October 27, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Missing without a trace (Part 2)
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October 27, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Missing without a trace (Part 2)
Missing without a trace (Part 2)
Peace Corps Volunteer Walter Poirier, missing in Bolivia since January 31, 2001
Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News on Bolivia Peace Corps Volunteer Walter Poirier who has been missing since January 31, 2001:
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The disappearance prompted the agency to review safety worldwide. At the same time, the agency established an Office of Safety and Security, increased the number of security staff by 80 and enhanced safety training.
Still, the Peace Corps left unchanged its practice of sending young and inexperienced volunteers alone to remote and sometimes dangerous areas, and the agency has no mandatory worldwide requirement on the number of visits from a supervisor. The Peace Corps said performance standards in Bolivia require associate country directors to visit volunteers at their sites during the first three months, and once a year after that. The agency said it met that standard for Poirier.
Disappearance with few clues*
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Disappearance with few clues
Walter Poirier spent New Year's Day 2001 with Angela Anderson, a Notre Dame classmate working in Bolivia, watching the Oregon State University football team crush their alma mater 41-9 in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl.
A week or so later, he shared a sushi dinner with his fellow volunteers in La Paz and bought an REI trail dome tent from one of them, Anthony Gilbert, for about $100.
He watched the Super Bowl on Jan. 28 with other volunteers, and three days later, on Jan. 31, he signed in at the Peace Corps office in La Paz and shopped in the city.
All the while, Poirier sent regular e-mails to his grandfather, his parents and his former classmates from Notre Dame, entertained a steady stream of visitors at his La Paz crash pad, was spotted several times by his La Paz landlord and was seen almost daily by roommates there.
Then the e-mails stopped.
Exactly what happened to him after Jan. 31, 2001, is unclear, but evidence suggests that he left La Paz after that date, traveled to his site in the Zongo Valley and never returned to the capital. Evidence also suggests that once he arrived at the isolated compound in the Zongo Valley he didn't intend to venture very far, since the personal belongings he would have needed even for a short trip were all there.
At 10:49 a.m. on March 4, Sheila Poirier telephoned her son's crash pad in La Paz, where a volunteer said Poirier hadn't been seen for weeks. Ten minutes later, Sheila Poirier called a 24-hour Peace Corps hot line in Bolivia and told an employee, Charna Lefton, that she was concerned.
On March 6, more than a month after his last documented contact with the Peace Corps, Poirier was officially declared missing.
"The biggest problem I have is this: We're the ones that had to let them know he was missing," his father said. "They really didn't have a clue. So it just shows the total lack of oversight, especially in Bolivia."
At Poirier’s room in the Zongo Valley, investigators found a duffel bag of clean clothes and his wallet, which contained two receipts dated Jan. 31. One was from Vidrieria Balivian, a La Paz glass store, and the other was for silicon — apparently materials for a windowpane installed in the Zongo Valley after he made the purchases.
"There was a window missing in that building where he was staying or a broken piece of glass in the window, so he replaced it," said John Cooney, one of two special investigators sent to Bolivia by the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
The wallet, according to records provided to the family, also contained 90 Bolivianos (about $12), an American Express card, a bankcard, an AT&T phone card, Peace Corps identification, Bolivian credentials, his Massachusetts driver's license, a Social Security card and a photocopy of his passport.
The tent he bought from a fellow volunteer also was found.
"Even when we talked to all the Peace Corps kids down there they said nobody goes any place without their ID," said Cooney, a 28-year veteran of the U.S. Secret Service. "Our speculation was that he disappeared from out there."
Francisco Pacheco, a caretaker for the small building housing Poirier's apartment in the Zongo Valley, said the volunteer spent a maximum of four nights at his site, never more than one night at a time. Pacheco said he wasn't sure when he saw Poirier last.
Though there is no record of Poirier's whereabouts after Jan. 31, at least two people say they spoke to him in La Paz after that, and a third person reported seeing him walking in the city.
Lupine Skelly said Poirier helped her get a taxi in La Paz on Feb. 6, the day she flew to the United States for counseling following the robbery involving her and her cousin. Her report raises questions about why he sent no e-mail from La Paz after Jan. 31.
