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Too Many Secrets: CIA Agents Mysterious Death in 1982

by Kim Briggeman |

Originally published in the Sunday, February 17, 2008 issue of the “Missoulian.” Reprinted with permission of the author.

Part I

Jerry Daniels (MSO-58) sightings pop up all around the globe. He's been seen in London and Spain, in a bar in Whitefish and in Akron, Ohio. Most often he's spotted in Southeast Asia, where the man known as “Hog” and “Mr. Jerry” worked for the Central Intelligence Agency during and after the Vietnam War. His love for and allegiance to the Hmong of northern Laos is woven like golden thread throughout that people's history of the past five decades. “Basically, wherever Hmong are living, someone will say, ‘So-and-so saw Jerry,' ” said Gayle Morrison, a California author who's writing a book on Daniels' life. “But no one I've talked to actually saw him.” That could be because Daniels has been officially dead and buried in the Missoula Cemetery for more than 25 years now.

According to records, he died on April 28, 1982, of carbon monoxide poisoning from a leaky propane water heater at his apartment in Bangkok, Thailand, where he worked as an ethnic affairs officer for the U.S. State Department. The body wasn't found for three days, which sets off the first alarm for Jerry's brothers. “He doesn't show up for work for three days and no one comes looking for him?” wonders Kent (Dan) Daniels of Florence. Because of decomposition issues, Daniels' casket was ordered sealed after transport home to Missoula for burial. Speculation about his “accidental” death has whirled ever since the chilly Saturday in May of 1982 when the plane carrying his casket taxied into the Missoula airport. “Inside the terminal, Hmong eyes watched the proceedings on the tarmac,” wrote Jane Hamilton-Merritt in her 1993 book “Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992.” “Many did not want to believe Jerry Daniels was dead. They wanted to believe he was needed on another intelligence assignment and his ‘death’ in Bangkok was only a cover.” The Hmong whispered among themselves that the coffin was too small to hold Daniels, Hamilton-Merritt reported. “Maybe he was not dead after all.” The Hmong, most of whom had been approved by Daniels to resettle in Montana from Thai refugee camps, weren't the only ones with suspicions.

State Department officials accompanied the body off the plane, and later the CIA helped guard the coffin. “They stayed with it, under orders, until it was placed in the ground, so we never saw the body,” recalled Ted Lympus, a close friend of Daniels since high school. “There was some real question.” Lympus, now a district judge in Kalispell, said he and others still doubt the official version of Daniels' death. “We were never satisfied that we'd been told the real cause, because no one was ever allowed to look at the remains,” he said. This much is certain: Jerry Daniels lives on as a hero to many who knew him or know his story. In the eyes of his Hmong friends, he toes the line between legend and deity. But there were plenty of people in Southeast Asia in 1982 who would have just as soon seen Daniels dead.

And so the questions surrounding his death buzz on among friends, family, old smokejumper colleagues and Hmong. “I look at things scientifically,” his brother Jack Daniels (MSO-54) said on the phone last week from Flagstaff, Ariz. “There's either a body in that casket or there isn't. If there's a body, it's his or it's not. If it's his, how did he die? Is there a bullet hole in the skull?” Like Jack, Dan Daniels is ready for some answers. “It would be great to see inside that coffin,” he said at his home in Florence recently. A long-haul truck driver, state champion skeet shooter, and former high school wrestler for Jug Beck's Missoula Spartans in the 1950s, Dan was two years older and at least 50 pounds heavier than Jerry, who went on “health kicks” when he edged up close to 160 pounds. That's why Dan's radar went up when he heard the description of his little brother's body. “Jerry was supposed to look like a 300-pound black gentleman,” he said. “Jerry was only about 5-8, or something.” Jack Daniels said the faulty water heater that caused Jerry's demise was in the bathroom, which separated Jerry's bedroom from another. The American embassy official who described the circumstances to Jack said Jerry was found dead on his bed, his blood either 93 percent or 97 percent saturated with carbon monoxide. “That's really high,” said Jack, 74, a University of Montana graduate who is recognized as one of the world's top distance running coaches. “My Ph.D. is in physiology, and I've done some work in lung function, and gases and things like that. I tell you what, if you get carbon monoxide in your system, you're not in good shape.” So he finds it strange, he said, that an unidentified male who was found in the other bedroom was unconscious but still breathing. When he was taken to the hospital, Jack said, the man bolted and was never found. “To this day, I have a real bad time dealing with that,” he said. Jack visited Jerry in Bangkok a couple of years before his death, and his mother, Louise, was there just a couple of months prior. Lympus, who was the Flathead County attorney at the time, said he had them describe the layout of the apartment to the state medical examiner. “There was something about the apartments of Bangkok that there was a space under the door that was open four or five inches,” Lympus said. “Jerry was found dead on the bed, on the second floor, and from where the water heater was, (the examiner) said there's no way the gas would have got that high in the room. It would have gone under the door and down the stairs, because it's heavier than air.”

