THE BOOK OF HONOR -- DAMAGE CONTROL
WHAT Debra Spessard remembers clearly is helping her husband, Jimmy, pack on the morning after Thanksgiving 1989. She remembers folding his jeans and T-shirts and laying them out for him to put in his brown leather suitcase. She knew he was going to Zaire and she knew that, even in November, it would be sweltering.
It was a morning like many before it, full of the rituals of leaving. She watched as her husband emptied his wallet of any identification cards that might conflict with the pseudonym under which he was to work overseas. Out came the Social Security card, the credit cards, driver's license, even the family photographs -- anything that might betray him. He sifted through his passports, selecting the right one for this mission's cover story. He was to be a civilian employee of the Defense Department. It was not the first time he had used that cover.
But on this morning he broke from the familiar pattern and removed even his gold wedding band, setting it gently in a small wooden box in his top dresser drawer. Inside the ring were engraved their initials: "DKS to JES." Never before had he done that, and the divergence, slight as it was, unnerved her. Even before that, Deb had sensed some higher element of risk to this mission.
He said he would be gone two weeks. "Is this necessary?" she asked, trying to mask her apprehension. She was still grieving over the loss of her father and was feeling needy. She was dreading Jimmy's absence. "Yes," he nodded, and that was the end of it. She knew not to ask for any particulars.
That morning she would have to steel herself as she and the boys, Jarad, aged five, and Jason, seven, drove Jimmy to the tiny Hagerstown, Maryland, airport to see him off. There he again broke with habit. Once out of the airport door, instead of making directly for the plane, he turned and walked back to the fence where Debra, Jarad, and Jason were waving. He gave his wife a final good-bye kiss. "I love you guys," he said, and boarded the tiny aircraft for the first of several flights on his way to Africa. Jimmy Spessard was not a spy in the traditional mold of the clandestine service. He didn't even work for the CIA's Operations Directorate, which oversaw covert activities. Instead, Jimmy was chiefly answerable to "S&T," the Science and Technology Directorate that kept those in the field supplied with whatever electronics and paraphernalia were needed. After six years in the navy working with Terrier and Harpoon missiles, Jimmy Spessard had emerged as a bona fide "techie."
A small-town boy, he had grown up in a crossroads called Halfway, so named for its position between Hagerstown and Williamsport, Maryland. The son of a railroad brakeman, he had spent mornings before school working at a nearby asparagus farm. He had been an Eagle Scout and an active member of the Grace United Methodist Church and was considered by his pals as something of a good-time Charlie. He joined the navy straight out of high school but was hardly gung ho. He signed his letters home as "POW" and wrote "Go Navy (go somewhere else)." He married his childhood sweetheart and for a couple of years worked as a traveling salesman peddling copy machines and calculators. He lived a life so ordinary it bordered on the humdrum -- until, that is, he linked up with the Central Intelligence Agency in the early 1980s.
For the next six years he commuted an hour and a half each way to Warrenton, Virginia, to an office at Computer Data Systems, a company that provided a wide array of high-tech electronic gear to the CIA. His work for the Agency took him to Athens, Amman, Ankara, Bangkok, and innumerable other far-flung outposts. A part of his duties involved the testing, delivering, and installing of complex surveillance systems destined for CIA stations in U.S. embassies abroad. From each trip he would bring back a lapel pin and a miniature flag, gifts for his sons.
Throughout those years he worked for the Field Support Branch on contract to the Agency. His specialty was something called "collection and signal processing equipment." In the summer of 1989 he apparently became a full-fledged employee of the CIA. It was hardly the stuff of spy novels, but a slipup or blown cover could prove messy, even deadly, for himself or those with whom he worked.
In November 1989 Spessard received an unusual set of orders. He was to go to Zaire and then on to Angola, part of a covert mission of particular sensitivity. It was the last chapter in the Cold War. An anemic Soviet Union was so absorbed in its own woes that it was scarcely capable of or interested in meddling in the sort of proxy wars that had come to characterize the post-World War II era. Just two weeks earlier the Berlin Wall had fallen. Bulgaria's dictator had resigned. So, too, had Czechoslovakia's Communist Party general secretary. At Langley there was a mix of disbelief and euphoria, a sense that history and destiny had, at long last, proved them right. But some fires were slower to burn out. Among the most persistent was that which engulfed Angola, where Spessard was headed. It was as if the rest of the world was embracing its future while Spessard was assigned to the past.
