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Danny Casolaro

Joseph Daniel Casolaro (June 16, 1947 – August 10, 1991) was an American freelance writer who was found dead in a bathtub at the Sheraton Inn in Martinsburg, West Virginia, one day after allegedly arranging to meet a source in connection with an investigation he had referred to as "the Octopus." His research centered around a complex story called the Inslaw Affair, and a sprawling conspiracy theory supposedly connected to it.

Government officials twice ruled that Casolaro's death was a suicide. However, within days of his death, family and friends argued that he had been killed. Gary Lee of the Washington Post wrote, "Friends and relatives strongly suspect foul play, though they presented no evidence....They cited what they called the strange coincidence of Casolaro's death and his investigation into the Inslaw Affair."

Beyond Casolaro's friends and family, medical doctors, independent investigators, and U.S. Government officials (notably former Attorney General Elliot Richardson and a U.S. House of Representatives committee) have argued that Casolaro's death deserved renewed scrutiny. However, no conclusive evidence of murder has been found. David Corn of The Nation wrote, "Anomalies do not add up to a conclusive case for murder...[the] suicide explanation is unsatisfying but not wholly implausible; the possibility of murder is intriguing but the evidence to date is not overwhelming. Casolaro's death and "the Octopus" have since entered conspiracy theory lore.

Biography

Early life and career

Casolaro was born in McLean, Virginia, the second of six children. One of his siblings fell ill and died shortly after birth; another, Lisa, died of an apparently deliberate drug overdose. His father was an obstetrician. Casolaro attended Providence College, dropping out when he was twenty. He married Terrill Pace. The couple had a son, and divorced after thirteen years. Casolaro was granted legal custody of their son, and the couple remained on good terms. Casolaro reportedly dated often, but remained on good terms with most of his ex-girlfriends.

Though he dabbled in other fields, Casolaro's main occupation was as a freelance writer. His articles appeared in a number of periodicals, including The Washington Crime News Service, The Globe, The National Star, The National Enquirer, The Washington Star, The Providence Journal, and Home and Auto. He co-founded Computer Age magazine, which was at the time the only American daily publication devoted to computers and to computer business; however, he later sold the magazine for a loss.

An unnamed friend of Casolaro's told reporters "Danny wasn't an investigative reporter....he was a poet. In addition to many poems, he wrote a novel, The Ice King, published by Vanity Press, a collection of short stories and he "collaborated on To Fly Without Wings, a film narrated by Orson Welles about Arabian racehorses in Egypt." Indeed, "there is some indication that Casolaro was interested in INSLAW from a novelist's point of view" rather than from an investigative journalism perspective.

Friends described Casolaro as a "Peter Pan" figure with an obsessive streak, who worked for two years in the late 1970s on an alternative explanation for Watergate.

Inslaw and the Octopus

Casolaro's investigation of INSLAW began in early 1990. He hoped to write a true crime book about his investigation.

INSLAW had been in the news from the mid-1980s. In a previous position with the U.S. Justice Department, INSLAW's founder, William A. Hamilton, helped to develop a computer software program called PROMIS (Prosecutor's Management Information System). PROMIS was designed to better organize the large amounts of paperwork generated by law enforcement and the courts. After he left the Justice Department, Hamilton alleged that the Justice Department had stolen PROMIS and had distributed it illegally, robbing INSLAW of millions of dollars.

Casolaro and Hamilton began pooling their resources to share information as they learned about the INSLAW scandal. One of Casolaro's major sources was Michael Riconosciuto (pronounced Riconoshooto) , who Casolaro had dubbed "Danger Man." Riconosciuto had been introduced to Hamilton by Jeff Steinberg, a longtime top aide in the Lyndon LaRouche organization. Riconosciuto contacted Hamilton in May of 1980. Riconosciuto "asserted that he and Earl Brian had traveled to Iran in 1980 and had paid $40 million to Iranian officials to persuade them not to let the hostages go before the presidential election." For his help in this so-called "October Surprise conspiracy," Earl Brian allegedly was allowed to profit from the illegal pirating of the PROMIS system.

Riconosciuto claimed to have modified INSLAW's software at the Justice Department's request so that it could be sold to dozens of foreign governments with a secret "back door" feature which allowed outsiders to access computer systems using PROMIS. These modifications allegedly took place at the Cabazon Indian Reservation near Indio, California.

Because the reservation was sovereign territory where enforcement of U.S. law was sometimes problematic, Riconosciuto claimed that he worked on "semi-legal" and illegal weapons programs for The Wackenhut Corporation, such as a powerful "fuel air explosive".

