THE COLLAR AND THE GUN

Los Angeles Times

Feb. 08, 2009

Saving souls and burning bridges in Kenya

When a U.S. paratrooper-turned-priest could no longer remain silent about the suffering of his flock, he went after a brutal regime. He knew the risks -- but he was, after all, a crack shot.

First of three parts

By Christopher Goffard

LOLGORIEN, KENYA -- Wherever he went, the man of God carried his shotgun. Like its owner, the double-barreled 12-gauge was old and broken in places, dusty from miles of hard African road. He kept the splintered stock bound together with a length of black rubber, and he believed it might be his only protection, save for the good Lord and his American name, in a country that had never felt more dangerous.

By day he ventured deep into the savanna to visit the scattered churches of his vast parish. The shotgun rested on the seat of his Toyota pickup, beside his rosary beads and Mass kit. His faithful arrived from the hills, bright in their tribal wrappings, to hear him speak in Swahili of the risen Savior, to receive a wafer on the tongue.

His red-brick parish house sat at the edge of an immense valley rolling away toward the Serengeti Plain, and at night the shotgun stayed with him as he double-checked the locks and walked down the hallway toward his bare room. Stayed with him as he climbed into his narrow metal-frame bed and slept fitfully, hyenas cackling and whooping in the dark outside his window.

Stayed with him that morning in February 1999 when he fixed his Roman collar, climbed into his truck and drove for hours on bad roads that played havoc with his arthritic neck. Finally, he arrived at a plain-looking government building called Nakuru County Hall.

This was the setting for the Akiwumi Commission, a tribunal created to probe the causes of tribal clashes that had cost more than 1,000 lives across Kenya in recent years. Its real purpose, many suspected, was to conceal the government's central role in the violence.

He entered the crowded room, a broad-shouldered, long-limbed man with work-worn hands and thinning white hair. Three judges loomed from the bench in powdered wigs, a vestige of British colonial justice. He took a seat before a microphone at a scuffed table.

As he began to talk, his voice steady and composed, it was impossible to tell that he had been living in a state of terror for weeks, afraid that he'd never be allowed to speak, afraid that once he started, he'd never live to finish.

Nor would anyone have predicted that this obscure, deeply eccentric American churchman would become a national hero to Kenyans, his name a rallying cry.

Apart from his church and the tribes he had served during 35 years in a green, malarial patch of East Africa, few had heard of John Kaiser, a missionary and former U.S. Army paratrooper from Minnesota. He had not yet been delivered from his aching body and messy humanity to abstraction, a clean and perfect symbol.

--

He arrived in Kenya in December 1964, stepping off a boat into the harsh equatorial sunlight with an Army duffel bag under his arm. His missionary society, the London-based Mill Hill order, needed priests in Africa. He was 32 and just ordained.

Assigned to the fertile highlands of western Kenya, he built churches across the countryside, quick, crude structures of red earth and river-bottom sand. A stout 6-foot-2, the priest went up ladders with pockets stuffed with bricks and pulled roof beams after him by rope.

He learned to carry a bar of brown soap to patch cracks in his truck's engine, and he sat on a crate when the front seat fell apart. He learned to carry holy water in a Coke bottle, and when he forgot the communion wafers, he used a chapati, a doughy flatbread, to transform into the Savior's body.

He baptized and buried, heard confession in the shade of eucalyptus trees, watched AIDS and malaria carry away thousands. He chopped firewood for widows, built rough-hewn schools, waded swollen streams to reach the faithful. He administered the sacraments to a dying 18-year-old girl, who received them serenely, and he wrote, "At such times, I would not trade being a priest for any position."

He hauled bodies to ancestral burial plots deep in the brush, and prayed them into the earth.

The country, with its fierce light and impenetrable dark, its jumbo maize rows and seasons of starvation, was big enough to contain his clashing selves: the priest and the paratrooper, the healer and the hunter, the collar and the gun, the man of obedience who chafed at authority.

There had always been two John Kaisers, at times coexisting uneasily. Growing up on a Minnesota dirt farm, he lavished as much attention on the rifle sights in his war drawings as on the sheep's wool in a schoolhouse nativity scene.

During a peacetime stint with the 82nd Airborne at Ft. Bragg, N.C., he was the gung-ho soldier who mastered bayonet thrusts, leapt into the skies from a Flying Boxcar and knelt in the chapel wondering if he could take a life.

He was the jocular bush missionary who pumped every hand he could find and who retreated for hours to the solitude of the savanna.

He broke bones in motorcycle spills, survived typhoid and hepatitis and a roof beam crashing on his neck. A crack shot, he would vanish into the elephant grass with his shotgun, stalking wildebeests and impalas, wart hogs and zebras. He hacked up the meat with his ax and distributed it among the schools.

He whittled the stocks of his guns and made his own bullets. He shook in half-rounds to conserve gunpowder and to mute the noise when he hunted, in case a game warden was within earshot. Poaching had been outlawed since the late 1970s, but that was one of man's laws and therefore negotiable.

--

Kaiser chronicled his life in letters to friends and family, tallying the animals he had killed, writing home for a crossbow, describing close brushes with lions. The letters also recorded his disenchantment with President Daniel Arap Moi, a man he had once regarded as a "great Christian prince."

Moi took power in 1978, succeeding independence hero Jomo Kenyatta, a Kikuyu, the country's largest ethnic group. Moi came from the smaller, weaker Kalenjin tribe and had none of Kenyatta's magnetism.

Yet he would become one of the continent's longest-reigning dictators. Moi gutted judicial independence, outlawed opposition parties and held enemies in torture chambers, naked in fetid water.

Tribal territories had been scrambled under the British and later Kenyatta, and Moi exploited the long-simmering resentments. He made a practice of wholesale land-stealing, rewarding allies and dispossessing rival groups.

In the late 1980s, Kaiser, then working in the Kisii diocese in western Kenya, watched thousands of peasant farmers streaming through the countryside with their belongings. Political bosses had unleashed Masai warriors to oust them from their land, he wrote, burning their homes and destroying their schools.

Kaiser brought the news to his bishop, Tiberius Mugendi, an aging Kenyan whom he regarded as a spiritual father. Impossible, Mugendi said. The involvement of government forces would mean the sanction of Moi, and Moi was the country's father.

"Like Pontius Pilate I washed my hands on the grounds that I had plenty of other work in a busy parish," Kaiser wrote. "In so doing I stored up more fuel for a long hot purgatory."

Then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and an end to reflexive Western support for Moi, who had cast himself as a bulwark against Marxism. Donor nations insisted on free elections.

Moi grudgingly approved multiparty politics in late 1991, but the months that followed seemed to bear out his warning -- or, as many saw it, his threat -- that in a country of divided ethnic loyalties, democracy would lead to bloodshed. To ensure his party's supremacy, Moi launched militias into war against opposition strongholds.

