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The demons of a troubled priest

John Kaiser was an obstinate man who clashed with his missionary bosses and stood up to Kenya's government. An FBI investigation of his death also turned up more personal problems.

February 09, 2009|Christopher Goffard

NAIROBI, KENYA — Within the vaulted basilica where he lay in a glass-lid coffin, the transformation was already underway.

In life, Father John Kaiser had been a troublemaker, an obstinate and single-minded man who railed against church passivity and clashed with his bishops, his missionary bosses, his fellow priests. Now, it was possible to ignore the rough edges and complicated history. Now, Catholic leaders were declaring him a martyr to the faith, a man whose crusade against his adopted country's dictatorial regime had ended in his assassination.

Outside the basilica, thousands crammed the streets of Nairobi in mourning and in rage that day in August 2000. Among masses of Kenyans, Kaiser had become an instant byword for the cruelty of President Daniel Arap Moi's police state.

After 22 years of Moi's misrule, Kenyans were ready for such a symbol. The president's face stared from every shilling note in their pockets and the wall of every shop they entered, and they had no trouble envisioning his hand steering the American priest to his grave. On everyone's lips was a litany of political murders, unexplained car wrecks, implausible suicides.

After the funeral Mass, a church van carried Kaiser's body onto the bad roads that led through the grasslands and into the remote western parishes he had served for decades. Villagers streamed forth from their farms and mud-walled huts, waving verdant branches -- a sign of peace -- as they ran alongside the procession.

Finally, the coffin traveled to the priest's last home, to the hilly green country near the Serengeti Plain called Lolgorien, where Masai warriors in bright red wrappings leaned against their spears and watched as the hole was shoveled out, 12 feet deep to deter the beasts of the veldt. Children of the parish who used to swarm around the priest now climbed into a big ficus tree overhanging his grave, squeezing side by side until it seemed impossible that the branches could support so many of them, to see him sent into the clay.

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For Johnnie Carson, U.S. ambassador to Kenya, the priest's death was a tinderbox. As he told his staff, it might "change the normal orbit of U.S. and Kenyan bilateral relations."

Carson prided himself on his patience and discretion. Though some in Kenya's pro- democracy crowd considered him unduly cozy with Moi, Carson believed that his approach gave him access to the top when he needed it.

Now was such a time. The dead man was an American citizen and a leading dissident -- a former U.S. Army paratrooper who lived without electricity in one of Kenya's poorest corners, survived on game meat and had come to regard himself, after 36 years on the continent, as an African. He had not only denounced Moi but had fought to bring rape charges against one of his top ministers, Julius Sunkuli.

And so late on the afternoon of Aug. 24, 2000, the day Kaiser's body was found, Carson marched into the stately Nairobi offices of Kenya's attorney general.

Let the FBI help investigate, Carson urged. The FBI had forensic expertise, he argued, and its presence would show that the Kenyan regime had nothing to hide.

The FBI's agent in Kenya, a former Marine pilot named Bill Corbett, was in the room that day and recalled Carson's words: "The bureau has to be able to follow the facts wherever they go."

The attorney general said he would need to consult. Of course, His Excellency the President would have to approve.

Soon, just as the ambassador was boarding a plane for Washington, Corbett received a letter on official Kenyan letterhead inviting the FBI's assistance. He chased the ambassador to the airport, onto the tarmac and onto the plane to hand him the envelope.

Carson was pleased. Whatever the truth proved to be, the FBI's involvement would allay suspicions of a coverup, he reasoned. In this, he was mistaken.

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Three FBI agents joined Corbett in Nairobi and fanned out across the country, accompanied by plainclothesmen from the Kenyan police. It was to be a joint investigation. The Kenyans would translate the words of Swahili-speaking witnesses. They would provide helicopters to reach remote villages. They would sit close during interviews.

This presented an obvious problem. Who would risk telling the Americans anything in the presence of Kenyan cops, for decades an integral part of Moi's apparatus of fear? As Kenya's minister of internal security, Sunkuli himself oversaw the very police charged with investigating the case, including the rape allegations against him.

Back in the United States, in September and October 2000, both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning Kaiser's "assassination." Paul Wellstone, the senator from Kaiser's home state of Minnesota, cited the slayings of five other Catholic clerics and human rights workers in Kenya.

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