Site Map

THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF DANNY CASOLARO

by David MacMichael

Pre-Octopus Danny Casolaro

The following article appeared in the Winter 1991 issue of "Covert Action Information Bulletin," #39, pps. 53-57. The author can be reached through the Association of National Security Alumni at +1-202-483-9325. In a recent telephone conversation the author identified the other FBI agent who was to have met with Casolaro the day he died as one Ted Gunderson. We discussed the possible relationship between the Casolaro case and the death threats received by Judge Col. Hamilton Gayden and attorney Albro Lundy III shortly after they were contacted by Casolaro with regard to the POW/MIA issue in the weeks prior to Casolaro's death. MacMichael speculated that the connection was, "drugs" i.e. southeast asian heroin used in support of the Company's black operations. --seraphim@ais.org

David MacMicheal is a former CIA estimates officer. He is the Washington representative of the Association of National Security Alumni, and editor of its monthly newsletter, "Unclassified."

Joseph Daniel Casolaro was one of many freelance investigative reporters stirring the witches brew of scandal simmering in the nation's capitol. He was also an aspiring novelist, newsletter publisher, and freelance writer for publications running the gamut from the now defunct Washington Star to the National Enquirer. From a well-to-do family (his father, a doctor, had invested well in Northern Virginia real estate), he was 44 years old, divorced, and living comfortably on a five-acre estate in Fairfax County, Virginia -- home to the CIA. 

Casolaro was working on a book aimed at exposing what he called "The Octopus," a group of less than a dozen shadowy figures whose machinations figured heavily, he claimed, in the Inslaw case, Iran-Contra, BCCI, and the October Surprise.

DEATH SCENE, WITH INSTANT EMBALMING

In the first week of August, Casolaro told friends and acquaintances that he was going to West Virginia too meet a source who would provide a key piece of evidence he needed to complete his investigation. He drove to Martinsburg, West Virginia, on Thursday, August 8, and checked into room 517 of the Sheraton Hotel. Two days later, at 12:51 p.m., hotel employees found his naked body in a bathtub full of bloody water. Time of death has been estimated at about 9:00 a.m. [1]

Both arms and wrists had been slashed a total of at least 12 times; one of the cuts went so deep that it severed a tendon. [2] Press accounts differ on minor details of the scene, but there was apparently no evidence of struggle. There was a four sentence suicide note in the bedroom.

Hotel management called the Martinsburg police who brought along the local coroner, Sandra Brining, a registered nurse. Ms. Brining ruled the death a suicide, took small blood and urine samples, and released the body to the Brown Funeral Home. Without authorization from officials or Casolaro's next of kin, the funeral home embalmed the body as a "courtesy to the family," according to Brining's statement at an August 15 press conference in Martinsburg.

Martinsburg police notified the next of kin, Dr. Anthony Casolaro, also of Fairfax, of his brother's death on Monday, August 12. Casolaro says that police explanations for the delay, like the hasty, unauthorized and illegal embalming, seemed either extraordinarily inefficient or highly suspicious. West Virginia state law requires that next of kin be notified before a body can be embalmed. [3] Casolaro requested a second  examination, which was performed by West Virginia state medical examiner Jack Frost, who stated at the same August 15 press conference that the evidence was "not inconsistent" with suicide. At the same time, he declared that he "could not rule out foul play" and admitted that performing a conclusive autopsy on an embalmed body is almost impossible. [4]

Anthony Casolaro publicly stated his disbelief that his gregarious and high-spirited brother could have committed suicide. Danny was so afraid of blood, he said, that he refused to allow samples to be drawn for medical purposes, and would never have chosen, in any case to slash his veins a dozen times. Other relatives and friends offered that same assessment: Danny Casolaro was not the suicidal type. Moreover, added a former girlfriend, he hated being seen in the nude. [5]

Brining's blood samples showed traces of an anti-depressant drug and the non-prescription painkiller Tylenol 3. Casolaro stated that his brother was not depressed and his medical record showed no prescription for anti-depressants. On the other hand, as Ridgeway and Vaughn reported after examination of Casolaro's medical records and conversations with his personal physician (his brother's professional partner), there was clear evidence that the reporter was in the early stages of multiple schlerosis (MS). He had experienced incidents of loss of vision, a couple of severe falls, numbness in one leg, and persistent headaches. His resistance to blood tests could conceivably be attributed to fear that a diagnosis of MS might be confirmed.