As villages erupted in a pandemonium of flame, arrows and machetes, Kaiser spoke up in church meetings, questioning Mugendi's refusal to speak out forcefully. He also attacked the bishop's judgment in running the diocese, his choice of a school headmistress, his method of questioning catechists. Kaiser's conduct breached a deep-dyed cultural prohibition: An African bishop, like a president, was a father figure not to be challenged.

"My conscience is clear and I will not apologize for any of my statements or opinions. I can always admit & lament the fact that I am an undiplomatic clod, but for me that is not the point," Kaiser wrote a friend in June 1992.

Other priests warned Kaiser that his style was "too American," too confrontational. Undeterred, he put his complaints in a letter and distributed it around the church. The bishop sent word to Kaiser's missionary society: Remove this priest from my diocese.

Kaiser, who had spent decades with the Kisii people, was devastated. He would not leave without Mugendi's direct order. For hours he waited outside the bishop's house in Kisii, demanding to see him. Mugendi emerged and climbed into his car. He refused to acknowledge the priest.

"I want your blessing," Kaiser said, planting himself on his knees before the car. He stayed that way until the bishop relented, dismissing him with a quick wave, his hand tracing a cross in the air.

--

That was how, exiled from Kisii, he found himself appointed chaplain of a starving hillside tent city 100 miles to the east. It was July 1994. He was 61. The place was called Maela, and Kaiser said he learned more about the Moi regime's cruelty in his six months there than in the preceding three decades.

Of Maela, people remembered the dust. They tasted it in their teeth and coughed it into their hands and slept with it in their blankets. It enveloped the polyethylene hovels where families huddled against the cold. It coated the wattle-and-daub shack where Kaiser lay at night, unable to sleep for the wailing that reached him.

Ghastly accidents were common in the cramped tents. Children jostled cooking pots and were scalded by boiling water. Infants were asphyxiated by charcoal smoke. Disease flourished. "This terrible place," he called it. "A wasteland."

The refugees, mostly from the Kikuyu tribe, a bastion of the opposition, had been chased from their farms by rangers, police officers and Masai warriors. When word of the conditions reached the international press, Moi decided to erase the camp. As government men razed it on Dec. 23, 1994, police restrained Kaiser. He watched as the tents blazed and refugees were beaten and herded onto trucks to be scattered unsheltered across the countryside.

Four days later, police officers came for Kaiser and several hundred people he was protecting in a church. He announced that he would not go peacefully. They overpowered him, cuffed his wrists behind his back and carried him to their Land Rover. The truck lurched through the night, police boots crushing Kaiser's limbs and head against the metal floor. Then they dumped him outside a church.

"A great grief," Kaiser called his removal from the refugees. Later, he would brag about how it took a pack of police to get an old man into their truck. The newspapers reported his arrest. He had become a spectacle, albeit still a minor one.

--

That is what brought him, finally, to a far-flung brick house in the heart of Masailand. His new bishop had sent him all the way to the country's southwestern edge, to a lonely township called Lolgorien. "No doubt to protect me," Kaiser wrote.

It was a place where Masai herdsmen used thorned acacia branches to shield their mud-hut villages from lions at night. Even in his 60s, Kaiser was quick enough to kill a rabbit with a stone or a dik-dik with a thrown ax. Enlisting villagers, he built a plain red-brick church topped with corrugated metal, like many he'd thrown up across the countryside.

Maela haunted him. At his parish house, he wrote a short manuscript about his experiences there and sent it to everyone he could think of: friends, church leaders, his missionary society. He wrote to Paul Muite, an opposition politician who had befriended him, and asked for help getting it published. People warned him it could get him deported or killed.

"I want all to know that if I disappear from the scene, because the bush is vast and the hyenas many, that I am not planning any accident, nor, God forbid, any self-destruction," Kaiser wrote.

Crisscrossing the countryside, he amassed the ingredients of an indictment. He gathered land deeds from dispossessed farmers. He documented government calls for the purge of non-Masai from the Great Rift Valley. As villagers told him their sins, the ritual of confession became a window on the country's subterranean history, its narrative of land and blood.

His body was breaking down. He flew to the United States to undergo treatment for prostate cancer. He wore a neck brace to relieve the agony of crushed vertebrae and bone spurs. Against an osteopath's advice, he roamed the hills on his motorbike to reach the Masai, and spent nights in their dung-and-ash huts, returning home crawling with lice and fleas.

As elections loomed in December 1997, ethnic carnage again racked the country. Moi held on to power through fraud and mass evictions. At church meetings, Kaiser railed against the church's passivity, what he called "the scandal of our lack of leadership." Among his targets was his new bishop, an Englishman named Colin Davies, who would tell Kaiser, "Look, don't provoke too much."

By now, Kaiser was accustomed to making his colleagues uncomfortable. Sensible clergymen knew how vulnerable a parish house could be, how speaking up too loudly endangered not just yourself but those around you. To do the work of tending to people's souls, the thinking went, the church depended on the government's goodwill.

Kaiser's logic was different. Wasn't the church's role to alleviate suffering, and wasn't the country's "paramount evil," its fratricidal violence, the handiwork of the regime? "Why then do we so easily accept the admonition of government ministers that we who are religious should 'keep off politics'?" Kaiser wrote. "Is the exaggerated adulation given to President Moi by so many leaders, even religious leaders, given out of true respect or fear?"

--

It was a truism in Kenya that when Moi needed a delaying tactic, a distraction, a smoke screen, he convened a commission. The stated aim of the panel launched in July 1998 under Justice Akilano Akiwumi was to look into the tribal clashes that had claimed more than 1,000 lives in the last seven years.

Kaiser saw an opportunity, a public platform. He knew church leaders regarded his eagerness to speak as pointless, foolhardy or both. Bishop Davies considered the tribunal "a waste of time" -- did Kaiser expect to change Moi's mind? -- but did not stand in his way.

The priest planned to name names. He asked for prayers. He felt "very out on a limb." Still, he told a Kenyan friend, carpenter Melchizedek Ondieki: "I have America to defend me. I have the church to defend me."

To keep Kaiser company as he prepared, the bishop sent another priest from the Mill Hill order, a companionable Irishman named Tom Keane, to live with him in Lolgorien.

Keane quickly sensed the depth of Kaiser's fear. He heard him wake screaming from nightmares. He watched him carry his shotgun to Mass, in his truck, on his motorcycle. Kaiser slept beside it on his mattress, Keane said, "like having a woman."

Keane watched Kaiser swing from heights of energy, aflame with purpose, to depths of despondency. Kaiser played solitaire on his bed. He read Ecclesiastes. He made bullets.

