Con man or super spook — either way, Roland Carnaby wasn't supposed to meet his death on a Houston highway in a high-speed chase with the cops.
By Chris Vogel
September 17, 2009
Carnaby's spy friends say Carnaby must have been working with the CIA to be allowed behind the seal at the agency's Virginia headquarters. The CIA, however, says that's not necessarily true.
Though it appears Carnaby did provide information to U.S. intelligence officers, it is unlikely that his death will merit a star on the CIA's wall commemorating the agency's fallen heroes.
After Carnaby's untimely death, speculation was rampant over whether he really was a spook.
Roland Carnaby, federal intelligence agencies, HPD officer trainingA Houston Police Department officer named Charles Starks had stopped him driving his Jeep Commander a little before 10 a.m. on April 29, 2008. Carnaby announced he was CIA and pulled out his credentials. Starks asked for a phone number to call to verify Carnaby's claim. Carnaby gave him one, but said that probably no one was there. When Starks asked to hold the CIA badge, Carnaby refused, citing "national security" issues.
Following procedure, Starks ran Carnaby's driver's license and found that the silver-haired man in the dark suit had been arrested, but not convicted, in 1992 in Montgomery County for disorderly conduct. Police records showed Carnaby had a concealed-handgun license and that his car was registered to something called the National Security Command Center, with an address that Starks thought looked like it was in a strip mall in town. It didn't make sense to Starks that a CIA officer would need a concealed-handgun license or that he'd have an arrest record. And what was up with that odd registration and address?
That's when Carnaby called Frank Zavala, an HPD Internal Affairs officer he knew, and told Zavala that Starks was giving him a hard time. He passed his cell phone to Starks, who told Zavala that Carnaby was acting strangely. Zavala said he knew Carnaby and thought Carnaby was in the CIA, but that he wasn't completely sure. Before hanging up the phone, Starks said that he was going to write up an incident report and then let Carnaby go. Zavala then called Carnaby back and relayed the news.
But Starks was not finished. He called HPD's Major Offenders Division and spoke to a sergeant, who then called an officer assigned to the department's interjurisdictional squad with the FBI. The officer told the sergeant that Carnaby was not a CIA agent and had done this type of thing in the past. The sergeant told Starks to arrest Carnaby on traffic charges and confiscate the CIA badge for further investigation.
Starks walked up to Carnaby and told him to get out. Carnaby refused. "Don't do this to me," he said.
Then Carnaby took off. He frantically called Zavala back.
"Hey Frank, I fucked up," Carnaby said on his cell phone. He said he was scared. "This might be a setup."
"Set up by whom?" Zavala asked.
Carnaby wasn't sure. "Maybe the agency," he said.
Zavala told Carnaby to pull over and obey the officer.
"I can't," Carnaby said, and hung up.
Carnaby sped onto Interstate 45 North and over to Interstate 10 and onto Houston's West Loop. By this time, several police cars were chasing him with sirens blaring while helicopters overhead taped the action for the TV news.
From the car, Carnaby made another call, this time to his friend of more than 15 years, Dennis Franks, a supervisory special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Houston. Carnaby told Franks that he had shown Starks a CIA badge that he sometimes used but that the officer was uncooperative. Franks kept telling Carnaby to pull over. Carnaby said he was heading to the FBI field office and that he had to get himself out of the jam, but he was running low on gas.
Meanwhile, Starks had gotten off the police radio after telling his fellow officers that Carnaby might be an armed impersonator.
About 15 minutes into the high-speed chase, Carnaby took the Woodway exit off the 610 Loop. He flew through a red light and drove south on the service road until finally coming to a sudden stop in the right lane near Buffalo Bayou. Starks and the other officers slammed on their brakes and stopped just feet from Carnaby's vehicle. Carnaby had run out of gas.
After a few moments, supervising Sergeant Andrew Washington and Officer Cecil Foster ran over to the passenger's side window of Carnaby's Jeep and yelled for him to roll down the heavily tinted window. At least one officer at the scene had left his siren on, and it was almost impossible for the officers to hear one another. None of the cops used their loudspeakers.
