.


By the time of Bruce Jones’s murder, Le Roux needed personnel who could handle global operations both legitimate and illegal. To do so, he ported over Israelis from his call centers, relatives like Lulu, and a collection of South African and Zimbabwean associates.

Such was the case with a mild-mannered 28-year-old Zimbabwean engineer named Robert McGowan. In 2007, McGowan heard about a rich South African who paid well and needed help importing equipment for a major logging project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But before the project could get under way, Le Roux told McGowan, they needed to form several corporate entities, in Hong Kong and in the U.S., which they would use to acquire the heavy machinery for clearing roads and transporting trees. “I had a list of questions: What are the companies going to be used for and things like that,” McGowan told me when I reached him by phone earlier this year. “Everything I did I tried to keep straight and aboveboard.”

McGowan flew to Hong Kong and opened a company called Diko Limited. Then he scoured the world for logging machinery at the best price. When he found earth-moving equipment in Texas, Le Roux paid him to travel to the U.S. and create a pair of companies to handle the export: Armada Commerce and Quality Fountain. “PLR had somehow already organized everything before I got there, and all I had to do was open up the bank accounts,” McGowan would later write in an email to a lawyer, recounting his dealings with Le Roux.

For many people affiliated with Le Roux, it was difficult to grasp the scope of what he was engaged in. He kept his various businesses separated from one another; someone like McGowan could have no idea about the weapons aboard the Ufuk.

“It was really compartmentalized,” Gil, my source in Manila, said. Among other projects, Gil was hired to help with the transport of gold from Hong Kong to the Philippines. “I didn’t really pay attention” to whether the work was fully legal, he said, although he declined an assignment from Le Roux involving methamphetamine trafficking. For the most part, “when he told me to do something, I did it,” Gil said. But “morally I knew it was wrong. I lost the plot.”

At other times, Le Roux seemed to mix his businesses out of operational convenience. In 2009, he paid McGowan—nominally someone involved only in the timber business—to fly to Israel and register a call center called Customer Service Worldwide, or CSWW, where he met Alon Berkman and Moran Oz. Seven years later, I found his British passport in the company’s registration documents.

Many of Le Roux’s operations seemed utterly quixotic. “I remember he phoned me at one point in a panic, wanting a list of all the farmland in Zimbabwe available,” Lulu told me. That request, it turned out, was part of a scheme to lease land from the Zimbabwean government and then bring back white farmers who had lost the land when it shed colonialism and minority white rule in the early 1980s. To make the deal happen, Le Roux had asked an Israeli named Levi Kugel to find an international lobbyist and former Israeli-intelligence agent named Ari Ben-Menashe, who had close ties to Zimbabwe’s leader, Robert Mugabe. Le Roux subsequently paid Ben-Menashe $12 million to lobby Mugabe. “We want recognition that injustice was done in the past and that the land-reform program corrects that,” Le Roux told the Washington newspaper The Hill, in what appears to be the only media statement he’s ever given.

“Then the whole thing died and he never spoke about it again,” Lulu said.

Sometime in late 2008 or 2009, Le Roux similarly abandoned the logging operation and cut off communications with McGowan. McGowan told me that he traveled to Manila to get some answers. Other people who knew Le Roux, he said, told him, “Don’t go, it’s dangerous. I said, ‘Why should I not go? I’ve got nothing to hide.’” When he arrived in the Philippines, McGowan told me, “it was like a wild goose chase: Go here, go there. I don’t know if he had someone following me.”

McGowan eventually confronted Le Roux, who told him that he wanted to keep working together. “That was the last time I saw him,” McGowan told me.

I’d first come across McGowan’s name in the filings of the companies that he admitted to registering: CSWW in Israel, and Armada and Quality Fountain in the U.S. But there were other companies with his name on them that he said he didn’t know existed. “I’ve just Googled that right now,” he told me when I informed him that an online company called ABSystems was registered in his name. “I’ve never heard of it until you sent me an email this evening.” Another company McGowan says he knew nothing about was called Southern Ace, and it would end up playing a bizarre role in, of all places, Somalia, perpetually on the short list of the world’s most failed states.

In 2010, the United Nations Security Council sent an investigative team into Somalia to assess the country’s instability and its epidemic of sea piracy. The team, which was led by a Frenchman named Aurélien Llorca, reported several dire findings, among them a troubling rise in military involvement by private security companies, including a previously unknown outfit called Southern Ace.

