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This is the first of six articles (and one podcast episode) about Danny Casolaro, an investigative journalist who died under mysterious circumstances thirty years ago. In the ensuing decades, he has become a legend in his own right; for many, he's sort of the Platonic ideal of an investigative journalist. For others, he's a cautionary tale about conspiracy theory belief.

Contents:

  • 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

I was out getting coffee sometime before 10:00 a.m. in Martinsburg, West Virginia when I saw one of the cleaning women from the hotel having a cigarette in the parking lot. She looked like an “adult,” someone with a small job in a small town, which was a depressing thought. Then I remembered I’m 46 years old — I probably have a few years on her. It was one of those moments when you realize that maybe you’d better find something better to do with your life than chase old, weird stories. Images of Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory flashed through my mind’s eye for a second, but then I was close enough to speak to her without yelling, so I said “hi.” She said “hi” back.

“I’ve never been to Martinsburg before,” I offered.

She was a friendly type, or at least felt good about being on break, and responded to my inane comment with a smile: “What brings you here?”

“I’m investigating a murder,” I said.

I asked her if she’d heard of Danny Casolaro, and she said she hadn’t. When I told her that he was found did in this very hotel in 1991, she shot me an annoyed look: “How old do you think I am?”

I laughed. I mean, what else could I do? She laughed too, so I didn’t feel bad about calling her old.

Back inside the Holiday Inn, I took one last look at the bathroom. I was staying in 516. There was no way I was going to ask for 517 — the room where Danny’s body was discovered — so when I checked in, I requested a room on the top floor and let luck determine where I spent the night. And as luck would have it, I was assigned the room immediately across the hall from Danny’s.

In Ron Rosenbaum’s 1991 Vanity Fair story about the case, he describes sitting in the bathtub in the room across the hall from 517, pondering what Danny had been thinking in those final moments before his death. I considered trying it out for a split second, but it seemed far too ghoulish. Instead, I double-checked my room one last time for any stray belongings and headed out to the car.

Danny Casolaro’s death is not a pleasant subject (obviously), and I’ve put it off for as long as I could. The truth is, I don’t feel at all good about telling this part of the story. As a destitute writer of a certain age who has spent nights in depressing-ass towns covering stories that weren’t panning out — perhaps having a few beers too many in the process — it all hits a little too close to home, y’know?

The Sheraton (now a Holiday Inn) advertised in the Baltimore Sun (1993)

The Sheraton (now a Holiday Inn) advertised in the Baltimore Sun (1993)

On August 8, 1991 (Thursday), Joseph Daniel “Danny” Casolaro left his home in Fairfax, Virginia, and drove to Martinsburg, West Virginia, roughly 90 minutes away. If he took Route 9 into West Virginia, it would’ve been a straight shot northwest. A great deal of the drive is rural, one lane in either direction, between Leesburg and Martinsburg. I drove that same route myself, and it still isn’t built up the way that most beltway-adjacent areas are these days. Thirty years ago it must have been even more desolate.

After making contact with the Hamiltons and Michael Riconosciuto in August 1990, Casolaro became what might be called a full-on conspiracy researcher. Through thousands of hours of phone calls (that was his specialty, working the telephone) he began investigating various stories — some well known, some not so much. Some were taken seriously by the establishment, some rejected as “conspiracy theory.” These included Inslaw/PROMIS, the BCCI banking scandal, whatever was going on in Area 51, a series of murders of members of the Cabazon Indian tribe in California, and the October Surprise, a quite possible, as-yet-unproven plot by Ronald Reagan’s campaign to delay the release of American hostages in Iran until after the 1980 presidential election, tanking Jimmy Carter’s reelection bid. The Cabazon story was especially interesting — Michael Riconosciuto claimed that he hacked the PROMIS software while working on the Cabazon reservation as an employee of one of their cottage industries. While that might have been a red herring, something happened in California, and to this day reporters are still trying to get to the bottom of it.

Danny’s name for this conspiracy of conspiracies, this nexus of parapolitical intrigue, was “The Octopus.” He described it in a book proposal (variously titled “Death of the Poet,” “Behold, A Pale Horse: A True Crime Narrative,” and simply “The Octopus”) as: “An international cabal whose services cover parochial political intrigue, espionage, the trade of weapon technologies including biotoxins, drug trafficking, money laundering and murder.” Reading like direct mail marketing copy, the proposal goes on to promise “a haunting odyssey that depicts a manifesto of deceit, decisions of conscience, good and evil, intrigue and betrayal.” What it doesn’t do, however, is offer much in the way of sources to back up his claims. Sources are vital when trying to sell a non-fiction book.