Some of Riconosciuto's claims appear to have been supported by evidence, some of which was uncovered by Bill Hamilton. For example, Riconosciuto reported that Canadian officials had purchased the PROMIS software illegally.

Casolaro claimed to have located independent witnesses who asserted that Riconosciuto and Earl Brian had been seen together on several occasions at the Cabazon reservation. Additionally, Later, after turning in the affidavit, Riconosciuto was arrested on drug charges. Riconosciuto claimed that the drug charges were a set-up to keep him from telling his story.

Hamilton then introduced Casolaro to Robert Booth Nichols who eventually replaced Riconosciuto as Casolaro's main source. Among other topics, Nichols reported about his contacts with the "subterranean world of the Illuminati": Robert Booth Nichols was long suspected of complicity in various crimes (he had been investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as early as 1978). "If the FBI is right," wrote David Corn, "Nichols is not a man whose warnings should be taken lightly.

By July 1991 however, that "relationship between Nichols and Casolaro began to deteriorate." Casolaro met with William Richard Turner, who was an engineer for Honeywell until his division was acquired by Hughes Aircraft. Turner alleged that he had uncovered evidence of fraud by Hughes Aircraft, and that his whistleblowing was ignored by the United States Department of Defense. (Casolaro seems to have thought that Hughes Aircraft might have been involved in the Octopus as well.)

To further compound the theory of a conspiracy, "Casolaro met with queer coincidences that would feed anyone's paranoia," wrote Corn. "At a restaurant he ran into a former Special Forces operative who had worked for a company involved in the INSLAW case"; and on another occasion, Casolaro and a friend met a woman at a party who claimed to be "close to a former CIA official" who "knowingly" disclosed "some aspects of Casolaro's case.

Final days

On August 5, 1991, Casolaro phoned Bill McCoy, a retired CID officer to relate some encouraging news. He said that the mainstream news magazine Time had assigned him an article about the Octopus. He further claimed to be working with the esteemed reporter Jack Anderson, and that publishers Little, Brown and Time Warner had offered to finance the effort. All these claims later were proven to be false. McCoy characterized Casolaro's attitude during their conversation as one of misplaced exuberance. "He wasn't getting to the nub of it," he said.

Again on August 5, Casolaro's friend Ben Mason agreed "to consult with Danny on the writer's finances." Casolaro faced some pressing financial problems (though not catastrophic), and he and Mason agreed that the best solution would be if the publisher's advance came through. "Otherwise Casolaro would have to borrow from his family as he often had done." A few days later, Casolaro showed Mason some of his notes and manuscript, including a photocopy of a passport of Hassan Ali Ibrahim Ali, the manager of Sitco, an alleged Iraqi front company which was somehow connected to the Octopus. Casolaro showed Mason a 22-point outline for his book and expressed frustration at having been tied up with a literary agent who wasn't able to sell it for the last eighteen months. Casolaro's brother Anthony met Mason later and said that Mason had remarked to Danny, "You look kinda tired." Danny had replied, "I get these calls in the middle of the night sometimes and it's hard to get back to sleep." Anthony insisted that Danny had claimed to have "been getting odd telephone calls for about three months."

The following day, Casolaro's longtime housekeeper Olga helped Casolaro pack a black leather tote. She remembered him packing a thick sheaf of papers into a dark brown or black briefcase. She tried to pick it up, and recalls saying, "Oof, it's heavy. What have you got in there, ...?" To which Casolaro replied, "All my papers." Casolaro said he was leaving for several days to visit Martinsburg, West Virginia to meet with a source who promised to provide an important missing piece of the Octopus, but that he would return. This was the last time Olga saw Casolaro.

About three days before he died, Casolaro talked to Richard Stavin, formerly a special prosecutor for the U.S. Justice Department. In their hour-long conversation, Stavin claimed that Richard Booth Nichols had been under investigation for illegal drug smuggling, money laundering, and connections to the Yakuza and the Gambino crime family. Stavin added that Nichols had offered his services as an informant to several U.S. Government agencies. But when interviewed years later, Stavin pondered if that information had endangered Casolaro since the named agencies denied using Nichols. "Maybe I shouldn't have told him," said Stavin. In Stavin's opinion: "It seemed like a cover-your-ass situation."

By August 9, Bill Hamilton was starting to worry: he had not been able to reach Casolaro for several days and never before had encountered such difficulty. He telephoned several mutual acquaintances, none of whom knew Casolaro's whereabouts.