The country, which gained independence from Portugal in November 1975, had long been the subject of a brutal civil war. Early on, the CIA heaped covert paramilitary support on an organization known as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, or UNITA, led by Jonas Savimbi. Scores of CIA operatives were assigned to the Angola Task Force. But Congress was in no mood for CIA adventurism, fearful that it might lead the United States into yet another Vietnam. Saigon had fallen only months earlier. In June 1976 Congress passed the Clark Amendment banning all covert action in Angola. It was said to be the first direct congressional interference with a covert action and it would stand for a decade.
But the ensuing decade since gaining independence had bankrupted Angola and rendered it one of Africa's most desperate economies, its 10 million people utterly sapped by civil war and outside intervention. During those years the upper hand seemed to shift back and forth between UNITA and the leftist MPLA, or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola. By the early 1980s Soviet aid was said to total several billions of dollars, and an estimated forty thousand Cuban troops were in country. South Africa stood firmly behind UNITA, helping to stave off defeat.
In the summer of 1985 the MPLA with Soviet aid and Cuban support had launched an offensive and UNITA was pushed back. On August 8 of that year, Congress lifted its ban on covert support to Angola. Three months later Reagan signed a presidential finding providing covert lethal assistance to UNITA. The Agency even dispatched one of its operatives to Savimbi headquarters. He would live in a thatched hut for years. Materiel and weapons soon flowed into the country. In February 1986 the National Security Council approved the covert shipment of TOW antiarmor and Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Savimbi.
For years the CIA continued its secret resupply of UNITA, determined not to allow a Marxist regime to prevail. To do this, the Agency relied on the support of Mobuto, leader of neighboring Zaire and one of the world's most corrupt leaders. Mobuto had long enjoyed the CIA's favor and had allowed the clandestine resupply effort of Savimbi to operate out of one of Zaire's remote air bases -- Kamina. It was the same base from which the CIA's John Merriman had taken off in his fatal flight against leftist Congolese guerrillas some twenty-four years earlier. Headed by a CIA base officer, Kamina provided a barracks, showers, and even rental movies to the crew that manned the huge cargo plane that made the perilous nighttime flight into and out of Angola. Still there was an undeniable sense of isolation at the base. There were no telephones. The link to the outside was by radio to Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville.
Spessard's first mission in aid of Savimbi's troops was, after many delays, scheduled to take off on Monday, just three days after his departure from Hagerstown. While the precise nature of the equipment he was to deliver to Savimbi is not known, those familiar with Spessard's work say it would probably have been used to help UNITA locate hostile forces by getting a fix on their transmissions.
The lumbering cargo plane that would take him into Angola was to be one of the "Gray Ghosts," so named for their slate-colored paint. The plane had four seats in the front -- for a pilot, copilot, navigator, and loadmaster. The fuselage was largely open for cargo. On board that night was a seasoned crew of six. Even by Agency standards, it had a distinctly international flavor. Heading the team was Pharies "Bud" Petty, a veteran Agency pilot who, at least on paper, presided over a Florida firm called Tepper Aviation, located in Crestview, just off Eglin Air Force Base. The other crew members were all ostensibly employees of Tepper. The CIA often uses such contracts as a mask to conceal its activities from public scrutiny, suspicion, and ultimately, accountability.
Petty, then forty-nine, was a husky six-footer with a full head of hair, hazel-blue eyes, and an easy, soothing manner He was a shadowy character with an illustrious war record and a deep, some would say unquestioning, trust in government. Whatever his country asked of him be would do. In 1955, at age fifteen, he had joined the navy using a family Bible that contained an altered birth date showing him to be three years older than he was. A year later he stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Badoeng Strait and shielded his eyes from the flash of a nuclear test, part of Operation Redwing in the Pacific Ocean. As ordered, he would dispose of his radiation-contaminated clothes, but never, even years later, second-guess the wisdom of exposing the troops to such a test.
By the time he reached Vietnam he was an army pilot, his dazzling record capped off with a Distinguished Flying Cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, and an Air Medal with V Device. As fire team leader with the 334th Armed Helicopter Company he had led a devastating air raid that sank 174 sampans, some of them apparently loaded with ammo. In 1977 he retired as a major. He never spoke of Vietnam thereafter. But for years it invaded his sleep.