Carnaby lowered the window slightly but refused to get out, and then rolled the window back up.
The next minute was chaos. Officers were screaming, "Get back; get back." One shouted, "He said he was CIA."
Foster grabbed his baton with two hands and began swinging against the Jeep's front passenger window. It took five blows to shatter the glass.
Carnaby was on the phone with Franks, who could hear the window explode. Then the line went dead.
In the same instant, Carnaby opened his door and placed his left leg on the pavement as Foster stuck his head and shoulders through the broken window with his gun pointed at Carnaby. Officers yelled, "Hands up, hands up. Get on the ground." While exiting the car, Carnaby bent over, as if he were trying to grab something underneath his seat or on the floorboard. At the same time, Washington had made his way around the front of the Jeep over to Carnaby.
One bullet, from Washington's gun, landed in the door of the Jeep. The other, from Foster, found its mark in Carnaby's back.
The officers later claimed that they saw Carnaby grab a "dark and shiny object" that they thought was a gun. It turned out to be his BlackBerry, which was lying next to Carnaby's body as officers handcuffed him. Bleeding badly, Carnaby began kicking out blindly. His phone records show he tried frantically to make several calls, but was only able to push random digits. He died before an ambulance could get him to the hospital.
Inside the Jeep, police found three guns and the book A Divided Life, about a British double agent who worked for Soviet Russia.
Immediately reporters started trying to figure out who Carnaby really was. All the initial news stories had the same plot: HPD killed a man claiming to be CIA who was also the local chapter president of the national Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
Conspiracy theories flooded the Web, claiming the CIA or some foreign intelligence agency had assassinated Carnaby. His friends and family swore Carnaby was the real McCoy and that he knew many CIA and FBI big shots, as well as a host of local law-enforcement officers. But the CIA and FBI denied ever employing him, and HPD Chief Harold Hurtt and Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia publicly claimed they hardly knew the man.
Who was this guy? everyone wondered. Was he really an international CIA officer, killed in a routine traffic stop in Texas?
A year and a half later, the Houston Press has obtained new information in the form of depositions from former intelligence officers that appears to establish that Roland Carnaby was the real deal — at least for part of his life.
Given that the nature of a spy is to live a secretive, double life filled with half-truths and contradictions, how then to determine whether someone is in fact an intelligence officer, an impostor, or perhaps a sometime spook who has embellished his résumé?
After the shooting, U.S. intelligence agencies immediately distanced themselves from Roland Carnaby. CIA spokesman Paul Gimigliano, whose name appeared in Carnaby's BlackBerry, said Carnaby was never a CIA officer or contract employee and that he had no memory of ever meeting or speaking with Carnaby. FBI spokeswoman Shauna Dunlap also said that Carnaby was never an employee or contractor, as did Secret Service spokesman Darrin Blackford. All three, however, said they could not confirm or deny whether Carnaby ever worked as an informant because, as Dunlap put it,
Gene Poteat, a former CIA officer, the president of AFIO and Carnaby's boss at the national nonprofit organization based in McLean, Virginia, echoes the agencies' claims.
Hurtt has said he did not know Carnaby, and Harris County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Christina Garza says Garcia also did not know Carnaby — a statement in conflict with a deposition Garcia made after Carnaby's death at the request of his widow's attorneys. In that deposition, Garcia said he did know Carnaby and that once, while dining at Morton's Steakhouse with Carnaby, he saw Carnaby talk briefly with former president George H.W. Bush.
Throughout his life, Carnaby had amassed a number of CIA plaques, certificates and statues. Former CIA officer David Addler, however, says he's looked at them and determined they're fakes. "They're clearly not legitimate," he says. "They have misspellings and some of them even have glue leaking out of them."
There is a picture of Carnaby at the CIA headquarters in Virginia where he is standing behind a huge seal in the entrance to the compound. Some of Carnaby's friends, former intelligence officers, claim a person must have clearance in order to stand that far into the building. Gimigliano, however, says that while that part of the building is not routinely open to the public, the CIA does allow many prearranged tours into the area for groups, including AFIO.
