The Death of Father Kaiser

Was it a Kenyan assassin who killed the Minnesota-reared missionary—or was it madness? Seven years later, the verdict is in.

In the autumn of 1999, the Kenyan government found a perfect excuse to expel Kaiser from the country: He had neglected to renew his work visa. But Kaiser went into hiding, moving from place to place—including a convent, where Vos says the nuns lied to protect him. The church and the U.S. State Department intervened, and the Kenyan government issued Kaiser another visa.

But why didn't he take the opportunity to leave Kenya while he still could and save his own life? "He was afraid to come home," Dasteel says. "He was afraid he wouldn't be able to get back into the country." Besides, he had spent more than half his life in Kenya; he was more African now than American. "He was happiest in Kenya," says Weaver.

Dasteel believes that Kaiser martyred himself to save Kenya. Although the two girls succumbed to government pressure and dropped the rape charges against Sunkuli, the case damaged Sunkuli's reputation enough that he lost the 2002 presidential election.

"If Johnny hadn't done what he did," Dasteel says, "Sunkuli would have succeeded Moi and the corruption would still be going on. He didn't want to die. He loved life. But I think he thought that maybe he could make a difference."

 

Three days before he died, Father Kaiser traveled to Nairobi at the summons of the papal nuncio, or representative of the pope. Kaiser was afraid that the church was about to order him to leave Kenya, and he wept as he recited his last Mass in Lolgorien. To the other priests who saw him in Nairobi, Kaiser appeared to be on edge. His moods changed abruptly and he wasn't sleeping.

"They said he was paranoid," says Weaver. "Well, he was beaten and attacked and his house was ransacked. They said he wasn't sleeping. Well, yeah. He had rocks thrown through his window. Of course he was paranoid. He knew he was skating on thin ice. In that report, there was not one comment or statement by anyone who remotely knew him."

Mahoney says Kaiser's mood swings could be easily explained: "John thought the nuncio was going to send him home because he was going to get himself killed. Instead the nuncio asked him for advice about who should be the next bishop in the Ngong diocese. He wanted advice from someone the people respected. John was delighted."

Kaiser left Nairobi for Lolgorien the evening of August 23, 2000. Only a few hours of daylight remained. The Nakuru police commander Andrew Kimetto described Kaiser's final hours to The Nation, based on crime-scene evidence. Kaiser's truck was hijacked and driven off the main road into the forest. He was pulled from the truck and forced to kneel and say his final prayers. An assassin then shot him in the back of the head. The killers drove the truck back to the Naivasha-Nakuru Highway, dumped his body in the ditch, and disappeared.

 

A month after Kaiser's death, FBI agents traveled to Kenya to interview the Naivasha police and the coroner who performed the autopsy. Their final report relied most heavily on the opinion of Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a gunshot expert in Texas. Di Maio, though, did not examine the body, and, of the many photographs available, none showed a clear view of the head wound. Also, the FBI's "behavioral analysis unit," which deemed Kaiser suicidal, had never met him and only reviewed his medical history, which they conceded was incomplete.

"I'm not severely critical of the FBI," Mahoney says, "but I wouldn't recommend those investigators for anything."

Kaiser's family and friends are convinced the investigation was a sham. "Someone else was calling the shots," Durenberger says. That someone else, he believes, was the U.S. State Department.

In early 2001, the U.S. was preparing for the possibility of war with Iran. On the Indian Ocean, the Kenyan harbor of Mombassa would be a strategic location to hold ships and aircraft carriers. "I am convinced that a deal was made between the U.S. government and the Kenyan government," Bishop Cornelius Schilders writes. "The price for the use of the harbor was John Kaiser and the explanation of his suicide."

Durenberger used his connections to get in touch with Carson. "I asked what the State Department was going to do. He said, 'Nothing.' He wasn't going to rock the boat. It ticked me off. Till the day I die, I am going to believe that my Department of State and my Department of Justice played a role in the decision to cover up for the people responsible for John's death."

Father Tony Chantry, the general superior of Mill Hill, offers a more blunt assessment: "The FBI colluded with corrupt members of the Kenyan government."

The Catholic Church and then-Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone both condemned the report and began pressuring the governments of Kenya and the United States to launch an inquest into Kaiser's death. The Kenyan courts finally began the inquest in 2003, after Moi had been swept from power. It dragged on for more than four years, with frequent recesses and a change in the magistrate halfway through. Some 112 witnesses gave testimony. The magistrate called the FBI agents to the stand three times, but they never appeared or gave an explanation for their absence.

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