Freelance journalist Danny Casolaro died thirty years ago, on August 10, 1991. He believed that he was hot on the trail of a criminal conspiracy involving the intelligence community, international arms dealers, and a Washington, D.C.-area company called Inslaw.
Not only is this a fascinating bit of history, but if you make it to the next installment you’ll learn what Danny’s death has to say about the right-wing disinformation peddlers who are still active in American politics. Indeed, there is a direct line from the people mentioned in this story to the events of January 6, 2021.
- Part 1: How Danny Casolaro Became the Ideal Conspiracy Theorist
- Part 2: The Parapolitics of Software Piracy
- Part 3: Coachella (not the music festival)
- Part 4: Death of the Poet
- Part 5: Suicide is Painless
- Part 6: Disinformation is a psychic rat trap that makes everybody crazy and dumb
“Just to be clear, I am not a conspiracy theorist,” I said. I was on a conference call with Max and Bobby, two producers hoping to land a reality show with one of the cable networks. You’ve probably never heard of Max. Bobby (who you've also probably never heard of) is the grandson of RFK. They seemed rather taken aback to hear that I wasn’t, in fact, a conspiracy theorist. But they still needed a sizzle reel to sell their show, and a holiday was fast approaching, so a Zoom interview was set up with myself and Kennedy’s wife Amaryllis Fox, an author and former CIA officer (the couple first met at Burning Man; Bobby is her third husband). I can’t find the screenshot I took of the conversation, but from what I can remember she was dressed like some sort of rogue archaeologist — Indiana Jones without the stupid hat, essentially. Her end of the interview took place in an old school bus that they’d outfitted with retro-high tech-looking monitors and lab equipment with blinking lights. (Or maybe not; again, I’m working from my hazy memory here.) The concept, as it was explained to me, was that Fox would drive around the country in her old-timey, gear-filled school bus, solving conspiracy theories.
Sounds like a pretty good gig for a conspiracy theorist — which I am not, of course.
A few months later I was in Martinsburg looking for John McMillen, the detective who originally investigated the death of Danny Casolaro. I had copies of McMillen’s handwritten notes on the case, which were obtained by the nonprofit news site MuckRock. I wanted to see if I could talk to the guy and ask him about some apparent discrepancies between what he wrote down in 1991 and what the DOJ determined happened to the journalist three years later.
I found the house, a nice, lived-in-looking family home on a tree-lined street, and knocked on the door. I tried again several minutes later, then started scribbling a note to leave in the mailslot. While I was writing, a woman answered.
“What do you want?”
“I’m looking for John McMillen.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Joe Flatley, and I’m a reporter—“
After hearing the word "reporter," the woman flipped out. The glass storm door muffled her voice to the point where I could hardly hear her, but I could see her enraged pantomime. She said “no, no, no,” shaking her head violently, then slammed the door in my face.
As I finished writing my note, she opened the door again.
“Can I leave a note?” I asked.
“You’re trespassing, and you have five seconds to get out of here before I call the police. Now!” She repeated the last word a few times, gesturing wildly as she did so. Then she slammed the door in my face yet again.
I shrugged and walked to the car. I was happy to be finally leaving West Virginia after three days of this shit.
I’m guessing that as far as she’s concerned, I’m the latest in the long line of conspiracy theorists who’ve harassed the family over the years, each certain that they could discover the truth about the forces who killed Casolaro — the conspiracy he dubbed The Octopus — if only they could speak directly to the detective who worked the original case. I know these people, and they can be rude and relentless. I felt bad for the family and understood why she did what she did when yet another conspiracy theorist came to her door and interrupted her breakfast.
Except, of course, I’m not a conspiracy theorist.
Bill Hamilton, the president of Inslaw, is a former NSA employee who moonlighted during the Vietnam War with the Joint Publications Research Service translating articles from the North Vietnamese press (years later he learned that JPRS was a unit of the CIA). In the 1970s, as courts around the country were moving their data from paper files to computers, Hamilton’s nonprofit Institute for Law and Social Research developed a case management program called PROMIS (an acronym for Prosecutor’s Management Information System). While originally a federally-funded program, Hamilton took the company, which he rechristened Inslaw, into the private sector in 1981. Inslaw continued to modify and improve PROMIS, and in 1982 won a $10 million contract from the Department of Justice to install the software in U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country.
The working relationship between Inslaw and the Justice Department under Attorney General Ed Meese got nasty almost immediately. According to Hamilton, the project manager on the DOJ side was a man who had previously been fired from Inslaw. Hamilton says he tried to avoid the guy, but it didn’t do any good. By early 1985, Inslaw had to file for Chapter 11; the Justice Department was in arrears for $1.2 million.