The idea of taking a look inside Jerry Daniels' casket has been kicked around for years by family, friends and former colleagues who knew what Daniels had gotten himself into in Laos. He was the CIA's personal case officer for Gen. Vang Pao, and the two of them helped direct Hmong troops in their resistance against communist forces both inside the country and from neighboring North Vietnam. The “secret war” ended disastrously for the Hmong, many of whom fled the country after it fell in May of 1975, weeks after Saigon collapsed in South Vietnam. Daniels orchestrated the evacuation of 2,500 people from Long Cheng, their base of operations in the hills of northern Laos. Once the refugees were in Thailand, it fell upon Daniels to screen them for resettlement to the United States, based in part on their loyalty to Vang Pao's anti-communist cause. Many of the Hmong, including Vang Pao for a time, wound up in the Missoula area, and to this day the region has a vibrant Hmong community. Vang Pao subsequently moved to Southern California, where he was arrested last June and charged in federal court with plotting to overthrow the Laotian government. The 78-year-old general is currently under relaxed house arrest while awaiting trial in Sacramento.

Any number of alternate scenarios have been posed to explain Daniels' death. They range from suicide to murder (by an array of suspects) to death by yellow rain to no death at all. Hamilton-Merritt wrote in “Tragic Mountain” that when Daniels and friend Randolph “Toby” Scott (MYC-57) were in their 20s, they made a pact to jump from the Higgins Avenue Bridge in Missoula when they reached 40. It was not a suicide pact, she explained, “but rather a ‘marker’ on the lives and achievements of two young men determined to live life to the fullest.” Ten years or so later, Daniels wrote to Scott and recommended they move the jump date to age 50. He was six weeks from his 41st birthday when he died in Thailand, but few who knew Daniels give credence to the suicide theory. There's no doubt he was in danger from those who took control of governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, to whom the Hmong and the U.S. were the enemy. “I know VP and Jerry both had $10,000 rewards on their melons from the communists,” brother Dan said.

His fluency in the Hmong language and intimate knowledge of the people and their loyalties made Daniels uniquely qualified for his post-war job in Thailand. He spent his last seven years deciding who qualified for resettlement and who didn't. On occasional trips home, and in frequent letters to Louise and Jack, Daniels characterized the job as rewarding and challenging. It was also extremely dangerous. “I remember him saying, ‘I'm pissing off about 1,000 people a day or a week, I don't know which, making these decisions,' ” Lympus said.

Meanwhile, the explosive issue of the United States’ use of chemical agents in Southeast Asia was becoming front-page news. “Jerry was a well-known disbeliever of ‘yellow rain' and was outspoken about it, according to several jumpers,” wrote Fred Donner, a retired Defense Intelligence Agency officer who knew Daniels when both were young smokejumpers based out of Missoula in the late 1950s. Perhaps, some speculate, that got him into trouble with his own government. Mary Ellen Stubb, sextant at the Missoula Cemetery, rustled through the files to find the Jerry Daniels folder a couple of weeks ago. She produced one piece of paper. Under the letterhead of the now defunct Mountain View Cemetery, 3035 Russell St., are scribbled heavily underlined words: “Sealed casket - hermetically sealed - sealed Forever - not to be opened.” An accompanying fax from the American Embassy in Bangkok notes, “Thai mortuary officials have informed us that the embalmment of the remains are (sic) not expected to be completely satisfactory. Remains are in an advanced state of decomposition. Container seals should be carefully examined.” It was not uncommon for caskets in the Vietnam area to be accompanied by a “sealed forever” command due to decomposition issues. Sealed “order” or not, the next of kin have a legal right to open the lid. Louise Daniels, who died in 1996, worked with the Hmong in Montana for years as part of the International Rescue Committee. She was not interested in an exhumation, her sons say. Out of respect for her wishes, the idea wasn't seriously discussed while she was alive. Even today, the youngest of her three surviving sons doesn't like the idea. “I don't believe in doing it, no,” said Alan Daniels, a military veteran and custodian at the University of Montana. “My mother wouldn't want it done, so that's my deal. I'm one of these people who abide by his mother's wishes.” Stubb said there is perhaps one exhumation a year at the Missoula Cemetery. It requires a $5 to $10 permit from the health department and another $1,260 cemetery fee. A more prohibitive expense, however, is the forensics testing, DNA or otherwise. Though the state crime lab is less than a mile from the Missoula Cemetery, it can't conduct forensics testing unless submitted by law enforcement. Lympus looked into hiring a private lab a few years back. He was told the cost of disinterment and DNA testing could climb as high as $10,000. “That's not cheap,” Jack Daniels said. “That's kind of been the one thing that's prevented us from really getting serious about it in the past.”

