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The Truth Behind “Midnight Express”

It was one of the travel nightmares of the 1970s, along with being hijacked to Cuba or being stuck behind the Iron Curtain – being thrown into a Turkish prison and left to rot. The 1978 movie “Midnight Express,” based on a book by Billy Hayes, and adapted into a screenplay by Oliver Stone, shows Hayes’ arrest for trafficking in hashish, his beatings and the squalid prison conditions. Though originally sentenced to a relatively mild four years, just two months before his release date, a superior court overturned the decision and sentenced him to 30 years. Other prisoners try to escape (which gives the book and movie their name), while Hayes remains, going slowly insane until his girlfriend visits him and urges him to escape as well. After an attempt to bribe the guard fails, he attacks the guard, who is accidentally killed. Hayes is then able to flee prison. According to Robert Dillon, who was deputy chief of mission at the embassy, the real story was a bit less lurid. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1990.


DILLON:  I was the Country Director from summer, 1971 to the summer of 1974. It was shortly after my return to Washington that the issue of Americans in Turkish prisons broke. I can remember it very well. I was sitting in my office in January or February 1972, when I got a phone call from a woman, who told me that the last time she had seen her daughter had been on Thanksgiving 1971. She had come home and then had left to visit a friend somewhere in the south. The woman said that she had never heard from the daughter again and she was very concerned. She called me because she had just heard on the radio that four Americans — a young man and three women — had just been arrested trying to cross the border between Syria and Turkey and she was certain that her daughter was one of three Americans. I asked how she knew that. She said that she couldn’t explain it, but she was absolutely certain that her daughter was among the group arrested. I asked her if she had heard any names; she hadn’t. Had she heard any other information which would lead her to the conclusion? No.

But she turned out to be right. Her daughter had been one of four Americans arrested. Their van had been found filled with hashish. They were apparently on their way to Germany through Greece and were going to take a ferry boat from Turkey. In any case, from then on, I was deeply involved. In fact, later on, when I became the DCM [deputy chief of mission] in Ankara, the four were still in jail. I was there when they were finally released in the late ‘70s…

The…book and a movie later called “The Midnight Express”…was written by Billy Hayes who was caught smuggling hashish and then wrote about his experiences. He was from Long Island, a nice but naive young man. He was caught at the Istanbul airport with a whole pack of stuff on him — much too much to pretend that it was only for personal use. He was put in jail. We were very concerned from the beginning and tried to get him released, both because we felt the jail sentence was excessive and because we saw what the sentence was doing to Turkey’s image in the U.S. We would try to explain that problems to the Turks and they would get very huffy. Senior Turkish officials would say to me: “You are trying to force us to let this criminal out of jail because it makes a bad impression in the United States. That doesn’t impress us at all!”

I saw Hayes’ father at the Department several times; it was very sad. The father spent all of his savings; he mortgaged his house on Long Island; spent all of his money on various schemes to spring his son, even though we advised him not to waste his money. But he was a sucker for any slick character who would come along and promise that for a certain amount of money, he could promise to get his son released. Of course, none of these schemes ever worked.

Billy finally escaped from his jail which was down on the Sea of Marmara. He walked off one day. I suspect that the Turks let him go, although no one has ever told me so. There were reasons to believe that the Turks knew that he would try to escape and that they let it happen. He escaped to Bursa, which was the nearest city, and then on to Istanbul and the Greek border across the river. During the time he was in jail, he was visited frequently by our consular officers from Istanbul. They never reported that he was physically mistreated except for a beating his first night in jail. I think that they would probably have known or noticed if anything more had happened.

When Hayes got back to the U.S., he indicated to someone in my office that he was greatly upset and ashamed at what he had done to his family, who he had more or less bankrupted. He was approached by a freelance writer [William Hoffer] and offered a way to earn back some of the money that had been wasted on trying to get him released. The writer and the young man collaborated on a book that was named “Midnight Express”.

I have read it; it is not bad, but Billy Hayes admitted that the book was slightly exaggerated and dramatized. In the book he alleged that when he was first apprehended, he was beaten. He did not allege other beatings. When the movie was made, it included not only brutal treatment — there is a particularly savage scene in the movie when the young American bites the lip of a Turkish prison official who was abusing him. I don’t think any of those incidents ever occurred.

The movie also strongly implied that our own DEA played a major role in fingering Hayes; I don’t think that was true either. It was not alleged in the book and I never saw any reports that even hinted at such a possibility. Our Istanbul staff was very sympathetic towards Billy Hayes. Furthermore, DEA was not interested in tracking down individual young American hashish smugglers abroad. It was interested in large operations which would eventually impinge on drug imports into the U.S.

But both the book and the movie were very damaging to U.S.-Turkish relations. Americans, as with most people, are only too willing to blame foreigners for their problems. The drug problem was already headline material at the time; President Nixon had declared “war” on the drug trade. I really shudder at those words now.

In any case, here was an opportunity for us to blame others; we blamed them for producing opium and then we blamed them for the harsh treatment of young Americans caught smuggling. The Turks saw us as hypocrites because on the one hand we beat them over the head and shoulders constantly about drugs, but when Americans were arrested smuggling the stuff we applied massive pressure to release them on the grounds that it was damaging to the relationship with the United States. It was a very troublesome issue. It was one that various Congressmen loved to posture about and we were always caught in between. You were talking to the Turks either about tightening up their drug trafficking surveillance or about releasing Americans who had been caught in the smuggling act. We had a hard time dealing with the problem.