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The (Literally) Unbelievable Story of the Original Fake News Network

Once upon a time in Guatemala, the CIA hired a cocky American actor and two radio DJs to launch a revolution and oust a president. Their playbook is being used against the U.S. right now.

The (Literally) Unbelievable Story of the Original Fake News Network

Guatemala City looked like a ghost town.

The capital’s 450,000 residents hid in panicked self-quarantine, waiting for the first wave to arrive. World War I–style military planes periodically flew overhead, firing warning shots and dropping leaflets telling people to either flee or stay indoors.

A civil war was moving toward them.

All week, Guatemalan radio had been blasting the news of gruesome battles around the country. The newspapers were going crazy. Two Americans in a tourist plane had been shot down by Guatemala’s Communist army. Refugees were fleeing to Mexico while 400 injured Communist troops were retreating to the capital for medical treatment.

Now, on Saturday morning — June 26, 1954 — radio news broadcasts reported that two columns of anti-Communist patriots calling themselves the “Liberation Army” were 60 kilometers from the capital. And marching fast.

All vehicles were now military targets, the radio warned, so citizens should stay out of their cars. Trains had been stopped due to the intense air battle raging in the northeast. And a sabotage unit of the Liberation Army had just received orders to blow up a bridge in “Sector H-21.”

Soldiers from the Communist government’s own military were now defecting in droves, newscasters reported. Five hundred and thirty-eight civilians had joined the Liberation Army just yesterday.

In response, the government had suspended the constitution. The president had ordered all anti-Communists found on the streets to be rounded up.

Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, Guatemala’s second democratically elected President. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The whole world was watching this catastrophe unfold, the radiomen reported.

At 11 p.m., the broadcasters read aloud a message issued by the Guatemalan chief of police:

To all Department Governors in the Republic. Capture immediately all mayors and other anti-Communist city officials currently affiliated with parties of the revolution. … Keep them in prison, and at the first shot fired when you are attacked, shoot them immediately.

All weekend long, the radio newscasters implored government soldiers to stand down. Remaining at one’s post would only result in needless bloodshed, the newscasters warned. The only way to end the carnage was to abandon the president, who “preferred suicide to surrender.”

Guatemala’s 41-year-old president, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, was not known for his sense of humor. But if there was anything that had the chance of making him smile that day, it might have been this last claim. Anyone who knew Jacobo Árbenz knew he would never say something like that.

But he was not laughing, because what he knew was more infuriating than humorous.

There was, in fact, no real “Liberation Army.” Just a few dozen pissed-off exiles hiding out 6 miles in from the border of Honduras, staging strategic photos for the press, like a bunch of 1950s-era Instagram influencers holding donated rifles. The “invasion” was more smoke than bombs.

No refugees or injured soldiers had fled anywhere. The chief of police had not issued orders to round up anti-Communists. The two Americans in that “tourist” plane were actually the ones dropping leaflets, contract pilots. They hadn’t been shot down; they’d run out of gas and been captured by authorities in Mexico.

There was no civil war about to engulf the capital, and most ironic of all: Guatemala was not a Communist state. President Árbenz was a political independent, having run as a moderate — and certainly was not a Communist. And though the country did have a small Communist Party and four representatives in Guatemala’s 56-member congress, not one Communist held a cabinet position in Árbenz’s administration. The president considered himself friends with two Communist Party leaders, but he was also friends with right-wing leaders. His own chief of armed forces and handpicked presidential successor was a conservative. Árbenz was a cool-headed military man like his counterpart President Eisenhower. True, in his ideal world, Árbenz would have Guatemala look like the USA under FDR. But he was a pragmatist. In the United States today, his policies would have been closer to those of Bill Clinton than Bernie Sanders.

And that radio station everyone was reacting to? It wasn’t even in Guatemala. The disc jockeys aired their “reports” from a shack in Nicaragua. Many of their broadcasts had actually been prerecorded earlier in the year.

In Florida.

In an office belonging to the Central Intelligence Agency.

The radio station that had all of Guatemala in such a frenzy was part of a secret CIA “terror program based on Orson Welles,” declassified documents now show. It was overseen by an American actor and spy novelist whose salary was paid by U.S. tax dollars. The whole operation was, to use today’s parlance, “fake news.”

By the following evening, President Árbenz’s colonels were refusing to leave their barracks. The president’s ambassador brought him word that the U.S. would end the charade if Árbenz stepped down. The radio, meanwhile, told civilians that all they needed for the war to be over was to stop supporting Árbenz.

So they did. The Guatemalan people and military who had once overwhelmingly backed their elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, gave up their power. And now he had to.

President Árbenz walked across the street into the Mexican Embassy, and the U.S. walked their man into his office.

Árbenz was eventually strip-searched by U.S. agents and put on a plane, never to set foot in his home country again.

Under Árbenz and his predecessor, President Juan Arevalo, the newly democratic Guatemala had been rapidly becoming a bright spot of stability and middle-class prosperity in Latin America. But the fall of Árbenz and subsequent collapse of democracy ushered in a string of brutal dictators who slaughtered countless innocents. It reversed Guatemala’s promising economic rise and led to the takeover of organized crime and mass immigration to Mexico and the United States.

What if the U.S. had not intervened in Guatemala’s democratic process? When we posed this question to Martín Pellecer, founder of the investigative journalism outfit Nómada, in an interview in Guatemala City, he replied without hesitating: “We would have been Costa Rica.” In a series of reforms beginning a few years after Guatemala’s democratic revolution, Costa Rica abolished its army and redirected funds into a robust civil police force, infrastructure, health care and education — creating decades of peace, an enormous tourist draw and a booming economy for the region.

Instead, the overthrowing of Árbenz — which CIA Director Allen Dulles and his deputies in a secret telegram immediately called “a great victory” and “an inspiration and a challenge to all of us” — closed the book on Guatemala’s 10 years of democracy and kicked off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands of innocent people died.

Sylvia Brindis — one of the authors of this story — was born in Guatemala City during that war. Her family were campesinos (country folk) and coffee plantation workers from the eastern city of Zacapa. To this day her relatives regularly lament the fall of Árbenz. She grew up with a constant stream of “what ifs”: What if the people had known the Liberation Army was fake? What if Árbenz had come back and staged a revolution instead of staying in exile? What if the democratic reforms hadn’t been undermined and reversed?

The other author of this story, Shane Snow, has spent much of his journalistic career focused on human behavior and how media affects it. In 2014, he wrote a book chapter about Che Guevara’s use of pirate radio to help win the Cuban Revolution. When Sylvia learned about this, her immediate reaction was, “Oh yeah, like the CIA did in Guatemala.”

Shane was surprised to hear this. Most in Guatemala know that media manipulation brought down their most popular president and changed the course of their nation’s history. But until 2016, most Americans had barely ever even heard of “fake news.”

Our conversation about Che’s radio station led us to take a deep look at the Guatemalan radio story. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. government declassified a trove of secret documents about the overthrow. Unfortunately the CIA told us that they did not have any of the tapes that broadcast Radio Liberación. And the former CIA historian who wrote the agency’s “official” history on Árbenz told us that he’d never looked into the radio campaign because he thought it hadn’t been very important. This made us want to dig even more.

So we spent a year poring through unorganized troves of declassified CIA and State Department documents, exploring Guatemalan police archives, and photographing boxes of correspondence. We interviewed historians who’d written books about various aspects of the saga, and tracked how key parts of their official histories were based on government misinformation. And we hunted down crumbly old Central American newspapers, half-written manuscripts left behind by deceased government agents, and documents the government claimed to have lost.

And in that digging, we discovered something shocking.

Not only did Che Guevara get the idea for his Cuban guerilla radio station from the CIA’s operation in Guatemala — the 26-year-old Argentine was on the ground in Guatemala City witnessing the overthrow — but our investigation also revealed a story about fake news that even the best Árbenz historians had never had primary access to, much less explored:

In 1954, the CIA didn’t just use media manipulation to turn a country upside down and install the president that the U.S. wanted. The agency wrote a six-stage, step-by-step playbook for exactly how to do it.

And the most unsettling part is this: It’s the same playbook that the Kremlin used in 2016 and is using against the United States again right now.

Oh, and we also found The Tapes.



Actual audio of the maiden broadcast of Radio Liberación, May 1, 1954, created by the CIA. (Audio courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration)


The “revolution” had started two months earlier, on May 1, 1954, as Guatemalans amassed for their annual May Day parade, and a new radio station aired its maiden broadcast.

The broadcast began with trumpet blasts and an orchestra rendition of the Guatemalan national anthem. Then, the voice of an experienced DJ announced (in Spanish):

“This is Radio Liberación, operating from a secret location inside the Republic! … The soul of our people speaks through our mouth.”

Guatemalan First Lady María Cristina Vilanova Castro de Árbenz was known as the driving force behind her husband’s public career and political stances, often maneuvering behind the scenes on his behalf. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

The station declared that it was the news media arm of a coalition of exiles, university students, honorable military officers, and working Guatemalans who opposed their president. “We will announce the hour of your redemption,” the DJ declared, “[from] the presidency of the Communist traitor Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán!”

He and a co-host explained that the radio broadcast would be airing twice a day with news of the rebellion against Árbenz. Each installment would begin with popular music and jokes, and then proceed to serious segments exposing the Árbenz government and the evils of Communism, which they said he had succumbed to. Several times, the DJs encouraged fellow “patriots” to join them and their leader, an exiled colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas, in their resistance movement.

The broadcast ended with one of the many catchphrases that the station would soon repeat countless times: “The symbols of our fight: God, Fatherland and Liberty. And our aspirations: Truth, Justice and Work.”

President Árbenz and his advisers — the closest of which were his politically savvy wife, María Vilanova, and his loyal foreign affairs minister, Guillermo Toriello — were surely frustrated to hear this. Castillo Armas had already tried to foment one of several failed coups in Guatemala’s short democratic history. He’d been caught and jailed in 1949 after trying to violently overthrow Árbenz’s predecessor, but he had since escaped into exile. Árbenz’s intelligence apparatus had documents proving that the rebel group had only a handful of men and a shoestring budget. They knew Castillo Armas was hiding in Honduras — not inside Guatemala — and was operating with support from a U.S. corporation known as the United Fruit Company.

Foreign Affairs Minister Guillermo Toriello. (Image courtesy the authors)

What could this radio station be up to, the Guatemalan president and his advisers wondered. Halfway through his six-year term, Árbenz remained overwhelmingly popular with the Guatemalan people. As a colonel himself, he had the support of his military. He knew that Castillo Armas posed no real threat, had few supporters and supplies.

But what he didn’t know is that by the time Radio Liberación launched, replacing Árbenz with Castillo Armas had become the CIA’s number one priority. Nor did Árbenz know that President Eisenhower had authorized his overthrow so long ago that the agency was already on Stage 3 of its plan by the time the mysterious radio station had aired the Guatemalan national anthem for the first time.



The United States was not at war with Guatemala in 1954. But the Boston-based conglomerate known as the United Fruit Company was at war with President Árbenz.

United Fruit (also known as UFCO) had been cheating on its taxes for years, lying to the Guatemalan government about the value of its banana plantations and the hundreds of thousands of acres of unused land the company was sitting on. Now that Árbenz had passed an agrarian reform bill (similar to those that had in decades past allowed countries like Ireland, Colombia and Canada to break agricultural monopolies and create more competition), Guatemala was buying back untilled land for the value that companies like UFCO had reported on its tax bill. UFCO was being forced to sleep in the bed they’d made, and they were pissed.

If only someone could get rid of Árbenz.

The most powerful pair of brothers in the United States, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA Director Allen Dulles, were not legally allowed to do that sort of thing. But they wanted to. Both were UFCO shareholders and advocates, having worked for the firm for many years. But in a time of peace, well, doing anything more aggressive than writing angry letters would be illegal.

(L to R) Allen Dulles, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and his older brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Together they were highly influential figures in U.S. foreign interventionist policy. (AP Photo/Jacob Harris)

The U.S. was, however, at symbolic “war” with Communism. Eisenhower had won the U.S. presidency on a campaign promise to stop its spread. And the Dulles brothers were particularly eager to help him do that. They held a deep religious belief that Jesus Christ had called on them to use their influence to spread American business interests across the world, while simultaneously beating back the Soviets. For decades, the United States had thrown its weight around Latin America when it suited the U.S. financially — such as seizing Puerto Rico from Spain and secretly helping Panama secede from Colombia. And in 1953, the U.S. successfully overthrew the Shah of Iran after he tried to nationalize oil. The success of that operation confirmed for the Dulleses that Communist prevention and American business interests were indeed a winning combination.

So, even though the U.S. State Department knew that Jacobo Árbenz was not a Communist, the Dulles brothers decided it was God’s plan to get rid of him.

This is not, strictly speaking, a legal justification for overthrowing a democratically elected leader of a nation. So the Dulleses decided to do so without anyone knowing about it.

According to declassified documents, Allen Dulles had as far back as July 1952 proposed putting together a private “syndicate” to fund Árbenz’s ouster. But after over a year of plotting, he and his brother got the official green light from Eisenhower to use U.S. tax funds to make Árbenz go away. As the U.S. diplomat over Central American affairs later put it, “There is 100 percent determination here, from the top down, to get rid of this stinker.”

Excited, they put an org chart together, where, as Harvard history professor John Coatsworth wrote in 2005 in the new introduction to the book Bitter Fruit, a journalistic investigation of the overthrow that was published in 1982 and revealed a number of details before the U.S. declassified them, “every policymaking official involved in the decision to overthrow the Guatemalan government, except for President Eisenhower himself, had a family or business connection to UFCO.”

Frank Wisner, Deputy Director of Plans and founding member of the Central Intelligence Agency. (Photo courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency)

The covert operation would be officially run by the CIA, but the State Department would provide its Central American ambassadors as spies and operatives, and the U.S. Information Agency would also lend support. The United Fruit Company would not “officially” be involved, but it would provide transport, communications equipment and PR services.

And in an example of positive affirmation that would make Oprah proud — if she were a mobster — the scheme was dubbed, Operation Success. Allen Dulles told his lieutenants that the operation, also called PBSuccess (PB was CIA code for Guatemala), was the agency’s “number one priority.”

Allen Dulles’s number two man, Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner, spelled out the objectives in a memorandum on September 11, 1953:

The operational overview officially included a $2.7 million budget breakdown, and falsely described the Guatemalan government as “Moscow influenced” and “thoroughly controlled by a Communist dominated bureaucracy.” It called the Central American nation “primitive,” with a “touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex.”

Thus the official record that U.S. agents would rely on in conducting the anti-Árbenz campaign was prepopulated with biased and false information.

This was fitting, because, in addition to ceasing aid to Guatemala and pressuring its allies to abandon it, the central component of the plan revolved around fake news. As Allen Dulles would spell out to Eisenhower: “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength.”

The Dulleses tapped the United States’ top “psychological warfare” experts to help CIA planners develop a six-stage playbook for making an information-centric overthrow happen. A secret document dated November 12, 1953, spelled this playbook out, step-by-step.

What did this plan consist of?

Snippet of the detailed memo outlining the program for Operation PBSuccess. The CIA outlines their objectives, their statement of the problem, and the six-stage playbook of the operation.

“It is difficult to explain without the wall map and charts,” Deputy Director Wisner explained in a coordination meeting between CIA and State Department planners in the spring of 1954.

But, he said, it most certainly included, “ghost voicing, deception, mines, bazookas, and fire power.” Everything they needed for a fake war.

Before launching an information assault, build out a network of agents and scapegoats that will allow your own government to maintain “plausible deniability.

Stage 1 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

The first order of business for any covert information operation is to staff up in a way that keeps the mastermind at maximum arm’s length from any dirty work. So once the Dulles brothers decided they were going to use psychological warfare to overthrow President Árbenz, they needed to figure out who exactly would do what — and how to keep the words “United States of America” out of it.

This was relatively novel at the time — and also exciting. A brand-new agency called the Psychological Strategy Board was now part of the National Security Council, and the CIA under Dulles and Eisenhower was starting to flex muscles it hadn’t yet tried to use.

At the CIA’s inception in 1947, President Truman had envisioned its job as collecting information, so that presidents could make better decisions. But, as Truman lamented years later in a Washington Post op-ed, the agency became an operational arm of government. “I had never thought that when I set up the CIA it would be injected into peacetime cloak and dagger operations,” Truman wrote.

And yet, the year Truman left office, his successor, President Eisenhower, allowed the Dulles brothers to begin using the CIA to conduct paramilitary operations abroad while maintaining the nation’s PR-friendly image of law and order.

During a time of peace, any aggressive action against another nation had to look like it came from someone other than the United States government. The cardinal principle of the CIA, therefore, became “plausible deniability.” This was of primary importance when staffing up PBSuccess:

U.S. State Department officials discuss plausible deniability regarding Operation PBSuccess at a weekly meeting, according to an official memorandum.

The CIA planners agreed that the easiest way to overthrow Árbenz would be to convince the Guatemalan people to rise up against him. To do that, Operation PBSuccess would use what the CIA and the U.S. Psychological Strategy Board called “black propaganda” — which it described helpfully in an internal document titled “Principles to Ensure Coordination of Gray Activities” as content that is “partially or completely fabricated, but that which is fabricated is made to appear credible to the target audience.” (Propaganda during peacetime had been authorized by the U.S. Security Council as a function of the State Department, in order to keep it at arm’s length from President Eisenhower.)

And in the event that the campaign didn’t convince Guatemalans to rise up themselves, black propaganda would provide a pretext for CIA operatives to pretend to be those Guatemalan rebels. But — since the U.S. was not at war with Guatemala, and helping depose a democratically elected leader would be both illegal and look supremely shitty — this would mean staffing up with outsiders to abstract the CIA away from the dirty work.

In a modern media manipulation campaign, fake news expert Craig Silverman, a respected media editor for BuzzFeed News and author of Lies, Damn Lies, and Viral Content, calls this step “building out the network.” The social media equivalent of deploying businessmen and retired soldiers to mingle with and recruit Guatemalan locals as unwitting CIA minions is creating fake profiles on social networks.

“What you want to think about is, how do you blend in and create the appearance that you’re an authentic actor?” Silverman explained in a phone interview when we asked him to break down the hypothetical stages of a successful modern fake news campaign — say, to overthrow the president of a small country.

“You create your inauthentic network of accounts,” Silverman said, so that the propaganda messages appear to come from within the “target public’s” communities. This keeps them from getting suspicious. Even more authentic-looking, Silverman added, is to “buy some aged social media accounts” from real people who’ve been operating them for years.

In Guatemala, this took the form of buying a preexisting enemy of the Árbenz regime to serve as the head of the supposed “rebel” movement.

Thirty-six-year-old CIA field agent E. Howard Hunt — who would decades later go to prison for his role in masterminding the Watergate break-in — scouted several candidates, including former military leaders and a man who’d lost the election against Árbenz.

Eventually, the agency settled on the perfect candidate, a legendary colonel named Carlos Castillo Armas.

CIA field operative and spy novelist E. Howard Hunt, who would later be convicted of burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. (Photo from his autobiography “American Spy”)



In 1949, Carlos Castillo Armas sat in his jail cell in Guatemala City, his well-toned chest and arm muscles visibly rippling from constant push-ups and chin-ups. Or so the prison guards thought.  

Actually, for the entire month since his capture after attempting to take over a military barracks and overthrow Guatemalan President Juan José Arévalo, the mustachioed colonel had been hand-digging a secret tunnel underneath the prison.

It would be back-breaking work for a regular man, but not for a killing machine like Castillo Armas.

Finally, one night, after the prison guards had made their rounds, the colonel threw aside his mattress and wriggled his massive, muscular body through the tunnel and popped up outside the prison gates. By the time the sirens began shrieking, he’d sprinted so many kilometers that he barely heard them.

Actually, that’s not what happened at all. But it’s what CIA planners told their agents.

Castillo Armas was neither a beefy escape artist nor particularly intelligent. Rather, he was a scrawny, egotistical shit-talker. It appeared that he’d actually been bribed out of jail by friends and driven in a car to Honduras, where he’d been hiding ever since.

Col. Carlos Castillo Armas, with gun tucked into his belt, talking to his men during the Guatemalan Revolution. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The CIA settled on him among Hunt’s proposed options because they thought Castillo Armas would be easy to manipulate. They paid him a $30,000 retainer, gave him the CIA code name “RUFUS” and a pseudonym, “John H. Calligeris,” and promised him the Guatemalan presidency if he played the part.

Thus the CIA bought the first authentic-looking part of its network.

Hunt and his co-agents also hired local Guatemalans as informants, graffiti artists and rumor-spreaders — though without disclosing that it was the U.S. government footing the bill. Eventually, the CIA even turned Guatemala’s small Communist Party’s number three activist, Carlos Manuel Pellecer, into a paid agent as well. Operating under the code name “LINLUCK,” Pellecer pretended to be Árbenz’s ally while filing secret reports on him.

In the research for his 2019 book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev discovered a Russian manual called Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide, which is described as a user’s guide for “state security services and civil servants.” The manual suggests that the deployment of information weapons “acts like an invisible radiation. … The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its defense mechanisms.”

The invisible radiation analogy is apt — and exactly what Stage 1 of the Guatemala playbook was about. It’s why, Pomerantsev explains in his book, Russia deploys social media surrogates to create and promote narratives that the Kremlin wants people to believe. If enough people are saying it, it doesn’t feel like the dictator is behind it. Running information warfare through a “network” that’s abstracted away from the mastermind is how Russia manipulated the American press and public in the 2016 election into talking about what Putin wanted — without them even knowing it. Research by scholars like University of Wisconsin professor Young Mie Kim reveals that during the 2016 election, the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency created thousands of disguised social media accounts and over a hundred fake organizations and groups across Facebook, YouTube, Meetup, Twitter and independent websites, and ran thousands of ad and messaging campaigns from them — all of which was meant to look like it came from legitimate American nonprofits and groups of U.S. citizens.

“First, you would want to disguise your identity and your intent,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, a nonpartisan media data expert from UPenn, who rigorously calculated the impact of news manipulation during 2016, explained when we asked her what the first step in a modern disinformation campaign would likely be. “You would want to make it more difficult to pin the blame on you.”

This is precisely what Special Counsel Robert Mueller found in his official investigation of 2016 — that the Kremlin used surrogates to build out its “network” for its interference campaign long before election season, both on social media and with in-person contacts.

Rather than doing any dirty work directly, ideally, people within the Trump campaign could be influenced to take actions that Russia wanted. But Putin didn’t phone up candidate Trump. He had a friend of a friend of a friend schedule a meeting with Trump’s son — about “adoptions.” And the hackers who compromised the Clinton campaign’s emails weren’t Russian government either. The Special Counsel investigation found that they were a cyber-espionage group called Fancy Bear — in the pay of the Russian government. And the publisher of the embarrassing documents? Not Russia; not even the hackers. It was a party even further abstracted from Putin: Julian Assange of Wikileaks. Plausible deniability.

And because of the way Wikileaks simply (and selectively) released the information, it wasn’t even Assange who told the American public the talking points Putin wanted Americans to hear. The final piece of the “network” was America’s own news media.

“For practical purposes,” Dr. Jamieson told us, “the credibility of our major news outlets and some of our most respected reporters was used in service of Russian ends, inadvertently.”



In early 1954, a Texan actor and playwright named David Atlee Phillips was working as an editor at a small newspaper in Chile, when the CIA called him up and offered him a new gig.

A tall, charismatic man who fancied himself something of a spy-from-the-movies type (the first James Bond film had come out in 1953), Phillips had worked for the CIA in Chile for a few years, where his newspaper job gave him a plausible reason to talk to people the CIA wanted him to talk to. Based on his early CIA missions — and a stint in a Chilean movie in which Phillips described himself as a “devil-may-care gringo who makes violent love to three passionate sisters one after another, uno, dos, tres” — he’d started trying to write sexy spy novels.

David Atlee Phillips as a young soldier. (Courtesy the Library of Congress.)

Now the agency wanted him to fly to Florida and make use of his writing skills for them.

Operation PBSuccess had set up headquarters in Opa-Locka, Florida, about 14 miles northwest of Miami Beach. There, Phillips was briefed on the overthrow mission by CIA Assistant Deputy Director of Plans Tracy Barnes (whose name gets misspelled in the CIA’s official history as “Tracey”) and E. Howard Hunt, who’d helped recruit Castillo Armas and would be coordinating among the propaganda network.

In his memoir, The Night Watch, Phillips claimed that Barnes told him, “Jacobo Árbenz is responding more and more to overtures from Moscow,” and “it’s unacceptable to have a Commie running Guatemala.” Already, Phillips was being compartmentalized from the truth.

Tracy Barnes, Central Intelligence Agency Assistant Deputy Director of Plans and Operation and PBSUCCESS conspirator. (Photo courtesy the Central Intelligence Agency)

“I’m still not sure that gives us the right to intervene,” Phillips claimed he said.

“Our marching orders on this operation come from President Eisenhower,” Barnes replied, according to Phillips. Barnes then told him the story about how Castillo Armas “tunneled out of prison,” which impressed Phillips. (The CIA knew that the tunneling story was fiction, yet briefed their agents with it anyway. Currently, the Wikipedia entry for Castillo Armas still mentions the tunnel story.)

Barnes continued explaining that Castillo Armas was amassing an army — and the CIA’s job was simply “to assist the Guatemalans who are opposed to Árbenz.” It wasn’t a U.S. overthrow. It was assistance for a freedom fighter.

Satisfied, Phillips agreed to oversee the writing for the propaganda radio station that would support the rebels. Barnes then left for Washington, and Phillips and Hunt drank rum cocktails and bonded over their shared love of writing spy novels.

Phillips’s memoir is hardly a trustworthy source of information. Like his boss, Hunt, Phillips was a notorious self-promoter. (PBSuccess historians Stephen Schlesinger and Piero Gleijeses each interviewed Phillips before his death, and both told us that they remembered him as a self-aggrandizer who loved playing spy games — an impression that’s reinforced by Phillips’s personal papers left behind after his death.)

Documents do confirm, though, that Phillips was indeed tasked with running Radio Liberación, after the CIA had decided that it would be a bad idea to let Castillo Armas be in charge of it. Phillips’s code name would be “LANGEVIN” — and he’d be managing a team of Guatemalan exiles who the CIA had hired as the radio crew. The two head DJs were named Mario López Villatoro and Jose “Pepe” Toron Barrios. Another unnamed Guatemalan man would help them operate the station.

Mario López Villatoro and José “Pepe” Torón Barrios, the two head DJs for Radio Liberación. (Photo courtesy of The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

After a few drunken evenings at Miami nightclubs with his new team (according to Phillips), the actor arrived at headquarters in Opa-Locka to start his new job. At HQ, he saw just how sprawling the operation was: a diagram of all the players took up an entire wall of the office.

We don’t have photos of the wall — Cullather told us that the CIA burned all of the documents housed at the Opa-Locka facility — but from the 2003 declassified documents, we’ve pieced together a map of the network that was on it.

A chart showing all the connections and conflicts of interests between U.S. government officials and the United Fruit Company that were uncovered by the authors while researching this story.

With all this in place, the next stage, however, was not to jump straight to broadcasting fake news. First, some important seeds would need to be planted.

In advance of full-blown psychological warfare, seeds of doubt and conspiracy must be planted and watered.

Stage 2 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

It was 1951, and the inimitable Edward Bernays was holding court at United Fruit’s New York headquarters. The energetic nephew of Sigmund Freud, Bernays sported three-piece suits, well-manicured wavy hair, and a precise mustache over an infectious smile. He was charming as usual as he addressed United Fruit President Sam “The Bananaman” Zemurray.

Bernays was doing what he did best: helping people come to a conclusion as if it were their own idea.

Widely regarded as the father of the public relations industry, Bernays had successfully made the case that all American corporations needed to hire a “counsel on public relations” — and that doing so was good for democracy.

Portrait of Edward Bernays. (Photo from his book, “Propaganda”)

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” Bernays had argued in his 1928 book, Propaganda. “It might be better to have … committees of wise men who would choose our rulers, dictate our conduct, private and public, and decide upon the best types of clothes for us to wear and the best kinds of food for us to eat,” Bernays noted. But since that wasn’t how democracy worked, society needed “to be organized by leadership and propaganda.”

And because democracy operates on the principle of freedom of choice, such manipulation should be done subtly, Bernays added. If you want a man to buy a piano, for example, don’t tell him to buy a piano. Rather, Bernays wrote, you should “implant the idea in the mind of the general public” that having a music room is now fashionable. Then the idea of buying a piano “will come to him as if it is his own idea.”

This was not just how Bernays had successfully convinced women to smoke, diet-conscious people to eat bacon for breakfast, and overweight people to stay at the Waldorf hotel — all of which he did. It was also the psychology that had helped Bernays convince the world’s largest fruit company to hire him as its PR agent.

Since the 1940s, Bernays had frequently consulted with Zemurray, and also worked closely with the company’s publicity director Ed Whitman, who happened to be the husband of Eisenhower’s personal secretary, Ann Whitman.

For years, Bernays had warned Zemurray that the gulf between rich and poor in Guatemala could lead to social instability and PR problems for the fruit company. Now Bernays was concerned that anti–United Fruit sentiment might come to a head. Ever since its democratic revolution, Guatemala’s presidents had allowed labor movements and Communist sympathizers to operate legally within its country, and that potentially meant that the government might force United Fruit to make costly changes, like raising wages. Or worse: sell back its unused land.

However, Bernays said, “Guatemala might respond to pitiless publicity in this country.” By alerting Americans to Communist dangers in Central America (or in his words, “Middle America”), Bernays said, the U.S. government might be persuaded to “take steps to improve the situation.” Ideally, Guatemala would back down and start praising United Fruit for being a job creator instead of a foreign plunderer.

Zemurray, an immigrant from present-day Moldova who’d pulled himself up by his bootstraps (with the occasional help of some hired gunmen), was known for his racism against the indigenous people who worked his plantations. He wasn’t convinced that “Indians” were smart enough to ever gain negotiating power over him. But after two years of arguments from Bernays asserting that extolling the virtues of bananas wasn’t the only thing that PR could do to help United Fruit’s bottom line — and especially when President Árbenz got serious about agrarian reform — Zemurray finally relented.

Yes, he agreed, something should be done.

Zemurray’s instinct was to call up his friends in the U.S. government and ask for some favors. In 1953, United Fruit donated $64,000, in coordination with the CIA, to some disgruntled right-wing Guatemalans who wanted to start a rebellion, but their uprising was quickly crushed. The movement gained no favor with the Guatemalan public, and the CIA barely kept its role hidden.

It’s unclear what Bernays knew about the cash being given to the rebels, but when he pressed on Zemurray that the smoothest way to win favorable treatment for United Fruit in Guatemala would be to sow seeds of doubt about Árbenz’s loyalty to democracy — and let people come to their own conclusions — Zemurray listened.

“If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it?” Bernays had mused in Propaganda. “If you can influence the leaders, either with or without their conscious cooperation, you automatically influence the group which they sway.”

For example, Bernays suggested to Zemurray, Ed Whitman could take U.S. reporters on a tour of Guatemala and persuade them that what they were seeing was Communism-in-embryo. Bernays could then call up his friends at Time magazine and The New York Times and persuade them to write a series on the growing influence of Communism in Latin America, based on those reports. He knew how deeply John Foster Dulles and Eisenhower opposed Communism, so he could make sure that those articles got into the hands of influential politicians. Those politicians would denounce Guatemala, and Bernays could get the press to write about that too. All of which would make it easier for Eisenhower to intervene.

Zemurray said to make it happen. And so, the Father of PR started making calls.

Bernays organized a free trip to Guatemala for dozens of U.S. reporters, persuaded papers and magazines to extrapolate from his hints that Guatemala had Communist leanings, and got those reports in the hands of politicians, whose speeches were then quoted in more news reports. (What Bernays may not have known is how the CIA would end up facilitating the push of these misleading talking points within the U.S. political world.)

Sam Zemurray was no softie. Tall and well-built, with an Eastern European accent, he had “iron nerves and a powerful personality,” as Bernays wrote in a memoir. Zemurray had built a global conglomerate through ruthless action. For instance, when a deal to import equipment tax-free into Honduras in the 1920s fell apart, he paid Honduran exiles to overthrow the president — and got his business deal.

As such, Zemurray thought that a little more would be needed than Bernays’s soft approach. So behind the PR man’s back, Zemurray also hired a former special forces soldier named John Clements to run an under-the-radar information operation targeting conservatives and hawks.

United Fruit paid Clements and his associates to write a 235-page document called Report on Guatemala 1952, that began with this sentence:

According to a contract soldier named Robert Emmett Johnson who decades later bragged in Soldier of Fortune magazine about Clements’s role in both dispatching information (and mercenaries) for Operation PBSuccess, UFCO paid the equivalent of around $340,000 in today’s money for the report.

Zemurray also hired well-connected lobbyists to further push the narratives about Communism afoot in Guatemala.

In all, United Fruit would spend half a million dollars a year on the campaign. And by the time the CIA got to Stage 2 of Operation Success, the agency couldn’t have been more happy about it.

Before a population can truly fall for fake news about its government, one must, as the CIA put it in its description of Stage 2, “discredit target at home and abroad.”

It would do little good for Eisenhower to up and talk shit about his tiny neighbor’s popular democratic government. But if Time magazine were making innuendos — or the Christian Science Monitor or The New York Times were sounding a drumbeat of troubling assertions — the message that Árbenz’s Guatemala was not to be trusted would start to sound more and more plausible to the public. Even better if U.S. politicians could then reference those innuendos in official speeches, which could then be referenced in other news articles, further spreading the desired talking points while muddying their source.

It is at this stage that fake news expert Craig Silverman says one would want to “hire black PR firms” and “create lots of content.”

Today, billions of dollars flow into the industry of “black PR.” In the Philippines, black PR is so in demand that regular PR firms feel pressured to offer it as a service, according to BuzzFeed News. In the mid-2000s the Pentagon paid the British PR firm Bell Pottinger $500 million to spread propaganda in Iraq, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Silverman used the word “firms,” plural, for a reason. For a discrediting campaign to sink in, it should come from many angles. Bernays was a well-known liberal, ironically a bit of a bleeding heart. (Before the UFCO-Communism campaign, he’d pitched Zemurray on improving conditions for poor workers and getting rid of the company’s racist policies, like the rule that indigenous people must remove their hats when white people walked by — though he did point out that it was also a good PR move.) Hence, Zemurray was astute to hire multiple propagandists.

It’s important to note that at this stage — true to Bernays’s stated principles of PR — the point was not to get people to entirely believe made-up information. Instead, the goal was to create an environment where people would be willing to doubt their previous notions and consider new ones.

Similarly, much of the Russian disinformation campaign of 2016 — especially in the beginning — was not about convincing people of falsehoods. It was about sowing seeds of discredit and doubt about Hillary Clinton, and about the U.S. electoral system generally. It didn’t matter what was actually on Clinton’s email server, so long as talking about it cast doubt on her integrity.

With PBSuccess, the campaign was particularly focused on amplifying doubt about Árbenz’s true political stance, exaggerating kernels of truth like Árbenz’s left-leaning politics, and giving more credence to existing fringe theories, like that the Soviet Union was grooming Guatemala to be its Communist outpost (of which there was no evidence).