As reported in the Washington Post, the fight was especially hard on the Hamiltons:
“Bill and I are down here [at the office] from morning until late at night, and our kids are calling, saying that the sheriff was at the door looking to serve subpoenas to us,” said a still angry Nancy Hamilton, Bill’s wife, who joined the firm in late 1984 as vice president of administration. “It was very frightening for the kids.”
After [trying] unsuccessfully for nearly a year to settle the dispute, the Hamiltons decided in 1986 to take the offensive, suing the Justice Department to recover the money they said they had lost. (“Obsessed by a Theory of Conspiracy,” October 1, 1990)
It was clear to the Hamiltons that something was rotten in the way that they were being treated by the DOJ. Eventually, they came to learn that Reagan Administration cronies were trying to bankrupt the company and purchase it once it was liquidated by the court. The court agreed with at least part of the Hamiltons’ claim (as I think anyone would have if they gave it a serious look), and in September 1987 federal bankruptcy Judge George F. Bason Jr. ruled that the Justice Department's project manager for the Inslaw deal, C. Madison Brewer III, had mounted an “outrageous, deceitful fraudulent game of cat and mouse” designed to bankrupt the company and put it on the auction block.
This was pretty big news in the computer industry, as you might imagine — here was a judge who ruled that the DOJ had targeted Inslaw in order to steal its software. This is about as corrupt as Washington gets.
The DOJ appealed, and the case worked its way through the legal system. Two years later the ruling was upheld by a federal appeals court, after which it was reversed on a technicality — not because there was no merit to the claim, but because bankruptcy court was the improper jurisdiction. It then eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which declined to take on the case in October 1991.
Bill Hamilton had been partially vindicated, but then even that was taken from him.
“He’s consumed by [the case] constantly,” his then-19-year-old daughter Molly told the Washington Post in 1990. “I’ll see him in the living room and I can tell by the expression on his face that he’s thinking about it.... He’s always working on it.”
Journalist Ron Rosenbaum provided excerpts from Danny Casolaro’s resume (circa 1982) in Vanity Fair:
From 1970 to the present, I’ve been a Washington correspondent, contributor, columnist, editor for national magazines, daily newspapers, weekly newspapers, professional journals and trade journals including World News, National Star, London Sun, Sydney Daily Mirror, National Enquirer… El Dorado News Times, Home and Auto, Washington Star, American Paint Journal… Media Horizons magazines… Washington Crime News. (“The Strange Death of Danny Casolaro,” Vanity Fair, December 1991).
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“A mixed bag,” Rosenbaum points out, “perhaps skewed a bit toward the supermarket tabs.”
Casolaro’s resume continues:
During these years my investigative work included reporting on some of the most important stories of the decade. In 1970-71 I was one of the first journalists to expose the renewed Soviet Naval presence in Cuba, prompting the U.S. Government official warning statements.... In 1971 I was one of the first U.S. journalists to uncover the make up and composition of the Castro intelligence network in the U.S. . . . In 1972-3 I was the first journalist to expose how the Chinese Communists were smuggling opium into America. In 1973 to 1974 I was the first journalist to expose and document the “prior knowledge of Watergate” story, a major breakthrough showing an untold side of the Watergate Scandal.
It’s not clear where, if anywhere, these stories appeared. When Rosenbaum asked Reed Irvine, the economist and arch-right-winger who founded the watchdog group Accuracy in Media, whether Casolaro had been published in the group’s eponymous newsletter, Irvine said: “[H]e never wrote anything for us and I never saw anything on [Watergate] he ever wrote. I think he was one of those guys who liked to talk big but never delivered.” As Rosenbaum points out, these were all stories being promoted by “right-wing intelligence networks, or at least hard-right propagandists,” leading one to assume that Casolaro was dabbling, even at that early date, in the right-wing conspiracy community.
After spending the 1970s trying to make a name for himself as a journalist, he found a job with the publisher of computer industry trade journals. The hard-working Casolaro eventually became the owner of the company, which he sold in 1990 (reportedly taking a bath on the deal). “Danny was really out of his league,” someone close to Casolaro told Rosenbaum. “He just didn’t have a business sense.” Another friend told Rosenbaum how the failed deal affected Casolaro: “Danny just internalized. He felt under pressure to make something of himself.”
At a crossroads in his life, Casolaro returned to journalism. And when a colleague told him about the Inslaw case, Casolaro thought he had found the story that could redeem him.
In March 1990, investigators hired by Bill Hamilton came back to him with a real whopper: The former FBI Special Agent In Charge of Los Angeles, one of the bureau’s largest field offices, claimed to have information on the theft of PROMIS by the United States government.
