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.

Oct 24, 2007 at 4:00 am
Just before dawn on an August morning seven years ago, John and Henry Kanbo drove toward the market town of Naivasha to buy cattle. The Naivasha-Nakuru Highway is usually one of the busiest roads in southwest Kenyas Rift Valley, but at 6 a.m. it was deserted, except for the battered white Toyota pickup perched on the edge of a ditch near a grove of acacia trees. The brothers pulled over and noticed a string of pink rosary beads hanging from a switch on the dashboard and a body lying in a brick drainage culvert.

In the dim morning light the Kanbos made out the corpse of a large white male, 6-foot-2-inches and 200 pounds. He lay on his back, his black leather jacket and gray trousers splattered with mud. There was a pile of blankets and sheets at his side and a double-barreled shotgun at his feet. Blood oozed from where the back of his head should have been.

When police arrived, they had little trouble identifying the body. The man's name was John Anthony Kaiser. He was much loved by the people of Kenya for the work he did on behalf of the poor and dispossessed. He was an American priest who had first come to Africa 36 years ago as a missionary, fresh from his ordination in St. Louis, where he attended Saint Louis University and began studying for the priesthood.

At first the Kenyans knew him as Father Seven Oxen because of his physical strength. Later they called him the Rhino because he was tough and stubborn, not a man to be crossed. In the few years before his death, he'd become the Key, or the Voice of the People, unafraid to speak out against the corruption that permeated the Kenyan government.

Father Kaiser was 67 years old when he died that early morning of August 24, 2000. Naivasha police told the Kenyan newspaper The Nation he'd been shot in a "gangland-style execution."

Kaiser was not the first outspoken Catholic priest in Kenya to perish under mysterious circumstances. "You'd be surprised at how much went on in western Kenya in the 1990s," says Dave Durenberger, a former U.S. Senator from Minnesota and a high school classmate of Kaiser. "A lot of priests spoke out against the government, and the government tried to scare them off and keep them in their place." Sometimes they went even further, says Father Cornelius Schilders, the current Bishop of Ngong, Kaiser's old diocese. "Many people who spoke out against the oppression and corruption disappeared," he explains in a recent e-mail.

In public forums and in the Kenyan and international press, Kaiser accused Kenya's president, Daniel arap Moi, of staging bloody tribal wars in order to drive people from their land and seize it for the government. Throughout the 1990s, Kaiser had been followed, harassed and even beaten and placed under house arrest by Kenyan police and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). "I reckon they tried to frighten him so he would leave Kenya," Schilders writes. "But then they really did not know him! Nothing would make him do that, only death."

"John always knew he was going to die in Africa," says his niece, Mary Mahoney Weaver. "It was his home."

Before his journey to Kenya, Kaiser's home was his parents' dairy farm near the town of Perham, in northern Minnesota. Although the family struggled financially, they were resourceful. The four Kaiser children grew their own vegetables and played with homemade toys. As a young boy Kaiser learned how to hunt and fish, good preparation for the rugged life of a missionary. "John never had comfort," recalls Kaiser's cousin, Michaela Dasteel. "He did not want comfort."

At thirteen, Kaiser left the farm for St. John's Preparatory School, a Catholic boys' boarding school in Collegeville, Minnesota, 200 miles away. His parents strongly believed in giving their children a Catholic education, regardless of the considerable sacrifices.

His old St. John's classmate Durenberger remembers Kaiser as "a big, gangly farm boy who wasn't afraid of anything." He was captain of the football and track teams, set the school's pole-vaulting record and was a talented artist and star student. "He was a normal kid with exceptional talents," remembers Kaiser's sister, Carolita Mahoney. "Wherever he went, people wanted to be around him. But he was a loner. He would just as soon have been out hunting in the woods."

Kaiser entered Collegeville's St. John's University in 1951 with the intention of studying English literature and becoming a teacher. But even then he suspected he might be facing a different sort of future. "God calls you to become a priest," explains Mahoney. A devout Catholic like Kaiser could not ignore God. But, she adds, "He put off answering the calls."

"It was a real sacrifice for him to become a priest," says Dasteel. "He loved women."

Kaiser left college in 1954 and enlisted in the peacetime Army, where he spent three years as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. He jumped out of airplanes, slept in the woods and developed a taste for adventure that he didn't think he could satisfy as a parish priest.

"John had a real fear of being a diocesan priest and being sent to a big city," Mahoney says. As Dasteel puts it: "He was a country guy; the problems of middle-class Americans would have gotten him down."

Soon after Kaiser's return to St. John's in 1957, a Dutch priest from the St. Joseph's Missionary Society paid a recruiting visit to the college. More commonly known as Mill Hill, after its headquarters in England, it is the largest of the missionary orders. "The recruiter talked about the wildlife of Africa," remembers Father Bill Vos, a St. John's classmate who later worked with Kaiser in Kenya. "That got John."