Perhaps all that would have changed after Martinsburg. He told his family the purpose of the trip was to meet a source who promised to tie up all the loose threads of this vast criminal conspiracy he had uncovered. He was about to embark upon the most dangerous part of his investigation yet.

“He told us … if there was an accident and he died, not to believe it,” said Danny’s brother Dr. Anthony Casolaro shortly after the murder.

Soon after checking into the Sheraton Martinsburg on Thursday morning, Casolaro went to the Stone Crab Inn, where he drank a bottle of wine over the next three and a half hours. From there, he drove to a Pizza Hut near the hotel, where he ordered a pitcher of beer and a pizza. By 4:00 p.m., he was back at the hotel. He then hit the hotel bar, drinking beer and talking to the bartender from 5:00 p.m. until last call at approximately 11:30 p.m.

According to a Washington Post report:

As he worked his way through beer after beer, Casolaro spoke about his books, his former wife and his conspiracy theories with another man, Mike Looney, who was in the process of moving to Martinsburg. At one point, Loony said, Casolaro indicated he was waiting for someone, possibly an Arab American, who didn’t show up….

“He was excited about what he was doing. He thought he was onto something big,” said Looney. “He was convinced that there was a conspiracy.” (“Frequent Drinking Marked Writer Casolaro’s Final Days,” Washington Post, August 25, 1991)

He did make one contact during his stay in Martinsburg, however. At 2:00 p.m. on Friday, Casolaro met William Turner in the parking lot of the hotel because he feared his room was bugged. Turner, an engineer, gave Casolaro documents relating to mismanagement at Hughes Aircraft (his former employer) and another story involving the United States Navy.

“He seemed enthusiastic,” Turner told the Washington Post, “and said this all fit into the other things he had uncovered.” After this meeting, Casolaro was back at the Stone Crab Inn, where he drank Bud Lite from 2:30 p.m. until 5 p.m. or so. There, he seemed “lonely and introspective,” according to a Washington Post interview with the bartender.

After that, it’s hard to pin down precisely what Danny was doing in Martinsburg. At about 6:00 p.m. he called his mother to tell her that he would be late for dinner, if he made it at all. Sometime after 10:00 p.m., he walked to a nearby Sheetz convenience store for a cup of coffee. Otherwise, it’s not known where he was or who he was with Friday evening.

One of the many iterations of Casolaro’s book proposal

One of the many iterations of Casolaro’s book proposal

Shortly before 1:00 p.m. on Saturday, August 10, 1991, Danny Casolaro was found dead in the bathtub of room 517 with slashes on his wrists and forearms. The police ruled the death a suicide, and State Medical Examiner Dr. James Frost said the cause of death was loss of blood, without the presence of the other contusions, lacerations, or trauma that are found after a struggle. A lot has been made by the fact that he was at the earliest stages of multiple sclerosis and that trace amounts of antidepressant and prescription Tylenol were present in his system, although it’s hard to see what any of that could prove. Even more suspicious was the fact that the body was embalmed before the family was notified of the death, which was illegal in West Virginia. That can be explained by a small town mortuary thinking they were doing the family a favor, or who didn’t want to work late on a weekend. Of course, it could also be explained by a coverup.

The note that Danny left behind reads, in full:

To my loved ones,

Please forgive me -- most especially my son -- and be understanding; God will let me in.

Some who believe that Danny would never commit suicide claim that the wording of the note is itself proof that he was murdered by The Octopus. Casolaro was Catholic, and suicide is a mortal sin. He knew better than to claim that he could kill himself and then waltz into heaven.

In Vanity Fair, Ron Rosenbaum recounts a dinner he had with Danny’s brother Anthony soon after Danny’s death:

“The way I envision it could have happened,” Tony told me … “someone stands over him and says, ‘You write this suicide note or my partner who’s standing with your son will, you know, [kill your son].’ And Danny would just go, ‘Fine.’”

Danny was a big, tough guy, a boxer, fearless, Tony says. But if he felt his son’s life was being threatened, “he wouldn’t be someone who would resist that kind of pressure.”

Having written the suicide note, this murder scenario goes, Danny would then have run the bath, gotten undressed, gotten in, and started carving up his wrists with the blade his captors provided him.