At night, Keane invited him to sit on the veranda of the parish house that looked out past a sausage tree toward the rolling savanna. After the day's pastoral duties, Keane liked to relax with a beer and listen to the hyenas. "It's a beautiful evening, John," he would say.

Kaiser refused to join him. The darkness ran deep and unbroken. He would not make himself a target for enemies who might be hiding in it.

--

"I have been working in this country for 35 years as a missionary but I should feel like a guest," Kaiser began his testimony on Feb. 2, 1999. "There are things which a guest does not normally do when he is in his host's house or country. One of those things. . . . is to criticize the government of that country."

But that, he made clear, was what he planned to do. He detailed the horrors of Maela. He described farmers fleeing police violence by the thousands. He aimed his attack at Julius Sunkuli, a Masai lawyer and a fast-rising member of Moi's inner circle. He called Sunkuli's reelection to parliament fraudulent and accused him of orchestrating land seizures in the days before the December 1997 voting.

He named more names. He declared it "general knowledge" that Cabinet ministers William Ole Ntimama and Nicholas Biwott had organized the training of thugs to terrorize farmers.

Biwott's lawyer rose to denounce Kaiser, calling his allegations "absolutely worthless."

To reimburse the dispossessed, Kaiser continued, government officials should sell their own property. There should be prayers, he said, "for their confession, conviction, repentance, and for the restitution of the landless people."

The next day, the country's big dailies ran lengthy accounts of his testimony. Sunkuli responded with fury, threatening to deport Kaiser. "Christianity will be better off without him in this district," Sunkuli was quoted as saying.

As he prepared for his second day of testimony, Kaiser wrote to his sister that he hoped she could make it to his funeral, should he die. "I hope your passport is up to date," he wrote.

He returned on Feb. 11, 1999. Lawyers took turns grilling him. Sunkuli's lawyer called him a liar.

It went on for hours. Then Kaiser said something that electrified the room. He named Moi himself as the man responsible for so much of the country's pain, the man who had the power to stop the tribal clashes but had not.

The proceedings were halted. Justice Akiwumi purged the record of the Moi remark and ordered the press not to publish it. He declared Kaiser a "busybody" and said, "You seem to be very interested in other things than spiritual matters."

Kaiser left the courtroom exhausted. He believed that he had held his ground. He wrote that he had seen fear in the faces of the government lawyers. The press had been there, and Kaiser's account -- a good part of it, at least -- was now public record. He believed that would provide a measure of safety.

Sister Nuala Brangan told him it was not safe to return to Lolgorien.

"Don't worry, I'm a good shot," the priest replied. "I'll shoot a few bullets in the air, and they'll go running."

A month after his testimony, Kaiser and Keane found themselves pursued by a white car on a dusty road a few miles from the parish house. Kaiser sped to a bridge, wide enough for just one vehicle, and hit the brakes, blocking the way. "Get out," he told Keane.

Kaiser carried his shotgun. Keane carried an ax. They scrambled up a wooded bank into the trees, watching and waiting. It was common knowledge that Kaiser was armed, a crack shot. The pursuers, roaring up, must have sensed their disadvantage. They soon vanished.

--

That summer, two young women in his parish approached Kaiser for help. They said Sunkuli had raped and impregnated them when they were in their teens.

Kaiser appealed to the Federation of Women Lawyers to protect the women and pursue a criminal case. Sunkuli's loyalists tracked down the women at a Nairobi safe house and hauled them to a police station. The message was chilling: We can find you anywhere.

Still, Kaiser urged the women on, and one of them filed a private prosecution that generated a front-page headline: "Sunkuli Accused of Sex Attack." A Nairobi magistrate ordered Sunkuli to appear in court to face the charge.

"It's a just war," Kaiser wrote, "and I am on the right side."

Sunkuli, now a minister of state and a rumored successor to the president, accused Kaiser of orchestrating "a sex scandal," and called the allegations "all politics."

In late October, the government ordered Kaiser deported, on the pretext that his visa had expired. The U.S. Embassy intervened. Kaiser hid in a convent loft, shimmying down an iron pipe to the back alley when police arrived. The order was rescinded.

In its heavy-handedness, the regime was turning the priest into a symbol. In March 2000, the Law Society of Kenya, a spearhead of the pro-democracy movement, gave him a human rights award. At the banquet, a speaker compared him to the prophet Elijah. Lawyers and foreign diplomats lined up to shake his hand. He wore a Roman collar and a pair of $10 pants.

Before the crowd, Kaiser declared that Moi should be tried at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

After the banquet, walking through Nairobi with a visiting Minnesotan named Don Beumer, Kaiser pointed to a burly man across the street. "That's one of those thugs," Kaiser said. He told his friend not to be surprised if he was killed. "They'll say I committed suicide."

Worried priests remonstrated with Kaiser. To call for Moi's prosecution was to invite retribution. They could kill us, the priests said. Can't you ease off, John? More than once, church superiors urged him to go back to the United States to rest. He said his work was in Kenya.

In Lolgorien, he went through the parish house, making sure the windows were closed and draped. He wrote: "They have tried to deport me & failed & have made death threats but what is that to a 67 year old has been."

--

The threats kept coming.

As Kaiser would tell friends, a game warden brought him a message: There is a plan to shoot you and plant a dead animal beside you, so it appears you were gunned down as a poacher.

A rock flew through Kaiser's window. An anonymous letter arrived in his box. He opened it. The threat was in Swahili.

Utaona moto.

You will see fire.

Then came a hand-delivered letter, on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2000, from a surprising source: Giovanni Tonucci, the pope's appointed spokesman in Kenya, known as the papal nuncio. He wanted to see Kaiser urgently in Nairobi.

Kaiser knew the nuncio did not send a summons casually, and believed he would now be ordered out of the country, exiled for good. He wept during Monday morning Mass.

That night, Aug. 21, he arrived by truck at his bishop's house outside Nairobi. He seemed unhinged, fearful. He spoke of being followed. He complained of not sleeping in three days.

His behavior over the next two days would later be scrutinized and dissected. Even after Kaiser met the nuncio and learned that he was not being thrown out of Kenya, his mood swung sharply. He played a friendly game of croquet. He pumped hands at a church construction site. He wept at lunch. He told one Mill Hill brother he felt "close to a breakdown."

On Aug. 23, he approached a fellow missionary, Paul Boyle, to announce that he didn't think he'd live through the next day.

Sometime after 6 that night, Kaiser's truck was heard leaving the bishop's gated compound. His room was left empty, the bedding stripped. He told no one where he was going.

The next morning, workmen noticed Kaiser's pickup aslant in a ditch on the shoulder of a road about 50 miles northwest of Nairobi. In the dirt lay Kaiser's body, faceup. The back of his head was gone. Nearby lay his shotgun.

--

 

THE COLLAR AND THE GUN
In death, a hero is larger than life

Series: second of three parts.