At one time, both Jack and Louise were in touch with H. Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate. “He called my mother two or three times, and I ended up talking to him for a half-hour about this one time,” Jack said. “We thought maybe he'd pay for the whole thing. But Louise was still alive at that time, and we just kind of dropped it.” Not long ago, Dan looked into selling a conservation easement on the 160 acres he owns in the mountains near Ovando. Though he could have reaped $80,000, he said, he shied away after seeing the pages of restrictions he would face. So the casket of Jerry Daniels will remain underground for now. The questions still buzz above. “It would be fun to put some closure on this thing,” said Jack. “If there were a way to exhume the body, get it tested and prove that it's Jerry, and prove he died of carbon monoxide poisoning, there's nothing more I can do. That would kind of end it as far as I'm concerned. “The older I get, the more I worry about it getting done.”

Part II
Hmong allies considered Jerry Daniels a hero

The image smacks of Montana: Jerry Daniels is astride a leaping bull in the hot summer sun. Cheering onlookers are dwarfed by jagged mountains. But this is December and those spectators wear battle gear. The bull is a Lao buffalo, and the mountains look down on a military stronghold in northern Laos. As the story goes, it wasn't Daniels' finest moment. The man who came of age in Helmville and Missoula was unseated in a buck or two at the impromptu rodeo in the early 1970s. Another American named Thomas “Shep” Johnson (MYC-56), who like Daniels had done some rodeoing back in the States, stayed on for three or four jumps. Daniels was devastated he'd been bettered.

Jerry Daniels was nuts. He made irreverence into an artform. He was a hard drinker who delighted in showing his Hmong friends how to have a good time. Daniels, say those who knew him, was also as honest as the Vietnam War was long, unbelievably dedicated to his mother, Louise, and the Hmong he fought alongside, and perfect for the CIA. “I would say he was a hero. He accomplished a whole lot more than I ever did,” said his brother Jack, who has been called the world's top distance running coach. Jack Daniels won medals at both the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games in the modern pentathlon. “But that's nothing compared to what Jerry did, I don't think,” he said. “And he did it for such a long time. He was so committed to it.”

They called it Sky, the American base of operations for the secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. “You ask what is Sky? Well, Jerry Daniels was Sky,” a Hmong officer says in the opening lines of the book, “Sky Is Falling.” “He was raised in Montana, ‘Big Sky Country.' Jerry was the adviser for the secret operation based in Long Cheng, Laos. So he named the American headquarters the Sky compound,” Nhia Vang (code name “Judy”) told author Gayle Morrison. Daniels worked hand in hand with Gen. Vang Pao and his guerrilla army of Hmong against the Viet Cong and Pathet Lao. Morrison, who published “Sky Is Falling” in 1999 and dedicated it to the memory of Jerry “Hog” Daniels, has since been working on a biography of Daniels. “I'm now marching into year 11 on it. I have 41 chapters that I'm looking at scattered across the floor,” Morrison sighed last week from her home in Santa Ana, Calif. “Sky Is Falling” told the stories of dozens of people who were in Laos the two weeks before it fell to the communists in May of 1975. Daniels and Vang Pao orchestrated the air evacuations of some 2,500 Hmong officers and their families from Long Cheng. “Long Cheng,” wrote Morrison, “is a secluded, impossibly distant, wild and beautiful valley cut deeply into the rugged karst mountains of northern Laos.” It was in that setting, as well as refugee camps in Thailand, that the man from Montana helped shape history. It's a story Montana should know.

