A Communist plot, a gruesome murder, a maniacal dictator: all were elements in what would seemingly be the scandal of the decade, if not the plot of a Hollywood thriller. This all-too-real incident, however, has largely fallen under the radar, as only a few now can vaguely recall the remnants of something approaching an urban legend: the story of one Foreign Service Officer who murdered his co-worker in a far-off embassy somewhere in Africa. Ambassador Lewis Hoffacker was in charge of the small embassy in Equatorial Guinea, which was the site of the grisly event, and has recorded his recollections on this mysterious case. Here he chronicles the murder, from the events that precipitated it to the contentious trial that followed.
HOFFACKER: A bloody murder occurred August 30, 1971, in our embassy in Santa Isabel, capital of the turbulent, newly independent republic of Equatorial Guinea, located on the hinge of West Africa. As Ambassador to that country and resident in neighboring Cameroon, I was responsible for that small post, which was manned by two Foreign Service personnel, Counselor Alfred J. Erdos and Administrative Assistant Donald Leahy.…
Up until independence in , the Spanish ran a fairly typical colonial operation…. It was expected that most of the 7,000 Europeans would remain after independence, but that was not to be. President Macias, who for years had shown irrational behavior and worse, began early to find pretexts to frighten Spaniards away and to take over their assets. Nigerian workers, the mainstay on the cacao plantations, were harassed beyond endurance and fled the country, as did eventually one-quarter to one-third of the population terrorized by the Macias regime….
As early as March 1969, Newsweek reported that in only a few months after independence the Macias government had brought the country to “the verge of ruin…The treasury was empty. The Cabinet was rent by violent quarrels…His Foreign Minister and UN Representative were beaten to death.”…
Here are comments by African expert Randall Fegley: Macias was a maniac with a record of corruption, sadism, and psychiatric disorders… Proportionally his rule equaled that in Nazi-occupied Europe in terms of brutality.… Madness had gripped his mind at a conference in November 3, 1967, when he said, “I consider Hitler to be the savior of Africa”…
A French writer, Rene Pelissier, said, “No where else in modern times had a tyrant of Macias’ magnitude managed to destroy his country and annihilate his own people so extensively and persistently.” …
Erdos and other Santa Isabel residents saw and felt the beginning of this expanding terror in the early years of the republic.
The day before the murder the last American, an employee of a UN agency, departed. This fact apparently preyed on Erdos’ already disturbed mind. Restrictions on his travel and that of other Western diplomats were tight; none could use the beaches or move out of the small capital. The numerous Communist diplomats seemed to be under considerably fewer restraints. Equatorial Guineans were afraid to speak with foreigners….
A particular distress derived from a police station opposite the Erdos residence. Screams from prisoners undergoing torture were clearly audible, as were the grieving relatives of the victims.
Shortly before the murder, the Equatorial Guinean ambassador to Cameroon was seized. Under torture, he may have accused Erdos of being part of an armed conspiracy. Erdos heard rumors that there would be retaliation against the U.S. and possibly him personally.
I knew Erdos casually and socially in 1951, when we both were awaiting our first assignments. He impressed me as a typical young Foreign Service Officer of quiet demeanor and normal ambition.
In 1952 he received a particularly glamorous assignment as special assistant to Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, one of the most distinguished and demanding of the old school diplomats, at the important post of Cairo…. He again left the impression of a typical Foreign Service Officer doing his best professionally and socially. He was described…as friendly, personable, correct, and warm…
[In 1971] I needed a replacement for counselor and Chargé d’Affaires in Santa Isabel.… The Department of State (hereinafter referred to as the Department) proposed Al Erdos as a replacement, which called for a steady, cool person.…
The Erdoses, with their two-year-old son Christopher and a dog, arrived at their new post in April 1971. I visited them in May and…[Erdos] complained about his assistant, Don Leahy, who had arrived in March, and hoped that he could be replaced. I explained that it would probably be difficult to do so after only four months on the job. I promised to take up the matter in Washington and did so.
But there was another Al Erdos whom we…did not know. His merit award and his superiors’ recommendation of him as bright, capable, and “the most unflappable” gave no hint of his subsequent roughness on subordinates in Niamey. In the Department, his departure for Niamey was applauded by those whom he abused.