The insinuations in American newspapers were deceptive enough that Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello complained to the U.S. State Department about them repeatedly. Getting nowhere, he eventually arranged to personally meet with John Foster Dulles to help set the record straight. He told Dulles that the articles depicting Árbenz and Guatemala as Communist were false.

Dulles replied that “whether they were factual or not was beyond my knowledge.” But, he lied, he was “quite sure that they were not inspired for propaganda or malicious purposes.”

Bernays may not have known that his work would be wrapped into a secret CIA operation when he began the PR campaign to sow doubt about Jacobo Árbenz. But thanks to Bernays, by the time Eisenhower authorized Operation PBSuccess, those seeds of doubt were planted and ready for CIA watering.

Yet, however grateful they were for United Fruit’s PR efforts, at Stage 2 the CIA needed to take control of the information narrative — and to step on the gas. So, as they ramped up for the launch of Radio Liberación, they began planting the Communism story into more official channels.

“At a certain point, you want to get your information in more and more credible outlets,” Silverman explained. “If you can launder your stuff through established outlets, you can pull in politicians, NGOs, etc.”

This was exactly the plan. Though the CIA knew that Árbenz was neither a Communist himself nor owed the small group of Communists in his country anything, they treated the anti-Árbenz rumors circulating in the press as fact when briefing their operational teams, politicians and members of other government branches — including Eisenhower himself.

The most egregious example of such “laundering” had to do with the Report on Guatemala 1952 that United Fruit’s secretive PR firm John Clements & Associates wrote. The CIA took the company’s name off the booklet and distributed it to members of Congress as their own report, according to one member of Clements’s team — perhaps the greatest feat of any pre–Red Bull corporate “content marketing” campaign ever. (Soon after, another John Clements booklet, the 96-page Report on Central America would become the basis for a grossly inaccurate National Security Council report.)

With Árbenz discredited in the States, Operation PBSuccess turned to its network of moles to disseminate undermining stories about Árbenz within Guatemala — likewise starting with existing rumors, “to aim with increasing intensity and urgency at provoking first distrust and finally, open disaffection,” according to one State Department document.



If the U.S. government had given out fun awards to its conspirators after Operation PBSuccess wrapped up, the award for “Most Eager to Participate” probably would have gone to U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy.

Big, loud and flashy, Peurifoy filled his bright-colored suits close to bursting, and wore snazzy ties. The trove of 2003 declassified documents are full of helpful suggestions from Peurifoy for everything from boycott ideas to whom might be most usefully assassinated.

Sharp dresser John E. Peurifoy, U.S. ambassador to Guatemala. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Secretary of State Dulles had thought that this ladder-climbing Democrat from South Carolina would serve as a good fall guy if the Republican State Department’s involvement were ever revealed. Ambassador Peurifoy was extra grateful for the appointment, and proved it.

Soon after Peurifoy arrived in Guatemala, he and his wife had a rather tense dinner date with the Árbenzes. After dinner, Peurifoy cabled John Foster Dulles with a confident psychoanalysis of the Guatemalan president and the conclusion that the clock was ticking for the U.S. to get rid of him. A few days later, Peurifoy telegrammed Dulles with his own propaganda plan to step up pressure on Árbenz. Approved, Peurifoy began schmoozing with local reporters and working with the U.S. Information Agency to place Guatemala-Communism rumors in Latin American newspapers.

Runner-up to Peurifoy’s “Most Eager” award may have been CIA agent E. Howard Hunt, the operative tasked with liaising between all of the members of the network inside Guatemala: the station chief; Colonel Castillo Armas; the rumor groups in Guatemala; the radio crew; and the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and his son Tachito, who were secretly supporting the rebels. Hunt relished in the spycraft and in meeting with new people — everyone was a potential character for his numerous sexy spy novels, with titles like Be My Victim.

Hunt successfully established a flow of rumors from the CIA station to his moles around the country, as well as to Castillo Armas and other enemies of Árbenz.

And with all this in place, the operation was ready to enter Stage 3.

Left, Nicaraguan dictator and Operation PBSuccess co-conspirator Anastasio Somoza. Right, son of Nicaraguan dictator and future Nicaraguan dictator, Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle. (Photos courtesy Wikimedia)

Everything was going as planned — until one of the members of the network suddenly double-crossed Hunt.

It was a Panamanian attaché named Jorge Isaac Delgado who was helping liaise with the Nicaraguan dictator but was secretly in favor of President Árbenz.

In late January of 1954, Delgado showed up in Guatemala City with a stack of stolen documents. The documents revealed the code names of some of the members of the CIA’s clandestine network, plus definitive proof that Nicaragua’s president was backing Castillo Armas in a coup attempt. And the documents included hints that the United States could be involved.

Some of the incriminating items included in documents known as The White Papers.

Previous historians had never been able to identify who Delgado stole these from. But declassified documents now reveal that a CIA agent with the code name “Jacob R. Seekford” had gone to the hospital for ulcers and left the documents in his hotel room, where Delgado took them. Seekford tried to do damage control for a month, then was sent to D.C. in late February, where he was told to lay low — perhaps take a vacation in Chicago.

By analyzing the evidence in State Department and CIA documents, we were able to determine that Seekford likely was E. Howard Hunt himself. Seekford’s job description was to be a liaison between the Somozas in Nicaragua, Castillo Armas and the rumor agents in Guatemala. Seekford was compensated on the government pay scale of GS-12, which meant he was a full-time U.S. employee at Hunt’s seniority level.

CIA memo detailing Seekford’s activities with Castillo Armas, codename CALLIGERIS.

In Hunt’s memoirs, he claimed that he had happened to be in Washington for the month of March 1954 by chance, so he’d been able to be there for his son Saint John’s birth. Hunt then said that Allen Dulles immediately sent him to Japan for another CIA assignment. “We need you badly in Tokyo,” Dulles had told him, Hunt claimed, 45 years later. “Please get on the next plane.”

But in an email interview, Saint John Hunt, author of two books about his parents’ careers as spies (one of which has a foreword by Roger Stone), said that the family did not move to Japan until six months after his birth in March — which checks out as a realistic time period for Seekford to have laid low. Further, the Hunts had family in Chicago, and E. Howard Hunt suffered from ulcers at the time. “As long as I [can] remember my father had ulcers,” Saint John Hunt told us.

Hunt would later have his extramarital affairs monitored by the FBI, be repeatedly criticized in and out of the CIA for his sloppiness — not the least of which included Watergate — and riddle his memoirs with embellishments. It is not improbable that the propaganda man would lie about being reassigned out of such an important mission as if it were a promotion instead of a screw-up.

Whether the document leak indeed came from Hunt, who died in 2007, or from a mystery agent with his same job description and stomach ulcers — what happened next proved that Stage 2 had been a complete success.

The Árbenz administration gave the leaked documents to the press, which reported on the plot and the possible U.S. involvement. It was the biggest news story in Guatemala in some time.

And the disclosure did … nothing.

The world — and especially the U.S. — had already made its minds up about Árbenz and Guatemala.

The few foreign outlets that did report the news declared that Árbenz’s evidence of the so-called plot was probably fake.

CIA documents show that the news articles calling Árbenz’s real news fake had a little help from Operation PBSuccess. The agency scrambled to get alternate facts into the hands of reporters — and also to get distracting fake stories into the news cycle within Guatemala in order to take people’s focus away from Árbenz’s disclosure of the plot. Distraction stories proposed by the CIA included flying saucer sightings and the birth of sextuplets.

But because of Stage 2’s discrediting campaign, it wasn’t hard for reporters to believe the CIA’s lie that Árbenz’s revelation simply wasn’t true. And, of course, once Radio Liberación launched, it would repeat the lie over and over. “We reject Árbenz’s charges of a planned foreign invasion,” the DJs would announce on Day 2 of their broadcasts, before adding, “But there is indeed a conspiracy — a conspiracy of Christianity and civilization against Communism and barbarism.”

By early March of 1954, State Department conspirators sat down for a meeting with CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner to discuss the launch of Stage 3 — which would kick off the fake radio campaign, code-named “SHERWOOD” — and whether there would be a need to abandon the psychological warfare plan and just assassinate “15–20 Guatemalan leaders” and hope “for the Army to take over.” In the meeting, they decided that the preconditioning had worked such that no matter what, the U.S. could keep its reputation clean as they moved forward.

“What is the chance of U.S. exposure?” 

“There is no official estimate yet … ”

“After 1 April we will be too far committed to call off the operation.” 

“Don’t worry”. 

“Your job is to carry out instructions. You are to get the job done.”

“Everything we do may be plausibly denied if uncovered.”

To get the people on your side, you need to change the media narrative. A few hired hacks and a “passive sabotage program” will do the trick.

Stage 3 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

David Phillips and his radio crew spent March and April in Florida writing and prerecording the initial broadcasts for Radio Liberación. 

In his memoir, Phillips recalled the objective as being “to intimidate listeners” who were Árbenz sympathizers and to “influence the mass of neutral types” — what they described as a “soap-opera audience.”

Initially, these broadcasts would need to establish credibility. Anything that the Árbenz government could point to in order to prove that the station was not inside Guatemala, for example, could foil the plot. The content would start with exaggerations of the truth, opinions that would be hard to falsify, and accusations that would be difficult to disprove: Castillo Armas was building an army; Árbenz was bad for Guatemala; Communists were taking over the government; etc. The goal was to start getting Guatemalans talking about Castillo Armas and the fight against Communism.

Only after this would they move on to what Phillips called “the big lie.”

According to E. Howard Hunt’s memoir Undercover, after several weeks of work, the Guatemalan radio operators threatened to strike due to their “forced celibacy.” So Hunt flew out their “girlfriends” (at least one of whom was actually a wife). Hunt’s descriptions of the Guatemalan crew were exaggerated and racist (Hunt’s son Saint John describes his father as a racist in his own memoir), but the ladies can be heard in many recordings of the broadcasts, including participating in a regular “Women Against Communism” segment hosted by “Silvia and Sandra.” Documents reveal that they were sisters: Sonia and Sara Orellana.

Finally, in late April, the crew flew to Nicaragua, with permission from the dictator Anastasio Somoza, to set up a radio transmitter in a shack in the jungle. The location would be a heavily guarded secret — and Nicaragua was deliberately chosen because Árbenz’s military knew that Castillo Armas was hiding across the border in Honduras and might therefore search for the radio station there.

With an established network and seeds of doubt firmly planted, the plotters were ready to start spreading their own content — what Silverman describes as the next step in a successful info-war campaign: “Get your operation up and running to get your message out.”



The Guatemalan press reported excitedly on the new station that began broadcasting on 3420 kHz on May 1, 1954. Radio Liberación was launched strategically on this day, which was a national holiday that many Guatemalans had off from work.

From then on, each day Phillips and his crew broadcast from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. — before and after work hours. Each broadcast had music, catch phrases and talking points delivered poetically. In between the sermon-like speeches, the DJs, Mario and Pepe, sprinkled in chatter, jokes and personal talk. Often, these voices from “a secret location within the republic” took on the tone of a friend filling you in on something.

Between the rumor mill about Árbenz’s tilt toward Communism — and the fact that the Árbenz administration had reported in January that Castillo Armas was plotting against him — the Guatemalan press didn’t seem to question whether the broadcasts really were coming from a group of anti-Communist exiles. 

Not that everyone believed all the hype from Radio Liberación’s speeches. The Guatemalan military was skeptical, having been filled in on how small Castillo Armas’s rebel group actually was.

Among the Guatemalan public, Radio Liberación was in the minority when it decried Árbenz, or even Communists. The president was popular, and it was well-known that the Communist Party was small. And besides, the Communists supported agrarian reform, which was incredibly popular with the poor majority of Guatemalans.

But in the 1950s, many Guatemalans still remembered the shady dealings of their pre-democracy dictators — and the smear campaign against Árbenz had created room for doubt about Árbenz too. So whereas many citizens approached the blatant propaganda on Radio Liberación with skepticism, they afforded similar skepticism to the rebuttals that the Árbenz government broadcast over official airwaves.

And with its heavy repetition, the radio’s assertions about Árbenz started sounding more and more plausible. “Familiarity and repetition,” says author Craig Silverman, “the more you hear something, over time the more you believe it’s true.”

Whether people initially believe your information is beside the point, though, media data expert Kathleen Jamieson explains. “What you want to do is change the media agenda,” she told us. “You want to change the balance of messages.” 

The more mentions of what you, the media manipulator, want discussed, the more that independent media feels pressured to report on it. And the more important those topics appear to the public.

In 2016, when Hillary Clinton fell ill at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, the Russian state news outlets RT and Sputnik released a drumbeat of stories questioning Clinton’s health. Russia’s network of disguised social media accounts promoted the narrative — along with conspiratorial stories about Clinton’s use of email while she was secretary of state. And when bad news came out about Trump, Russian state and social media broadcast deflection, which were picked up by Trump proponents, then discussed by the legitimate press.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre claimed that a radio station had been found on the border near Honduras, May 4, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

In an authoritarian system where you see media structures controlled by those in power, it’s almost impossible to subvert the media agenda of those in power, Jamieson told us. But, she said, “in an open system you can get the inadvertent complicity of the existing media.”

The more Radio Liberación broadcast, the more the Guatemalan newspapers and rumor mills discussed what it had to say. Was Árbenz secretly in cahoots with the USSR? Were Guatemalan women really organizing against Communism? What was going to happen when the Liberation Army mobilized? 

Guatemala’s own civil liberties — the freedom of the press and freedom of speech that Árbenz had helped usher in with the democratic revolution — worked against it when the CIA began broadcasting lies. Broadcasting itself was legal. Communist newspapers were free to campaign for their causes, and anti-Árbenz detractors were free to talk shit about him on the radio. 

What was not legal, however, was for a foreign government to foment a revolution. Hiding behind the “free speech” of Radio Liberación was an international crime. 

Frustrated, Árbenz dispatched the military to search the jungle and find the station.

Phillips and Hunt claim that the whole of Guatemala eventually began tuning in to Radio Liberación with bated breath each night.

As propaganda men, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t being a little hyperbolic. But CIA documents and Guatemalan news reports make it clear that the military, news media and a large portion of the public indeed paid close attention to the broadcasts, and that people who didn’t catch them live kept up on the brewing “revolution” through front page newspaper headlines. 

A CIA diagram of the radio transmission operation. (Documents courtesy NARA)

Some of Radio Liberación’s “news” was relatively small, which gave it the air of a broader devotion to serving Guatemalans, as opposed to simply smearing the government. The DJs held “man on the street” interviews at the May Day parade, getting opinions from (supposedly) regular Guatemalans on the news of the day. At one point, they reported that a woman had been insulted at the airport for carrying copies of El Rebelde, an anti-Communist publication. The DJs dedicated quite a bit of air time to teaching listeners patriotic song lyrics (which would turn out to be the “marching songs” of the Liberation Army). And they played plenty of music, from cumbia hits to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. On Day 2, after delivering a 10-point treatise on why people should say no to Communism, Radio Liberación played “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin.

Guatemalan Labor Day parade, May 1, 1954. (Photo courtesy NARA)

As the station established itself, it began broadcasting bolder falsehoods: that Russia was happy because now it could send planes on bombing missions to Los Angeles and have them safely land in Guatemala if it wanted to; that the government was no longer paying public school teachers; that Árbenz was spending money on expensive furs and Cadillacs while donating to a Soviet atomic bomb fund; and even that Árbenz was doing exactly what the CIA was up to. “The government’s principal propaganda mechanisms,” Radio Liberación explained two weeks into broadcasting, “have been flooding the country with their disgusting product … in which salaried agitators try to win people over.”


Post-mortems credit the radio broadcasts as key to the success of the U.S.’s psychological warfare campaign against Árbenz. Though the CIA destroyed its
records from the Florida station where broadcasts were planned, and claimed to not have recordings of the broadcast reels, a Freedom of Information
request sent by Time magazine reporter Stephen Schlesinger in the 1970s may have inadvertently led to the broadcast reels being preserved and shelved
away for decades. We found tape recordings of those reels in 2020. See here for more details.


But the most chilling event was the broadcast that aired three and a half weeks in, on May 24. 

About eight minutes into a typical Radio Liberación show, listeners heard a commotion in the background. The DJ pressed on even as the banging sounds got louder and voices in the background shushed each other.

Then, suddenly, the DJ started panicking. He announced that the station was being attacked. 

The broadcast cut off midway through a woman’s scream. 


On May 24, 1954, Radio Liberación’s crew pretended to be attacked by government forces.

You can rile up the public by confusing and polarizing them. The key is to exploit their own existing vulnerabilities.

Stage 4 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Civil Guard Chief Rogelio Cruz Wer and his commandos lay flat on the jungle floor, trying not to make noise as they breathed.

For weeks, the rebel radio had pummeled the police chief personally — as a power-abuser, a murderer, a Communist. Cruz Wer was one of Radio Liberación’s favorite targets. So he had been especially eager when Árbenz finally gave the order to find and destroy the station.

 And now, mere days later, they’d located the rebels’ little shack. In the dark, Cruz Wer and the 12 special forces soldiers with him could see moonlight glinting off the antenna sticking up from the claptrap building’s roof. A light was on inside, and the hum of a generator harmonized with the nighttime jungle sounds. 

Cruz Wer signaled with his hand.

The DJ, Mario López Villatoro, was midway through reading his regular evening monologue, “Nuestra Campana Radial,” when his partner, Pepe, and the others started frantically motioning toward the window. He kept reading the script. By the time he realized what was happening, Cruz Wer’s men had kicked in the door.

Or that’s the story they hoped people would believe.

Truthfully, Cruz Wer and his men never found the station. In fact, it’s unclear if Árbenz had even dispatched his police force to find the station at all; the main source of that rumor was the radio itself.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre announced that the clandestine radio station had been destroyed, May 27, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

What actually happened went more like this:

Back in April in Opa-Locka, Florida, Mario, Pepe, Sonia, Sara and company recorded several broadcasts in which they claimed Árbenz’s forces were looking for them, leading up to a special tape to be aired three weeks into the campaign. On the special tape, the crew recorded themselves pretending to be raided by mysterious attackers — using pots and pans for sound effects. David Phillips, the actor/playwright/radio manager, was pleased.

After the public heard Radio Liberación get cut off mid-broadcast the night before, newspapers reported that the station had been found and captured by Guatemalan authorities. Details were scant, of course. Some of the radio crew may have been arrested by Guatemalan authorities, the papers said. Clearly, at least some of the equipment had been destroyed, the press declared.

President Árbenz and his military leaders were surely confused by the reports. Whoever it was that had “attacked” the station on May 24, it hadn’t been Árbenz’s men.

The airwaves — and intelligence channels — sat silent for two days.

And then, suddenly, Radio Liberación was back.

There it was on the same channel as usual. The same familiar anthem, the same familiar voice of the DJ saying the same slogan, “God, Fatherland and Justice” — transmitting as usual from a secret location within the republic.

“Before beginning our transmission, we want to let you know that our last broadcast was interrupted by circumstances outside of our control,” they said, in Spanish. Government thugs, they said, “who are forever searching for and trying to destroy our transmitters, almost succeeded.”

But, the DJ added, “since we are prepared to shed our blood in defense of the fatherland, their plans were frustrated.” The revolution would continue!

David Phillips, still an actor at heart, was particularly proud of the fake attack ruse. “Credibility enhanced, the Voice of Liberation [sic] was accepted as authentic by foreign newsmen in Guatemala City who were scratching for facts,” Phillips wrote, bragging that, “The New York Times ran a story based on rebel information.”

Even skeptics now had reason to believe that the station was indeed operating inside of Guatemala and that the Árbenz administration was afraid of it. And now that the media had validated the news of the “attack” — and therefore the station itself — the public could now more easily believe the things Radio Liberación broadcast.

Around that time, the station upped the fear factor. Radio Liberación started leveling more serious accusations, even bolder fake news — and it actually started a new daily news segment, “La Notica Atravez de Radio Liberación.” They claimed the government was financing Communist radio stations and “other mind-control programs.” They falsely quoted government officials and announced death threats against “Communist traitors” like Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello. One segment detailed a fake story about Toriello luring Guatemalan boys to casinos to sully themselves with illicit foreign women — and using the revenue to fund Árbenz’s expensive lifestyle and orgies. And of course, there was news that the Liberation Army was growing and planning.

The radio campaign was supplemented by fake “evidence.” Planes made parachute drops in the distance within sight of towns around the country, which the radio indicated were supplies for the rebel army.

And brazenly, a few days before the fake attack on the radio, the CIA planted a small, unmarked submarine with a cache of weapons on the Nicaraguan shore near the border of Guatemala. The weapons had Soviet stamps on them and were also accompanied, conspicuously, by a pack of Guatemalan cigarettes. CIA agents leaked the news to the local press (and Radio Liberación, naturally). But reporters saw through the “evidence” and declined to report on it. Disappointed, CIA Station Chief John Doherty gave orders on May 19 to the propaganda team to “make a cautious effort to obtain added publicity for this story in the Guatemalan press and public opinion.” Ideally, he added, they could get a member of Congress to write an official letter about it.

Though reporters who visited the weapons cache could not be fooled, the CIA doctored photographs of the submarine and weapons and managed to trick at least one American newspaper reporter who asked to see photo evidence.

These activities were all part of Stage 4’s “intensive rumor campaign,” which included influencing foreign correspondents in Guatemala to use inflammatory language when they wrote for U.S. and European audiences. Ambassador Peurifoy held meetings in the U.S. Embassy with newspaper reporters, and reported up the chain as their articles changed their tone to favor the U.S. version of the story. And reporters who wrote skeptically — or who seemed to be telling Árbenz’s side of the story — were dealt with. Allen Dulles himself called New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger and persuaded him to deport a correspondent out of Guatemala after the correspondent’s reports threatened to undermine the story the CIA wanted told. (And later on, when the British ambassador shared an inconvenient version of events with the press in Britain, Peurifoy asked the ambassador to Honduras to get him to shut up, and to remind him “of our generous and costly support of British on their recent trouble in British Guiana.”)

The other main propaganda activity in Stage 4 was to “accentuate divisionist activity within target.” So, as the plot entered this critical period before the eventual showdown, the CIA started to accentuate the fault lines in Guatemalan society.



If you want to overthrow a country’s leader using only information, you want to “figure out what intense fault lines are in that country,” explains fake news expert Craig Silverman. You want to know: “What are the psychological buttons you can push with people?”

In Guatemala (as in the United States in 2016 and 2020), those fault lines fell first along race, religion and class. The indigenous and poor masses mistrusted the largely Ladino (considered “white”) upper class — and vice versa. In the rapidly secularizing 1950s, rifts deepened between Guatemala’s Catholics, nonreligious and indigenous religions. And there was mistrust between the military and organized labor; as a political independent, Árbenz had been able to tenuously sew these groups together, but the alliance could easily rip open.

And the big psychological button of the day was fear of American imperialism. Ever since Guatemala had overthrown its dictator in 1944 in favor of democracy, a chasm had emerged between those Guatemalans who wanted more American corporate and political influence and those who desired a more independent Guatemala.

Guatemala’s relatively new policy of freedom of speech made each of these divides ripe for exploitation.

The more these different groups in Guatemala leaned away from each other, the harder it would be for Árbenz to maintain a coalition and defend against a hostile takeover. “The sweet spot is when contemporary events get people riled up about historical grievances,” Silverman says.

This was, of course, key to the disinformation strategy employed by Russia in 2016.

“Polarization is our number one vulnerability,” explains Jessica Brandt, head of policy and research at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a nonprofit that has spent the last several years tracking Russian efforts to “accentuate divisionist activity.” Brandt says that there are three reasons for this: “One, because it creates an environment where disinformation is ripe to spread. The second is because so often misinformation is about listing out the most extreme narratives already out there and making them more salient. And the third reason is because it keeps us from seeing the bigger picture and organizing ourselves in a way that we can respond.”

The “group polarization” strategy explains reports about Russia trying to intervene to help both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2020 election. And from this perspective, recent reports that Russian social media trolls have been attempting to further stoke racial tension in America lines up as well.

“To the extent that we are doubled over on ourselves, left going at right, left going at other parts of the left,” Brandt says, “all of that leaves us confused [and] divided and [makes it] more difficult for the United States to pursue foreign policy objectives that may not be in line with Russian foreign policy [goals].”

That’s precisely what Stage 4 of the PBSuccess playbook hoped to do — confuse and divide Guatemalans against one another, so that there wouldn’t be a unified front against the pitiful “Liberation Army.” (One CIA cable literally used the words “playing both groups simultaneously” when discussing fault lines among the Guatemalan right wing.)

So, the propaganda team pushed news and rumors meant to rile Guatemalans up in their echo chambers.

The rumor network began targeting housewives with specific fear-based gossip. This was supported by a new, regular Radio Liberación segment called “La Mujer y La Patria,” (literal translation: “The Woman and the Fatherland”), which contained ominous music and frightening speeches by the Orellana sisters. These segments warned women that the Communists wanted to take their children to indoctrination camps, that Árbenz was acting schizophrenically, and that housewives were the ones who needed to pass the anti-Communism message along — but to be sure to leave no paper trail when doing so.

The radio also repeatedly played up fearsome stories about foreigners invading Guatemala and threatening its way of life. Segments repeatedly reported that Mexicans were exporting Communist rabble-rousers into Guatemala. One report announced that Árbenz had invited 2,000 poor Salvadoran families into the country and given them each a tract of Guatemalan land. And they reported that many Europeans were moving to Guatemala to support this new haven for Communism.

And the radio’s messaging increasingly targeted the military. If the CIA could persuade Árbenz’s army to stand down, the game would be over. So Radio Liberación played on the army’s fears: They warned that Árbenz was planning on disbanding the army, that he was planning to give weapons to peasants, so that they could mount a Bolshevik-style assault on the wealthy. And they announced that the government was giving free alcohol to the “Indians” — specifically to get the white upper classes riled up.

The announcer says that Árbenz has admitted to being an instrument of a communist conspiracy through his silence, and that the Alfhem arms shipment

was surely being distributed among peasants.

When a retired Guatemalan pilot named Mendoza defected to Castillo Armas, Phillips and his crew had Mendoza read anti-Communism scripts on air. Having the voice of one of the Guatemalan military’s own exhort the army to defect was brilliant from a divisiveness standpoint. And, the radio crew soon realized, they didn’t need real defectors to make those points in the future; they could have actors play the parts.

Árbenz’s military men became increasingly agitated. Radio Liberación repeatedly levied allegations about various military leaders and cabinet ministers defecting to the Soviets, embezzling government money, and secretly creating plans to escape with Árbenz, all in order to drive wedges between officers in Árbenz’s coalition.

But these were not even the most dramatic parts of the divisionary effort.



As the anti-Árbenz operation escalated, the nation’s Archbishop Mariano Arellano was increasingly disturbed by what he’d been seeing. Operating from the majestic Catedral Primada Metropolitana de Santiago, the archbishop was the shepherd of Guatemala’s millions of Catholics — by far the largest religion in the country — and he was worried. Not just for the church members, but for the soul of the country itself.

 After weeks of prayer, and a consultation with Pope Pius XII himself, Archbishop Arellano sat down alone at his desk to write.

No stranger to the suffering that often accompanies writing, the archbishop poured his heart into his work for the better part of a month — finally producing a 13-page letter to the church expressing what God wished for his people in this time of war and disruption.

It would be the manifesto that called Guatemala’s spiritual warriors to finally stand up and participate in the defense of their country. Against Communism. And against the nation’s fallen president.

Only … once again, that’s not how it happened.

Somebody indeed spent a long time writing that manifesto; it just wasn’t the archbishop.

For months, CIA agents had been working on a plan to distribute propaganda via Guatemalan churches for purpose of riling up the public along religious lines. To do so, agents worked their way into the graces of New York–based Catholic Cardinal Francis Spellman, who helped agents reach Archbishop Arellano and persuade him to help them.

By April, the timing was right to drop some metaphorical bombs from on high. To that end, the CIA arranged for a letter to be written in Arellano’s name, titled, in the English translation, “Pastoral Letter Concerning the Rise of Communism in Guatemala,” which they then handed to the Archbishop, who read it from the pulpit. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, co-author of the book Bitter Fruit, told us that he believes David Phillips himself wrote it. Of the CIA plotters, “Phillips was,” he said, “the only one who knew Spanish and Latin America.”

In it, Arellano explained, in biblical language, that Communism was a “false redeemer” that would easily trick Guatemalans into becoming enslaved. The 13-page denouncement ended with the words, “All Catholics must fight against Communism because they are Catholic.”

After Arellano read the letter to his congregation, the CIA had copies of it distributed to churches throughout the country. (E. Howard Hunt said in an interview 45 years later that with Spellman’s help, the CIA was able to write additional scripts and leaflets for Catholic clergy across Guatemala, “and this information was going out in the pastorals across the country, and in radio broadcasts.”)

The CIA claimed to have lost the archbishop’s letter, but our research assistant Luis Pablo Rizzo found a copy.

Brandt, of the Alliance For Securing Democracy, explains that one of the most successful types of information warfare in our social media era is “finding existing points of division, finding existing antiestablishment sentiment and exacerbating it, whipping it up into a fervor … throwing a little bit of accelerant on an already burning fire.”

The pastoral letter had indeed created a fire — and now Radio Liberación began aggressively throwing accelerant on it. The station pressed the “Christianity or Communism” case in its broadcasts. They also announced that the pope had backed the archbishop up. Among the fears murmured within the walls of the Catholic church and stoked by the radio were: (a) Chapels would be turned into Communist meeting halls, (b) Communism would replace religious instruction in schools, and (c) photos of saints would have their faces replaced by Lenin.

Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas and Vatican representative Genaro Verolino, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

In an official State Department report, Ambassador Peurifoy reported that the archbishop’s letter “has reached the man in the street and is well received.” The ambassador suggested that the propaganda campaign “continue to exploit the letter and tie it into other opportunities.”

In the same report, Peurifoy falsely claimed that two elected members of Congress representing the Labor Party of Guatemala (the country’s small Communist Party, known in Spanish as the “PGT”), Carlos Pellecer and Victor Manuel Gutierrez, were “in fact running the country.” (Radio Liberación would soon say it too.) This fake news was added to the official U.S. record that would continually inform decision-making by government leaders and agents.

To ensure the success of the operation, Peurifoy also recommended that his counterpart, Guatemalan Ambassador Toriello — a favorite punching bag of the rebel radio’s — “be eliminated.”

The Árbenz administration fought back against the fake news with press interviews and its own government radio station, TGW. They pointed fingers at United Fruit, and did so credibly enough that the CIA created a specific propaganda plan to counter it.

So, Radio Liberación began regularly smearing TGW — picking it apart as fake, unreliable news.

Despite this, Árbenz’s refutations of Radio Liberación’s more brazen claims helped keep his coalition together.

But a stroke of luck gave the rebels a wedge with which to finally start splitting it apart.

The Eisenhower administration had ensured that Guatemala could not buy weapons from any of its neighbors. The U.S. had banned arms sales to the country in 1948 after President Arevalo passed reform legislation that was unfriendly to U.S. corporations. After Árbenz was elected, the Dulleses used threats of withholding aid to extort Mexico, Cuba, Argentina and Switzerland into refusing to sell arms to Guatemala as well. Further, the U.S. made public hay of selling arms to Guatemala’s neighbors.

With a battle brewing — and uncertainty about whether the U.S. might find an excuse to send its own troops in at some point — Árbenz needed weapons. So he bought some from the Czechs. Historian Cole Blasier described it as a “kind of last resort.” Rifles, ammunition and artillery pieces were loaded onto a Swedish cargo ship named Alfhem in late April, to arrive on May 15.

Though perfectly legal, buying weapons from a Soviet satellite was a risky PR move at a time when he was being smeared as a Communist. Árbenz was not a good PR guy. But he did keep the purchase top secret.

The CIA found out about the purchase and tracked the Alfhem on its voyage. Initially, the agency planned to intercept the ship, but the U.S. Navy failed to do so. After the ship landed, CIA mercenaries attempted to sabotage the cargo with dynamite, but a rainstorm ruined the fuses. Ultimately, the CIA decided that the propaganda value of letting Árbenz have his weapons would be worth it — especially since their fake Soviet arms cache hadn’t fooled reporters.

The CIA sent out “editorial guidance” to its agents to get news publications to cover the story.

Journalists confirmed that a shipment of weapons from Prague, via Poland, had indeed landed. Eisenhower declared in a White House press conference that the discovery of Czech weapons in Guatemala could lead to a “Communist dictatorship … on this continent.”

Árbenz had stepped on a PR landmine. The government’s rebuttal, which amounted to “it’s not what it looks like” was much less effective than Radio Liberación’s “see, we told you so.” They’d been saying that news like this was coming. Of course, Radio Liberación embellished too, stating that the Alfhem was the first of three ships. The disclosure further shifted the media agenda inside Guatemala. Local media pontificated about what Árbenz would do with the weapons, and whether there was a potential Árbenz-USSR connection.

CIA cables show that U.S. agents were gleeful about their luck with the Alfhem incident. Until this point, they had serious doubts that PBSuccess would live up to its name. After this, they were overjoyed. Radio Liberación began bringing up conspiracy theories about the Czech weapons as often as it could — including a series of fake reports “outing” specific people who were stashing Alfhem weapons to distribute to Communist peasant armies.

A remarkably close 2016 parallel to the Alfhem incident is the Wikileaks release of Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s stolen emails.

Like the Czech arms purchase, the content of the Podesta emails was not illegal. But the news was embarrassing — and both the Kremlin’s fake news network and unwitting American propaganda spreaders made continual, conspiratorial hay of it.

The Podesta documents were released strategically in order to keep Americans and their news reporters talking about what Russia wanted, and away from news it didn’t want discussed. For example, when the Access Hollywood footage of candidate Trump bragging about committing sexual assault came out on October 7, 2016, Wikileaks released emails in which candidate Clinton talked about having “both a public and a private position” on Wall Street reform. Only the first of those news stories was an admission of a heinous crime, but the way the second was selectively released and widely spread by social media had the effect of curbing the negative story about Trump by diluting it with lots of negative headlines about Clinton. (Shane, one of the authors of this piece, has a close family member who had never even heard about the Access Hollywood scandal until Shane told her about it two years after Trump had won the election.)

Alliance for Securing Democracy’s data shows that Russian social media accounts were also promoting pro–Roy Moore stories during the senator’s predatory underage sex scandal, and anti–Al Franken stories in the wake of the senator’s butt-grabbing scandal. This selective amplification made certain news items seem more serious, and other news items more doubt-worthy — all in line with the Kremlin’s wishes.

Mixed together with the blatantly false news that Russia promoted during the critical stage of its 2016 disinformation campaign, the Podesta disclosures served to change the media agenda around the election to focus on analyzing Clinton’s so-called sins instead of Trump’s.

And as with the Alfhem disclosure, an enemy government’s fingerprints weren’t on the Clinton leak story. Wikileaks released its documents selectively, and independent news organizations reported on them as if they’d come directly from Wikileaks — without knowledge that the true purveyor of the information was an enemy of the state.