Mill Hill sent Kaiser to St. Louis to begin his seminary training at SLU. He graduated in 1960 and went on to England to finish his studies, but he insisted on returning to St. Louis for his ordination in 1964. Here he'd made friends with several local families and the bishop. It felt like home.

That autumn he boarded a freighter for the two-month voyage to Kenya.

On the afternoon of April 18, 2001, two FBI agents arrived at Carolita Mahoney's home in Underwood, Minnesota. It was not the first time they had visited. Immediately after Father John Kaiser's death, the U.S. ambassador to Kenya, Johnnie Carson, had arranged for the FBI to join the Kenyan police and the CID in the investigation. Carson was afraid that the Kenyans would try to protect President Moi and paint Kaiser's killing as something other than a political assassination.

Mahoney cooperated with the agents, telling them everything she knew about her brother's life. She wanted justice — and resolution. After eight months of investigating, they brought her an 81-page document titled "The Final Report Into The Death of Father John Kaiser." She grabbed the report and turned to the final summary page. She noticed the agents did not linger to see her reaction. "They were out the door so quickly it was like they knew I was not going to be happy," she recalls.

"The manner of the death of Father John Anthony Kaiser is more consistent with a suicide than a homicide," she read. "This suicide resulted from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head."

The FBI report, a devastating glimpse into Kaiser's "deteriorating" mental state, focused on the final 96 hours of his life in Nairobi. It said colleagues described him as "out of sorts," "tense," "scared," "exceptionally nervous" and "haunted." He was seen crying at Mass and spent nights awake with a shotgun by his side, and when he did sleep, "Father Kaiser could be heard calling out the names of prominent Kenyan politicians." The report continued: "He confides that he thinks he is being followed." He told his bishop, "death was near."

Carolita Mahoney stood in the doorway, shocked and angry. Devout Catholics did not commit suicide, especially not Catholic priests. "Anyone who knew John would know that report was ridiculous." Says niece Mary Mahoney Weaver: "They said he was mentally unstable because he cried during Mass. He cried many times when he was very moved."

Kaiser himself had suspected that he might be murdered and that someone would try to cover it up; he'd seen it before, when other priests' deaths were attributed to unfortunate car accidents. Shortly before he died, he wrote in an open letter to his family and friends, "I want all to know that if I disappear from the scene, because the bush is vast and hyenas many, that I am not planning any accident, nor, God forbid, any self-destruction."

Kaiser's family immediately grasped the implication of the FBI's conclusion. Suicide was a mortal sin, a violation of everything Kaiser stood for as a Catholic priest. "It was a smudge on his name," says Weaver.

"John loved Africa from the minute he got there," Michaela Dasteel says. Kenya won its independence from Great Britain in 1963, two years before Kaiser arrived, and he was excited to help build the new nation. After several years of training, he took up his first parish among the Kisii people, in the high plains of the Rift Valley.

Father Kaiser had to build a congregation from nothing, Father Bill Vos recalls. In the beginning, there wasn't even a church. Kaiser led Mass under a tree. "It was grassroots evangelism," says Vos. As his flock grew, Kaiser began to build churches and schools and proved himself an effective, economical contractor. "He would use the local materials," Vos remembers. "He was very clever. He'd cut down trees and get the people to haul stones."

His physical strength amazed the Kisii. "Once a group of men was trying to raise a huge tree for the center post of a church," Weaver recalls. "John was determined to get the thing done. But it got late and everyone went home. When they came back the next morning, the post was up. He never said how he did it. They considered him superhuman."

Kaiser's happiest times were on hunting trips with the tribe. "The Kisii were traditional hunters," Vos says. "They were proud to have a priest who connected with them on that level."

"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.

The parties indeed split along tribal lines. The Kikuyu did not support Moi. In order to prevent them from voting, Moi staged a tribal war, hiring thugs to pose as Maasai and attack the Kikuyu. By 1993, when Kaiser became chaplain of the Maela camp, Moi had been re-elected president, and 30,000 Kikuyu lost their homes and were living in squalor.

"The people were in shock," says Carolita Mahoney. "They had to live in plastic huts. The U.N. provided rations, but they were starvation rations. John would secretly load up his truck with powdered milk and maize and soybeans so they would have something to eat. He got in big trouble."

Kaiser appealed to the U.N. to improve the conditions at Maela, but nothing changed. Kaiser believed it was because the U.N. was afraid to antagonize Moi. Looking to shame the relief organization into changing its mind, he took the case to the press. Soon the missionary priest became a national figure — and a target of the Moi government.

