October 28, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Some Peace Corps deaths still a Mystery (Part 2)
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October 28, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Some Peace Corps deaths still a Mystery (Part 2)
Some Peace Corps deaths still a Mystery (Part 2)
Peace Corps volunteer Brian Krow was found in Ukraine under this bridge. The bridge has chest-high railings along both sides. His death was called an accident. Photo: Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News that says that the United States government failed to reveal the full truth about the deaths of at least 10 Peace Corps volunteers who died over a 30-year period. Using never-before-released records from the Peace Corps’ Deaths in Service computer database, the Daily News re-examined deaths in the Peace Corps since 1962. In 10 cases, the examination found that the agency misled or failed to provide essential details to the families, to the public or to other volunteers about the circumstances of how volunteers died. In at least six other cases, the Daily News found that circumstances other than those suggested by the Peace Corps were possible and that the deaths remain mysteries.
Edwina Thompston, the mother of one deceased volunteer, believes the Peace Corps didn't tell her the truth because the agency didn't want negative publicity. Read the story at:
Other deaths, too, warranted further examination. But Peace Corps deaths have occurred in more than 60 countries, most with primitive record-keeping systems, and many happened more than 20 years ago, making it impossible to verify the information provided by the Peace Corps in every case.
Several families said they learned critical details about the deaths of their loved ones after being contacted by the Dayton Daily News. Other families suspected the agency wasn't telling them the truth, but they have little means to investigate cases in foreign countries.
In a written response, the Peace Corps says it relies on the causes of death as officially determined by local authorities, who are responsible for making such determinations. "The Peace Corps is not the official investigating authority in any death of a volunteer," the response says. "Local authorities in country are in charge and report any official causes, details or other facts they believe to be true."
WE DIDN'T TRUST HIM’*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
WE DIDN'T TRUST HIM’
By Russell Carollo and Mei-Ling Hopgood
rcarollo@DaytonDailyNews.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
As was the case in the death of Teates, evidence in the death of Brian Krow of Fremont, Calif., seemed to contradict the official Peace Corps findings.
Krow, who was still in training, bragged to his family in California that his Peace Corps service would lead to a career with the federal government. But in Cherkassy, Ukraine, the 27-year-old's life appeared to be unraveling the day he walked beneath the tall evergreens in the 50th Anniversary of October Park, named for the 1917 Communist revolution.
A letter from the Peace Corps dated two days earlier threatened him with expulsion, accusing him of putting himself in danger by seeking Ukraine women, of openly discussing his need for drugs, of being caught masturbating by his Ukraine host family.
"Your response to all allegations and admitted behaviors in writing is welcome and strongly encouraged," says a copy of the letter provided by Krow's sisters. "Failure on your part to make the adjustments necessary . . . could result in administrative separation."
Before Krow left his tiny room and walked the mile or so to the bridge, his landlord noticed that he was red-faced, as if he was angry or had been crying, records from the Peace Corps inspector general say. All that week, she said, he had acted differently and seemed more withdrawn, the records say.
Early on the morning of July 8, 1999, a bicyclist found Krow's body under the footbridge, which sits about 75 to 80 feet above an asphalt walking path.
The bridge has chest-high wooden railings on either side, and authorities couldn't recall anyone accidentally falling off the bridge. To fall over the side, someone even as tall as 6 foot would first have to boost himself atop the railing or be tossed over by someone else. Krow was 5 feet, 5 inches tall.
A 1999 Peace Corps report calls the death "unintentional."
"It is notable that there have been no in-service suicide deaths since 1983," says a 2001 Peace Corps report.
Okeksandr Bachysche, a government prosecutor who oversaw the investigation into Krow's death, said Peace Corps officials refused to let him interview other volunteers to determine Krow's mental condition. "When I wanted to talk to colleagues of Brian, they refused," Bachysche said during an interview in Ukraine. "The Peace Corps authorities here said, 'Why do you need to talk to them?’ ”
A written statement from the Peace Corps says the agency had no knowledge that the prosecutor had been denied access to volunteers or information. The response also says Ukraine authorities determined the cause was an accident.
The prosecutor said his determination was that no crime was committed. He said Ukraine authorities couldn't do a complete psychological examination because they didn't have the money to travel to the United States. Bachysche, now prosecutor for police matters in Cherkassy, said the Peace Corps hadn't told him that Krow was threatened with expulsion.