Another odd detail of the crime is the Disappearing Briefcase. As Emma North-Best of nonprofit news site MuckRock points out:

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Just before his death, Casolaro had a briefcase full of documents and notes. When his body was found, the briefcase was gone. At best, this indicates someone secretly found his body and removed the notes. At worst, it means someone else was there when he died. (“The Danny Casolaro Primer: 13 reasons to doubt the official narrative surrounding his death,” March 15, 2018)

Of course, it could also mean that Danny disposed of his notes before killing himself, perhaps in disgust with how his investigation was going, or even to give the appearance of his own assassination. I can’t prove any of it, and wouldn’t ever step out on a limb that far, but I would caution anybody looking into this case against presuming to know what might be going on in the mind of someone else — especially someone who may be in the throes of depression. (As for statements made by Casolaro’s family that he wasn’t depressed or wasn’t the depressive type — you’d be amazed how well someone can hide depression from their family and even close friends; that is, until they can’t.)

Another important point is that Casolaro had received death threats for months leading up to his murder. If Danny did kill himself, he was clearly under enormous pressure. Then again, if he didn’t kill himself, he was clearly under enormous pressure.

Danny (left) and Tony Casolaro

Danny (left) and Tony Casolaro

Danny Casolaro spent his last year alive immersed in the murky world of parapolitics. James Ridgeway and Doug Vaughn, writing in the Village Voice, called Casolaro “one of a small army of freelance journalists exploring the possibility that the powers of the national security state had been used to manipulate domestic politics.” So when he was found dead in his hotel room, the media took it very seriously indeed. Danny’s conception of conspiracies (or a capital-c Conspiracy) subverting democracy from within the federal government was very much of the time; and if the story killed him, however he was killed, the press would try to get to the bottom of it.

As Danny got deeper into his investigation, the Octopus “came to possess him,” John Connolly wrote in Spy magazine:

He worked on it 16 hours a day, staying on the phone past midnight, sleeping only 2 or 3 hours a night, talking with quasi-spooks and bona fide spies, chasing leads, always enlarging his vision of the Octopus. He stopped working out; the man who would boastfully do 50 push-ups with a cigarette in his mouth no longer could do even two. There was no question that he was onto some remarkable stories, including aspects of the BCCI scandal, the takeover of the Cabazon Indian reservation by a former CIA operative, and the Wackenhut-CIA connection. With less insistence on proving a monolithic conspiracy, he may well have pinned down those stories. (“Dead Right,” Spy, January 1993)

But without the contents of the Disappearing Briefcase — Connolly claims it was actually a Disappearing Accordion File — it’s hard to tell what all this hard work was leading up to. Casolaro’s remaining notes and files don’t clear up the matter either.

Less than two weeks after his death, a group of journalists gathered to examine Danny’s remaining Octopus material, which was taken from his home shortly after his death and held for safekeeping by ABC’s Nightline staff. With the Casolaro family’s permission, select journalists were invited to go through the files. St. Louis Dispatch reporter Phil Linsalata covered the event in Columbia Journalism Review.

Instead of “the research and hard evidence for Casolaro’s book-in-progress,” Linsalata writes, the reporters found “news clips. There were stories on drug-running, on the sale of arms to Iraq, on arms-technology transfers. The stories could easily have been contained in a file labeled ‘Major American Scandals, 1950-1991.’ Interspersed with these materials was an occasional bit of original poetry or song lyric.” There were no taped interviews, a notable omission, but there were phone numbers. Lots of them. Casolaro seemed to have the ear of the whole Washington press corps.

One of these sources was Martin Kilian, a correspondent for Der Spiegel reporting on the October Surprise scandal. During a recent conversation for this article, Killian explained the danger of sources like Michael Riconosciuto.

“You always have this kind of element” in parapolitical stories, Kilian says. “In the October Surprise [for instance], I’m convinced that some of these characters were sent our way to totally muddy the waters. Not all, probably, just one or two. The rest are some psychopathic people who wanted to be in the media, who wanted to be important, who wanted to cash in on a certain notoriety, you can run the gamut. And I think Casolaro’s tragedy was that he fell for some of these people in a big way.”

This certainly explains characters like Riconosciuto, people who give journalists just enough accurate information to keep them hanging on, then feeds them so much bullshit that the story ends up falling apart under its own weight. All that’s left, after the grifters and spooks have done their job, is a tall tale — a scaffolding of disinformation upon which conspiracists can hang their pet theories. Killian isn’t the only person to tell me this. It’s a common hazard of a certain type of investigative journalism.

