LOS ANGELES — Frank Camper sat in a small visiting room outside his prison cell on Terminal Island last week, far from the exotic locales he claims to have passed through in his many adventures as a soldier of fortune.
Camper, who attracted worldwide attention last year as the owner of a controversial mercenary training school in Alabama, is standing trial in federal court here for allegedly firebombing two cars in San Bernardino County. The firebombing, federal prosecutors allege, was part of a bungled plot hatched by two private-school owners from Dana Point to harass ex-employees.
Camper and his Hueytown, Ala., training camp stepped into the media spotlight after FBI agents confirmed that information he provided led to the arrest of a group of Sikh extremists plotting to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.
Shortly before they were arrested in New Orleans, the Sikhs had graduated from Camper's school. Suddenly he was a hero, his story told on "60 Minutes," network news shows and in print, including the front page of the Wall Street Journal.
A Vietnam veteran, Camper claims to have worked as an undercover agent for the U.S. government since he was discharged by the Army in 1969. And he maintained in an interview last week that he actually was on a secret government mission when he was hired by Charlotte Wyckoff and Elizabeth Hamilton to teach their former employees a lesson.
He cannot reveal the nature of his assignment because " . . . I have a security clearance that still exists," Camper said in the interview at Terminal Island Federal Correctional Institution, where he is being held in solitary confinement. Government officials deny Camper's contention that the firebombings were part of a secret national security operation.
When he is not in court, Camper spends the time in his cell writing books in longhand. A spokeswoman for Dell Publishing Co. Inc. in New York City confirmed that he has a contract with the company. His first book, titled "The Professional," is due out next spring.
"I'm a writer," said Camper, adding that he planned to retire from the mercenary business this year. He took a break once before, in 1974, and worked for three years as a mechanic for a Porsche racing team based in Jacksonville, Fla.
During his trial on Friday, Camper testified that two of his associates firebombed the cars without his knowledge. Camper told the jury that he was asleep when the homemade soap-and-gasoline bombs were set off early on the morning of Aug. 13, 1985.
The bombed cars belonged to two former teachers at a chain of schools owned by the Dana Point women. The women have pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Camper admitted Friday posing as "Joe Bonn," a man interested in buying the schools, in order to collect information about the women whose cars were firebombed.
U.S. District Judge Alicemarie H. Stotler denied several defense motions to dismiss the case against Camper, his girlfriend and a former teacher at his mercenary school.
Camper insists the information made public so far "is a fragment, a piece of something bigger."
If he could introduce his evidence, "we'd blow them (the prosecution) out of the water," Camper said.
Camper said his security clearance prohibits him from identifying his true employer. He also doubts the agency will step forward to defend him because he has been "disavowed" since his arrest last May on the firebombing charges.
"I'm out by myself," Camper said.
Although he claims to have a longstanding relationship as a paid informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other agencies, "I just can't see any agency standing up and saying anything. I don't expect it."
In disputing Camper's claim to be on a government mission, one federal agent said Camper, who faces a maximum prison sentence of 75 years if convicted, should have no reason to risk a conviction by protecting an agency that has left him out in the cold.
Another federal source said Camper's secret agent theory is a smoke screen. "Even if you assume everything is true, it is probably not a good defense," said the source, noting that a person committing a crime for the government is not necessarily immune to prosecution.
The government prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles J. Stevens, declined to comment on Camper's claims, but noted that Judge Stotler has given Camper ample opportunity to support his allegations since the trial began Oct. 28. So far, no evidence has been introduced.
Camper, 40, his girlfriend, Lee Ann Faulk, 28, and William Hedgcorth, 23, an instructor at Camper's training camp, have pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of conspiracy, racketeering and firebombing charges. Four others indicted by a federal grand jury last spring have pleaded guilty to reduced charges and are scheduled to be sentenced next month.