In Niamey, he was universally disliked although he was apparently able to hoodwink his Ambassador, who spent much of this time in the field and who left Al in charge of the embassy for long periods. A subordinate of his described him as a martinet who threw a junior officer across the room for some minor deficiency.… An officer of another agency who knew Equatorial Guinea volunteered to us after the event: “…he was an insecure, nervous uptight person who should not have been put under the pressures he had to put up with in Santa Isabel…”
In retrospect, we should have been told of this background before having Al assigned to this high tension post. Also in hindsight, we can now see that Erdos and his only subordinate, a below average employee, were a potentially explosive combination in an environment which had very little relief from terror and other hardships.…
The Department Inspectors appeared in Santa Isabel shortly after Al’s arrival and found him off to a good start. An administrative officer visited the island in July and reported that the relationship between the two officers was good. He added, “I believe that Erdos is prepared to live with Leahy’s deficiencies and is resigned to have him until the end of his tour.” Al asked me, in his last letter to me (August 11), to try to shorten Leahy’s tour, and I was prepared to go to bat on this request.
Erdos, in his long-hand letter [dated] August 11, 1971, to me in Washington, had this to say about Leahy, whom he murdered 19 days later:
“He is a nice guy but is way over his head… He should be in a job where various supervisors can tell him what to do. Unfortunately he does not have the intelligence to be a de facto administrative officer. Paper work scares him as do rules and regulations…
“It is not that Don is unwilling. He just cannot cut the mustard. I have to handle him with kid gloves because lately he blows up at any implied criticism of his work. Thus it does no good to talk to him because he simply does not have the capability to improve his performance…Can you check with Medical to see if there is anything in past record that would tend to imply instability under stress? Can you ask Bradford in AF/EX [Africa Bureau’s Executive Office] if he can get Don Leahy replaced? …”
I did take up Al’s request with Bradford and revised my itinerary to make Santa Isabel my first stop, thus making it possible to engage in more hand-holding on the Leahy problem and other matters.
After settling in in Santa Isabel in April, Al Erdos began sending fairly routine cables, airgrams, and letters which gave me, and I believe the Department, confidence that we had another pro in this difficult assignment.…
Erdos reported on April 12 that the Ghanaian Chargé’s infant son died following convulsions and appalling malpractice involving the local hospital and the Spanish doctor used by many diplomatic personnel. Erdos had an infant son, Christopher, and was presumably shaken by this event.
Beginning August 20 Erdos began a series of SITREPS [situation reports] on “New Arrests,” usually with Immediate (urgent) precedence… SITREP 2 of August 20 contained an unconfirmed report of 160 arrests “with every prominent islander arrested.”…
SITREP 9 (August 24) reported the death of the Equatorial Guinean Ambassador to Cameroon, Watson; this report was later refuted but Watson did in fact die later under grisly torture, during which he possibly tried to implicate the U.S., if not Erdos, in order to gain mercy. Erdos reported that an armed guard had been stationed in front of the embassy after an absence of months. Our Chargé in Yaounde [Cameroon], reacting to Erdos’ alarms, spoke with representatives of the German, French, and Israeli embassies; they had not heard of these arrests. After checking, the French labeled the disturbances part of a “Bubi conspiracy.” The Cameroonian Foreign Office had heard similar reports but was not seemingly alarmed.…
I was watching the traffic intermittently in Washington and still had confidence that Erdos, with the support of Walker in Yaounde and Shurtleff in Douala, would be able to keep the lid on if in fact the pot was boiling… Erdos was informed of my expected arrival September 4. In subsequent messages he again asked for me and expressed pleasure that I was on the way.
I thought at that juncture that Erdos was fatigued and needed a break. Another Washington observer saw his reports as an indication of rising tension within Erdos and an exaggeration of the actual situation. On Thursday before the event, which occurred the following Monday, the Spanish Chargé found Erdos somewhat agitated. The Chargé, Jose Cienfuegos, found it difficult to convince Erdos that there was no cause for special concern.
By August 28 Erdos, according to his wife, displayed physical signs of distress. His hands were sweaty, he was nervous and physically shaking, he retched and for the first time took tranquilizers. On August 29 his instability was reflected in his overreaction to the late arrival at the airport of the last American resident and to his inability to locate the Leahys (they were having their siesta). On that evening, by his and his wife’s account, Erdos sought the meaning of the events of the prior two weeks.
Fearful of arrest, he discussed confidential matters with his wife for the first time and urged her to memorize the combination to the embassy safe. He eventually concluded that while the government’s actions had heretofore been directed primarily toward Spain, the U.S. was the new target. At this point Jean Erdos thought his thinking was irrational.
August 30 began fairly routinely as Al Erdos and Don Leahy said goodbye to their spouses around 8 o’clock and met at the chancery on Astura Street, a pleasant two-story structure of Spanish colonial architecture. The French Chargé, Jean Robert, dropped by about noon to check on Erdos, who had appeared agitated and abrupt for no good reason on the previous day, and was pleased to find him in a better frame of mind. Erdos explained that he thought, mistakenly, that Don Leahy and his wife had been kidnapped and that he made a fool of himself charging around town with the American flag on his car. When Robert learned later in the day of the murder, he deduced that it was a case of crise de folie [an act of madness].