By Christopher Goffard

NAIROBI, KENYA -- Within the vaulted basilica where he lay in a glass-lid coffin, the transformation was already underway.

In life, Father John Kaiser had been a troublemaker, an obstinate and single-minded man who railed against church passivity and clashed with his bishops, his missionary bosses, his fellow priests. Now, it was possible to ignore the rough edges and complicated history. Now, Catholic leaders were declaring him a martyr to the faith, a man whose crusade against his adopted country's dictatorial regime had ended in his assassination.

Outside the basilica, thousands crammed the streets of Nairobi in mourning and in rage that day in August 2000. Among masses of Kenyans, Kaiser had become an instant byword for the cruelty of President Daniel Arap Moi's police state.

After 22 years of Moi's misrule, Kenyans were ready for such a symbol. The president's face stared from every shilling note in their pockets and the wall of every shop they entered, and they had no trouble envisioning his hand steering the American priest to his grave. On everyone's lips was a litany of political murders, unexplained car wrecks, implausible suicides.

After the funeral Mass, a church van carried Kaiser's body onto the bad roads that led through the grasslands and into the remote western parishes he had served for decades. Villagers streamed forth from their farms and mud-walled huts, waving verdant branches -- a sign of peace -- as they ran alongside the procession.

Finally, the coffin traveled to the priest's last home, to the hilly green country near the Serengeti Plain called Lolgorien, where Masai warriors in bright red wrappings leaned against their spears and watched as the hole was shoveled out, 12 feet deep to deter the beasts of the veldt. Children of the parish who used to swarm around the priest now climbed into a big ficus tree overhanging his grave, squeezing side by side until it seemed impossible that the branches could support so many of them, to see him sent into the clay.

--

For Johnnie Carson, U.S. ambassador to Kenya, the priest's death was a tinderbox. As he told his staff, it might "change the normal orbit of U.S. and Kenyan bilateral relations."

Carson prided himself on his patience and discretion. Though some in Kenya's pro- democracy crowd considered him unduly cozy with Moi, Carson believed that his approach gave him access to the top when he needed it.

Now was such a time. The dead man was an American citizen and a leading dissident -- a former U.S. Army paratrooper who lived without electricity in one of Kenya's poorest corners, survived on game meat and had come to regard himself, after 36 years on the continent, as an African. He had not only denounced Moi but had fought to bring rape charges against one of his top ministers, Julius Sunkuli.

And so late on the afternoon of Aug. 24, 2000, the day Kaiser's body was found, Carson marched into the stately Nairobi offices of Kenya's attorney general.

Let the FBI help investigate, Carson urged. The FBI had forensic expertise, he argued, and its presence would show that the Kenyan regime had nothing to hide.

The FBI's agent in Kenya, a former Marine pilot named Bill Corbett, was in the room that day and recalled Carson's words: "The bureau has to be able to follow the facts wherever they go."

The attorney general said he would need to consult. Of course, His Excellency the President would have to approve.

Soon, just as the ambassador was boarding a plane for Washington, Corbett received a letter on official Kenyan letterhead inviting the FBI's assistance. He chased the ambassador to the airport, onto the tarmac and onto the plane to hand him the envelope.

Carson was pleased. Whatever the truth proved to be, the FBI's involvement would allay suspicions of a coverup, he reasoned. In this, he was mistaken.

--

Three FBI agents joined Corbett in Nairobi and fanned out across the country, accompanied by plainclothesmen from the Kenyan police. It was to be a joint investigation. The Kenyans would translate the words of Swahili-speaking witnesses. They would provide helicopters to reach remote villages. They would sit close during interviews.

This presented an obvious problem. Who would risk telling the Americans anything in the presence of Kenyan cops, for decades an integral part of Moi's apparatus of fear? As Kenya's minister of internal security, Sunkuli himself oversaw the very police charged with investigating the case, including the rape allegations against him.

Back in the United States, in September and October 2000, both houses of Congress passed resolutions condemning Kaiser's "assassination." Paul Wellstone, the senator from Kaiser's home state of Minnesota, cited the slayings of five other Catholic clerics and human rights workers in Kenya.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright promised Congress that she would monitor the investigation. "Clearly, there are questions that we have about various aspects of how Kenya operates, but it is a country with which we deal," she said.

Her remark encapsulated the U.S. government's attitude toward Kenya. It was impossible to ignore Moi's reliance on brutality. And yet the country was the commercial hub of East Africa and was perceived as a key partner in the battle against Islamist terrorism. This point had assumed greater urgency after an Al Qaeda cell bombed the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi in August 1998, killing more than 200 people, including 12 Americans.

The accused bombers were to stand trial in federal court in New York in a few months. An internal FBI memo described the Kenyan police as "vital partners in our aspirations to succeed with what the U.S. attorney general refers to as the most important DOJ [Department of Justice] prosecution of 2001."

--

At the nexus of the two cases stood Corbett, who had forged tight professional friendships with Kenyan police during the bombing investigation and was now central to the Kaiser probe.

A Catholic, Corbett admired the priest's willingness to give up a safe, soft life in the U.S. to ease the suffering of a troubled country. He had closely followed accounts of Kaiser's duel with the regime. Still, Corbett would say, his job was to remain at arm's length, dispassionate, guided only by the evidence.

It was crucial, first, to reconstruct Kaiser's last days -- the circuit that led the 67-year-old priest from his parish house in the bush to a ditch about 50 miles northwest of Nairobi, where he was found with the back of his head blown off.

In interviews with church associates, villagers and others, the jagged outlines of the story came into view.

On Aug. 19, 2000, Kaiser had been summoned to Nairobi to meet Giovanni Tonucci, the pope's representative in Kenya, on an unspecified but important matter. The priest, who had ignored repeated church pleas to leave the country for his safety, feared he would be ordered out of Kenya. He wept at Mass and asked for prayers.

On Aug. 21, he made the long drive from his parish house in Lolgorien to his bishop's compound just outside Nairobi. To some fellow churchmen, he seemed unhinged and fearful. He spoke of being followed. He said he hadn't slept in three days. He read in the newspaper that one of the women who had accused Sunkuli of rape -- a case Kaiser had been pushing for months -- was withdrawing her complaint.

On Aug. 22, over breakfast, Kaiser said he hadn't slept again. "Why do I feel so paranoid?" he asked. As a missionary brother drove him to his appointment with the papal nuncio, Kaiser slumped low in the back seat, his jacket covering his face. He told the brother he felt "close to a breakdown."

At their meeting, the nuncio asked for Kaiser's views on a successor to a retiring bishop. Contrary to his fears, Kaiser was not being exiled.

Relieved, he went to his missionary order's walled compound in Nairobi and socialized with friends and colleagues. He played a cheerful game of croquet. That night, a nun saw him in the chapel, bent on one knee, his head in his heads.