"Taking into consideration the new information you told me, I think he committed suicide," Bachysche said. "It's a pity I didn't have such information at the time."
Krow's sisters never accepted the official explanation.
"We didn't trust him,” Stacy Krow said.
REPORTS OF ANIMAL ATTACKS QUESTIONED
Linda Fink, an attractive 22-year-old volunteer from Flat Top, W.Va., went for a walk alone in Lemfu, Zaire, in 1973 and never came back.
Her sandals, according to records, were found hours later 30 yards from a river's edge, and two volunteers said there was no trace of blood or other evidence of a struggle nearby. Volunteers said she was unlikely to have removed her shoes since she was aware of the risk of disease and parasites.
Part of the torso of an unidentified white female was found five days later several miles downstream, and there was evidence of bites from crocodiles and possibly other scavengers. The body was believed to be that of Fink.
Fink's is one of at least two deaths presumed to be caused by a wildlife attack even though there were no witnesses and no clues.
Mark Raymaker disappeared in Tanzania in 1967. No trace of him or the rifle he was carrying was ever found, but the Peace Corps says in its database he was "presumed eaten by lions."
The Peace Corps told Fink's family that a crocodile likely killed her. But, according to the family, the agency never mentioned finding her sandals, information that might have explained how she ended up in the water.
Family members also said they were never told that Fink had been frustrated about her Peace Corps work and had written a resignation letter the day she disappeared. They also said they were never told that Peace Corps investigators strongly suspected suicide or foul play.
A Peace Corps memo dated two days after Fink's body was found says Fink was depressed at the time of her death, and it lists three possibilities, "in order of decreasing probability:
1) She walked to the river in a severe depression and successfully attempted suicide.
2) She walked to the river to contemplate her decision to terminate with Peace Corps and was the victim of foul play."
3) She left her village alone or "with the assistance of an unknown party."
Crocodile attack is not one of the possibilities listed.
"She obviously was eaten by crocodiles, but whether it was before or after she was dead — whether she was dead when she went in the water or not — nobody knows," said Elizabeth Lamb of Decatur, Ga., Fink's roommate in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Two experts said crocodiles could attack an adult on land without leaving a trace, but they usually feed in the water or just at the water's edge.
Frank J. Mazzotti, a wildlife biologist and a crocodile expert at the University of Florida, said that given the circumstances of Fink's death it's "very unlikely" that she was killed by a crocodile.
Ronald H. Bachand, who lived in the same village with Fink and provided her family with the Peace Corps' explanation, admitted he wasn't sure what happened.
"We told them that we thought she went down by the river and, ah, must have been attacked by a crocodile, but nobody saw it. Nobody, you know, had any evidence (of) anything, obviously," he said.
OTHER CAUSES POSSIBLE IN MANY CASES
In several deaths, the Peace Corps explanation is a likely cause, but the Daily News examination found that the exact circumstances of those deaths were never determined, partly as a result of inadequate investigations.
Bethanne Bahler, a 24-year-old volunteer from Wabash, Ind., was with a group of about 25 volunteers visiting a tourist area in Jamaica in 1974 when she disappeared. Her body was found floating in the water near a small waterfall.
Peace Corps records conclude she "slipped on rocks while crossing cascade."
"No one saw her fall, so no one knows exactly what happened," said Richard Follstad, who was with the group of volunteers that day.
Follstad believes Bahler likely fell, but when asked if he would rule out assault, he said, "No. Jamaica is a violent country." A volunteer who was a friend of his was raped the same year, Follstad said, and once he had to use a tire iron to ward off a man threatening him with a machete at a gas station.
In a written response, the Peace Corps says it has no additional records on Bahler's death.
Twenty days after Bahler’s death, a 24-year-old volunteer died in Afghanistan, and the explanation by the Peace Corps was nearly identical.
Denise Blake of Greencastle, Pa., had gone fishing with her husband, also a volunteer, and according to the Peace Corps, she "slipped on rocks into rapids while fishing."
Her husband, John Blake, said he was 50 feet from her and didn't see her fall in. A cook fishing with them was even closer to her, but Blake said he never got a chance to talk to the cook. Blake was taken out of the area the same day and out of the country within 48 hours, he said.
Denise Blake's family, according to Peace Corps records, questioned the official explanation.
The deaths of Bahler and Blake, like the deaths of other volunteers, were not thoroughly investigated by local police.