In 1981 Petty had gone to work for the Agency, living for a time in Washington, D.C. Later he moved to Florida and set up a series of dummy companies and Agency proprietaries that provided the CIA with planes and crews. During the mid-1980s he played an unseen role in what would come to be known as Iran-Contra. He was a part of that tight-lipped circle of pilots and crew associated with St. Lucia Airways as it ferried missiles to Iran, supplied anti-Communist insurgencies, and engaged in other Agency-sponsored activities.
That November night, as the plane lifted off from Kamina Air Base in Zaire, Bud Petty was in the cockpit as pilot or copilot. There was none steadier. Still, his family had fretted about this mission. "Don't worry," he had told his eldest sister, Joyce, "this is my last trip. I'm tired."
He had seemed to think himself invincible, but he was savvy enough to understand that even the best are at risk. He took what precautions he could, always mindful of security. Several times he had told his sister Losue that if she should ever receive a collect call from someone named Grant Eugene Turner, she would know it was from him. The name was a corruption of his wife's maiden name, Gracie Tyner.
The aviation mechanic that night was thirty-three-year-old George Vincent Lacy. Raised in Lawton, Oklahoma, he had only recently signed on to Tepper. He came from a family in which service to government was a given. His father was a twenty-year army man and his uncle had died in the crash of an air force jet. As with so many others, working for the Agency was a family business. His older brother had spent a career serving Langley. But extended trips overseas were tough on George Lacy and harder still to explain to his fiancee.
Two Germans were also on board that night. One was forty-nine-year-old George Bensch, the other forty-one-year-old Gerhard Hermann Rieger. Bensch was a mechanic. He had moved to the States just two years earlier. Before that he had serviced St. Lucia's planes in Europe as they set out on covert Agency operations. Rieger, the flight engineer, was the father of two sons. Both men had been born in West Germany.
The last member of the crew was a Brit, forty-four-year-old Michael Atkinson. A hulking six feet four, he might easily have passed for the Marlboro Man. Born in Yorkshire, England, he had made his home for over a decade in the British West Indies on the lush island of St. Lucia. Formerly the captain of a three-masted schooner, Atkinson was now a pilot. And though he had flown with St. Lucia Airways, the Agency proprietary, he had little interest in ideology or fighting the Communists. What he lived for was adventure, be it on the sea or in the air. He also had to think of providing support for his two sons, Oliver and Jason, and his wife, Madeleine, then pregnant with a third child.
Also on board were eleven of Savimbi's men and a fuselage full of supplies, including crates of ammo. So secretive was the operation that even at Kamina the men lived under aliases. When airborne, flight records listed them not by name, but by number. The two nightly flights were simply designated "Flight One" and "Flight Two." Even Savimbi was referred to only by an Agency code name. All knowledge of the operation was compartmented on a need-to-know basis.
The destination was a remote gravel airstrip in Angola. Landings kicked up huge clouds of dust. From there, it was nearly an hour to UNITA's base camp. Sometimes Savimbi himself would meet the plane, shake hands, and give out wooden carvings in appreciation. In the past, most such flights had been "touch-and-gos," meaning that the engines were never shut down, and once the cargo had been unloaded, the plane would take off again for Zaire.
Spessard's flight represented the first resumption of the resupply effort in many months. It took off without incident and for the next five hours was tracked closely by the Agency, which was in constant communication with the aircraft. It was an Agency communications officer in Kinshasa who first reported that he had lost contact with the plane.
At eight o'clock that Monday night, November 27, 1989, in Hagerstown, Maryland, Debra Spessard was in her kitchen. Her mother was giving her a perm. The doorbell rang. It was a man in a black suit carrying a briefcase. He may or may not have given his name. Debra Spessard cannot remember. What he had to say made everything else melt away. Jim Spessard's flight, he said, was missing.
The next morning at eight he called back. James Spessard, he said, was dead. There was little else he could or would tell her. The area where the plane had gone down was remote. The Agency had not yet been able to reach it.
It was only later that the Agency determined that the Lockheed L-100-20 Hercules cargo plane had been on final approach to the airfield near Jamba, Savimbi's headquarters. It was too risky to turn the runway lights on until the last seconds and the pilot was forced to rely on instruments. In the utter blackness of night, there was no hint of a horizon by which to steer. It was already too late when he discovered he was coming in too low. He attempted to circle but the wing clipped a treetop and the plane cartwheeled into the ground. Almost immediately the fuel and ammunition aboard exploded in a fireball that consumed the aircraft, its crew, and its cargo. One Savimbi warrior, no older than sixteen, had been lying down on the cargo near the tail. He was thrown clear and survived almost unscathed.