“Audiences evaluate messages in part by evaluating the source of the message,” Dr. Kathleen Jamieson, the media data expert from UPenn, told us. “So it’s a very different message if it’s coming from a trustworthy source as opposed to an unreliable source, or [if] it’s a source that you would actively distrust.”

In other words, if the Guatemalan people had known that it was really a United States intelligence agency that was behind the pastoral letter warning of Communism, they would have treated the information differently. If they would have known that it was the CIA that leaked the Alfhem news, they would have thought twice about the narrative of who the “bad guys” were. Similarly, many Americans in 2016 would have treated the Wikileaks disclosures differently if they’d known that the information had come from the Russian government.

But instead — in both cases — the sources of the damaging information were not scrutinized, and the trusted press took the story and framed it exactly the way an enemy of the state wanted.

Peurifoy’s reports to the State Department indicate that he saw the benefit of countering pro-Árbenz news — especially anything that threatened to rally Guatemalans together — with anti-Árbenz disclosures that would hijack the media narrative. For instance, when the Árbenz administration pushed information about United Fruit’s involvement in trying to damage the Guatemalan government, Peurifoy sent a telegram to the State Department suggesting that the U.S. accordingly “play down the fruit company” and “concentrate on the commie issue.”

Árbenz’s ambassador Toriello pleaded with Peurifoy to arrange a meeting between Árbenz and Eisenhower himself to sort out a solution between the two nations. Peurifoy told Toriello that he’d see what he could do, then did nothing. A few days later, he sent a note to Allen Dulles saying, “We have gone as far as we can with talk” and “Many people have been to see me saying one bomb on [the] palace would do the job.”

Indeed, telegrams reveal that Ambassador Peurifoy made more suggestions that the CIA bomb things than he did suggestions about diplomacy.

As June approached, the U.S. Information Agency, in coordination with Peurifoy, used CIA source material to write more than 200 guest articles about Guatemala in Latin American newspapers; it also distributed tens of thousands of copies of anti-Communist cartoons and “Communism in Guatemala” pamphlets.

On June 8, Opa-Locka telegrammed Doherty, the CIA station chief, that it was time to start intensifying the radio, leaflet and sabotage campaigns.

And so the plan moved to Stage 5.

After legitimizing your fake news channel, transition into all-out information warfare. (And bring in a few real guns, too.)

Stage 5 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

Soon after Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, “The Liberator of Guatemala,” crossed the border from Honduras into his home country on June 18, he stopped in the town of Esquipulas for a photo shoot.

Over the past month — with all of the broadcasts depicting the chaos at home and exhorting patriots to join the revolution — the ranks of the Liberation Army had swollen remarkably. Dozens of former National Army officers wore gleaming uniforms, now with the Liberation insignia.

There weren’t enough uniforms for the thousands of soldiers and volunteers, but there were plenty of machine guns.

It was an impressive sight to see them all gathered in one place. The news photographer who happened to be in Esquipulas and convinced Castillo Armas to let him take pictures struggled to capture the full magnitude of the surprising growth of the movement in a single shot.

Or so the CIA hoped the newspapers would say.

Group of insurgent soldiers lined up and crouched into position. (Photo by George Silk/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The actual group with Castillo Armas in Esquipulas was tiny. The total membership of the Liberation Army would never end up being very large at all — and it would consist of mostly mercenaries under CIA pay. Even if civilians had wanted to join up, “The Liberator” had been hiding out in Honduras in secret; how would thousands of defectors have even known where to show up, especially without Árbenz finding out where the hiding spot was?

So the photographer, arranged by John Clements, the right-wing PR man working for the United Fruit Company, had to get creative.

Because Castillo Armas didn’t have enough men for a good photo, much less anyone who looked like a “volunteer,” they put rifles in the hands of some local townsfolk to build out the “army.” They gunned down some mules for good measure, to make it look like the place had seen a battle.

Photos were flown back to the States, where United Fruit distributed them to newspapers.

The invasion had begun!

Now that the CIA had legitimized its propaganda channels in the eyes of the Guatemalan public, and riled the public up, it was time for what the agency called “The Final Big Lie.”

That day, June 18, Radio Liberación announced triumphantly that the rebel army was on the march. The CIA wrote bullets for Castillo Armas to deliver in a “press conference” on Radio Liberación, which he did.

A week earlier, the Opa-Locka headquarters had sent orders to begin the final phase of the propaganda campaign. “Rumors, combining fact and fiction, which ought to be circulated,” included:

  • Soviet officers, led by the Moscow Politburo, have landed in Puerto Barrios.
  • The government has devalued the currency, so “Use your money immediately to buy food and durable goods.”
  • Communist Party leader Manuel Fortuny is about to take over as president of Guatemala.
  • Árbenz is issuing a decree that teen boys and girls be sent to labor camps for political indoctrination.
  • Árbenz has left the country, and a Soviet double is currently pretending to be him.
  • Freedom of religion is being suspended, and mandatory instruction in atheism will now take place in schools.

These instructions ended, helpfully, with, “Add rumors of your own, following the day-by-day changes in the situation.”

Now that the “invasion” had begun, Radio Liberación began broadcasting every hour, on the hour, for 15-minute news announcements.

In addition to the typical station broadcasts, Mario and Pepe started mixing in “coded” messages intended for Liberation Army units — codes like “Measurement. Rafael. Factory. Forty days. Artist should arrive. Olga” and “My house has six doors. All are green except for one, which is red.” The radio also relayed orders to various units of the rebel army: “Attention 12th brigade: Congratulations. Today at 1,800 we will get together with you at the appointed place.” “Attention Group 17 of the Liberation Army in Sector 045: Advance to the northeast 12 kilometers; the area is clear. Await Patrol 8 from the Arcadia Group. Good luck.”

An effigy of President Árbenz is propped against a vehicle as several members of the “Liberation Army” point guns at it. The sign on the effigy reads, “Russia is calling me, I’m joining Aravelo.” (Photo by Bettmann, via Getty Images)

As time went on, the brigades got bigger numbers and more ammo. “Hello, Brigade 62. Final details for Operation Magda are ready. Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator. You will have strong air support.” “We advise Carmelo that the 50,000 rounds requested are on the way and may be arriving right now for a full attack on Sector R1-6. Proceed per plan, and good luck!”

The radio “tracked” the deployment of thousands of rebel soldiers, and reported on the number of “volunteers” who were joining Castillo Armas each day. It kept the public up to date on gruesome battles and bridges being blown up. (According to declassified documents, several targets around the country were being detonated to back up the assertions in these broadcasts; this was being done by a CIA field agent named William “Rip” Robertson, not Liberation Army sabotage teams.) The radio also called out and harassed individual supporters of Árbenz by name, calling them traitors and hinting that citizens might take them out if they encountered them. (These names may have been chosen from CIA-prepared dossiers for the purpose of “character assassination” of known Árbenz supporters and Communists.)

The radio also used reverse psychology to foment rumors. “Rumors have reached us that a yellow fever epidemic has broken out,” Radio Liberación reported on June 20. “Other rumors have it that the capital’s water supply has been poisoned. We categorically deny these rumors, there is no yellow fever, and no poison in the water. These rumors are from a desperate government.”

As the “invasion” ramped up, the radio reported bombings and victories in various “sectors,” which the DJs said they couldn’t reveal details about for secret planning reasons. But the news reports made clear that the battle was closing in on Guatemala City. Meantime, the barrage of fake news was endless.

Árbenz has ordered the Catholic Archbishop Arellano assassinated!

The Kremlin has ordered Árbenz to devalue the national currency, the quetzal — so take your money out of the banks!

A brigade of Communist peasants has been captured, and they’ve been using some of the Alfhem arms, which, by the way, when you shoot them often backfire and permanently blind you!

There was even a fake story that Árbenz had “declined to repudiate the statement” that Guatemala “needs no concentration camps since we will chop off heads of all anti-Commies,” and had therefore adopted the quote as his own. CIA instructions for that one “suggested that attribution above can be based on wire service stories or ‘overheard on shortwave.’” Long before social media, the CIA learned that by saying, “many people are saying X,” an influential broadcaster can make sure that many people will say X.

To top things off, Radio Liberación began reporting “news” from foreign newspapers, claiming that Árbenz had been censoring international papers. For days, the station reported what The New York Times and other publications were allegedly saying — hoping that people would spread the “news” and attribute it to established outlets, not the rebel radio.

With our modern ability to record and study audio, we can hear, in retrospect, that Radio Liberación gave away plenty of clues that they were making things up. Why, for example, would the public radio station broadcast orders for army units, especially when, as at least one broadcast gives away, the rebel brigades had the ability to receive radio orders directly? “Carry out the assault per instructions already received by your radio operator.”

In another broadcast, the DJs pretend that the government is trying to interfere with their radio signal; static and choppiness interrupt the music throughout the broadcast — even as the DJs’ voices come through perfectly clearly. At one point, the DJs gave a report of the sectors that had been “captured” and accidentally said “Sector Y” when they were supposed to read “y” as in the Spanish word for “and.” And in one broadcast the announcer relayed a message for the Liberation Army brigade to attack at 10,000 hours — instead of 1,000 hours, military time for 10 p.m. But the DJs talked quickly and cleverly, making it nearly impossible for a mere listener to fact-check them — similar to how the 2016 barrage of Kremlin-produced fake news stories about electoral fraud and Clinton conspiracies traveled across social media faster than it could be debunked.

To corroborate the radio’s news of these “war” proceedings, the CIA hired several American mercenary pilots to terrorize Guatemalan towns with crude bombs and machine gun strafing runs. Though there were only two or three planes in the air at any given time, they gave the impression of a larger army and produced the desired effect: terror.

On June 19, President Árbenz addressed the nation over the radio, declaring in no uncertain terms that “it is completely untrue that Communists are taking over the government,” and that Castillo Armas’s attacks were an “expeditionary force” backed by the United Fruit Company. “Ever since we received arms for our defense [from Czechoslovakia], officials in Washington and the U.S. press have redoubled their attacks on Guatemala in a strident campaign meant to bewilder the American people.”

Artwork from a government magazine in which President Árbenz defended himself against the “communist” attacks. The artwork reads “the revolution rejects interventionism.” (Image courtesy the authors)

“Our crime is having enacted an agrarian reform which affected the interests of the United Fruit Company,” Árbenz continued. “Our crime is wanting to have our own route to the Atlantic, our own electric power and our own docks and ports. Our crime is our patriotic wish to advance, to progress, to win economic independence to match our political independence.”

Though Árbenz had spelled out exactly what was happening, no international press outlet reported his side of the story. After his speech, Radio Liberación took to the air to call each of Árbenz’s talking points lies.

Ambassador Toriello repeatedly petitioned the U.S. via Peurifoy to help stop the terror attacks. Peurifoy said that there were “no reliable reports” of such attacks. When Toriello brought up that the planes that had been attacking were U.S. aircraft, Peurifoy countered that he hadn’t seen any planes attacking.

Toriello also sought help from the United Nations, but it was the U.S.’s turn to run the schedule for the U.N. Security Council meetings, so Toriello got no audience and no hearing. (The U.N. Secretary General Hammarskjold later allegedly considered resigning over the U.S.’s manipulation here.)

Some of the strafing runs and sabotage activities had caused fires to break out — or at least, that’s what the Guatemalan government’s TGW radio reported, and Ambassador Toriello repeated in his plea to the U.N. On June 23, the CIA propaganda team was instructed to spread word that Toriello’s reports of these attacks in Guatemala were false, and that the Guatemalan government itself “had been caught setting fires to houses.” Radio Liberación obliged.

While foreign press and diplomats idled, Guatemalan newspapers reported the same stories that Radio Liberación reported — to the point that not only did the public believe a real war was happening but many in Árbenz’s own military also began to become convinced that the rebel army was more than the charade the government had told them it was. After Radio Liberación reported that the rebel army had placed mines along the highway from Zacapa to the capital in order to slow government forces, a National Army garrison commander named Bernardo Ordoñez, who was based in Zacapa, sent a message warning government trucks to be careful on that road because the enemy had planted mines.

Meanwhile, reports that the U.S. Navy was intercepting Guatemalan ships off the coast (true, and illegal), along with Árbenz’s speeches implicating the U.S., were starting to make his own colonels think that fighting Castillo Armas was asking for the worst.

Also, around this time, the CIA had amped up its infiltration of the military. The agency had earlier tried and failed to bribe Árbenz’s chief of the armed forces, Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz, with $200,000 to turn on the president. Cables show that the CIA now dangled offers for jobs in the new regime, among other pressure tactics, to get key Guatemalan military leaders to spread the word that fighting Castillo Armas would be suicide.

As Allen Dulles wrote to President Eisenhower on June 20, “The entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength … the use of a small number of airplanes and the massive use of radio broadcasting are designed to build up and give main support to the impression of Castillo Armas’ strength.”

In preparation for the CIA’s final move, Castillo Armas sent several dozen men to “seize” the towns of Puerto Barrios, Chiquimula and Zacapa. A couple of real takeovers could seal the deception and pave the way for Árbenz’s fall.

By June 26 — eight weeks after the launch of the pirate radio station — residents of Guatemala City were hiding in their homes, waiting for war to arrive on their doorsteps. As far as the public knew, two heavily armed columns of rebel soldiers would arrive in the capital any minute.



While the Guatemalan public panicked over the “invasion,” Árbenz ordered his troops to stop Castillo Armas in the two places where real fighting was actually happening: Zacapa and Puerto Barrios.

In Guatemala City, a 26-year-old Argentine named Ernesto “Che” Guevara who’d arrived in the country in January, shortly after receiving his medical degree, had volunteered to join the front lines, floored by the injustice of what he saw happening. But Árbenz had given strict orders that only full-time military personnel would be allowed to fight. He did not want to arm civilians, for fear that it would be construed as a sign of Communism — a Bolshevik-style arming of the proletariat.

Even though the actual rebel attacks were “half hearted” and a “farce” according to the CIA’s own report, by this point Árbenz’s military had given up (much like the would-be Clinton voters of 2016 who decided not to cast ballots after being barraged with divisive and fake news). Scared, confused and demoralized, commanders were refusing to deploy — or even answer Árbenz’s calls.

With the army refusing to fight, Guevara tried to organize a coalition of amateur fighters to guard the capital. The most he was able to do was transport some weapons to a resistance brigade and wait — and watch. The watching turned out to be useful to him when, five years later, he would help lead a revolution in Cuba using the same guerrilla radio tactics he’d witnessed in Guatemala.

Without military reinforcements to help them, the residents of Puerto Barrios defeated Castillo Armas’s men using broomsticks and shovels. A garrison of 30 soldiers stationed in Zacapa killed or captured around 90 of Castillo Armas’s main group of attackers. But reinforcements never arrived. Árbenz’s commanders in Guatemala City were refusing to mobilize. Defenders in Zacapa and Puerto Barrios wondered if the next rebel attack would overwhelm them. They had no idea that they’d just mopped up a huge portion of Castillo Armas’s fighting force.

With the military refusing to act, Guatemala had effectively given up its power to stop the foreign government that was bent on installing its preferred man as president. In the middle of the night, members of Árbenz’s administration began kissing up to Peurifoy and jockeying each other for positions in the new government — rather than trying to stop it. The final days of the “invasion” were filled with exhausting power battles — not actual ones. (The New York Times would later report that Peurifoy played a key role in negotiating a “truce” — which is certainly one way to look at it.)

Árbenz himself could have continued to fight. His wife, Maria Vilanova, supported him in gathering the political party leaders who still supported him and maintaining their resistance. But by the time the chief of the armed forces, Colonel Diaz, had delivered the news that the U.S. would put a stop to the aggression only if Árbenz resigned, Árbenz no longer had it in him to keep exercising his power either.

On Sunday, June 27, 1954, Jacobo Árbenz stepped down as Guatemala’s second and final democratically elected president.

And when he broadcast his resignation speech to the stunned nation, some Guatemalans only heard static. The CIA was jamming the signal.

Once you have obtained the future you were fighting for, it’s time to rewrite history.

Stage 6 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

After Jacobo Árbenz went into exile, CIA agents took reporters on a tour of his abandoned home. Journalists from The New York Times and several other newspapers showed up, having been promised juicy evidence that a Communist foothold in the Americas had been averted.

This was part of the final task that David Phillips and others from the CIA propaganda team had been assigned: Prove to the world that ousting Árbenz had been a good idea.

In his memoir, Phillips described the assignment as a “pleasant” month involving games of bridge and golf with Ambassador Peurifoy, along with gleaning “information to be disseminated abroad … which would demonstrate the extent of Soviet involvement with the regime of Árbenz.”

Ambassador Peurifoy accompanied by members of the Guatemalan military, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

The ultimate stage of the CIA’s info-war playbook against Guatemala, “Consolidation,” was designed to make sure that the U.S.’s preferred version of the events came true — or rather, that it became the official story that journalists and historians would reference moving forward. This effort became its own official CIA operation, dubbed PBHistory.

The very day that Árbenz resigned, CIA headquarters telegrammed orders to broadcast something on Radio Liberación to make sure that Guatemalans didn’t think that Castillo Armas was a “UFCO man.” (UFCO had been supplying him and the CIA with transportation, telegraph and radio relays, and publicity assistance from the beginning.) CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner released a press release–style memo stating, “The United Fruit Company simply does not figure into this at all.” Two days earlier, the CIA had telegrammed the State Department requesting that the U.S. government itself release an official statement in support of agrarian reform somewhere else in the world, so that they could refute the story about the U.S. intervening because of Árbenz’s reforms.

The CIA needed to bring forth “evidence” of Árbenz’s guilt, so that the U.S. could officially recognize Castillo Armas’s new regime as Guatemala’s legitimate government. And that meant that Guatemala needed to release official documents and bold declarations into the domestic and international media in order to control the narrative.

First, CIA agents raided Árbenz’s residence to try to find legitimate evidence that Árbenz was under Soviet control. Inside the agency itself, few people were aware that the Árbenz-Moscow connection had actually been concocted by United Fruit and the Dulleses.

As such, the CIA agents who rifled through Árbenz’s possessions were unable to find evidence that he was a Communist or in communication with Moscow. The only thing that came close was a biography of Lenin that they found on Árbenz’s bookshelf, alongside books about Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other world leaders.

CIA documents indicate that the agents seemed genuinely surprised that they couldn’t find hard evidence of Árbenz being a Soviet ally, which speaks to the effectiveness the disinformation campaign had in creating plausible deniability, even among the U.S. players.

It seems quite likely that the Dulles brothers hoped that Árbenz actually would prove himself to be a Communist, so that they wouldn’t need to use Communism as simply a pretext to intervene in Guatemala. Intervening would be good for United Fruit, and therefore America; wouldn’t it be doubly good if it also became a win against Communism for Eisenhower’s administration?

But by framing this hope as fact in the official materials used to launch PBSuccess, the Dulleses ensured that future agents would use confirmation bias to see Communism even in flimsy evidence — such as when they learned that Guatemala’s freedom of speech laws protected Communists, or when they parsed bombastic statements by the Communists themselves, who had their own PR interest in inflating their status.

Coming up rather empty — but still certain of their conclusion — the CIA decided to plant some “evidence” in Árbenz’s home before the press arrived. One PBHistory report reassured CIA higher-ups that photos would be prepared, “slanted” articles would be written, and “[n]aturally there will be other on-the-spot innovations and preparation of black material whenever possible.” In an attempt to make Árbenz out to be some sort of Soviet-fetishizing collector, the agents brought in stacks of Soviet schoolbooks and some bags of dirt labeled with the names of different Soviet republics. A CIA telegram from its headquarters about false materials that had been “discovered” (they actually put “discovered” in quotes) asked, “what can we cite as the source of these documents?” and instructed that “[t]his ‘sourcing’ should of course be in form acceptable to regime.”

But when the journalists showed up, they recognized that owning Communist history books was not proof of Communist allegiance — if the books were even his — and that the bags of dirt were either fake evidence or flimsy proof at best. It certainly wasn’t enough to counteract four years of evidence that Árbenz had governed as a left-leaning reformist from an independent party.

This didn’t, however, stop the CIA from planting stories of this “proof” of Árbenz’s Communist allegiance in the press, which in turn were referred to in future history books.

Though some of the Guatemalan public had believed the accusations of Communism by Radio Liberación and the rumor campaigns, much of the public remained unconvinced that it would have been a bad thing. Guatemala’s public Communists had supported agrarian reform and showed no desire for an authoritarian system like Moscow’s.

Since the CIA was unable to make a persuasive enough case on the Communism front to Guatemalans, the anti-Árbenz coalition began feeding the press conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of Árbenz’s rise to power in the first place. U.S. Justice Department records reveal that by 1955, Castillo Armas’s government had paid United Fruit’s right-wing public relations firm John Clements Associates $18,370 (more than $176,000 in today’s dollars) to run PR on its behalf.

For the Guatemalan public, the thinking went, it wouldn’t matter whether Árbenz was a Communist or not if the press could convince the people that he had been a villain regardless.

So, immediately after Árbenz stepped down, the front pages of Guatemalan newspapers began relentlessly discussing two things: First, for the left, that Árbenz was a quitter who didn’t care about his country. And for the right: a conspiracy theory that had previously been put to bed, in 1949, about the death of Árbenz’s partner in the revolution, Colonel Francisco Arana, who had been killed while resisting arrest for trying to overthrow the government of Árbenz’s predecessor, President Arevalo.

The newspapers pointed out that Árbenz had benefited from Arana’s death, because Arana would have been a chief rival in the election had he run for president. The papers rehashed the mysterious circumstances of Arana’s death again and again — even though if anyone was implicated, it was Arevalo. But the Castillo Armas–controlled punditry continued stoking the conspiracy until the press could come to the CIA’s desired talking point: Árbenz was a quitter and a murderer.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the United Fruit Company supplied photos to international reporters of mutilated bodies about to be buried in a mass grave and cited them as evidence that Árbenz’s government had been killing dissidents. For decades afterward, historians noted that Árbenz had blood on his hands for these extrajudicial killings; the CIA kept the photos and eventually gave them to the U.S. National Archives as official history on Árbenz. But United Fruit publicist and eventual vice president Thomas McCann, who had helped distribute the photographs, later confessed that he had no idea where they had come from. For all UFCO’s PR team knew, the photos could have been of people that Castillo Armas had killed — or earthquake victims. But, McCann wrote in his memoir, “they were widely accepted for what they were purported to be.”

Newspaper clip reporting on “proof” of the communist killings. (Image courtesy the authors)


“Mass grave” image distributed by the United Fruit Company to international reporters.



There is a chilling corollary in what happened post-Árbenz to what Russia did after interfering in the U.S.’s 2016 election. Once Russia had succeeded in changing the American media narrative and suppressing Clinton voters, the Kremlin embarked on its own effort to rewrite history.

Fake news articles and conspiracy theories poured out alleging that Hillary Clinton was a murderer, a criminal and a thief. The infamous “Pizzagate” story that falsely claimed that Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., continued to percolate after the election — to the point that a 28-year-old man brought an assault rifle to the pizza parlor in December to “rescue” the children. The Pizzagate lie bears a striking resemblance to an official field memo that the CIA circulated on March 2, 1954 (during the early stages of Operation PBSuccess), entitled “Idea to Discredit Árbenz.” The memo outlined a plan to seed a (false) story in the Guatemalan press about Árbenz having a habit of hosting secret “morphine parties” and “girl orgies” where he and his friends would dope up girls and take turns having sex with them — “according to Commie tradition” — until the men were exhausted. The story, according to the memo, “Would be strictly character killing including fake photos.”

To further rewrite 2016’s history, Russia’s own state-controlled media company RT reported that “studies” proved that Russia had not meddled in the U.S. election. Donald Trump had won all on his own, according to Putin. Just like Castillo Armas had overthrown Árbenz all on his own, according to Dulles.

Like Castillo Armas and his supporters, President-elect Trump and his team were glad to promote stories defending the legitimacy of their win. Whether they knew about the extent of Russia’s influence or not, the Special Counsel’s investigation found that they were eager to accept any help they could get, and eager to play up even fake news that bolstered Trump’s image. And why not? Once again, human confirmation bias made people see what they wanted to believe.

When vote tallies showed that Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Kremlin-backed news and social media networks promoted fake news about how millions of people had voted illegally. The Trump team eagerly quoted this fake news.

The aggressiveness of the anti-Árbenz newspaper campaign in the weeks following his exile is suspicious at best — and as CIA documents indicate, malicious on the part of Castillo Armas and his American co-conspirators. The goal was to carve the story into stone that Castillo Armas was not the usurper: Árbenz was.

This blame reversal is perhaps one of the most ingenious parts of the playbook: Pin your own crimes on your enemy. Even better, let a third party with a vested interest do the pinning.

Even after being caught red-handed by U.S. intelligence investigations in the years following the 2016 meddling, Putin was delighted to support efforts to blame Ukraine for the Russian interference in the U.S. election. And because it was in President Trump’s interest for the story of Russian interference to turn out not to be true, Putin didn’t even need to push hard; Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani could play up the Ukraine-blame story, and Russia could simply support it.

A political cartoon clip in the Mundo Libre newspaper encouraged Colonel Castillo Armas to sweep out all the “communist trash.” (Image courtesy the authors)

Even more head-spinning than the Blame Reversal is the Blame-Blame Reversal. This is when the guilty party, upon being blamed, deflects by blaming whoever pointed out their guilt.

When the international press began asking questions about the U.S.’s involvement in the 1954 regime change in Guatemala, the U.S. threw the blame onto the Russians by claiming that Moscow had helped the Guatemalans “stage a frameup” against the U.S. Embassy and U.S. companies. They accused Russia of providing arms to Guatemala, and pointed to a Soviet veto of a U.N. vote to condemn Communism in Latin America as further “proof” that the Kremlin was trying to undermine the U.S.

In an ironic twist, when the American press called out Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, Russia claimed that by blaming Russia, U.S. Democrats were showing that they were actually the guilty ones.

The result of this is enough confusion to get people to give up — in this case to give up on knowing the truth. And in that vacuum, the story promoted by those in power has an outsize opportunity to become official history.

To that end, the CIA drafted “pronouncements” for Castillo Armas to make upon taking power, like declaring that Árbenz had been a Soviet puppet, and calling the public to arms to “kill” the widespread Communism that had taken root in the country.

Within the U.S. government itself, the “official” CIA version of events was passed down until it retroactively became true as well.

Perhaps the biggest evidence of PBHistory’s success is the fact that so much of the propaganda from the operation has been repeated by independent historians as fact — and that those historians have become the authorities that are now referenced by other historians — which means that untangling the truth often leads modern investigators to throw up their hands and say “whatever.” For example, we noticed that Wikipedia today says that Árbenz became a Communist in 1957 after his overthrow — despite the fact that Árbenz’s widow, Maria Vilanova, denied any Communist affiliations in her memoir. Wikipedia’s source is historian Piero Gleijeses’ 1991 book Shattered Hope. When we asked Gleijeses what his source was, he told us that there was no primary documentation. Though there were no Communist Party records, and no statements from Árbenz himself, Gleijeses told us that he had become convinced by the circumstantial evidence — that people were saying it at the time — and because the Communist leader José Manuel Fortuny, whom Gleijeses was personally friends with, had told him that he believed that Árbenz had always been a Communist at heart.

We found CIA documents that show that this is exactly what the U.S. wanted the world to believe. In 1957, extensive instructions were sent for a discrediting campaign as Árbenz moved to Uruguay, based on reports sent by a spy known as “INLUCK,” a.k.a. the former Communist Carlos Pellecer. The information was to be given to politicians and news reporters in-country, and it included extensive information about Árbenz’s correspondence with Communist Party leaders in Guatemala, the mass murder photographs, and an order for a fake psychiatrist evaluation.

Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira, perhaps the leading expert on post-exile Árbenz history, expressed skepticism when we asked him to help clear up the detail about Árbenz joining the Communist Party. Though some sources indicate that Árbenz did become a Communist, Dr. Garcia Ferreira told us, in Spanish, “Fortuny is not a good or trustworthy information source about this.” Really all we know for sure is that Árbenz was eventually invited to take asylum in Communist-friendly countries, where he was “alone, cornered, with mental health problems,” as Garcia Ferreira put it. Even if Árbenz did align with Communists as the CIA chased him around the globe — or even if he’d secretly believed in Communism all along while governing more moderately — Garcia Ferreira noted, “the overthrow was motivated by other issues.”

In other words: Who knows? And yet, the CIA spent years making sure people believed something Árbenz never publicly said or took action on.

Compartmentalization within the CIA made it easier to rewrite — or muddy — the history. When David Phillips wrote about Radio Liberación in his memoir, he said that Árbenz had distributed arms to a peasant army, had illegally suspended civil liberties and murdered dissidents, and that documents left behind by Árbenz showed evidence that he was working to establish a Soviet beachhead in the Americas. These claims were all false. Phillips’s account (along with his boss E. Howard Hunt’s) became the primary material in the propaganda campaign for Nick Cullather’s official CIA history, Gleijeses’ Shattered Hope, and journalists Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s 1982 investigative book Bitter Fruit — all of whom were sincerely working to get to the truth. And yet, falsehoods and errors that Phillips made in his memoir, such as misremembering the radio station name as Voice of Liberation instead of Radio Liberación, made their way into all of these official history books. (The actual recordings reveal that the station was not called Voice of Liberation, or in Spanish, La Voz de Liberación.)

But the fact that CIA propagandists’ false accounts have become the primary source material for so much of the history that the world has believed for 70 years ironically lends believability to the most dramatic claim Phillips made in his recollection of PBSuccess. He summarized it in a quote he attributed to the British ambassador:

“The war was won by that radio station.”



The next step in creating an alternate history was to round up any Árbenz supporters who would be likely to expose the U.S.’s involvement.

After Castillo Armas took power, the CIA handed him a list of Guatemalans whom he might want to make disappear. Though the CIA to this day claims that they did not assassinate anyone in Guatemala, the agency’s own documents indicate that the CIA made a list of people for Castillo Armas to kill. And during the operation itself, CIA agents routinely recommended assassination as a solution. To that end, the agency produced a handy manual on how to conduct such assassinations. Even U.S. diplomats discussed assassination in at least one State Department meeting, suggesting, “The best way to bring about the fall of the Árbenz government would be to eliminate 15-20 of its leaders with Trujillo’s trained pistoleros.”

During Castillo Armas’s time in power, hundreds of dissidents and former Árbenz supporters did disappear. The members of the Communist Party who didn’t escape the country were rounded up and executed. This cleansing became a pattern for the dictators who took power from each other after Castillo Armas as well. Over the next 30 years, as many as 200,000 civilians were rounded up and disappeared by the Guatemalan government.

Soon after PBSuccess and PBHistory wrapped up, some of the U.S. conspirators with the biggest mouths — and intimate knowledge of the most public CIA lies — met untimely deaths too. Ambassador Peurifoy, whom Hunt had called “expendable,” was transferred to Thailand and soon thereafter was killed when a mysterious truck ran him off the road in the jungle. Historians have noted the suspicious timing and circumstances of Peurifoy’s death — and the fact that he had loose lips — but we couldn’t find evidence to support conspiracy theories that claim he was killed as part of a cover-up. Mario and Pepe were gunned down in random acts of violence relatively soon after they returned to their homes in Guatemala, though long enough after the coup that it’s less likely they were part of a cleanup operation. CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner soon suffered a mental breakdown and left the agency. He killed himself a few years later.

The only surviving conspirators with full knowledge of the facts — the Dulleses, Tracy Barnes and a few others — went on to plot similar overthrows in Cuba, Chile and elsewhere. The fake history of Operation PBSuccess — which became solidified as the official U.S. history of the operation — led to false confidence in future CIA missions, such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Perhaps the saddest part of the CIA’s information cleanup operation was what it meant for Jacobo Árbenz. To maintain the official story, the CIA needed Árbenz to forever be a Communist and not become a martyr.

So agents chased Árbenz around the globe. Every time he and his family tried to put down roots — first in Mexico, then in Switzerland, then France — the U.S. managed to twist foreign leaders’ arms to expel him. As Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira has noted in his exhaustive studies of Árbenz’s post-exile history, the CIA did so in order to “demonstrate the supposed communist connections of the deposed regime.” By locking Árbenz out of democratic countries, they could force him to relocate to somewhere within the Soviet Union, and therefore “associate Árbenz’s supporters with Moscow.”

The Árbenzes eventually did go to Russia, but were sent away, finally landing in Uruguay, where Árbenz supposedly returned to alcoholism (he had been sober since getting into politics) — a detail that CIA rumor agents made hay of — and reunited with the exiled Guatemalan President Arevalo. He would move to Cuba, where the budding Castro regime did not make him feel at home, then eventually back to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the CIA pulled out of Guatemala. Castillo Armas cracked down on liberals and peasants, and gave United Fruit its land back — for free. And the democratic vacuum left by Árbenz’s departure was quickly filled.

With chaos.



Carlos Castillo Armas was the luckiest man in Guatemala.

He had been neither the CIA’s first nor second choice for Árbenz’s replacement. Various CIA memos and cables during PBSuccess were devoted to talking shit about the colonel. As one declassified memorandum put it, “He is a firmly stubborn man who in the face of indisputable evidence is prone to maintain his own point of view.”

Yet he was an easy man for a powerful foreign government to manipulate — and he was willing to follow any anti-Árbenz lead that was handed to him. And so he became, against all odds and with relatively little effort, the president.

However, the same things that made Castillo Armas an excellent CIA tool — his ignorance, his ego, and his desire for absolute power — made him a disastrous head of state.

Political infighting took a front seat over policy. Crime escalated nationwide. The economy tanked. And whereas the U.S. had invested just $3 million in overthrowing Árbenz, within a year it had to plow at least $53 million in aid into Guatemala — and eventually much more — in order to keep it from collapsing (which would have cast doubt on the wisdom of removing Árbenz).

Castillo Armas wasn’t lucky for very long. In the third year of his presidency, he was assassinated. His successor, a right-wing general named Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, whom the CIA had originally rejected as a candidate for “Liberator” and later described as a “moody, almost schizophrenic, individual” won what was believed to be a fraudulent election and put an iron fist down. Thousands of people disappeared before Ydígoras Fuentes was defeated by a rival and fled into exile. Over the next 30 years, between 40,000 and 50,000 more people disappeared as Guatemala descended into a civil war that cost over 200,000 civilian lives, kept millions in poverty, and allowed drug cartels to exert control over the government.

Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s mural “Gloriosa Victoria” shows John Foster Dulles shaking hands with Carlos Castillo Armas, surrounded by other key figures. In the decades since the 1954 coup, it’s become well-known in Latin America that the U.S. was behind Árbenz’s ouster; however, the outsized role that media manipulation played in the overthrow plan has been largely ignored or classified until recently. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

These conditions have led millions to leave Guatemala since the fall of Árbenz. Many have immigrated (or attempted to immigrate) to the U.S. — meaning that much of the immigration crisis at our southern border stems from the very chaos that PBSuccess set in motion.

But the destabilization of Central America wasn’t the only legacy left by the CIA’s operation to overthrow Árbenz.