In 2003, the Pearland Police Department filed a report from a woman claiming that Carnaby showed her a badge and tried to pull her over while she was driving. Even Carnaby's ex-wife, Paula Burch, told the Houston Chronicle that she doubted that Carnaby was in the CIA and that he told "very big, tall stories that were hard to believe."
Based on these claims and on appearances, from Carnaby's large spy novel collection to tales of his constant bragging, throwing knives into floors at restaurants and keeping a police strobe light in his Jeep, it seems Carnaby was an insecure man desperate to live out his fantasies of being a spy.
But then how to explain the depositions of two former intelligence officers — both friends of Carnaby — who say he was a player in the U.S. intelligence community?
Michael Bechaud, formerly with the FBI, and James Napolitano, an ex-Secret Service officer, gave sworn statements during separate depositions following his death that they used Carnaby as a confidential informant. According to Napolitano, the Secret Service tried to keep him from talking. A Department of Justice lawyer was present during the depositions to make sure the men did not divulge classified information.
Bechaud, who worked as an FBI foreign counterintelligence officer for 25 years, said he first met Carnaby in 1992 through another U.S. intelligence agency that was using Carnaby as an informant. In 1993, Bechaud said, he too began using Carnaby to gather intelligence. Their professional relationship lasted for two years.
Carnaby allegedly knew as many as seven languages. Bechaud said Carnaby did not get paid for his work, but that the FBI reimbursed him for expenses. The total amount Carnaby collected was $9,600, he said.
In a letter to Bechaud, Carnaby outlined 18 investigations he allegedly worked on. They included: two assassination attempts on the first President Bush, one in Kuwait and the other in London; the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; a Secret Service operation regarding an Iranian counterfeiting scheme called the "Super Note" case; the alleged sale of classified information by a U.S. customs agent; the shipment of nuclear materials from Russia to unfriendly nations; the delivery of nuclear fuel rods to Syria and Iran; Hamas terrorist activity and others.
Bechaud said he recalled Carnaby was involved in all of those but the Hamas case and one of the two Bush assassination attempts.
Napolitano, who said he retired from the Secret Service in 2008, claims he met Carnaby in 1991 while working on a counterfeiting case. He said a U.S. customs officer put the two men in touch and that Carnaby provided valuable information 85 to 90 percent of the time until they stopped working together in 1993.
Napolitano said he'd tell Carnaby he needed information about some "bad guys" and "sure enough, a week later he'd have everything I needed to know: cars, who they were, what they were doing, what their activities were, what they did at night, where they spent their time and how they spent their time," he said. Carnaby provided "major information that led to the arrest or the seizures of a lot of different contraband items that made good cases for me."
One case involved a group of Pakistanis who were trying to sell 55 kilos of cocaine for 100 million in counterfeit deutsche marks.
Another case, Napolitano claimed, involved Jim "Mattress Mack" McIngvale and actor Chuck Norris. According to Napolitano: In 1992, a man contacted Carnaby claiming to be in the CIA. At the time, Carnaby was doing "risky" work on a case for the Secret Service. While wearing a wire, Carnaby met with the man, who said he had read classified documents that Napolitano had written and was trying to gather information about a few Houston cases. Napolitano then arrested the man for impersonating a federal officer.
Later that day, while an officer was driving the man's car back to the field office, he noticed a pair of documents on the front seat. They were movie scripts. It turned out that the man was a screenwriter who had illegally received classified information about Carnaby and Napolitano and had written two scripts about their clandestine activities. The U.S. Attorney's Office later prosecuted several people for peddling intelligence information.
Jim McIngvale was allegedly producing the movie, which was supposedly going to star Chuck Norris.
Prosecutors allegedly gave McIngvale immunity in exchange for his testimony against the federal agent who provided the writer with classified information, Napolitano said. Norris was never implicated and did not know how the information that the script was based on had been gathered.
When contacted by the Press recently, McIngvale said, "I don't know anything about that."
Bechaud said that he stopped using Carnaby as an informant in 1994 because Carnaby's information was becoming less credible and because Carnaby could not keep his mouth shut.
