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A Kenyan lawyer takes on a coldly familiar case

Mbuthi Gathenji focuses on the pieces that don't fit in the case of Father John Kaiser's violent death.

February 10, 2009|Christopher Goffard

NAIROBI, KENYA — The deeper the lawyer probed, the more the case resembled a hall of mirrors, a maze of ambiguous characters and unknowable motives. There were hints of conspiracies, trap doors, scaffoldings of fact that vaporized into fiction. The trail was nearly three years old by the spring of 2003, when the lawyer's investigator headed deep into the countryside, working at night for protection, searching for witnesses.

The goal: to upend what had become the official narrative of Father John Kaiser's death. Embraced by the FBI and the Kenyan government, the story held that the 67-year-old American missionary had turned his long-barreled shotgun on himself along a dark road 50 miles from Nairobi.

The lawyer, Mbuthi Gathenji, had been enlisted by Kaiser's family and the Catholic Church to reexamine the case. He was in his early 50s, with graying hair and an air of wary circumspection informed by decades on the wrong side of a police state.

Poring over the FBI report, he saw what he considered a patchwork of bad inferences and tunnel-vision analysis, an eagerness to distort the meaning of Kaiser's behavior to fit its conclusion. As the agency portrayed it, Kaiser's conduct in his last days -- bouts of tears, erratic movements, displays of anxiety and fear -- reflected a mental unraveling.

To Gathenji, it seemed the behavior of a man who believed with good reason that killers were hunting him. One of the country's loudest dissidents, Kaiser had called for President Daniel Arap Moi to be tried at The Hague for inciting ethnic carnage and had accused a top minister of rape. He had ignored his church's pleas to leave the country and had received repeated death threats.

Despite his history of manic-depression, nothing in his final letters suggested derangement. He had never been known to attempt suicide. He left no note.

As Gathenji saw it, something crucial was missing from the scene where Kaiser's body was discovered: the pellets and wadding that his shotgun would have discharged when he was killed. They weren't found in the remains of his cranium or, despite searches over a wide radius, in the surrounding dirt and shrubs.

To many Kenyans, the case had a coldly familiar feel. It looked like a classic state-sanctioned hit, with a venerable foreign law enforcement agency called in to lend legitimacy to the investigation. It brought to mind Robert Ouko, the Kenyan foreign minister who attacked high-level corruption and turned up in a ravine in 1990, a gun beside his charred, mutilated body. Police called it suicide. To quell public clamor, Moi invited New Scotland Yard to investigate, then curtailed the probe when it pointed to members of his inner circle.

The case felt familiar to Gathenji in another, more personal way. His father had been the victim of an unpunished, politically charged slaying in September 1969, dragged from his home by fellow Kikuyus for refusing to swear an oath of tribal loyalty. Gathenji, 20 at the time, believed the attack was sanctioned by elements of the Kikuyu-dominated government of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

"We knew that nothing would be done," Gathenji said. "That is exactly why I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to do something to find out the truth."

He represented Kenyans swept up in mass arrests and championed refugees uprooted in ethnic violence. Police once raided Gathenji's house and imprisoned him for five days. For years, he had watched his rearview mirror for the white cars of the secret police.

His legal battles and pro-democracy work had brought him into contact with Kaiser. He remembered the priest dropping by his office, always on a crusade, always in dusty shoes.

Now, studying photographs of the crime scene, Gathenji noticed how carefully a set of bedding had been arranged on the ground near Kaiser's body, as if the priest had been planning to sleep there. The neatness of the bedding seemed to reflect a Kenyan's conception of a punctilious Englishman. It didn't look like the handiwork of the priest he knew as "essentially a cowboy."

"It was arranged by someone with very foreign ideas about Father Kaiser," he said.

Preparing for the long-delayed inquest in the death, he unearthed a piece of evidence that never made the FBI's report. It was a firearms registry kept by rangers at the Masai Mara Game Reserve, an hour's drive from Kaiser's parish in the country's remote southwest corner.

The registry showed that a warden had checked out a big-game rifle on Aug. 15, 2000 -- eight days before the priest's death -- that was never returned. The warden, an illiterate Masai with two wives, was an in-law and fellow tribesman of Julius Sunkuli, the Cabinet minister the priest had accused of rape and corruption.

A source too frightened to go on the record told Gathenji's investigator that on the morning of Aug. 21, when Kaiser left his parish for his final drive to Nairobi, he had narrowly missed an ambush laid by three park wardens.

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