Unsolved Mystery

Boulder Weekly | February 2, 2006
Life, it seems, is not without its little jokes. Two weeks ago, I watched in disgust as Oprah defended author James Frey on Larry King Live. Frey had just been exposed by The Smoking Gun for making up most of his acclaimed nonfiction account of his life as a violent drug-addicted loser. His book, titled A Million Little Pieces, had been chosen by Oprah for her much-vaunted book club, making it an automatic bestseller, and Oprah, it seemed, didn't want to admit she'd been duped.

"What is relevant is that he was a drug addict who spent years in turmoil from the time he was 10 years old, drinking and tormenting himself and his parents, and stepped out of that history to be the man that he is today and to take that message to save other people and allow them to save themselves," she told King.

I blasted her in a column a few days later, because I believe truth does matter and that liars and fakers do not make valid messengers ("Gritty reality," Uncensored, Jan. 19).

After some consideration and public outcry, Oprah changed her tune and hauled Frey onto her show for a public flogging.

"I made a mistake, and I left the impression that the truth does not matter, and I am deeply sorry about that," Oprah told her audience.

Though some dismissed this self-criticism and her confrontation with Frey as clever marketing, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She had promoted the man; in fact, she was almost entirely responsible for Frey's success in selling books. She had to feel pretty embarrassed about the whole affair, I reasoned.

Fast forward just a few days.

It was late on Friday, Jan. 27, when my cell phone rang. A friend and fellow journalist asked me if I'd heard the news: David Race Bannon had been arrested on suspicion of criminal impersonation, computer crime and criminal attempt to commit theft after an investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Bannon had served as one of several sources in a controversial article I'd written about the crime of child sex trafficking. The article detailed the gruesome reality of the international sexual exploitation of children and included Bannon's perspective as a man who claimed to have hunted down and killed sex traffickers on behalf of Interpol for 20 years. Now, a year and a half later, one of my sources for that story was alleged to be a fake.

I hung up the phone and did the only thing I could at that moment -- I poured myself a glass of wine.

Weighing the evidence

I first heard of David Race Bannon in September 2004 from another source, who'd listened to him speak about child sex trafficking on the radio. Bannon, I was told, was an expert in the field of child sex trafficking who had spent his adult life hunting down sex traffickers on behalf of Interpol -- and killing them. I was told he'd published a book in January 2003 that detailed his experiences and that he was going to be speaking at the University of Colorado in a couple weeks.

"He doesn’t do interviews with print journalists," my source said, "but maybe I can get him to talk with you."

Within a few days, I received a copy of Bannon's book, Race Against Evil (New Horizon Press), which I read over the course of a weekend. The book opens with Bannon being sent to Korea as a Mormon missionary. Arrested and sent to prison after becoming involved in petty smuggling, or so the story goes, he was fished out of prison by Interpol and given a choice of serving his sentence or going to work for the international police organization. Most of the book is devoted to harrowing accounts of his work as an assassin and of the atrocities he witnessed.

As a narrative, it was gripping and horrifying and left me nauseated, my mind filling with the unwanted images of children chained to beds in Thai brothels, baby girls smuggled in suitcases, and dismembered corpses.

While the information on trafficking itself seemed credible, Bannon's accounts of his own activities as an assassin -- killing people, having been imprisoned and tortured by the North Koreans, having left Interpol as the only surviving member of his special operations unit -- strained credibility. I have no trouble believing that government agencies utilize assassins, lie and break the law. Still, the story was hard to swallow.

Bannon's claims weren't impossible, but they were improbable.

Bannon agreed to let me interview him on one condition -- that my article remain focused on sex trafficking and the organizations that are fighting this terrible crime. He did not want the article to focus on him or the details of his experience in Interpol. As my goal was to write an article about sex trafficking and not about him specifically, that was fine with me.

We spoke for more than an hour, during which time he shared his perspective on sex trafficking and on what communities and parents need to do to protect their own children. It wasn't the most compelling interview I've ever done, but it wasn't far from it.