On Aug. 23, he dropped off a thin envelope with the nuncio -- its contents would never be made public -- and declined an offer to stay and chat. He left a note at a priest's quarters nearby, thanking him for teaching him Swahili six years earlier.

Over lunch at the missionary compound, he wept silently. A worried missionary brother, wanting to keep him close, took him to visit a church construction site. Kaiser buoyantly greeted every worker he saw. Later that day, Kaiser approached an old friend, Father Paul Boyle, and shook his hand, saying, "I don't know if I will be alive tomorrow."

Though he was expected to spend the night at the missionary compound, he left without explanation and drove to the bishop's house, arriving about 6 p.m. He was brusque. He asked for a room. He needed rest.

Another priest watched Kaiser head upstairs to a second-floor room, and, after a while, heard footsteps descend the stairs and Kaiser's truck rumble away into the darkness. He found Kaiser's room empty and the bedding stripped.

Retracing Kaiser's trail from there became increasingly tricky. Kaiser supposedly had been spotted at a remote homestead north of Nairobi. When the FBI and Kenyan investigators arrived with their notepads, villagers told a strange story.

It happened about 8:30 that night, they said. It was suppertime and solid dark. They heard a truck pull up and went out to look. They saw a white priest remove "a long gun" from the truck and carry it up a knoll, where he stared into the night. A villager asked whether there was any trouble. Hakuna shida, said the priest. No problem.

Then came the oddest part. As a village elder approached, the priest offered him the shotgun. Like a gift.

When the elder refused, the priest apologized in Swahili. Pole sana. He carried the gun back to his truck, pitched the vehicle into reverse, and backed past the house so hurriedly that he scraped a downspout and struck a hedge. Then he sped off "like he was trying to escape something."

What was Kaiser doing there? Why would he attempt to give away his gun? Did he sense himself spiraling into despair and worry that he would use it on himself? Or, Corbett wondered, did a delirious, sleep-deprived Kaiser think he was surrendering his gun to a pursuing assassin? "Maybe he's tired of running and thinks, 'They're here,' " he said.

Other witnesses added glimpses of Kaiser's last night. About 11:30, employees at a gas station in the Rift Valley town of Naivasha reported seeing him pull up in his pickup and hack off a loose mud guard with an ax.

At a pecan farm nearby, a few hundred yards from where Kaiser's body was found, a guard recalled hearing the rattling, thumping sound of a passing vehicle. The guard, fearing attack from one of the area's armed gangs, became hyper-vigilant. The vehicle passed again, and again. Then he heard a bang.

As Corbett recalled, the story had "the flavor" of truth.

The crucial part was what was missing. There had been no sound of a struggle. No voices. No cars in pursuit.

If assassins had targeted Kaiser, how would they have followed his erratic, hours-long route from Nairobi to Naivasha -- what Corbett called a "bumblebee trail" -- without being spotted?

"The real world doesn't work like that," Corbett said. "There wasn't a lot to suggest this was predator and prey. What there was to go on was his behavior."

In that behavior, FBI profilers discerned a "manic cycling from high to low," as Corbett put it, a mind unmoored. His fear that he'd be kicked out of Kenya had been a "life stressor," and the collapse of the rape charges against Sunkuli had been "a significant disappointment," according to the FBI's report on the case. His body was failing too -- prostate cancer, arthritis, bone spurs in his neck.

Agents saw an uncommonly tough man whose fortitude had nevertheless raveled out over too many hard years.

Interviewing those closest to Kaiser, they uncovered a side of him that few had known.

In 1969, the priest had been committed for psychiatric evaluation during a brief stint at the Albany, N.Y., quarters of his missionary society. As told by Kaiser's sister in Minnesota, Carolita Mahoney, he had argued with an older priest, who complained that Kaiser was mentally impaired and possessed a gun.

A Minnesota priest named Bill Vos told the FBI about a later episode. Kaiser was staying with Vos in St. Cloud in the early 1970s when he fell into a serious depression. At the dining table, Vos recalled, Kaiser sat with his head down, tears filling his eyes. Vos arranged for him to see a psychiatrist, and he was hospitalized again.

In the early 1980s, there was a third hospitalization, this time after a confrontation with his brother Joe during a visit to Minnesota. A doctor at St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul treated him with lithium.

Kaiser suffered from manic-depression, his sister told the FBI. The episodes began with sleeplessness, followed by a state of extreme agitation. He said he did not need his lithium in Africa.

Examining Kaiser's years in the U.S. Army, the agents learned that he had been demoted from sergeant in the 1950s. The military could not find the records to supply the details. As his brother Francis told it, Kaiser had refused to back down from racist townsfolk in Ft. Bragg, N.C., who had objected when black soldiers were assigned to guard a barracks housing white nurses.

Given Kaiser's refusal to duck confrontations, the scene where his body was found presented a riddle. If attacked, wouldn't the priest -- a former paratrooper and expert shot -- have put up a fight? Yet there were no signs of struggle. Sheets had been spread out on the ground, as if for a bed, and left undisturbed.

Two independent pathologists -- one enlisted by the church, the other by a human rights group -- studied the entry wound close-up. Their conclusion: The shot that obliterated the back of Kaiser's head had entered behind his right ear from a distance of at least 6 inches and as much as 3 feet. Since it seemed impossible for Kaiser to have pointed the long-barreled gun at himself from such a range, murder was the only explanation.

The FBI enlisted its own independent expert, Vincent DiMaio, based in Texas. He was an authority on gunshot wounds. Studying blurry photographs and an autopsy report, he found that the barrel could have been touching Kaiser's head when the shot was fired. DiMaio noted that there was blood spatter on the priest's knee and lower leg, but none on his lap. In his view, this suggested Kaiser had placed the shotgun butt on the ground, with the barrel angled behind his right ear, and had folded his body forward to reach the trigger, thereby shielding his lap when blood sprayed onto his legs.

In weighing the evidence, Corbett recalled what a prosecutor once told him about the nature of proof. Picture yourself at the edge of a precipice, with a 10-foot gap separating you from the other side. To get there, you need a plank at least 10 feet and 1 inch long. Two 5-foot planks won't do, nor will five 2-foot planks.

Murder theories abounded, but did the assembled evidence bridge the chasm? Maybe a simpler explanation would.

And so on April 19, 2001, FBI agents stood at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi alongside Ambassador Carson, Kenyan police and the country's attorney general. The Americans praised the Kenyans for their cooperation and gave their verdict: An emotionally troubled Kaiser had killed himself.

The Kenyan government wasted no time declaring itself exonerated. A front-page story in the Kenya Times, the state mouthpiece, announced that the FBI's verdict "drove the final nail" into the coffin of "a sick man."

