Is This Man Responsible for the Murders of 5 American Nuns?

by T. Christian Miller, ProPublica, and Jonathan Jones, Dec. 31, 2014, 9:59 a.m.

GARDNERSVILLE, Liberia 2014 More than 20 years ago, a terrible crime bloodied this suburb of cinderblock homes, dirt-floor stores and lush green bush grass.

Five American nuns were killed when a vicious battle swept through the town during Liberia’s civil war. The killers left their bodies burned and broken, rotting in the sun.

The deaths were numerically insignificant in a conflict that by its end in 2003 had left hundreds of thousands of Liberians dead. But the killings crystallized the horror of Liberia’s long war for Westerners.

The Catholic Church, the U.S. Embassy and Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission all investigated. All came to a similar conclusion: The killers were soldiers in the army of Charles Taylor, the Liberian warlord convicted by an international court for crimes against humanity.

No killers,  however, have ever been brought to justice. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually launched an investigation. But long delays by the agency and a steadfast reluctance by the Liberian government to prosecute those blamed for atrocities has meant that none of the suspects has ever faced trial, according to an examination by ProPublica and Frontline.

One of those implicated by reports on the killings is Christopher Vambo, a former Taylor commander who used the nom-de-guerre General Mosquito. He is not hard to find. He lives on a rutted street across from a local cemetery in an older part of Monrovia, the country’s capital. He works as a security guard for one of the country’s largest communications firms.

One hot, rainy day earlier this year, Vambo agreed to an interview 2014 his first with American media outlets since being implicated in the sisters’ deaths.

He wanted to speak. But he feared the consequences.

“Christopher Vambo wasn’t the one that executed the Catholic nuns, but the Catholic nuns were executed under his command,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “If there is charges for that, there’s a penalty for that.”

The Sisters

Faith in God and the fury of war defined the lives of the five sisters.

They were members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ convent based in tiny Ruma, Ill. Most had spent years on mission in Liberia: instructing children, healing the sick, teaching their faith.

Sisters Barbara Ann Muttra, Shirley Kolmer, Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller and Mary Joel Kolmer (a cousin to Shirley) lived, worked and prayed together at a small convent of cinder blocks painted white. It lay just off the main road that runs through Gardnersville, one of Monrovia’s outer suburbs.

Muttra, 69, was the best known. A nurse, she had spent 21 years working in Liberia. Her passion was working with mothers and children. She was a bulldog. She faced down soldiers and tendered care at remote clinics.

Shirley Kolmer, 61, was the leader of the group. She was well known among Monrovia’s upper middle class. Grinning and gap-toothed, the math teacher served as the first female principal of St. Patrick’s High School, an elite all-boy’s school in a tony neighborhood of Monrovia. McGuire, 54, the newest arrival, taught there, too. She also supervised a local Catholic grammar school.

Mueller, 62, taught local women to read and worked at a nearby health clinic. Joel Kolmer, 58, taught at the grammar school and mentored young Liberians interested in entering the order.

“These kinds of people must be celebrated,” said Kofi Woods, a Liberian human rights leader who knew the sisters.

This account of the lives and deaths of the nuns draws on reports by the Catholic diocese, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch; a book written shortly after the killings by Sister M. Clare Boehmer called Echoes in our Hearts; confidential transcripts of eyewitness testimony; and interviews with current members of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, Liberians who knew the sisters, U.S. State Department officials, former Taylor fighters and Vamb o.

Charles Taylor’s invasion of Liberia in December 1989 razed the sisters’ world. His ill-trained militia and child soldiers slaughtered thousands of Krahn and Mandingo tribal members to settle old grievances.

By July 1990, Taylor’s forces were battling Liberian soldiers in Gardnersville. The suburb sat just across from Monrovia, separated from the capital by mangrove swamps and a river. Bullets rained on the convent roof. Artillery crackled.

In August 1990, the sisters decided to flee back to the United States. They would not stay away long, beginning their return in March 1991.

By then, Liberia had settled into an uneasy ceasefire between Taylor’s forces and West African peacekeepers. Taylor controlled much of the country. The peacekeepers protected a caretaker government in the capital.

The ceasefire allowed the sisters to return and rebuild their mission. They scrounged new furniture. They organized residents into Bible groups. They collected Christmas gifts for families receiving treatment at a nearby clinic. More than 30 children had died there since the war’s start, victims of severe malnutrition.

Taylor kept busy, too. As detailed in a ProPublica and Frontline investigation, he built up his army in part with the resources of one of America’s most iconic businesses: Firestone. The tire giant operated the largest rubber plantation in the world in Liberia. To do business, Firestone agreed to pay taxes to Taylor’s rebel army. In exchange, Taylor provided the company protection.

By October 1992, Taylor was ready to launch a massive new assault on Monrovia dubbed Operation Octopus. Using the Firestone plantation as his headquarters, he sent thousands of men streaming toward the capital in the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 15, 1992.

Once again, the rebels struck Gardnersville. They set up mortars and cannons. They fired over the convent into the distant, huddling city.

The West African peacekeeping forces were taken by surprise. They mustered several days before counterattacking. The troops hacked toward Gardnersville, battling through gun-wielding children and rebel strong points.

By mid-October, the sisters were once again on the frontlines of the war.

The Killings

On Oct. 20, heavy combat surrounded the convent.

At about 4 p.m., the convent’s security guard grew worried about the violence in Barnersville, a neighboring suburb where his family lived. Muttra and Joel Kolmer agreed to drive him home.

Once the car reached the main road, witnesses saw two West African peacekeepers flag down the car. They got into the vehicle with the sisters. The car headed east on the main road, known today as Somalia Drive. It moved from peacekeeper-held territory toward a checkpoint manned by soldiers from Taylor’s army, known as the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL.

That’s the last time witnesses reported seeing the two nuns, the security guard and the soldiers alive.

When Muttra and Kolmer did not return by nightfall, the remaining three sisters began to worry. By Oct. 23, they had heard nothing. The ineluctable conclusion: Muttra and Kolmer were dead.

By then, the fighting had grown much fiercer. Gunfire rattled constantly. Rocket propelled grenades streaked through the air. Two Lebanese families who lived nearby sought shelter inside the convent.

Surrounded and frightened, sisters Kathleen McGuire, Shirley Kolmer and Agnes Mueller made desperate pleas for help. Informed of their plight, the U.S. embassy asked for assistance from the West African peacekeeping force, known by the acronym ECOMOG.

On the morning of Oct. 23, peacekeepers battled to the convent, but decided evacuation was too

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