I spent the following week researching the article, working late at night and over the weekend, putting in far more than the usual 40 hours. Much of that time was spent trying to find ways to prove -- or disprove -- Bannon's story.

I combed through both his book and his website, confirming his footnotes one by one. Did this federal study really exist? Did it say what he claimed it said? Did CNN truly report on babies being smuggled in suitcases?

Every one of them checked out.

I also spoke with people who had put their reputations on the line by working with him, people who had already gone through their own efforts to verify his claims. Lacking time to fly to his publisher's office in New Jersey, I spoke with someone who had met with his publisher and gone over the wealth of documents New Horizon Press had reportedly compiled to prove his story prior to publication. I confirmed that Bannon spoke Japanese and Korean, just as he claimed. I confirmed Bannon had appeared on National Public Radio as a recognized expert on sex trafficking.

I read an article published by the Charlotte Observer, the author of which was utterly convinced Bannon was authentic. I read articles in less-credible sources, like martial arts zines, in which Bannon was idolized. Balancing those articles was a piece written by Sam Boykin of Creative Loafing, who'd set out to test Bannon's story and, after probing seemingly every angle he could think of, including going through the papers at New Horizon, had concluded that he couldn't prove or disprove a word of it.

"Bottom line, Bannon was unable to produce a single document or piece of evidence to prove his claims," wrote Boykin. "But then again, no one has yet to produce a piece of evidence that disproves his story. There is, in fact, no 'smoking gun' from either side."

As I approached deadline, I found myself in a similar position -- lacking conclusive proof either way. I considered the flawless accuracy of Bannon's research, as well as his manner. Compared to the usual media whores -- New Age gurus, politicians, self-help authors -- he was very modest, even self-deprecating. He didn't make demands like some people try to do regarding book titles, Web sites, speaking engagements, money. He was not all about him; he was completely focused on the issue of sex trafficking. Then there was the fact that his book had been on the shelves since January 2003. Was it possible for him to publish falsehoods and for those falsehoods to go legally unchallenged for so long?

I decided to include him in the story, which ran on Sept. 9, 2004, and titled it "Lost innocence."

Happy hour with an assassin

Shortly after my article ran, Bannon came to Boulder to speak at CU and to be interviewed for a documentary about child sex trafficking. He called to let me know he'd be visiting, and we arranged to meet for drinks.

I met him first on the set of the documentary. He looked just like his photograph down to the black pants and suit jacket, but he was walking with a cane -- the result of the injury he received to his knee in the North Korean prison camp, he said. He chatted amicably with me and others, while the filmmakers played endlessly with lighting, backdrops, camera angles, sound levels. He showed us his scars, notably the enormous slash down his back that he claimed to have received in the Korean student riots of 1981, which marked the first time he'd killed a man. He was quietly funny, disarming, and friendly but not gregarious. He autographed my copy of his book, and then I headed back to work.

We met for happy hour that evening. He had a nonalcoholic drink -- a virgin colada, I believe. I made fun of him for that.

"You'll kill people, but you don't touch booze?"

I can't remember what I had -- white wine or a margarita. But I do remember his choosing a table in the corner and sitting with his back to the wall, just like many of the ex-military men I know. I remember how he rarely made eye contact, his gaze constantly traveling over the room behind me. I remember asking him if there were any kind of funky weapon concealed in his cane. I remember asking him about his name -- David Race Bannon -- which someone had informed me was the name of a comic book character.

"Blame my parents," he said.

As a mother who'd given her eldest son a name she planned to use (and later did use) in her first novel, I was satisfied by his answer.

Vous etes Americain?

The next day, I got a call from the people making the documentary. They wanted to know whether I'd be willing to interview Bannon on camera. With no professional interviewers among them, they thought they might get more usable footage this way. I agreed and spent about four hours on the set, most of which was watching people adjust the same lighting, backdrops, camera angles and sound levels they'd adjusted endlessly the day before.