Five years after witnessing Radio Liberación’s role in the fall of democratic Guatemala, Che Guevara launched his own guerrilla radio station in the jungle of eastern Cuba to fight an information war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He took the CIA’s tactic of using the radio to deliver a counter-narrative directly to the public and thereby subvert the government. (Though Guevara had a strict rule about only telling the truth on the radio.) In other words, the CIA indirectly helped put a soon-to-be enemy of the state in power in Havana. (After Fidel Castro took power, slid left into socialism, killed his allies, and eventually sent Guevara to his death in Bolivia, this radio station became a propaganda channel for Castro’s regime in the same way that the Kremlin uses RT and Sputnik to fill its country with pro-government falsehoods.)

And of course, the outcome of PBSuccess led the CIA to attempt similar operations in Chile, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere. And all of this in turn has informed Russia and its web of black PR operators as they’ve continually worked to undermine American interests.

Operation PBSuccess didn’t invent the idea of information warfare — or even guerrilla radio. But it honed both to a science. And 15 presidential elections later, in 2016, when that same science was used against America, the U.S. government still hadn’t developed a mechanism to counter its own 60-year-old playbook.

It was as if the U.S. had hit itself in the head with its own boomerang.

Not long after President Trump assumed office, U.S. intelligence began sounding alarms about the coming avalanche of 2020 election manipulation. In testimony to Congress after his two-year investigation into the 2016 election interference, Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned that Russia was continuing its electoral meddling: “They’re doing it as we sit here.” In October 2019, Facebook revealed that it had taken down 75,000 posts from foreign-run Facebook and Instagram accounts that were attempting to interfere in the 2020 race. By August 2020, U.S. intelligence officials had publicly announced that not only were several countries interested in influencing the 2020 election but also that Russia was actively interfering in a repeat of what it did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Even if it’s in a modern leader’s electoral interest to let a foreign government interfere on his behalf, some experts believe that the American press and public will now be more vigilant when a state actor tries to pull wool over our eyes. As former President George W. Bush said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” Though the U.S. has been using disinformation to influence elections in other countries for decades now, 2016 was the first time that it so clearly happened to us. So, hopefully, knowing that these campaigns work — and how they work — can help us be more discerning in the future.

But bad actors evolve too, as fake news expert Craig Silverman points out. “They have to up their game to a certain extent,” he says. “At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of innovation and conflict in American society right now, and that is the raw material to use.”

And, unfortunately, the American public may have to do its discerning without much help from the social media platforms on which the fake content goes viral. Though Facebook, for example, has claimed that it’s taken action to prevent election news manipulation in the future, a damning recent report shows how the site was unable to prevent the spread of fake news about the coronavirus — revealing how underprepared the company is to handle new, evolving types of misinformation. “Facebook is absolutely terrified of having the same kind of situation happen in 2020 that happened in 2016 and having the blame and frustration focused toward it,” Silverman told us. “But I don’t think the stuff that we’ve been seeing from them lately has been inspiring a lot of confidence.”

A 2016 general election ballot, listing the presidential and vice presidential candidates. (Photo by Corey Taratuta, via Wikimedia)

In particular, Silverman says he worries about Facebook Groups, which are often more local, more private, and more trusted by the people who belong to them. “The big concern is that rumors or consciously created misinformation can really catch fire in these groups. And then by the time a journalist or an investigator at Facebook or someone else realizes what’s going on there, it’s already really taken hold,” Silverman told us. “They’re arguably even more of an issue in 2020 because Facebook has made Groups content even more pronounced in the feed.”

Emboldened by the visible success — and getaway — of the Kremlin’s 2016 interference campaign, Russia, China and other American foes have become “more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave and decide,” according to the U.S. intelligence’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. Perhaps even more concerning, American political operatives “are beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare,” as McKay Coppins recently put it in The Atlantic — which further complicates things for would-be voters.

Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have introduced a bipartisan bill to Congress called the DETER Act, which would create automatic sanctions on any country that meddles in U.S. elections — sanctions that the winner of the election would not be able to lift. The bill has stalled, but it points to what Dr. Kathleen Jamieson of UPenn says is a big part of the solution: “Make the costs so high that you’ll disincentivize these practices.” Such aggressive action against meddling could lead to a global cyber treaty that Jamieson believes even Russia would sign.

While it’s conceivable that we could rally the world together to outwardly agree to “no meddling allowed,” the fact of human psychology is, as Silverman points out, “We are biased to believe things that align with our worldview.” So as long as there are Castillo Armases to benefit from misinformation campaigns — and ways to create plausible deniability — there will be fake news.

Given the uncanny parallels between 1954 and 2016, there are plenty of lessons we can take from this story: The power of public appearance, the vulnerabilities that democracy creates if people don’t remain united in favor of it, the power of information weapons — and how they’re most effectively wielded.

But if there is a most important lesson to remember, it might just be this:

Winning at psychological warfare isn’t about convincing people to do things they’d never do. It’s about getting them to give up.

“The misunderstanding people have about the electoral impact of the trolls and hackers is that they think that they were trying to change votes — that they were trying to make Democrats into Republicans,” Dr. Jamieson told us, regarding 2016. “But they weren’t. They were trying to mobilize and demobilize.”

In a 2018 analysis of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency’s media manipulation efforts, University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Young Mie Kim found that that’s exactly what happened: “The IRA operated voter suppression campaigns,” Kim reported, and “deliberately targeted nonwhite voters, especially African Americans” in an attempt to get them to vote for a third-party candidate or to not vote at all.

The Kremlin’s campaign — starting with seeds of doubt and culminating in strategically timed disclosures, amplified divisionary content, and damaging fake news stories — had an aggregate effect of demoralizing voters who intended to vote for the candidate that Russia didn’t want.

“Polling data suggest they were effective at stopping people from voting for Hillary Clinton,” Dr. Jamieson explained. “If the disinformation in any combination dropped Hillary Clinton by one percent nationally, then we don’t even need to ask about the battleground states. They’ve already decisively affected the election.”

No matter the decade or the technology, in other words, the media manipulation playbook for undermining democracy is not about persuading people to switch sides in a battle. It’s about persuading people to not exercise their power.

Jacobo Árbenz was by no means a perfect president. He made decisions that made his overthrow easier — like the Alfhem arms purchase. His politics may have been further left than the kinds of allies he needed could get on board with. And his outspoken Guatemalan nationalism and tolerance toward democratic communists in his country provoked the United States.

But none of that is illegal. He was elected democratically. Árbenz governed with integrity. He’s widely considered Guatemala’s best president, its least corrupt in history. He was a principled defender of freedom of speech, religious and political tolerance, and dignity for working people.

And the U.S. government destroyed his life and his country for it.

After being harassed by American spies and diplomats for more than a decade, Árbenz finally settled down back in Mexico City, where he sunk into depression and alcoholism. Following his daughter’s suicide in the mid-1960s, his relationship with his wife, Maria, became depressed too. They still loved each other — and stayed together, despite spending long periods of time apart — but he’d lost the quiet intensity that had once made him so compelling.

Jacobo Árbenz and his wife María Vilanova, 1955. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“Some people have their moment in history,” Piero Gleijeses told us in an interview, remembering his talks with Árbenz’s widow before her death. “Jacobo and Maria Árbenz’s was 1950 to 1954.”

This man who was on track to become a legend in Latin American politics — a statesman who had liberated his country from a dictatorship and ushered in democracy and reform — hadn’t just lost his power. He’d let go of it too.

Truthfully, the American government and all its radio hoaxes and cockamamie spy games didn’t overpower Jacobo Árbenz. They tricked him and his supporters into giving up.

And on January 27, 1971, at the age of 57, Jacobo Árbenz climbed into his bathtub, slipped beneath the surface, and drowned.

MORE: See all the original research and behind-the-scenes stories of how this project came together.

Special thanks to our researchers Mayari Rizzo and Luis Pablo Rizzo in Guatemala City for their help making this story possible. While we were finishing this project, Maya began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer; we’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with her treatment here.

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The Extraordinary Trial of the Child Soldier Who Became a Brutal Rebel Commander

Kidnapped at 9 by Joseph Kony’s notorious guerilla army, Dominic Ongwen was groomed to kill. Is he a lost soul deserving of mercy, or a cold-blooded war criminal who must face justice?

The Extraordinary Trial of the Child Soldier Who Became a Brutal Rebel Commander

Chapter 1: Dominic the Captive

He didn’t look at her for a long time. He stared at the edge of the table in front of him, holding his hands in his lap as if he was praying, visibly tense as this small woman with dark blonde hair spoke in a confident, cool, posh English accent. It was March 19, 2018, as Gillian Mezey testified before the International Criminal Court in The Hague in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA, one of Africa’s oldest and cruelest rebel groups. Mezey, a professor of psychiatry in London, was testifying because nothing was more important and more controversial in this trial than the mental state of the accused, a former child soldier.

Ongwen sat between two grim-faced guards. His skin had become lighter after more than three years in prison in Scheveningen, a suburb of The Hague. He had gained weight, but you could still see his handsome high cheekbones, square face, and a deep frown between the eyes that got deeper and deeper the longer Mezey held forth.

Mezey didn’t believe him. She didn’t believe that he had been severely mentally ill, as his lawyers claimed. Ongwen, she said, had “been in control of himself and the men under his command.” All the evidence, she said, suggested that he was malingering, that he was faking his illness.

Dominic Ongwen during his first appearance hearing at the International Criminal Court in The Hague in January, 2015. (This photo and header image courtesy of ICC.)

Ongwen listened to this psychiatrist, who had never personally met him, talk about his mental state for almost three hours. But he lost his composure shortly after lunch break. He got up. He pressed the button that turned on his microphone, got tangled up in his headphones and ripped them off his head in a quick, fluent motion. In Acholi, his mother tongue, he said: “Your honor, I don’t want to listen to the witness anymore. Thank you, madam witness. You’re the one who does all the talking. But were you in the LRA?”

He raised his voice more and more with every sentence. The guards on his left and right jumped up and grabbed his arms. His lawyers turned around, trying to calm him down. Then the green curtain of the visitor gallery closed. Muffled screams could be heard through the glass. And then the sound of something heavy being thrown to the floor.

Dominic Ongwen spent 27 years of his life with the LRA, before defecting from the rebel group at the end of 2014. When he appeared out of the thick vegetation near Obo, in the Central African Republic, the only thing he had on him was a Bible. He surrendered to a local rebel group. They handed him over to the American Special Forces, not knowing who he was.

The Americans were trying to hunt down Joseph Kony, the despotic, unpredictable leader of the LRA. The U.S. soldiers came and picked Ongwen up by helicopter and revealed who he really was: one of five LRA commanders who were wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity with a warrant from the International Criminal Court. The warrant for his arrest was almost 10 years old. No one had expected him to turn up just like that.

In the months before, his relationship with his boss had collapsed. Joseph Kony had thrown him in prison and threatened him with execution. Ongwen claimed that he had managed to escape with the help of one of Kony’s own bodyguards. He said that he had wandered around in the wilderness alone, for more than a month, surviving, among other things, an attack by a pack of lions. He seemed to believe that a higher power had helped him. A cloud, he said, had guided him on his way. He was obviously happy to be alive at all. His body bore the scars of 11 bullet wounds.

After eight days, the Americans brought him to a Ugandan army camp, where the officers gave him fresh clothes — a blue shirt, light trousers. He watched soccer matches, slept in an officers’ tent, and was told, wrongly, by a translator, that he would be brought home, to northern Uganda. Instead, after 10 days in Obo he was extradited to The Hague.

The French-American author Jonathan Littell happened to be filming a movie in Obo on the day that Ongwen was extradited. Ongwen gave him a rare 30-minute interview before he was put on a plane. “It was too short. I got nowhere with him,” Littell told me. But Ongwen did reveal something in that short conversation. He said: “For me, the thing I knew best in this world was using guns. This was the only thing in this world.”

Ten days later, on a cold January day, he appeared for the first time before a judge in The Hague. The first words he spoke in the courtroom were: “First of all, I would like to thank God for creating Heaven and Earth together with everybody that’s on Earth.” He looked young, slim and handsome. He had nervous eyes. He was wearing a suit for the first time in his life. Someone had helped him put in a checkered tie.

It is hard to imagine how strange, odd and inscrutable the world must have felt to him during those first days in The Hague: his aseptic cell, his fellow inmates and guards, none of whom spoke his language. He understood neither English nor French, only a few words in Swahili, which one other inmate spoke. He was as alone as a person can be.

Chapter 2: Dominic the Child Soldier

It was a cool morning, sunny, with a light breeze, when I visited Coorom. A few days later, the heat would return with the dry season. Fields would be scorched, streams would disappear, green would turn to yellow and brown. A small group of huts emerged as we approached in our car, just behind a high field of sorghum only days away from harvest. The compound where Ongwen was born is a quiet place. His uncle and aunt still live there, as does one of his cousins.

His relatives were polite and reserved. The compound had been swept just before I arrived. A tall papaya tree, with big green fruits, stood in the middle. His uncle, Odong Johnson, has the same, somewhat angular face as his nephew. He is missing three teeth in the top row and four in the bottom. At 67, he looked frail, melancholy, his body transformed by a life of hard work, war, displacement and loss.

Johnson told me that, when Ongwen surrendered in 2015, they had just started arranging a funeral for him. They had all thought he was long dead. It had taken them a long time to save enough money for the burial.

As a boy, Ongwen had been the best in his school of more than a hundred children, Johnson said. He had always learned quickly and easily. And he had been eager to please. He never complained about his household chores: fetching water from the river half a mile away, tethering the goats in the evening, lighting the fire for the night.

Ongwen’s father was a catechist, a Catholic lay priest and teacher, a deeply pious man, who was eager to provide his son with a good education. Ongwen often stayed overnight with his grandfather, who lived in a hut surrounded by mango, banana and orange trees a short distance away from the others. In the evenings by the fire, Ongwen told jokes and riddles that his uncle still remembered more than three decades later.

In 1980, about two years after Ongwen’s birth, two factions began fighting for power in Uganda, following the demise of the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin. The violence was triggered, among other things, by a rigged election. The ex-president Milton Obote took power. Obote was from the north. The man who emerged as his biggest rival, Yoweri Museveni, came from the south. The new conflict divided the country, plotting the north against the south.

Many of the troops who fought for Obote belonged to Ongwen’s ethnic group, the Acholi. They fought for the losing side. In January 1986, Museveni’s troops conquered the capital, Kampala. Thousands of defeated Acholi soldiers fled north, trying to hide in their home villages. The new government’s troops followed soon afterward. Ongwen was about 8 years old when the war arrived in his district.

Acholi land was enemy territory for the soldiers from the south, and they behaved accordingly. Thousands of ordinary Acholi who had nothing to do with Obote’s army were arrested. Hundreds were summarily executed. As a reaction to the violence from the government troops, several rebel groups emerged. One of them was the Lord’s Resistance Army, the LRA. Their founder, Joseph Kony, was an ajwaka, a witch doctor.

Spirit worship remains widespread in northern Uganda to this day. Witch doctors get in touch with an invisible, transcendent world, which often serves to explain what cannot be explained: illnesses, deaths, bad harvests. The Acholi also believe that spirits haunt those who have killed. They call this phenomenon, which we might describe as post-traumatic stress disorder, cen.

The hill in Uganda where Joseph Kony said he communicated with spirits that ordered him to found the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and overthrow the government.

Kony, however, invented spiritual beliefs and practices that went far beyond Acholi tradition. He claimed to be in contact with powerful new spirits. When Kony communicated with these spirits, he went into a trance. His voice changed. The ghosts, he said, ordered him to overthrow the government. These weren’t the traditional ghosts meant for farmers and herdsmen. They were ghosts for a rebel leader.

Kony left his home village, Odek, in spring 1987, with only a handful of followers. Shortly afterward, he was joined by a group of soldiers from Obote’s old army. The soldiers taught this strange new prophet how to wage a guerrilla war. The LRA became a hybrid between an army and a religious cult.

What the LRA lacked, initially, were soldiers. Too few volunteered. The belief system of the LRA was too foreign, too strange, too radical to attract widespread support. So Kony soon reverted to an old strategy, one that had been used in the civil war in Angola, by other military groups that lacked public support: He started kidnapping children.

Children were more malleable than adults. They didn’t ask for wages, and when forcibly recruited, they didn’t run away as often as adults did.

Only one of the two eyewitnesses to Ongwen’s kidnapping is still alive. Joe Kakanyero, one of Ongwen’s cousins, is a delicate man with fine facial features. When I visited his home, the table in his hut had been set with an embroidered white blanket. A Bible lay open on top. The worn pages and frayed seams suggested that it had been read over and over again. Kakanyero had been reading the Gospel of John, the pages about the first appearance of Jesus Christ.

Joe Kakanyero, Ongwen’s cousin and the only eyewitness to his kidnapping by the LRA.

“The soldiers waited for us on our way back from school,” Kakanyero recalled. “They were hiding at the side of the road. They had guns. They ordered us to follow them into the bush.” Kakanyero remembered that on their first day with the soldiers, he and his cousin marched until dark. “We kept changing directions. We moved like blind people, here and there,” he said. Their school uniforms, the white shirt, the dark blue trousers, were torn up by tree branches, bushes and thorns. They wouldn’t take them off for four months.

In the evening, the rebels smeared shea butter, a creamy, light oil, on their chest and back, he recalled. They had been told the paste was sacred. In the LRA, many believed that shea butter, mixed with water, protected them from material and metaphysical threats alike —bullets and evil spirits.

Diptych – Left, Geoffrey Opiyo was abducted at the age of 10 by the LRA. Right, Opiyo’s leg has shrapnel wounds he suffered during a battle; it never completely healed due to lack of medical treatment.

At some point in the first three days, the rebels caught an abductee who had tried to escape. “They tied his hands behind his back,” Kakanyero said. The soldiers had called the children together — “they put him on his stomach” — and forced them to watch. “They hit his head with the blunt side of the axe until his brain was no more.” None of the children started crying. Kakanyero remembered the total silence afterward. “I realized that if I didn’t do what they wanted me to do, they would kill me,” he said. “If I wanted to survive, I had to obey.”

It was a lesson that Ongwen would internalize more than anybody else.

Three and a half months later, the cousins were separated by the LRA. Kakanyero said that he managed to escape from the rebel group after four years. The two cousins would only see each other again more than three decades later, in 2018, in a courtroom in The Hague.

The International Criminal Court was established on July 1, 2002, and its very first warrant of arrest, in 2005, was for five LRA commanders. Of those five, only two are still alive: Kony and Ongwen.

The prosecutors in The Hague knew of Ongwen’s past. They knew that he had been a child soldier, but “it didn’t matter,” former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo told me in a phone conservation. “We considered Ongwen responsible for the decisions he made as an adult.”

Once he was in The Hague, the prosecutors charged him with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges included murder, torture, robbery, kidnapping of children and adults to turn them into soldiers, crimes against human dignity, and rape and enslavement of young women and girls. The list of charges is so long that it took the court clerk more than 26 minutes to read them out at the beginning of the trial.

The court would have to decide whether to believe the excuses that Ongwen’s lawyers presented. Bad childhood experiences alone, though, no matter how horrific, would not be enough to spare him. At the beginning of the proceedings, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda made clear that in most courts you meet perpetrators who have been victims at some point in their lives: “Having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification, nor an excuse, to victimize others,” she said. Then she added: “Each human being must be considered to be endowed with moral responsibility for their actions.”

Dominic Ongwen’s case, however, is a unique one. He is the only former child abductee who has ever been tried in the International Criminal Court.

On the day that Ongwen was taken, his mother was killed, according to his uncle and aunt. She had run after the rebels to reclaim her child, they told me. The family tried to hold her back, but she could not be dissuaded. The next morning, the family found her body on the riverbank. She had been beaten to death with bricks.

It’s less clear what happened to Ongwen’s father. There are no direct eyewitnesses to his death, but all family members said that he was shot by government soldiers sometime after Ongwen’s abduction.

Ongwen found out about their deaths, at the very latest, a year after his abduction when one of his cousins, Lily Atong, who was slightly younger than him, was also kidnapped. They met and she told him everything. He may have already suspected it, but at this moment it fully dawned on him that he was an orphan, hardly 10 years old, completely abandoned in a cruel, indifferent world that did not seem to care whether he lived or died.

Chapter 2: Dominic the Loyal Commander

“He was one of the bravest soldiers I’ve ever had,” said Caesar Achellam, a former major general in the LRA, who met Ongwen for the first time in 1991 when Ongwen was about 13 years old. Achellam walks with a limp, the result of an old bullet wound. He is tall, thin, and straight as a stick. He speaks English with a slight lisp, which makes him seem more innocent than he is. Achellam was for a long time the third in command in the LRA, their chief diplomat and organizer. In 2012 he surrendered to the Ugandan army. He has never been indicted by the International Criminal Court. Instead, he received amnesty from the Ugandan government. In recent years, he has been living in a small village just outside of Gulu, the largest city in northern Uganda.

Caesar Achellam, a former Major General in the LRA; Dominic Ongwen at one point served as his bodyguard.

“When he became my bodyguard, he was very young,” Achellam says of Ongwen. “He had had three other commanders before. They all died. He was loyal, obedient, disciplined. I protected him like my younger brother. He carried my rifle, my chair, my mattress” — the typical duties of a bodyguard in the LRA — “I took him with me when I went into battle. Our strategy was based on surprise attacks, on ambushes. We often sustained heavy casualties. I have seen many men who faltered in these situations. People who were much older than him and who turned out to be cowards. Not him.”

In the early 1990s, the LRA withdrew from Uganda and escaped north across the border into Sudan. The Sudanese government, under the dictator Umar Al-Bashir, permitted Joseph Kony to set up camps near the border and also procured weapons and rations for the Ugandan rebels. Small troops of fighters set off regularly to kidnap more children in Uganda and bring them back to the bases in Sudan. At one point, these camps housed about 5,000 abductees, many of them adolescents. The LRA trained them for an invasion into Uganda to overthrow President Museveni. But that invasion never happened.

Diptych – Left, Nelson Oyet, a former LRA soldier who met Ongwen in Sudan. Right, Oyet’s amnesty card, issued by the Uganda government in 2005, freeing him from any possibility of prosecution.

Former fighters who went on raids with Ongwen into Uganda in the 1990s remember him as a young man whose fearlessness had an almost suicidal edge. He was shot several times, in the chest and leg; he survived a cholera epidemic in the Sudanese camp that killed hundreds, and a famine that lasted for months. At one point, people started eating soil and grass. Ongwen told his psychiatrists in prison that sometimes he only ate 10 bean seeds a day.

Ongwen was made an officer at the age of about 19, said Achellam. “He was already a very experienced soldier by then.”

Ongwen’s face looked bloated during the last weeks of the trial in early 2020, possibly a result of the drugs he had been taking to treat depression and sleeplessness. He had shaved off his hair. As the trial neared its conclusion, his depression seemed to deepen week by week. His movements got slower and slower, until they looked like a video in slow motion.

He told his doctors that he felt that God hated him. Once, he asked the prison staff to perform Acholi cleansing rituals on him, to lift the curse that had been put upon him.

Ongwen’s lawyer is Krispus Ayena Odongo, a Ugandan opposition politician and former parliamentarian. Ayena told me that Ongwen had tried to take his own life more than once in prison. In one instance, he drank laundry detergent. Another time he bashed his head against a bare wall. He also started a hunger strike, which he broke off after just five days.

On the first day of the main trial, Ongwen declared: “It was the LRA who abducted people in northern Uganda. The LRA killed people in northern Uganda. The LRA committed atrocities in northern Uganda, and I’m one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities. But it’s not me, Dominic Ongwen, personally, who is the LRA.”

Those words are all he has ever said on the question of his guilt, or his responsibility.

Ongwen was a young man, between 24 and 27 years old, when he allegedly committed the crimes for which he is now in prison. During the early 2000s, the war in northern Uganda entered its final, most brutal phase. The LRA had been driven out of Sudan in 2002 by the Ugandan army. Instead of surrendering, thousands of LRA fighters infiltrated Uganda. LRA members started a new wave of kidnappings, far worse than what they had done before that. In 2003, the LRA abducted 6,500 people, most of them between 11 and 17 years old.

It was during this period that Ongwen distinguished himself as an officer. From summer 2002 to autumn 2005, he was responsible for at least 28 attacks, according to the records of the Ugandan intelligence service and the army, who intercepted radio calls by the LRA. He set ambushes, attacked army patrols, overran remote barracks, burned down entire villages, raided Catholic missions to steal their radios, and was an unrelenting kidnapper.

He was always on the move, often marching in a group of 50 fighters, all of whom spread out around him within shouting distance. Wherever he went, former LRA members said, he had bodyguards with him, many of them minors. At night they slept in a circle around his tent. “He was never afraid,” one of his former fighters told me. “His whole mind was set on war,” said another.

The village of Odek, the birthplace of Joseph Kony, is set in a flat, fertile landscape, by a small river. Like most tyrants, Kony loved grand, dramatic gestures. In 2004 he ordered his fighters to attack the refugee camp that had sprung up there, in the place where he grew up. As commander for this mission, he selected Dominic Ongwen.

Three former LRA fighters testified in court that they saw how Dominic Ongwen gave instructions for the attack. According to one of them, at the meeting before the attack, he said that it was time to “go to work.” Another said that Ongwen told them to “exterminate everything that you see.”

The fighters arrived at the edge of the camp just before sunset. It was April 29, 2004. About 3,000 people were living in Odek at that time, most of them refugees who had been forcibly displaced by the Ugandan government during their war with the LRA.

The massacre barely lasted an hour. The court transcripts give the impression that the main purpose was not necessarily to inflict as much harm as possible, or to kill everyone in sight, but that the violence was deliberately chaotic, to spread the kind of fear that would stay with the survivors for the rest of their lives. One LRA soldier led a schoolboy through the camp on a rope. The schoolboy later testified in court that “every time we came to a house, he would open the door and shoot at people, just to demonstrate that if we try to flee, he was going to shoot us.” They also set fire to a number of huts, usually with frightened people still hiding inside. They fired through closed doors. They tore babies out of their mothers’ arms and killed them.

The next day, Ongwen got on the radio and reported back to Joseph Kony. The call was intercepted both by the Ugandan army and intelligence services.

Kony said, “Did you clean up the backside of my mother?”

Ongwen replied: “Kici kici,” meaning “completely.”

Around 60 people died in the attack on Odek. On the morning after, an elderly couple was found lying in a pool of blood in front of their little shop; a newly married man was discovered dead with a bullet wound in his back, executed, like many others, at close range. A young mother had fallen, her face buried in the mud, her baby still alive, tied to her back.

Why didn’t Ongwen defect much earlier, like so many others? There were many times when he was hundreds of miles away from Kony, alone with his troops in the bush. There were times when Kony could not reach him over the radio for weeks on end. At what point did it become his own decision to stay? Did it ever really?

Whatever drove him, Ongwen was steadfast in his loyalty to Kony for many years. He was the last LRA commander to leave Uganda after the group retreated in the face of mounting military pressure from the Ugandan army. He crossed over the Nile into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Later, he moved with a small number of troops through the Central African Republic and Sudan. He committed further, even more violent massacres.

The people that were with him during that time told me that he became desperate and hopeless, that he spoke with increasing frequency and openness about defecting.

But he only left after his relationship with Kony broke down. Kony was notoriously paranoid — always anxious that his commanders might betray him. According to former LRA soldiers, Ongwen openly contradicted Kony on several occasions — something almost unheard of in the strictly hierarchical LRA. He was eventually placed under arrest. It seemed only a matter of time before he would be executed, like so many commanders before him.

After his surrender in the Central African Republic, he agreed to record a message addressing his former fighters. He called on them to defect: “You all know how brave I was. If even I decide to come out of the bush, what are you still doing there?”

Chapter 4: Dominic A and Dominic B

It is not easy to reconcile the accounts that different witnesses have provided about Ongwen. They seem incongruent — full of conflicting, contrasting character traits. Ongwen himself provided an explanation that might seem like a solution, but possibly one that is too convenient. He told his two Ugandan psychiatrists, Dickens Akena and Emilio Ovuga, who testified on his behalf in court, that two distinct personalities inside him are constantly fighting for control. He calls them Dominic A and Dominic B. One is good, friendly, helpful. The other one is angry and aggressive.

He claims that when he was still with the LRA, he suffered hour-long blackouts; that he couldn’t remember what happened while his dark alter ego, Dominic B, went into combat.

Ongwen’s account of his two personalities has varied. At times he has claimed he has complete amnesia about the actions of his dark self, that he couldn’t remember anything that he did in those hours. At other times he has described Dominic B as somebody who walked next to him or pushed him forward into battle, preventing him from retreating. Ongwen has even said that he could sometimes see Dominic B, his angry self, alongside him.

Several of the women whom Dominic Ongwen once called his wives live just a few hundred yards apart on the outskirts of Gulu. They have built small thatched huts in a tightly packed settlement. Most of them have no land on which to grow vegetables. There is no running water. Malaria is common. They live here because they have no other place to go.

Dillish Abang, Ongwen’s wife, with the couple’s youngest son.

Acholi women who marry and bear children usually leave their family and move to their husband’s village, and their children belong to the husband’s clan, not the mother’s. But for these women, traditional customs do not apply. Their children were conceived in the LRA, under the constant threat of force. The father of their children is in prison, and many of the women do not see Ongwen as their legitimate husband anyway, but as their tormentor. Others, however, still say that they love him.

Dillish Abang, 26 years old, has seven children with Ongwen. Her youngest son was conceived in The Hague (conjugal visits are permitted in Dutch prisons) and is now 2 years old. He is a healthy boy with a round face, and he sat patiently on his mother’s lap for almost an hour while she talked to me. Abang said that she speaks to Ongwen almost every week. He tells her about his nightmares in prison, his new friends — all fellow inmates also accused of war crimes — and his hobbies: He has learned to play the piano and developed a passion for baking in the prison kitchen. According to Abang, he is a loyal, caring, attentive father, eager to find out how his children are doing in school. She told me that he has always treated her well.

Irene Fatuma Lakica, 30, lives less than a 15-minute walk from Abang. When I met her, she was wearing a green T-shirt with winged horses on it. She cried briefly, two or three tears, which she wiped away quickly, while she talked about Ongwen and how he had raped her, once every few weeks. How he had threatened her with a machete if she refused.

Irene Fatuma Lakica was abducted by the LRA and forced to marry Ongwen.

Six women have described similar attacks in court in The Hague. One said that she was about 10 years old when Ongwen told her he wanted to have sex with her. That she was beaten every day for a week by his bodyguards until she could not resist anymore. That she had been so small that she had to be lifted onto his bed because it was so high. That he bragged about it the next day to his bodyguards, telling them that he had “torn a plastic bag.” Not even his own lawyers have denied that he is a rapist. They merely claim that he wasn’t responsible for his actions.

And yet, while the women have agreed on little else about him, their perspectives converge on one issue: None of them think that he was insane.

Emilio Ovuga, professor of psychiatry in Gulu, is a small, gray-haired man. When he testified on November 22, 2019, it was a cold day, and he was wearing a coat over his suit, even in the courtroom. He spoke slowly, with a frail voice and dry wit. Ovuga was the last witness in the trial. He was also, perhaps, the most important.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Benjamin Gumpert, took on the cross-examination. Gumpert is a 57-year-old Brit, educated in Cambridge. He has a scar on his chin, and dark, dense hair that makes him look much more boyish than his age would suggest. Gumpert is a tough, aggressive interrogator, whose only weakness on the stand seems to be that he sometimes enjoys his work a bit too much.

The question that day was a difficult one: How exactly did Ovuga come up with the unusual diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder (previously called multiple personality disorder)? Many psychiatrists say the illness is extremely rare. Some even believe that it doesn’t exist at all, at least not in its most extreme manifestation — as several completely separate personalities.

“Doctor,” said Gumpert, “if you have two distinct personalities, one of which is nice, kind, reasonable, fair; the other of which is vicious, violent and angry; and you are alternating between those personalities, as Mr. Ongwen told you he was as often as three times a week — ordinary people, even lawyers, people who work in other fields, not doctors, are going to notice, aren’t they? It’s only common sense.”

“It is not common sense,” said Ovuga. “And common sense does not apply to everybody. People who do not suffer from severe mental illness cope with their disability, so that those around them will not notice that something is wrong. In most cases they will not notice it.”

“So let’s just try and understand the mechanism,” the prosecutor continued. “Dominic’s with his soldiers and the women he regards as his wives. The other Dominic, the Dominic B, the nasty, vicious, angry, violent one, comes upon him, but Dominic A is able, by coping, to disguise to the outside world Dominic B’s true personality and to pretend still to be Dominic A. Is that what’s happening?”


“Professor, I suggest that that is — ”

“Not correct?”


Gumpert later had to apologize for that last, discourteous word. But he was not alone in his assessment. After the cross-examination, German professor of psychology Roland Weierstall-Pust wrote a comprehensive, withering assessment of Ovuga’s work, declaring that Ovuga’s psychiatric evaluation of Ongwen was “insufficient, unfounded, contradictory and sloppy in almost every aspect and does not fulfill the criteria of a professional forensic report according to the current state-of-the-art.”

Chapter 5: Dominic's Fate

On the last day of closing statements, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lawyer, arrived unprepared. It was March 12, 2020. Ayena was standing behind his desk, in socks, his feet sticking out from under his black robe. Ongwen’s lawyer has a deep and powerful voice. He is capable of delivering points forcefully. But now, when he tried to speak freely, at this decisive moment, he couldn’t. He could not remember the words. He had to stop, again and again. Several times he went quiet midsentence, not remembering the end.

Ongwen at the International Criminal Court during closing statements in March 2020. (Photo courtesy of ICC)

Ayena had already started to look out of his depth during the last months of trial. He had dozed off multiple times while his colleagues were questioning key witnesses, including some of the psychiatric experts.

In the last half hour of his plea, Ayena finally stopped looking at his notes altogether and went into a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness oration, in which he suggested that the judges should think “out of the box.” He joked that Colin Black, one of the prosecutors, was not black at all, but white. He gave a brief lecture on the Nuremberg trials and explained to the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, a German, that the Wehrmacht during World War II was a regular army “which knew the laws of war,” unlike the LRA.

In the rows behind Ayena, his colleagues on the defense team started collecting their documents and putting them in their bags. Ongwen, meanwhile, just sat there, as he did so often, with his hands folded in his lap, while his lawyer came up with his last, simple plea for mercy: “Give Ongwen a chance to go home after 32 years. Whatever verdict you come up with, the sentence should be so mild. I mean, of course, I know that we have been reading from the same page … and we pray that you acquit him. But in case he’s not acquitted, our prayers remain that you give him a mild sentence.”

Ongwen remained still, almost motionless, while Schmitt read out the verdict. He wore a dark suit, a blue shirt with a gray tie, and a surgical face mask. Only his eyes were blinking constantly, quickly and nervously. The presiding judge took his time. Schmitt went over each of the attacks, named victims one by one, described events in detail: the murder, the pillaging, the rape, the abductions. And then Schmitt said: “The chamber is aware that he suffered much. However, this case is about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a responsible adult.” Schmitt then went through the 70 counts, one by one:

Ongwen at the International Criminal Court while his verdict was read on February 4, 2021. (Photo courtesy of International Criminal Court)

Guilty of war crimes, guilty of crimes against humanity, guilty of murder, guilty of pillaging, guilty of rape, guilty of torture, guilty of forcing women to marry him, guilty of forcing them to have his children, guilty of conscripting children into an armed group, guilty, guilty, guilty.