Spessard, Petty, Lacy, Rieger, Bensch, Atkinson, and Savimbi's men perished in the crash. Many of the bodies were burned beyond recognition.
Soon after the crash, an Agency team composed of a dozen people -- investigators and medical examiners -- was on-site. They recovered the bodies, the black box, and remains of flight instruments, and scoured the area for anything of a sensitive nature that could prove awkward for the Agency. Anything not consumed by fire was retrieved.
The six coffins arrived at Dover Air Force Base without any of the usual ceremony or public spectacle that awaits many of those who are killed overseas in service to country. A photo would record that a nondescript cargo plane delivered six crates. "Handle with Care" stenciled on their sides and bound by white cord.
Five of the caskets -- those of Petty, Lacy, Bensch, Rieger, and Atkinson -- were flown to Florida via yet another nondescript cargo plane which was promptly taken inside a hangar at Tepper Aviation. The five identical silver eighteen-gauge steel caskets, all of them sealed, were placed in hearses and driven to the Twin City Funeral Home in Niceville, Florida.
For the next two days there were visitation hours as mourners passed by the caskets, each in its own room. Funeral director Joe MacLendon was struck that many of those who passed by the caskets were not attired in the usual black suits but wore instead weathered leather jackets and appeared, to use his word, "tough." They reminded him of the character Indiana Jones. He wondered if some of those in attendance were mercenaries.
From Florida the caskets would go their separate ways. But first there was paperwork to be done and regulations regarding the transfer of bodies that had to be satisfied.
For funeral director MacLendon this was not so easy There were no accompanying death certificates. What scanty records arrived from Dover were largely illegible. Under the entry "Circumstances Surrounding Death" was written "Unknown." So it was with "Place of Death" and "Date of Death." There was no information to be had, no contact with the government, only a check from Tepper Aviation to cover the cost of the funerals.
In an effort to oblige the widows, MacLendon dummied up the necessary documents, made up what information he didn't know, and had them notarized. And with that, the caskets went out.
George Lacy's remains were flown by private plane to Oklahoma and interred in a family plot in El Reno. George Bensch's body was returned to Walldorf Germany. Michael Atkinson's casket was returned to the island of St. Lucia. There, following his widow's request, the Cricks Funeral Home drilled holes in the casket and attached iron weights to it so that it might be buried in the sea he so loved. A small flotilla of fishing boats escorted the coffin three miles out of Rodney Bay. The swells were high and the mourners thought it only fitting that on such a day they would bury a man unfazed by rough weather. Then, with words of blessing from a Methodist minister, the coffin was lowered into the Caribbean.
Petty's and Rieger's final journeys would take an even more unusual twist.
Back in Hagerstown, CIA officers asked the Spessard family to provide dental records to help them identify Spessard's remains. Spessard's family was in the cemetery business, but even for them it was a grim assignment. They asked to view the body. They wanted to make sure that the remains were indeed those of James Spessard. But the Agency refused. The remains, they were told, were in a body bag within the coffin and were simply "not viewable."
But Debra and other family members were insistent. Years earlier Jimmy Spessard had tattooed on his chest the little yellow bird known as Woodstock from the cartoon Peanuts. They asked to see that the corpse had such a tattoo. The Agency refused their request. The family asked if a picture could be taken of the tattoo. This, too, was denied. They could not even pick out the casket.
A day later three Agency employees, two men and a woman, showed up at the Spessard home, which was now filled with mourners. The three arrived in a black car, dressed in black and carrying black briefcases. They asked Debra Spessard and her brother if they could go somewhere where they might be alone and be free to talk. Debra Spessard led them to the basement rec room, where she and her brother took a seat on a sofa.
If the Agency was concerned with Spessard's loss, it was also concerned with just how it was going to conceal the circumstances of that loss from the public and press. Damage control was foremost on their minds. They asked Spessard's widow if she would be willing to tell friends and any reporters who might make inquiries that her husband had been working for a private company and was moonlighting for a few extra dollars at the time he was killed. That way his link to the Agency might remain a secret.