It was during these four hours that I began to have greater doubts about Bannon's authenticity, doubts I kept to myself because they proved nothing. The doubts began as we stood around waiting for everything on the set to be perfect. I heard a man speak with what sounded like a Scandinavian accent. Because I speak fluent Danish, I asked him where he was from. It turned out he was Finnish, but he did speak some Swedish. We had a brief conversation in Swedish, with me doing my best to fake it. And that's when it occurred to me.

"Speak Korean," I said to Bannon. "I want to hear what it sounds like."

He broke eye contact, turned his head to the side and muttered a few syllables into his left shoulder. I don't speak Korean, but as someone who worked painstakingly to lose my American accent, I can recognize a strong American accent in any language. And Bannon had one.

I wasn't sure about Interpol, but if I wished to hire a hit person to work in Korea, I might go with one who spoke the language like a native.

Soon it was actually time to interview him, something I had done once before. As he answered my questions, my doubts grew stronger. His answers were verbatim what they'd been when I interviewed him before -- easily recognizable phrases like "dull, throbbing horror." Even his emotions and the words he chose to emphasize were identical. It was as if the interview he'd given me before, which had seemed original and fresh over the phone, was now being poured from a can.

How'd you get my number?

Interpol didn't contact me until more than a month after my story had run. A woman with a very British accent claiming to represent Interpol called my unlisted number and woke me up to say that nothing she said could be repeated, reported or recorded in any way.

While I pondered how an organization as big and powerful as Interpol could be so woefully ignorant of laws governing the press in the United States -- here it's reporters who decide what's on and off the record; government officials only get to decide whether or not to open their mouths -- she told me they were faxing me a statement that I had to run.

Being an editor in the United States, of course, means I don't have to run anything, but I agreed to look at it, and did choose to run it. It stated that Interpol had no record of Bannon or any of the individuals mentioned in his book. The statement denounced his book as "deceptive and irresponsible fantasy."

The call disturbed me on a number of levels. When the FBI calls they generally give you the means to verify they are the FBI. Apparently, Interpol expects you to take them at their word. Obviously they don't watch enough spy movies. Maybe the FBI can arrange a First Amendment workshop for them and touch on the subject of verification.

I confronted Bannon with Interpol's statement, and he laughed, telling me that, naturally, Interpol had to make that statement.

"It’s standard operating procedure for Interpol," he said, "a case of CYA [cover your ass]."

Fool me once, shame on you …

In the months following the article, Bannon kept in touch with the occasional e-mail or package of information. Sometimes the e-mails were just friendly banter, but most of the time they included additional information about child trafficking -- a new federal study, a report from the United Nations, a news clipping. Once in a while he sent something pertaining to his own work, mostly letters of praise. One was allegedly from the American ambassador to the UN's Commission on the Status of Women.

As the e-mails continued, my doubts about Bannon grew. I came to believe that he was subtly pushing me to interview him again. He called several times in the wake of the Asian tsunami, expressing his concern for children in areas devastated by the disaster. Although he was featured on several network television stations, I chose not to interview him again, even bagging a story about the Internet and child porn simply because he was the only source I could locate who was willing to comment on the record.

It came down to this: If I had been duped the first time, I didn't want to repeat that mistake.

I last spoke with him on Monday, Jan. 23. He called to say he'd be in town to meet with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation about doing a workshop for them and to suggest we get together again for drinks. I told him that would be great, thinking to myself how interesting it would be to discuss James Frey and to watch Bannon's reaction. But that meeting with CBI wasn't what he expected, and we never had those drinks. On Friday, Jan. 27, Bannon was arrested.

Innocent until proven guilty

Bannon, who has no criminal history, has not been proved guilty of anything. The allegations against him are merely that -- allegations. A copy of the arrest warrant affidavit claims that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation began at the urging of Interpol to look into Bannon in January 2005, two years after Bannon's book was published. The document repeats many of Bannon’s claims, lists some of his many media appearances, and reports that he was born David Wayne Dilley, but changed his name to David Dilley Bannon in 1990.

