October 30, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Who killed Gabon PCV Karen Phillips? (Part 2)
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October 30, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Who killed Gabon PCV Karen Phillips? (Part 1) :
October 30, 2003 - Dayton Daily News: Who killed Gabon PCV Karen Phillips? (Part 2)
| July 8, 2005: PC suspends program in Gabon|
Peace Corps announced the suspension of the program in Gabon citing the high cost of the program. In addition, a 2003 Inspector General report documented safety and security costs of $1 million that would be necessary to keep the program operating successfully. Background: In 1998 Peace Corps Volunteer Karen Phillips was was found murdered in the weeds about 100 yards from her home in Oyem, Gabon. Her killer has never been brought to justice.
Who killed Gabon PCV Karen Phillips? (Part 2)
Jimmy Ondo kisses his mother in her home in Oyem, Gabon. Ondo became the lead suspect in Karen Phillips' murder about five days after her death. He was charged in her murder, but was aquitted. The verdict was overturned and the investigation reopened in December 2002. Photo: Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
Read and comment on this story from the Dayton Daily News about Gabon Peace Corps Volunteer Karen Phillips who was found in the weeds about 100 yards from her home the morning of December 17, 1998. She had been stabbed in the eye and was left naked, clutching her underwear.
The Peace Corps says its first priority is keeping volunteers safe. Yet during the decade before Phillips’ death, volunteers said the agency often sent female volunteers to remote or dangerous areas without secure housing, despite warnings that it wasn't safe. Even after Phillips was murdered, volunteers said the agency was slow to make changes. Read the story at:
It was the first time a volunteer had been murdered in the agency’s approximately 34 years in this lush, French-speaking country in central Africa. A botched investigation, involving an eccentric former rock star in Gabon, may have all but assured that her killer will never be found.
Since the early 1990s, female volunteers repeatedly warned the Peace Corps about security problems in the city of Oyem and other areas throughout Gabon. "They've had trouble long before my daughter was sent there," said her father, Richard Phillips of Windber, Pa. "Then they put my daughter in a house down there by herself."
INVESTIGATION FOCUSES ON FORMER ROCK STAR*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
INVESTIGATION FOCUSES ON FORMER ROCK STAR
Herbert "Jimmy" Ondo, decked out Miami Vice style in an all-white shirt, pants and blazer, strutted through the Oyem marketplace where he rents space to vendors selling spices, dried fish, African music tapes and flip-flops.
A former rock star in Gabon who renamed himself after Jimi Hendrix, Ondo was the number one murder suspect in the Phillips case.
Her ex-boyfriend, Mba Eyi Mathurin, who said he was working the night Phillips was killed, was released.
Ondo, a member of a powerful clan that owns many businesses and holds several high political offices in Gabon, said he was a "scapegoat" of the Gabonese and American governments. In a February interview with the Dayton Daily News in his office above the market, he insisted he didn't know Phillips, though he played guitar and sang Hey Joe at Peace Corps functions through the years and hosted parties for volunteers at his family’s vast compound.
"I’m famous," said Ondo in perfect English, touched with a 1970s jive accent. He wore his signature wig — almost a short mullet — a shirt open past the third button and a heavy gold crucifix. "I was once a star in Gabon. They used my name to hurt my family."
The case against Ondo seemed doomed from the start, plagued by political controversy, corruption, conflicting testimony and flawed evidence. The prospect of justice was shaky, volunteers said, in a place where police regularly take bribes and competing rumors become truth.
The U.S. government and Peace Corps officials, citing jurisdictional limitations, said they could only monitor the case, offer some assistance and try to apply diplomatic pressure.
"There are issues under foreign law, and Peace Corps doesn’t have any jurisdiction to take action independently," said Peace Corps attorney H. David Kotz. "We rely on local law enforcement officials."
Ondo’s eccentricity had been a source of amusement and an avenue to friendship with volunteers, several said.
The son of a diplomat, Ondo, 50, had lived in Germany, Israel, Denmark and even attended international school in New York City for four years. He claims to have been Donna Summer’s boyfriend when she recorded Love to Love You, Baby.
Former volunteer Jennifer Schimmel described him as a "caricature of James Brown." To many, he seemed odd, not dangerous. But some Oyem residents and police said Ondo also has a moody and violent side and is the head of a local crime organization.
Ondo became the lead suspect in Phillips’ murder about five days after her death. A man named Ndoutoume Nzue Thierry, nicknamed "Rambo," told police that Ondo and his cousin, Jean Clˇment Mintsa, forced Phillips into a car. Police identified Thierry as the drunk man who approached Phillips and her friends in the bar the night she died.
But Thierry abruptly changed his story after demonstrators converged on the Oyem jail where Ondo and Mintsa were being questioned. On Dec. 24, two days after implicating Ondo in Phillips’ murder, Thierry said Phillips fell on a rock while they had consensual sex. On Dec. 30, Thierry told police he attacked and stabbed her with a nail clipper. In February 1999, Thierry accused Ondo again.
This time Ondo was charged with murder. Mintsa and Thierry were also charged in connection with the killing.
