THE LAST CIRCLE
The last remnants of the D.I.G. group were beginning to call themselves "The Loser's Club," resembling forlorn characters out of a Stephen King novel. They had squared off against a labyrinthine evil so incomprehensible, they didn't know what they were fighting. It was time to bring in some outside help.
During a strategy meeting in Jackson, California, Ben Wagner had received an impressive 700 page report commissioned by the Tulare City Council. The report, compiled by Ted Gunderson, a former Los Angeles FBI agent, was in-depth and straightforward about deputies receiving payoffs and distributing drugs in the small farmtown of Tulare. Wagner had given me a copy for my files.
On an impulse, I picked up the phone and called Gunderson's telephone number listed at the top of the attached resume. The resume was impressive. He'd worked as SAC (Senior Special Agent in Charge) at Los Angeles FBI headquarters, Washington D.C. headquarters and in Dallas, Texas. It would be two years before I would grasp the significance of the Dallas connection. After retiring from the FBI, he'd worked for F. Lee Baily, Esq., then formed his own investigative agency in Los Angeles county.
I left a message with the answering service and he returned the call a few days later. His voice was open, attentive, devoid of the bureaucratic hollowness I had come to expect from FBI agents. We talked briefly, mostly about the problem DIG was experiencing in Mariposa. I said I needed help, anticipating his next question. But none came forth. Instead, a clipped knowingness entered his tone, as if nothing more should be said on the phone. He agreed to meet with me at his home a few weeks later and we hung up.
Unknown to me at the time, I had taken a quantum leap in the direction of the Octopus when I contacted Ted Gunderson. The mystery of the Mariposa coverups would soon be divulged through an associate of his, a former member of "The Company" in nearby Fresno, California.
On November 30, 1991, Ted Gunderson opened the door at his Manhattan Beach home and ushered us into a small living room cluttered with toys. He made no explanation for the toys scattered around the floor and the couch, but offered coffee and donuts, then proceeded to eat most of the donuts himself. I had expected someone dripping with intrigue, instead he was classic in the sense of an investigator; rumpled shirt and slacks, nervous movements, distracted behavior. We sat on the couch bunched together amongst the toys. Gunderson pulled a kitchen chair up in front of us, leaned over and began stuffing his mouth with cheese and crackers, all the while talking, his body in perpetual motion. He was a big, handsome man with an aging face and tossled silver hair. He seemed entirely unaware of his appearance or the appearance of his home, but his pale eyes were intelligent and probing. Intuitively, I knew he was more than he appeared to be.
A young woman, perhaps early thirties, entered the room brushing long blond hair, still wet from the shower. Her faded jeans and sun-drenched appearance reminded me of friends I'd known growing up in Newport Beach. Gunderson introduced her as his "partner," as she seated herself silently on the floor next to him. The flush on her face brought a fleeting prescience to me that they had been making love shortly before the meeting.
Ray Jenkins recounted the Mariposa story for several hours, with the rest of us digressing to insert a fact here or there. The investigation had led beyond Mariposa into MCA Corporation, and various State and Federal levels of government. I noted that Danny Casolaro's research had started at the eastern end, in Washington D.C., yet he had been preparing to travel to California for the rest of the story, before his death three months earlier.
Gunderson listened carefully, occasionally interrupting to ask questions, then motioned us to follow him to the backyard. There we stood in a circle in the middle of his yard while he surveyed the area. Satisfied that he was not being watched, he agreed to come to Mariposa, with media, and perform a citizens arrest on the corrupt officials. He pulled a frazzled piece of paper from his pocket and gave me a list of telephone numbers to write down. They were numbers to telephone booths at various locations in the vicinity of his home. Each booth had been coded 1,2,3,4, or 5. He instructed that the next time I called him, he would give me the code number of the booth and a time to call. I would then call him at the designated booth.