"He didn't welcome the attention," Mahoney says. "He was happy being a pastor. He didn't recognize the danger. The Kisii were not having the same problems as the Kikuyu. But he felt he should have spoken up sooner. The most important thing he remembered from seminary was the time a priest had asked his class what was the most important virtue a priest should have. The students said things like humility and kindness. The priest slammed down his hand on the desk and said, 'No! It's courage! If you don't have courage, you will never be a good priest.' John lived it."

It was because of John Kaiser that stories about the harsh conditions at Maela began to appear in American papers. Facing international embarrassment and, more important, the loss of foreign aid, Moi decided to close the camp and disperse the Kikuyu refugees. Government soldiers arrived in Maela on Christmas Eve in 1993.

They came in trucks to haul the human cargo away to empty stadiums and open fields. Kaiser refused to leave. He herded the women and children into the church and stood guard at the door to protect them. For his efforts, he was beaten and dumped out in the bush to die. Somehow he survived. But that was only the beginning.

For the rest of his life, Kaiser was harassed by agents of the Kenyan government. They tailed his car at night and threw rocks through the windows of his house. Once, says Vos, the Kenyan police caught him in the bush and held a gun to his head. Kaiser told them, "Shoot me and my troubles are over, but yours are just beginning." They let him go.

The church began to worry about Kaiser's safety. Bishop Colin Davies reassigned him to Lolgorien, a remote parish in the hilly green Maasai territory near the Tanzania border, and warned him to "go easy." But easy wasn't Kaiser's style. Though he had great respect for Pope John Paul II, he was impatient with the church bureaucracy and believed his first loyalty was to his parishioners.

"John could be quite stubborn when he wanted to be," says his niece Mary Mahoney Weaver. "He was disappointed that people could be so absolutely cruel and disrespectful of life."

So in 1998, when Moi organized a tribunal called the Akiwumi Commission to look into the causes of ethnic violence, Kaiser was determined to testify. He assembled documents and traveled to Nairobi, where he spent several weeks sitting outside the courtroom waiting to be called. When he finally did take the stand in February 1999, his testimony caused a sensation. He claimed the government had instigated the tribal clashes, and he named names: Minister of Defense Julius Sunkuli, Cabinet member Nicholas Biwott and President Moi himself.

"In the constitution of Kenya, it's written that you cannot defame the president," Father Bill Vos explains. "John publicly said Moi should be indicted in the world court at The Hague for crimes against humanity, and he volunteered to testify. It was not the best way to ensure his future."

Kaiser knew what he was getting into, says Bishop Cornelius Schilders, who was then the Regional Superior of Mill Hill. "He said, 'they may well kill me for this, but I am prepared to die for the truth, because God's people are being trampled on and we have to speak,'" Schilders writes in an e-mail. "He was particular in mentioning names, including the president's. He did so because if one remains general, nobody will take it to heart and nothing will change."

The Akiwumi Commission struck Kaiser's testimony from the record — not that it mattered. The commission never bothered to release a report. Meanwhile, Kaiser had found another crusade. Two girls in his parish claimed they had been raped and impregnated by Sunkuli. Kaiser encouraged them to take legal action against the minister, the second most powerful man in Kenya.

By now, Kaiser knew his life was in real danger. A sympathetic government security agent warned him that plans had been made for his assassination. "He was more and more stressed," Vos says. "He was on guard more and he kept his gun with him when he slept."

In the autumn of 1999 the Kenyan government found a perfect excuse to expel Kaiser from the country: he had neglected to renew his work visa. But Kaiser went into hiding, moving from place to place — including a convent, where Vos says the nuns lied to protect him. The church and the U.S. State Department intervened, and the Kenyan government issued Kaiser another visa.

But why didn't he take the opportunity to leave Kenya while he still could and save his own life? "He was afraid to come home," Dasteel says. "He was afraid he wouldn't be able to get back into the country." Besides, he had spent more than half his life in Kenya; he was more African now than American. "He was happiest in Kenya," says Weaver.

Dasteel believes that Kaiser martyred himself to save Kenya. Although the two girls succumbed to government pressure and dropped the rape charges against Sunkuli, the case damaged Sunkuli's reputation enough that he lost the 2002 presidential election.

"If Johnny hadn't done what he did," Dasteel says, "Sunkuli would have succeeded Moi and the corruption would still be going on. He didn't want to die. He loved life. But I think he thought that maybe he could make a difference."

Three days before he died, Father Kaiser traveled to Nairobi at the summons of the Papal Nuncio, or representative of the Pope. Kaiser was afraid that the church was about to order him to leave Kenya, and he wept as he recited his last Mass in Lolgorien. To the other priests who saw him in Nairobi, Kaiser appeared to be on edge. His moods changed abruptly and he wasn't sleeping.