Chavez, the tourism director for La Paz, said she believes she saw Poirier between Feb. 19 and 22, when he visited her office and talked about going to the carnival in Oruro.
Two GAO investigators said Chavez is mistaken and that she likely saw Poirier much earlier. The investigators said two volunteers who were supposed to accompany Poirier to Oruro for the carnival told them Poirier never showed up to meet them.
Kelley Saterfield of Hopkinsville, Ky., said that she was confined to Poirier's crash pad in La Paz much of February nursing a severely sprained ankle, but that she never saw him that month.
Sometime after Poirier was declared missing, Cati Williams, a Maryknoll missionary working in La Paz, reported seeing Poirier walking near the Japanese Embassy in that city. Williams, who saw Poirier's picture on a poster, said she was not aware at the time that Poirier's crash pad was less than a block from where she believed she spotted him.
"The guy seemed to have the build and the look of the guy who was missing," Williams said during an interview at her apartment, a few blocks from where she made the sighting.
Investigators brought Williams and some of the volunteers to the embassy to review footage taken from security cameras that day, but nobody was able to identify the person on the tape.
"The impression I got from the FBI guy was that it was a sad case," Williams said. "There are no clues."
Violence preceded disappearance
Tom Venner of Chicago was walking late at night when a man dressed as a policeman forced him into a taxi in Bolivia's second largest city, Santa Cruz, about 350 miles from La Paz.
"He took his handcuffs and began to beat me on the head maybe seven times," Venner said, adding that the man tried to plant drugs on him during the ordeal. "About the third or fourth time I could (feel) the blood pouring down my face."
Venner was released after being forced at gunpoint to withdraw money from an automatic teller machine.
Ten months later, weeks before Poirier disappeared, Mike Mulvaney and another volunteer were abducted in Santa Cruz under nearly identical circumstances: Two men dressed as policemen — one with a gun — threw them into a taxi.
"As I sat up, he hit me across the face," Mulvaney said. "My glasses went flying, and as I looked back, he maced me right in the eyes."
Mulvaney then leaped through an open window.
"He grabbed my ankles, and I'm screaming out the window, going, ‘Ayudar me! Ayudar me! (Help me! Help me!),’ ” he said.
Mulvaney escaped. The other volunteer was later released unharmed.
From 1999 to 2001, the year Poirier disappeared, the number of assault incidents reported against volunteers in Bolivia nearly tripled, from four to 11, and last year there were 10, more than double that of 1999. In one of two death threats against volunteers last year, the words "Die American Woman" were written on the ground outside a volunteer's site, and in the second case men pounded on a volunteer's door and threatened to kill him.
"There probably was an increase," in crime, said Smith, the former county director. "It does concern me."
At least eight volunteers were assaulted in taxis in Bolivia since 1999, including four who were abducted. A fifth volunteer escaped an apparent abduction 11 months ago after a man asked her for her passport and tried to push her into a taxi.
On Feb. 16, 2001, around the time Poirier is suspected to have disappeared, a bomb threat was called into an apartment where at least four volunteers were staying, the newspaper's examination found.
Volunteers said the Peace Corps masked the true danger to volunteers, and the Daily News examination found that the abduction of Mulvaney and the second volunteer was never recorded in official statistics, even though both the country director and the security chief at the time acknowledged speaking to him.
Peace Corps officials said there's no record of Mulvaney reporting the incident.
The March 2001 version of the Peace Corps Bolivia Volunteer Handbook, dated the same month Poirier was declared missing, calls Bolivia: "A relatively safe country," although it acknowledges that risks still exist.
In October 2000, four months before Poirier disappeared, two more volunteers in Bolivia were raped. One of them, a 24-year-old volunteer from the Midwest, said she decided to warn trainees, but a Peace Corps trainer told her she wasn't interested.
"She (the Peace Corps trainer) said, ‘You're portraying a negative image. You're scaring the female volunteers,’ ” the volunteer said.
About May 2001, Susan Weber of Atlantic City, N.J., who had been groped at a market, said she proposed a similar warning for a speech to new volunteers, but a Peace Corps employee told her to confine her comments to the positive aspects of her work.