--

Whatever else people said about Kaiser, there was one point of consensus: His Catholicism was the "terribly old-fashioned" kind. Heaven and hell were not metaphors, but actual locations, and certain sins were inexpiable.

Kaiser liked to quote from G.K. Chesterton's "Orthodoxy," a defense of classic Catholicism in which the author assesses suicide as "the ultimate and absolute evil."

"The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world," Chesterton wrote. "There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer."

By that logic, Kaiser had tumbled from martyr to suicide, from heaven to hell, at the stroke of the FBI's pen.

Few who knew him could bear the verdict. David Durenberger, a former Minnesota senator who went to high school with him, was in disbelief. "There's something about 'The FBI says,' 'The FBI declares' -- it's pretty hard to overcome that one," he said. "You can't change the gravestone once you've carved it."

The only apparent remedy lay in a vestige of British colonial law, which provided for an inquest -- an inquisitorial proceeding in open court -- in the case of mysterious deaths. To the church and Kaiser's family, it represented the best hope of casting light on evidence the FBI might have missed or ignored. But Moi's attorney general refused to grant one. Neither the Kenyan nor U.S. governments wanted the matter reopened.

As the 2002 Kenyan elections approached, there was fear that Moi would again use violence to preserve his rule. Then a shocking thing happened. After Kenyans jeered the aging president and trounced his party, he surrendered power peacefully.

Armed with more than 100,000 petition signatures, Catholic bishops met with the new president to urge an inquest into Kaiser's death. In April 2003, after two years of limbo, Kaiser's family and supporters received word: The inquest could proceed.

They had four months to prepare.

--

 

THE COLLAR AND THE GUN

A Nairobi lawyer finds that many pieces don't fit in the mystery of an American priest's violent death.

Series: last of three parts

By Christopher Goffard

NAIROBI, KENYA -- The deeper the lawyer probed, the more the case resembled a hall of mirrors, a maze of ambiguous characters and unknowable motives. There were hints of conspiracies, trap doors, scaffoldings of fact that vaporized into fiction. The trail was nearly three years old by the spring of 2003, when the lawyer's investigator headed deep into the countryside, working at night for protection, searching for witnesses.

The goal: to upend what had become the official narrative of Father John Kaiser's death. Embraced by the FBI and the Kenyan government, the story held that the 67-year-old American missionary had turned his long-barreled shotgun on himself along a dark road 50 miles from Nairobi.

The lawyer, Mbuthi Gathenji, had been enlisted by Kaiser's family and the Catholic Church to reexamine the case. He was in his early 50s, with graying hair and an air of wary circumspection informed by decades on the wrong side of a police state.

Poring over the FBI report, he saw what he considered a patchwork of bad inferences and tunnel-vision analysis, an eagerness to distort the meaning of Kaiser's behavior to fit its conclusion. As the agency portrayed it, Kaiser's conduct in his last days -- bouts of tears, erratic movements, displays of anxiety and fear -- reflected a mental unraveling.

To Gathenji, it seemed the behavior of a man who believed with good reason that killers were hunting him. One of the country's loudest dissidents, Kaiser had called for President Daniel Arap Moi to be tried at The Hague for inciting ethnic carnage and had accused a top minister of rape. He had ignored his church's pleas to leave the country and had received repeated death threats.

Despite his history of manic-depression, nothing in his final letters suggested derangement. He had never been known to attempt suicide. He left no note.

As Gathenji saw it, something crucial was missing from the scene where Kaiser's body was discovered: the pellets and wadding that his shotgun would have discharged when he was killed. They weren't found in the remains of his cranium or, despite searches over a wide radius, in the surrounding dirt and shrubs.

To many Kenyans, the case had a coldly familiar feel. It looked like a classic state-sanctioned hit, with a venerable foreign law enforcement agency called in to lend legitimacy to the investigation. It brought to mind Robert Ouko, the Kenyan foreign minister who attacked high-level corruption and turned up in a ravine in 1990, a gun beside his charred, mutilated body. Police called it suicide. To quell public clamor, Moi invited New Scotland Yard to investigate, then curtailed the probe when it pointed to members of his inner circle.

The case felt familiar to Gathenji in another, more personal way. His father had been the victim of an unpunished, politically charged slaying in September 1969, dragged from his home by fellow Kikuyus for refusing to swear an oath of tribal loyalty. Gathenji, 20 at the time, believed the attack was sanctioned by elements of the Kikuyu-dominated government of Kenya's first president, Jomo Kenyatta.

"We knew that nothing would be done," Gathenji said. "That is exactly why I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to do something to find out the truth."

He represented Kenyans swept up in mass arrests and championed refugees uprooted in ethnic violence. Police once raided Gathenji's house and imprisoned him for five days. For years, he had watched his rearview mirror for the white cars of the secret police.

His legal battles and pro-democracy work had brought him into contact with Kaiser. He remembered the priest dropping by his office, always on a crusade, always in dusty shoes.

Now, studying photographs of the crime scene, Gathenji noticed how carefully a set of bedding had been arranged on the ground near Kaiser's body, as if the priest had been planning to sleep there. The neatness of the bedding seemed to reflect a Kenyan's conception of a punctilious Englishman. It didn't look like the handiwork of the priest he knew as "essentially a cowboy."

"It was arranged by someone with very foreign ideas about Father Kaiser," he said.

Preparing for the long-delayed inquest in the death, he unearthed a piece of evidence that never made the FBI's report. It was a firearms registry kept by rangers at the Masai Mara Game Reserve, an hour's drive from Kaiser's parish in the country's remote southwest corner.

The registry showed that a warden had checked out a big-game rifle on Aug. 15, 2000 -- eight days before the priest's death -- that was never returned. The warden, an illiterate Masai with two wives, was an in-law and fellow tribesman of Julius Sunkuli, the Cabinet minister the priest had accused of rape and corruption.

A source too frightened to go on the record told Gathenji's investigator that on the morning of Aug. 21, when Kaiser left his parish for his final drive to Nairobi, he had narrowly missed an ambush laid by three park wardens.

--

In the summer of 2003, as the inquest began in a courthouse outside Nairobi, the priest's older brother left his home in Santa Rosa, Calif., and boarded a flight to Kenya. Francis Kaiser, 72, would be among the first to testify.

The brothers had grown up on a dirt farm in Ottertail County, Minn., wandering the woods together and sleeping in the same bed. Francis remembered his brother as a "totally fearless" boy who did not hesitate to climb a windmill or plunge into a frozen pond to retrieve ducks they'd shot.

In a way, each brother had led the life the other had imagined for himself. John was the priest Francis thought he might be. Francis had the "good wife and cabinful of kids" John once spoke of wanting.

Francis thought of his brother as the John Wayne of priests, a cowboy of the cloth who possessed a certainty of the afterlife: "He didn't have the fear of death that the normal person has."