"They said he was paranoid," says Weaver. "Well, he was beaten and attacked and his house was ransacked. They said he wasn't sleeping. Well, yeah. He had rocks thrown through his window. Of course he was paranoid. He knew he was skating on thin ice. In that report, there was not one comment or statement by anyone who remotely knew him."

Mahoney says Kaiser's mood swings could be easily explained: "John thought the Nuncio was going to send him home because he was going to get himself killed. Instead the Nuncio asked him for advice about who should be the next bishop in the Ngong diocese. He wanted advice from someone the people respected. John was delighted."

Kaiser left Nairobi for Lolgorien the evening of August 23, 2000. Only a few hours of daylight remained. The Nakuru police commander Andrew Kimetto described Kaiser's final hours to The Nation, based on crime-scene evidence. Kaiser's truck was hijacked and driven off the main road into the forest. He was pulled from the truck and forced to kneel and say his final prayers. An assassin then shot him in the back of the head. The killers drove the truck back to the Naivasha-Nakuru Highway, dumped his body in the ditch and disappeared.

A month after Kaiser's death, FBI agents traveled to Kenya to interview the Naivasha police and the coroner who performed the autopsy. Their final report relied most heavily on the opinion of Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a gunshot expert in Texas. Yet Di Maio did not examine the body, and of the many photographs available, none showed a clear view of the head wound. Also, the FBI's "behavioral analysis unit," which deemed Kaiser suicidal, had never met him and only reviewed his medical history, which they conceded was incomplete.

"I'm not severely critical of the FBI," Mahoney says, "but I wouldn't recommend those investigators for anything."

Kaiser's family and friends are convinced the investigation was a sham. "Someone else was calling the shots," Durenberger says. That someone else, he believes, was the U.S. State Department.

In early 2001 the U.S. was preparing for the possibility of war with Iran. On the Indian Ocean, the Kenyan harbor of Mombasa would be a strategic location to hold ships and aircraft carriers. "I am convinced that a deal was made between the U.S. government and the Kenyan government," Bishop Cornelius Schilders writes. "The price for the use of the harbor was John Kaiser and the explanation of his suicide."

Durenberger used his connections to get in touch with Ambassador Carson. "I asked what the State Department was going to do. He said, 'Nothing.' He wasn't going to rock the boat. It ticked me off. Till the day I die, I am going to believe that my Department of State and my Department of Justice played a role in the decision to cover up for the people responsible for John's death." Father Tony Chantry, the General Superior of Mill Hill, offers a more blunt assessment: "The FBI colluded with corrupt members of the Kenyan government."

The Catholic Church and then-Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone both condemned the report and began pressuring the governments of Kenya and the United States to launch an inquest into Kaiser's death. The Kenyan courts finally began the inquest in 2003, after Moi had been swept from power. It dragged on for more than four years, with frequent recesses and a change in the magistrate halfway through. Some 112 witnesses gave testimony. The magistrate called the FBI agents to the stand three times, but they never appeared or gave an explanation for their absence.

Mahoney believes Kenya's inquest probe was far more complete than the "official" one by the FBI. "So many people who should have been interviewed came forward at the inquest," she says.

On August 1, 2007, the inquest finally came to an end. Kenyan Magistrate Maureen Odero ruled that John Kaiser did not commit suicide, thus rejecting earlier findings by Kenyan authorities and the FBI that he shot himself in the back of the head with a shotgun. Kaiser was murdered.

Kevin Foust, the FBI agent who led the investigation, offered but two words last week when asked to square his determination of suicide with the findings of the inquest: "No comment."

"The wonderful thing about this whole thing is that there are thousands — thousands — of Kenyans who absolutely knew John was murdered," Fran Kaiser, the priest's brother, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "He had been their greatest advocate for years. Their hope for any justice was bashed, but now it is resurrected again."

Mahoney, though, is not optimistic about the Kenyan government's chances of ever finding her brother's killer. "It's a cold case," she says. "Whoever pulled the trigger is probably dead themselves."

Four thousand people attended Father John Kaiser's funeral on August 31, 2000. They packed the basilica in Nairobi and stood in the street outside. Pigeons circled the rafters of the cathedral — "like the Holy Spirit," Mahoney says — as the crowd sang the missionary anthem, "Here I Am, Lord." As Kaiser himself had requested, his body was laid to rest under a fig tree in Lolgorien. His family covered the grave with a protective layer of cement.

In Kenya today, the American missionary remains a national hero. Children are named after him. "Every August 24 is celebrated like Martin Luther King Day here," says Father Vos. "He's a focal point for anyone working for peace and justice in that country."