The affidavit then alleges that: • Bannon lost a job at Wake Technical Community College "based on questionable degree information" relating to the education he claims to have earned in Korea; • The verification Bannon provided to the college regarding his education was fraudulent; • Bannon’s ex-wife told investigators that Bannon is obsessed with comic books, changed his name to Bannon in honor of a comic book character, and is "a habitual liar"; • His ex-wife said she didn't see how he could have been an Interpol agent/assassin without her knowledge; • CBI investigators orchestrated an introduction with Bannon, who offered to teach a two-day workshop based on his Interpol experience for $3,000, plus air fare and a per diem; • This was not the first time Bannon had been paid for training or lectures; • Bannon was able to charge such fees only because of his claims to have expertise in human trafficking. According to the affidavit, Interpol is still trying to determine whether Bannon earned the degrees he claims to have earned.

I attempted to reach Bannon for an interview, but neither he nor his current wife returned my call. In prior conversations and in his book, however, Bannon claims Interpol wants to silence him to conceal extralegal law enforcement efforts that some perceive as "vigilantism."

"Is it possible he's telling the truth?" asked a friend.

It's not impossible, but it is improbable.

Joan Dunphy, publisher at New Horizon Press, said the company had only recently gotten the news. She said she didn’t yet have the facts concerning Bannon's arrest and has been trying to contact him.

"This book was vetted by an attorney, and I have a lot of proof," Dunphy says. "I've turned it over to our attorneys."

Dunphy says she has trouble believing the allegations against Bannon could be true.

"I happen to know that when you're covert, most of these agencies deny it," she says. "With Valerie Plame they issued denials, but they turned out not to be true. I have all kinds of stuff. I have chits from hotels. I have payment vouchers from different sources… We had a private detective who vetted some of his stuff. We could find no discrepancies."

Dunphy said Bannon's book had been slated to go into paperback but has been put on hold until her company can examine the allegations and evidence.

The trouble with memoirs

If Bannon lied about his life, he would become the latest in a string of authors to be exposed. Frey is perhaps the most famous faker du jour. He took a fiction book he couldn't sell, revamped it as nonfiction and got a $50,000 advance.

But there is also Nasdijj, who claimed to be Navajo and whose harsh descriptions of suffering on the reservation won him literary acclaim and multiple book contracts. Nasdijj, according to an exposé in the LA Weekly, might be less a Navajo and more an angry white writer of sadomasochistic gay erotica. The article alleges Nasdijj used an Indian persona to create a literary break for himself and borrowed heavily from the writing styles of American Indian authors Sherman Alexie, Leslie Silko, N. Scot Momaday and Michael Dorris.

There is also JT Leroy, whose web of identities/personas was recently the subject of an article in New York Magazine, titled "Who is the real JT Leroy? A search for the true identity of a great literary hustler." Leroy pens stories about the dark side of life that are understood by fans to be thinly disguised memoirs.

Most people react to these allegations by asking why anyone would bother to fake it when it's only a matter of time before they're caught and exposed. It’s obvious why Frey did what he did -- he wanted to sell a book. The same allegedly applies to Nasdijj.

But unlike Frey and Nasdijj, Bannon isn't a frustrated writer. Unlike Leroy, he isn't someone with high literary goals the purity of which demands disguises and God knows what other silliness. Bannon never once expressed to me a desire to pen great works of fiction or nonfiction. To understand why someone might fake a background as a special agent/assassin, I decided to look away from the world of New York publishing and into a milieu where faking it is ubiquitous -- that of the military veteran.

Be a war hero (or just act like one)

If any public figure in history is renowned for fake heroism, it is probably Darrow "Duke" Tully -- long-time publisher of the Arizona Republic, the 15th largest newspaper in the United States. Tully resigned in disgrace in 1985, the day Maricopa County Attorney Tom Collins held a press conference to announce that Tully had manufactured a prestigious military career that cast him as a former Air Force fighter pilot in Korea and a retired and decorated colonel. He was known for arrogantly parading around Phoenix in an Air Force uniform covered with medals.

Boulder Weekly phoned Tully at his retirement home in Florida, seeking his insight as to why people lead fantasy lives of heroism.