In the report issued by the group, they noted that Southern Ace had begun operating in the state of Galmudug, in central Somalia, in 2009, “presenting itself as ‘traders and importers of fisheries products in Hong-Kong.’” In actuality, Southern Ace began recruiting a local militia and arming it with AK-47’s, grenade launchers, and truck-mounted heavy machine guns. They also imported uniforms, flak jackets, and radios from the Philippines. Based on an interview with a Somali military source, Llorca determined that the company was actually owned by one “Paul Calder Le Roux also known as Bernard John Bowlins.”

Llorca reported that Le Roux had obtained permission to land an Antonov plane at the local airport in Galmudug and that he “planned to import by air a large quantity of heavy weapons, including 75 kilograms of C4 explosives, 200 land mines, one million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition, and five AT-3 ‘Sagger’ anti-tank missiles.” 

Employees of Southern Ace in Somalia: In 2009, the company recruited and armed a local militia. (Courtesy of the United Nations)

The idea of a foreign outfit launching its own militia in this part of the country “was completely surreal,” Llorca told me last fall. “It was a completely underreported area with few UN operations, because the country was very dangerous.” Southern Ace, he said, “just came without informing anyone and formed a business out of the blue.”

It got weirder. The militia Le Roux had backed was entangled in an ongoing war between local pastoral nomads and another clan. In November 2010, a battle involving Le Roux’s troops raged for several days, “causing allegedly heavy casualties from both sides.” Why would Le Roux, sitting in Manila, have a vested interest in a power struggle between two clans in Somalia? It seemed absurd.

I asked several sources about Le Roux’s precise goals in Somalia, but they seemed opaque even to people who were employed by Southern Ace. Gil told me that he’d heard that Le Roux was planning to invade an island nation in the Indian Ocean. (I later learned the country was the Seychelles.) “He wanted to put an army together and bring back in the former president,” Gil said. “Or something like that. So he would have a place to operate from.”

Like so many Le Roux stories, it seemed at first too cinematic to be true, and I dismissed it as the kind of tale that gets circulated among mercenary types over too many drinks. As I pored through the transcripts of the wiretaps of Le Roux’s enforcer, Joseph Hunter, I came across this: “We have guys in Somalia buying weapons that are making an army,” Hunter told an associate. “They was making an army in Somalia because we were gonna invade an island, just… you can’t make it up. Not even in a movie. This is real stuff.”

Llorca was nonetheless skeptical of the island-invasion plan. “It’s a bit far,” he said of the Maldives, which lie almost 2,000 miles to the east of Somalia. “What we know is that he tried to import a lot of weapons. But from my understanding at that time it was clearly for his Somali operations, not for something else.” This was at the height of Somali sea piracy, and Llorca’s team suspected that Le Roux intended to set up “a kind of private security company on the shore of Somalia, in one of the most pirate-infested areas, to establish a base and then get money from shipping companies to disrupt the attacks from pirates.”

According to Llorca, when that project failed, Le Roux’s local contact in Somalia then set up a company called GalSom Limited, which operated on the Southern Ace compound in Galmudug and began experimenting with “the cultivation of hallucinogenic plants, including opium, coca, and cannabis.” GalSom imported greenhouses, herbicides, and farming equipment from around the world. A former Southern Ace employee, who didn’t work directly in Somalia but conducted similar projects elsewhere, told me that Le Roux had said he wanted to start a cocaine plantation in Somalia.

Llorca said that Le Roux abandoned the project as quickly as he’d started it, however, once he discovered that he’d been duped into paying his militiamen $300 per month, twice the market rate. After spending several million dollars in Galmudug, in mid-2010 he abandoned whatever plans he had in the region. Locals overran the compound and took possession of the weapons, and one of Southern Ace’s employees was shot and killed in the ensuing chaos. “He blew up with his main guy over 150 bucks per person,” Lulu told me. “That is so Paul.”

When Llorca’s team’s findings were released by the UN in July 2011, the international press responded with a flurry of articles recounting the astonishing facts and pondering the whereabouts and global reach of this “shadowy South African businessman,” as one article referred to him. When Robert McGowan read the news, he panicked. With “that Southern Ace thing,” McGowan told me, “all of a sudden under my name I owned this large private army.”