In the end, Schmitt had convicted him on 61 of the 70 counts. The only thing left to decide was the prison sentence, which will be announced at a later date, in a separate hearing. The maximum sentence at the International Criminal Court is 30 years.

The judges left quickly. Dominic Ongwen, however, lingered for a moment. Then he limped toward the door, his body looking heavy, burdened. He exited into a brightly lit hallway.

Listen to this story:

The Obsessive Life and Mysterious Death of the Fisherman Who Discovered The Loch Ness Monster

A humble Scotsman saw something strange in the water—and daringly set out to catch it—only to have lecherous out-of-towners steal his fame and upend his quest.

The Obsessive Life and Mysterious Death of the Fisherman Who Discovered The Loch Ness Monster

Sandy Gray was fishing in the peat-black waters of Loch Ness when he discovered an unusual animal. It was a sleety Saturday in March 1932, and the animal was a large, elaborately colored bird with a glossy green head, a fan of coppery-red plumes, and a dark-metallic breast. Sandy spent much of his free time on the loch (the Scottish word for “lake”) and knew that this creature was a rare discovery. The bird was badly injured; it appeared to have been shot or trapped. Sandy, a bus driver from the tiny loch-side village of Foyers, attempted to save it. He took it home but could only keep it alive for a few days. After it died, Sandy took it to the nearby town of Inverness to have it identified.

The bird, according to the Inverness librarian, was a mandarin duck. It was native to Asia and entirely alien to Loch Ness, which carves a glaciated furrow through the rugged splendor of the Scottish Highlands. It seemed that the duck had escaped or otherwise been released from captivity into an unfamiliar habitat. Sandy’s remarkable find was reported in newspapers across Scotland. “Beautiful Visitor to Loch Ness,” read one headline.

It was not the last time Sandy Gray would be in the papers for an unusual encounter at Loch Ness.

Alexander “Sandy” Gray was born within sight of the loch on March 28, 1900. He grew up in Foyers, midway along the southeastern shore, in a secluded home known as the Bungalow. His father, Hugh, was a foreman at the British Aluminium Works smelting plant, which was hydroelectric-powered by the dramatic 140-foot cascade of the Falls of Foyers. The stone gable–fronted plant employed several hundred workers, and since opening in 1896 it had transformed Foyers from a tiny sheep-farming community, where many residents spoke the Scots Gaelic language, into an expanding industrial village.

The Bungalow was a large green-painted wood and corrugated-tin structure surrounded by well-kept lawns, rose beds and vegetable patches. Set in trees behind the plant, it had separate dwellings for family and for lodgers, and it became a hostel for plant workers. It also had a large room known as the Bungalow Hall, where Sandy’s mother, Janet, hosted tea parties for the local community and his father hosted temperance meetings. The Bungalow Hall also served as Foyers’ church and schoolhouse before the villagers built dedicated buildings.

Sandy and his younger brother, Hugh Jr., or Hughie, sang in the church choir and attended Sunday school together. Foyers was an idyllic place to grow up, where the local children enjoyed adventures in the forests, by the shore, and on the water. The boys had three young sisters, Bessie, Anne and Mary, though Anne, the middle sister, died in infancy in 1905. There were other tragedies in Foyers. Aluminum smelting was a new and dangerous process, and an explosion killed one young man and seriously injured several others at the works. And inside the rubble-stone plant, amid the volcanic heat of the smelting furnaces, the then-underestimated threat of toxic aluminum dust lingered in the air.

The village’s favorable location provided direct access to the loch, and salmon and trout were bountiful in the murky freshwater. Many of the villagers were keen shore and boat fishermen.

When he was a very young boy, Sandy heard a peculiar story from his uncle. Donald Gray was a fishing tackle maker who ran a bait and tackle store in Inverness and often fished in Loch Ness. According to his story, Donald and several other men were drawing in a salmon net when it suddenly resisted and their hauling ropes were wrenched five or six feet back into the water. The startled men held onto the ropes for a few silent moments. Then a huge force ripped the ropes from their hands and dragged the net off into the loch and under the surface, never to be seen again. Other locals had similar tales, although insularity and superstition meant that they were rarely told outside of their communities. Like many kids from the banks of Loch Ness, Sandy grew up with an ingrained belief that there was something strange in the water.

Sandy fished on the loch from an early age. It was while he was fishing in 1914, as a teenager, that he first saw what he believed to be an extraordinary creature in the loch. He was in a small fishing boat off of Dores, a little way north of Foyers. He recalled seeing a large black object, around six feet wide, protruding above the water. When it sank, it left a swirling vortex on the surface of the loch. Sandy said he was impressed by the object’s apparent bulk, and he estimated its weight to be around 15 tons — more than twice the heft of an average African elephant.

There were porpoises in the loch in 1914. They had entered from the Moray Firth along the River Ness and were a rare spectacle that might have confused those who saw them. But even with hindsight, Sandy was very clear about what he had seen.

In subsequent years, Sandy spent much of his time on the water fishing for salmon that ran from the rivers into the loch. He became an accomplished fisherman, with his notable catches reported in the angling columns of Scottish national newspapers. One paper called him “an expert fisher and boatman.” He knew the loch and its inhabitants as well as anyone.

Sandy’s father died in 1921 following a cerebral hemorrhage, which can be caused by exposure to aluminum dust. Sandy decided not to follow his father into the aluminum plant, and instead became a bus driver, carrying passengers from Fort Augustus, at the southern end of the loch, along the shoreside road to the villages of Inverfarigaig and Dores and up past Lochend to Inverness. As the eldest child, Sandy was now responsible for looking after his mother and siblings by bringing home a wage and catching enough fish on the loch to feed the family.

It was while fishing on the loch, probably in 1930, that Sandy had another inexplicable encounter. He was with two other fishermen when they saw a large salmon leaping through the air toward their boat. It was unusual behavior that the experienced men had not seen in the loch before, and they agreed that the fish must have been being pursued by a large predator. As it approached the boat, the salmon disappeared below the surface. Another fisherman described a “terrible noise” and “a great commotion with spray flying everywhere.” Whatever was beneath the water created a wave about two and a half feet high and caused the boat to violently rock. The predator remained unseen, but the men were convinced it was the loch’s mysterious inhabitant.

Inverness newspaper The Northern Chronicle published a brief report of what seems to be this incident — although Sandy is not named — on August 27, 1930, under the headline “What Was It? A Strange Experience on Loch Ness.” This is the earliest-known newspaper report of an encounter with the mysterious creature in the loch. There was a brief flurry of local interest but the story did not make it outside of the Highlands, and the creature remained a local legend.

In October 1932, Sandy married Catherine Kennedy, the daughter of another Foyers aluminum worker. He moved out of the Bungalow into a recently built stone cottage with a prime view of the loch and its majestic backdrop of Highland fells, near Catherine’s family at a row of houses named Glenlia. Sandy and Catherine settled into a quiet life in their peaceful surroundings. Sandy continued to drive his bus around the loch and fish from his boat on its waters. Then, six months after his wedding, Sandy reported seeing the strange creature in the loch again. This sighting would turn his quiet life upside down and help change Foyers and the loch forever.

It was late May 1933, and Loch Ness was experiencing an early glimmer of summer, with lilac heather blooming across the craggy hillsides, the fresh scent of Scots pine hanging crisp in the air, and the warm sun casting a shimmering glow on the loch. Sandy was driving his bus along the shore road when he saw a large dark shape moving across the water’s surface. He tried to gauge its considerable speed as he jammed on the accelerator to match the object’s course along the loch, but he said he was “unable to overtake it.”

Sandy’s sighting was the first to be reported in newspapers beyond Inverness. The Aberdeen Press and Journal, in its headline on May 23, christened the mysterious creature the “Loch Ness ‘Monster’” — which would become its enduring name. And the newspaper’s report, along with others in the Scottish press, noted something else. Sandy Gray had not only seen the Loch Ness Monster: He was going to attempt to catch it.

The Aberdeen Press reports on Sandy Gray’s sighting of the mysterious creature in the loch, May 23, 1933.

Part 2: The Monster Hunt

Loch Ness is more than 10,000 years old. It was formed by glacial erosion along the Great Glen Fault toward the end of the last Ice Age. Today, it is the largest lake by volume in the United Kingdom, containing more than twice as much water as all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. It is 23 miles long and, at its broadest point, 1.7 miles wide. Its freshwater is inky black and opaque, due to the leaching of tannins from the peat-rich surroundings. In the 1930s, there was no accurate measure of its depth. Modern sonar equipment has since measured the deepest point of the loch at 889 feet, although that measurement is disputed. Even today, it is impossible to know all of its secrets.

A view of Loch Ness published by the Scotsman newspaper, 1933. (Image by Johnston Press plc., courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive.)

The loch’s wild and mysterious grandeur attracted tourists even before anyone outside of the Highlands had heard of the monster. In 1933, it was possible to take a sleeper train from London to Inverness for a weekend at the loch, or to book a four-day motor coach tour from Edinburgh at a cost of £7 (£500 or $620 in 2020). Fishing, boating and swimming were popular at the loch long before monster hunting. Tourists were yet to outnumber locals, but that was soon to change.

Increasing tourist traffic required better infrastructure, and a new highway, the A82, was under construction along the loch’s northwestern shore. Described as “a great boon to holiday-makers from the south,” the road’s construction required the felling of large swathes of trees and the dynamiting of deep walls of rock. Some locals said that they feared the blasting might have awoken something from the depths, something they believed had inhabited the loch for centuries.

The first recorded sighting of a strange creature in the loch appeared in the sixth-century A.D. document Life of St. Columba. The ancient text recalls how Christian missionary Columba saved a man from the jaws of a “water monster” in the “Lake of the River Ness.” In the centuries that followed, superstitions about mythical creatures such as water kelpies and water horses haunted the loch. Regular sightings of something strange in the water convinced many that the superstitions were based on fact. In 1933, after Sandy’s reported sighting, The Scotsman newspaper said that the legend of a monster in Loch Ness was “known to most or all of the inhabitants of the district.”

Sandy made his attempt to catch the monster during the last weekend of May 1933, fueled by his three decades of strange tales and experiences. His usual catch was Atlantic salmon, a species with an average weight of around 10 pounds. Sandy once made The Scotsman’s angling column after landing a salmon weighing 19 pounds. By his own reckoning, the Loch Ness Monster weighed more than 30,000 pounds. “Realizing that such a fish would require something stronger than the conventional fishing outfit, Mr. Gray has had special tackle made,” noted The Aberdeen Press and Journal.

This special tackle, rigged for him in Inverness — likely by his Uncle Donald, whose story had first implanted the legend in his mind as a small boy — consisted of a sealed barrel attached via 50 or so yards of strong wire to heavy-duty treble hooks, which were baited with dogfish and skate. Sandy aimed to “play” the monster “very much as an expert angler plays a salmon.” He hoped that, if the monster took the bait, the barrel would sink to a certain depth, then return to the surface, indicating the presence of its huge catch.

Sandy placed his rig into the water off of Foyers and followed the barrel as it drifted southwest toward Fort Augustus. It was a cloudy and cool day, and the loch was calm and still. After several miles, the barrel changed direction and began to move back up toward Foyers. Sandy’s experience on the loch meant that he was familiar with its changing currents, which moved in opposite directions, often in defiance of the prevailing winds. Eventually, the barrel came ashore. Sandy hauled in the wire and examined the hooks. The bait was untouched.

His attempt to catch the monster had failed, although Sandy said he planned to try again. He doesn’t seem to have done so, perhaps because, a Foyers villager recalled, he was laughed at by some skeptical locals when they read the reports of his initial effort. But the coverage generated considerable interest. News of this strange creature lurking in a mysterious loch spread nationally across Scotland. The Loch Ness Monster, as the newspapers now regularly called it, was no longer a local curiosity. Sandy had lifted the lid off of a legend, and a flurry of new sightings began to spill out.

Curious men scan Loch Ness looking for the monster, 1933.

Inverfarigaig resident Alexander Shaw, who had previously been a nonbeliever, watched a fast-moving dark hump for 10 minutes through a telescope. A group of workmen blasting on a hillside for the new road spotted a “massive creature” that appeared to be following a trawler up the loch. Two young women, Miss Keyes and Miss Smith, saw what they described as a monster with flippers or huge legs “careering round in great circles.” Passengers on a shore road bus — perhaps driven by Sandy — saw an unusual creature with a “big head” frolicking in the water. It was also sighted from Fort Augustus, at the southern end of the loch, and then a little further north, from Inchnacardoch, where Robert Meiklem saw through powerful binoculars a creature “as big as a horse” with a peak-shaped back dotted with “knobbly lumps.”

Then on August 4, 1933, The Inverness Courier published a letter from George Spicer, a director of the prestigious London tailoring firm Todhouse, Reynard & Co. Spicer had been vacationing at Loch Ness when, on July 22, he had an unusual encounter while driving between Foyers and Dores. According to Spicer, he saw a “dragon or prehistoric animal” cross the road some 50 yards in front of him and disappear into the loch. The creature had a long neck, a large body and a high back. It was “very ugly,” and Spicer suggested it should be destroyed. He admitted that he could not give a better description, as it had moved so swiftly. But, he concluded, “There is no doubt that it exists.”

Spicer’s story percolated slowly through the Scottish press and down through England, gaining traction perhaps because Spicer was a well-regarded Savile Row businessman rather than a Highlands bus driver. It would eventually become the most famous early encounter with the Loch Ness Monster, eclipsing Sandy’s sighting and his attempt to catch it, and more or less erasing Sandy from subsequent retellings of the monster story. But Sandy’s involvement with the Loch Ness Monster was not over. He would be dragged back into the hunt for the creature following an extraordinary announcement from his brother: Hughie said that he had also seen the monster — and had a photograph to prove it.

Hughie Gray was a year younger than Sandy. He had been employed at the aluminum works as a fitter since the age of 15, and he now lived at a residence known as the New Hut, right next to the Bungalow, along with several other workers. Every Sunday after church, Hughie took a walk by the loch with his camera. On this particular Sunday, November 12, 1933, he sat on a ridge about 30 feet above the water. “The loch was still as a millpond, and the sun was shining brightly,” he recalled. Suddenly, a large object rose out of the loch, around 200 yards from shore. Hughie only got a brief look and couldn’t identify what it was, but, he said, “I got my camera into position and ‘snapped’ it.”

Hughie took five pictures, but he had such a fleeting view of the object that he doubted the long-exposure box camera could have captured it. And if it had caught something, he feared being mocked — just as his brother had been. “I was afraid of the chaff which the workmen and others would shower upon me if I said I had a photo of the monster,” he said. So the spool of film sat in a drawer at their mother’s house, the Bungalow, for three weeks. Then Hughie told Sandy, and Sandy took the film to a pharmacy in Inverness to be developed.

Four of the five shots were blank exposures. The fifth was not. It appeared to show something — an indistinct, blurry gray object — thrashing about in the water. Both Sandy and Hughie were convinced it was the monster. They gave the photograph to the Daily Record, a Scottish national newspaper based in Glasgow. The negative was examined at the newspaper’s offices by a group of photographic experts, including two representatives of Kodak, who confirmed that there was no trace of tampering.

Hughie provided a sworn statement, detailing how he had taken the photo, in the presence of a Record reporter, a representative of the aluminum works, and a local bailie (or magistrate) named Hugh Mackenzie. “Mr. Gray is highly respected by his employers, his fellow workmen, and the people in the district,” said Mackenzie. “I was very much impressed by the straightforward way in which Mr. Gray told his story.”

The Daily Record and its English sister paper the Daily Sketch both published the photograph on December 6, with a guarantee that it had not been retouched, under the headline “Is This the Loch Ness Monster?” Other newspapers published a retouched version that emphasized shapes resembling a tail, flippers and a mouth. This, some observers claimed, was the first solid evidence of a large unidentified creature in Loch Ness.

The Loch Ness monster photo captured by Hughie Gray, December 6, 1933.

The photograph created a sensation. Hughie, labeled by The Aberdeen Press and Journal as “The Man Who Snapped the Monster,” gave a radio interview that was broadcast across Scotland. Newspapers in England splashed the photograph across the front pages. They also reported on a debate in the British House of Commons during which Member of Parliament William Anstruther-Gray called for an investigation, “in the interests of science,” into the existence of a monster in Loch Ness. The Secretary for Scotland, Sir Godfrey Collins, was asked to call in the Royal Air Force to monitor the loch — although he said he preferred to await more evidence. Across the Atlantic, The New York Times reported that police in the “Whisky Region” of Scotland had issued orders not to shoot or trap the monster.

Meanwhile, The Times of London sent retired Royal Navy officer Lieutenant-Commander Rupert T. Gould to Loch Ness to conduct an inquiry. Gould, a skeptic, collected 51 witness accounts and became convinced that there was a large “sea-serpent” in the loch. He wrote a lengthy report for the newspaper, and in the following year he published a book titled The Loch Ness Monster and Others. Gould described Hughie’s photo as “vague” and “indefinite,” but he accepted it as a genuine photo of the creature. Gould also reported George Spicer’s land-based sighting, but later dismissed it, suggesting that the London tailor had seen a huddle of deer crossing the road.

Sandy recounted his experiences to a reporter who had been sent to Foyers by The Scotsman. The newspaper published a theory that the monster may be a plesiosaurus, a large Jurassic-era marine reptile that was thought to have been extinct for 66 million years. Other newspapers preferred more mundane explanations. “Sturgeon, eel, or upturned boat?” asked the Dundee Courier. The Sphere suggested that the monster could be nothing more than a tree trunk, and it published a photograph showing two Foyers villagers, with their trousers rolled up past their knees, retrieving a large trunk with a protruding necklike branch from the loch.

There was little suggestion in 1933 that the monster could be a hoax, which would inevitably have implicated the Gray brothers. They had perhaps received some payment for Hughie’s photo from the Daily Record, although they had turned down “offers involving large sums of money” from other newspapers, and they had also been laughed at and feared being mocked by their neighbors and workmates. Both men claimed to have had previous encounters on the loch that they had not reported or sought publicity for. Whatever Hughie’s photo showed, it did not appear to be a tree trunk. “Liars and leg-pullers exist singly in this world in plentiful numbers,” noted The Scotsman, “but to suggest that scores of them have banded themselves together round Loch Ness would be absurd.”

A cage being prepared to hold and ship the Loch Ness monster in the case that it was caught, December 1933. (Image from the book “The Loch Ness Story” by Nicholas Witchell, 1975.)

Large crowds of sightseers descended on Loch Ness, “in the hope of getting a photograph or glimpse of the monster.” Many of them traveled to Foyers, perhaps in Sandy’s bus, to see the spot where Hughie took his photo. Suddenly, the little village was a tourist attraction, and those tourists who did not manage to photograph or spot the monster might instead have snapped the magnificent falls or gazed across from the shallow banks of the loch toward the heather-strewn hills. For many, the loch itself was a previously unseen wonder, but others remained determined to see — or capture — the monster.

Bertram Wagstaff Mills, “Britain’s Circus King,” offered a reward of £20,000 (almost $2 million today) to anyone who could capture the creature and deliver it, alive, to the Olympia exhibition center in London. A large steel cage was constructed for the purpose. But the cash would only be awarded if the creature proved to be at least 20 feet in length and more than 1,000 pounds and was confirmed by a body of scientific experts to be a “prehistoric monster” that was “hitherto believed to be extinct.” Mills took out an insurance policy with Lloyds of London to cover his costs in the event that the reward was claimed.

Mills’ plan to capture and exhibit the creature echoed the plot of the movie King Kong, which was released in 1933 and shown at Inverness’s La Scala theater in early November — around the time that Hughie took his photo. The movie features stop-motion scenes of a long-necked dinosaur rising out of a lake, and it was blamed for planting the image of a plesiosaurus-type creature into the minds of Loch Ness witnesses. But neither Sandy’s description nor Hughie’s photograph bore any resemblance to the King Kong dinosaur, and it seems unlikely that the Gray brothers were influenced by the movie. However, Mills almost certainly was. The movie had been a huge hit in London for months, and he perhaps saw a little of himself in its protagonist, the exotic wildlife filmmaker Carl Denham.

Filmmaker Marmaduke Wetherell (left), looking for the monster with his cameraman, December 1933. (Image from the book “The Loch Ness Story” by Nicholas Witchell, 1975.)

Denham had a closer real-life contemporary in big-game hunter and filmmaker Marmaduke Wetherell, who oversaw a two-week search at the loch involving boats and two airplanes. “Duke” lived in a motor launch on Loch Ness, and he engaged local volunteers to stand watch at numerous points around the loch. Each had a flare, which they were instructed to light as soon as they spotted the creature. Wetherell did not catch the monster, but he did produce a plaster cast of what he claimed to be a nine-inch-wide footprint, found on the shore near Foyers. He said he could confidently state that there was an “unusually timorous” creature in Loch Ness, but he was unable to provide photographic evidence. “I cannot conceive a more difficult task than trying to photograph the ‘monster,’” he said.

For several months, the Gray brothers’ photo was unique. Then, in April 1934, the Daily Mail published a photograph taken by a gynecological surgeon from London named Robert Kenneth Wilson, showing what appeared to be a dark, swan-like neck protruding from the water. Sixty years later, in 1994, an elderly artist named Christian Spurling confessed that the object in the “surgeon’s photo” was a toy submarine fitted with a putty monster head. Spurling had sculpted the model at the request of his father-in-law, Duke Wetherell, who — embarrassed by his failure to find the real thing — had announced, “We’ll give them their monster.” The fake photo was passed to surgeon Wilson, a friend and keen practical joker, who acted as a respectable front man for the hoax.

Nevertheless, long before it was exposed as a hoax, the “surgeon’s photo” became the definitive image of the Loch Ness Monster. And following its publication, the Gray brothers’ photo was largely forgotten. But Sandy Gray was not finished with the monster, nor was the monster finished with him.

The Daily Mirror debunks Wilson’s photo, March 1994. (Image by Reach PLC. Digitized by Findmypast Newspaper Archive Limited, courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive)

Sandy’s final reported sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was his best, and it remains one of the most dramatic and convincing sightings on record. It occurred on Wednesday, June 19, 1935. Sandy was fishing at Foyers, despite forecasts of rain. He was a little way out on the loch when he saw a “big black object” rise out of the water about a hundred yards away. “It was the back of the monster,” he told The Scotsman.

“Shortly after, the head and neck appeared, rising from eighteen inches to two feet out of the water. Behind, I saw quite plainly a series of what appeared to be small ridges, seven in number, apparently belonging to the tail of the creature, which now and again caused much commotion in the water. The head was like a horse’s, but not as large as that of a horse. It was rather small in relation to the huge body, which was of a slatey black color. From the way the creature moved in the water, I have not the slightest doubt that it was extremely heavy. In moving, it gave a sort of lurch forward, which seemed to carry it about four yards at a time. As I watched it, the monster started to go across the loch.”

Sandy got out of the water as quickly as he could in his heavy waders and hurried along to the post office, where he called for the postmistress Mrs. Cameron, a gardener named Mr. Batchen, and another friend to come with him to the shore. “We all saw the monster further out in the loch, but its head and tail were no longer visible,” he said. “The monster, which had gone out to near the middle of the loch, then turned and came towards the shore again. It came within two hundred yards of where we were standing before it set off in the direction of Invermoriston, where it passed out of sight.”

This was the fifth time Sandy had seen the monster, he said, but he had never had such a clear and prolonged view. He watched it moving about the loch for more than 25 minutes. Two days later, 16 people reported seeing a creature with a black body, dark neck and small head moving through the loch between Foyers and Invermoriston, just as Sandy had described.

But Sandy’s sighting was barely reported. By 1935, the monster-spotters had left and the media had moved on. “The Nessie craze of 1933 and ’34 was over,” says Loch Ness Monster researcher and author Roland Watson. According to Watson, it wasn’t until 1957 and the publication of Constance Whyte’s influential book More Than a Legend: The Story of the Loch Ness Monster that the modern obsession with the legend began. “By then, Sandy’s experience had been buried by later sightings and enough new stuff had come in to muscle it out of that book, although I personally think it is a good sighting,” Watson says.

As for Hughie’s photo, Watson considers it to be a genuine piece of evidence, but he understands why the blurry and overexposed picture has been overlooked in favor of the much clearer “surgeon’s photo.” According to Watson: “The clean-lined surgeon’s photo was always going to be a winner compared to the Gray picture with its motion blur, overexposed portions and splashing. People didn’t know what to make of it — wreckage, otter or whale? At least one publication printed it upside down. By the time the surgeon’s photo was exposed [as a hoax], both were ancient history.”

Sandy set off on his last fishing trip on Loch Ness on February 22, 1949. He was now 48 years old and worked as a taxi driver and chauffeur rather than a bus driver. He had moved to Inverness with Catherine, but he regularly returned to Foyers, where his mother and brother still lived, to fish from his one-man outboard motor boat. It was a fresh and showery Tuesday morning. By the afternoon, a storm had settled over the loch, and the winds had reached gale force, which would have whipped the dark, placid surface into an angry churn of white-capped peaks and troughs. When he failed to return from the loch in the evening, his friends began to fear for his safety. Foyers villagers formed search parties to scour the shores, but when darkness fell, they had to put the search on hold until first light.

The Aberdeen Press reports on the death of Sandy Gray, February 1949.

In the morning, just after 9 a.m., searchers found Sandy’s boat, upturned and badly damaged, on the beach near his mother’s house. A little later, they found his body on rocks at Foyers. It was thought that Sandy had drowned, although his cause of death was uncertified. The most likely explanation was that his boat had capsized in the stormy weather, although it seemed surprising that such an experienced fisherman and boatman would be caught by the conditions in such a manner. The fact that his body was found on rocks suggested that his boat had overturned in shallow water, perhaps as he was heading back to shore. The exact circumstances of his death remain unknown.

In 1955, when Constance Whyte was researching her book on the Loch Ness Monster, she went to Foyers and visited Hughie Gray. He was still working as a fitter at the aluminum works and living in his hut next to the Bungalow. Hughie told Whyte that he still had “very vivid memories” of the circumstances surrounding his photograph, taken more than two decades earlier. The negative was lost, but Hughie and Whyte examined a copy of the photo together, and Hughie said that it contained as much detail as he could remember seeing at the time. “This is one of the very few photographs of the monster in existence,” remarked Whyte, “and examined in conjunction with … eye-witness accounts, it is revealing and suggestive.”

Sandy is not mentioned in Whyte’s book. Today he is mostly forgotten outside of the Gray family, who have moved away from Foyers. The Bungalow is no longer there. Sandy and Hughie’s great-nephew, Alexander Hugh Gray — also known as Sandy — visited the Bungalow as a child and remembers Hughie living next door, although his photo was never discussed. Alexander also recalls his grandparents and father speaking about his late great-uncle, a keen fisherman whom they called “San.” After Hughie died in 1967, he was buried with Sandy and their sister and parents at Drumtemple Cemetery. On a later visit, Alexander found that the family headstone had fallen over. He had it restored and reset.

Nessie spotters are still drawn to Foyers due to its connection with the monster. Like many Loch Ness communities, the village has become a tourist destination, with hotels and cafes, and shops selling Nessie plush toys. The villagers have learned to embrace the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. Some locals are aware of Hughie’s photograph, but few remember his brother. Roland Watson tells me that there is an elderly fisherman named Ala MacGruer who knew Hughie Gray. If you can find Ala in Foyers, he will tell you about his own strange sighting on the loch, and about how, before he goes fishing, he pours a dram of whisky into the water for good luck. He will also tell you that Hughie had a brother called Sandy who once tried to catch the Loch Ness Monster, and later died in mysterious circumstances. He’ll tell you how Sandy went out on the loch and never came back, and became an almost-forgotten part of the legend he’d helped to create.

America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye and the 8,000-Mile Manhunt

Jay J. Armes is a legendary and controversial Texan investigator with hooks for hands and six decades chasing criminals. This was his most epic murder case ever.

America’s Most Flamboyant Private Eye and the 8,000-Mile Manhunt

Chapter 1: A Knock at the Door

Donald Weber was startled to be suddenly confronted by two men from El Paso at his girlfriend’s apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is a large city in the northwestern part of the country, an energetic mix of markets, shops and packed thoroughfares, a place where people can easily disappear into the anonymity of bustling urbanity.

It was early January 1991, and Weber, at the time 30, had been in the country for about four months. With a thin frame and a long face that made him look a bit like Kevin Bacon, he’d made every effort to stay unnoticed among the mass of people going about their lives. Weber had stayed at hostels, where he slipped the proprietors some cash to not record his real name, and he was now living with his girlfriend, a Thai college student named Tsom, and her little dog Lychee. His name wasn’t on the lease or even the mailbox, and it was alarming that these men had tracked him down all the way from Texas.

Earlier that day, he’d come home from giving an English lesson to find Tsom in an interesting mood. She seemed to be waiting for something, and she perked up when she heard a knock at the door.

Tsom was indeed waiting for something, as she’d already spoken to the men earlier in the day. They told her that they were old friends of Weber’s and had traveled more than 8,000 miles to surprise him for his birthday. It had taken a bit of convincing for her to warm up to them, especially since one of the men had two shiny silver hooks in place of his hands, but they were friendly and she told them her boyfriend was expected back in a little while. Tsom waited in the background for shouts of “Surprise!” after Weber opened the door, but there was only intense silence.

Weber assessed his visitors. One man, in his late 50s, was shorter than average, with sparkling eyes. He was wearing a somewhat out-of-fashion leisure suit, but Weber could tell his clothes were quite expensive. At the end of each sleeve was a curved, articulated hook, capable of opening and closing like a pincer. Weber’s eyes snapped back up and met the man’s gaze.

“What do you want?” he asked.

“We need to talk,” the man said. “We need to talk about Lynda.”

Weber glanced back at his perplexed girlfriend and stepped out into the hallway, lightly closing the door behind him. The men deliberately crowded his space. “Well, go ahead and talk,” he said.

Weber looked at the other man. He was taller, in his early 20s, and regarded Weber with a piercing look.

“I don’t know where she is,” Weber said.

The older man reached into his pocket and produced a card with his hook. It read:

Jay J. Armes

The Investigators

He was a private detective and chief of the firm, he said, then introduced the younger man as his son, Jay III. Weber didn’t stop to appreciate the irony that the last name of the man with hooks for hands was Armes.

Weber also didn’t appreciate that Armes had been in the business for more than 30 years at this point and was said to be one of the best private eyes in the world. He had pursued suspects all over the globe, and he looked at Weber with the kind of practiced calm that can only come with such experience.

Armes noticed that the door had been cracked open and Tsom was surreptitiously trying to listen. Conscious of the tension, he suggested that the trio go elsewhere to talk, somewhere where she wouldn’t hear what they had to say. Armes suggested the Orchid Hotel, where he and his son were saying.

Jay J. Armes (left) with Jay III (center) and his bodyguard outside The Investigators’ headquarters near downtown El Paso.

Drums of self-preservation pounded in Weber’s brain. It would probably be best to flee, but at the same time he was desperate to know what their appearance truly meant. He said he’d go with them to the hotel if they promised to bring him right back. They agreed and walked out of the building and over to Armes’s waiting car. A tough-looking Thai man grunted at them from behind the wheel and drove them to the hotel.

Unbeknownst to Weber, as they drove away two more Thai men working for Armes made their way back up to Tsom’s door. There was another knock, and when she answered, the men apologized for the disturbance.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” one of them said. “Those Americans weren’t Donald’s friends. Your boyfriend was involved with another girl and she disappeared. Nobody knows where she is.” He showed her a picture of a young Thai woman named Lynda Singshinsuk. Like Tsom herself, she was pretty, with an open and trusting expression.

The men strongly suggested that Tsom not let Donald back into the apartment when he returned. In their experience, they said, there was no telling what a cornered man might do.

Tsom stood in the doorway holding The Investigators’ card. Lychee looked up at her quizzically, but Tsom didn’t know what to make of this either.

The car weaved through the sardine-dense street packed with cars, buses, motorcycles, and a seemingly unending amount of tuk-tuks, finally approaching the regal hotel where The Investigators were staying. Armes opened the door for Weber and followed him inside. They grabbed a table in the restaurant, where they sat surrounded by tourists and locals alike. Weber sat down and looked at the detectives impassively. They asked if he wanted anything to eat, to which he tentatively said yes.

Weber, who a few years earlier had graduated from law school and passed the bar exam in New Jersey, knew what it must have taken to locate him, and he acknowledged that he was impressed they’d tracked him down. After they’d ordered, he asked the obvious question: How had they found him?

“I’m good at what I do,” said Armes simply. He was softer-spoken than one might expect a private investigator to be, speaking in measured sentences in a voice on the higher end of the register. Still, his straightforward demeanor gave off authority.

“I have a case to solve and you’re the key,” Armes told him. “I had to locate you so that you could fill us in on the details that we need to solve it.”

Jay III picked up from there. He emphasized that they weren’t with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency or the U.S. Marshals, and they weren’t connected to the Thai government. They were private eyes from El Paso who simply needed to know where Weber’s ex-girlfriend Lynda Singshinsuk was.

They’d been hired by Lynda’s parents to find her, a few months after she’d gone missing. Weber had left the U.S. while the search was underway, making him a pretty obvious person of interest. But they didn’t care about his guilt, Jay III said. They hadn’t tracked him down to prosecute him; they just wanted to find Lynda’s body so that her parents could move forward with a wrongful death lawsuit against the university in Chicago from which she’d disappeared.

Weber looked at them. It was an improbable story, and Armes certainly didn’t look like any private investigator he’d ever heard of. But one thing was for sure: He couldn’t take his eyes off the gleaming silver hooks on the table in front of him.

Twelve-year-old Jay J. Armes. (Photo courtesy Jay J. Armes)

Armes had blown his hands off playing with explosives when he was a kid, and his prostheses could apply pressure three times that of the human hand. He was adept at everything from answering phones to firing weapons with them, and these tools even gave him seemingly superhuman crime-fighting abilities, like punching through windows and reaching into flames unharmed, adding to the lore surrounding him.

During his six decades in the business, Armes had investigated kidnappings, murders and extortion schemes, and traveled all over the world in pursuit of his quarry, a modern iteration of the unorthodox lawmen dating back to El Paso’s early days as a rough-and-tumble frontier town. (Early “Hell Paso” was said to be so awash with cowboy violence that Wyatt Earp, the hero of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, quit his post after a few days because the city was too dangerous.)

One of The Investigators’ most famous cases was the recovery of Marlon Brando’s son Christian from a rural encampment in Mexico where he’d been taken by friends of his mother in 1972. Armes had also tracked down missing show dogs and recovered invaluable jewels in Italy by wooing the young socialite who’d stolen them. At the height of The Investigators’ success, Armes said they’d employed a network of spies and on-call agents around the world that helped the firm with their work.