Debbie Spessard said she would not lie about the circumstances of her husband's death. "If Jimmy was going to die for his country," she told them, "it isn't going to be perceived that he died for a paycheck." The woman from the Agency asked again, all the while holding Debra Spessard's trembling hands. Twice more, Debra Spessard refused. She eventually agreed to provide any reporters with a telephone number the Agency had given her which would shunt reporters off the track of the CIA.
At the Pentagon, three days after the crash, briefer Pete Williams was fending off reporters' questions. Williams was asked who was on the flight, what it carried, and which government agency, if any, it was affiliated with. "The only thing I know," he told reporters, "is what the army put out, which is that the person named James Spessard -- S-P-E-S-S-A-R-D -- was an army civilian employee, but that's all I know about it."
The CIA, when asked about the flight, issued its usual line, delivered by spokesman Mark Mansfield: "As a matter of policy, we never confirm or deny such reports," he said.
The crash had been catastrophic for the Spessard family. For the Agency, too, it was viewed with grave alarm. The timing could not have been worse. Just two days after the crash, President George Bush was to meet with the Soviets' Mikhail Gorbachev for a much-touted summit in the Mediterranean off Malta.
And only two days prior to the Angola crash the U.S. government had made much of a plane that had crashed in eastern El Salvador that was revealed to be carrying Soviet arms destined for leftist rebels in that country. The twin-engine Cessna that originated in Nicaragua carried some twenty- four SA-7 antiaircraft missiles in its belly. Its crash and the subsequent publicity surrounding it had provided a propaganda bonanza and potential leverage in the upcoming summit.
The United States could argue that the Soviets were still dirtying their hands in anachronistic proxy wars long after America had chosen to take the high ground, repudiating such nefarious intervention in Third World conflicts. An indignant Bush administration had even lodged a formal protest with the Soviet Embassy. Among those most eager to mine the propaganda benefits of that crash was CIA Director William Webster.
The crash in Angola threatened to expose U.S. hypocrisy and put the United States and Soviet Union on an equally equivocal moral footing in the eyes of the world. No one understood this better than George Bush, who as president was acutely sensitive to such developments on the eve of a summit. But as the only president to have also served as Director Central Intelligence he was sympathetic to the risks of covert operations. The CIA and State Department did what they could to mislead and distract the press and to ensure that the Angola crash got only minimal attention.
In the recent past the CIA had been quite successful at that. Just three months prior to the Angola crash, the Agency had lost one of its own in another African plane crash and managed to completely conceal its link to the fatality despite a flood of national and international press attention.
On August 7, 1989, a high-profile U.S. congressman, Mickey Leland, a Democrat from Texas, on a humanitarian and fact-finding mission in Ethiopia, had been en route to a refugee camp. His twin-engine plane crashed into a cliff during a violent storm. All sixteen passengers and crew were killed. Among the retinue of U.S. officials accompanying the congressman was twenty-five-year-old Robert William Woods. He was said to be a lowly third-level vice-consul with the State Department in the embassy at Addis Ababa.
But Woods was not what he seemed to be. A brilliant young man, he had attended Harvard as a National Merit scholar, graduated cum laude with a degree in history, was a licensed pilot, and, for the preceding two years, had been a covert officer of the CIA. Woods had volunteered for Ethiopia though he understood well its many dangers.
Just prior to leaving he had asked an attorney to draft a will. The attorney had said he was busy and that surely it could wait until Woods's scheduled return to the States in January -- when Woods was to be married. What, after all, was the rush? Woods was but twenty-five. But he insisted and it was done before his departure. And not long before leaving, Woods took his fiancee, Colleen Healy, for a stroll through the Forest Hills Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. "This is where my grandfather is buried," he pointed out, "and this is where I want to be buried, beside him," he said. And so he would be.
But the Agency was intent upon making sure that no one linked him to Langley. The presence of an Agency operative assigned to Ethiopia was seen as extremely sensitive. The United States had withdrawn its ambassador nine years earlier, in 1980, and had operated only a skeleton embassy staff in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia had aligned itself with Moscow and Libya, and the United States had adopted a policy of encirclement, arming Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan.