When I found the UN report online last fall, I combed through it looking for anything that might draw connections between areas of research that had so far eluded me. Eventually, I came upon this: “Local start up costs for the period March to June 2009 amounted to at least US$500,000,” Llorca reported, “wired from Paul Calder Le Roux’s company in Philippines, La Plata Trading.” La Plata, the same company that funded weapons purchases in Somalia, had also sent Dave Smith to hire Bruce Jones as captain of the MV Ufuk.

I decided to look up Bruce Jones’s lawyer, Joe Frank Zuñiga, and ask him if there was anything else Jones might have said about his dealings with Le Roux. The first Google result stunned me enough that I wrote a note in my files that says, simply: “Holy shit.”

It was a headline from a Philippine news site dated July 5, 2012: “Where is lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga?” According to the article, “On June 20, prominent Bataan lawyer Joe Frank Zuñiga left his home in Balanga City to meet with a client in nearby Subic, but never returned and has been missing since.”

Two months later, I was in the Manila office of Peter Lugay, chief of the NBI’s special task force. The Zuñiga case had landed on Lugay’s desk in 2012, after Zuñiga’s wife requested that the bureau take on the search for her missing husband. The details were relatively sparse: At 11:45 on the morning of June 20, Zuñiga was last seen in the Subic Bay area after a meeting with two men. One of them was Timothy Desmond, the CEO of the Ocean Adventure water park. (Desmond, an American animal behaviorist, once trained the killer whale in the movie Free Willy.) The other attendee was the head of security for Ocean Adventure, John Nash.

Nash and Zuñiga were “quite close,” Lugay told me. “They called each other ‘compadre.’” Nash was also the last person to see both Bruce Jones and Joe Frank Zuñiga alive. Around the time of the meeting, a witness reported seeing a man near Zuñiga’s car being dragged into a white van.

Lugay’s colleague, agent Arnold Diaz, told me that since taking on the Zuñiga case they had been trying to “identify all the other events leading to Nash. You have looked at Bruce Jones, right?”

I said that I had.

“And Mike Lontoc?” It didn’t ring a bell. “Mike Lontoc was the owner of Red White and Blue,” he said. That name I did know: Red White and Blue Arms was the alleged destination for the weapons on the MV Ufuk in August 2009.

Back at my hotel I looked up Lontoc. I found that he was the general manager of Red White and Blue and also a member of the Philippine national target-shooting team. RWB’s website had been registered to a company owned by Paul Le Roux.

According to news reports, one afternoon in September 2011, a year after the murder of Bruce Jones, Lontoc was driving from a shooting competition in a Manila suburb. Typically, he employed a driver, but on this day his driver had failed to show up. As Lontoc slowed down at a busy intersection, he received a call on his cell phone. Simultaneously, four men surrounded Lontoc’s pickup truck, firing into it with an Uzi and several handguns. He drove another 100 feet before slamming into a concrete wall and died on the scene.

An online missing-persons report for Joe Frank Zuñiga, who was Bruce Jones’s lawyer before he disappeared.

Lontoc’s widow told a local newspaper that her husband had gotten mixed up with a gun-running syndicate and had tried to get out. A year later, a man named Jimmy Pianiar confessed to killing Lontoc, saying that he and three others had attempted to murder him on at least five separate occasions. The hit had been paid for by a man who police would identify only as “the mastermind.”

“Have you encountered the name Herbert Tan Tiu?” Agent Diaz asked me. “I think some of the arms shipments were recovered from his apartment.” Indeed, I later found out that in early October 2010, the Philippine National Police raided Tan Tiu’s house and discovered a cache of Indonesian-made assault rifles that they reportedly suspected had come from the MV Ufuk.

“What happened to Tan Tiu?” I asked, dreading the answer. 

“He is also missing,” Lugay said.

In the two years since the Ufuk had been taken into possession by Philippine authorities, two people with information about the arms shipment had been gunned down in broad daylight and two others had disappeared. Of Zuñiga, Lugay said, “Unfortunately, I think we can safely assume that he is dead.”

As I talked to police and other sources, it seemed obvious to me that the disappearances of four witnesses connected to the Ufuk had to have been ordered by Le Roux. But no one could offer definitive proof. Then one afternoon, with the help of a local resident, I snuck into Dasmariñas, the closely guarded gated community where Le Roux had lived in Manila. We went by Le Roux’s old house, a relatively modest stucco home with a solid brown gate. Security cameras still hung from the roof, but the high walls looked water stained, and paint was chipping around the barred windows. A neighborhood security guard told me that he didn’t remember much about Le Roux beyond a strange incident involving a man who’d been arrested on the Dasmariñas grounds while trying to take a motorcycle.