Cover of Armes’ autobiography. (Image courtesy Jay J. Armes)

Armes readily plays up his standing in this crime-fighting tradition; his flair for self-promotion earned him minor celebrity as a larger-than-life crime fighter in the 1970s. He appeared on TV shows and in countless articles, and his autobiography was published by MacMillan in 1976. There was a Jay J. Armes action figure complete with hook hands that could be exchanged for other crime-fighting gadgets. Armes is an irascible hard worker and very confident in his own judgment, but he has also been accused of getting lost in his own celebrity and inflating the magnitude and danger of his work. But he has always maintained that he is the real deal, and if you don’t like his methods, you are free to kiss his 100 percent guaranteed results goodbye.

“My dad marches to the beat of his own drum, and that gets under a lot of people’s skin. But that’s what makes him unique,” Jay III says. “He is tenacious and controversial. He’s like a force of nature. It’s tough to stop him once he gets started on anything.”

Weber didn’t know this history, but sitting there across from the two detectives, he could pick up on the intensity of their life experience.

He swallowed. “I don’t know anything about where Lynda went. I’m not quite sure what more I can tell you.”

Armes and his son nodded. They adjusted themselves in their chairs and settled in for a long conversation. It was the beginning of a showdown, a desperate yet measured gambit on behalf of a woman who had tragically gone missing more than eight months before, on the other side of the world. Armes was convinced Weber knew exactly what had happened. Bringing forth the truth was simply a matter of navigating a complex game of cat and mouse in a country where they had no jurisdiction, no authority and few allies. But that was his forte, and Jay J. Armes was proud to be on the case.

Armes and his son, Jay III, during a trip to Thailand for a case.

Chapter 2: A Mysterious Disappearance

April 16, 1990. Rapeeparn Singshinsuk felt something was amiss when she hadn’t heard from her daughter, Lynda, for over a day. Lynda, 24 at the time, was in medical school at Northwestern University in Chicago, and was generally great about staying in touch. Her mother’s concerns deepened the next day when Lynda’s friends reported that she hadn’t shown up for class and wasn’t answering her door or any phone calls.

Lynda was from Robinson, Illinois, a town of 7,000 people about 250 miles south of Chicago, where her father, Sompong, was a radiologist. Her parents had immigrated to the United States from Thailand when Lynda was a little girl, and Lynda had wanted to be a doctor for as long as anyone could remember. Somewhat quiet, she came out of her shell in medical school and was known to be a dedicated student who thrived in the company of her intelligent fellow students.

It was completely unlike Lynda to fall off the radar. She was responsible and courteous and simply liked talking with her family. The last time anyone had verifiably seen her was the night before, when a friend recalled her eating a salad in the dorm cafeteria. Lynda’s friends and family soon alerted the police that she was nowhere to be found.

The police initially suggested that Lynda had taken off voluntarily, as there was little evidence that she had been abducted from her room in Abbott Hall.

The days turned into weeks and months, and neither the local police nor the FBI were able to unearth any information about her whereabouts. Some small spots of blood had been found on the floor of her dorm room, but there was no way to determine whether the blood was from something sinister or from the routine nosebleeds Lynda was known to have. In fact, there was no way to tell if the blood was even hers, as the sample was so small that the blood type couldn’t be matched conclusively. Suicide was a possibility, but the divers who had been searching the frigid waters of Lake Michigan near the university were skeptical that she’d drowned, since her body never resurfaced.

The situation looked bad, but none of the family’s fears could be confirmed. The disappearance was all the more agonizing because one man stood out as a likely suspect, but there wasn’t any evidence to connect him to the crime: Lynda’s ex-boyfriend Donald Weber, a trim, polite young man who had recently worked for an accounting firm in New York but was now living with his parents again in Robinson.

Lynda and Donald had begun dating in 1984 when they were both undergrads at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They were both from Robinson — Weber’s mother ran the travel agency that the Singshinsuks used to fly back to Thailand, and his father owned the real estate where the family built their home. Both families were fairly well-off and expected a lot of their children — one of Weber’s brothers was a neurosurgeon, another was a fighter pilot. Lynda and Donald continued their relationship long-distance when he went to New York to attend law school at Fordham University. Things seemed to be going well, and in 1987 Weber flew to Thailand with Lynda and her mother to meet their extended family.

In 1988, Weber returned to New York to take a job with a prestigious accounting firm. The rigors of a long-distance relationship were difficult on the couple, and it was sometimes hard to maintain their enthusiasm for each other. Weber ultimately got fired from his job at the firm and moved back to the Chicago area. In the interim, Lynda had begun a friendship with a classmate that eventually led to mutual feelings of attraction. Caught between the familiar comforts of a man she’d known for years and the allure of someone new, Lynda wasn’t quite sure what to do. But Weber became obsessed with winning Lynda back. He bombarded her with letters and phone calls, and at one point he poured his cologne all over Lynda’s bed so that his scent would be present if she and her new boyfriend slept in the bed.

The height of his vindictive ignominy came in February 1990 when he attempted to extort her family by promising to release the boudoir photos Lynda had given to him years earlier. He asked the family for $20,000, which he claimed was equivalent to the amount of money he’d spent on her throughout the course of their relationship. They refused to pay, and Weber mailed Lynda’s family and dormmates copies of the private pictures.

Two months later, Lynda disappeared.

In their effort to find out where she’d gone, her parents swallowed their extreme distaste and paid Weber a visit at his parents’ home. He swore he hadn’t seen her. He’d been out at a restaurant with his parents the night she’d gone missing, he explained, and had been with them all evening. He promised he would keep them apprised of anything he heard.

Before long, however, Weber left for Thailand, a country that didn’t have an extradition treaty with the United States. The family’s suspicion deepened immensely, but as there was no body, there was officially no murder, and there wasn’t anything that tied him to the disappearance.

On Christmas Day 1990, a little over eight months after Lynda had disappeared, the Singshinsuks got a difficult phone call. It was Donald Weber, and he claimed to know where Lynda’s body was. He didn’t say he was responsible for her disappearance, but he did say that he would reveal her whereabouts for $50,000. Lynda’s parents took in the grim message, bile rising in their hearts. He said he was calling from Thailand, and it was unclear what he was implying — did he find out something in Thailand, or was he saying that he knew where she was in the U.S.?

An Armes collectible action figure still in its box.

Even with Weber’s unsettling phone call, there was little that could be done by U.S. authorities, and the Chicago police were still suggesting that Lynda might have run away voluntarily. Frustrated with the lack of progress, the Singshinsuks reached out to The Investigators, the private eyes from El Paso, whom a friend had read about in a magazine. The Investigators were said to be one of the best firms in the world, and founder and lead detective Jay J. Armes gave a unique promise when taking on any case: He 100 percent guaranteed results. Soon thereafter, The Investigators flew to Illinois to meet Lynda’s family and learn everything they could about the case.

Chapter 3: Meet the Investigators

The Investigators’ headquarters is still in the same place it has been since Armes founded the business in 1960, on Montana Avenue not far from downtown El Paso. The mission-style building is surrounded by homes, restaurants and offices, and though it stands out as a bright-white cross between an adobe home and fortress, it is the enormous billboard out front that belies the service inside. One side has a photo of Jay J. Armes peering through some blinds, a .38 revolver held aloft in one of his hooks and a grimace on his face, and the other side features him and his son engaging in spy activities.

Armes, his son, Jay III, and his bodyguard at The Investigators’ headquarters.

Going through the front gate and into the office, the first impression is that of a dentist’s office. A waiting room with magazines and couches sits across from the reception area, with the radio playing at a background volume from speakers in the ceiling. Looking closer, however, the scope of the detective’s legend becomes more apparent. A large photo of Armes with Dick Cheney and George W. Bush is in the waiting room, while a collage entitled “Superheroes since the 1970s” hangs behind the receptionist, featuring Armes alongside heroes such as Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker. A room down the corridor has tables and shelves filled with gadgets and tools, a workspace that would make M from the James Bond films proud, while at the end is a locked door that leads to Armes’s lair-like office upstairs.

To get to his office, visitors can ascend 12 feet in an elevator or go up a spiral staircase; either way, the path leads through a collection of stuffed exotic animals that used to live on the family property in El Paso’s Lower Valley. The elevator opens to a room with dark wood paneling and long, low couches. A mannequin of Armes sits on the couch facing the elevator, providing a momentary diversion for intruders if Armes needs it. To the left is Armes’s desk, a massive piece of furniture in front of a huge map of the United States and surrounded by monitors with the feed from his security cameras as well as clocks showing the times in all different parts of the world. Christian tchotchkes adorn his desk and blown-up autopsy photos sit on an easel in front of him. All in all, the effect is like walking onto the set of a spy movie from the 1960s.

Armes with President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney during Bush’s first inauguration. (Photo courtesy Jay J. Armes)

On a recent afternoon, Armes, now 88, sat behind his desk speaking on the phone with clients in English and Spanish, clad in a pastel jumpsuit embroidered with the Jay J. Armes logo, two J’s forming a pistol. Armes hangs up the phone, expertly positions a pen in an open hook and takes notes on a sheet of paper atop a file folder bulging with documents. Once he’s finished with his business, he stands up and extends a hook to shake unselfconsciously.

Another call comes in. Armes yells into the phone at a client who is at a bank trying to withdraw the funds to pay off a kidnapping ransom. Armes suspects that the kidnapping is related to cartel activity across the border in Ciudad Juárez. He and his son go to El Paso’s sister city on assignment somewhat regularly, investigating other kidnappings and extortion attempts. He speaks with the person on the other end gruffly, counseling them that everything will be totally fine if they simply do as he says.

Armes estimates that his firm has investigated around 5,000 cases over the past 60 years. The work can become fairly routine — indeed, the bread and butter for any private eye is keeping tabs on unfaithful spouses, Jay III says — but his work has taken him to far-flung locales and each case gives him the chance to learn something new. They have undertaken investigations in England, Thailand, Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Myanmar (when it was still known as Burma), Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Brazil, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Germany, Haiti, Belarus, Russia and all over Mexico.

Some countries allow outside investigators to do their work, but in some cases they have to straight-up lie about their reasons for visiting the country. “My dad borrowed Bibles and hymnals from the church to disguise himself as a missionary to get into Chad because they weren’t letting Westerners in for any other reasons,” Jay III says. “It doesn’t matter where you are in the country or world, you can hire us and we’ll work for you.”

Armes initially wanted to be an actor and moved to Hollywood to do so, but he didn’t like the way of life, with the excessive drinking, pot-smoking and relentless smog. He considered going into law but felt he’d be more effective being directly involved in tracking down bad guys, so he obtained the licensure necessary to become a Texas private eye.

Armes proudly boasts that his life revolves around being a detective. He doesn’t have many friends, he isn’t social, and he admits that he wasn’t the most attentive dad. He doesn’t drink alcohol or coffee, is indifferent toward food, sleeps little, and claims he can go long stretches without water. “That’s how you train your body,” he says.

Jay III, now 53, is the assistant chief investigator and managing partner of the firm and also runs Brandon Enterprises, a company based out of the same office that sells spy gear, body armor and firearms. Jay III (there is no “Jay Jr.” — it’s complicated, they said) is more straitlaced than his dad, more like a no-nonsense investigator who would fit in well on the set of Law & Order. The elder Armes says he wanted his son to be an attorney or a doctor, but Jay III had been helping him with investigations since he was in middle school and had his sights set on being a private eye.

“Literally, some of my earliest memories are going on surveillance with my dad, 4, 5, 6 years old in the back of the car,” Jay III says.

“He said, ‘I want to be an investigator, and I want to be better than you,’” Armes recalls. “I said, ‘Son, if you think you can do better, I’ll let you stay on.’”

Jay III went on his first big mission when he was 13, donning the tailor-made uniform of a Greek boarding school so that he could sneak in to rescue the son of a prominent magnate there, against the son’s will. In high school, Jay III was the official crime scene photographer for his father’s outfit, which entailed him getting up close and personal with deceased victims and creepy crime scenes, taking shots of the wounds and any lint or blood or whatever clue might help in solving the case.

By the time he was in college, Jay III was a seasoned private eye who had seen more than his fair share of strange crimes and seedy locations. He was home on a break when his dad was contacted by the Singshinsuks, and he flew with him to meet the beleaguered family.

Like most things in life, good detective work doesn’t come cheap, and The Investigators have a reputation for being a high-end operation. The family agreed to pay around $30,000 to the detectives to find Lynda, and not long after that they began their search for Donald Weber in Thailand, pounding the pavement in a country where they didn’t speak the language and had no official jurisdiction whatsoever.

Chapter 4: Tracking Down Don

Back in the restaurant at the Orchid Hotel, Armes agreed to tell Weber how they’d tracked him down, in order to get the conversation started.

The Investigators had learned that Weber was in Chiang Mai after accessing immigration records and tracing collect calls he’d made to his family and Lynda’s, who by this point had started recording the calls. They’d found a local bank account registered to Weber with $126 in it, but nobody at the bank had seen Weber in weeks.

Weber couldn’t be found in any of the nicer hotels either, so the investigators began looking at cheaper guesthouses. They had their first big break when they learned that Weber had happened to leave some suitcases behind at the Rasha Guest House. The proprietor accepted a few dollars in exchange for letting them look inside, and they’d found photos of Lynda but no evidence of where she’d gone. The innkeeper suggested they try a local market, where they eventually spoke with a young woman selling animals and pet supplies who recognized the American. She told them that Weber had recently bought a dog and that she had recommended a veterinarian to him and his girlfriend, Tsom. The Investigators went to the vet and managed to extract Tsom’s address, where they went to surprise Weber for his birthday.

Weber’s expression changed slightly as they told him all this; he was obviously impressed with their work. But he was still skeptical. It just didn’t add up. He wasn’t convinced that they weren’t feds or part of some other government branch that could spirit him back to Chicago — especially when they admitted that they’d found Weber’s notes for his plan to extort money from Lynda’s family, which were in the suitcase. In those pre-internet days, it wasn’t like he could just look Armes up. The trio circled around the question for the entire day, with Armes and his son insisting that they were working strictly in the interest of the wrongful death lawsuit against Northwestern University.

As they were talking, a tape recorder hidden on the table under a folded newspaper loudly clicked as it reached the end of its cassette. Weber’s eyes widened. His hand shot out, but Jay III slapped it away. “Thai people don’t like guns,” Armes said, and Weber withdrew his hand.

The hint of a gun signaled the end of the conversation. Weber was visibly exhausted and excused himself to go back to his apartment, saying they could continue the conversation tomorrow. Armes wasn’t at all surprised when Weber returned to the hotel a little while later and began yelling at them for wrecking his relationship — Tsom, scared by the earlier visit, wouldn’t let him back in. Don’t worry, The Investigators said, they’d gotten him a hotel room, and they suggested that he go upstairs and relax.

As it happened, Armes had a copy of his 1976 autobiography, Jay J. Armes, Investigator, with him. “Read it,” Armes said. Once Weber was assured that they were who they said they were, they could work on a way forward that would benefit everybody. With that, the trio disbanded and Weber went upstairs. He got to work reading the book, while an associate of The Investigators kept an eye on the room, making sure Weber didn’t try to make a break for it.

Armes and his son have been detained in other countries numerous times over the years. They told Thai customs officials they were tourists and got in with no problem, but a willingness to butt heads with authorities reflects the grit that has characterized Jay J. Armes since he was a boy.

Armes was born Julian Jay Armas on August 12, 1932, and grew up in Ysleta, a working-class neighborhood in El Paso’s Lower Valley. He was one of eight children (five of which survived) born to Beatriz and Pedro Armas, a butcher in a local supermarket. Julian was an athletic, hard-working boy, and it was innocent boyhood mischief that led to his accident. On May 11, 1946, Julian and a friend were out exploring and came across a box of railroad torpedoes, small signaling devices effectively similar to dynamite. His friend dared him to pick some up and rub them together. Julian was blown backward by a sudden explosion, and when he came to, he saw raw stumps where his hands had once been. He was rushed to the hospital, and the remains of his hands were amputated just above the wrist.

“He didn’t cry or say anything much about the pain. He took it like a soldier,” Pedro Armas told the El Paso Times shortly after the accident. “In the hospital, he just looked at me and said, ‘I can almost feel my fingers and hands, Dad. It doesn’t seem like they have been cut off.’”

The doctors told young Julian he would need six months to heal before he could start using the apparatuses that would take the place of his hands. He said that was unacceptable and that he wanted to start right away. The hooks operate like bike brakes, with tension applied to open and close them via a cable anchored to muscles in his arm. Getting used to the hooks caused horrendous pain and he sometimes felt dismayed at the extreme clumsiness that came with his new appendages. One day in school, he looked down as he was writing on the blackboard and saw that he’d dripped a pool of blood onto the floor.

Slowly but surely he mastered the use of the hooks and became adept at writing, dialing phones, and doing other day-to-day activities. He lettered in numerous sports in high school, trained in martial arts, and, when he decided to become a private eye, learned to fire many different kinds of guns, which were adapted for use with his hooks. He opened The Investigators in 1960 and quickly worked to make a name for himself as Jay Julian Armes. (He legally changed his name in 1977.) He had two daughters with his first wife and then two sons and a daughter with his second wife, Linda Chew, whom he married in 1966 and is still married to.

A photo of Armes with his wife after he was elected to the El Paso City Council.

As the prestige of The Investigators grew, Armes became known for his ostentatious displays of celebrity, cruising around low-key El Paso in his chauffeured, bulletproof limousine and keeping a menagerie of exotic animals on his substantial estate. He was a staple in the local press, where he bragged about the many capers he’d solved and the movies and TV series in development based on his life. Having been born to a poor family and suffering a terrible injury as a child, it made sense that Armes would play up the success of his larger-than-life persona, and others were eager to help craft his legend.

In December 1975, a bomb exploded at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. Police had no leads in the case, and an anonymous individual contracted Armes to investigate the bombing. It eventually came to light that a lawyer for Ideal Toy Corp., the company that produced the Jay J. Armes action figure, had hired him to solve the real-life bombing in a way that would conveniently coincide with the release of the toy.

Being a private eye has given Armes a flair for deception, a tool he can use to his advantage, since his investigations are not constrained by the boundaries theoretically informing normal police work. Armes is a religious man who at one point tithed 10 percent of his income to the El Paso church he attended, and he has said that any deception he undertakes has an ethical justification — in this case, bringing to justice a murderer and giving peace to the Singshinsuk family. But over the years, Armes has blurred the lines between fact and fiction so significantly that, in addition to bending the truth in pursuit of criminals, it has become difficult to distinguish between the myths and realities of his own life.

In the 1970s, at the height of Armes’s celebrity, there were a handful of articles that seemingly went out of their way to deflate the investigator’s legend. The articles alleged that, among other bent truths, Armes didn’t pay well, that the venerated waterfall on his property was merely a trough, that he didn’t have a pilot’s license, that he wasn’t an Interpol agent, and, alarmingly, that his armored limousine wasn’t actually bulletproof. “It scared me because all this time I’d been driving down the street, sticking my tongue out at people saying, ‘Yeah, shoot me. I’m Jay Armes’ bodyguard and you can’t get me. You could drop a bomb on this car and it wouldn’t hurt it,’” Armes’s former bodyguard Joe Breedlove told the San Diego Reader in 1978.

An especially incisive article titled “Is Jay J. Armes for real?” was published in Texas Monthly in January 1976, in which author Gary Cartwright essentially portrays Armes as a fraud and outlines with evident relish the numerous holes in the Armes story, including additional fairly major untruths like Armes not having a criminology degree from New York University. Armes was so upset by the direction of Cartwright’s reporting that the magazine’s then-publisher Mike Levy hid indoors until the issue was printed in order to avoid process servers.

Armes recovering from a gunshot wound after being shot during a kidnapping case in San Francisco, 1980s.

Once the issue hit the newsstands, Armes arranged an interview with a reporter from the El Paso Post-Herald to refute the charges in the article. He presented people who were quoted in the article but who said that Cartwright had taken their words out of context or made things up entirely. Armes practically spits when he talks about the experience, claiming it was a hatchet job orchestrated by the opposition to undermine his run for sheriff. Despite what Armes says is consistent interest in profiling him, he refuses to have anything to do with Texas Monthly to the present day. (For the magazine’s part, Cartwright was a celebrated writer with an award-winning career as a journalist. “We stand by our story,” Levy told The Washington Post in 1981.)

Armes has been sued numerous times, and in 1987 he was put on five-year probation by the Texas Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies on account of complaints made against him by clients (including a complaint that Armes chased a subject at such high speeds that her car’s engine exploded). But Armes maintains that due to the sensitive and dangerous nature of his profession, it is understandable that emotions are heightened when things don’t work out exactly as his clients had hoped. “Even General Motors [gets complaints]. In 25 years, when people are not satisfied with the way things come out, they want their money back, and when you know you have done something, why should you?” Armes told the Chicago Tribune during the Singshinsuk investigation. Even Cartwright conceded that Armes did have the chops of a real private eye and that his work on cases typically obtained successful results.

Armes and The Investigators soldiered on through the criticism and were able to continue their detective work relatively unabated. Armes’s ambitions eventually extended to the realm of politics, and he decided to run for El Paso County sheriff in 1976 and again in 1984 as a write-in candidate. Armes ran as an outsider and promised to whip into shape a department that he characterized as lazy and ineffective. He promised to end police corruption and implement physical fitness requirements for officers. One campaign flier had a picture of Armes alongside John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., with the slogan “They had a dream … so do I.”

Armes didn’t win the sheriff seat, but by the time he took the Singshinsuk case, he was more than a year into his first term as an El Paso city councilor. He again relied on his outsider status and his go-get-’em attitude, which appealed to many people in the elderly Hispanic demographic of the district where he’d grown up, who felt that their concerns weren’t adequately represented in City Hall.

Armes would be reelected for another term, and his four years as a councilman were, to borrow the word frequently used in newspaper reports, “colorful.” Among other misadventures, Armes called a fellow council member a cockroach, spent the entire year’s postal budget on one mailing to his constituents, and at one point was accidentally responsible for the evacuation of City Hall, when an alarm clock that looked like a cartoon bomb freaked out the janitor cleaning his office. His fellow city councilors were said to “scream in frustration” when dealing with him.

“I’m not a politician,” Armes told the El Paso Times in 1993. “I have to embarrass [other council members] into voting the right way. That may not be the right way to do it, but let me tell you, I’ve gotten results.”

Indeed, despite the indelicacies of his tenure, Armes did have a reputation for getting things done.

“With Mr. Armes, I feel much more protected,” said one constituent after voicing a problem with a noisy neighbor. “He’s better than the police. He’s like a man of steel. Just look at his hooks.”

All the while, of course, Armes was continuing his work as a private eye and actively getting to the bottom of cases all around the world.

The breadth of Armes’s life and career was a lot to take in, but Donald Weber was a fast reader and got the full account of the Armes story overnight. Back in the restaurant the next morning, the standoff continued. Jay III reiterated what they’d been saying all along — it was strictly about the lawsuit.

The book had convinced Weber that they were private eyes, but this also meant they had no legal authority so far from home. Indeed, Weber wasn’t even a wanted man, as there were no charges pending against him back in the U.S.

“I don’t have to tell you anything,” he said.

Armes suddenly pounded his hooks on the table. “All right, dammit, that’s it.” They told Weber they knew he had no money and that his passport was about to expire. Plus, with his girlfriend having kicked him out, he was now basically homeless. Thailand may not have had an extradition treaty with the U.S., but it likely didn’t want to be supporting any freeloaders, he said. On cue, Jay III said he was going to call the local police and got up and walked down a hallway to use the phone in the lobby.

Armes sitting at his office next to a mannequin of himself.

“This is your last chance,” Armes said. “I’m a pretty good judge of character, and I thought you were smarter than this. Just remember, you brought this on yourself.”

Jay III didn’t go to use the phone and didn’t have any intention of calling the police. Instead, he stood out of view and watched Weber squirm. He returned to the table 10 minutes later and said that the police would be there soon.

Weber looked like he might make a run for it, but instead said he needed to go to the bathroom and quickly walked away. Jay III stood outside the stall as Weber audibly had diarrhea, a common response to extreme stress. This development was reported to Armes, who was elated — they had literally scared him shitless. “I know how crude this sounds,” Armes later wrote in his report of the case, “but there’s just no other way to describe it.”

Ultimately, Weber realized that he had to hedge his bets and accept that The Investigators were who they said they were — bounty hunters who only needed the body for lawsuit purposes. He broached a hypothetical trade: information about Lynda’s whereabouts in exchange for getting him out of his current jam.

Armes took it a step further: If he told them about Lynda, they would help him renew his passport, advance him some of the expected proceeds from the wrongful death lawsuit, and leave him be in Thailand. Weber nodded and sighed.

“Great,” Armes said.

Weber then asked for a piece of paper and began drawing a map of where Lynda’s body was buried.

The father and son resisted the urge to look at each other in amazement. They’d been confident that they could eventually get him to crack, but they were not expecting so brazen an admission. Armes asked his son to call the police back and tell them they were no longer needed.

Armes, his bodyguard and Jay III next to some of the taxidermied animals at his office.

Chapter 5: What Happened to Lynda

Weber said his path to homicidal action began when he strained his back doing manual labor. His mother had given him some painkillers, which he said had knocked him out. He slept fitfully and thought obsessively about Lynda. He’d heard she was going to take a trip to Thailand with her new boyfriend, and this had put him into a melancholy daze. When he woke up, he was convinced that he needed to kill her.

He got up and went out to eat with his parents, who were completely unaware what was brewing in his brain. When his parents turned in for the evening, he took his mother’s car and drove to Lynda’s dorm in downtown Chicago. He was dressed in black and carried with him a backpack containing rope, tape and a pistol.

Recalling an article he’d read in Field & Stream, along the way Weber stopped at a convenience store and bought two cans of soda, which he drained and filled with fiberglass he’d brought with him to make a silencer. He parked in the quiet lot in front of the dorm, feeling the heft of the gun. Then he put the gun in the bag, walked into the building, and took the elevator nine floors up to her room.

Lynda was clad in pajamas and was surprised to see him. She tentatively invited him inside, thinking it was best to appease him and then get him to leave. Weber stared at her. She stared back uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, but I can’t live with what you’ve done,” Weber said. He pulled out the pistol and shot her six times.

The homemade silencer did little to quiet the shots, and the deafening gunfire was followed by an equally thunderous silence. Weber strained his ears, expecting to hear the arrival of curious dormmates or the wail of a police siren, but an hour went by and nobody seemed to have noticed that anything had happened. He had fully expected to be arrested after the deed and was considering killing himself as the police closed in, but now he had to rethink his plans.

Weber found a sleeping bag in Lynda’s room. He stuffed Lynda’s body inside and then put her in a clothes hamper. He carried the hamper down a flight of stairs and got into the elevator with another student, who remarked on the late-night laundry duties. Weber contemplated killing her too, but the conversation ended without any suspicion toward the bundle, and Weber dragged the hamper out to his car. A security officer drove by but apparently didn’t notice that the basket was unusually heavy.

From there, Weber drove back to Robinson and buried the hamper under some car parts in a local landfill. He had taken a ring and some other personal effects from Lynda’s room, and he stopped at a cemetery to burn some of them. Then he went home, parked the car, and went to sleep. He woke up and had breakfast with his family, and Lynda was reported missing the next day.

Weber said that he got worried that the body could be easily discovered and decided to move it a little while later. He dug up the bundle and put it in his car and drove across the country to Las Vegas, where he pawned some of Lynda’s jewelry. Next, he drove to the Coconino National Forest in northern Arizona, a place he’d gone camping with his parents when he was younger. He followed a winding access road as far as he could take it and stopped at a remote clearing. There, he dug a hole and deposited Lynda’s remains. The wind rustled the trees and the sun shone down on him, and he didn’t sense that any prying eyes had seen what he’d done. Not long after that, he flew to Thailand, where he once again expected to commit suicide out of guilt and because of how badly he’d fucked up his life.

“I didn’t believe I had done it,” Weber later said. “The world had ended as far as I was concerned.”

Saying aloud for the first time everything that had transpired that grim April night, Weber looked deflated and sat back in his chair. Looking at the map, they saw he’d drawn an overhead view of the site that included trees, obscure paths and topography. He noted the convoluted route to get there and handed the map over to Armes. They should be able to find Lynda’s remains with a metal detector because she was wearing a metal belt buckle when he buried her, he said. She’d also be wearing shorts and a T-shirt.

The meeting drew to a close. The Investigators gave Weber some money for a place to stay and went back to the United States. True to their word, they left Weber in Thailand and didn’t alert the Thai police. Once they’d found Lynda, they told him, they would help him renew his passport, just as they’d promised.

“We’ll be in touch,” Armes said.

Chapter 6: A Dubious Deal

Soon after they got back to the United States, The Investigators went to the location deep in the Arizona forest that Weber had indicated and were surprised at how accurate the map was. Random bits of topography corresponded to what he’d drawn, lessening the chance they’d been sent on a wild goose chase.

However, the task that awaited them revealed the unglamorous side of being a private investigator. It’s not all walking down shadowy streets and taking nips from a flask — in reality, there’s a lot of uncomfortable grunt work. In this case, searching for Lynda’s remains entailed walking around in the freezing weather with a metal detector and digging extensively wherever the detector indicated a hit. As it turned out, a railroad had once gone through the area and digging hole after hole yielded only a large pile of railroad spikes. It would be very difficult to find a metal belt buckle among all the scraps of iron.

They realized that they had to reenlist Weber’s help. They got back in touch with him in Chiang Mai and explained that they hadn’t been able to find Lynda due to the presence of the railroad spikes — they needed him to come to Arizona and show them precisely where she’d been buried.

They got to talking and negotiated the parameters of the updated trade: Weber would provide information about Lynda’s whereabouts in exchange for safe and quick passage in and out of the U.S. to renew his passport. Armes said that they would not only buy him a ticket back to the U.S. but also would fly him to and from the crime scene in their own private plane, with the authorities none the wiser. In fact, Armes reiterated, he didn’t trust the feds or the regular authorities — local police were often Keystone Cops and the FBI was an old boys’ club that followed its own agenda.

Of course, this was complete nonsense, as they had no intention of letting Weber go free after they found where Lynda was buried. “We never had any intentions of giving in to any of his demands,” Armes says. “Bargaining with a killer is like dealing with the Devil. I just won’t do it.”

Ultimately, Weber was sufficiently convinced by the apparent genuineness of their offer (but also appreciative of Armes’s warning that he would “be on Weber’s ass closer than his underwear” for the rest of his life if he tried to hide again), and he agreed to fly back and facilitate the recovery of Lynda’s body, contingent of course on the assured anonymity of his arrival. They would all get what they wanted, and nobody would have to know.

“We made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” Armes has often said about the case.

On January 26, 1991, The Investigators drove down a barely navigable path through the Coconino National Forest with Weber in the back seat. He looked out the window nervously, trying to spot anyone who might be hidden among the trees. It was a surreal experience, like stepping firsthand into an old memory. The route had been circuitous and prolonged — more of Weber’s precautions to make sure they weren’t being followed.

Getting to this point had come together exactly as planned. Weber had flown from Thailand to Los Angeles, then with The Investigators on to El Paso. From there, the group took the private jet to Flagstaff and drove to the national forest. Alongside Armes and Weber were some men documenting the dig with video cameras, ostensibly for insurance purposes. Weber was initially angry about the cameras, but by the time they’d started driving he’d stopped paying them much mind and just wanted to get the recovery over with and take off back to Asia. Eventually, the vehicle came to the spot in the clearing where Weber said Lynda was buried. Weber got out of the car and was mildly relieved to see that the snow was undisturbed, a good indication that nobody was there waiting for them. Still, Weber was more on edge than ever, and he looked around nervously as he walked them to the grim location.

The group began to dig.

Even to seasoned private eyes who had seen a lot, it was still gasp-inducing to see a foot protruding from the dirt. They gingerly uncovered more of the body, and saw that she was wearing shorts with a metal belt buckle, just as Weber had said. Armes couldn’t believe it. Weber had been under no obligation to reveal anything because they truly didn’t have any hard evidence to demonstrate he was guilty. Armes looked over at Weber, who seemed to know what he was thinking: He couldn’t believe he’d put himself in such a compromising situation. Even the spaces between the trees seemed to be watching him. What the fuck was he doing there?

The group got back in the car and retraced their route away from the burial site. Weber watched the clearing recede and sat low in his seat. About 800 yards down the road, the trees around the car came alive. Agents from the FBI and the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office surrounded the vehicle and pointed their rifles at those inside. A few agents ran up to the passenger side, pulled one of the cameramen out through the window, and threw him on the ground. When they realized they had the wrong person, they went back to the car and yanked Weber out, then handcuffed him as he lay facedown in the dirt and snow.

As it turned out, Armes had alerted the FBI and local law enforcement that he would be bringing Weber to that area after Weber’s flight had been arranged. Armes had initially received a noncommittal response about putting some agents on the ground, but the FBI eventually confirmed that they would be watching for his private plane when it arrived in the area. When word came that Armes had Weber in tow and would actually be bringing him to the burial site, the agents moved out and got into position. They hadn’t left any tracks in the clearing because they had climbed the opposite side of the mountain.

Lynda’s identity was confirmed through dental records, and the Singshinsuk family was finally able to bury their daughter. A funeral ceremony was held for Lynda at a Buddhist temple in Chicago in early February 1991, and a scholarship was established in her name at Northwestern University. “The chances she was alive were one in a million, but we still hoped,” Sompong Singshinsuk told the Chicago Tribune not long after Lynda was found. “I said it was foul play in the beginning. I knew that.” Weber was officially charged with murder, robbery and concealing a homicide.

It was hard for Weber’s friends to believe that he was responsible for Lynda’s death. He hadn’t ever even been in a fistfight. “Don was a gentleman’s gentleman,” one college friend said at the time. “He was the kind of guy most ladies fall for. He wasn’t crude or crass, and he was always sensitive to the feelings of other people. But he was someone who wanted to set the agenda.”

A year later in Chicago, wearing a blue jumpsuit with epaulettes, Armes testified at Weber’s pretrial hearing. He recounted the circumstances of Weber’s capture, referring to Weber as “Charles Manson,” owing to the thick beard he’d grown in an effort to prove he wasn’t in his right mind, a quip that elicited laughs from the gathered officials. Weber shook his head once in response to something Armes said but otherwise stayed quiet.

Weber’s lawyer, a public defender, argued that Weber had become temporarily deranged when Lynda wanted to move on from him. He was full of despair at what he’d done, and according to an account in the Chicago Tribune, Weber had told a police officer that he was glad he’d gotten captured, as it put an end to the agonizing uncertainty of life on the run. But Weber also argued that he was coerced into confessing by The Investigators and a group of four hired Thai agents who loomed nearby during their conversation, and that someone in the group had had a gun trained on him for much of the interrogation.

Given the abundance of evidence against Weber — including his confession and hand-drawn map — prosecutors would almost certainly be seeking the death penalty. In fact, Weber was so distraught about what he’d done that at one point he offered to plead guilty in exchange for the death penalty, although official procedures made that trade impossible. The Singshinsuk family ultimately decided to accept a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence in order to avoid a lengthy trial. Armes claimed some credit for convincing the family that this way Weber actually had it worse.

“If we put him to death, he’ll just go to sleep like a little baby,” Armes says. “But if we let him live and give him 60 years, we’ll have him suffer more.”