Olga reported that she answered several threatening telephone calls at Casolaro's home. One man called at about 9:00 a.m. and said, "I will cut his body and throw it to the sharks". Less than an hour later, a different man hissed: "Drop dead." Then there was a third call..., but Olga remembered only that no one spoke and that she heard only music as though a radio were playing in the same room as the caller. "Don't call him no more," she said. She hung up. A fourth call was the same as the third, and a fifth came later that night. "No music...and no one spoke." After this she slammed her receiver down.

Last known sightings of Casolaro

According to Ridgeway and Vaughan, Casolaro's whereabouts between late August 8 and afternoon August 9 are unknown. He met the Honeywell engineer William Richard Turner at the Sheraton Inn at about 2:30 p.m. on August 9. Turner says he gave Casolaro some documents, and that they spoke for a few minutes. Turner later refused to specify the content of the papers, and he claimed that he had been harassed by the police who were investigating Casolaro's death.

Witnesses reported that Casolaro spent the next few hours at a Martinsburg restaurant. A bartender there told the local police, "He seemed lonely and depressed." The police further learned that "Sometime around 5:00 p.m. Casolaro entered Heatherfields, the cocktail lounge at the Sheraton Inn with another man described by a waitress as 'maybe Arab or Iranian.' The waitress remembered because the foreign-seeming man rudely complained about slow service."

This sighting was the impetus which gave rise to a theory that Casolaro was investigating a CIA Op called Operation Pseudo Miranda. Miranda was intrinsicly linked to Iran/Contra. Not too coincidentally, Octopus was the pseudonym given to a multi-faceted operation which sought to create a revenue stream needed to run covert operations simultaneously in South America and the Middle East. Many investigators believe that the man with whom Casolaro met on the eve of his death was intimately connected to Operation Pseudo Miranda.

At about 5:30 p.m. that night, Casolaro happened to meet Mike Looney who rented the room next to Casolaro's Room 517. They chatted on two occasions—first at about 5:30 p.m. and then again at about 8:00 p.m. Looney later explained, "[Casolaro] said he was there to meet an important source who was going to give him what he needed to solve the case."

According to Looney, Casolaro claimed that his source was scheduled to arrive by 9:00 p.m.. "But as the appointed hour came and went Casolaro became embarrassed." Casolaro left Looney, explaining that he had to make a telephone call. He returned a few minutes later and admitted, somewhat sheepishly, that his source might have "blown him off." Casolaro and Looney talked until about 9:30 p.m..

At about 10.00 p.m., Casolaro purchased coffee at a nearby convenience store.

That was the last time anyone reported seeing Danny Casolaro alive.

Death

At about noon on August 10, 1991, housekeeping staff discovered Casolaro naked in the bathtub of Room 517.

His wrists were slashed deeply. There were three or four wounds on his right wrist and seven or eight on his left. Blood was splattered on the bathroom wall and floor; and according to Ridgeway and Vaughn, "the scene was so gruesome that one of the housekeepers fainted when she saw it."

Authorities were called.

Under Casolaro's body, paramedics found an empty Milwaukee beer can, two white plastic liner-trash bags, and a single edge razor blade. There was a half-empty wine bottle nearby. "No screen was placed in the bathtub drain to prevent tiny debris from draining away; nor was a sample of the bathwater saved."

Other than a gruesome scene, the hotel room was clean and orderly. There was a legal pad and a pen present on the desk and there was a single page from the pad torn with a message written on it: Based on the note, the absence of a struggle, no sign of a forced entry, and the presence of alcohol, police judged the case a straightforward suicide. After inspecting the scene, they found four more razor blades in their envelopes in a small package. Police interviews further revealed that no one had seen nor heard anything suspicious. The Martinsburg police then contacted authorities in Fairfax, Virginia, who said they would notify Casolaro's family.

However some facts were not known publicly in 1991.

A few years later an investigator learned from Barbara Bittinger, the assistant head of housekeeping at the Sheraton Inn that there was a new development:

Connolly also noted that Ernie Harrison who worked for the professional cleaning service hired to scour the room after the death corroborated Bittinger's account about the towels.

First suicide verdict

The first autopsy was performed on Casolaro's body at the University of Virginia on August 14, 1991. The coroner determined that blood loss was the cause of death, and that death occurred "from one to four hours before the body was discovered" or roughly between 8:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. on August 10.