After leaving the FBI inexplicably in 1979 Ted Gunderson, the aforementioned former G-man, became a sort of freelance conspiracy investigator. From the Jeffrey MacDonald “Fatal Vision” murder case to the Satanic Panic, Project Monarch and the Oklahoma City Bombing, there wasn’t a conspiracy theory that he didn’t have his hands in.
Author Cheri Seymour describes her first meeting with Gunderson in the book The Last Circle:
Ted Gunderson opened the door at his Manhattan Beach home and ushered us into a small living room cluttered with toys. He made no explanation for the toys scattered around the floor and the couch, but offered coffee and donuts, then proceeded to eat most of the donuts himself. I had expected someone dripping with intrigue, instead he was classic in the sense of an investigator; rumpled shirt and slacks, nervous movements, distracted behavior. We sat on the couch bunched together amongst the toys. Gunderson pulled a kitchen chair up in front of us, leaned over and began stuffing his mouth with cheese and crackers, all the while talking, his body in perpetual motion. He was a big, handsome man with an aging face and tousled silver hair. He seemed entirely unaware of his appearance or the appearance of his home, but his pale eyes were intelligent and probing. Intuitively, I knew he was more than he appeared to be.
What Seymour fails to mention is that Gunderson was in Manhattan Beach because he was shacking up with one of the mothers of a McMartin preschool student. The school had become the nexus of Satanic Panic hysteria when parents claimed their children were being abused by Satanists in a tunnel system under the school. In at least one case, these crimes allegedly involved Chuck Norris. This all turned out to be bullshit, of course, but Gunderson worked this grift — among many others — until he died in 2011.
For a while, Gunderson and a man named Michael Riconosciuto were partners in the conspiracy business. And like Gunderson, Riconosciuto had a checkered past. For instance, check out this brief item from the Daily News of Longview, Washington (October 6, 1973):
According to Riconosciuto, the bust was a setup (of course), revenge for publishing the pictures of narcs working in Haight-Asbury at the time. By making himself a thorn in the side of law enforcement, Riconosciuto wound up being nailed on a false charge of manufacturing LSD, PCP, and MDA — at least, that’s what he told Danny Casolaro after the fact. At the time of the trial, Riconosciuto testified that he was forced to manufacture the illegal drugs by gangsters.
In what I imagine must be an example of Riconosciuto’s grandiosity, the drug lab was outfitted with chemicals and equipment by scuba divers using an underwater trap door. No ordinary meth lab would be good enough for Riconosciuto — this was a Dr. Evil-style underwater drug lair. Michael’s father Marshall Riconosciuto, himself a character, testified in court that this was all a misunderstanding. His son was conducting “underwater research” on the boat, “using electronic means to clean up pollutants in the water.”
In the early 1990s, Riconosciuto was claiming that he had inside information on the intelligence community’s illegal use of the PROMIS software. Through Ted Gunderson, Riconosciuto got in touch with Bill Hamilton, and spilled his guts.
In an affidavit dated March 21, 1991, Riconosciuto stated:
- In the early 1980s, after getting out of prison, Riconosciuto got a job working for the Cabazon tribe in Indio, California. The Cabazon were trying to work out a deal with the Wackenhut security firm — Wackenhut wanted to take advantage of federal contracts that favored Native American-owned companies, and the Cabazon wanted a piece of the lucrative arms trade. (That much of the story we know to be true.)
- American intelligence hoped to use the weapons and other materiel manufactured by the Cabazon to outfit its allies and secret armies around the world. (So far, nothing too impossible or improbable; someone has to arm America’s allies and secret armies.)
- Riconosciuto then claimed to have modified Inslaw’s PROMIS software on behalf of the Justice Department, installing a secret “back door” login that would let American spies access the software wherever it was installed. This was part of an intelligence program; the software was subsequently sold to several countries throughout the world, eventually making its way to the Middle East, Soviet Union, and into the hands of Osama bin Laden himself. (While there is no proof of this, we explored an example of how this might have happened in the first part of this series.)
The following month, Riconosciuto was arrested for manufacturing crystal meth and jailed in the Tacoma, Washington House of Incarceration. Riconosciuto, of course, claims that he was set up yet again. One Washington State Patrol detective, interviewed by James Ridgeway and Doug Vaughn for a Village Voice story on Casolaro, had this to say about Riconosciuto’s claim that he was a political prisoner:
[T]he Washington State Patrol could give a shit about Wackenhut, the Cabazons, Iran-contra, Inslaw, the October Surprise, Satanists. I don't care if he had [CIA director] Bill Casey over for dinner in the desert, this is a righteous dope bust. Riconosciuto’s a strange duck, and if you listen to this shit you're going to get in a web and go crazy.