The Agency had reason to fear that Woods's death might generate unwanted attention given the interest in Leland and the prominence of his family. His father, Dick Woods, was senior vice-president and general counsel to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
But in the end, Woods's death was utterly eclipsed by the attention given Congressman Leland's loss. Woods's name would later be added to the State Department wall, continuing the fiction of his cover story, and another nameless star was written into the Agency's Book of Honor. His family even established a fund in his name at Harvard. But the secret of his CIA employment was intact.
Three months later the Agency faced an even more complicated situation in Angola with multiple fatalities and a volatile political situation. But while Langley fretted about keeping a lid on the accident, the Spessard family concerned itself with funeral arrangements for thirty-one-year-old Jimmy Spessard. Given Spessard's six years in the navy and his death in the performance of governmental service, the family had hoped that the Pentagon would provide the services of Arlington's famed Old Guard and a military funeral. But the military cited rules that the Guard would not attend funerals beyond a thirty-mile radius from Arlington. The Spessards were heartsick. They appealed to the Agency. Their concerns went all the way to the top. Director Central Intelligence Webster, a former judge and FBI head, personally got involved and used his clout to persuade the Pentagon to waive its restrictions and to allow the Old Guard to make the long drive up to Hagerstown. They arrived by bus, somewhat bewildered by the distance and the occasion. "I don't know why we're here or who he was," one member of the Guard was heard to say.
When it came time to lift the flag off the casket, fold it, and present it, they mistook Spessard's grandmother for the widow. At twenty-six, Debra Spessard simply seemed too young to be a widow. Spessard's grandmother accepted the triangular flag, then promptly passed it to her daughter-in-law, who sat beside her.
At the funeral, mourners signed a book, a maroon leather-bound volume entitled "Precious Memories." The book contained a number of curious entries. It said that Spessard had died in Zaire, continuing the cover story given to the press. Even odder were the signatures of those who attended the funeral. Many who were covert employees of the Agency simply signed their first name and the first letter of their last name. Others intentionally penned names that were illegible. Among these were three of Spessard's pallbearers who were Agency colleagues.
Spessard was buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park, the cemetery where Debra Spessard works and which is owned by her family. His grave is a few short minutes' walk from her desk. Before his interment, the gold wedding ring he had removed the morning of his departure was allowed to be placed in the coffin.
All along the way the CIA did what it could to conceal its link to Spessard and to the resupply effort of Savimbi. Days after the crash, CIA officers appeared at Spessard's home. They went down to the basement rec room and carted off Spessard's entire computer system. It was never to be returned.
Within a week of the crash a letter arrived at Debra Spessard's home. By all appearances it was a personal letter. It was from a Patsy Hallums and the return address was her home. But Hallums was a CIA employee, and inside the envelope was a letter of condolence from none other than William H. Webster, Director Central Intelligence. It was dated December 11, 1989, and read in part:
"Jimmy was a dedicated and conscientious employee who enjoyed the highest respect and admiration of his colleagues.
"He was one of the most energetic members of the staff who took the time to lend his help to others. Often, this meant going out of his way for a colleague with a work-related or personal problem. He spoke often of his family and was known to his friends as a devoted husband and loving father. Your husband's warm personality and quick smile will be missed by those who share in this tragic loss.
"I hope you will derive some peace and comfort in knowing that he served his country and this Agency well ..."
Later a packet of letters from his Agency colleagues arrived. The return addresses had all been snipped off. Any mail sent by the CIA or its employees carried a stamp. A postage meter carries an identifying number and, along with it, the risk of being traced.
A month after the crash, on the morning of December 19, 1989, the Agency dispatched a van to Hagerstown to pick up the Spessard family and drive them to Langley for a meeting with Director Webster and a memorial service. They were escorted to the director's private elevator and taken to the seventh floor. On the way up, their escort told them a series of peculiar stories about the director's dining room, including one that involved a Saudi official who had requested and was granted a serving of boa constrictor. (Never happened, say senior Agency officials, though several members of the Spessard family recall being told the tale.)
Once inside the director's office, Webster asked how Spessard's two sons were coping. He expressed his regrets, asked if there was anything he might do, and then presented Debra Spessard with the Intelligence Star, awarded for "courageous action."
The citation read: "James E. Spessard is posthumously awarded the Intelligence Star in recognition of his exceptional service to the Central Intelligence Agency from July 1989 to November 1989. His voluntary acceptance of known dangers in the execution of his duties reflected the highest standard of professionalism and dedication to the mission of the Agency. Mr. Spessard's significant contributions to the overall mission of the Intelligence Community are justly deserving of commendation and honor, reflecting great credit on himself, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal service."