Weber was ultimately sentenced to 75 years in prison — 70 years for the murder and five more for concealing a homicidal death. Weber, who declined to share his side of the story for this article, is currently incarcerated at the Graham Correctional Center in south-central Illinois and will be eligible for parole in 2027 when he is 66.

Chapter 7: Still Cracking Cases

On November 18, 2017, a U.S. Border Patrol agent named Rogelio Martinez radioed that he was going to investigate an unknown disturbance near a culvert in the rural expanse of Culberson County, 120 miles east of El Paso. The next morning, Martinez was found at that the bottom of the culvert, gravely injured, alongside another agent who’d suffered some broken bones. Martinez eventually died of his injuries, and although the FBI conducted dozens of interviews and an extensive investigation, the agency concluded that the cause of death could not be determined. Some people close to the agent were unimpressed with this conclusion and suspected that foul play was involved, and they hired Armes to see what he could find out about that night.

Armes contends that the fall wasn’t far enough to kill anyone and that the injuries Martinez suffered aren’t consistent with those of a fall victim. He suspects foul play and is currently investigating this possibility, one more of the hundreds of cases The Investigators have taken on since the Singshinsuk investigation, including the (possibly faked) kidnapping of a Mexican finance minister, the mysterious death of a Levi’s executive in Hong Kong, and a caper in which Armes and Jay III were detained in Juárez for threatening a Mexican national whom they said was secretly filming the coupon production facility where they’d been hired to provide security.

Linda, Armes’ wife, with one of Armes’ lions.

As he nears his 10th decade of life, Armes often asks his wife why the Lord still has him here. Every time he expects that the resolution of a case will satisfy the itch to investigate, he finds he is still compelled to take on more cases. “The Lord gives everybody a gift. The Lord has given me a gift to go after a case and solve it,” Armes says. “You can come into my office and hire me for the most intricate case in the world. A case that the FBI cannot solve, the police department can’t solve, the sheriff’s department can’t solve. I like to solve those cases.”

Armes has also run for office a few times since his tenure as a city councilor in the early 1990s. His bid for a city council seat in 1999 ended with a lawsuit and countersuit between him, the winning candidate and a judge over alleged intimidation at a polling place. Two years later, a fight broke out among supporters of Armes and another candidate during yet another council bid. After that, Armes put his political ambitions behind him and focused only on the thing he loves most: private investigating.

Armes at the entrance of his 12-acre estate.

The Singshinsuk case “was an affirmation on how well we work together,” Jay III says of his partnership with his dad. “The satisfaction that I got out of that case personally was huge. It’s one of those things that … you don’t realize what you’re doing until after the fact and have a chance to sit back and actually look at everything that happened … and you think, ‘Wow, that’s pretty crazy.’”

The elder Armes is at the same time boastful and modest when reflecting on the Weber caper. Still, he feels that the Singshinsuk case, for all its intrigue and psychological back-and-forth, was not particularly unique or difficult to solve, considering all that he’s seen in his career. But there was satisfaction in providing the forlorn family with a definitive answer — and an affirmation of the legend he has built for himself and The Investigators.

After more than six decades in the business, Armes maintains a single-minded dedication to his work.

“I’m not trying to break records or prove anything,” Armes says. “I’m just trying to get everything out of life that it can possibly produce. The more I draw on myself, the more I find I have left.”

An American Tragedy: The Colorful Life and Shocking Death of Ovid Neal III

On the dark streets of a college town, two teenagers hoisted a rock and ended a man’s life. His loved ones want to know when we’ll finally value the lives of homeless people.

An American Tragedy: The Colorful Life and Shocking Death of Ovid Neal III

On October 3, 2018, a 56-year-old man went to sleep on a green tarp, under plaid and camouflage blankets, in downtown Eugene, Oregon. A bus camera captured his prostrate form next to a wall on Pearl Street at 8:39 p.m. Five minutes later, police say, another camera captured two teenagers “prowling,” checking car doors in a nearby parking lot.

Within minutes, their paths connected, calamitously. By the time police arrived, five minutes after a 9:26 p.m. emergency call in which the man’s agonal breathing could be heard, the teens were gone, the man unresponsive. Strewn about were his tooth, a blood-soaked ushanka fur hat with ear flaps, a Swiss Army knife, black boots, a watch, Yogi tea packets, matches and a tobacco pouch. It was a tree-shrouded location on a dark night with no witnesses.

Two miles across town, at 9:45 p.m., a sergeant’s call woke Detective Jennifer Curry after an hour’s sleep alongside her beagles Arnold and Lucy. She reached for her notepad. As the lead detective, she wouldn’t sleep again that night. At the crime scene, Sergeant Tim Haywood paused while processing the evidence. “He comes over and he tells me, ‘Hey, there’s a bloody rock in that garbage can,’” Curry recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Sure there is.’”

“He’s like, ‘No, I’m serious.’”

The victim was taken to Sacred Heart Medical Center, where he died at 10:08 p.m.

A clue to his identity was found atop a parking garage near the scene: a cooler bag holding empty food containers and a criminal citation written to “Neal, Ovid — Transient.”

The life and death of Ovid Neal III ranged from Harvard to homelessness to homicide. It’s recreated here based on interviews with 13 friends and family members, police accounts, court documents, five days of court testimony and independent reporting. The tragic tale demonstrates how our society often fails the most vulnerable among us, be they homeless, mentally ill, or neglected and abused young people. It illuminates tough questions about the limits of justice, redemption and forgiveness. Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, calls it “an extraordinary tale of tragedy, every which way.”


I. “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants”


At a nearby hotel called the Timbers Inn, Detective Curry first glimpsed and obtained images of the youngsters she nicknamed “Dark Pants” and “Light Pants.” Eventually, she would draw from two dozen cameras to create a timeline of the night’s events.

The pair arrived on the scene at 8:47 p.m., then engaged in “back and forth lookout behavior.” Dark Pants came into view lugging the rock.

Video at 8:57 p.m. shows them walking southbound, toward the sleeping Neal. “Dark Pants has something in his hands now,” Curry says. “He lifts it up over his head, then swings it down, almost as if practicing.”

The attack occurred seconds later. Neal’s death certificate lists “blunt force head trauma” as cause. He was hit in the head with the rock nine or 10 times, the medical examiner testified.

The killers scored $11 in paper money and change, some marijuana and a brass pipe, fleeing at 9:19 p.m. Then, Curry says, they “went on a beer run,” stealing from a Safeway grocery store, then heading to a park.

Dark Pants was “freaking out” afterward, testified Nicholas Stewart, a friend who met them later that night. “He was scared. He said he might have hurt someone really bad or might have killed them. He seemed like he was going to cry.” Dark Pants gave away his sweatshirt and rubbed blood off his shoe in the grass.

The detective sees callousness, not contrition.

“So, after you leave a man for dead on the sidewalk … you go off and meet up with some friends and go make a beer run, which means you go into a store and you steal alcohol you can then go drink in a park?” Curry asks.

Eugene police discovered that the teenagers had passed near the downtown bus terminal, and they worked with security to collect video of them. The footage was the best they had, yet it showed only the back of the teens’ heads. The investigation caught a break when a Lane Transit District officer recognized one of the suspects from the back, even without seeing her face, and said, “I know who that is — that’s Jessica, and that’s her boyfriend.”

Turned out the pair were known to authorities: “Dark Pants” Jonathan Kirkpatrick, then 16, had grown up amid child welfare systems, and was an assault suspect after a domestic violence incident led his father to call police. “Light Pants” Jessica Simmons, then 15, had a juvenile justice warrant.

During the week after the murder and before their arrest, the star-crossed lovers celebrated their first anniversary in the apartment where they shared a bedroom. They didn’t go back downtown.


II. An “All-Rounder”


A life lived decades ago in half a dozen states and reviewed through the lens of grief can be hard to fathom. But those who knew Ovid Neal recall a man full of verve and adventure. None foresaw the horrors to come.

Named after a Roman poet, Ovid — whom virtually everyone, including Detective Curry, seems to have called by his first name — was born in Inglewood, California, on March 22, 1962. His father, Ovid Neal Jr., was an Army Air Corps officer who “flew the hump,” piloting C-47 troop transports over the Himalayan Mountains during World War II. His mother, Ruth Gordon, now 84, was a businesswoman who says she “supported the family for many years,” including as a sportswear buyer for 168 Zale Corporation stores in 28 states. Ovid’s sister, Amanda Roth, 59, works for a film company in Hollywood, and his brother, Zachary Neal, 56, develops affordable housing in Las Vegas.

Ovid’s friends fondly recall an “all-rounder,” 6 feet 4 inches tall who graduated Hampshire College and Harvard Divinity School, modeled for Harley-Davidson, wrote poetry, deftly played blues harmonica and had a smooth jumper. He fearlessly fished a Texas pond, his friend Javed Akhund recalls, even after venomous water moccasin snakes surfaced. As a teenager growing up between Texas and New York City, he wore a black leather jacket; an early girlfriend, Marissa Radovan, recalls “fantastic make-out sessions” in his hatchback. An old photo shows him tanned and in shape, with a small moustache and full head of curly brown hair. Women at a Dallas bookstore where he worked thought he looked “like a Greek God,” recalls a friend and former co-worker, Scott Senn.

Ovid Neal’s headshot, taken for a modeling gig in Dallas, 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Amanda Roth)

Albeit a bit more ridiculous. “At that time, we all wore Royal Crown pomade in our hair,” Senn laughs. “That’s like Dapper Dan in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”— a glistening, slick look.

Senn and Ovid used to laugh until their sides hurt. “If there’s one thing I remember [about] hanging out with him, it’s hilarity. It was literally the theater of the absurd. Him and I would get face to face and do this old vaudeville dancing thing, where you’re looking at each other, faces like two inches from each other.”

Many friends told tales of Ovid’s mischievous humor. But his childhood brought challenges, including his parents’ divorce, frequent moves, and struggles with addiction. “By the time we were 18, I think we had lived in 18 different places,” his younger brother, Zachary Neal, says.

“We came from kind of a harsh environment, in that a lot of the people we grew up around had problems and issues,” he adds. In the 1970s, he says, a lot of parents were “out to lunch, literally and figuratively.”

Zachary Neal says he relied on his big brother for physical protection, but felt a “visceral need” to protect Ovid emotionally, starting when he was about 10 and Ovid was 12.

“I came home and he was sitting on the ledge on the ninth floor of our apartment [building] and I asked him what he was doing and he said, ‘I was thinking about jumping,’” Zachary Neal recalls. “I remember being totally sad. I think he was partly joking, but … that was when I started feeling this need to protect him.”

The family was financially well-off, but they struggled in other ways. The 1970s and early 1980s was a quicksilver period for them. Roth recalls that they moved to New York as a family in 1972, then their dad moved back to Texas and the kids stayed with their mom. Then all three kids moved to Texas, then returned to New York. Eventually, the two boys returned to Texas around 1975 or 1976.

Ovid’s itinerant education ranged from the elite Dwight School in Manhattan to the Griffin Christian Academy in Dallas, where kids would throw dice between classes, Ovid’s friend and fellow student Jerry Harwell recalls. “The only rules were empty your ashtrays and no fighting.”

Ovid overdosed on six horse tranquilizer pills in Dallas at around age 13 or 14. He sobered up, then counseled other teenagers at the Palmer Drug Abuse Program (PDAP). Friends told stories of “dry” parties that were “tons of fun,” riotous conversations at a Denny’s, copious cigarettes, coffee.

Former PDAP director John Cates recalls that Ovid “shined” as a counselor for addicted adolescents and their families. As things turned out, Ovid even counseled his mother. Ruth Gordon recalls that it was Ovid who helped her stop drinking for good.

“On July 9, 1979, he was in Texas and I was in New York, and I shared with [Ovid] that I was just at the end of my rope, if I didn’t stop drinking I was going to end up in an institution or dead,” Gordon says. Ovid spoke to her for a long time, and they prayed together. “And I did what he suggested, and I’ve been sober since July 9, 1979.”

Sober and sharp, Ovid turned heads when he arrived at Hampshire College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, in 1983 in a shiny red Volkswagen Beetle.

Ovid on his guitar, harmonica and drums, late 1990s. (Photo courtesy Amanda Roth)

“I remember thinking, who’s that jerk who thinks he’s so cool?” says classmate Grainger Marburg. “We somehow met and I was totally disabused of that notion.”

The two lived in Dakin House, where Ovid’s room overlooked an apple orchard.

It was always “spartan,” Marburg remembers. “His bed was always made, almost military. His desk was neat. He had these little rituals, and he loved coffee. I would sit on the chair and he’d sit on the bed and make coffee and want to know how I was doing. I had this desire to feel anchored, like, I need an Ovid fix.”

Ovid went to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and Bible studies and was a triathlete and basketball player. Even with his looks and charm, Marburg doesn’t recall him dating.

“He would swim like crazy, run like crazy, bike like crazy,” says Winslow Dennis, who met Ovid on a basketball court. Ovid and he discussed the euphoria that comes from exercise. “He would find different highs.”

Ovid’s Hampshire transcript is filled with descriptors like “extraordinary” and “remarkable.” Professors described his senior study of French philosopher Simone Weil as having “tremendous integrity, depth and sensitivity.”

He was the kind of person who old friends periodically searched for online after falling out of touch — one, Shannon Greer, recalls that he “spent many a night trying to find his electronic footprint, to no avail until this tragedy.” After the murder, Marburg’s browser hooked a Eugene news story. “I was like, ‘Oh my God.’”

“I was kind of devastated,” says Chris Curnutt, a friend who knew Ovid from his teenage years in Texas. “Just fucking, what the hell?”

“It’s hard to hold back tears,” says his high school friend Jerry Harwell.

Ovid’s family dropped into a pit of despair. “At first, for months, I was in a state of shock, especially because of the way in which he was killed,” Amanda Roth testified. “Then I was overcome with acute grief.”

“This is a nightmare — it is like being trapped under water,” Zachary Neal says. “Who kills a disabled, frail, kind homeless person?”


III. A Childhood at “War”


If Ovid’s childhood had rough patches, Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s was scarred by the kinds of social risk factors that bring repeated child protective services involvement. (Much less is known about Jessica Simmons, for whom Oregon officials declined to release records.)

Born in Las Vegas in 2001, Kirkpatrick was exposed to methamphetamine in utero but born healthy. He grew up amidst drugs, gangs and brutal violence in Porterville, California, and Anchorage, Alaska. His grandmother, Sandra Brown, testified at his trial that he was “kind of a wild boy … into superheroes [and] going to parks.”

When he was 4, she testified, his mother called to say, “he dug a hole in the fence to get away.” Brown recalled Kirkpatrick’s mother crying, saying, “Jonny … told her that he hated her because she took him away from his dad.”

Kirkpatrick had people who loved and cared for him, court testimony reveals, but his parents struggled with addictions and domestic violence.

Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s mugshot. (Photo courtesy Lane County Sheriff’s Office)

A court psychologist testified that “Jonny” — as his friends, family, some officials and his attorney called him — told “war stories” about witnessing shootings and an assault “that ended up with somebody’s internal organs hanging outside of their body.” He claimed he snorted an “eight ball” of cocaine — a potentially lethal dose — and drank a half gallon of hard alcohol a day. Much is unclear about Kirkpatrick’s childhood — the discovery phase of Kirkpatrick’s case alone includes 3,000 pages of evidence, most of which is sealed — but court testimony suggests that Kirkpatrick began drinking and smoking marijuana in California and continued or increased his use in the years leading up to the murder.

A summary of his childhood written by Judge Suzanne Chanti in her Opinion and Order in the case — a 52-page document recently unsealed by The Oregonian — includes information from child protective services (CPS) records from California and Oregon.

In 2006, California CPS workers substantiated a child neglect charge against Jonny’s mom. In 2007, his father was sentenced to a year in jail, where his son visited him. Soon after, the father moved to Oregon.

By 2015, Judge Chanti writes, after foreclosure and eviction, Jonny, his mother and siblings continued to live in a house with no electricity. The kids would go to neighbors’ homes to ask for food. “When CPS intervened, they discovered a home with no electricity, no furniture, no beds … puppies in the house and every room had urine and feces on the flooring.”

Jonathan Kirkpatrick and three sisters were placed in foster care. Social services called their father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, in Eugene. Two days after his 14th birthday, Jonny and his three sisters moved in with his father, who shared a two-bedroom apartment with two other people.

The next phase of Jonny’s childhood, in Eugene, became, if anything, more chaotic.

Raymond Kirkpatrick was making $9 an hour washing semitrailer trucks and received housing assistance from the Oregon Department of Human Services. He was often gone, working or sleeping in a friend’s trailer. Jonny would steal his dad’s weed, and his twin sisters frequently went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Jonny was once awakened by a friend throwing money on him, saying “Hey, I got this by robbing people.”

Once, Raymond Kirkpatrick testified, he got mad at his son “for smoking weed in the house,” inspiring “a heated argument that led to a broken TV and the bruise on my face.” At times, the father testified, his son “would pull his hair, punch himself in the head. He would say stuff like ‘I should just kill myself.’”

At one point, Jonny ended up in a runaway shelter, effectively homeless on the streets of Eugene at the same time as Ovid Neal. Detective Curry says that there’s no evidence the two ever knew each other. At some point, the teen moved back in with his father.

Jonathan Kirkpatrick’s relationship with Jessica Simmons was also violent. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick “was, by all accounts, emotionally dependent on [Simmons] and when things did not go well between them … he would hit himself in the head and hit his head against objects, sometimes so seriously that he knocked himself out. During one argument he stabbed himself in front of [Simmons].”

A Facebook profile for “Jonny Kirkpatrick” contains images of young white people in baseball caps and hoodies alongside language like “Bitch Go Die,” “Speed Gang,” “Kill Them All” and “Mr. Steal Your Bitch.” It lists Porterville College and a job, fry cook at the Krusty Krab, and, framed in red hearts: “Jessica Crystal Simmons / forever and always.” A linked profile for a “Jessica Crystal Simmons” has Jonny’s name in hearts.

In the hours before the pair killed Neal, they had been drinking Oregon Springs vodka and arguing. A youth worker testified that Kirkpatrick head-butted a glass window before running off. He was “really intoxicated,” Judge Chanti writes — slurring his speech, his friend Stewart testified.

Despite their truancy, legal problems, frequent intoxication and violence, Jonathan Kirkpatrick and Jessica Simmons cohabitated like adults at his father’s apartment, police say. Simmons brought her cat to live there, Chanti writes. When police served a search warrant at the home, two miles from the scene of the murder, they seized a brass pipe that was stolen from Ovid Neal as he lay dying. It contained Kirkpatrick’s DNA.


IV. A Courtroom and a New Law


On February 4, Jonathan Kirkpatrick sat silently next to his bespectacled public defender, Katherine Berger, inside the wood-paneled Lane County Courthouse. Kirkpatrick had turned 18 and moved from a juvenile facility to the adult jail. His close-cropped haircut recalled 1930s gangster John Dillinger. In the audience, Ovid Neal’s sister, Amanda Roth, and her husband, Nick, craned their necks, arms folded, legs crossed in the same direction. A half-dozen people took notes with pen and paper.

Like many states, Oregon passed rules in the 1990s that favored a tougher approach to justice for juvenile offenders: Measure 11 automatically tried teenagers 15 and older as adults for murder, attempted murder, robbery, assault and sex crimes. But in 2019, a new state law, SB 1008, flipped the switch, requiring all youth accused of crimes to be tried in the juvenile justice system, except when prosecutors request a “waiver” to adult court — which they did for Kirkpatrick.

During the trial, three psychological experts shared conclusions drawn from thousands of questions and their knowledge of the field. Kirkpatrick’s actions and words were dissected, analyzed. Dr. Holly Crossen, called by the defense, diagnosed Kirkpatrick with disorder after disorder: attention deficit hyperactivity, neurodevelopmental, major depressive, adjustment, child abuse/neglect, cocaine, marijuana and alcohol use.

The central question was, did he have a sophisticated, “adult-like” understanding of his actions at the time? Or was he yet a child, with a developing brain impacted by his upbringing?

Berger, the recipient of a statewide legal award, had testified before the state legislature in support of SB 1008 before its passage. It’s likely she gave Kirkpatrick a better chance than most public defenders could have. She turned the court’s attention to her client’s upside-down upbringing, relying on the science about adolescent brains that, for supporters of the new law, is the point. She seemed at ease amid tales of trauma, or telling details like Kirkpatrick’s 34 doctor visits for ear infections. (Berger did not respond to several interview requests.)

A licensed clinical psychiatrist she called, Kristen Mackiewicz Seghete, testified that “regulation, judgment and reasoning” are regulated by the prefrontal cortex, which is still developing until age 21 or later. Poverty and “early life adversity” can impact brain development, initiating a process “like the fire alarm of your brain” that pushes youngsters into “fight, flight or freeze” responses,” Mackiewicz Seghete testified. Using alcohol and drugs increases “sensation seeking.”

Berger questioned the father, Raymond Kirkpatrick, about a time his son ran away:

“When he was living on the street, would you run into him sometimes?”


“How would those interactions go?”

“They were really good for me.”

“Were you trying to get him to come back home?”

“Oh. Yes.”

Arguing for the state, Senior Deputy District Attorney Erik Hasselman stood tall in a dark suit, using his authoritative baritone voice to depict “Mr. Kirkpatrick” as a rational, calculating man-child who knew exactly what he was doing. He pointed to the fact that Kirkpatrick bragged about the killing, saying he “caught a body,” and continued his violent behavior while in custody.

Lt. Steve French, who handles security at the Lane County Jail, testified that Kirkpatrick was the source of three misconduct incidents there in late 2019 and early 2020, including “cheeking” medications — concealing them in his mouth — and “fishing,” attempting to retrieve contraband from another cell. A third violation, French testified, was sending letters to a younger “girlfriend” in juvenile custody. Judge Chanti writes that Kirkpatrick developed a “relationship” with a 13-year-old female in custody, whom he kissed, and that he threatened another youth and an officer.

At stake in the case was not only the question of how juvenile offenders are tried in Oregon. For Kirkpatrick, a waiver into adult court would mean a far longer sentence. Jason Jones of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA) testified in Kirkpatrick’s hearing that youths adjudicated in the past for serious crimes such as murder have stayed in OYA custody for fewer than four years, on average. (Sarah Evans, an OYA spokesperson, says that figure was based on “preliminary data” and is “not correct,” stating that youths charged with murder since 2000 have averaged more than seven years in OYA correctional or transitional facilities, plus parole to a community program.) Either way, it is significantly less than Kirkpatrick would face if tried as an adult.

Jones also testified on a point that Ovid’s family saw as a conflict of interest: Jessica Simmons’ probation officer at the time of the killing was Priscila Hasselman, the prosecutor’s wife. By the time of Simmons’ arraignment, Erik Hasselman says, his wife was off Simmons’ case. He adds that the state would have been at a disadvantage had he recused himself, given his experience prosecuting many local homicides.

After weeks of deliberation, Judge Suzanne Chanti’s ruling kept Kirkpatrick’s case in juvenile court. The state and Simmons had already agreed to a plea deal that kept her case there as well.


V. A Cajun Strawberry Cake


Three decades earlier, in September 1987, Ovid Neal’s love of Simone Weil had led him to Harvard Divinity School. Ovid and his mother, Ruth Gordon, asked his sister, Amanda, to move in with him at 16 Evergreen Square in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was across the tracks, literally, from Cambridge, with a back view of an old Italian social club. It had one door — to the bathroom. It cost $900 a month for 300 square feet.

“It was little,” Amanda Roth recalls of the flat, “but we were happy!”

Amanda typed up Ovid’s papers and ran the salad bar in the university’s kitchen. Ovid hit the books and busked in Harvard Square, playing music on the streets with harmonica, guitar, amplifier and drums.

“We got a pug, and we named it Gatemouth,” Amanda Roth recalls, after bluesman Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “He loved Gatemouth.”

A contemporary photo shows a lean, intense Ovid with longish hair, holding a cigarette next to an open window, at a small table replete with a book, papers, fruit, flowers and what looks like pill bottles. Roth says that the black-and-white shot “shows Ovid as I remember him — as philosophical, contemplating the big questions and fueled by coffee and cigarettes.”

Ovid at the home he shared with his sister Amanda in Somerville, Massachusetts, 1990. (Photo courtesy Amanda Roth)

During this period, his friend Scott Senn recalls Ovid mentioning that he’d gone to dinner at Allen Ginsberg’s house, along with William Burroughs. “He said it was just bizarre,” Senn recalls. “He was studying the philosophy of religion, and he would meet guys who were just world figures.”

The path seemed natural for Ovid. “I always imagined him being a minister or a professor of divinity,” says friend Shannon Greer. Ovid’s mother, Ruth Gordon, remembers that his Harvard dean had mapped out a plan for him that culminated in an Oxford Ph.D.

It was not to be. Ovid told his mom, “I’m not going to be able to do it.” While at Harvard, Ovid’s struggles with mental illness became too much.

“His head was on fire by the time he was in grad school,” his brother, Zachary Neal, says.

Gordon recalls spending Christmas with her son in Manhattan, and he seemed “all right,” but a month later she got a call from Harvard: Ovid was sick. Gordon flew to Boston and her son had lost 30 pounds.

Ovid underwent an “unbelievable battery of tests,” with ambiguous results. “They thought he had a heart condition at first,” Gordon says. Ovid’s diagnoses ran the gamut from brain lesions to temporal lobe epilepsy, depression and finally rapid cycling bipolar disorder.

It was 1988, and Ovid began tapering on and off of various psychiatric drugs, which his brother recalls included “all the psychotropics, SSRIs, antipsychotics, Lamictal, lithium, Zyprexa.” He’d be on them for the next 26 years.

At one point during this period Ovid struggled to sleep, his brother recalls, so he volunteered in a hospital at night with terminally ill children, “just holding them, so their parents could sleep. I remember saying, ‘I don’t know how you can do that.’”

A spokesperson confirmed Ovid’s graduation from Harvard Divinity School on June 10, 1993, with a master’s in theological studies.

In their last phone call, a week before his death, Ovid surprised his sister by thanking her for things she did for him decades earlier, including throwing a party at the Somerville apartment. She would later wonder if Ovid’s gratitude was prescient.

He loved the blues, so she had cooked him a big Cajun dinner and baked a Cajun-style strawberry cake. Thirty people had packed the tiny apartment.

“He still remembered that,” Roth says. In the call, “I was like, why are you talking about this? And now I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”


VI. Toss the Pills, Hit the Road


Despite his history counseling and healing others, Ovid never pursued work in the ministry. His family and friends say his goal was to understand the nature of God, or to write — he started writing poetry as young as age 7, his mother recalls.

“Ovid studied philosophy, theology and comparative religion,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “His intent was never to minister or teach. His intent was to understand God. Had he not been afflicted with mental illness, he would have written.”

After Somerville, Ovid ended up in Manhattan, where he worked in Kathleen’s Bake Shop on 84th Street, which Ovid’s childhood friend Jerry Harwell recalls as being frequented by Tom Brokaw, Caroline Kennedy and “a lot of other famous people.” Ovid’s mother, Ruth Ann Gordon, later bought the shop and renamed it Ruth Ann’s Bake Shop.

Ovid also worked at an East Village diner called Around the Clock, while living with Harwell, who also struggled with mental health. Harwell recalls Ovid would work, play music and hang with friends. “He just always had something going on.” Both rejected the stigma that can accompany mental illness, and they sometimes skipped their prescribed pills.

“That’s when I went through my whole phase of, I didn’t want to be labeled as mentally ill, and neither did he,” Harwell recalls.

By the mid-1990s, friends and family say, Ovid had moved to Seattle and married a woman he knew from his teenage years. At a marriage event for multiple couples at Seattle Center, she wore a cool “Southern” dress and he wore a bolo tie “and a funky hat, not quite a cowboy hat,” longtime friend Virginia Curnutt recalls. The pair rode there in a horse-drawn carriage.

There was a sky-blue house with a white picket fence. She worked at Microsoft, he at Half-Price Books. But it wasn’t meant to be, and they eventually divorced. (Ovid’s ex-wife could not be reached for comment for this story.)

After the divorce, his sister, Amanda Roth, recalls, Ovid withdrew from his family, spent time in a group home, and eventually reached out to his brother and mother. He moved in with them in Las Vegas.

Friends and family agree that taking pills “dampened” Ovid’s sharp mind and magnetic personality. Eventually, “it seemed to be taking a toxic toll on him,” his brother, Zachary Neal, recalls. “It got to the point where I could smell the medicines in his sweat.”

In 2014, in Las Vegas, Ovid stopped taking the drugs suddenly. Erratic behavior, and a psychotic episode, resulted: Ovid damaged the house and a car, repeatedly woke the neighbors at night, said “weird stuff about God and crime,” his siblings recall.

It was perhaps the only time in his life when Ovid was violent with others. He “became threatening and pushed” his aging mother, his siblings say, and she called the police. After Ovid “put his hands on” their mother while she was sleeping, his brother says, police were called again.

“Psychosis can be a side effect of quitting cold turkey or coming off too fast,” says Janie Gullickson, director of the Mental Health & Addiction Association of Oregon. “People typically don’t know that they can get support in titrating,” or coming off medication.

Ovid refused to take his pills or go see his psychiatrist. His brother was in Seattle, working, and his mother was vulnerable. Ovid’s family tried, but failed, to convince his psychiatrist to go to the home to treat Ovid. Despite “repeated and anguishing attempts,” Ovid’s sister says, “the doctor would not help.”

The family faced a situation that’s grimly familiar to many whose loved ones struggle with mental illness: Our legal and mental health systems bestow great freedoms — and hence responsibilities — upon individuals. It’s possible that here, Ovid’s strengths became barriers: He presented well, was highly intelligent, and had read the entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV. The family saw no way to prove to a judge that Ovid was a threat to himself or others, despite his behaviors.

His mother, Gordon, took out a protective order against Ovid.

Ovid ended up in a residential hotel near downtown Las Vegas, his sister recalls. “On Christmas morning, he left — just hours before he knew I was going to visit him. So that Christmas, Nick and I went from shelter to shelter looking for him … but could not find him.”

Ovid hit the road. He became, in official eyes, “transient.”

“He was just tired, exhausted of living like a zombie,” Gordon says. “He said, well, he just felt [the drugs were] killing him, and what’s the point. So he went off, and he became a vagabond.”

Then 52, Ovid roamed through the South, to places steeped in the blues, living a lyric from a languid blues tune, “The Drifter,” by a beloved musician, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown: “There’s a drifter in me / Though I’ve tried it / I’m just not a settler / And nine to five don’t make it with me / Why deny it / It makes me feel better / To come alive / And prove that I’m free.”

Ovid’s driver’s license photo. (Photo courtesy Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles)

His family was still there for him, and Ovid was still mischievous.

“I would get phone calls at two in the morning sometimes, from Florida, Alabama — he was in a hospital there,” Zachary Neal recalls. “Colorado, I got a 2 a.m. phone call [from] the front desk of the Grand Hyatt in downtown Denver, saying ‘your brother said you’d pay for a room here.’ I was like holy crap, he had to go to the Grand Hyatt. I think he was toying with me.”

His friend Virginia Curnutt recalls Ovid “loved the idea of just journeying away from the craziness of city life,” escaping the urban jungles he knew in all four corners of the nation. When she saw the movie Into the Wild, she says, “that guy kind of reminded me of Ovid.”

He ended up in Eugene, the leafy home of the University of Oregon and the state’s second-largest city, in 2015. The former triathlete smoked tobacco and marijuana while walking 10 miles a day, Amanda Roth says. “He said the birds and the trees were his church.”

An Oregon DMV photo from September 2018 shows Ovid Neal III as a handsome, unsmiling man with a tan face, chiseled jaw, long gray hair and clear blue eyes.


VII. The Streets of Eugene


For years, Oregon has had the highest prevalence of mental illness, including addiction, in the country. The Eugene/Springfield area, home of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, is no exception. Housing instability is another big problem. The Eugene/Springfield area is ranked first or second by federal housing officials in categories of homelessness including rate of “unsheltered” homelessness and “chronically homeless individuals.” The reasons are complex, according to local experts, including a long-term disinvestment in affordable housing. Alongside the city’s reputation for being one of the nation’s most livable places, it has a cultural history as a destination for hippies, Grateful Dead tours, and seminomadic “travelers.”

The city has supported cutting-edge responses to homelessness such as Square One Villages, a nonprofit that develops cost-effective, proven tiny house “villages” for formerly homeless people. Unfortunately, says Project Director Andrew Heben, who runs a tidy cluster of 22 bright tiny homes named Emerald Village, “you got to kind of win the lottery to get in here.” Many who are without housing are aging or disabled. In homeless populations, mental illness often coexists with drug use. Ovid limited himself to cannabis, the only drug found in his system at  the time of death, and perhaps alcohol. Others don’t.

Whoville Homeless Camp in downtown Eugene, Oregon. (Photo courtesy Wikicommons)

Near Emerald Village on a recent afternoon, people camped on concrete a stone’s throw from a popular local microbrewery, Ninkasi Brewing Company. A man played with a yo-yo; a woman sat crying on a curb. Outside of the White Bird Clinic where Ovid got his mail and services, a group of people sat on the sidewalk. A man said police “overwhelm people with trespassing charges,” even when they’re just “fixing their shoe.” A woman claimed to have camped with Ovid but was fuzzy on details. People appeared intoxicated, or in withdrawal. Some ate push-pop ice cream or hot dogs, drank Red Bull; others appeared in the throes of active addiction.

“Anybody got a point?” one asked another, meaning an intravenous needle.

“I got a dirty.”

“OK. Does it work?”

Advocates critique the city’s heavy ticketing of homeless people. A Lane County Legal Aid study found that 80 percent of trespass and open container citations went to unhoused people.

Ovid received three citations in 2018, for trespassing, jaywalking and an open container. One, signed “Eugene City Prosecutor,” claims “no culpable mental state.”

“In Eugene, police hand out tickets [to homeless people] like they’re candy,” says Steve Kimes, a local pastor. “I can show you a picture of a guy who’s got 70.”

Eric Jackson, one of the many homeless people in downtown Eugene, and his ticket-laden tent, 2019. (Photo courtesy Tiffany Eckert, KLCC News)

When she looked into Ovid’s background, Detective Curry says, she found “very minimal” legal history. Two officers told her how “nice” Ovid was.

Yet Ovid feared the police. “I need help,” he said in a July 9, 2018, voicemail on his sister’s phone. “The police are trying to kill me.”

If police were to be avoided, so were other unhoused people. “Last night somebody stole my sleeping bag and my food,” Ovid says in a September 17 voicemail. “They got my tarp, my sleeping bag and vitamins.”

“I don’t want to die outside because homeless people’s stealing from me,” he continues. “[But] homeless people are taking my shit. So. Anyway. God is good. Um. Even if I die of hypothermia, it’s OK. But I’m just pissed off right now at homeless people here.”

In 2019, a homeless woman named Annette Montero was run over and killed by a garbage truck outside of First Christian Church Eugene, a place that had helped Ovid out with his tarp, coat and food. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that about 13,000 people die on our streets each year in the United States. A small number, 37 in 2016 and 11 in 2017, were homicide victims.

