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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Freddie Woodruff

In August 1993, CIA operative Freddie Woodruff was murdered in Tbilisi.

Was he assassinated or did a lucky shot hit him in the head?

ANDREW HIGGINS reopens a nearly forgotten story here: Our Man in Tbilisi

I scribbled my spy story about Woodruff last year for Georgia Today:

I’ll begin this story at the end, with Thomas Goltz, the “rogue freelancer” of the 1990s Caucasus. Before reading his compelling Azerbaijan Diary, I had heard gut ripping stories of him in Baku, as he is still a notorious character in those parts. This was only a couple years ago, during Azerbaijan’s failed orange revolution. I was writing for a now extinct e-zine called Sobaka, which was a subjective, sometimes accurate, yet highly readable (in my opinion) magazine about people, places and events that don’t ordinarily get covered.

It was around this time I received an email out of the blue regarding the murder of Dennis Woodruff, a CIA operative working in Georgia in the early 90s. After doing a little research, I learned that Thomas was perhaps the single person most informed of the story, as he was a friend of Dennis’ and mentioned incidents related his work in the Caucasus in Azerbaijan Diary.

When I finally had the opportunity to meet Thomas one summer night at a party informally in his honor, I was thrilled to discover he is in fact as mad as I had imagined and lives up to the reputation that surrounds him. My mistake however was mentioning the name of Freddy Woodruff and Gary Best when I should have just asked for a light instead.

“What, are you a spook?” Thomas said.

I sat there dumbfounded trying to figure out if this was part of his sense of humor, but his entire posture had tensed and his eyes were no longer happily glazed, but accusatory.

“Yeah, I’m a spook,” I confessed. “I just play harmonica as a cover.”

“No, are you a spook?”

“If I was, would I tell you?”

I thought I probably wouldn’t if I was. I’m sure in the spy handbook there is a list of highly effective comebacks for such accusations. Things had been going so well too, but I just sat there trying not to look like a secret agent until I gave up and walked away.

Several weeks ago Thomas was in Tbilisi for a reading of his new book Georgia Diary. There at Prospero’s, he mentioned Freddie Woodruff, who I’m willing to bet many of the attendees of the reading are unfamiliar with. And that is the purpose of this story, which began with this email:

“I am a Houston-based lawyer representing family members of Freddie Woodruff (a CIA Station Chief murdered near Tbilisi in 1993). I am working on their behalf to obtain the release of Anzor Sharmaidze, the young man wrongfully convicted of Freddie’s murder. In December 2004 I succeeded in obtaining an order from the Supreme Court of Georgia for re-investigation of the case. This case involves a host of significant Georgian figures including Igor Giorgadze, Eldar Gogoladze and Shota Kviraya. There is information to suggest that it may also involve the elusive Gary Best... Can we talk?”

Michael Pullara, the attorney who sent me this e-mail was at President Mikhail Saakashvili’s address to staff at Tbilisi Technical University on November 16, 2004. Pullara introduced himself much like he did in the e-mail above, mentioned the promises made before the Rose Revolution and asked the president to “give justice to the man who was wrongfully convicted for that murder and set Anzor Sharmaidze free.”

Saakashvili was nettled: “Suppose my friend President Bush delivers a speech and a Georgian lawyer happens to ask him a question about freeing a person whose case is being reviewed by an American court...” He went on to say that an American should respect the Georgian system and laws the same way Georgians respect America’s. “Georgia is not some third-rate country that can be spoken to in this manner.”

Nevertheless, two months later, Saakashvili asked the Prosecutor General to reopen the case, despite the fact that he had supported the court’s decision not to reopen it, based on lack of evidence, several months earlier.

The murder investigation of a CIA operative in Georgia in 1993 is bound to be chock-full of conspiracy theories ranging from the far-fetched and macabre to the plausible and probable. However, there is one fact that is indisputable: On August 8, 1993, Freddie Woodruff died from a bullet in the head.

Officially, Woodruff was a State Department regional-affairs officer training Eduard Shevardnadze’s security forces, upgrading Georgian intelligence service and monitoring factional struggles. He had gone on a picnic to Kazbegi with Shevardnadze’s chief bodyguard, Eldar Gogoladze, and two girls, in a Niva. Upon their return, several young men in army uniforms tried to stop the car at the city entrance. Gogoladze, the driver, refused to stop and turn on his headlights. As they attempted to pass, a single shot was fired, hitting Woodruff in the back seat.

After dropping Woodruff off at the hospital, Gogoladze returned to the site and detained three men, one of whom was 20 year-old Anzor Sharmaidze. At the police station, Sharmaidze confessed, claiming it was an accident, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in February 1994.

Not an Open and Shut Case

If this wasn’t Georgia in 1993 and if the murdered man wasn’t a CIA station chief, the alleged facts could have been taken at face value. But when Sharmaidze claimed his confession was tortured out of him and the FBI conducted their own investigation, the open and shut case began to crack.

Pullara said that according to FBI documents, there was no trace of a bullet hole in the Niva, yet Georgian prosecutors and ballistic experts maintained the bullet left a hole obvious to the naked eye. The fatal bullet’s shell case was later discovered to have been planted by police.

Another discrepancy is the official time of Woodruff’s death. First of all, prosecutors claim Sharmaidze fired his gun because the Niva was driving without its lights on, but the reported time of the shooting was around 9pm and the sun wouldn’t have set in Tbilisi yet. Furthermore, Woodruff’s body arrived at the Tbilisi hospital in an advanced state of rigor-mortis at about 10 pm. According to Pullara, this would have been impossible if Woodruff had been alive less than hour earlier.

