North Carolina conman Jonathan Idema dies at 55.
Jonathan Keith "Jack" Idema, the con man extraordinaire from Fayetteville who spent years in an Afghan prison for running a private jail and torture chamber while claiming to be a secret Pentagon operative, has died in Mexico.
His death at age 55 marks the end of perhaps the most colorful, unpleasant and self-dramatizing character to tread North Carolina soil since Blackbeard.
Idema was a former soldier who reinvented himself repeatedly as he ran cons from Fayetteville to Uzbekistan. At various times he claimed to be a businessman, author, "superpatriot" terrorist hunter, drug and gun smuggler, bodyguard, security consultant, CIA paramilitary operator, Pentagon-backed special operator and, finally, charter boat captain.
The cause of death was complications from AIDS, according to local newspaper reports in Mexico and former girlfriend Penny Alessi, who was in contact with him until days before his death.
He apparently succumbed several days ago, and a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington confirmed his death Wednesday. A consulate official in Merida, Mexico, said the office was being careful about announcing the news because they'd had trouble confirming his identity.
They are hardly the first.
Idema was born and raised in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and enlisted in the Army after high school. He served with the Special Forces from 1975 to 1978, according to his military record, and was then discharged from active duty.
He eventually went into the paintball equipment business in Fayetteville and began selling military-style clothing.
In 1994, he was convicted of fraud in U.S. District Court for using a shell company to bilk suppliers of items valued at more than $200,000.
He served four years in prison, and there started a lasting pattern: He claimed that he had been set up by a government agency, this time the FBI.
According to records, he was charged with more than three dozen other crimes in North Carolina, among them assault on a female, assault with a deadly weapon, passing worthless checks, assault by pointing a gun, and reckless driving.
Until his death, he was still wanted in Wake County for impersonating a law enforcement officer during a 2004 traffic stop.
In late 2001, he popped up in Afghanistan, claiming to be, variously, a humanitarian aid worker, CIA operative and hired adviser to the Northern Alliance forces, which fought with U.S. troops against the Taliban.
Idema conned one Afghan warlord into believing that he was training some of the warlord's men on behalf of the U.S. government, then instead rented their services to journalists who needed security details.
Several journalists were taken in by his offers of information and security, and he successfully used his fake covert-operator act to woo at least a few female journalists, said Robert Young Pelton, author of "Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror." The book includes a chapter on Idema that plays almost like comic relief amidst tales of real mercenaries and clandestine operators.
Eventually his play-acting in Afghanistan took a more serious turn than just hoodwinking Dan Rather or foisting a fake Taliban training video onto cable news producers.
At some point, he and a rag-tag band of followers he dubbed Task Force Saber 7 began kidnapping innocent Afghan "terror suspects" and torturing them, ostensibly to find the location of Osama bin Laden and other terrorist leaders.
In 2004, Afghan authorities arrested Idema and two American accomplices, Brent Bennett, another former soldier from Fayetteville, and Ed Caraballo, a freelance videographer.
In an Afghan court, Idema claimed that he had been operating with the support and knowledge of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and other American officials.
U.S. and Afghan officials repeatedly said he had been operating on his own.
The trio were convicted of kidnapping and torture, and they were sent to Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul.
It's one of the most notorious prisons in the world because of the dangerous inmates and harsh conditions. Idema, though, somehow managed to land in an apartment-style cell with luxurious carpets, satellite television and a private bathroom and dining area. He had a pet dog, a phone, and access to the Internet, which he used to make more mischief, tormenting his enemies and threatening legal action.
He was supposed to serve 10 years, but President Hamid Karzai commuted his sentence in 2007.
Idema had collected a handful of supporters in the United States, and one, an attorney, sued the federal government, accusing the State Department and FBI of gaming the Afghan judicial and prison systems to get Idema convicted and tortured.
It was just one of many lawsuits filed by Idema or on his behalf.
Idema sued CBS. He sued Steven Spielberg's studio, claiming a movie was an unauthorized version of his story. He sued people with whom he stored the remnants of his military gear company.
He sued enemies, he threatened friends. At one point, he even sued his own father, who is now dead.
When he got out of the Afghan prison, Idema still had warrants out for his arrest in North Carolina and also feared shadowy federal charges if he was caught in the United States. Instead of coming home, said Alessi, his former girlfriend, he went to Dubai, where he began trying to pull together a drug and arms smuggling operation. Then he moved to Mexico.
There, he settled in a Middle East-turreted house and began running a charter boat for tourists.
Idema reinvented himself not only repeatedly but well, Pelton said.
And much of the Idema story would be funny if only he hadn't left a trail of damaged lives as he scammed his way around the world, Pelton said.
"He would meet somebody that he needed, or wanted to be like, like (author) Robin Moore, then absorb all their mannerisms, words and the way they dressed," he said.
It worked in part because he was highly intelligent, Pelton said. Few con artists could worm their way into helping Moore, the author of "The Green Berets," write a book.
And few could come up with such strong legal arguments for so many spurious causes, he said.
Indeed, Alessi said, Idema wrote nearly all of the legal filings that he was involved with.
"I know because I sat there and watched him," she said. "Then the lawyers would just sign off on them."
Alessi said that Idema's problems went beyond criminality, that he had to be mentally ill because he seemed to believe his own made-up stories.
"At one point, I was talking with him on the phone, and he was said he didn't have AIDS, that it was impossible because he had 'superblood,' " she said. "He told the same stories again and again, and even if he was drunk and stoned out of his mind, the details were always exactly the same because he really believed these things, even that 'superblood' stuff."
When he got to Mexico, Alessi, who had begun corresponding with Idema online while he was locked in the Afghan prison, began spending time with him in the turreted house.
In his last few years, she said, as he began to fall apart from the effects of his illness and epic drug and alcohol use, his extraordinary skills got scrambled and he couldn't stick to just one fake persona.
For the public, he played the daytime role of a tour boat operator known as "Captain Black Jack," modeled after the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie character played by Johnny Depp.
At home, Idema lounged in Arab robes, a cut-rate Lawrence of Arabia. A pirate flag wafted from house's minaret-like turret.
He would often go on round-the-clock vodka- and cocaine-fueled binges while playing Arab music, the sound track of "Apocalypse Now" or Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" nonstop, Alessi said.
To the end, one of Idema's biggest fears was not being taken seriously. In late 2010, after The News & Observer ran a story that dubbed him "a walking parody of U.S. foreign policy," a reporter reached Idema on his cell phone. The often charming sociopath loosed a fusillade of active verb-laden profanity and threats.
"I'll come up there and put a bullet in your head," he concluded. "You've got no idea who you are (messing) with."
Which was true.
It will probably always be unclear who, exactly, Jonathan Keith Idema really was.
"The question," Pelton said, "is who that one person is who he actually told the truth to?
"Was there even one?"