"It happens," Tully told Weekly columnist and former Editor Wayne Laugesen. "But I'm not interested in going back 20 some years in my career and discussing what happened to me, so the answer is no."

Laugesen explained to Tully that he merely wanted to better understand what factors might motivate a man to lead a complex life of lies. "For a lot of different reasons," Tully said. "But I’m not about to get into this with you, alright. There are a lot of different ways you can ask this question, and the answer is always going to be no. I paid my dues."

Robert K. Brown, a veteran Green Beret officer who served in Vietnam and retired as a lieutenant colonel from the Army, said he isn't surprised that Tully wouldn’t talk to the Weekly, even after 21 years.

"How do you explain that away? It's just pure, unadulterated fraud. It's not a matter of interpretation. It's not a matter of exaggeration. It's just fucking fraud," said Brown, publisher of Boulder-based Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Tully was so convincing as a counterfeit colonel that he was often invited to speak to large gatherings of veterans. Tully is credited with paving the way for Sen. John McCain's early political career. McCain befriended Tully in the early '80s as an aspiring politician, and the two were known to enjoy pretend dogfights on a flight simulator.

They became so close that they bought side-by-side vacation condos off the San Diego coast and Tully became the godfather of one of McCain's children. McCain's wife Cindy, and Tully's second wife, Pat -- both decades younger than their husbands -- were best friends.

Brown said Soldier of Fortune has devoted significant effort and resources for the past three decades to finding and exposing phony military veterans. After Vietnam, he said, the phenomenon of counterfeit veterans became epidemic.

"You can get a sense of whether a guy's a phony or not pretty easily," Brown explained. "A number of things get my antennae waving. When someone says 'I was on this super-secret mission, and everybody else is dead.' And/or, 'I can’t tell you anyone else who was in my unit with me because it was classified.' Or, 'they changed my records to conceal the operation.' Those are the kinds of things that start my antennae moving quickly."

A literary agent recently asked Brown to preview a "nonfiction" manuscript that seemed too good to be true and was heading for publication.

"This was going to be a book about a super-secret mission in Korea," Brown said. "Again, there's nothing in the records about it, and nobody's left alive except the author. I read the book, I talked to a couple of people, and it's clearly fantasy. It's utter hooey. It's a great read, but it's all bullshit."

Brown remembers a veteran's organization in the ’90s that was raising donations in Denver with the help of man who promoted himself as a former Navy SEAL. Brown smelled a rat and sent associate editor Alex McColl, a retired Army colonel and Harvard Law School graduate, to check the man out.

"Something just didn't click when I was talking to him, so I sent Alex down there," Brown said. "This guy started telling these unbelievable stories about putting mines on Russian ships and going up the river to Hanoi to blow things up. The stories just got loony, and it was clear this was no retired Navy SEAL."

Though Tully and hordes of other fake heroes never spent a day in military service, others simply exaggerate.

"Some simply embellish on war stories, like our good friend John Kerry," Brown said. "All he has to do to straighten things out is open up his military medical records. When people who have come into question won't open their military records, what suspicion does that raise? It tells me they’re hiding something."

Vietnam veteran B.G. Burkett, together with journalist Glenna Whitley, literally wrote the book on debunking military fakes, titled Stolen Valor: How the Vietnam Generation Was Robbed of Its Heroes and History. A retired stockbroker and former Army officer who had volunteered for service in Vietnam, Burkett began looking into military fakes in 1986 after his attempts to raise money for a memorial to Texans slain in the Vietnam War met with upturned noses from people who were disgusted by alleged Vietnam vets they saw panhandling. Burkett discovered that very few of the men living on the streets had actually served in the military, much less in combat in Vietnam. In North Texas, they discovered only one homeless man who’d actually served in Vietnam.

Burkett tells story after story of men and women who either lied outright about their military service, like Tully, or who exaggerated it, often fooling federal agencies, even the Pentagon.