Disappearance involved money, police say
A three-year-old calendar featuring a large photograph of a topless young woman — her arms crossed in front to cover her breasts — hangs over a table in the tiny police station near Pueblo de Zongo. A painting of the famous South American leader Simon Bolivar hangs on another wall.
The station is smaller than a one-car garage, and there are no computers, no phones, no radios, no maps covered with colored pins and no police officers inside.
In a two-bed dormitory in back, Segundino Osco Ticona of the Bolivia Rural Police, the only officer manning the tiny station, is packing his things. His shift is finished, and he needs a ride to La Paz, more than two hours away, because he has no car. He leaves the police station, the only one within miles, empty.
This is the closest police station to the room in the Zongo Valley where Poirier's belongings were found, and there was little evidence during a November 2002 visit of a continuing effort to locate him. A poster of Poirier still hung in the window of the police station, but it was barely visible from the nearby dirt road.
Ticona, assigned to the station about April 2002, didn't know who was assigned to the station at the time of the disappearance, and a search of a disorganized pile of police reports indicated that several officers had worked there during the previous two years.
In the seven months he had been assigned to the tiny outpost, Ticona said, he had one visit from someone he believed was an American investigator. The American, Ticona said, just wanted to know what he knew.
"Nobody knows who (Poirier) was," Ticona said. "I asked, and they never saw him either."
No one else seems sure what happened to Poirier.
"There's not a definite conclusion of where he is, and we don't know if he is alive or dead," said Jose Luis Harb, a vice minister of government who was overseeing the investigation for the executive branch of government.
Harb said police suspect that Poirier may have been killed for money.
"What we were able to establish is that probably he had a money debt," Harb said during an interview in his office in downtown La Paz in November 2002. "It could probably be that he didn't owe the money but that they pressured him (for money).
"All this is conjecture, like the entire investigation."
An inventory of Poirier's personal property provided by his family shows ATM receipts dated Jan. 15 and Jan. 28 and a money exchange receipt dated Dec. 18. Sheila Poirier said her son made three withdrawals of 400 Bolivians each — a total of about $55 — from his bank account between Jan. 30 and 31. Volunteers said Poirier planned to spend time at his site in the Zongo Valley, so the withdrawals would have been necessary to buy supplies.
Also listed in his belongings were three checks several months old for $20 each from his grandfather.
The Daily News interviewed three of eight people Harb said could provide additional details about Poirier during the weeks before he disappeared.
Roberto Llusco said during an interview in Bolivia that he was questioned at least twice by American investigators. The second time, he said, he was given a polygraph test and asked: "Where is Walter. Do you know? Where do you have him hidden?"
During interviews in La Paz and at his home in the Zongo Valley, Angel Salazar, a local politician, said he met Poirier through Llusco, and he later gave the young volunteer a ride to the valley in his four-wheel-drive Toyota, showing him the room, some sights and stopping alongside a river to have lunch with him.
He agreed to rent Poirier a room on the second floor of a building on a hill adjacent to his home. The rent was about 60 Bolivianos (about $8) a month. Salazar, an acquaintance of Llusco, spent much of his life in the Zongo Valley, and though he lives in La Paz, he and his family come to their Zongo Valley home for weekends and holidays.
From talking to his caretaker and family, Salazar said, Poirier stayed in the room "two days at the most."
Salazar said police interviewed him many times.
Harb admitted that the investigation had gone slowly and vowed to reinvigorate it. He also promised to provide the family with a copy of the new police report and to make police investigators available to a Daily News reporter.
In August of this year, during a meeting with a Daily News translator, Harb said he had done "nothing" on the Poirier case since the previous interview nine months earlier. Asked if there were any changes or major findings, he said, "That I know of? No."
Harb said he sent a copy of the report to the Poirier family Nov. 26, 2002, but the family said they never received it.
Though the Peace Corps released some records on the case through the federal Freedom of Information Act, the agency withheld 288 pages of records in their entirety, citing an exemption in the law designed to prevent interference with active police investigations.