From the witness box, Francis insisted that suicide made little sense. His brother's shotgun had two barrels, but when it was found near his body, only the left one contained a spent shell. That was the barrel activated by squeezing the rear trigger. The right barrel, with the easier-to-reach front trigger, was empty, even though the priest had a live 12-gauge shell in the breast pocket of his jacket.

He knew his brother's habits with firearms. If he had two shells, Francis reasoned, he would have loaded both barrels, so he had a chance to fire twice. And if by some chance he had time to load just one, the shell would go in the right. Why load only the left?

"This was abnormal not only for John, but for anybody using the shotgun," he told the court.

Francis had brought the last letter he received from his brother. It was dated Aug. 17, 2000, six days before his death, and did not seem to reflect suicidal despair.

"I'm sitting on a veranda watching the world turn green again," the priest had written. "We have had a rather severe drought and the grass gone brown and short and cattle hungry. Then a great blessing and two inches of rain in the past two days so the birds are singing and lots of cows were dancing in the rain."

The letter reflected an aging man soberly confronting his mortality, wondering which of his family members "will be the first to finish it up here below." He wrote, "But at least I hope we can all meet again and have a fishing trip up in the border waters of Northern Minnesota, canoe country."

--

Nothing embodied the case's shifting, indecipherable quality more than a gaunt, soft- spoken young Masai named Francis Kantai. He had been Kaiser's close companion, a live-in catechist who served as a cultural bridge to the nomadic cattle herders of Masailand.

To puzzle out his ultimate loyalties, however, was to enter a mare's-nest. Over and over, people told Kaiser that Kantai could not be trusted. They suspected that he was a spy for Sunkuli. Those suspicions were stoked when, according to the parish housekeeper, Kantai let Sunkuli's men into the parish house, where the priest kept his papers.

Fanning suspicions further was Kantai's admission that he had led Sunkuli's men to a safe house where two women who had accused Sunkuli of rape were hiding. Kantai insisted that the men had held him at gunpoint, and that among them was a secret police agent named Ebu who had hounded him for years over Kaiser's activities.

Why did Kaiser, who was so wary of his enemies, keep Kantai so close? Did he fear pushing a man with intimate knowledge of his habits deeper into Sunkuli's arms? There was a further complication in their relationship: One of Kaiser's cousins had fallen for Kantai during an extended visit to the parish in 2000. They were married, and Kantai was soon to travel to Nebraska to live with her. They had a baby son named after the priest.

After Kaiser's death, Kantai told investigators that Sunkuli had once urged him to poison the priest. But at the inquest, he said, "I wish to confess to court that I lied." He had been angry with Sunkuli, he explained. Believing him responsible for Kaiser's death, he made up the story.

And he offered another story, one he claimed he had forgotten in previous interviews. Not long before Kaiser's death, he said, he came upon Kaiser watching a video of a priest shooting himself. Kaiser seemed fixated by the spectacle, replaying it over and over.

Kantai did not know the video's title, and it could not be found. Gathenji believed it a fabrication.

Gathenji confronted Kantai with an informant's allegation: that he had tried to lure the priest into an ambush in the Masai Mara reserve. To the lawyer, Kantai looked like a man in anguish, about to surrender to tears.

No, Kantai said. He loved the priest. "He was like a father. I had not thought of life without him. I felt as if some part of me had left me."

--

Zeroing in on what had happened in the Masai Mara, Gathenji summoned Anne Sawoyo, one of the two women who had accused Sunkuli of rape. She said that in July 2000, a month before his death, Kaiser tracked her down at an isolated lodge at the game reserve after learning that Sunkuli's men were holding her captive there.

The priest hoped to smuggle her out in his truck, but she was too afraid, and he left without her. Later that day, she said, she overheard Samuel Kortom, the senior warden who had checked out the rifle that went missing, discuss the priest's visit with another warden, saying, "He is lucky -- today would have been his day."

It was "an open secret" at the lodge, she said, that rangers planned to kill Kaiser and plant a dead animal beside him so it would appear that he had met his death as a poacher. Douglas Sikawa, a senior warden, confirmed that there were rumors afloat in the Mara that three rangers loyal to Sunkuli were plotting an ambush.

How did it add up? Kaiser's body was found more than 100 miles east of that area. To Gathenji, the evidence suggested that multiple murder plots had been in play.

Gathenji tried to find Florence Mpayei, Sunkuli's other accuser. A women's rights activist said Mpayei had called her from Sunkuli's house in Nairobi, not long before the priest's death, to relay that Sunkuli's men were talking about Kaiser and seemed to be planning something. That made Mpayei a potentially explosive witness, perhaps the key to the whole case, but Gathenji and his investigator could not find her.

One by one, the rangers walked to the witness box and denied everything. Finally, Sunkuli entered, his stout frame filling out a sharp suit. He insisted he had no motive to kill the priest. He did not even have a grudge against him. Yes, he had recently lost his parliamentary seat, but he could always run again. Still, Sunkuli acknowledged that he had been worried enough about the priest's role in the rape charges to complain to Kaiser's bishop about it.

Gathenji asked when he had learned of Kaiser's death. Sunkuli said it was at 10 that morning, about the time everyone else did.

Gathenji responded, "You knew of the death at 6 a.m. because you were involved in the arrangement."

"That is ridiculous," Sunkuli said.

--

More than three years had passed since the inquest began, and in early 2007 Gathenji wanted to put the FBI on the stand. He would ask the agents about the leads they had failed to pursue or had dismissed as irrelevant, the ones that led to the secret police, to the Mara rangers, to Kantai and Sunkuli.

He would ask them to acknowledge a conflict between their avowed aim to discover the truth and their wish to stay on friendly terms with the Kenyan government. Even as agents collaborated with Kenyan police on this case, after all, the FBI was depending on its Kenyan counterparts to prosecute what it regarded as its most important case: the 1998 terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi.

He would ask why they ignored an unexplained thumbprint of Kaiser's blood on the door of his truck. He would ask how they had concluded that he died at the spot where his body was found.

In a letter, the U.S. Embassy said the government "fully supports" the FBI's presence at the inquest, promising that agents would be available in Nairobi on March 5. The FBI missed the date, citing the difficulty of getting agents who were scattered on different assignments to Kenya at the same time.

Later, FBI agent Bill Corbett offered another explanation, one the court said it never received. He said the FBI planned to attend until it became clear that Kaiser's family would not release his psychiatric records. Without them, Corbett said, the FBI "would be handcuffed and not be able to tell the whole story."

A new date was set; the FBI did not appear. And another; still the FBI did not show.

--

In Gathenji's mind, there were two plausible theories of how Kaiser met his death. Someone might have lured him to that dark road for an ambush. Perhaps he'd received a call -- someone pleading for help, playing on his gallantry -- that drew him from the safety of his bishop's house near Nairobi, where he had planned to sleep that night. But he'd told no one about it.