“I think a lot of people worry that if somebody’s homeless, maybe police might not take it as seriously,” says Detective Curry, who, along with her team, completed 100 reports and amassed terabytes of evidence to make sure Ovid’s killers didn’t walk. “But that’s just not the case at all. And the scene, to me, just looked like somebody who was sleeping on the sidewalk, and incredibly vulnerable. And they were murdered brutally, and just left on the sidewalk to die alone.”

According to Jessica Simmons’ testimony, hours before it became the instrument of Ovid’s death, she and her boyfriend used their football-sized river rock to assault another disabled homeless man Ovid knew, Gerald Fruichantie. In between, they stored it in a grate under a tree.

“What we would learn was that Gerald Fruichantie was kind of the other person who slept there, and that [Ovid] had this connection with,” Curry says. “Sadly, Gerald wasn’t there that night because he had been assaulted the night before and gone to the hospital.”

A man who worked at the recently closed tire shop on whose wall Ovid’s blood was spattered said he didn’t know Ovid, but he did know “Odin” — apparently a nickname for Fruichantie derived from his eye patch. He dismissed him as “blind as a bat, crazy as a coon.”

The parallels between the two assaults raise troubling questions. Was Ovid’s death the nadir in a pattern of attacks on mentally ill homeless people?

Fruichantie, 60, presented at an emergency room at 1:29 a.m. October 3 with a one-inch scalp laceration requiring five stitches. He didn’t report the attack to the police. When the police sought him out during Ovid’s investigation, his description of the attack was limited by vision problems and mental illness.

Judge Chanti writes that Fruichantie’s attack “was part of a pattern of attacks by ‘downtown kids’ who would watch the ATM from the parking garage across the street on ‘benefits day’ (about the 3rd of the month when social security checks were deposited) to identify people to assault and rob.” She calls the evidence “disturbing.”

Ovid’s siblings say he received Social Security benefits, which were garnished for unpaid student debt. Whether Fruichantie received benefits is not known.

Ovid’s family and some friends see both men’s assaults as part of a pattern of bias crimes against disabled homeless people.

“This was clearly more than a robbery that escalated,” Amanda Roth said in court. Ruth Gordon called the murder “a calculated and premeditated bias crime.” The killers “chose my son as their prey precisely because he was disabled, weak and vulnerable.”

Police say they investigated but found no pattern. During the investigation, Curry says, Eugene police found that earlier that year, “people frequenting downtown, many of them juveniles,” assaulted people on several occasions. Sometimes there were thefts, she says; sometimes not.

Her investigation led her to conclude that Ovid’s death was a robbery gone wrong. “I don’t think this was a situation where they said, ‘I hate homeless people, so let’s go beat a homeless person up.’ I think this was a situation of, ‘I want money, I want marijuana, how can I get it?’”

It’s teenagers who most frequently target the homeless. Experts at the National Coalition for the Homeless say “thrill seekers, primarily in their teens, are the most common perpetrators of violence” against homeless people. Ovid’s killing, Roth says, was a “thrill kill.”

Disabilities (including mental illness) comprise only 2 percent of hate crimes, according to FBI data. There is no federal legal protection for homeless victims of bias crimes, says Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty. Oregon and Eugene are among 46 states and the vast majority of cities that lack such protections, Tars says.

Tars calls that gap “part of this larger broken approach to criminal justice.” Advocates would like to see greater legal protections for homeless people, but the fight is uphill, Tars says: “Not only is there no enhanced penalty, but there isn’t even a requirement to collect data on” crimes against homeless people.

Prosecutor Hasselman says that proving a crime was biased makes the state’s job more onerous. An alleged perpetrator’s motivations “are less important than what someone volitionally chose to do.”

The Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice is tasked with enforcing federal laws that prohibit discrimination “on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, and religion.” Homelessness doesn’t make the list. That division’s assistant attorney general, Eric Dreiband, nominated by President Trump, attended Harvard Divinity School at the same time as Ovid. Calls and messages to his spokespeople went unanswered.


VIII. Judgment


The final chapters of Ovid’s case played out via video conferencing in spring 2020, amidst a pandemic. In separate hearings inside the Lane County Juvenile Justice Center, Kirkpatrick and Simmons were “adjudicated responsible,” in juvenile justice language. Kirkpatrick was found responsible for second-degree murder and second-degree assault; Simmons, for second-degree murder. “There was no independent jurisdiction for robbery for either,” prosecutor Erik Hasselman notes; other earlier charges were dismissed or “merged” into these.

Inside the nearly empty courtroom, Zachary Neal and Amanda Roth joined via streaming video from Las Vegas and Hollywood, anger and dismay clouding their faces. Other participants included Kirkpatrick, Berger, Hasselman, other attorneys and juvenile justice staff.

Kirkpatrick’s apology sounded sincere, if a bit childish.

“I want everyone to know that I truly am sorry for what I have done,” said Kirkpatrick, in a gray hoodless sweatshirt, hands folded on a beige table, near cubbies. “What I did is truly wrong in every way, shape or form. … There is not a day that goes by where I do not think about what I have done.”

“I allowed alcohol and drugs to get the best of me. I’m sorry that it was someone who was truly loved by family and friends. I wish it were me instead.”

Three weeks later, Simmons spoke in a similar video-based adjudication from Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, wiping her eyes with a tissue, her hair in a bun, white cotton knit shirt buttoned to the top, voice trembling.

“Before I was offered a plea deal, all I ever wanted to do was talk to the family and talk about how it impacted me,” she said. “It changed the way I looked at things, and I will never forget what happened. I dream about it every night, and I don’t think it will ever go away. All I can hope is someday I can save lives. And I’m sorry.”

Judge Jay McAlpin committed each to closed custody — not prison, but a juvenile justice approach that includes mental health treatment, medical care and sometimes “camps” — that can last until age 25, the end of the juvenile system’s authority. They could be released sooner.

Between November 30 and March 1, 2019, a multimedia work, “Fates,” debuted at the San Diego Museum of Art. It was created by Ovid’s brother-in-law, artist Nick Roth, and partially inspired by Ovid’s killing.

Artist Nick Roth’s piece “Fates,” featured at the San Diego Museum of Art and inspired by Ovid’s death. (Video courtesy of Nick Roth / Music by Kronos Quartet playing Terry’s Riley’s “Sun Rings: Earth Whistlers” from the “Terry Riley: Sun Rings” album.)

In ancient Roman and Greek mythology — including in Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses — the Moirai, or Fates, are the three goddesses who control the threads, or destinies, of mortal lives. Did Clotho “the Spinner” weave Ovid’s thread in brilliant, dark colors, Lachesis “the Allotter” measure it from 1962 to 2018, and Atropos “the Unturnable” cut it barbarically?

Questions of volition aren’t much easier. Was the truth brought out, or justice served in Ovid’s case? Were Ovid’s murderers given a slap on the wrist because society fails to protect our unhoused, mentally ill neighbors? Or did two kids whose childhoods became social studies get a much-deserved chance at redemption?

In the last decade, a sea change has reshaped our understanding of adolescent brains, favoring a heavier weighting of adverse childhood experiences, adolescent brain science and trauma. Back in Measure 11’s heyday in Oregon, as Judge Chanti’s decision notes, a 13-year-old who committed a horrific homicide was convicted in adult court. In this case, Kirkpatrick, a month shy of 17, was adjudicated as a child. Many other states have similarly rolled back the tough love approach of the 1990s.

Ovid’s case suggests the change will be controversial. The prosecutor and detective say they’re appalled. “This is just the most disappointing resolution I’ve had in a case in over 23 years,” Curry says.

“This is not justice,” Hasselman said in Kirkpatrick’s final hearing. “Being at the helm of this particular prosecution has haunted me.”

Kirkpatrick’s attorney Berger’s response was a world apart.

“I would like to express my sorrow for people who don’t believe that Jonathan has empathy,” Berger said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in Jonathan [and] look forward to watching Jonathan reach his potential.”

America’s homeless population was growing even before 40 million people lost their jobs in spring 2020. Tragically, we are facing possible rapid growth in our unhoused and mentally ill populations — and, experts say, growing numbers of attacks on them. Amanda Roth has said this case reveals “extreme cruelty and contempt for human life,” while Zachary Neal called the judgment “sickening and revolting.”

Ovid’s ashes sit in a pewter urn at the Roths’ Hollywood home. The family plans to scatter them at Sequoia National Park, after an Episcopal service. Healing may take longer.

Ovid’s friends, now flung to the heedless winds, grasp at silver linings, irony and humor.

“All things considered, he had a great life,” Chris Curnutt says.

“He’s going to be in heaven and we’re going to be in hell,” Shannon Greer jokes. “I hope he holds a hand out for us,” Winslow Dennis adds, with a chuckle.

On a Facebook remembrance group, one man mentions the irony that Ovid, a former teen addiction counselor, was killed by teens battling addiction. Ovid helped “countless” youths, he writes. If Jonny and Jessica could have just talked with Ovid, they “would have benefited” from it. “I know I did.”

Another friend sees only forgiveness.

“I know that when he was dying,” Jerry Harwell says softly, “and they were beating his brains out with a rock, he was asking God to forgive them.”

Conscripted Into The Emperor’s Private Orchestra

What does a crew of talented musicians do when forced to serve at the pleasure of a notoriously cruel dictator? They play like their lives depend on it.

Conscripted Into The Emperor’s Private Orchestra

When the rebels stormed Charlie Perrière’s house, he was sure his days were about to come to a swift and bloody end. The night before, 66-year-old Perrière, fearing what was coming, knelt down on the floor of his home in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. He began to pray. “God, I have no weapons, no army, I’m not a fighter. Tomorrow, it seems like the Séléka will enter Bangui,” he whispered, referencing the brutal rebel group that was about to topple the government. “I put all my belongings in your hands … please protect me.”  

Hiding out in his large house in a leafy part of Bangui, not far from high-walled ambassadorial residences, Perrière feared for his life. When the militants stormed the grounds, brandishing guns and demanding the keys to a neighbor’s car parked in his driveway, there was little he could do. He did not have the keys, he told them.  

“It was as if I had just poured oil onto the fire,” Perrière tells me when I meet him in the same courtyard three years later. He describes how the group of young men grew furious at his response, even though he had already handed over the keys to his own car. They started shooting in the air and ganging up on the slender man standing alone in his yard. 

That was until one member of the group — a scrawny street kid brandishing a rusty machete — peered closer at Perrière and, his eyes growing wider, whispered something to the leader. The man turned around to stare at Perrière with a strange expression on his face.  

Perrière held his breath. 

“Charlie Perrière, really? Is it really you?” the fighter asked after a few seconds. 

Suddenly, he was warmly patting the older man on the back. 

“And then he began apologizing, and telling me, ‘My mom is simply fanatical about your music, my brother!’” says Perrière, smiling at me with amused disbelief as he recalls the moment from a chair in his verdant garden. 

The leader told the gangsters to give Perrière his car keys back, and told the youths that no one was allowed to return and pillage this particular house. 

Most people in the West would struggle to pinpoint the Central African Republic on a map. Its international claim to fame is the dire poverty of its citizens and its terrifying, bloody, seemingly never-ending wars. The 2013 war reached a peak when a mostly Muslim faction, Séléka, swept into Bangui, staging a coup d’état and eventually forcing the president to flee. This provoked a violent backlash from mainly Christian and Animist groups known as Anti-Balaka militiasHundreds of thousands of citizens ran from their homes. Those who did not manage to escape were slaughtered, their bodies thrown in the river or stuffed down water wells. Youths armed with machetes, their eyes glistening in a drugged haze, spiked decapitated heads as trophies on sticks and paraded them around the streets. Aid workers watched helplessly as armed thugs took over the towns and villages, stringing human intestines across the roads as barriers — a gruesome warning to others to proceed no further. 

Displaced citizens of the Central African Republic observe Rwandan soldiers being dropped off at Bangui M’Poko International Airport in an effort to quell violence in the Central African Republic, 2014. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Here in Bangui, one of the ways of finding normalcy amid the chaotic years of cries and gunshots has been through another form of sound — the country’s rich music tradition. Whether the rhythmic drumming of the tamtam, the strumming of the guitar, or the bubbling sounds of the balafon, a xylophone of wood and animal skins — music is a constant here. And Perrière is one of its undisputed kings. His fame probably saved his life.  

Years earlier, he was the leader of the favorite orchestra of one of the most notorious, colorful and strange despots in history, Jean Bédel Bokassa. Today Perrière is still considered a national star — yet, like every story involving the feared Bokassa, Perrière’s path to celebrity was far from a conventional one. 

Portrait of Charlie Perrière, date unknown. (Photo courtesy Maziki.Fr)

It was the late 1960s, and Perrière, a talented but struggling teenage musician, was tired of surviving on a shoestring. As he made preparations to leave his native country for a new life in the Congo, he had an unexpected meeting that would change his life. 

Perrière was a star singer in his church choir, and he had been performing with an orchestra that was invited to play in front of Bokassa. After the concert, when the players were invited to salute the great leader, Perrière was summoned to report directly to the man himself. The prospect was exciting — but also terrifying. 

Bokassa is often caricatured as one of Africa’s most tyrannical dictators, a ruler who fed his opponents to crocodiles, adored diamonds and women, and crowned himself as emperor of Central Africa. The anecdotes from his time abound with absurdities, stretching from the beginning to the end of his reign. The night he seized power in a coup d’état on New Year’s Eve in December 1965, he brought his deposed predecessor (who happened to be his distant cousin) to the palace and wrapped him in a tight hug before dispatching him to prison, notes historian Brian Titley in his book Dark Age: The Political Odyssey of Emperor Bokassa. Following Bokassa’s ouster in 1979, the French troops who drained the emperor’s alligator pond at Villa Kolongo discovered bone fragments belonging to some 30 victims, writes historian Martin Meredith in his book The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence. Mutilated bodies were also found in the residence’s refrigerator, while locals testified that others were regularly fed to the lions. 

While these horror stories are well documented, few of the historical accounts of Bokassa pick up on one of the emperor’s greatest passions — music. A soldier who blitzed through the ranks to become the head of the Central African army, once he became president, Bokassa realized that military might would only take him so far. As he sought to consolidate and aggrandize his power and influence both at home and abroad, he believed music would be an effective tool.  

“Bokassa tried to use radio and musical groups as part of his effort to create a cult of personality to support his rule,” writes Jacqueline Cassandra Woodfork in her book Culture and Customs of the Central African Republic. And he was determined to make Perrière a part of these efforts. 

Jean Bédel Bokassa during a diplomatic trip to Romania, July 1970. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Bokassa had heard Perrière sing, and upon making inquiries he was disappointed to learn of the youngster’s plans to leave the country.  

So that night at the presidential palace in central Bangui, the despotic leader addressed the terrified musician in a kindly but firm tone — and one that left little room for doubt. 

“He told me: ‘As head of state, I can’t forbid you from going to Congo, but  as a father, I wish that you wouldn’t go,’” recounts Perrière. “After that meeting, my mother had advised me that I had better stay,” adds Perrière, who quickly agreed. “If I had run away to Congo, it would have been like treason. 

So he stayed. But it was a long time before he heard from the great leader again. Months rolled by with no news, and Perrière wondered if Bokassa had forgotten about him. Then, one day, a presidential security vehicle showed up unannounced on the doorstep of Perrière’s mother’s house, sirens blasting. The president — at that point he had not yet appointed himself emperor — was summoning Perrière for another meeting at the palace. 

This time Bokassa actually congratulated Perrière for staying put. Perrière recalls that the leader was seated at a long table with ministers around him. “He turned to me and said, ‘My son, do you know why I sent for you?’ I said, ‘No, your Excellency. And then he said, ‘It was to thank you, because I gave you a piece of advice and you respected it. That means that you are a nationalist at heart.’”  

Perrière continues his story: “He then asked me why I had wanted to go, and I told him, ‘My father is dead, my mother is raising my 10 brothers all on her own, I am the oldest of the family and I need to help my mother. We have no help here, we have no means of developing [our lives].” He told Bokassa that his band played on rented instruments, which swallowed up most of their earnings.  

Bokassa turned to his ministers and ordered them to procure instruments for what would become Bokassa’s “Imperial Orchestra.” This marked the start of Perrière’s decades-long career making music as a private bandmaster for one of the world’s most feared and murderous despots. 

Despite their radically different statuses, Bokassa may have seen something familiar in the young Perrière. Bokassa himself was an orphan; his father had been killed in a dispute when Bokassa was years old, and his mother killed herself soon after. As a teenager, Bokassa was educated in missionary schools and had initially planned to study for the priesthood, before joining the French Army when World War II erupted. After he helped to establish the newly independent country’s national army, Bokassa formed a music band among the military, dubbing it Commando Jazz, writes Luke Fowlie in The SAGE International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture. 

For Bokassa, music was a power-wielding political tool, so much so that he made his personal orchestra — called “Tropical Fiesta” — into a key tool of his global diplomacy, taking the musicians with him on state visits all over the world. 

The early days of Tropical Fiesta, 1965. (Photo courtesy Maziki.Fr)

“He told me once: ‘Listen, Charlie, the young generation don’t understand the importance of music in a country… It is the artists who enable others to get to know a country,’” recalls Perrière. “This was his goal: to introduce a country through its music.”  

“He adored music,” says Aggas Zokoko, the orchestra’s lead singer and the band’s leader in recent decades. “I think the connection Bokassa had with musicians was unlike any other connection he had with others.” 

Others have a more cynical take on the emperor’s personal orchestra. “He had what we call la folie de grandeur,” that is, megalomania, says Alex Ballu, a veteran radio star and cultural journalist in the Central African Republic. “He needed musicians to travel with him, to augment his presence, to sing his praises and so on.” 

Such practices were also common in neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), under Mobutu Sese Seko, a bespectacled dictator known for his distinctive leopard skin hat as well as mass violence and corruption.  

“Popular groups were required to literally sing the praises of their leader,” writes Fowlie. “Bangui’s chosen orchestras became emissaries for the Bokassa government, touring internationally throughout Central and West Africa as well as Europe. 

Though Bokassa saw music as a diplomatic tool, he also loved it with an all-consuming passion that was obvious to all. 

“Once, we were traveling to Vakaga (in north Central African Republic) when the plane was struck by lightning mid-flight and we almost crashed,” recalls Zokoko. Upon landing, some of the musicians were so shaken by the experience that they ran away and hid, refusing to perform that night. 

“And Bokassa noticed and said: ‘OK, lower the mic down a bit for me. I will sing with you.’ And he did!” 

While Zokoko describes the singing as merely “not bad,” his eyes light up as he remembers the emperor getting more and more into the spirit, taking up a guitar and beginning to serenade one of his wives from the stage. 

“It was a beautiful evening that I will never forget,” says Zokoko wistfully. 

Bokassa also constructed the country’s first major recording studio in the grounds of Berengo, his palace near his home village and the place he envisioned as the future capital of the Central African empire. While some historians see the move as a cynical effort to win the love of the people through music, the country’s musicians benefited financially in a way that they have rarely done since. 

Cover for the 1969 album ”Papi/Massaoulle” by Tropical Fiesta with Perrière as the vocalist. (Photo courtesy

“The first time I played for him it was in Berengo,” recalls Zokoko, who had been recruited by Perrière. He describes Bokassa sitting in the palace with his family, as the orchestra played purely for the leader’s personal pleasure. 

“Sometimes we would just perform for him alone. He’d sit on the sofa. Afterward, he would say, ‘Thank you, my children.’” 

Every aspect of each performance was meticulously planned, and the musicians, who had previously struggled to make ends meet, suddenly found themselves catapulted to stardom, traveling around the world, dressed to the nines. 

“He would clad us in all the top fashions,” muses Zokoko. “We would play in front of all of these heads of states in beautiful suits.” 

“He wanted all the artists to look good, to portray grandeur,” Ballu, the music journalist, says. “The ministers didn’t like the musicians much, as they would often be chatting up their wives,” he adds, laughing. “But Bokassa always defended them, and paid them good money.” 

But it was far from all fun and games. “When you worked with the emperor, everything had to be done perfectly,” Perrière says. “By the book, just like in the army… When the emperor loses his temper, everyone is in trouble,” he adds, recalling a bitter experience when he found this out for himself. 

Song “Contrôleur ti Quartier” by Tropical Fiesta with vocals by Perrière.

“Once, I sang a song that he didn’t like,” he recalls. “It was a song for his birthday.” Performed and broadcast live over the radio, the musicians hadn’t even had a chance to finish playing before “suddenly the curtains began closing in front of us. We turned around and there were armed security guards standing behind us, gun barrels pointing.” The next thing Perrière knew, he was being marched off to prison. 

He spent one month behind bars, an experience which, shaking his head, he describes as “terrible.”  

“My wife was traumatized. It was very difficult.” 

Upon being let out, Bokassa summoned Perrière and explained to him the particular line in the song that he didn’t like, a lyric he deemed too insulting for Bokassa’s image as a strong man.  

“You, the artists, everything you say or do, it’s heard by the whole world,” Bokassa told him. “You can build someone up or break someone easily. So the advice I’ve always given you is: ‘When you compose a song, make it go through a censor in order to avoid any problems.’” 

From that point on, all of the songs went through a censor. 

Perrière’s month in prison was far from a unique incident. Tropical Fiesta and other bands playing for the government had to comply with the emperor’s every wish. Fowlie writes that another orchestra, Centrafrican Jazz, was dissolved in 1975 at the height of its popularity, allegedly over a spat between Bokassa and his wife, who is said to have favored the group. (Some allege that the group became so popular — even with Bokassa’s mistresses — that the ruler split it up out of jealousy, according to an article by musician Sultan Zembellat.) 

As Bokassa’s rule continued, he became more dictatorial and his eccentricities grew. He had maintained a historical admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte since his time as a young trainee in the French military, and during his reign this respect morphed into blind obsession, culminating with Bokassa crowning himself “Emperor of Central Africa” on December 4, 1977, the 173rd anniversary of Napoleons coronation. 

Bokassa invited Pope Paul VI himself to crown him. Though the pope, along with a multitude of other state leaders, declined the invitation, preparations for the coronation progressed full steam. To emulate Napoleon, Bokassa dressed himself in a 30-foot-long scarlet mantle, designed by the same atelier that had prepared Napoleon’s. It was decorated with pearls, diamonds and rubies. 

“The whole country was mobilized to take part in the coronation,” Perrière remembers. “There were white horses brought especially from France, all the gold-gilded carriages … it was extraordinary.” The total cost was an eye-popping $20 million USD — a bill footed entirely by France — while the population of the Central African Republic was mired in deep poverty. 

Just before the coronation, musicians from all over the country were asked to compose songs. Perrière’s entry was chosen as one of the official songs for the ceremony. “I was stuck for one week trying to compose it. I turned it over and over in my head. And afterward, it simply came to me, just like that.” 

Cover for the album ”Oyé ! Bokassa !!” by Tropical Fiesta. (Photo courtesy

The song, titled Révérence à Nos Souverains (“Reverence to Our Sovereigns”), became a hit, and it is still featured on compilation albums of African music. 

Alongside the Imperial Orchestra, other renowned musicians were invited to attend, among them Manu Dibango, a star from neighboring Cameroon. The scenes that greeted him upon arriving at the presidential palace in Bangui surpassed his wildest expectations, Dibango wrote in his autobiography Three Kilos of Coffee.  

“Money flowed like water, Dibango wrote. “The church was sumptuously decorated.” But the night ended somberly. “That evening by moonlight, we were giving our concert when a violent storm suddenly erupted, the carriages were soaked, the projectors broke down, the musicians got drenched. The dignitaries thought only of hiding themselves in their Mercedeses.” 

And, just like a sudden tropical storm, two years later, Bokassa’s swift downfall began. 

The key event that triggered his dethroning came in 1979, when around 100 schoolchildren were massacred at Bangui’s central prison, following Bokassa’s orders to arrest them. The children had been taken while protesting an order that forced them to buy overpriced school uniforms made in a factory owned by one of Bokassa’s wives. An independent judicial inquiry subsequently concluded that the prison massacre was carried out “almost certainly” with the personal participation of the emperor, writes Meredith in The Fate of Africa.  

The incident proved to be the final straw for the French, who had been bankrolling Bokassa and his government. In September 1979, while Bokassa was away on a state visit to Libya, French troops helped restore former president David Dacko (Bokassa’s cousin) to power. Bokassa fled by airplane into exile on the Ivory Coast. The Imperial Orchestra was disbanded, and some of its musicians, Perrière included, moved abroad. 

Several years later, in 1986, Bokassa returned to the Central African Republic, hoping to be forgiven and welcomed back. Instead, the deposed emperor was arrested, marched off to jail and then put on trial.  

Today, upon landing at Bangui M’Poko International Airport, the first glimpse any visitor catches of the Bokassa era are the small, toylike airplanes from the 1960s and 70s, in faded yellow, red and white. For years, people have believed that the planes are haunted by the ghost of the emperor, since it was Bokassa, Titley writes, who established the national airline, and the small airplanes date back to that time. During the 2013 war, the planes gained an unexpected — if ill-fated — second life as shelters for people fleeing marauding gangs. The displaced have since been forced to leave the airport and return to rebuild their destroyed homes. More than 40 years after Bokassa’s lavish and garish coronation, the Central African Republic is one of the poorest countries in the world, ravaged by war and strife, the ongoing pillaging of natural wealth, and rampant corruption. The avenues Bokassa built are crumbling, the buildings gutted and reduced to skeletal remains, weeds growing in what used to serve as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. Life expectancy is just 52 years — the shortest anywhere on the planet, according to the World Bank.  

Bangui la Coquette” (“Bangui the Flirt”) was the city’s nickname back in the Bokassa era. It’s now “Bangui la Roquette” (“Bangui the Rocket”), the locals quip wryly, due to the brutal fighting that has destroyed many parts of the city. 

Bokassa’s Berengo palace has been extensively pillaged. When Perrière was being held at gunpoint in his front yard, Berengo was already being used as a base by child soldiers fighting with a motley crew of armed gangs, answering to the highestpaying militia leader of the day. In recent years, Russian soldiers and mercenaries have descended on the former royal palace, setting up training camps for soldiers inside the grounds, according to a 2019 CNN report. In exchange, Russian companies reportedly won exploration rights at a number of sites to look for diamonds and gold. 

And yet, when I visited Bangui on a reporting trip in January 2018 — my fourth one after meeting Perrière in 2016 — I could still feel Bokassa’s presence in the ruined city. Vintage French magazines like Paris Match with Bokassa on the cover were being sold on the streets, locals pointed out the sprawling boulevards and other structures built by the former ruler, while the music and songs of the Bokassa era rang out around the city. 

And Tropical Fiesta is playing once again. One night, I went to a show. The venue was in a garden next to a ditch, off the main road in Bangui. Lit up sparsely by a few functioning street lamps, it was guarded by a half-broken gate.   

A balafon player began striking a few notes. A drumbeat, a clash of cymbals, and then guitarists, singers, and dancers emerged onstage, clapping, smiling, and dancing to the complex beat of Central African rumba. 

As the music got started, more and more people began to arrive, many middle-aged, but also several youngsters, as well as children weaving in between the adults’ legs. 

Clutching large bottles of beer, the older men looked up at the stage with a faraway gleam in their eyes. The women, wearing figure-hugging dresses made out of colorful cloth, shook their hips languidly. 

Before long it became a party — families, friends sitting around plastic tables, chatting and waving away mosquitoes, while others invited friends and lovers to dance. 

Zokoko, who now heads Tropical Fiesta, was there, getting ready to sing, surrounded by friends and fans. The violence in and around Bangui had died down, and the usual rhythm of life had slowly begun to resume. Just a few years earlier, during the fighting that swept through Bangui in 2013, live music had virtually stopped, Zokoko explains to me during a pause in his performance. It resumed slowly at first, with people dancing only until 8 or 9 p.m. and then going home because of the fear of attacks. “And we don’t make as much money as before,” he adds bitterly.  

Song “Chante Vanessa” by Aggass Zokoko.

Yet the songs played on, people sang along, their eyes half-closed, smiling as if trying to spirit themselves back to a different era, before the country was riven by war and armed gangs. 

Alongside the music, a certain nostalgia for the era of Bokassa had emerged. Several years ago, youth activists dug out the emperor’s throne, long stripped of its diamonds and rubies, from a dump behind the city’s main stadium. Painting it a bright yellow to represent the gold that once encrusted it, the youths decided to set the throne on a display on one of the capital’s busiest avenues. 

“We were furious to find this object abandoned for decades Heritier Doneng, a youth leader of Patriotes Centrafricains, a group that describes its aim as defending the country’s cultural values, tells me on my reporting trip in 2016. 

“Yes, people speak of Bokassa because they’ve had enough of this suffering, of the misery without end that we are experiencing here in CAR,” he adds. “Bokassa serves as an example, a model of the economic revolution. In his time, we were the best in Central Africa, now we are the worst.”  

Bokassa has earned reputation as a “builder,” responsible for commissioning Bangui’s spacious boulevards, stadiums and many other buildings. “During the reign of His Majesty, the town of Bangui was more beautiful than Brazzaville, more beautiful than Libreville, than Yaoundé, Malabo and N’Djamena,” says Zokoko, naming neighboring capitals. “Today we are back to zero.” 

“It seems that people have forgiven him a lot,” Perrière muses about his former boss. “Because all the regimes who came after couldn’t do what he did. Those rulers who came after brought a lot more suffering since.” 

After a moment’s pause, Perrière adds quietly: “Bokassa was a dictator, he took decisions himself. Now it’s a democracy, things are moving slowly, and people are beginning to miss Bokassa.” 

Bokassa stands on his throne after crowning himself Emperor of Central Africa in Bangui in December 1977. (Photo by PIERRE GUILLAUD/AFP via Getty Images)

Rehabilitation of the reputation of a nation’s former authoritarian and brutal strongman is a familiar trend, seen everywhere from the enduring veneration of Stalin in Russia to the nostalgia for Brazil’s violent military dictatorship of the 1970s. 

“Bokassa had his brutal side, particularly toward the end, but he was also the only of CARs presidents who had a vision for the country and built things,” says Yale University professor Louisa Lombard, who has published three books on the Central African Republic.  

Lombard describes Bokassa’s reign as “a time of calm and hope in the country, in a region that had not yet turned to full-on civil war, and at a time when France was still providing a lot of support.” It is not surprising then, Lombard adds, that most people look back on the time with nostalgia, pinning the credit on Bokassa. “The country feels utterly humiliated. … There is an enormous desire for national solutions to the countrys problems.”  

“Bokassa always used to say, ‘You can’t feed people with politics.’ But today, everything has become political,” Zokoko saysIn the 2016 presidential election, there were 30 candidates, inspiring Zokoko to compose a song titled “My Beautiful Country, Where Everyone Wants to be President.”   

Since Bokassa’s demise, numerous politicians have sought out Zokoko and other members of the former Imperial Orchestra, asking to have songs written for them. Sometimes those requests are impossible to turn down.  

The same year that the Séléka descended upon Perrière’s front yard, they tried to storm a venue where Zokoko’s band was playing. “Someone from the Séléka came with 16 armed thugs and wanted to get inside. And I said, ‘No, no, it’s Mother’s Day celebrations there, you can’t go in.’ And so, they realized who I was, and asked me to compose a song for them!” Zokoko adds, explaining that even though he was only paid 5,000 XFA ($8.50) for it, he was relieved to get the armed group off his back. 

“Some politicians still haven’t paid me,” he notes. 

Today, the violence has subsided, and the atmosphere is more free, though the concert scene has not yet fully returned, and violence pops up sporadically, such as in November 2017, when a concert for peace by a local band playing was derailed by a grenade attack that killed four people and injured 20 others. 

Today, the music of Bokassa’s band is heard everywhere: at weddings, birthdays, funerals and more, serving as a kind of social glue, a way to start repairing the splintered communities throughout the country.  

“We sing about togetherness,” says Zokoko. “We sing the songs of yesterday, in Sango” — the primary language here — “and in French. We are not politicians, we are musicians, but we want to give this ambience of social cohesion, so that it comes back to us.” 

Sipping a beer and laughing at the 2018 concert, Pascal, a beefy former director general of a security company with the look of a nightclub bouncer, says he comes to hear the band play whenever he can. 

“Musicians are like philosophers,” he says wistfully. “They have the power to reunite everyone with their songs.” He describes the impact of the band’s diverse membership, which includes people from various religious groups, as well as some who are typically marginalized by society here, such as a musician with a disability. Christians, Muslims, disabled — all united. We are brothers and sisters, it’s the politicians who wanted to divide us. God knows, the solidarity between us will return. Look around: Everyone is here,” he says, gesturing at the bustling compound.  

Perrière, however, is not at the party. After Bokassa was deposed, Perrière emigrated to France in order to get treatment for his son who was sick. There, he worked a succession of different jobs, including in a coffee house, before later deciding to return home and resume his musical career. But he did not rejoin Tropical Fiesta; instead he returned to his religious music roots. He became a born-again evangelical Christian and turned to composing mostly religious songs — as well as to moonlighting as an occasional wedding singer, he tells me with a twinkle in his eye as he hands me a CD of songs he recently recorded for a local bride and groom. The studio in his house is named SDJ — “Studio of Jesus,” he tells me. Today, he divides his life between Paris and Bangui, living off of profits from his music career, as well as the money earned by a Bangui restaurant that he runs, which caters to the country’s elites. 

As for Bokassa, despite being sentenced to death twice, first in absentia while he was abroad, and then in a courtroom in 1987, his sentence was gradually eroded in the ensuing years. In 1993, as part of a general amnesty, he was set free, having served just six years in prison. Perrière was among those waiting at the jail entrance for the former emperor, who had newly reestablished his own strong belief in God. Bokassa emerged from behind bars clad head to toe in a white robe and declaring, “I am the thirteenth apostle.” 

Bokassa died in November 1996 of a heart attack at age 75, and he is survived by as many as 60 children, according to the New York  Times obituary. In 2010, then-president François Bozizé officially rehabilitated Bokassa, and even went as far as to posthumously award him the state’s medal of honor, declaring that Bokassa has given a great deal for humanity. 

For Perrière, his former boss remains somewhat of a mystery. He found Bokassa both paternal and petrifying. 

Perrière performing the song “Amina” with Tropical Fiesta at a small party.

“Everyone was scared of him. Everyone. It was standard,” says Perrière, while at the same time going on to describe how in his more tender moods the emperor would call him “my son,” and how in turn he and others would call Bokassa “Papa.” 

Perrière speaks of his time with Bokassa with a sense of wonder, replaying scene by scene in his mind and then pausing to remember more.  

As for Tropical Fiesta, Perrière is glad some of his songs continue to be sung and danced to throughout Bangui and beyond, and he stays in touch with his former bandmates. “I help them, I give them advice,” Perrière says, smiling. “They play old songs, but they also have a new repertoire.” The fact that the musicians of Tropical Fiesta did not put down their instruments, that they have continued this long and even play new songs, offers a glimmer of hope for the country. 

“Many groups sing for reconciliation,” he adds quietly, after a moment’s reflection. “Whether it’s effective or not, everyone needs to make their contribution for peace.”   

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported some of Inna’s reporting from the Central African Republic as part of its Africa Great Lakes Reporting Initiative.