Webster said that ordinarily he would not allow such an award to leave the premises, that it would be placed in a vault, but that he had made an exception. Debra Spessard could keep it, so long as she showed it to no one. In a moment of unusual candor he also admitted he did not know Jimmy Spessard.
A moment later Webster was interrupted and abruptly excused himself without explanation. His aide said he had been called away to the White House for consultation. Nothing more was said. The next day the United States launched a military action against Panama and toppled the regime of Manuel Noriega.
But the strangest events were yet to come. Several months after the funeral, two Agency employees paid a visit to the Hagerstown cemetery. In the cemetery office they showed a video of the crash site to Debra Spessard and her brother. The video lasted several minutes and showed that the plane had broken into three parts and that all around it the trees and grass were charred.
While the tape ran, one of the Agency officers read from an official report. "Every third word had a big black mark through it, so much of it was classified," recalls Debra Spessard. "The blacked-out part was like every other line." Afterward she asked if she could keep the tape. That would not be possible, the Agency men explained, and left, leaving nothing behind.
On December 7, 1989, in Dothan, Alabama, the body of pilot Bud Petty was said to be laid to rest with full military honors in the Memory Hill Cemetery. Family members had huddled around the flag-draped casket as a twenty-one-gun salute sounded. Then he was lowered into grave number 1, lot 405, in the cemetery's Garden of Chimes. It had been a moving tribute to Petty, as was the obituary that appeared in the local paper. Never mind that the obituary said he had died November 29, two days after his actual death, and that there was no mention of the place or cause of death.
His casket had arrived in Dothan sealed, with instructions that it was not to be opened. Men in black suits came down from Washington with a single message for the Petty family: "Don't talk to anyone from the newspapers." After a while, the Pettys had been told so many varying accounts of the crash that they weren't sure what the truth was. Some even suspected Petty was still alive.
Six months later, in Hagerstown, Maryland, Debra Spessard received a phone call from a woman who identified herself as Teresa Petty, Bud Petty's daughter. She was sobbing and said that she suspected her father's coffin had been empty. She was convinced she had been lied to. She had no proof to back up her accusation, but she was certain she and other family members had been duped. Then her grief gave way to anger. She said that the Agency had concluded that the plane had gone down due to pilot error. She said her father was too good a pilot to let that explanation stand. Later her family challenged that finding and the Agency seemed to amend its findings, in part to mollify Petty's survivors. There was talk of a faulty altimeter or other instrument.
Teresa Petty was not alone in believing that her father's coffin was empty. Bud Petty's eldest sister, Joyce, was also convinced, as was Petty's first wife, Doris, whom Petty divorced in the late 1970s.
But Petty's widow, Gracie, who worked closely with him at Tepper Aviation, will not speak of such matters. She says that she knows nothing of the CIA, that her husband merely worked for Tepper Aviation, and that the company had a "government contract."
"It's not a subject that I talk about," she says. "Bud's been gone ten years. I quit living after that. He was a wonderful man and a wonderful memory and I really don't care to rehash any of it. I wouldn't talk about Bud even if President Clinton called. I have my own memories and that's all I care about. If it don't bring him back I don't care." End of story.
Well, not quite.
In the Byrd Funeral Home in Dothan, Alabama, is a file with Bud Petty's name on it and inside is an affidavit that reads: "Before me this day personally appeared Gracie T. Petty who is being duly sworn, deposed, and says that they have full knowledge that the casket which is being brought to Byrd Funeral Home, Dothan, Alabama is only representative of their next of kin for the express purpose of memorializing their missing relative and that they fully understand there are no human remains or personal artifacts contained within such casket."
What Petty's daughter, Teresa, and others had suspected was true. The casket was empty. "I wanted Bud to be buried with dignity," Gracie would later tell Petty's sister Joyce. The Agency had apparently chosen to tell only Petty's widow. The same grim word would be given to the widow of Gerhard Rieger. His casket, too, was empty.
There was a hard irony to the way things turned out for the Petty family. Bud was not a man given to pithy sayings, but one thing he often told his children was that when adversity struck, it was important to "put it behind you and go forward." The peculiar circumstances surrounding his own death and the subsequent deception proved hard to leave behind.
