Local News

Passaro's Lawyer: Prisoner Died Of Heart Attack, Not Assault

Posted July 21, 2004 7:06 a.m. EDT

— The lawyer who represents a local CIA contractor arrested for abusing a prisoner in Afghanistan, spoke out about the accusations Friday.

Meanwhile, the contractor and former Army Special Operations soldier, 38-year-old David A. Passaro, was in a secret location awaiting trial.

Passaro, of Lillington, was charged Thursday with two counts each of assault and assault with a dangerous weapon --flashlight. He has a detention hearing scheduled Tuesday morning in U.S. District Court in Raleigh.

The arrest marked the first time civilian charges have been brought in the investigation of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Passaro was charged in connection with the June 21, 2003, death of Abdul Wali. Wali had gone to a U.S. base in Afghanistan to surrender because authorities wanted to talk to him about rocket attacks against the base. He died three days after he arrived at the base.

Civilian attorney Gerald Beaver of Fayetteville said he has a transcript of an Islamic radio broadcast from June 27, 2003, in which an Afghan official said an examination showed Wali died of a heart attack.

"His story is he's innocent," Beaver said of Passaro. "That's all I can tell you."

Passaro's brother, Stephen, also said Passaro is innocent.

"David said something was being pinned on him," Stephen Passaro said, "that it was bogus."

Stephen Passaro lives in Hartford, Conneticut. That's also where David Passaro worked as a police officer and reportedly was fired after a year for fighting.

According to those who knew David Passaro, he spent most of his time either at home or at Fort Bragg. As a civilian employee with Special Operations, he worked on post until his arrest Thursday.

Beaver defended his client, pointing to news reports about an autopsy exam that indicated Wali's body showed "no sign of assault."

"With the governor of the province saying that there were no marks, bruises, or signs of abuse on the body, it certainly has drawn into question the events that occurred," Beaver said.

A report of the death does not mention Wali by name but said the Afghan national died of "heart disease" -- a "heart attack, not torture."

Prosecutors only have charged Passaro with assault. They said they are not filing a murder charge because they would need to examine Wali's body, which is buried in an area unsafe for U.S. troops.

"We had allegedly gravely improper conduct by someone working for the U.S. government, and the U.S. government properly moved forward in the investigastion," U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney said.

In the meantime, Special Ops officials said Passaro still has a contractual relationship with them. In fact, they said Passaro worked with them for most of the last two years -- one of the only times he took off, last summer, when he went to Afghanistan as a contractor for the CIA.

Beaver said he planned to meet with Passaro to determine whether he would represent him. Beaver had represented Passaro since he received a letter from federal prosecutors in March saying he was being investigated.

At the time of Wali's death, Passaro was on leave from a civilian Army medical job at Fort Bragg while doing the contract work for the CIA, according to the Army Special Operations Command.

If convicted, Passaro faces up to 40 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

Some people who know Passaro said he has a history of aggressive behavior. Others said the alleged actions seem out of character.

A spokeswoman for the Hartford, Conn., Police Department, Nancy Mulroy, said Passaro graduated from the city's police academy in 1990 but was relieved of duty after he was arrested by state police before completing his probationary period.

He was convicted in 1991 of breach of peace, state police said. He paid a $100 fine.

Passaro's ex-wife, Kerry Passaro of Fayetteville, said her husband had assaulted a neighbor and was violent throughout their marriage.

North Carolina records show David and Kerry Passaro were divorced in 2001, and that Passaro remarried a year later. Since then, Harnett County deputy sheriffs were called twice to the rural house to investigate domestic fights and again to look into a complaint that Passaro fired a gun at a neighbor's dog.

"I know my brother's in trouble," said Stephen Passaro, who lives in Hartford. "I know he's afraid. I know it's the same brother that for the last 10, 12 years has laid his life on the line so we could all be free."

The chief of the Connecticut volunteer fire department where Passaro served from 1990 to 1991 said the acts described in the indictment are at odds with his memory of a dedicated young man who longed for a career in public safety.

"He was one of those 110 percent people," said Joseph Lorenzetti, 49. "Whatever you needed the young man to do, he was more than cooperative. ... From when I knew the gentleman, this seems very out of character."

A former Green Beret medic and Army Ranger, Passaro began his contract with the CIA in December 2002. He arrived at the Afghan base in mid-May 2003, a few weeks before the alleged abuse occurred, U.S. officials said.