After Jerry Daniels died, his family was beckoned to CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. There they accepted three of the four top medals the CIA has to give. Jack Daniels, Jerry's oldest brother, has a photo of the family and CIA director William Casey, who has an arm hooked in Jack's. He said it was the only recognition that Jerry ever existed, let alone worked for the U.S. government for more than half his life. The date on one of the awards, Jack said, was “quite a few years before Jerry died. I don't even think he knew about it.” The family left with the request not to display the plaques for “a certain number of years. I can't remember how many,” Jack said. “Jerry Daniels has never been given the credit he deserves,” said Mary Ellen Stubb of Missoula. “He saved hundreds of lives and, because of the situation, he was shoved under the carpet. It was a story not to be spoken of. I think he needs some recognition for his accomplishments.” As sextant of the Missoula Cemetery, Stubb first heard of Daniels' heroics in 2004. One of his former smokejumper colleagues visited Daniels' grave and talked about his life. Stubb coordinates the cemetery's annual Stories and Stones tour, when live folks tell tales of dead ones at Halloween time. She wanted to learn more. She located Todd Brandoff, a Vietnam veteran from Lolo who has forged friendships with some of the Hmong elders in Missoula and became acquainted with Daniels' work through them. Brandoff and Lue Yang of Missoula, the interpretative liaison between Vang Pao and Daniels in Laos, presented the story at the cemetery in 2006. Daniels, said Brandoff, “was there when history was made - a very, very important player in a war. Then he was a very important player in saving probably over a thousand lives after the evacuation by helping people establish their identities and flee from (Southeast Asia).”

Jerry Daniels was born in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1941, the fourth son of Bob and Louise Daniels. He was about 10 when the family moved from California to Helmville, where his parents ran a restaurant for a time and Bob had the Blackfoot telephone exchange. The family moved to Missoula in the mid-1950s, though they've always maintained connections with the upper Blackfoot Valley, where Louise inherited a piece of land at Tupper Lake near Ovando. Jerry embraced the outdoors, spending hours tromping the hills and fishing the rivers of his home state with his brothers and pals. At barely 17, he fudged his age on an application and became one of the youngest smokejumpers on record in Missoula. Daniels graduated from Missoula County High School in 1959, and within a year was launched on his spectacular career, starting out as a “cargo kicker” for the CIA in Southeast Asia.

Bob Daniels died in 1971 and his oldest son, Ron (known as Dan), was killed in a car wreck a few years later near Missoula. Louise visited Jerry several times in Southeast Asia. She became involved locally with the refugee settlement program and was a warm friend to the displaced Hmong whom Jerry helped relocate here in the 1970s and 1980s. Louise passed away in 1996, leaving three surviving sons - Jack, Kent (Dan) and Alan. Jack heads the running program at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Kent and Alan both live in the Missoula area.

“Jerry just did weird, funny things. He'd come up with oddball names,” Kent recalled. A cat in Helmville, for no discernible reason, was instantly “Roseliff.” A bad odor smelled “like karap.” Anything big was “elephant.” As boys, Kent and Jerry were in a crawlspace under their military strip home in Kennewick, Wash., when Kent picked up something that turned out to be a light switch for an automobile. “Give me that truckgutt,” Jerry demanded. “I'm like, ‘Where'd that come from?' ” Kent said, chuckling at the memory. At Missoula County High School in the 1950s, you didn't curse, he said. But Jerry had a way around that. He changed a pet nickname, Farthog, to Farretthoag. The abbreviated form, Hoag, turned back into Hog when Jerry got to Laos. “Hog” was his code name at Sky.

Jack Daniels and his wife visited his brother in Thailand a few years before Jerry's death. Jerry took them into a holding camp, where there were hundreds of Hmong who had already been cleared to immigrate to the United States. “The moment we sat foot inside that place, he was just mobbed,” Daniels said. “They thought so highly of him and assumed there was nothing he couldn't do for them.” Alas, that wasn't true. Potential refugees to America had to be screened for health reasons and for political reasons, Jack said. “He was the guy who took care of them in the political arena.” The Hmong's complex family structure recognized children when the United States government didn't. “When we went into that holding camp,” said Jack, “the main concern of the Hmong who came up to him was, ‘I've got children out there, please get them. They're out there. I'm already in the camp.' ” Jerry was offered chickens and trinkets and money. “He was constantly being confronted with requests to get relatives into the United States with them,” said Jack.

Though Daniels was born in California, “he was an exemplary Montanan,” Morrison said. “The unique set of skills that he had learned as a smokejumper and as an avid woodsman were exactly what the CIA was looking for so they could send him and others into a really ugly, hostile terrain and environment and know they were going to survive.”

He was, said Morrison, “the right guy in the right place at the right time - and he recognized it. He was a unique guy, really dedicated to what he was doing. He felt it was right.” Daniels had planned to retire to Montana any number of times before his death. “But he was just continually tapped on the shoulder to stay another six months, stay another year,” said Morrison. He had less than a year to go when he died. “I know he was very, very, very much looking forward to it,” Morrison said. “He was so close to retiring and coming back home to Missoula. To end up coming home in a box, that's the saddest thing of all.”