Or what if the priest had been captured or killed at the bishop's house? That would mean the security guard who reported seeing him leave in his truck -- supposedly one of the last people to have seen Kaiser alive -- was lying. The guard could not be found to question: He had vanished after Kaiser's death.

By this theory, Kaiser had never visited the remote homestead where villagers said they saw him standing on a knoll shortly before his death. Nor was it Kaiser who appeared that same night at a gas station in Naivasha, near where his body was found. Had that man been a double, a plant meant to conceal the fact that Kaiser had already been killed elsewhere?

One of the witnesses who placed Kaiser at the gas station was a warden at the local prison, but a pump attendant who knew him insisted that the warden had not been there that night.

"Someone was desperate to make sure Kaiser was put in Naivasha," Gathenji said. "That shows a very elaborate plan."

The warden could not be questioned either. He was dead, reportedly of a heart attack. So was an eminent Kenyan pathologist, killed in a car wreck before he could testify on his finding that Kaiser's gunshot wound pointed to murder. Dead, too, under vague circumstances, was Ebu, the special police agent said to have been following Kaiser.

--

Seven years to the month after the priest's death, on Aug. 1, 2007, Gathenji sat in the crowded courtroom to hear Magistrate Maureen Odero read her findings. She was adamant: It was murder.

Pointing to the absence of shotgun pellets or gunpowder residue on his hands, she determined that Kaiser had been killed elsewhere and placed beside the dark road. If he had died there, she reasoned, there would have been more blood at the scene, and the recovered brain matter should have been embedded with more dirt, grass and twigs.

Given that Kaiser's shotgun was 3 feet long, she found it a "physical impossibility" that an arthritic 67-year-old man could have reached the trigger with the muzzle placed behind his ear. It struck her as more plausible that he was forced to his knees and shot from behind.

As for the FBI report, she declared it "superficial" and "seriously flawed." Noting that the agency had failed to appear for the inquest, she said, "This court can only conclude the FBI did not consider their report one worth defending."

Neither the FBI nor the Kenyan police had supplied a ballistics report, which she described as "a crucial missing link." Without it, there was no proof that the priest's shotgun had killed him, nor even the "pretense at any serious or meaningful investigations."

She said there was no evidence implicating Sunkuli in the killing. But she was troubled by the "evasive and contradictory" testimony of Kantai, and she called for deeper investigation of him and of the Mara rangers.

That Kaiser was murdered, she concluded, was not a mystery. "The only mystery is why the police failed to investigate this matter with the seriousness and diligence that it deserved."

Back at his office, Gathenji fired an e-mail to Francis Kaiser: We won.

--

The reinvestigation demanded by Odero has been underway for more than a year, but there have been no arrests, and many who championed the inquest don't anticipate any.

"I expect the actual killers are probably dead," said Kaiser's sister, Carolita Mahoney.

Nor did it seem likely that Moi would be called to account, either for Kaiser's death or for the carnage that attended his 24 years as president. In 2002, voters swept his party from power, and he retired to his vast estates as one of Africa's richest men.

For the Kaiser family, the removal of the suicide verdict might have to be enough. Said Mary Mahoney Weaver, the priest's niece: "We feel vindicated. John's name is no longer marred."

The ruling did nothing, however, to budge the FBI agents who handled the case. Corbett called the magistrate's reasoning "fanciful" and maintained that untreated manic-depression, not an assassin, was the culprit.

"Ultimately, he died of a disease," the FBI agent said. "It's not something that everyone is comfortable talking about."

The inquest did little to untangle the psychological mysteries at the heart of the case.

"I always got the sense that John Kaiser was looking for martyrdom at a deep unconscious level," said Father Tom Keane, who lived with him in the year before he died. "John Kaiser kind of wanted to go with a bang."

Paul Boyle, one of the last priests to see Kaiser alive, at first thought suicide a real possibility. Looking into Kaiser's eyes, he had seen the despair of a man hunted and tormented beyond endurance. With the magistrate's ruling, Boyle had to reconsider. But there were riddles that taunted, such as: In an ambush, why didn't Kaiser, the former paratrooper, use his shotgun to defend himself?

Boyle recalled a night long ago in the Masai Mara when Kaiser leaned out the door of his moving truck and shot an impala in the distant bush. He thought about his final moments. He considered the scenarios.

"He's faced with the murderers, and he's got a choice. Kaiser has the gun. No one can shoot like Kaiser."

But ending the life of another man -- or several of them -- might have broken him. "Did he say, 'They've come to do what they've come to do?' Is that suicide? I don't know. It could be martyrdom."

He could see him handing over his shotgun and sinking to his knees in the darkness.

--

Even to those he baptized, to those who understood the nature of his vows, there remained something bewildering about the life he chose. In the far-flung Kenyan parishes he had served over 36 years, big families were a given, childlessness a calamity, and here was a man who would leave no offspring, no link to the earth walking upright when he left it. His legacy would be measured in other ways.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and a pioneer of Kenya's pro-democracy movement, said Kaiser represented "the people's voice in an era when ordinary people did not have a voice."

His importance grew after his death, she said, when he became a byword for the Moi regime's ruthlessness. The ditch where Kaiser's body was found became not just a memorial site but a place where the opposition mobilized. In the long campaign to oust Moi's government, she said, "he became a very powerful symbol."

His battle on behalf of Sunkuli's accusers was another element of his legacy. In a country where rape went widely unpunished and the rights of poor women were scant, the fact that a powerful minister was summoned to court to answer the charges represented a crack in a culture of impunity, even if Sunkuli ultimately avoided prosecution.

There were other measures, and one could be found in a story Francis Kaiser told.

When he and his wife went to Kenya in September 2003 for the inquest, they attended a Mass in his brother's honor in Nyangusu, a western town where the priest had spent many years. Francis was asked to bless the crowd.

Afterward, a family brought their baby for him to hold, and the child was named John Kaiser. Francis learned that the church was full of young boys -- infants and toddlers and kids already running -- who had been named after his brother.

It was the same, he found, in village after village. There were hundreds across the countryside, maybe more.

His brother had disappeared into the red soil, perhaps along with the truth about his death, but you could travel anywhere now and find John Kaiser.

--

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

--

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Christopher Goffard began researching Father John Kaiser's life and death in late 2007. In Kenya, he visited areas where the missionary served and interviewed his friends, parishioners, church colleagues, Kenyan politicians, lawyers and others who knew him. Goffard talked to Kaiser's family members in California and Minnesota, as well as to FBI agents, U.S. diplomats and scholars. Kaiser's letters and other writings, filling nearly 500 pages, were a major source of information. Goffard also examined Kenyan police reports, court transcripts and news accounts and an FBI report on Kaiser's death.