The Peace Corps said it requested assistance from the Justice Department March 11, almost three months after the murder. The U.S. government then hired a local lawyer, who had previously represented Ondo, to monitor the case. In 1983, Zassi Mikala successfully defended Ondo against murder charges after he was accused of killing his French brother-in-law.
The Peace Corps, in a written response, says the Justice Department knew Mikala had represented Ondo, and was satisfied that he was the "best available" attorney and that his past association with the suspect "would not compromise his ability to represent the U.S. government and the victim's interests effectively."
Police never identified the murder weapon in Phillips' case. Test results on spots appearing to be blood that were found on the carpet of Ondo’s car were inconclusive.
Peace Corps documents say Phillips was found bruised and naked, holding the left side of her underwear. The Peace Corps says "no evidence of rape" was reported to the agency. DNA samples from the suspects were compared to fluid found in her body, but the samples did not immediately reach the lab, law enforcement officials said. Then, the results disappeared a few months before the trial was to start.
Mikala, the Justice Department's lawyer, told U.S. officials that the results were stolen "by an Ondo operative" and could not be used as evidence, according to a March 2000 telegram reviewing the case for officials in Washington, D.C.
The results purporting to be the stolen evidence were recovered in time to be admitted into the June 2000 trial. In the end, the DNA of Ondo, Mintsa and Thierry did not match the DNA found on Phillips’ body.
Ondo claimed in court that he did not know Phillips, contradicting his Dec. 22, 1998, statement to police that he knew her but hadn’t seen her in more than a month.
"Karen never came to my house," he told police. "I invited her out once, but we went to my cousin’s bar. Karen was going out with riff-raff, ex-cons."
In prison he made memorials to her out of discarded cigarette boxes.
Ondo told the Dayton Daily News he was in his family compound the night she was killed and insisted he didn’t know her.
"If I would have been Karen’s friend she would have been alive today," he said. "Nobody would have touched her."
Former Peace Corps trainer Karl Rosenberg, who used to be friends with Ondo, doesn’t believe his story.
"This notion that he didn’t know her is absolutely not true," he said.
Rosenberg said Phillips told him that Ondo "makes a habit of coming around the house, without letting anybody know he’s coming around the house," and brings beer and wants to play guitar, he said. Ondo did the same when Rosenberg lived in the same house as a volunteer three years earlier, he said.
Phillips asked Rosenberg if she was safe around Ondo, he said. Rosenberg said he told her he never had problems with Ondo, but advised: "I don’t think I’d have him come around, especially by yourself."
Residents of Oyem, Gabon, walk the market controlled by Jimmy Ondo and his politically powered family. Photo: Chris Stewart Dayton Daily News
Volunteers said the way Ondo talked about Phillips after she died made them suspicious. He told them Phillips had been sleeping around, which they said was not true. They also said members of the Ondo family threatened some volunteers when they returned to Oyem to clear out their belongings.
Ondo said the volunteers have it wrong.
"The whole damn thing about Jimmy Ondo, it’s all a lie," he said.
A jury believed him. On June 24, 2000, Ondo, Mintsa and Thierry were acquitted.
SECURITY CONCERNS PLAGUE VOLUNTEERS
The Peace Corps immediately abandoned Oyem and Woleu-Ntem province after Phillips’ murder, moving volunteers to other villages and cities.
But volunteers, more nervous than ever about their safety, said they got the same slow response from the agency when they asked for more secure housing.
Lynne Kraskouskas, one of the last Americans to see Phillips alive, had to use a stick to hold her door shut in a village outside Makokou. One night, a drunk man stood outside her home and mumbled about wanting to get to know her. Afterward, she noticed items missing from her home. She said she reported the robbery to a Peace Corps administrator and told him she was "not comfortable in this place."
"He said, and this is like a direct quote, ‘Just do whatever you need to do,’ ” Kraskouskas said.
Someone tried to break into the home of Jennifer Schimmel in Bitam during a heavy rainstorm — a notorious time for burglaries in Gabon because the sound of rain pounding on tin roofs covers any noise made by intruders. Schimmel found a family to live with on her own after the incident.
Alison Stewart said she had to raise a "big stink" to get bars installed on her home in Cocoa Beach on the western coast.
New trainees who arrived in Gabon immediately after Phillips' death were not told much about the case, volunteers said.
Volunteers blamed constant staff turnover, focus on Phillips' murder, mismanagement and a lack of communication between the staff in Libreville and volunteers in the field for the uneven handling of security. Directors and staff came and went and forgot about incidents. Since 1998, five country directors have served there, three within the two years after Phillips’ death.
In 2000 the Peace Corps inspector general found rampant financial mismanagement, including staff using money for personal expenses.
"Because record-keeping at the post was so poor, it is difficult to determine how the funds were used," a report said.
The Peace Corps "just kept trying the same things over and over even though they just hadn’t worked in the past," Kraskouskas said. "They never learned from past experiences. Everyone had good intentions, but there was no follow-through."
Phillips’ murder did motivate one group to act: former Gabon volunteers.
