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THE LAST DAYS OF DANNY CASOLARO

by James Ridgeway and Doug Vaughan

The Village Voice, October 15, 1991

The Feds' Theft of Inslaw Software

The following excerpt is a fragment selected from a lengthy article published in the VILLAGE VOICE, October 15, 1991. The article glances upon a great many diverse and fascinating facets of the story surrounding the violent death of an intrepid reporter named Danny Casolaro.

MARTINSBURG, WEST VIRGINIA -- At about 12:30 in the afternoon of Saturday, August 10, a maid knocked on the door of room 517 at the Sheraton Martinsburg Inn, just off Interstate 81 on the outskirts of this old mill town. Nobody answered, so she used her passkey to open the door; though it had both a security bolt and a chain lock on the inside, neither one was attached. The bed didn't appear slept in, though it was turned down, and clothes had been laid out neatly at it's foot. Then the maid glanced into the bathroom. She saw a lot of blood on the tile floor and screamed.

Another hotel maid came rushing in to help. When she peaked inside the bathroom, she saw a man's nude body lying in the blood-filled tub. There was blood not only on the tile floor but spattered up onto the wall above as well; she nearly fainted at the sight. One of the maids called the desk on the room phone and, after sending up a maintenance man, the desk immediately dialed 911.

Within five minutes, three Martinsburg city police officers were threading their way past the horrified maids and maintenance man clustered in the hallway and into Room 517. A team of paramedics from the local fire department joined them a few minutes later. Squeezing into the tiny bathroom, they found a white male in his early forties with deep cuts on both wrists: three or four wounds on the right and seven or eight on the left, made with a sharp, bladed object.

There was no other trauma to the body that would indicate any sort of struggle; there was a half-empty, corked bottle of red wine on the floor by the tub and a broken hotel glass beside it. When they lifted the body out, they found a single-edge razor blade -- the kind used to scrape windows or slice open packages -- at the bottom of the bloody water in the bath, along with an empty can of Milwaukee beer, a paper hotel glass coaster, and two white plastic garbage bags, the kind used in wastepaper baskets.

On the desk in the bedroom the cops found an empty Mead composition notebook and a legal pad from which a single page had been removed. The page lay near a plastic Bic pen, and in its ink there was a note:

To those who I love the most, Please forgive me for the worst possible thing I could have done. Most of all I'm sorry to my son. I know deep down inside that God will let me in.

There were no other papers, folders, documents of any sort, nor any briefcase in the room, only the man's wallet, stuffed with credit cards. According to the driver's license, the man's name was J. Daniel Casolaro of Fairfax, Virginia.

Although his death was tentatively ruled a suicide, back in Washington, D.C., his friends and family quickly protested that decision, and reports in the media were soon suggesting that Danny Casolaro had been murdered. For in this, the year of conspiracies, Danny Casolaro happened to be one of a small army of freelance journalists exploring the possibility that the powers of the national security state had been used to manipulate domestic politics. In particular, Casolaro was interested in what he called the "Octopus," a network of individuals and institutions that he believed had secretly masterminded a whole series of scandals, from the Iran-Contra affair and the S&L debacle to the BCCI collapse and the 1980 October Surprise deal.

In the weeks before his death Casolaro had spoken frequently about threats on his life, and just before he left for Martinsburg he had told his brother, "If anything happens to me, don't believe it's an accident." Many of the friends and sources who spoke to him in the last days of his life recalled that he seemed euphoric and quite certain that he was on the brink of proving the existence of his Octopus; he did not sound like a candidate for suicide to them. More suspicious, before the family could be told of Casolaro's death or an autopsy performed, the body was embalmed by a local funeral home; early press reports added that the hotel room had been quickly cleaned, perhaps to obscure any trace of a crime. The wildest story even suggested that the undertaker was an employee of the C.I.A., hired to clean up after agency assassinations.