Jerry Uhrhammer of the News Tribune in Tacoma was the only reporter to cover the trial. In the July-August 1992 issue of IRE Journal, he wrote:
Any reporter who checked the court file prior to Riconosciuto's trial could have found documents that offered a psychiatric explanation for conspiracy tales. Psychiatrists who examined him in 1972, prior to his first drug conviction, portrayed him as a mentally unstable person who had trouble discerning between fact and fiction.
“I have been dismayed and appalled by some articles in which Riconosciuto is quoted as a primary source, if not sole source, in support of some conspiracy theory,” Urhammer added, “but without any warning to the reader that his credibility is suspect or nonexistent.”
In addition to Michael Riconosciuto and Ted Gunderson, the Hamiltons had Jeffrey Steinberg, a high-ranking member of the Lyndon LaRouche political cult, as well as a dubious intelligence community fixture named Ari Ben-Menashe, whispering in their ears. At this point, the story grew to immense proportions. If the original legal battle was the Corruption Phase of the Inslaw scandal, Bill Hamilton was now firmly in phase two: the Parapolitical Phase.
The term “parapolitics,” meaning beyond or apart from politics, was coined by Oxford University professor Raghavan Iyer in his book Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man in 1979. As far as I can understand it (and I’m not swearing that I can, but I think I have an okay grasp) Iyer says that the simplistic view of politics that you learned in high school civics class is not nearly enough to explain how the world really works. There are forces and actors behind the scenes that have a profound effect, and we don’t understand why our politicians behave the way they do because we don’t have a full awareness of what power actually means, or does. This used to be a perfectly acceptable liberal suspicion of rich people in the C. Wright Mills mold (his seminal work, The Power Elite, came out in 1956) but these days it’s largely equated with Donald Trump’s “deep state” ramblings. And for some people who are even more out there than The Donald, the parapolitical dimension of American life is equated with the hidden hand of reptoid aliens and ancient secret societies (and maybe it is for Trump, too; I don’t know). Peter Dale Scott, the poet and preeminent historian of what he calls “deep politics,” defined parapolitics as: “the conduct of public affairs not by rational debate and responsible decision-making but by indirection, collusion, and deceit. Cf. conspiracy.”
Most often, the term parapolitics is used as a polite synonym for “conspiracy theory,” as in: “The CIA killed JFK because parapolitics. But that QAnon stuff is just a conspiracy theory, man.”
When Danny first spoke with Bill Hamilton in August 1990, almost exactly one year before his death, he was stepping into a vortex of parapolitical intrigue that had to have been irresistible to the hungry freelancer. The founder of Inslaw says that he spoke with Casolaro on almost a daily basis until his body was found in that Martinsburg, West Virginia hotel on August 10, 1991.
Bill Hamilton wouldn’t agree to a formal interview with me (he has safety concerns), but fortunately, he is a prolific emailer. In one message, he had this to say about Casolaro’s demise:
The week before his death, the late Charles Hayes of Nancy, Kentucky telephoned me to ask me to use any influence I might have with Danny to persuade Danny to abandon his plan to visit a sensitive facility in Washington, D.C. which Hayes claimed would "get him killed."
Danny acknowledged to me that he was indeed planning to visit some such sensitive facility and volunteered that the facility was connected to […] a former senior CIA clandestine services officer whom Danny believed was the head of what he called "The Octopus."
Following Danny's death, a U.S. intelligence source, whose information proved to be accurate whenever I later had an opportunity to learn the truth, told me about a break-in, the week before Casolaro's death, at a four-story brick townhouse on Jackson Place NW near the White House and also claimed that Casolaro had been killed in the course of a covert intelligence operation by the Defense Intelligence Agency that was intended to identify and retrieve every copy of computer printouts from a PROMIS-based intelligence database known as Main Core [PDF] which was allegedly administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under the Continuity of Government Program for hand off to the U.S. Army and the DIA in the event of a national catastrophe and the need to detain Americans whose loyalty to the United States was under suspicion. This source claimed that Casolaro had obtained these sensitive computer printouts from a civilian employee of NSA's Vint Hill, Virginia intercept facility named Alan Standorf. Standorf was found beated to death on the floor of the backseat of his own car in a National Airport parking lot during the first several days of January 1991.
The aforementioned U.S. intelligence source claims that the Main Core version of PROMIS stored intelligence information on members of Congress and their staffs, federal judges, journalists and so forth and was accessed, through encrypted communications between the FEMA computer center in Culpeper, Virginia and the White House by select members of the White House National Security Council staff to support political blackmail operations.
Not even Danny Casolaro’s death could stop this story from getting even bigger and more bizarre.
To be continued next week.