Schuler, who recommended six years before Phillips died that women should not be posted alone in Oyem, was outraged that volunteers still felt their safety concerns were being neglected.
From her home in San Francisco, Schuler helped organize a group of Gabon volunteers that documented some 40 attempted rapes, break-ins, death threats and other incidents between 1988 and 2000. The incidents, many of them not included in the Peace Corps’ own crime records, detailed a pattern of harassment and fear involving volunteers in Gabon.
In letters to the Peace Corps and Congress in 2001, the group proposed reforms in the agency’s approach to safety, including better incident reporting and a guarantee of safe housing.
Peter Loan, the Peace Corps' Acting Director from the African Region, wrote back, saying the agency had added security worldwide, and that staff members or other volunteers now visit at least two times prior to finalizing a site. The staff also accompanies volunteers to their posts, and was establishing mini-headquarters in two regions, with a phone and vehicle, where volunteers can go for help, he said.
In August 2001 the group wrote to the Peace Corps inspector general, complaining that several recently returned volunteers reported the same security problems.
Inspector General Charles Smith responded a month later.
"Safety and security of volunteers, trainees and staff is the agency’s first priority," he wrote. "We will pass on your perception that safety is not receiving adequate attention in Gabon and will keep your concern in mind as we assess the work we will undertake in the coming months."
The Peace Corps said in October it has increased its budget for security $2.5 million worldwide over the last 18 months and added security staff and intensified training.
FATHER STILL SEEKING JUSTICE
Karen Phillips loved the people she worked with in Africa. She was in Gabon to help farmers to better market their produce and teach English at a local school. 'Africans are kind, intelligent, amusing and warm people who are taking very good care of your Sister here in Gabon. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Ma dzing wah! (I love you all),' she wrote in a letter to her family.
A picture of Karen Phillips with her chin propped in her hand is mounted on a wall on the first floor of the Peace Corps office in Libreville. The building is about a quarter-mile downhill from Le Tribunal, the hulking courthouse where Richard Phillips sat aghast as the jury acquitted Ondo.
Here, on Dec. 9, 2002, the Gabonese Court of Appeals ruled that the verdict be put aside and the case re-investigated.
Upstairs, in her corner office with a panoramic view of Libreville, Pierrette Djouassa, attorney general for the court of appeals, promised that Gabonese law enforcement officials "won’t deal with it lightly."
"What really stops us is how to gather all the information since such a long time has passed," she said through a translator last February. "We are going to do what we can with what we have."
At the time, Djouassa said Gabon and the United States had just reached an agreement allowing the FBI to assist in the investigation, but eight months later investigators still have not arrived in Gabon.
Djouassa said she hoped that the FBI will provide technical assistance, and that its presence might prevent political corruption.
"Jimmy Ondo is from a very huge family who has big political importance," she said. "Tomorrow, if he’s found guilty or not, we don’t want to give people the impression that we have decided under the influence of the U.S. We want our work, the science, to speak for itself."
The Peace Corps, which once threatened to pull out of Gabon over the Phillips case, continues its work there, focusing on saving the country’s unique forests. The average number of volunteers here is expected to increase from 56 in 2001 to about 89 this year. The Peace Corps says it continues to monitor the investigation into Phillips' death.
Richard Phillips used to hear updates from the Peace Corps on his daughter’s case as often as five times a day. Now the information has trickled to almost nothing. Sometimes, during painful moments, he hides her letters or photos. He writes his letters now to President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
"I truly think that it is a disgrace, not only to our family but to the government, the presidency and the Peace Corps" that his daughter’s murder is unsolved, Richard Phillips said.
"I will never let up in my effort to see that justice is done for Karen."
Peace Corps officials once told him that locals in Oyem were going to build a memorial near her home.
But there is no memorial. The weeds, cut down when his daughter was found, are as thick and as tall as ever.
Former Dayton Daily News reporter Christine Willmsen contributed to this story.
[From the Dayton Daily News: 10.30.2003]
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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Safety and Security of Volunteers; Investigative Journalism; COS - Gabon
By bankass.com (user-105n8o2.dialup.mindspring.com - 220.127.116.11) on Thursday, October 30, 2003 - 7:14 am: Edit Post|
I have been dealing with these issues for many years now. It often can be lonely work since people at Peace Corps and in the Congress are usually uninterested healing these issues.
They put these issues aside and people who are victims of these issues are cast aside.
I have learned its better to at least exchange information with people who have been through these issues, can be somewhat of a relief temporarily. In exchanging information with other volunteers, I have been getting alot more support and don't feel isloated in my issues related to safety.
I have been working with Congress to get Memorial Grave memorials for Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers for their hometown and at Peace Corps headquarters. There is a web site for Fallen Peace Corps Volunteers provided from a family of who lost their brother and son. At least keeping in touch may give you hope in Karen's Memory.
I look forward to your call in the future at 978-462-3868.
I ran a web site for Volunteers Bankass.com, I decided to remove it for the time being.
Just wondering if the Inger Christensen mentioned in the tragic Karen Phillips story is the same person who worked out on Martha's Vineyard back around 1990?
If so, I'd like to get in touch with her...