Some press reports hint at an alcohol problem. [6] Most accounts, however, suggest that he enjoyed the company in bars more than alcohol; according to friends, he would nurse a few beers all afternoon or take four hours to finish a bottle of wine. [7] Other accounts speculated that his inability to interest publishers in the book he planned to write had made him despondent. [8] He was also alleged to have been worried about his financial situation. He had borrowed heavily to finance his research and publisher's rejections were a blow. In a letter to his agent he referred to his debts" In September I'll be looking into the face of an oncoming train." Friends, however, dismissed the allegations -- debt was Casolaro's usual situation and he was given to overstatement. Said one friend, "Danny would not off himself over money problems." [9] Also, he was negotiating the subdivision of his five acres, a deal that should have netted him several hundred thousand dollars. His employment of a full time housekeeper suggests that he was not severely strapped.

Casolaro had spoken to family and friends of the danger of his  investigations, warning them not to believe it if he died of an "accident." But one of Casolaro's sources claims that despite being cautioned, the reporter was cavalier about taking safety measures. [10]

In April 1991, Casolaro told longtime friend and former business associate, Pat Clawson that he had uncovered a "web of corruption" while investigating the Inslaw case. The "web" involved top-ranking Justice  Department officials, New York organized crime figures, and Medellin Cartel drug trafficers, jointly bankrolling "off-the-books" intelligence projects, including Iran-Contra. Their fund-raising schemes, Casolaro said, included: software exports restricted under the Export Control Act, gunrunning, illegal arms sales, bogus mineral and oil investment scams, and drug smuggling through Canada. Monies generated were so immense, Casolaro said, that government officials regularly skimmed off a hefty percentage. None of this has thus far been documented.

COINCIDENTAL DEATHS OR PARALLEL MURDERS?

Casolaro's death was promptly linked to that of other journalists in Guatemala and Chile. On January 29, 1991, Lawrence Ng, a stringer for the London Financial Times, was found shot dead in the bathtub of his Guatemala City apartment. Ng had been probing BCCI connections to arms sales in Guatemala. [11] [See Colhoun, p. 45.] Jack Anderson and Dale Van Atta have attempted to link Casolaro's death to that of British aviation writer Jonathan Moyle -- also ruled a suicide when he was found in March 1990 hanging in the closet of his hotel room in Santiago, Chile. [12] Moyle was looking into the activities of Chilean arms dealer Carlos Cardoen, who figures prominently in the Inslaw case.

Anderson and Van Atta take seriously the possibility that both reporters were murdered and that both had been tracking the same "octopus." [13] Both were investigating the activities of Cardoen, a suspected conduit for arms sold to Iraq. According to an affidavit filed in the Inslaw case, Cardoen also played a role in the sale of Inslaw's purloined software to Iraq. [14]

Both Casolaro and Moyle had communicated with Anderson, who believed they were "no further along in the story" than others. "On the surface," Anderson and Van Atta wrote, "Neither man had evidence worth killing for."

British journalist David Akerman disagrees, arguing that Moyle had uncovered information on connections between leading British arms makers and Cardoen, who used British licenses to manufacture high-technology weaponry for illegal delivery to Iraq. [15] Because the illegal weapons transfers were generally known among arms dealers, public disclosure would have been sufficiently embarrassing and financially damaging to have placed Moyle's life in jeopardy. There are those who feel just as strongly about the facts surrounding the death of Danny Casolaro.