In a written response to the Daily News, the Peace Corps says it has maintained regular contact with the FBI throughout Poirier's disappearance, and the agency noted that the embassy in Bolivia has publicized a 24-hour information line to receive information. The response also says the agency has sustained an intense media campaign, costing nearly $20,000, and has increased the reward for information from $10,000 to $25,000.
Poirier's landlord in La Paz said she was never interviewed by investigators, even though her window faces the walkway used by Poirier and other tenants. Heather Megan West of Colorado Springs, Colo., one of Poirier's roommates in La Paz, also wasn't interviewed.
"Actually, I was surprised because I never was (interviewed)," West said.
Kelley Saterfield, the volunteer who stayed in Poirier's crash pad with her leg in a cast during the critical early days when he was suspected to be missing, said she was interviewed by someone from the Peace Corps for about 15 minutes, but she never spoke to the FBI or Bolivian police.
Volunteer Stephen Spaulding, who identified himself as a close friend of Poirier's, said that sometime in April 2001 he agreed to meet FBI agents at their hotel in La Paz to take a polygraph test. The agents, Spaulding said, asked him if he knew where Poirier was or knew what happened to him. Spaulding said he answered no to both questions.
Sheila Poirier said a Peace Corps investigator she spoke to seemed to believe her son simply chose to disappear.
Spaulding said he got the same impression from another Peace Corps investigator.
"He seemed to think Walter went away on his own," Spaulding said.
Family faces pain of uncertainty
Every minute of every day for more than 2 1/2 years now, Walter and Sheila Poirier have lived with a grim reality: They may never know what happened to their son.
"Our concentration is still on finding Walter," Sheila said. "He's probably not alive, but he may be alive."
Long ago, their grief turned to anger, and their anger is directed squarely at the Peace Corps. They believe the agency should have been watching more closely.
And they're not alone.
"We believe that the Peace Corps severely failed their people, their volunteers, and knowing what I know, there is no way I would let my children volunteer for the Peace Corps unless there was some immediate changes and serious changes in the Peace Corps," said the General Accounting Office's Patrick Sullivan, who spent 23 years as a U.S. Secret Service special agent. "There's no way I'd put my children or recommend to anybody I know to put their loved ones in that situation.
"That's not just the way I'd ever operate."
Sullivan and John Cooney went to Bolivia on behalf of the GAO's Office of Special Investigations to review the Peace Corps' handling of the case.
Their investigation found that Poirier's supervisor, Ryan Taylor, last spoke to him Dec. 22, when Taylor showed him a room in the village of Camisique.
More than two months later, the supervisor still wasn't aware Poirier had instead moved into a small room in the village of Zongo, the GAO investigation found.
Meredith Smith, who was Taylor’s supervisor, acknowledged that the approximately 40 volunteers Taylor was supposed to watch was 10 to 15 more than he should have had. She said she had tried unsuccessfully to get another supervisor in Bolivia.
"He really had too many volunteers," Smith said, adding that Peace Corps gave her an additional supervisor after Poirier disappeared.
The Peace Corps claimed that Teresa Chavez, the La Paz tourism director and Poirier's assigned counterpart, was supposed to be meeting regularly with Poirier, the GAO investigators said, but Chavez had made no formal agreement.
Like other counterparts across the world, Chavez wasn't paid. Counterparts, the Peace Corps said in a written response, are the "primary contact for the volunteer" on a day-to-day basis, but they're not expected to watch volunteers. "Volunteers are adults," the response says.
Asked what her incentive would be to monitor Poirier, Smith said, "Just the idea that they're working with an agency of the U.S. government."
Although the GAO criticizes Poirier for not following notification procedures, it also said, "The Peace Corps failed to properly supervise missing volunteer and lost track of him."
Taylor, who left Peace Corps shortly after Poirier disappeared but continues to live in Bolivia, said the GAO "used me as a scapegoat."
The Poiriers think the agency is uncomfortable because their son's disappearance shatters the image the Peace Corps is trying to project.
"We blame the Peace Corps for what happened to our son," Sheila Poirier said.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.27.2003]
More about Missing Peace Corps Volunteer Walter Poirier
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Investigative Journalism; COS - Bolivia
By bankass.com (0-1pool136-18.nas12.somerville1.ma.us.da.qwest.net - 188.8.131.52) on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 7:55 am: Edit Post|
"Scapegoat". Did you ever really go to his site and see where he was living? "I don't like the fact you started to put the blame on Walter for being missing with investigators". You worked for Peace Corps and you had a job to do, supervise! Many other former volunteers would love your former job and would have done it fabulously. (There is an assumption for you.)
