The Death of Father Kaiser

Was it a Kenyan assassin who killed the St. Louis missionary -- or was it madness? Seven years later, the verdict is in.

"He lived very simply," Vos adds, "like African people do." Aside from his motorcycle, all of his possessions could fit in a sack. His family would send him underwear, socks and deodorant, but he'd give it all away. "He didn't need it," says Weaver.

"You rarely saw him down," says Weaver. "He could find joy in the simplest things." On visits home, he would devour bowls of ice cream, quote lines from the movie Fargo in a Minnesota accent, and sing his favorite song, Glen Campbell's "Rhinestone Cowboy." A week before his death, Kaiser wrote home to say he hoped he and his family could "all meet again and have a fishing trip up in the border waters of northern Minnesota, canoe country. The best time would be late August or September..."

But there were at least two periods in Kaiser's life, according to the FBI report, when his natural exuberance deserted him. In 1969 Mill Hill reassigned Kaiser to its mission near Albany, New York, where he served as a rector, guiding other young men who hoped to join the order. His superior was an older priest who had served the parish for many years. Soon after Kaiser arrived, he noticed that money appeared to be missing from the parish's coffers. He announced that he would ask a friend, a CPA, to check the books.

"Soon thereafter," the April 2001 FBI report read, "Father Kaiser traveled to New York City. While there, Father Kaiser was taken into custody by the New York Police Department and taken to Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric evaluation. Father Kaiser had resisted the NYPD officers because he believed there was nothing wrong with him. He subsequently learned that [the other priest] had filed a report stating that he (Father Kaiser) was mentally impaired, possessed a gun, and had gone to New York City." Mahoney went to Bellevue to visit him and found him under heavy medication. Kaiser agreed to voluntary commitment so his insurance would pay for treatment, the report continued, "and stated it would be a good opportunity to rest."

The real problem, Mahoney maintains, was not Kaiser's mental condition, but widespread corruption within the Albany parish. "There were things amiss in that place," she says. "There were problems — not with John, but with someone in so-called authority."

Mahoney arranged for Kaiser's release from the hospital, and Mill Hill sent him back to Africa. He had no further mental-health issues until 1980, when, on a visit home, he began to feel agitated and had trouble sleeping. His family took him to see a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him with bipolar disorder and prescribed lithium. Kaiser took the medicine until he returned to Kenya later in the summer of 1980 and no longer felt he needed it. Weaver believes Kaiser was suffering from culture shock. "He came back here," she says, "and everything was so different. He never had a problem in Africa."

"There was a lot of misinterpretation of his behavior in the FBI's analysis," Mahoney adds.

Kaiser's life as an ordinary missionary priest came to an end one night early in 1993. He'd recently been transferred to a new parish in the central Kenyan highlands, just east of the Rift Valley. Driving along a mountain road, he saw a group of Kikuyu tribespeople trudging through the chilly rain. Kaiser stopped to ask them where they were going. To a refugee camp in Maela, halfway up the mountain, they told him. The government had just confiscated their land in the valley and they had nowhere else to go.

Like nearly everywhere else in Kenya in the early 1990s, the Rift Valley had been the battleground of a bloody tribal war. In the past, the Kikuyu people had leased farmland from their Maasai neighbors. The arrangement benefited both tribes, and they lived together in relative peace. But in 1992, just before Kenya's first two-party election, some of the Maasai began stealing cattle from their Kikuyu tenants and attacking Kikuyu farmers for violating the terms of their leases. The Kikuyu fought back. War broke out, and some entire villages were decimated. The government intervened and seized the Kikuyu land.

Kaiser volunteered to serve as chaplain in Maela. After several months in the camp, he began to realize that the tribal war was not the dustup over cattle rustling and land leases that it first appeared.

Daniel arap Moi had been the president of Kenya since 1978. He was a popular leader at first, but as time went on he began to resort to more menacing measures to maintain political power. By the early '90s, says Durenberger, "the Moi government was rotten to the core."

"Moi was a dictator," says Dasteel. "He had any opposition tortured or murdered. Ballot boxes were stolen. Anyone who tried to run against Moi got killed." One of Moi's favorite methods of eliminating his rivals was to stage car "accidents" in remote locations.

The 1992 election was particularly crucial for Moi. For the first time since becoming president, he was facing a real political challenge. In 1991, in order to continue to receive Western aid, he reluctantly agreed to allow multi-party elections, even though he believed multiple parties would lead to increased tribal warfare.

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