Eight hours later, I handed him a copy of my first book, as a courtesy, then left Manhattan Beach loaded with newspaper clippings and documents, mostly relating to Casolaro's investigation of the Octopus. One packet was titled, "The Wonderful Weapons of Wackenhut," others related to the Inslaw affair, Iran/Contra and various savings and loan scandals.
In the van, reviewing the documents, I wondered what relationship they had to Mariposa County and why I was given the packet. The documents were far ranging, beyond anything I had heretofore imagined. But within days of my visit to Gunderson, I would be introduced to the Octopus.
The following morning, at 7:30 a.m., I received a collect call from a man who identified himself as Michael Riconosciuto (pronounced Riconoshooto). Riconosciuto, calling from the Pierce County jail in Tacoma, Washington, said he had been informed by Gunderson that I was investigating a corruption/drug ring in Mariposa County. For 45 minutes Riconosciuto related the names of those in charge of methamphetamine operations in Mariposa, Madera and Fresno counties.
A ton of methamphetamine had been seized in the area of my investigations, according to Riconosciuto. Richard Knozzi was a high level "cooker" and Jim DeSilva, Ben Kalka, and others were medium level distributors or lieutenants. Kalka was currently serving time in a Pleasanton prison; 900 pounds of methamphetamine had been seized under his control.
"Who's behind this ring?" I asked. Riconosciuto paused for a moment, then took a deep breath. "It's The Company. Arms get shipped to the Contras, the Afghanistan rebels [Mujahaden], the Middle East. You know, to fight the Soviet influence. But the Contras and the Mujahaden don't have money to pay for arms, so they pay with drugs, cocaine or heroin. The Company handles the drug end of it in the U.S ..."
"What's The Company ...?," I asked. Riconosciuto interrupted, "Wait a minute. It's a long story. You have to start at the beginning." Concerned that Riconosciuto might have to hang up, I hurriedly pushed for answers. "Arms for drugs, do you have proof?"
"Oh, yeah. It's a self-supporting system, they don't have to go through Congress ..."
"Michael," I pressed, "who ships the arms?" Riconosciuto quieted for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "Let's start with Wackenhut. I didn't play ball with Wackenhut so they poisoned the well for me. I'm in jail because I worked for Wackenhut. The government has put together a very simple drug case against me ... as if that's what I'm about, just a druggie."
"Tell me about Wackenhut."
"It's a security corporation headquartered in Coral Gables, Florida. Wackenhut provides security for the Nevada nuclear test site, the Alaskan pipeline, Lawrence Livermore Labs, you know, all the high security government facilities in the U.S. They have about fifty thousand armed security guards that work for minimum wage or slightly above.
"On the other hand, on the Wackenhut board of directors, they have all the former heads of every government agency there ever was under Ronald Reagan and George Bush; FBI, CIA, NSA, Secret Service, etc.
"You know, they've got retired Admiral Stansfield Turner, a former CIA director; Clarence Kelley, former FBI director; Frank Carlucci, former CIA deputy director; James Rowley, former Secret Service director; Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, former acting chairman of President Bush's foreign intelligence advisory board and former CIA deputy director. Before his appointment as Reagan's CIA director, the late William Casey was Wackenhut's outside legal counsel ..."
I interrupted him, wanting to know where HE fit into the picture?
"Well, I served as Director of Research for the Wackenhut facility at the Cabazon Indian reservation in Indio, California. In 1983-84 I modified the PROMISE computer software to be used in law enforcement and intelligence agencies worldwide. A man named Earl Brian was spearheading a plan for worldwide use of the software, but essentially, the modified software was being pirated from the owners, Bill and Nancy Hamilton."
I asked, "So how did that cause your arrest?" Michael was articulate, but his story was becoming complicated. He continued. "I signed an affidavit for the Hamiltons stating that I had been responsible for the modification. The House Judiciary Committee on Inslaw was investigating the theft of the software and I was afraid I would be implicated since I had performed the modification. Nine days later, in an attempt to discredit my testimony, I was arrested for allegedly operating a drug lab."
