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U.S. Teacher Was Seized, Executed by Panama Army

December 30, 1989|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PANAMA CITY — Raymond Dragseth, an American college science teacher, was kidnaped and executed by Panamanian army units in the early hours of the U.S. invasion of Panama, according to American officials and family members.

The body of the 47-year-old faculty member of Panama Canal College was exhumed Friday from a common grave in a public cemetery. He had been shot in the back of the head.

Dragseth, who had lived here for several years, was the 28th American reported to die in the invasion, which began about 1 a.m. Dec. 20, and the third known U.S. civilian fatality.

In an interview given to Cable Network News, Carolyn Dragseth, the dead man's daughter, said that uniformed Panama Defense Forces soldiers broke into their apartment in the well-to-do Punta Paitilla area of Panama City, the neighborhood that is also the site of the Vatican embassy, where ousted dictator Manuel A. Noriega is being given sanctuary.

"They said they were looking for my father," she said. "They broke into my parents' bedroom and took him . . . they just took him." U.S. sources said the Panamanians evidently had a list of Americans living in the area and were searching them out as potential hostages.

In fact, the American Embassy here treated Dragseth's disappearance as a hostage case until Thursday, when the family, including Panamanian presidential spokesman Anel Beliz, a relative by marriage, said they had photographs of the missing man's body that were taken in a hospital where he was left by unknown people after the killing.

At that point, sources said, it was decided that Dragseth, who was the only American in the country still unaccounted for, probably was the dead man shown in the photographs.

In the meantime, since the body had not been earlier identified, hospital officials ordered it to be buried in a common grave in the Jardin de Paz Cemetery near the ruins of the original site of Panama City.

Daughter Carolyn and Dragseth's wife, Vicki, complained that they were ignored by the American Embassy here and the State Department in Washington throughout their ordeal.

"The assistance given to us was absolutely minimum," Carolyn told CNN. "We tried everyone, and we tried everywhere. . . . For five days no one returned our telephone calls."

She complained that even as of Friday, the family had not heard from the State Department. She said she understood that Washington officials were planning to issue a statement but had not even discussed that with her or other relatives.

The U.S. Embassy declined comment, but there were indications of a bureaucratic breakdown in dealing with the case. It was thought that the first call from Vicki Dragseth the night her husband was abducted had gotten lost in the confusion and crush of the inquiries that flooded the embassy the night of the invasion.

And since there were several instances of Americans being taken hostage, no search was made in morgues or hospitals for his body. It wasn't until Thursday, when an American embassy employee who knew Dragseth personally overheard someone talking to Vicki Dragseth, that the case was put into a possible-death category.

Why no one else made the connection or provided more substantial assistance to the family is unexplained.

Dragseth is reported to be the uncle of Richard Paul, a Defense Department dependent who was killed Dec. 20 when he failed to stop at a U.S. Army roadblock. An American who was working in Panama as a schoolteacher, Gertrude Kandi Helin, 43, was slain by gunmen on the street not long after the U.S. invasion began.

The apparent bureaucratic muddle in the U.S. handling of the Dragseth case is not unique in the aftermath of the invasion.

In another case of apparent confusion or worse, the embassy and the U.S. Southern Command were unable to explain contradictions concerning the case of a former Israeli intelligence agent who served as Noriega's security adviser and is accused of several serious crimes here.

According to a high embassy source, Mike Harari, who until 1979 was the chief of Israeli intelligence operations in Mexico and Central America, was arrested this week by American troops. "We have him, he is a prisoner of war," the U.S. official said.

However, when asked about the case, officials of the U.S. Southern Command said that Harari had not been arrested and was not in their custody. When reporters pointed out the inconsistencies, neither agency would back down.

The confusion deepened Friday when a close aide to Panamanian President Guillermo Endara said that "there is no doubt, absolutely none. The Americans have him."

Harari, 62, would be an important catch. He is suspected of having full knowledge of Noriega's illegal business dealings and has been accused of taking part in hugely profitable extortion schemes involving kickbacks from businesses operating in Panama. He is commonly known here as "Mr. 60%" for the amount of money he demanded, official sources said.

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