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COVER STORY

Will The Real Daniel Walcott Please Stand Up?

He Looked and Talked the Part of an Aristocrat. So How Did This Apparent Blueblood End Up Doing Time in India for Smuggling Diamonds and Munitions? Fleeing the Lebanese on Espionage Charges? Serving a U.S. Prison Sentence for Smuggling Drugs? A Saga of Arrogance and Risky Business.

March 11, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | Joe Mozingo last wrote for the magazine about L.A. County lifeguards

On a warm, slightly overcast day, two friends driving in a rented Pontiac Grand Am notice they're being tailed by a luxury sedan as they near downtown Los Angeles about 3 p.m. As the minutes pass, the 73-year-old driver grows increasingly nervous and tries to ditch his pursuers, gunning the white car past a row of sagging bungalows on a dusty hillside in Montecito Heights. He hits a dead-end on Homer Street and tries to swing a U-turn. Tires screech. The sedan rams the rental.

A man in a fur-lined hooded parka steps out, aims a gun at the Pontiac's driver and orders him onto the street. The old man begs, "No, no, no." The assailant fires two shots into the man's chest, and he quietly crumples to the ground.

The passenger runs for his life and is shot from behind. He, too, falls, screaming to neighbors for help, and then passes out against a chain-link fence as the attackers peel away in both cars. He will survive. The driver dies on the street in his blood-soaked blazer.

Detectives arriving on the scene find the two well-heeled out-of-towners and figure the incident is a carjacking: two senior citizens on holiday, hunted down for a rental car. It is the type of crime that breeds public anxiety.

But as details about the case emerge, it becomes clear that this was not any tourist, nor was it a random attack. Police report finding 200 pounds of cocaine in the small plane that the pair had flown in from Miami. More important, the dead man is Daniel Hailey Walcott Jr.

The U.S. Justice Department and Interpol know Walcott well. And soon even veteran homicide detectives are astounded by what they learn. "I've been involved in a lot of homicides over the years but have never seen a victim as colorful and interesting as this one," says LAPD Capt. Al Michelena, who first worked the case last year. "An international man about town, and he dies on the streets of East L.A."

In accounts pieced together from Interpol reports, court records, newspaper articles and interviews with family, friends and U.S. and Canadian law enforcement, Dan Walcott emerges as a man compelled to live dangerously. He had a list of aliases, bogus passports and criminal charges in at least half a dozen countries. A longtime pilot, he flew French and Belgian refugees out of the Congo in the 1950s. He eluded the Lebanese army after he was charged with espionage, and he spent almost seven years in an Indian prison for smuggling gold, diamonds and ammunition. Up to his death, he claimed to have been a CIA agent cast adrift by the government, which the agency denies. An Interpol official told Time magazine in 1966: "Mr. Walcott knows how to be a very good bad man."

Even in old age, he didn't let up. In 1990, Walcott attempted to sail almost a ton of hashish from Pakistan to British Columbia--a farcical odyssey from start to finish. And before he died, he allegedly tried to urge a good friend, a Bay Area veterinarian and wine connoisseur, to fly to Dubai and help launder $4 million. He plotted endless schemes large and small, always colorful and often ending as bumbling failures. "Dan Walcott was, without a doubt, the most unusual person I have ever run across in the criminal justice system," says Jay Stansell, an assistant federal public defender in Seattle who represented him in the 1990s on drug charges. "Meeting him was like entering a John LeCarre novel."

Even Denys Dodds, the wealthy accomplice whom Walcott sold out to the Justice Department for a lighter drug sentence, had some complimentary words for the "son of a bitch": "He was one of the greatest characters on earth."

Yet most of Walcott's closest friends and family had only inklings of his life flying under the radar of international law. To them, Walcott was a conservative businessman and jet-setter who moved in the elite social circles of San Francisco, London, Miami and Vancouver. He had an easy charm and dapper good looks--the only guy in a Yemeni bazaar wearing a Brooks Brothers blazer and Gucci loafers. Walcott could expound on almost any subject, spoke French fluently and was conversant in several other languages. In his later years, his knowledge made him a bore--the blowhard at the corner bar. He blatantly fabricated details of his life, inflating himself while holding back the most harrowing and illicit stories.

Even to good friends, he was enigmatic. You never fully knew him, or liked him, or hated him. People were drawn to his worldliness and put up with his insufferable racism and bombast because of it. On vacations to the Caribbean, they would spend warm nights on his 52-foot French-made ketch, the Manukai, sipping rum and lime, gazing at the sky as he explained the concepts of celestial navigation.

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