"Why do people do this?" Burkett asks. "There are two major reasons. The biggest percentage -- and it's hard to say the exact percentage, but I would say 90 percent of these guys -- it's a low self-esteem thing. They've never really done anything. They were the nerd in high school, whatever it was. But the second they say, 'I’m a hero. I have a Silver Star.' Or, 'I was wounded in Normandy,' or whatever generation they're from, they place themselves in the major event of their day, and they were heroic in that event. A lot of them forge documents, but it's for no purpose other than admiration… Suddenly all their sins are forgiven, and they are somebody."

For the other 10 percent, it's masterful resumé packing, he says. They create a personality and history in order to pull off a specific scam. While military records are easy to check and confirm, Bannon's claims are not easy to validate, Burkett says.

"At least with me and my military records, I can unequivocally prove where that guy was and what he did, whereas you're still in a bit of a never-never land," he says.

Filling the void

If David Race Bannon is a fraud, he's a fraud who has put astonishing effort into becoming the expert he wants to be. Between his website and his book, he has put together a wealth of detailed information about sex trafficking. And if his accounts of being a special agent/assassin are bogus, the crime of child sex trafficking is only too real.

According to the World Congress Against Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, an estimated 1 million children are forced into the multi-billion-dollar sex trade each year. The U.S. State Department estimates that 50,000 children are trafficked into the United States every year.

From Nepalese girls sold into prostitution by their parents to small children offered to American businessmen vacationing in Thailand to Mexican teenagers kept in squalor in Florida and Los Angeles and forced to have sex with up to 40 men a night, it’s an industry that has many faces. It's a crime so horrific that, until recently, the public has been reluctant to acknowledge it.

But if the public has been reluctant to hear the message, government and law enforcement hasn't exactly been active in delivering it.

After "Lost innocence," I wanted to write a story focusing exclusively on the Internet component of the child sex trade. I contacted investigators in Jefferson County, who lead the state in their efforts to catch and prosecute adults who sexually exploit children. The lead investigator told me he’d have to be cleared through their media people in order to do an interview; the media people didn’t return my calls. Boulder's response was even more pathetic. The city spokeswoman informed me they didn't want to talk about what they do at all, not even to give me a list of safety tips for parents.

Bannon, however, was quite eager to offer just such a list. My misgivings about him resulted in my killing that story. And yet, it was an important topic. The Jefferson County investigator told me that his team has consistently picked up sexual predators within about 15 minutes any time they’ve gone online posing as children. Is there any parent who doesn’t find that disturbing?

Until and unless allegations against Bannon are resolved in his favor, he can no longer be a voice for the issue of child sex trafficking, no matter how accurate his statistics. But if he’s not the voice for these children, who will be?

"People wouldn't be listening to Race [Bannon], if Interpol had someone speaking out on this topic," said a source who works to combat the sexual exploitation of children. "He filled a void."


As I research and write this article, Bannon is staying in the Boulder area awaiting his first court appearance on Friday, Feb. 3. The spokesman for the CBI says their investigation is ongoing and that, therefore, officials can't comment.

Boulder Weekly has been and will continue to cooperate with the CBI in this case.

As the judicial system begins the slow process of grappling with the allegations against Bannon, I have time to look back on the days prior to publishing the first article and wonder what I could or should have done differently. A criminal background check would have yielded nothing; Bannon was clean. If Interpol hasn't yet been able to confirm whether or not he earned a doctorate in Korea, I certainly couldn’t have done so in the time that I worked on my article.

One might argue that improbable information ought to never make the newspaper. But if one looks at the news stories that were initially deemed ridiculous -- COINTELPRO, Watergate, the Iran-Contra scandal, Plamegate, and etc. -- one quickly realizes that journalism, most especially alternative journalism, entails taking some risks. I don’t say that to defend any lack of judgment on my part; it is quite simply a fact.

And now readers of Boulder Weekly know almost everything I know about David Race Bannon and the allegations made against him. We’ll have to wait together to see how the story unfolds.

In the meantime, I have on my desk that autographed copy of Bannon’s book. I find myself wondering if the charges against him will prove true and asking the question that millions of American women seem to ask themselves each day: "What would Oprah do?"

Will she keep her autographed copy of Frey’s book, or will she hock it on eBay?

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