THE INSLAW MORASS

The most politically volatile side of this story is Casolaro's extensive investigation into the Inslaw case. Elliot Richardson is legal counsel to the Washington, D. C. - based computer software company, Inslaw. Widely respected for his ethics and legal expertise, Richardson quit as Nixon's Attorney General in 1973 rather than carry out the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archbald Cox. In a recent radio interview, Richardson was asked if he believed Casolaro killed himself. He answered:

I don't. I think everything we know makes it much more likely that he was eliminated by a person or persons unknown who feared that he was about to disclose information that would be severely damaging... he told [friends] separately that he had in hand or ready, significant hard evidence pointing to the connections between Inslaw and these other events [Iran-Contra, BCCI, October Surprise]. He said he was going to West Virginia to get additional evidence that would really lock this whole picture into place. Now, that I think is the most significant piece of information we have. There's no reason to suppose that he was lying to his friends. Why should he? And there's no reason to suppose that they lied in saying that this is what he told them. [16]

The Inslaw case involves charges that the Justice Department, under Attorney General Edwin Meese, stole the powerful database software PROMIS (Prosecutor's Management Information System) from Inslaw. When a federal bankruptcy court ruled in Inslaw's favor in 1987, presiding Judge George Francis Bason concluded that the Justice Department "took, converted, and stole" the software "through trickery, fraud, and deceit." [17]

Allegations about the theft of PROMIS have suggested three possible motives: To fund off-the-shelf covert operations; to market a "trojan horse" database which could then be easily monitored by the National Security Agency; [18] and to pay off Reagan attorney General Edwin Meese's political crony, Dr. Earl Brian. Now president of the floundering United Press International, Earl Brian has longstanding ties to Reagan and served in his cabinet when Reagan was governor of California.

Whatever it motivations, the Justice Department has twice been found guilty of theft and was ordered to pay Inslaw 6.8 million, plus legal fees. In 1989, the decision was upheld by federal judge William Bryant who said, "the government acted willfully and fraudulently..." [19] Under both Edwin Meese and Richard Thornburgh, the Justice Department stonewalled efforts to investigate, refusing to release documents either to Senator Sam Nunn's Government Affairs Investigations Subcommittee or to Congressman Jack Brooks' House Judiciary Committee.

In June, after eight years of litigation, the Federal Appeals Court of the District of Columbia voided the two previous decisions. October Surprise figure Judge Lawrence J. Silberman [20] cast the deciding vote, declaring that the case had been wrongly heard in a bankruptcy court in the first place, and must be retried in a federal district court. Inslaw has appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Washington, D. C. bankruptcy court judge who had heard the case and decided in Inslaw's favor was removed from the bench one month after his decision. [21] He was replaced by S. Martin Teel, Jr., one of the Department of Justice lawyers who had unsuccessfully argued the case. According to a writer for Barron's, "Even jaded, case hardened Washington attorneys called the decision 'shocking' and 'eerie.'" [22]

OCTOBER SURPRISE

October Surprise is the as-yet unproven theory that members of the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign arranged a deal with the government of Iran to continue holding 52 U. S. hostages in Tehran until after the election in order to prevent President Carter from benefiting politically from their release.

The Inslaw case is tied to the October Surprise by the sworn affidavit of Michael Riconosciuto, a West Coast computer and weapons technician with self-proclaimed ties to the intelligence community. He testified last March that he had modified the PROMIS software for sale to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) at the request of a Justice department contracting officer named Peter Videnieks and Reagan/Meese crony Earl Brian. [23] In an unsworn statement to Inslaw's president William A. Hamilton, Riconosciuto says he met Brian in 1980 when he helped him deliver $40 million to Tehran to consummate the October Surprise weapons-for-hostages deal. [24]

After Riconosciuto first contacted Inslaw, Casolaro traveled several times to California and Washington in 1990 and 1991 to talk to him. Riconosciuto claims knowledge of many covert activities in the U.S., Latin America, and Australia, and doubtless influenced Casolaro's concept of the Octopus. [25] In his affidavit in the Inslaw case, Riconosciuto declared that Videnieks told him "not to cooperate with an independent investigation... by the Committee on the Judiciary of the United States House of Representatives." [26] Riconosciuto also stated that Videnieks also threatened him with specific punishments he "could expect to receive from the U.S. Department of Justice... " if he cooperated with that investigation. [27] Within eight days of swearing the affidavit, he was in fact arrested on charges of distributing methamphetamines and has been held without bail in Washington state since March. [28] My appointment to speak to Casolaro on his return concerned Riconosciuto, in whose wide-ranging, not entirely believable allegations we shared a keen interest.