In the period Walter was there, how many times did you go to his site? Once, Maybe. Why didn't you ask for another volunteer in that area when you assessed the area?
Mrs Poirier said in the interview that a Peace Corps investigator, "seemed to believe Walter chose to be missing".
Assumptions and jumping to conclusions is not prudent in a factual investigation.
Also, the assumption implies he chose to leave or be missing. You know, over the years these implications are put out there and aren't fair to the family or Walter.
The Spin investigators should spend their current budget or go to Congress for more money to supply a full time Bolivian private investigator for a whole year or two. Then you probably will come up with some kind of ansewers.
I don't think it has been a full investigation. He is the only volunteer in Peace Corps history to be missing this long. He chose to serve in Peace Corps and give of himself. We as former volunteers and Americans should be demanding for more answers. More money should allocated to his search in Bolivia using the locals too. This money should be appropriated from Congress. Ask Jim Kolbe's staff to introduce the bill today. He has a former Peace Corps volunteer on his staff in the House sub committee on Foreign Operations, under appropriations. That volunteer, as well as every volunteer who has served should be asking for a full time investigation.
The Poiriers and Walter deserve better.
If they can't get the money from Congress, the Massachusetts Delegation in Congress and in the Senate should use their own campaign funds in an independent investigation. Our Senators have the resources to do it themselves or intiate a bill in Congress.
Everytime I see Kerry for President in NH, I think about Walter Poirier's case. I think he should use his own funds or intiate a bill on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he is third ranking member. I also think of the other 27 Volunteers who have fallen and still Kerry doesn't push for two volunteers at every site. Personally, I know John Kerry has not done enough for this constiuent. Did he ever go to Bolivia himself in this investigation? No.
His staff will tell you the FBI did what they could. I think that is a shallow response to the horrible situation. I also think he has the power today to get a bill passed for a private investigator in Bolivia.
The Congressman Meehan has done alot in Walter's case but I encourage him to do the same.
Many former volunteers talk about Walter and his situation. We won't forget him and his committment to Peace Corps. We wish the Poiriers the best under these unfortunate circumstances. I do pray for him.
Please be advised that Sens. Kerry and Kennedy,along with Rep. Meehan and their staffs right from the start were instrumental in getting the FBI involved and putting pressure on the Peace Corps to find our son. Also, they pressured the Peace Corps to keep our son's status as active, when we received the wonderful letter from the Agency telling us that he was going to be COS. We want him to be left on until we know what happened to him. We want him listed as Missing in Service until his disappearance is solved. We dont want the Peace Corps to ever forget him. By closing our his service, they would have turned their backs on him forever. We asked for him to be listed as active permanently, but the recently resigned director, only continued his active status for one year, subject to review.
Walter R Poirier
By bankass.com (0-1pool136-59.nas12.somerville1.ma.us.da.qwest.net - 184.108.40.206) on Monday, October 27, 2003 - 10:55 pm: Edit Post|
I will respect your advisement about the comments about the Senator. I will reserve my opinions in his case and defer to your wishes. Sorry, I do get emotional about Peace Corps responses in safety issues. When your son went missing I got depressed for weeks, as if I had not done enough up until that point to get things changed in these areas. I had been calling them for two years prior to have them change their policy.
Mr. Poirier, I hope someday we can speak with one another. my telephone number is 978-462-3868.
I am on the road three days of the week, but I am around on the weekends.
I can't imagine the level of frustration you and your family has gone through. I wish you the best with the permanant active status.
Mr. Poirier, Chris Shays, the Congressman from Connecticut is a former Peace Corps volunteer. His staff person on the government reform committee Tom Costa went to Bolivia during your son's investigation. He and Congressman Shays, who is the chairperson of National Security Sub Committee may be helpful in moving in that direction on his status. A Suggestion only.
Thanks, I will reserve my comments in the future.