I later found an account of the story in the Philippine Star that clarified some details. A Filipino named Ronald Baricuatro* had been caught trying to steal a motorcycle from the security guards’ compound. Baricuatro was arrested, and when police searched his backpack they found, according to the article, “questionable documents,” along with a wig, a camera, and various false ID cards. Baricuatro also reportedly matched the sketch of a man seen conducting surveillance on Michael Lontoc’s pickup truck hours before he was ambushed.

Mar Supnad, the newspaper reporter who’d been investigating the story of the Ufuk, told me that a police source had contacted him after Baricuatro’s arrest. They’d found a printout of a hit list in Baricuatro’s pocket, the source said. “And number one in his hit list is Mar Supnad.” He paused to make sure I understood. “That is me.”

Upon hearing this news, Supnad paid a visit to Baricuatro in jail. He claimed that he was a high-ranking police official who could help Baricuatro out of his predicament. According to Supnad, Baricuatro told him he was hired not to kill Supnad, but to conduct surveillance on him so that someone else could murder him. The man who’d hired him, Baricuatro said, was Dave Smith.

Meanwhile, the investigation and trials of those involved with the Ufuk largely fizzled. The Georgian crew members were deported back to their home country. By 2014, a court filing from the Philippine government revealed that the remaining cases, including one against “Johan” a.k.a. “Paul Lereaux” and his top deputies had been “archived.” Only one participant, Lawrence John Burne, the South African ship captain, was tried and convicted in absentia, after jumping bail. He has never been found.

The one thing everyone I spoke to seemed to agree on was that Le Roux operated with a staggering level of impunity. He had so many PNP and government officials in his pocket, and he had intimidated so many others, that he could make any case go away. “I don’t know how deep this goes,” Lugay told me. “We tried to talk to the prosecutor, to set up a meeting about the case, and you know what the prosecutor said? ‘Tell your boss I’m not talking to him, because people disappear in this case.’”

Gil, my source in Manila, told me something similar, but with a twist. “There was a lot of money spread around by Mr. Le Roux,” he said. To avoid any repercussions for illegally shipping that many arms into the Philippines, plus the subsequent murders and disappearances of any possible witnesses, Gil said, “he would have the PNP and the NBI involved.”

It was suddenly very hard to know who to trust.

*In further reporting I conducted for The Mastermind book, I discovered that Baricuatro traveled under the nickname “Noyt,” and was Le Roux’s top surveillance man in the Philippines, compiling dossiers on hit targets.

Robert McGowan was trying to get his life together after his first run-in with Paul Le Roux—he was left holding the bag with suppliers of logging equipment around the world from the canceled venture in the Congo—when he discovered that Le Roux’s operations in Somalia were listed under his name.

“I’ve never met him, but he’s the name on a lot of companies,” Gil told me when I asked about McGowan. “It is a real person, he lives in Africa somewhere. At one point he asked to be taken off of everything.” McGowan was frantic after learning that a UN report had named Southern Ace, registered in the UK in his name, in connection with illegal arms trafficking and drug manufacturing. He called Alon Berkman, who ran Le Roux’s operations in Israel. According to one source I spoke with, Berkman relayed to Le Roux that McGowan was trying to reach him, and Le Roux said to ignore him.

McGowan then tried another tack, contacting an attorney in the U.S. who was married to an old friend of his wife. McGowan asked if he could take legal action against Le Roux, to somehow get his name removed from any companies he’d registered on Le Roux’s behalf and any for which his identity had been used without his knowledge.

“I need to try and close up everything I have linking me with this guy, including the companies in the USA, Israel & Hong Kong,” he wrote to the attorney. McGowan had evidence that Le Roux had broken into his email account using his mother’s maiden name—which Le Roux had once asked him for. “I do not have the resources available to go to each of these countries to shut everything down or to hire lawyers,” McGowan wrote.

“These people are very dangerous,” he continued. “If we take this up with law enforcement in the USA, what sort of protection can we get? They do need to be stopped and justice done, but I do not want to put my family at risk.”