Even at Casolaro's funeral, the family felt engulfed by mysteries. As his mother, brothers, sisters and close friends watched from beneath a canopy, a man in a tan raincoat and a beribboned black soldier in Army dress uniform walked up to the casket. The soldier laid a medal on the lid, saluted and both men quickly walked away. No one recognized either man; Danny had never served in or covered the military. The medal was buried with the coffin.

At 8:30 that evening, Olga returned to Casolaro's house to look for him. The phone rang. A man's voice said, "You son of a bitch. You're dead."

.....

Martinsburg police detective Sergeant George Swartswood called Danny Casolaro's mother's house and told the family that Casolaro was dead, an apparent suicide. By the middle of that day, National Public Radio was broadcasting the first reports about Casolaro's mysterious death and "the Octopus." .....

This is how [Danny's brother] Tony Casolaro [a physician] remembers that day:

"My mother first called about 9:30 on Monday morning. She called me within 20 minutes. When I spoke to [Swartswood], he said, `We found your brother at the Sheraton in Martinsburg. It looks like he committed suicide.' And I said, `Well how did he do it?' And he said, `We're not sure yet. We found some broken glass, and we found a razor, and his arms were cut.' I said, `You mean wrists?' And he said, `Yeah, wrists and arms.' I said, `Did you know he was a reporter working on a story?' He said, `No. What are you talking about?' I said, `He told me four weeks ago: if he got killed in an accident, not to believe it because he was threatened.' He said, `Oh.' I said, `Did you find any of his papers? He had all these papers with him.' He said, `I don't think we found any papers.' I said, `Are you going to do an autopsy?' He said, `No. I don't think so.'"

"And then he sort of stepped back and said I ought to talk to the medical examiner. I said, `Who decided not to [conduct an autopsy]?' He said, `the coroner, Sandra Brining.' I didn't think of all the things I should have asked him at the time."

After talking to Sandra Brining, Tony Casolaro finally got through to Dr. James Frost in the West Virginia Medical Examiner's office. Frost said he would conduct an autopsy on Wednesday.

"I told him the whole method of death ..... even if he were going to commit suicide ..... I'm not going to say he never would. You never say that. Anybody could."

"But I said, if you look at the person, if you look at how enthusiastic he was, and if you look at the method of dying -- Danny didn't like needles. He was supposed to have a treadmill done about a year ago: he got there and they told him they wanted to do a stress Valium test, where they put a needle in his arm. He said, `Forget it.' and left. My partner was really mad at him. He said, `You're not going to put any needles in my arm.'"

"And Frost said, `Well, you know, that is kind of curious. We'll go ahead and do the autopsy and we'll see.'"

"[Then {later}] he said to me, `You know, he's been embalmed.' This was Monday afternoon. I said, `What? You're kidding. How did that happen?' He said, `I don't know.' I said, `Is that something that's standard?' He said, `No. It's quite atypical. It's against the law, in fact. Weren't you asked?' I said, `No.' [He said], `Well, then, I don't quite know. Maybe Ms. Brining authorized it. [Brining said she released the body to the funeral home because she regarded it as a suicide.] But really, they're supposed to notify the family first.' I said, `Well, I can guarantee you nobody asked us.' I said, `Doesn't that impede your autopsy?' `Well,' he said, `it makes it more difficult.' Those were his exact words."

Riconosciuto told Hamilton that Ed Meese had taken PROMIS and allegedly given it to one of his cronies, Earl W. Brian, who served as Reagan's Secretary of Health while he was Governor of California, and later became head of United Press International. According to Riconosciuto, Brian then sold PROMIS to police forces -- including secret police -- around the world, from South Korea to Israel to Iraq. The same qualities that made PROMIS ideal for tracking criminals in the U.S. courts made it perfect for keeping tabs on terrorists or, needless to say, political dissidents. As Riconosciuto claimed to have adapted it, the software could then operate as a kind of computer network bug -- anything the security apparatus that used PROMIS knew, the U.S. could know, simply by linking up over the telephone.