Besides being the head of Shevardnadze’s security force, Eldar Gogoladze was also a trained homicide investigator. Nevertheless, he didn’t call police near the alleged shooting scene to respond - he waited until after delivering Woodruff to the hospital. Nor did he surrender his weapon for ballistics testing, and clothes for forensic analysis.

Despite the reports Pullara has examined, the FBI, along with CIA director James Woolsey stuck to the official line that “this attack was a random act of violence and not politically motivated.”

The Inevitable Russian Link

Shevardnadze eventually had a falling out with Eldar Gogoladze, who was charged with possession of a weapon in August 1996, despite the fact he had a license to carry one. His home was searched, no weapons were found but he was held in pretrial detention for three months nonetheless. Charges were eventually dropped a year later. During this time, word began floating about that Woodruff’s murder was set up.

Former Georgian State Security Service chief, Irakli Batiashvili, claimed at a news conference in Tbilisi on October 13, 1995, that Woodruff was murdered by the Russian KGB.

Security Minister Shota Kviraya went on the record to blame his predecessor, Igor Giorgadze for ordering the murder. That was a safe bet, Giorgadze was wanted by Interpol for the 1995 assassination attempt of his boss, Eduard Shevardnadze. While everyone in positions of power in Georgia, particularly in the 90’s, was suspected of working for the KGB, there is strong evidence implicating Giorgadze - he used to be a chief KGB officer, fled directly to a Russian base and was transported out of the country by Russian military. Incidentally, he claims to be innocent of the assassination attempt stating that if he had planned it, he would have been successful.

The only problem with Kviraya’s statement is the credibility of the mouth it came out of. In June 1997, parliament provided evidence to the Prosecutor General of a video tape made in November 1993 of Kviraya shooting six members of the Mekhedrioni in Zugdidi, who were accused of looting. He was also implicated in tapping journalist’s phones and controlling the black market cigarette trade. Kviraya resigned in July 1997, maintaining his innocence and recanting Russian involvement in the murder.

The Elusive Gary Best

Mr. Pullara hasn’t responded to questions regarding Best’s involvement, but a glimpse at the man’s profile makes speculation fun.

At the time of Freddie Woodruff’s murder, Gary Best was in Baku setting up an incredulous oil business, MEGA Oil, with Richard Secord (of Iran-Contra scandal fame) and legendary Air Force special operations commander, Brigadier General Harry “Heinie” Aderholt. The plot line of this affair is as wacky as Best’s supposed biography and involves Missing in Action Vietnam POW’s, recruiting Mujahedin from Afghanistan to fight in Nargorno-Karabakh, along with American mercenaries, in addition to setting up the first western oil company to pump oil in Azerbaijan.

Gary Best has no known address and was a self-described electronics importer operating chiefly in Southeast Asia. He had ambiguous connections to Iran-Contra figures like Oliver North and had made several trips to the USSR and Asia, including Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s. One associate was convinced Best was a CIA operative, or a former one, by the type of people he surrounded himself with.

It has also been speculated that in Best’s effort to acquire money for his adventures, he was involved in trafficking narcotics.

Aldrich Ames and the War on Drugs

If not the most famous foreign spy in American history, then Aldrich Ames was certainly the most damaging. In the nine years of spying for the Soviet Union and later Russia, as the CIA counter intelligence chief of Eastern Europe, Ames gave up the names of every “human asset” the US had working there. Of the twenty-five sources he exposed, ten were executed.

Ames was in Tbilisi two weeks before Woodruff’s murder. That means he would have been in contact with Georgian Security Chief Igor Giorgadze. Since it was Ames’ business to expose American spies, it is not unlikely he would have revealed Freddie Woodruff.

Senator Jesse Helms linked Woodruff’s murder to America’s War on Drugs in an address to Congress in April 1994. Helms believed that narcotics trafficking was the new battleground in the post-cold war era and the KGB was engaged with Cuba and Columbia in the business. He uses an article written by Mark Almond of the Wall Street Journal to back his point.

In 1990, Ames became head of the narcotics intelligence department for the Black Sea countries.

Almond stated that Woodruff was allegedly investigating Georgia’s role as a conduit of heroin from the ex-Soviet Union to the West, and that Shevardnadze’s security force – the guys Woodruff was sent to work with – were widely known in Georgia to be involved in the heroin business. If Woodruff had reported this, Ames would have been the first man in the CIA to see the report.

Back at Square One

The KGB, CIA, FBI, double spies, drugs and murder – the pages of a Tom Clancy novel come to life. It has been 14 years since Woodruff’s murder and nothing has been proven except he is still dead. His family is convinced Anzor Sharmaidze is innocent.

Micheal Pullara says “We have made substantial progress in our investigation of the murder of Freddie Woodruff. We have traveled to three continents and interviewed dozens of people in our effort to obtain justice for Anzor Sharmaidze. These efforts have been very productive in establishing Anzor’s innocence. We anticipate major developments in the very near future.”

Pullara said that three years ago and the clock is still ticking for Anzor Sharmaidze, who has one more year of his sentence to serve.

While the CIA never officially acknowledged Freddie Woodruff worked for them (which is standard procedure), he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery: Freddie Russel Woodruff, Specialist 5, USA-CIA Officer.


AllyJo said...

Freddie was my dad. I'm going to check out your blog.

Melinda said...

And it should be stated that his "sister" is pursuing this, not his "family." Most of the family is ready to move on.

Freddie's Niece,

paul rimple said...

Thank you, Melinda

Georgia said...

I did not mean to offend anyone Melinda. I just felt like it was really wrong to leave an innocent man in prison.

Melinda Hollis said...

I never said you offended anyone. I just think this is bigger than anyone realizes, and that even releasing one innocent man won't solve it, and it won't bring Freddie back, and could potentially stir up a whole lot more of a hornet's nest than there already is.