Will the mole wars never end?
Nearly two decades after his murder on a quiet road outside Tbilisi, Georgia, the late Central Intelligence Agency officer Freddie Woodruff is finally getting the full investigation he deserved.
Georgia's Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani said over the weekend that "the case has not been properly investigated" and that "we have some serious doubts about what really happened."?
Tsulukiani, along with Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, are supporting a new investigation into Woodruff's 1993 murder, according to The New York Times' Andrew Higgins
As it happens, I've been studying this case for a long time.
The case?has been swirling in conspiracy theories ever since Georgian police quickly arrested and convicted a "drunken Georgian, a former Soviet solder," by the name of Anzor Sharmaidze, who was said to have fired at a car Woodruff was riding in after it failed to stop and help the soldier with his disabled vehicle on the dark and dusty road.
Fueling the conspiracy theories was the fact that at the wheel of Woodruff's car was Eldar Gogoladze a veteran former Soviet KGB officer who at the time was top bodyguard to the then-prime minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, himself a top former Soviet official.
By some accounts, Woodruff, the CIA's station chief, was investigating the role of top Georgian officials in the Black Sea region's legendary heroin trade.
One theory that quickly arose was that Aldrich Ames, the infamous traitor who betrayed at least ten CIA moles inside the Soviet Union before he was uncovered, had a hand in Woodruff's murder.
Ames, now serving a life sentence, had visited Georgia shortly before Woodruff's murder. But Sandy Grimes, a leader of the CIA team that unmasked Ames, makes no connection between Ames and Woodruff in "Circle of Treason
," her exhaustive recent book on the mole hunt (co-authored with the late Jean Vertefeuille).
In any event, the former Soviet soldier Sharmaidze?was quietly released from prison in 2008 after some witnesses stated they were tortured into implicating him.?
That was old news to Michael Pullara, a Houston trial lawyer familiar with Georgia, who decided on his own to look into Woodruff's death as soon as he read about it.
"When I read about Freddie's death in the New York Times it jumped off the page at me and hence I became to be interested in it," Pullara told me in an interview back in 2007. "As time went by, I had done a little bit of an initial investigation because it seemed such an odd story. I've traveled a lot in the former Soviet Union and middle Europe and Eastern Europe, I spent about nine months over there immediately after the [Berlin] wall came down, and the story of a makeshift roadblock in the middle of Georgia with a single car racing down and someone tossing a shot and killing someone was extraordinary. And then, the idea that within 12 hours the police had identified the murderer and arrested him in the middle of two civil wars was even more extraordinary. And so, I sort of kept it in the back of my mind, and ultimately decided sort of as a quiet service to the family I would see if I could learn a little bit about what actually happened to Freddie and share it with the family just as a gift to them."
Pullara told the Times he is "absolutely delighted" by Georgia's decision to revisit the case.
"The whole theory of the crime for which Anzor Sharmaidze was prosecuted was that he had shot at the car when it was driving away from him and that the bullet had entered just above the glass behind the hatchback and the windows were all closed on the car except for the front left window. Well, the FBI inspected the car about 12 -14 hours afterwards and there were no bullet holes in it. Five days later there was a bullet hole."
This may have been because the government "badly needed to find someone" to name in the case, as the current Georgia Justice Minister, Tea Tsulukiani, told the Times's Higgins over the weekend.?The assassination apparently "severely embarrassed Georgia's leader at the time, Eduard A. Shevardnadze'" Higgins wrote, "and raised concerns in Washington about his grip on the country."
Pullara filed layers of FOIA requests on the case, traveled to Georgia to re-investigate it first hand, and came up with the same answer that Georgia's new government now seems willing to accept. Sharmaidze was framed.
"I got a sworn statement from the former minister of internal security who was in that position at the time of Freddie's murder that the police had planted physical evidence for FBI consumption and then used that in the trial to convict Sharmaidze," Pullara told me in 2007.
"The man [who told me] was Eldar Gogoladze. He said the police had planted the spent cartridge or brass from an AK-74 in order to convince the FBI that Sharmaidze had fired the gun. They had done a reenactment for the FBI and during the process of the enactment had said, 'Oh, look what we found.'"
The conclusion of the FBI that Woodruff had been shot in the back of the head as his car sped off was implausible, he said. The rear window was intact when they examined it.
Ridiculous he said.
"I know who did the murder," he says. "The murder was ordered."
"Who fired the shot?" I asked.
"The shot was fired by a hired assassin. A man who was hired by the Russians, a former Spetnaz" [Soviet special forces soldier]. He was not sure of the name.
Woodruff was killed not just because he was looking into high level Georgian and Russian involvement in narcotics, Pullara said after four years investigating the case, but as a warning to the U.S. not to use Georgia as a platform for fomenting unrest in former Soviet breakaway republics.
"The Russians killed him because the Americans were turning Georgia into their own private Cuba," Pullara told me. "And that's exactly what it was, a warning shot: This is ours, and stay away.
A U.S. government security official with first-hand knowledge of the case threw cold water on Pullara's theory.
The bullet reached Woodruff through the rubber gasket around the window, he said on terms of anonymity because "I don't want a bunch of lawyers hounding me about ghosts -- and stories that should be laid to rest."
"The bullet caught Freddie just barley, but enough to kill him--because of the type of frangible/tumbling round--in the top back of the head," the official told me in 2007.
Freddie Woodruff (died August 8, 1993) was a regional affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Tbilsi, Georgia. He was shot in the head and killed in 1993. Woodruff has been widely reported as the Central Intelligence Agency station chief involved in training the bodyguards of the Georgian leader Eduard Shevardnadze. | Photo: |
"Freddie was over six feet tall.? The vehicle they were in was a Niva, which is a very small SUV two-door four-passenger hatchback.? Interestingly, based on the FBI forensic investigation afterward, no glass was broken.? The round entered through the rubber gasket of the hatchback and when it penetrated the metal of the vehicle it's trajectory changed slightly to a downward one.? All the splatter patterns and fragmentation evidence validated this one (and only one total) shot as the one that killed Freddie.? Had the bullet not angled down slightly, or had Freddie been shorter, he might be alive today.?You could not have planned this freak shot if you had wanted to. Nor would you ever be able to repeat it without hundreds of attempts. And you'd still need some luck.?
"In other words," the official said, "it was not staged, not planned, and simply a case of wrong place wrong time."?
The Georgian government seems to feel differently now. Then again, it now has plenty of motivation to implicate former Georgia officials, not to mention the Russians, in Woodruff's death. They've been in a hot and cold war since before Russia's 2008 invasion.
Pullara is not fazed. Despite the passage of so many years, he told the Times, "a lot of the missing pieces have now been found and it is possible to know the truth."
Maybe, maybe not. The murder of spies tends to remain a mystery.
SpyTalk writer Sally Farrington contributed to this piece.