Almost at once, Hamilton says, he told Casolaro about Riconosciuto. Casolaro's phone records indicate he spent many hours in conversation with Riconosciuto, and Casolaro's friends say that for several months in late 1990, Casolaro talked of little else.

The 44-year-old Riconosciuto is -- to put it mildly -- a colorful character, wilder than anything in "The Falcon and the Snowman." He was a gifted child: When he was just 10 years old, Michael wired his parents' neighborhood with a working private telephone system that undercut Ma Bell; in the eighth grade, he won a science fair with a model for a three-dimensional sonar system. By the time he was a teenager, he had won so many science fairs with exhibits of laser technology that he was invited to be a summer research assistant at Stanford's prestigious Cooper Vapor Laser Laboratory. Dr. Arthur Schalow, a Nobel laureate, remembers him even now. "You don't forget a 16-year-old youngster who shows up with his own argon laser," he told Casolaro.

In 1973, Riconosciuto had been sentenced by a federal judge in Seattle to two years in prison for the manufacture of psychedelic drugs and jumping bail. At the time, his father testified that Michael was engaged in "underwater research" and had discussed "using electronic means to clean up pollutants in water." The narcotics agents who arrested the young Riconosciuto said they'd had him under surveillance off and on since 1968.

Riconosciuto told Casolaro, as he had told numerous other reporters before him, that after his release he had become research director for a joint venture between Wackenhut, the Coral Gables [Florida] private security outfit, and the Cabazon Indian band of Indio, California, that was developing and manufacturing arms and other military material -- including night-vision goggles, machine guns, and biological and chemical weapons -- for export.

Riconosciuto claimed that he had invented the fuel-air explosive; he also said that he had encountered a variety of famous people who dropped by the Cabazon reservation from time to time. For example, he claimed that he had met the Jackal, the famous assassin; talked on the phone with Admiral Bobby Inman of the C.I.A.; and even tape-recorded a secret meeting with William Casey at a Washington, D.C. country club (according to Riconosciuto, that tape was his insurance policy against getting bumped off by the big boys in the spook world).

Riconosciuto went on to "reveal" that he was the man who had "pulled the plug" on the Nugan Hand Bank, the Australian bank with C.I.A. ties that collapsed in 1980; he also claimed to be an effective lobbyist on Capitol Hill, responsible for swinging five key votes to free up $100 million for the secret contra war against the Sandinistas. Once, after lunch with then F.B.I. Director William Webster, he had laid plans to launder spook money throuyh NASA.

This was all a bit much for the Hamiltons to take in, but the computer company owners listened with fascination and deep suspicion to his tales involving PROMIS. In an affidavit presented in federal court, Riconosciuto told them that Casey -- who had been outside counsel to Wackenhut before joining the Reagan White House -- had hired him and Brian, as employees of Wackenhut, to carry out the October Surprise deal. Riconosciuto described how a Justice Department official had allegedly ordered him to modify PROMIS for use by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He claimed that Meese had rewarded Brian for his assistance during the October Surprise by giving him the software outright, which he could then sell at a considerable profit around the world. (Brian has denied any connection to the Inslaw case.)

Casolaro and the Hamiltons thought Riconosciuto's tale was largely wacko, but they found certain things he told them to be true -- particularly that the Wackenhut joint venture existed, and that the Mounties had apparently misappropriated PROMIS (the Canadian police have denied using PROMIS). They theorized that maybe Riconosciuto was using his contacts with the Hamiltons as leverage with other people who were threatening him: If his enemies didn't cooperate with Riconosciuto, then he would spill more and more secrets to Casolaro and the Hamiltons.

In April 1991, SHORTLY AFTER giving his affidavit in the Inslaw case, Riconosciuto was arrested for the manufacture and sale of methamphetamines in Washington state. He has been in jail since then, often claiming to be a "political prisoner."

(to be continued)

THE VILLAGE VOICE 36 Cooper Square New York, NY 10003

transcribed by John DiNardo

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