The morning of August 30 had several other interruptions. Erdos returned to his house and told his wife of his suspicions that the embassy and their home had been bugged by a technician from the embassy in Yaounde (Godhardt). Erdos had two other visitors: Sylvester, a Chevron Oil employee, and a girl seeking a visa. Leahy, in the meantime, was typing the note to the Foreign Office announcing my arrival later in the week. As was customary, Consul Shurtleff in Douala called Leahy around noon to see if he needed anything. In answer to a question of how things were going, Leahy said, “Fine, as far as I’m concerned.” They agreed to speak the next day at 9:30. At about 2:30 p.m., the normal quitting time, Leahy called his wife and said he would be 10 minutes or so late for lunch.
Erdos’ intended cable message, which his attorney described as “complex delusional thinking,” was captioned NODIS Flash, virtually the most sensitive and fastest communication. The message was not admitted as evidence at the jury trial. It was not transmitted and was found in the burn bag by three of us who forwarded evidence to Washington. The message reinterpreted previous events from the new angle, i.e., that the U.S. was a victim of a plot.
As Erdos related, the plotters included the local government, as well as certain diplomatic colleagues. He saw himself being set up for a false accusation of collaboration with anti-government forces; the accusation would explain his death.
Upon deciding that the plot was Communist-inspired, he concluded that it could not be carried out without help from within his embassy. He said that the arrested employees were involved in the plot, as was Don Leahy. He wrote on the same draft of the cable, “Here goes my diplomatic career.”
Leahy’s reluctance to send the message confirmed in Erdos’ mind the complicity of Leahy in the conspiracy. Still according to Erdos, Leahy asked for a ride home and aroused further suspicions that Leahy was setting him up for a sniper or other assault. Leahy was then apparently induced to go into the vault, where Erdos’ interrogations fueled the thought that “practically every innocent action of Don’s in the past took on sinister connotations.” Erdos was convinced that Leahy was a Communist agent.
Brandishing a pair of scissors, Erdos forced Leahy into a chair and tied him with an electrical cord. He had by then concluded that the plot was to assassinate him, making it look like a suicide. He imagined that the assassins were at that moment inside the embassy. Recalling that Leahy had asked him if he kept his wife informed, Erdos concluded that the plan was to kill her as well in order to keep the plot a secret.
(Erdos, supported by his wife, was the only person in a position to paint this picture, true or otherwise. The prosecution had contrary views which were brought out in the trial and made the case that Erdos and Leahy were engaged in homosexual activity just prior to the murder and that Erdos lied by attempting to cover up his actions with the insanity/ international conspiracy pretense.)
Erdos goes on to say that with the assassins already in the embassy, he found the only means to communicate with the outside world, the radio, which was hidden in the vault. The normal radio channel was with Douala, but Erdos suspected the Consul, Len Shurtleff, as one of the plotters and therefore he chose to speak to the embassy in Accra, Ghana, at approximately 4 p.m. local time. He sent this radio message:
“I am not losing my mind. I am locked in the vault with my admin officer who is a communist agent and part of a massive plot against the United States. The U.S. will be accused shortly in a large showing at the UN and I fear for my life. I feel assured that if I leave the vault I will be killed. We have been misdirected and all or any reports from here are not to be believed.
All local employees are part of the plot and have placed electronic devices in the homes. I am extremely worried about my wife and son who are alone at home. Watson and Obiang are also suspect as part of massive plot against the US. I am in complete control of my faculties. And I realize how dramatic this sounds but this is the way things are. Please rush help immediately.”
The radio communicators in Accra maintained continuous contact with Erdos until 5:10 p.m. During the transmission, Erdos was asked to put Leahy on the radio to verify his presence in the vault. Erdos consented and a voice was heard to say, “Help.”
Erdos then said, “That’s what I thought he would say.” (This “help” was later cast in doubt during the trial; the alternative interpretation was that Erdos faked the voice.) During this 4-5:10 p.m. period, Erdos continued to report his version of the plot against him; he feared for the safety of himself, his wife, and child. Near the end of the radio contact, Erdos was told indirectly by Chargé Walker in Yaounde to go to the airport and meet Shurtleff, who was being sent from Douala to help him. Erdos then expressed doubt that he was in fact in touch with Accra and had “visions of a little man in an attic somewhere in Santa Isabel with earphones listening to him.” Thinking he was talking with the enemy, he turned off the radio.