The lawyer replied that “in the simplest terms you have been the victim of identity theft.” The wrinkle, he said, “is that the person who stole your identity is an international gunrunner and drug smuggler.” The lawyer offered to put him in touch with American law enforcement, but even they would be unable to guarantee his safety in Africa.


On a late Friday afternoon in 2014, John Nash, the Ocean Adventure security guard and friend of two dead men, was headed down a narrow beachside road in Barretto, a town just north of Subic. Suddenly, an SUV appeared in front of him, blocking his path. Before he could reverse, another closed him in from behind. A half-dozen agents from the National Bureau of Investigation leaped out, weapons in hand, and ordered Nash out of his vehicle. Within moments, they’d hustled him into one of the unmarked SUVs and were on the highway for the two-hour drive back to Manila.

Peter Lugay and his colleagues told me the arrest was a shock maneuver. Suspecting that Nash had sources in the local police, they had kept the operation secret—so successfully, in fact, that the next morning the Barretto police spokesperson announced that Nash had been kidnapped by armed men. The police were combing through surveillance footage, he said, “for the possible identification of suspects.”

The reason for Nash’s arrest was perhaps even stranger than the circumstances of it. When the NBI had begun pursuing Nash as a person of interest in the Zuñiga case, they ran his American passport with the U.S. embassy in Manila. The reply was startling: John Nash, Lugay told me, “was using an expired passport that belonged to a deceased person.” The Embassy canceled Nash’s passport, and the NBI made the arrest.

By the time I sat down with Lugay, Nash had been in NBI limbo for over 18 months. There was not enough information to charge him with anything other than immigration violations, but since Nash refused to give another name, there was nowhere for him to be deported to. They had no idea who he was or where he was from. The NBI’s efforts to get any nation to claim him had failed. Besides the U.S., Lugay said, “we tried the British, Australians, South Africans. We were in a quandary.” Nor did anyone seem to have known Nash by any other name. What’s more, Timothy Desmond, the Free Willy trainer who had hired Nash to run security, was now an international fugitive. After being accused of defrauding an investor behind Ocean Adventure, Desmond had disappeared.

In photos that Lugay showed me, the man known as John Nash is in his fifties, with a shaved white head and considerable bulk. The NBI agents said he’d lost some weight while in custody. Lugay declined my request to speak with him but asked whether I might be able to help them figure out who he really is. Specifically, he wondered if I might have any clues as to the meaning of his tattoo, a cartoon bulldog smoking a cigar.

For now, Nash remains in NBI custody, a man without a name or country. No one has ever been arrested in the murder of Bruce Jones, or the disappearance of Joe Frank Zuñiga.

A few days after meeting with Lugay and Diaz, I sat with Gil outside a Starbucks in Manila. He told me that he had asked Le Roux about Jones’s assassination. “I said, ‘I don’t understand why you had that captain killed.’”

“He was going to testify,” Le Roux said.

“His wife and child were in the car,” Gil said.

“I didn’t have them killed.”

In truth, no one seemed safe from Le Roux’s malice, including those who were close to him, like Dave Smith. In the years after the Ufuk incident, there was talk that Smith had started skimming off the drugs and gold that he was transporting for Le Roux. “I think [Smith] started taking drugs, and that’s probably why he started being loose and spending the stuff,” Gil told me. “He was pissed off because he wasn’t really making much money, and he was doing so much, traveling here and there, as the second in command.” There was a rumor that he’d bought a Lamborghini.

At some point, Le Roux got wind of it. “My understanding is Smith was picked up outside a bar, drunk, and thrown into a van,” Gil said. I have no way to verify**if what he said next is true, but perhaps the truth of what Gil heard is immaterial. “My understanding was that he was placed in a shallow grave and given a telephone.” Paul Le Roux was on the other end. “‘You see what happens?’ he says. And then they shot him and buried him.”

Not long after, Gil said, Le Roux met him at the Hard Rock Café in Manila. “I guess you know what’s going on,” he said Le Roux told him. “I didn’t need Dave. You’re lucky I need you.”

In the transcripts of the DEA’s wiretap recordings of Joseph Hunter, I found the story of Smith’s demise, told in brief. “Dave got killed for stealing money,” Hunter told an associate. “And then I took his job.”

**For The Mastermind book, I was able to verify the full story, which diverged slightly from Gil’s telling: Smith was lured to a piece of oceanfront property and killed by a Le Roux-hired hitman, with Le Roux also present. 

Read the next installment in “The Mastermind” series.