I didn't want to push Riconosciuto on the subject of a drug lab at that point, but voiced my foremost concern. "Will the House Judiciary Committee be bringing you in to testify?"
"Are you in any danger where you are right now?" I was unaware at the time that Riconosciuto had been recruited at Stanford University into the CIA nearly twenty years earlier, and danger was a matter of fact in his life.
"Oh, you bet! Several of the jail guards here moonlight for Wackenhut here in Tacoma." Riconosciuto went on to discuss the Wackenhut setup. "Basically, what you have is a group of politically well connected people through Wackenhut who wanted to get juicy defense contracts when Ronald Reagan got elected president. And they did! They also preyed on high tech start up companies, many of them out of Silicon Valley in California.
"They saw technology that they wanted and they either forced the companies into bankruptcy or waited on the sidelines, like vultures, and picked them up for pennies after they were bankrupt."
I made profuse notes as Riconosciuto spoke, not knowing where he was leading, but assuming his narrative would eventually intersect with my investigation of government sanctioned drug operations. Finally it did. According to Riconosciuto, Wackenhut Corporation "made inroads" into the methamphetamine operation. A man named Richard Knozzi allegedly headed major government sanctioned meth laboratories in Fresno, Madera and Mariposa counties. A man named Al Holbert, a former Israeli intelligence officer with U.S. citizenship, was the liaison or connection between the Knozzi operation and the U.S. government.
In subsequent documents obtained from Michael's secret hiding place in the California desert, I located documents which indicated Michael had first been recruited into the CIA by Al Holbert. However, during this first of many phone conversations with Riconosciuto, I found myself searching for a beginning, something concrete to get a foothold. "Michael, is there any proof that you worked at Wackenhut?"
Michael responded diffidently. "CNN recently ran a piece, and they filmed a location shot from the parking lot of the casino. Then they aired another location shot on the [Cabazon] reservation of just an expanse of bare land, blue sky, sand and sagebrush. Then the narrator says, `Here on the Indian reservation is where Michael Riconosciuto claims to have modified the PROMISE software.' They didn't show the tribal office complex, they didn't show the industrial park. They showed a bare expanse of land, like I had a computer out in a teepee in the middle of the desert! The government is doing a character assassination on me. I'm fair game now that I'm in jail, because I've raised too many provocative questions, you know, and they're trying to relegate me to the area of delusion ..."
For three months Riconosciuto called daily from the Pierce County jail in Tacoma, Washington. At his request, I attached a tape recorder to my phone and unraveled a complicated web of illegal overseas arms shipments, espionage, CIA drug trafficking, biological warfare development, computer software theft, money laundering and corruption at the highest levels of government.
Throughout this time span, I also obtained every newspaper and magazine article I could lay my hands on relative to Riconosciuto's background and contacts. Riconosciuto had been communicating regularly with journalist Danny Casolaro prior to his death on August 10, 1991 when Danny's nude body was found in the bathtub of room 517 of the Sheraton Hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. His wrists had been slashed ten or twelve times. No papers were found in his hotel room or in his car, though he was known to cart a briefcase and files everywhere he went. An XActo blade found in the bathtub was not sold locally and his briefcase is still missing to this day. Casolaro was working on a book entitled, "Behold a Pale Horse," which encompassed the October Surprise story, the Inslaw computer software case, the Iran/Contra affair, the B.C.C.I. scandal, and M.C.A. entertainment corporation, all overlapping and interconnecting into one network which he dubbed, "The Octopus."
He told friends that he "had traced the Inslaw and related stories back to a dirty CIA `Old Boy' network" that had begun working together in the 1950's around the Albania covert operations. These men had gotten into the illegal gun and drug trade back then and had continued in that business ever since.
Before his death, Danny had made plans to visit the Wackenhut Corporation in Indio, California, and even considered naming his book, "Indio."