Funeral, publicity and controversy

A few days after Casolaro's body was discovered, FBI agent Thomas Gates (an acquaintance of Casolaro's) contacted Martinsburg authorities about the journalist's death. Only then, according to one observer, did Martinsburg authorities learn that "they had something stickier on their hands than a common suicide." The observer notes that there was a "national press scrutiny" of the way Martinsburg authorities had handled the case. Despite these scandalous accusations of cover up, Ridgeway and Vaughan insist:

On September 4, 1991, Casolaro's sister, his son, and a friend visited police in Martinsburg to recover Casolaro's personal possessions. While the trio waited in the police station, two men arrived to speak to police regarding the Casolaro case. Standorf's case initially appeared to be a common, tragic and violent robbery: On the day he (probably) died, a $500 ATM withdrawal was made from Standorf's bank account, his handgun was absent, and his body was placed in his car, which was found at the National Airport on January 28, 1991. However, "someone had called the detectives and had told them that Casolaro had been investigating Standorf's death, and now...Casolaro was dead too. That source of that information as it turned out, was William Richard Turner."

More thorough investigation and second suicide verdict

After the scandal erupted, police returned to Room 517 for a more thorough if belated search. The room had not been rented since Casolaro's body had been discovered and authorities looked for fingerprint and fiber evidence; they reexamined the windows and doors for anything suggesting a forced entry. They searched the Inn's rooftop for footprints and/or other evidence consistent with someone rappelling into a window.

Their searches uncovered nothing.

Roads were searched for miles. Now they were looking for Casolaro's missing briefcase, and accordion file.

The adjacent rooms to Room 517 were rented that evening—one by Mike Looney, the other by an unnamed family. No one reported hearing anything unusual either on the night of August 9 or the morning of August 10. Along with samples of Casolaro's known handwriting, the suicide note was sent to handwriting experts, and found to be his.

In January 1992, about five months after Casolaro's death, Dr. Frost of the Virginia state medical examiner's office performed another autopsy; he returned a second suicide verdict, citing blood loss as the cause of death.

Dr. Frost also uncovered a few previously unknown facts:

  • There was evidence of early stages multiple sclerosis but the degree of severity was probably minor;
  • Toxicology analysis uncovered traces of several drugs: antidepressants, acetaminophen, and alcohol.

Yet Dr. Frost insisted: "There was nothing present in any way that could have incapacitated Casolaro so he would have been incapable of struggling against an assailant, let alone been sufficient to kill him."

Additionally, the respected blood-splatter expert Dr. Henry C. Lee was quizzed on the case by Martinsburg police. His opinion that the evidence was not inconsistent with suicide was prominently noted in press releases. However he withdrew his statement formally years later when he was informed of the bloody towels on the floor of the bathroom since no authorities had mentioned them at the time of his opinion.

Aftermath

William Richard Turner was arrested for bank robbery on September 26, 1991. Ridgeway and Vaughan wrote: "the web spinners believe that he was trying to get picked up by the FBI before the man who got to Casolaro got to him."

According to C. D. Seltzer (the author of The Casolaro Files), "The Investigative Reporters and Editors organization (IRE), located in the basement of the University of Missouri journalism school has been a repository for Casolaro's files since a few months after his death."

What was the Octopus?

The precise nature of Casolaro's theories regarding the Octopus remain unclear. This is partly due to the fact that few of Casolaro's notes survive.

One of the troubles in the case is separating the reliable information from the specious.

Similarly,

While admitting that Casolaro sometimes "had trouble telling the difference between people who were trustworthy and those who were not,"

Casolaro said that he had discovered that the Inslaw case had connections to a number of other conspiracies and scandals dating back to the supposed October Surprise Conspiracy of 1980. Writing in Wired magazine in 1993, Richard L. Fricker declared, "[Casolaro's] theories, which some seasoned investigative journalists have described as naive, led him into a Bermuda Triangle of spooks, guns, drugs and organized crime.

Casolaro alleged that he was nearly ready to have revealed a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy spanning Iran-Contra, the October Surprise Conspiracy, the closure of Bank of Credit and Commerce International, and the bombing of Pan Am 103—involving the Central intelligence Agency, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Justice Dept, the Wackenhut Corporation, Mossad, and MI5 and MI6 British Secret Services. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Phil Linsalata notes:

Ridgeway and Vaughn wondered, "—why Danny? Dozens of reporters have explored the same terrain.... And Casolaro had never written an article on the Octopus for any publication."