Viedenieks has denied in a sworn affidavit any knowledge of or contact with Riconosciuto. Earl Brian has done the same. Although Videnieks identifies himself as an employee of the U.S. Customs in his affidavit, the customs personnel office has denied any knowledge of him. An independent check with regional Customs officials also produced no evidence of Videnieks. Casolaro, however, told Hamilton that he had contacted Videnieks at Customs shortly before his fatal trip. [29]

FINAL RENDEVOUS

What is known about Danny Casolaro's trip to Martinsburg is that he met on Thursday, August 8, at about 5:30 p.m. in the Sheraton bar with a man described by a waitress as possibly Arab or Iranian. [30] This may have been an Egyptian named Hassan Ali Ibrahim Ali. According to documents provided to Casolaro by former Customs informant Bob Bickel, Ali headed an Iraqi front company in the U.S. called Sitico.

According to Ridgeway and Vaughn, Casolaro had shown a photo of Ali to a friend shortly before leaving for Martinsburg. Middle East expert Mary Barrett has asserted that Hassan Ali -- known as "Ali Ali" -- had close ties to the late Gerald Bull, the American ballistics engineer working on super long-range artillery for Iraq and South Africa. [31] Bull was murdered in Brussels in March, apparently by Israeli agents. [32]

After meeting with Ali, Casolaro waited in the same bar to meet another source, who never arrived. In a conversation with Tom Looney, a fellow hotel guest he met there, Casolaro spoke of the source he was waiting for, explaining that the man had the information to solve the Octopus riddle, something which Casolaro explained in detail to his skeptical listener. Looney told Ridgeway and Vaughn that he had a hard time believing that just seven or eight men were responsible for 40 years of scandals.

OTHER FIGURES FROM THE SHADOWS

On the following day, Friday, August 9, Casolaro met with a former Hughes Aircraft employee, William Turner, in the Sheraton parking lot at about 2:00 p.m. Turner gave him some papers relating to alleged corruption at Hughes and at the Pentagon.

To further complicate matters, Turner was arrested on September 26, on charges of holding up a rural bank near his home in Winchester, Virginia. In an interview with Ridgeway and Vaughn in mid-August, Turner professed to being "scared shitless" because of the evidence Casolaro had  shown him connecting "the Octopus" to Oliver North, BCCI, the Keating Five, and the Silverado Savings and Loan scandal. [33]

Finally, there is the ubiquitous Ari Ben-Menashe, the former Israeli military intelligence officer who claims to have been involved in organizing the October Surprise affair in 1980 and to have been a key element in the subsequent supply of U.S.-provided military equipment to Iran. [34]

On news of Casolaro's death, Ben-Menashe called Inslaw's William Hamilton to say that the two FBI agents from Lexington, Kentucky (where the Israeli lived in the late 1990 and early 1991), had been en route to Martinsburg to talk to Casolaro about their own investigation of the Inslaw case. Ben-Menashe said the agents were prepared to give him proof that the FBI was illegally using PROMIS software, Hamilton reports.

Ben-Menashe further told Hamilton that one of the agents, E. B. Cartinhour, was angry that the Justice Department was not pursuing Reagan administration officials for their role in the October Surprise. Cartinhour refused to talk to Ridgeway and Vaughn, but recently a retired agent who had worked with Cartinhour told Ridgeway that he knew of Ben-Menashe and "that involves classified information." [35] The ex-agent also claimed knowledge of an investigation about the Hamiltons, computers, the Justice Department, and a coverup. He told Ridgeway that if any FBI agents had been going to talk to b, it would have been to get information, not to give it. [36]

The Inslaw investigation has extended into Kentucky for very concrete reasons. One of Inslaw's major sources is Charles Hayes, who runs a computer reconditioning business in Kentucky. Hayes, who claims to have been a former CIA asset, has found evidence of the PROMIS software in former Justice Department computers he acquired for his business. [37]

According to Ben-Menashe, Ridgeway and Hamilton had botched what he told them, and had ruined Cartinhour's FBI career by alleging that he was going against Justice Department policy. [38] Ridgeway, for his part, says his reporting is accurate.