“It’s a bizarre world,” Killian continues. “What makes it particularly problematical [is] there’s always some people who know something. They really do. But it’s not enough to bring the bacon home, and you can never really tell for sure what their bona fides are, and very often they don’t want to tell you why they know something for a variety of reasons. So it becomes a labyrinth. And it’s very tedious to weed out these people, and you just spend a lot of time going down rabbit holes.”

This is what Rosenbaum was getting at the last time he spoke to Casolaro, when he yelled in exasperation: “Danny, you’ve got to get ruthless with yourself.” It isn’t enough to have merely assembled a pile of connections that seem to tell a certain story; you need to back up what you have and eliminate what you cannot back up.

“If your mother says she loves you,” investigative journalist Seymour Hersh learned early on in his career, “check it out.”

Kilian says he spoke with Danny once, on the telephone. “It was all about Inslaw,” he says, “and I think it was about Riconosciuto. And I remember that it sounded [like] really, really far-out stuff. And I did not want to get involved in it. And the next thing I heard was that he was dead.”

Gene Hackman, The Conversation (1974)

Gene Hackman, The Conversation (1974)

Dan Moldea is an investigative journalist who has been writing books on political corruption and organized crime since the 1970s. He also knows where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, and one of these days he’s going to prove it.

“Bill Hamilton offered me [the PROMIS] story before he offered it to Danny Casolaro,” Moldea says. “I’m pretty sure I was the first person Bill offered it to. Because he was looking for somebody like me, he was looking for an independent. He was looking for somebody freelance, he was looking for somebody who understood the world of organized crime.”

Hamilton first made contact with Moldea in early July 1990. They met on August 15, right around the same time Casolaro got involved.

“I started looking into this, doing my preliminary work,” Moldea says. “And within a couple of days, I saw that this was a bottomless pit. There was just no way that I could enter this world and come out of it in one piece, in my estimation.”

Moldea says that he heard from Danny “one or two” times over the next year. “I interviewed him, I introduced him to a couple of people, like Carl Shoffler, who was a former intelligence officer for the MPD [Washington, D.C.’s Metro Police Department]. He was also the arresting officer of the Watergate burglars.”

When Casolaro died, word spread quickly through the media. As David Corn reported at the time:

The day after Casolaro’s body was found, Village Voice editor Dan Bischoff received an anonymous call; the voice on the other end reported that a journalist named Casolaro was found dead in West Virginia, that he had been working on the October Surprise story and that this should be scrutinized. (“The Dark World of Danny Casolaro,” The Nation, October 28, 1991)

This is an anomaly, because at that point Martinsburg police had yet to notify the family or announce the identity of the body to the press. According to Danny’s brother Anthony, an FBI office in New York received a similar call at the time.

“When it first happened,” Dan Moldea says, “I was getting calls of concern. Because the word was out there was a freelance reporter who was investigating the mob and had an Italian-sounding name, who was found dead in a West Virginia hotel. And a lot of people thought that was me.”

That, and their names were Danny and Dan.

“I was at a party on August 14, four days later,” Moldea continues, while referring to his notes. “It was a party for a person in the Intelligence Division at the MPD. My friend Carl Shoffler was there. He told me he had spoken to Danny, I think the day before [his death]. And that [Danny] was lost. He was a lost man. He was very, very upset. He was very emotional. He was telling me how Danny was basically admitting that he was over his head with what he was trying to do…. And I mean, my goodness! He was in the bottomless pit.”

The Danny Committed Suicide hypothesis would seem to be borne out by a police investigation and autopsy which concluded there was no evidence of foul play, as well as statements from people who knew him, who said he was overwhelmed and dispirited by his inability to sell his book, or to even get a good grasp of his story. And there’s also the fact that, after Danny’s colleagues combed through all his remaining files, they couldn’t find much actual reporting — and it was the reporting that would have got him murdered. Are we to believe that Danny Casolaro kept all of his substantive material in a briefcase (or an accordion folder) and scrubbed it from the rest of his files? That he hadn’t bothered to backup his earth-shattering findings, just in case?

On the other hand, the crux of the Danny Was Murdered hypothesis is that Danny’s Octopus was real, that he had proven his claims (or was close to doing so), and that he died because he knew too much. Perhaps not coincidentally, this scenario is in the best tradition of 1970s paranoid cinema classics like The Parallax View or The Conversation.

But what if Danny was killed, not for having proved his Octopus hypothesis, but because he found himself in the company of dangerous characters, grifters and criminals? The kind of “psychopathic” characters that Martin Kilian says are drawn to schemes like The Octopus?

To be continued.