Kent (Dan) Daniels holds a photograph of his brother Jerry Daniels at the gravesite in the Missoula Cemetery where a casket said to hold the remains of Jerry is buried. “It would be great to see inside that coffin,” says Daniels, hoping that an exhumation would answer some of the questions surrounding his brother's death. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian
Too many secrets:
Family wants answers to CIA agent's mysterious 1982 death
By KIM BRIGGEMAN of the Missoulian
Jerry Daniels 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 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 Toby Scott 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.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com