Blake said he was never interviewed by police about the circumstances of his wife's death, and Follstad said he doesn't recall police questioning any of the 20 to 30 volunteers who were on the scene when Bahler disappeared.
A written response from the Peace Corps says: "Local authorities in country are in charge of and report any official causes, details or other facts they believe to be true. Peace Corps uses the details provided to them for analysis purposes and to look for ways to prevent future deaths."
Amy Livingston of Santa Fe, N.M., holds a photo of her late mother, Elizabeth Livingston. Elizabeth was a Peace Corps volunteer who died in an apparent hiking accident in Costa Rica. Photo: Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
The family of 48-year-old Elizabeth Livingston of Taos, N.M., whose body was found under a ledge after she went hiking alone in Costa Rica in 1997, believes her death was an accident, just as the Peace Corps told them. But even the police can't be positive. Her body wasn't found until more than a week after she disappeared in a remote area, and it might never have been found had her ex-husband not gone to Costa Rica from New Mexico and reinvigorated the search.
The Peace Corps says in a written response: "There was nothing in the file that would suggest anything other than an accidental fall."
Local newspapers noted that the area where she went hiking was known as the "Triangle of Death" because seven females — one of them a 5-year-old child — were murdered 11 years earlier. Police kept open the possibility that Livingston, too, was murdered.
"We could never be 100 percent (sure) because of the faraway possibility that somebody pushed her is still there," said Adrian Coto, one of the national police investigators assigned to the case. "The mountains and the woods were the only witness we knew of."
VOLUNTEERS' OVERDOSES KEPT QUIET
In 2001, two Peace Corps volunteers died of drug overdoses four months apart, records show.
News of two drug overdose deaths that close together might have raised alarms, especially since the Peace Corps is responsible for the health and safety of approximately 7,000 Americans — many of them young and in a foreign country for the first time.
But details of the deaths were never fully disclosed to the public or to Peace Corps volunteers.
As of last week, the Peace Corps' official Web site stated that the cause of 27-year-old Carlos Amador's death in El Salvador on March 4, 2001, is "still undetermined."
An April 25, 2001, official autopsy report obtained in El Salvador by the Daily News said that Amador had taken "large doses" of valium, which caused his death. Raul Osvaldo Arpas, the district attorney for the area, also said the cause was an overdose of valium.
Amador's girlfriend, Judith Hidalgo, said during an interview in San Salvador that she had seen him take the drug. The Peace Corps, she said, rarely checked on Amador, who planted trees as a forestry volunteer.
"They just called him to let him know there was a conference," Hidalgo said. "To me, the Peace Corps should be more attentive, checking on volunteers to see if they need something."
Two volunteers said they and other volunteers were aware Amador was abusing drugs, and the Peace Corps country director said volunteers came to him after Amador's death upset that they didn't intervene earlier.
Several volunteers said the Peace Corps didn't tell them that Amador had died of a drug overdose.
"They told us they couldn't tell us what happened but that he was found in his home dead and that violence was not suspected," said Bethany Scheppers of Platteville, Wis., who served in El Salvador from January to June 2001.
Samuel Crane of St. Petersburg, Fla., who served in El Salvador from January to October 2001, recalled that the Peace Corps tried to convince volunteers that the cause of Amador's death was a prescription medication error, even warning volunteers to be careful when they used pharmacies there.
Mike Wise, the Peace Corps country director in El Salvador, said he wasn't aware of the autopsy ruling, made April 25, 2001, but that he knew an empty container of valium was found in Amador's room.
"After the night I attended the autopsy and had my initial discussions with the pathologist and learned that valium had been found — an empty valium container had been found in Carlos' room — yes, I equivocated in what I told volunteers because we weren't sure that that was the cause," Wise said during an interview in his San Salvador office.
"Obviously, he was in strict violation of Peace Corps policies," Wise said. "Volunteers are not allowed to buy aspirin on the local market, birth control pills, nothing. We give them absolutely everything."
Amador's father, Carlos M. Amador Sr., questioned the findings by authorities in El Salvador that his son died of a drug overdose, and he said he was working to have the official record changed.
"We have evidence that the handling of the sampling around Carlos' forensic testing was not done right," the father said.
Wyatt Pillsbury (center with beard) was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. The 23-year-old died of an overdose of drugs and alcohol in Tanzania in 2001, but the Peace Corps' public Web site says he died of 'asphyxiation due to the aspiration of undigested food which was lodged in his throat.'