After Erdos broke radio contact, he said that Leahy complained about the tightness of the bonds and Erdos decided to retie him. During this process, Leahy jumped out of the chair and Erdos struggled with him to prevent his escape. As Erdos recounted:
“Don was about half my size, a little fellow, but I thought at that time he had the strength of Hercules, he felt so strong and I felt weak, and I said, “I’ve got to stop him…I picked up the scissors and as if a battle was going on inside me — Go ahead and stab him; no, don’t stab him….So, I stabbed him, rather gingerly at first…and I had the thought, Gee, the human skin is as tough as leather, really, if you want to do a good job you really have to use a lot of force, it takes a lot of force to pierce the human skin.
“We struggled some more. I stabbed him again and again. He broke loose from me from the vault, went into his room, and outside his door into the main reception area of the embassy, and I remember sort of a slow motion…just sort of lurching from the desk to a cabinet, to a wall, just supporting himself as he was trying to escape.
“I followed him, and I think I struck him again at the end, and that is, as he was going in this final lunge toward the door, I thought, dear God, please don’t let him make it because I just haven’t the strength to do it again, and about that point he did touch the front door and sort of — and then slid down and collapsed at the front of the door, and then I got the thought, well, was this all prearranged? Was this the way it was supposed to be? Was Don supposed to make himself suspicious in my eyes? Was I supposed to be led to use the radio and to think that I got through for help while in reality there wasn’t any help coming? Is that what it was supposed to be?
“And I bent down and I asked Don. ‘Don, Don, is this the way it was supposed to be?’ And Don’s last words were, `No, not like this.’ Which to me at that time was further proof. I looked around, and the whole embassy was just a gory mess, blood just over the place, indescribable, and I thought what is this, not all of that can come from the human body.
“I thought that Don must have been having a type of gallbladder under his shirt filled with something that looked like blood, used in the movies, you jab and everything comes gushing out. I bent down and Don’s shirt was sort of gaping open, and I touched him, and there was no bladder full of blood there at all. It was just Don.”
Shurtleff flew by private plane from Douala and found his way from the airport to the chancery around 6:30 in the evening. Erdos refused to admit him and asked for me.…
Nigerian Ambassador Bassey, who was concerned about the commotion outside the U.S. chancery…went to the chancery and knew that he had to generate some confidence with Erdos in order to induce him to depart for the Nigerian embassy, where his diplomatic immunity could be assured. Erdos eventually departed, leaving Shurtleff and others on the sidewalk.
As he passed Shurtleff, he said, “I lost my cool. I killed Don.” Erdos added another few words about the terrible conditions in Santa Isabel that drove him to this act. Jean Erdos told Shurtleff, as he left the building, “Al says he killed Don.” Erdos was overheard telling his wife, “You must believe me. They will think I am crazy.”
Shurtleff thereupon entered the chancery, found Leahy indeed savagely murdered…. He secured the vault, where confidential papers and the radio were located, and locked the chancery door. The body remained in Leahy’s office until the next day, when it was taken to the local hospital morgue. Lannon Walker, the Chargé from Yaounde, had arrived and haggled successfully with Guinean officials who wanted to do more than remove Leahy’s remains….
Upon arrival at Dulles [Airport], he [Erdos] was served with a summons and complaint charging him with premeditated murder and unlawful killing of a security officer of the Department of State. He made no statement as he was directed to GeorgeWashingtonUniversity hospital for treatment.
On the afternoon of September 2…John Graves and I entered the chancery… Graves and I went about the business of picking up the pieces – literally — as we, under strict instruction, prepared packages for Washington and the judicial process already underway: every piece of evidence, including ash tray and waste basket contents, bloody clothing, the murder weapon, electric cords used in the killing and the voluminous confidential files. Graves took lots of pictures of the bloodied mess. A special problem was a heavy case of tear gas grenades which Al Williams had ordered and which could easily be misinterpreted as clandestine arms by the suspicious government. I do not recall how we disguised that shipment through Guinean customs.
During that initial and subsequent cleanup of the chancery, the four of us — Walker, Shurtleff, Graves, and I — had no reason to doubt that Erdos had committed this dastardly act. We invited the investigators’ attention to a handwritten note, apparently in Erdos’s hand, telling Leahy to send a NODIS Flash message and to do so “correctly.” We found no final version of the message and surmised that it was probably the one which he transmitted partially and orally in his radio contact with Accra. Our report raised the question: did Leahy refuse to code such a message and therefore triggered jittery, if not insane, Erdos into violent action? None of us at that time suspected any homosexual activity between the two parties.
Some heat was generated as the Department of State and Justice sought to send security investigators to Santa Isabel to see for themselves the scene of the crime and to interview Equatorial Guinean, diplomatic and other sources. I resisted this on the grounds that we were lucky to have survived this major challenge to American-Equatorial Guinean relations and that any such introduction of investigators would be counterproductive. In the meantime, our diplomatic colleagues on the island and their governments had effectively clammed up, probably frightened by press accounts quoting them and thus breaching confidences in conversations which we conducted with them after the event.