Saturday, October 27, 2018

"Manhunter" John Pascucci and the Pervasiveness of Evil

John Pascucci's 1996 autobiography The Manhunter (co-written with Cameron Stauth) presents a sad and sobering picture of the pervasiveness of evil in the world. Pascucci worked as a U.S.Marshal from 1978-89. He lost his job after being charged with--and subsequently convicted in federal court of--several charges, including extortion; Pascucci had come up with a convoluted scheme to extract money from a married man who had a one night stand with Pascucci's former mistress. Pascucci had played fast and loose with the law for a while in pursuit of a higher good--the apprehension of some of the world's most notorious criminals--but when he played fast and loose with the law in pursuit of a personal vendetta no one could or would protect him any longer.

Pascucci is obviously deeply flawed but he also did a lot of good, and his disgust for the criminals he hunted is palpable: "Ten thousand Nazi war criminals escaped to America; so, on average, every American town or neighborhood of 25,000 became home to a Nazi murderer. The horrifying thing about evil is not so much its depth in an individual, but its breadth in the everyday world. It's so common. If you look for it, you'll find it. If you've got the guts to look hard enough, you even find some in yourself--and that's the most horrifying thing of all."

Pascucci admits that he paid a price for the mindset and methods he adopted during his career: 
Knowledge never comes for free. It always comes at a price, and I paid too much.

Far too often, the price I paid was hurting people, breaking laws, and looking too long at the dark side of life.

But I did what I had to. I was an investigator, and the currency of an investigator's trade is knowledge. Specifically, I was a fugitive investigator, a manhunter. I was chief of International Operations for the U.S. Marshals Service.

My job was to track down the most evil people on earth: terrorists, killers, spies, Nazis, neo-Nazis, and psychopaths.

I was better at fugitive investigation than anyone else in the federal government--in part because I made myself think like the people I was tracking. That was part of the price I paid.
Pascucci tracked down Konrads Kalejs, a Nazi war criminal who was responsible for murdering at least 13,000 people. Pascucci wrote:
I'd envisioned him directing a single, violent massacre of 13,000 people, with bodies falling quickly in a hail of machine-gun fire. But, according to the historians, it hadn't been like that.

It had been much slower. Much more personal. Much more cruel.

Konrads Kalejs was a strong, healthy, square-jawed 18 year old when he'd allegedly joined Latvia's Arajs Kommandos in 1941. The Kommandos, directed by the bloodthirsty Viktor Arajs, were a group of Latvian punks and thugs who terrorized their own country. Before the war, Latvia--a tiny country on the Baltic Sea--had been under the domination of the Soviet Union, and the Kommandos, who hated the Soviets, had actually been glad to see Nazi Germany take over.

The Kommandos worked for the German Security Police, the "S.D." The S.D. was the brutal secret police branch of Heinrich Himmler's notorious "S.S." In short, they were the worst of the worst.

Kalejs--more intelligent and more vicious than most Kommandos--quickly rose to the rank of senior lieutenant, and was reportedly given his own company to command. Kalejs' company was accused of being a roving death squad, which roamed the countryside, robbing, torturing, and murdering. Their primary targets were Jews. But they also killed thousands of Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals, retarded people, handicapped people, intellectuals--and anyone else who seemed rebellious or "anti-German." The tactics of Kalejs and his men were unspeakably cruel. They did not simply shoot people, but murdered them in ways that terrified the populace. They forced mothers to drown their own babies in buckets of water. They tied children to trees and lashed them to death. They castrated men, amputated their hands, then set them loose in the forests. They forced naked prisoners to exercise in snow, then shot them. They set elderly people on fire, then doused the flames, leaving their victims to die a slow death from their burns.

Kalejs later became a senior lieutenant at the Salispils concentration camp, where his penchant for torture and murder continued. At one point, he and his men were accused of invading the village of Sanniki and murdering the entire population. Then they reportedly went to surrounding smaller villages and did the same thing.

After the war, Kalejs gathered his loot and moved to Copenhagen. In 1950, he immigrated to Australia, and in 1959, he moved to the United States.

In America, he lived in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Winnetka, surrounded by priceless objects of stolen art. He spent his winters on both coasts of Florida, where he owned several properties. By all accounts, he was a happy man.