AFTERSHOCKS

Casolaro's housekeeper reported receiving several telephone calls on Friday, August 9, at Casolaro's house. At 9:00 a.m., a male caller announced, "I will cut his body and throw it to the sharks." An hour of so later another caller said simply, "Drop dead." Between then and 10:00 p.m., when she left for the night, there were three more calls in which there was only silence or the sound of music in the background. The following day, Saturday, August 10, she got a final call at 8:30 p.m. --approximately twelve hours after Casolaro's death. A man's voice said, "You son of a bitch. You're dead."  [39]

On the previous day, around 6:00 p.m., as widely reported in the press, Casolaro called his mother's home in McLean, Virginia, to say he was on the way home but would be too late for a family celebration.

Whether Casolaro was murdered or killed himself, his death has brought the Inslaw case back into the public spotlight. Elliot Richardson, calling the situation "far worse than Watergate," has written to the Justice Department to request appointment of an independent counsel to investigate Casolaro's death.

If Casolaro was murdered because of what he knew, Inslaw is the most probable cause. There is no evidence that his Octopus theory, or his investigations into BCCI and the October surprise, are likely to have uncovered information worth killing for. Inslaw is a different matter. Here is a real crime, with real people who, if found guilty, would face real jail terms and stand to lose millions. It is possible that Casolaro, who was in close touch with Inslaw owners Bill and Nancy Hamilton, might have been too close to something conclusive which sealed his death warrant.

The possibility of murder remains the subject of serious inquiry, [40] but the suicide theory is gaining rapidly. Ron Rosenbaum, an investigative  reporter and longtime acquaintance of Danny's, elaborately staged his own death. Reviewing Casolaro's history as a journalist, Rosenbaum frames a good case showing that the dead man had neither the investigative track record, nor an adequate understanding of covert operations to make his extraordinary claims credible. [41] He also offers evidence that some of Casolaro's death threats may have been imaginary. Rosenbaum concedes, however, that Casolaro was dealing with dangerous individuals, and that his investigations had uncovered serious new material.

Unanswered questions surrounding Casolaro's death, including the disappearance of his briefcase and a rash of anonymous calls [42] after he died, have generated significant public pressure. Newly confirmed Attorney General William Barr has ordered a retired federal judge, Nicholas J. Bua, to conduct a 120-day "top to bottom" review of the Inslaw matter. [43] This is a welcome change from the stonewalling of Meese and Thornburgh. It remains to be seen whether Bua will conduct a thorough investigation or simply preside over yet another government whitewash.

---

[1] "Source May Have Disappointed Casolaro," Washington Post, August 25, 1991, p. A20.

[2] David Corn refers to "an X-acto blade...not sold locally." ("End of Story: The Dark World of Danny Casolaro," Nation, October 28, 1991, p. 511.) James Ridgeway and Doug Vaughn refer to "a single-edge razor blade -- the kind used to scrape windows or slice open packages..." ("The Last Days of Danny Casolaro," Village Voice, October 15, 1991, p. 32.) Some accounts mention a  broken beer bottle, other a broken motel tumbler.

[3] Ridgeway and Vaughn, op. cit., p. 38.

[4] Author's conversation with freelance reporter Steve Badrich, who attended the press conference.

[5] Kim Masters, "The Unlikely Suicide," Washington Post, August 31, 1991, p. D1.

[6]Robert O'Harrow, Jr. and Gary Lee, "Frequent drinking marked writer Casolaro's final days," Washington Post, August 25, 1991, p. A19.

[7] Masters, op. cit.

[8] R. Drummond Ayres, Jr., "As U.S. Battles Computer Company, Writer Takes Vision of Evil to Grave," New York Times, September 3, 1991, p. D12.

[9] Masters, op. cit.

[10] Raymond Lavas, one of Casolaro's sources in the California electronics industry, telephone conversation with the author.

[11] Rocco Parascandola, "Who killed investigative reporters?" New York Post, August 15, 1991, p. 4; Dan Bischoff, "One more dead man," Village Voice, August 27, 1991, p. 22.