Remaining questions and allegations

Some have argued there are reasons to doubt the official verdict of suicide, or that there are inconsistencies and unanswered questions regarding Casolaro's Octopus or his death:

  • Elliot Richardson, the eminently respectable former Attorney General during the Nixon Administration, called for the appointment of an Office of the Special Counsel to look into Casolaro's death. "I believe he was murdered," said Mr. Richardson, " but even if that is no more than a possibility, it is a possibility with such sinister implications as to demand a serious effort to discover the truth.
  • A 1992 report on the Inslaw Affair prepared by the United States House of Representatives concluded:

  • When testifying before a Congressional committee in 1994, FBI Special Agent Thomas Gates, an acquaintance of Casolaro's, insisted that "there is cause for suspicion regarding Casolaro's death.
  • The briefcase and accordion file containing both Casolaro's manuscript and notes could not be found—not in his hotel room, nor his car. Only fragments of articles and a book survive.
  • Ridgeway and Vaughan recognize a peculiar anomaly in the toxicology report: "the validity...in the wake of the embalming has always been a red flag for skeptics."
  • According to Dr. Anthony Casolaro, the discovery of traces of Hydrocodone and Tricyclic antidepressant drugs post mortem are puzzling. After considerable investigations, he could find "no record of the drug being prescribed for his brother."
  • Dr. James Starts of George Washington University, who reviewed the autopsy report, has opined: "One thing that was surprising to me is that I didn't see any hesitation marks. In suicides, you tend to find hesitation marks. People generally don't know the amount of pain they can tolerate, so they will hesitate and take, literally, a little slice. This man really cut deeply... down to the tendons. That's significant. That's unusual."
  • Don Shirly, a Martinsburg paramedic who saw Casolaro's body has stated: "I've never seen such deep incisions on a suicide... I don't know how he didn't pass out from the pain after the first two slashes." An unnamed reporter adds, "Unusual, indeed. Both Danny's brother and his ex-wife told us that Danny had always been afraid of needles and blood." This was corroborated by Olga, Casolaro's longtime housekeeper who asserted that "he's scared [to death] of his own blood."
  • Several of Casolaro's friends thought that the suicide note was odd: it mentioned God ("Casolaro was 'unreligious'"), and the note was uncommonly brief ("Danny could turn a cocktail napkin into the Declaration of Independence...").
  • Friends described Casolaro as "not gloomy nor suicidal." He told Olga that "he'd return home soon." His close friend, Benjamin Mason, insisted, "There's no way Danny would have killed himself." "Not after the tragedy of his sister's suicide had devastated the family," added another. When speaking in reference to Casolaro's exultation surrounding the final piece to the puzzle, Dr. Anthony Casolaro has quoted his brother as saying, "I feel the happiness that an Eskimo must feel when he comes across fresh bear tracks before any other sled. However, as noted above, a bartender—one of the last people to have seen Casolaro alive—described Casolaro as "seeming depressed."
  • Several ex-girlfriends asserted that Casolaro was extremely uncomfortable about being seen naked—even during sex. For Casolaro to have killed himself in the nude seemed very out of character.
  • Other criminal cases occurring about the same time make the investigations seem shoddy, negligent, or incomplete. "The work of Martinsburg's police inspires little confidence," wrote an observer. "Though Martinsburg police say they found no evidence of a struggle, no one looked under his fingernails for skin scrapings or blood." Furthermore, according to an unnamed medical examiner, three of Casolaro's righthand fingernails looked as if they'd been chewed or bitten. The examiner speculates that there is no evidence that Casolaro chewed his nails. They may have been broken in a struggle, and when soaked in bathwater for several hours, they may have resembled chewed nails.
  • The coroner found a bruise under the top of Casolaro's head. This probably would have induced "moderate hemorrhaging" under the skin. What collision may have caused this? The police do not mention the bruise [in their report].
  • Police thought that the plastic garbage bags in the bathtub may have been used by Casolaro to asphyxiate himself, but some critics note that plastic bags "also have a recognized place in torture and interrogation."
  • As noted above, respected blood-splatter expert Dr. Henry C. Lee consulted on the Casolaro death for Virginia authorities, and agreed that the evidence was consistent with suicide; yet when told about the bloody towels on the bathroom floor, Dr. Lee withdrew his statement, saying that the photos and the evidence shown to him did not include those towels. He said, "A reconstruction is only as good as the information supplied by the police."

On the other hand, some observers have accepted the suicide verdict. For example, a 1991 Vanity Fair article written by Ron Rosenbaum, a journalist friend of Casolaro's, suggests that Casolaro may have committed suicide after learning that he suffered from multiple sclerosis just in order to suggest murder, and further confound conspiracy theorists.. However, this theory is speculative. Furthermore, the theory contradicts the Virginia state medical examiner, Dr. Frost, who asserts that Casolaro was in the early stages of MS, and that any symptoms would have been just mild.

See also

References

Notes

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