In the winter of 1984--about 10 months before I started hunting him--he had been contacted by the OSI. The next day, he'd taken about $325,000 out of his various bank accounts and had disappeared.
Pascucci apprehended Kalejs in a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Kalejs managed to tie up his case in court for several years before he was deported to Australia. He moved to Canada and then was deported back to Australia before moving to Great Britain. After his presence in Great Britain provoked outrage, Kalejs once again moved to Australia. In May 2001, an Australian court finally ruled that Kalejs should be extradited to Latvia to stand trial for war crimes, but Kalejs died in Australia before he could be sent to Latvia.

Pascucci also found Nazi war criminal Bohdan Koziy, who took great pleasure in participating in the "Judenfrei" program designed to kill every single Jew in the Ukraine. Cold-blooded murder was not enough for Koziy; he enjoyed torturing his victims in front of their family members, before killing each victim one by one while the family members watched. Pascucci spoke with the niece of a woman whose entire family except for one aunt was killed in this fashion by Koziy. Pascucci pledged to her that if he located Koziy then he would kill him--but the vagaries of Cold War politics intervened: Koziy sought refuge from justice in Costa Rica, where he was viewed as a staunch anti-Communist, and the Costa Rican government did not act with much alacrity to pursue charges against Koziy after Pascucci found him. Koziy eventually died of a stroke as a free man in Costa Rica.

Pascucci was then assigned to track down Josef Mengele, the so-called "Angel of Death" who selected which Jews would die immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz and which Jews he would torture under the pretext of conducting "medical experiments." Mengele was a sadist who mutilated thousands and was directly responsible for the state-sanctioned murder of hundreds of thousands. After Pascucci read the detailed file on Mengele, he was disgusted not only by Mengele's crimes but also by the way that the Catholic Church helped Mengele--and 60,000 other Nazi war criminals--escape from justice via the "Rat Line." Pascucci also knew better than to expect much help from INTERPOL, an organization that was actually run by the Nazis for a period of time during World War II and that until the 1980s refused to provide any assistance in tracking down Nazi war criminals because this would purportedly constitute "political" activity. Mengele came from a wealthy family and Pascucci quickly realized that the family had enough assets and connections to hide him without any further outside assistance. Pascucci followed the evidence to Brazil and he did what no one else had been able to do: find Mengele--but what Pascucci found out was that Mengele had died several years earlier, as confirmed by a team of forensics experts who examined the body.

Pascucci ascended to his dream job as the U.S. Marshals Service Chief of International Operations, a position equivalent to brigadier general. At what seemed to be the height of his career, Pascucci instead suffered a terrible, self-inflicted fall. Pascucci makes no excuses for the illegal conduct that cost him his government career and resulted in him serving time. Some of his old colleagues told him that they thought he had received a raw deal or that if he had only handled things a little differently then his fate would have been different--but Pascucci has too much self-awareness to accept those excuses:
I totally disagreed.

Because I was my fate. If I hadn't fallen when I did, I'd have stumbled over some other kind of weasel-deal.

But let's be realistic: Without all the weasel-deals, I'd never have gotten anywhere--not against my mutts. My mutts didn't fight fair.

But I didn't see myself as a star-crossed victim. I saw myself as a star-crossed jerk. Because, let's not forget, I didn't go down fighting an evil man; I went down fighting an ex-girlfriend's ex-boyfriend. And I'd fought him mostly just for fun.

Remember how I told you, early on, that the horrifying thing about evil is that you can find it anywhere, if you look for it, and that you can even find it in yourself, if you look hard enough? Well, I found I could enjoy hurting people--and if that's not evil, I don't know what is.

Since my downfall, I've tried to overcome that part of myself, and I think I've succeeded. But I'll always know that, at least for a while, it was there. That knowledge is my punishment, and it's as painful to me as my fall from the heights of government service. It's my burden to bear, and I'll have to live with it the rest of my life.
Life is all about choices and judgment and having a moral compass that, hopefully, always points North, toward goodness, kindness and patience, and away from evil, cruelty and impatience. Life is also about realizing when your compass may not be pointing in the right direction and then making sure that you redirect your thoughts and actions accordingly.

I bought The Manhunter many years ago but I only read it recently, and it spoke to me on many levels. I hope that John Pascucci's story, and the challenges that he faced--fighting external evil while also battling his own demons--speak to you as well.

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