"My brother was very honest with me," says sister Joyce. "He would not have wanted us to be lied to so that we would go on wondering -- that we would be wondering ten years later if he was alive or dead. He would not want to be mourned for this long. He would have wanted us to get on with our lives and he would know we could not do that if we were not told the truth."
It has been no less hard on Alton Petty, Bud's father, now eighty years old. "Everybody was closemouthed and did what they was supposed to do," he says. "The whole stinking mess was shoved down our throat. All of us are afraid to talk to anybody. Most of it is rumor. I have no facts that I can believe. When you lose a son and you can't prove it, you just wonder and start grabbing at straws."
The Spessards were somewhat more fortunate. In time, they made a kind of peace with Jimmy's death. Debra Spessard later remarried. Some time after her husband's death she received a photograph from one of her husband's Agency colleagues showing a workman chiseling a nameless star into the CIA's Wall of Honor -- a star for Jimmy. To this day her sons do not know that their father was with the CIA and was killed in service to country. The burden of secrecy has been upon them all.
There are other memorials to Spessard, Petty, and the other crew members who died aboard the Gray Ghost flight. Shortly after the crash, Jonas Savimbi was said to have erected an obelisk with a plaque dedicated to their memory. There it stands today amid thorn trees and high grass on the Angolan savanna not far from where the plane went down. And at Agency headquarters in Langley, along the path where the statue of Nathan Hale is to be found, the men and women of the CIA's Africa Division planted a small sapling in their honor -- a tribute without names. In the Agency's Book of Honor, each is a nameless star.
But perhaps the most curious memorial service was one the Agency itself observed some two years after the crash. As if to make sure that no public link was forged between the Agency and the dead, the ceremony was held not at CIA headquarters, but rather at the Fort Myer Chapel in Arlington Cemetery. It was 11:30 the morning of August 7, 1991, and the families of the deceased, many of whom had never before met one another, gathered in tribute to their sons and fathers and husbands. Medals and awards were presented.
Petty's widow received a vaguely worded and undated certificate that read: "The United States of America honors the memory of Pharies B. Petty. This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States." Never mind that Petty had been out of the military for a dozen years. But at least it was signed -- "George Bush, President of the United States."
Mildred Lacy, the aging mother of aviation mechanic George Lacy, accepted a round metal that featured an eagle on the front and the words "In Recognition of Distinguished Service." On the obverse was inscribed "George Vincent Lacy 1989."
A short time later she received through the mail a second award, named the Alben W. Barkley Award. The citation reads: "The United States of America presents the Alben W. Barkley Award to George V. Lacy in recognition of distinguished public service to the people and goals of the United States of America. Mr. Lacy is presented this award posthumously following his ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty serving his country. His individual contributions can never be forgotten and his public spirit will live on as a standard of excellence that future public servants will try to emulate. The dedication, selflessness, and commitment with which he served reflect great credit upon himself his family and the United States of America."
What made the award so curious was not only that it made no mention of either the CIA or Lacy's mission but that, according to what Mildred Lacy was told, it was the first and only time the award would be made -- that is, only those six on board the ill-fated Gray Ghost flight would ever receive it. Why it was named for Alben Barkley, Harry Truman's vice-president, was never explained to the relatives of the deceased. And there was an odd irony in suggesting that Lacy's contributions would never be forgotten, that they would become "a standard of excellence" for "future public servants," given that his name, his mission, and his fate were all completely veiled in secrecy.
There was nothing in any of the medals, honors, or certificates that showed the CIA's hand was behind it all. It was as if the bereaved, who had themselves made a stunning sacrifice, could not be trusted with anything that revealed the truth.
"All the medals and the talking will never bring my son or the other boys home," says Lacy's mother, Mildred. "They are gone. All we have is our memories and our thoughts every day of our son and what they had gone through when this happened. That's something nobody knows."
As for the people of Angola, like so many others caught in the undertow first of colonialism and then the Cold War, a happy ending is not yet in sight. A cease-fire between the government and UNITA lasted from May 199l until October 1992, when UNITA refused to recognize the results of an internationally monitored election. A decade after the crash that killed Spessard, Petty, Rieger, Bensch, Lacy, and Atkinson, and two decades after the CIA's involvement in that civil war, Savimbi remains restive. The new millennium dawns with Angola's people facing still more violence and upheaval.
So it was to be for the CIA as well. Africa would soon account for still more nameless stars in the Book of Honor.