Four months after Amador's death, Wyatt Simeon Pillsbury, 23, of Unity, Maine, died in a hotel while on vacation in Tanzania.
Records obtained from the Peace Corps inspector general show that Pillsbury, who taught environmental education in his village, died "following a two-day binge involving alcohol and drugs." The reports state that Pillsbury died from a combination of alcohol, heroin and marijuana use.
Pillsbury was accepted as a volunteer despite having three criminal complaints on his record, two of them alcohol-related and the latest a 1999 arrest for drunken driving.
He also had a history of drug problems, Peace Corps records show.
His mother, Rosemary Pillsbury, said her son was well-liked among villagers and volunteers, but he was frustrated because his initial request for money to build a library was rejected.
The Peace Corps' official Web site says Pillsbury died "in his sleep from asphyxiation due to the aspiration of undigested food which was lodged in his throat."
A written Peace Corps response says that "most often" there's no need to update press releases since the purpose is to note the death.
MOTHER: 'WHY WOULDN'T THEY TELL ME THE TRUTH?'
The body of 25-year-old Jerry Dean Bryan of Spokane, Wash., was found in 1978 lying on the floor of his room in Brazil, a syringe containing blood lying beneath him.
Bryan, who had medical training in the Army and was assigned to work in a hospital in Brazil, had a history of depression and heavy alcohol use. Peace Corps records obtained after the Daily News filed a federal lawsuit against the agency state that Bryan died of an overdose of barbiturates.
Bryan's mother said she was not told how her son died.
"All they said was that it was undetermined what the cause of death was," said Darleen Pinckney, who now lives in Page, Ariz. "Why wouldn't they tell me the truth?"
Records show that the State Department didn't want the public to know the truth, either.
The reports said Bryan was "known to be frequent heavy drinker, lived alone. Hospital colleagues admitted vials of distilled water and barbiturates disappeared often from hospital stocks. Used vials found more than once in Peace Corps volunteer's dirty hospital clothes. . . . These personal aspects can be kept private. . . . Should not reveal full story."
Records show that 27-year-old Christine M. Thompson of Woodbridge, Conn., died in 1978 of an undetermined cause after attempting suicide with aspirin in Ecuador.
"They just told me she had a massive stroke," said Edwina Thompson, Christine's mother. "They never told me of any attempted suicide."
Paul Spratt, 34, allegedly died in a hotel room fire in Zaire, where he had been smoking and drinking in bed, according to Peace Corps records. At the time, records show, Spratt was being terminated and was to be sent back to the United States to face charges of embezzling $27,000 in university funds.
A State Department telegram marked "confidential" said, "Please advise whether Peace Corps Zaire has informed local authorities we had reason to believe Peace Corps volunteer Spratt may have been considering suicide."
Spratt was alive but unconscious when the fire began, and blood tests were conducted to determine why he was unconscious, according to the records. The test results did not appear to be part of the records released by Peace Corps, though several of the records were unreadable.
The death was called an accident.
"Basically, all we heard was that he died in bed in the Peace Corps," said Spratt's sister-in-law, Helen Spratt of Blackstone, Mass., adding that the family was not told about the embezzling or the suspicion of suicide.
The remains were never sent to the family, she said.
"We always kind of wondered if we were told straight goods or not, and I guess in the back of our minds maybe we thought smoking in bed was a little too convenient," she said.
Edwina Thompson believes the Peace Corps didn't tell her the truth because the agency didn't want negative publicity.
The Peace Corps, Thompson said, didn't tell her about records saying her daughter had attempted suicide, which she became aware of through the Daily News. The agency also didn't tell the family that Christine had been using psychedelic mushrooms, she said.
Thompson said she overheard a doctor talk about the mushrooms, and later her daughter told her during the brief periods when she came out of a coma.
A written statement from Peace Corps says its records do not indicate Thompson was "experimenting with mushrooms or any other potential drug," adding that the agency has a "zero tolerance" policy for drug use by volunteers.
Thompson's daughter was flown from Ecuador to Miami, where she was bedridden at a hospital for three months before she died.
"She ate the mushrooms, and that's what probably killed her," Thompson said. "Yes, I think it was their obligation to tell me that, and it was their obligation to say that she had tried to kill herself.
"That's hard to tell a parent, I know, but I think they should have said something to me. I guess they just didn't want a blemish on their record."
Christine Willmsen and Peter Chase contributed to this story. Christine Willmsen is a former Dayton Daily News reporter.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.29.2003]
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