[12] Jack Anderson and Dale van Atta, "Another Casualty in the 'Octopus' case," Washington Post, August 28, 1991, p. D16.

[13] Ibid. Also, ABC-TV, Nightline, September 13, 1991.

[14] Affidavit of Ari Ben-Menashe, "Inslaw v. United States of America, and the United States Department of Justice, Adversary Proceeding No. 86-0069," United States Bankruptcy court, Washington, D. C.

[15] David Akerman, "The disquieting death of Jonathan Moyle," Image, London, Jult 28, 1991.

[16] Diane Rehm Show, WAMU-FM, Washington, D.C., October 28, 1991.

[17] Inslaw v. United States of America, et. al., p. 9.

[18] Elliot Richardson, "A High-Tech Watergate," New York Times, October 21, 1991, p. A17.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Silberman is accused by Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the first elected president of Iran following the 1979 revolution, and later deposed by Khomeini, of being one of the four Reagan campaign staffers who consummated the October Surprise deal. Christopher Hitchens, "Minority Report," The Nation, October 21, 1987,  p. 440.

[21] Maggie Mahar, "Beneath Contempt: Did the Justice Department Deliberately Bankrupt INSLAW?" Barron's Business Weekly, March 21, 1988.

[22] Ibid.

[23] See: Eric Reguly, "Questions grow as 'Big Daddy' watches his empire crumble," Financial Post (Toronto), August 19, 1991, pp. 8- 11, for background on Brian.

[24] Inslaw memorandum to The Record, June 28, 1990, "An Assessment of Michael Riconosciuto...," p. 1.

[25] Riconosciuto, personal communication with the author.

[26] Affidavit of Michael Riconosciuto, "Inslaw v. United States of America, and the United States Department of Justice, Adversary Proceeding No. 86-0069," United States Bankruptcy Court, Washington, D.C.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Carlton Smith, "Worldwide conspiracy or fantasy? Felon's story checks out -- in part," Seattle Times, August 29, 1991, p. A1.

[29] William Hamilton, personal communication with the author.

[30] Ridgeway and Vaughn, op. cit. p. 39.

[31] Barrett, personal conversations with the author.

[32] Suspicion of Mossad involvement in Bull's death has been widely reported in the mainstream press. See also: Mary Barrett, "Gerald Bull, the Canadian Ballistics Genius Who Armed Iraq," Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November 1990. Bull's family, according to Barrett, is bitter that the U.S.  government is doing nothing to investigate his death.

[33] Ridgeway and Vaughn, op. cit., p. 40.

[34] As with Riconosciuto, some reporters have avoided Ben-Menashe, because  they consider his information impossible to confirm. One exception is Seymour Hersh. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Hersh relied heavily on Ben-Menashe in his recent book on the Israeli nuclear program, "The Samson Option."

[35] Ridgeway and Vaughn, op. cit., p. 42.

[36] Ibid.

[37] The FBI appears to have had recent contact with Ben-Menashe in Kentucky. In early 1991, FBI officers investigated a dispute between Ben-Menashe and former CIA officer Allan Bruce Hemmings. Ben-Menashe may have the protection of Kentucky Governor Wallace G. Wilkerson. (Hemmings, conversations with the author.)

[38] Ben-Menashe, conversations with the author.

[39] Ridgeway and Vaughn, op. cit., p. 38.

[40] See for example: Lisa Featherstone and Peter Rothberg, "Suicide or Murder?" Lies of our Times, November, 1991. Featherstone and Rothberg analyze the gaps in mainstream reporting of Casolaro's death.

[41] Ron Rosenbaum, "The Strange Death of Danny Casolaro," Vanity Fair, December, 1991.

[42] Following his death, a number of anonymous calls were placed to Casolaro's house, and to at least two journalists, Dan Bischoff, editor of the Village Voice, and Pat Clawson of Metrowest Broadcasting in Washington, D. C. Clawson was a friend of Casolaro's for ten years, and a business associate when Casolaro was publishing a computer newsletter.

[43] David Johnson, "Bank Inquiry Widened, Justice Dept. Nominee Says," New York Times, November 14, 1991, p. B13.

Return to Table of Contents