Still, Carnaby continued to send Bechaud information. Bechaud believed Carnaby kept it up because he was a patriot and liked interacting with intelligence officers.
During his deposition, Napolitano said he thought Carnaby was an arrogant man. When asked if Carnaby thought of himself as above the law, Napolitano said,
Roland Carnaby was born in Lebanon in 1955. His father, Vincent Said Karnabe (Carnaby later changed the spelling of his last name), is the owner of a Beirut shipping company. In the early 1980s, the elder Karnabe sent his son to New York City to work at a shipping line called Constellation Navigation to learn about the business, according to Carnaby's mentor, Kevin Shields, who knew the family. For a year, Carnaby lived in Greenwich Village and worked at the Woolworth building just blocks away from the World Trade Center.
"The family certainly didn't have any problems with money," says Shields. "You got the impression that no matter what Roland wanted to do, the father would've set him up with a business. It wouldn't have been a question if Roland had said, 'I want a shoe store'; he would have bought him a shoe store. It was as simple as that."
After a brief marriage in New York, Carnaby moved to Texas in the mid-1980s and married Paula Burch, who now lives in Willis. She declined to comment for this story. They were married for several years, but divorced in 1992. At one point, Carnaby became a U.S. citizen. His next wife, Susan, says she and Carnaby started dating just before his divorce from Burch was finalized.
Carnaby was a little man, 5-foot-4, about 150 pounds, with slicked-back silver hair and a short black moustache. He had dark, Middle-Eastern skin, and many people thought he was Italian. In fact, his nickname was Tony Luciano. But what he lacked in size he more than made up for in personality.
His wife and friends say he wore silk shirts, sports coats and lizard boots and would often say, "Don't touch the hair." He is described as a gregarious, intense man with a temper and his own brand of humor.
For more than ten years, Carnaby hung out every day at his friend Alan Helfman's Chrysler dealership in River Oaks, working on his computer and telling stories to Helfman's employees and customers about his covert work for the intelligence community. Sometimes he'd even sing opera. Carnaby was well liked by almost everyone and enjoyed showing off his latest police gadgets. Helfman says that Carnaby was never without a gun and knife and wasn't afraid to joke around with them, either.
During lunch one afternoon at Goode's Armadillo Palace on Kirby Drive, Carnaby yanked out his knife and flipped it across the dining room, landing the blade straight in the floor, says Helfman. When asked why he did it, Carnaby said, "Oh man, gotta sharpen my knife and make sure it works right."
Another time, a Helfman salesman tried to pull a prank on Carnaby by turning off the lights while Carnaby was using the toilet. Carnaby would have the last laugh, though, scaring the salesman when he loudly clicked a round into the chamber of his handgun in the dark.
"It was his way of making a joke, I think," says Helfman.
Nearly everyone who knew Carnaby remembers him as a show-off. Most say his stories and bluster were his way of compensating for a lack of confidence.
"He was insecure," says Susan Carnaby. "I always told him, 'Why are you always bragging so much?' I think it was because he was so short, like a Napoleonic complex or something."
That streak in him continued right up until the end, says Jim Sullivan, who used to work at a Valero gas station on Memorial Drive. He says Carnaby, who was a regular customer, came into the station the night before he was shot with a young blond woman on his arm, claiming to be the director of the CIA. Sullivan says it looked like Carnaby was drunk.
Carnaby liked his whiskey, friends say, and he loved to socialize. So it was a job made in heaven for him when he volunteered to be president of the Houston chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.
AFIO President Poteat, whose organization has roughly 5,000 members across the country and counts former President George H.W. Bush and former CIA Director James Woolsey among its honorary board members, says Carnaby was good at recruiting members and getting high-profile speakers to come to Houston.
"We considered [his death] a tragedy," says Poteat. "I spoke at a dinner once and was very impressed with who showed up."
Carnaby was an insatiable networker and had scores of photos of himself hobnobbing with high-ranking intelligence officers and law-enforcement officials. Records show that when he died, his BlackBerry was filled with names and contact information for dozens of politicians, judges and other luminaries such as the first President Bush, former CIA Deputy Director for Operations James Pavitt and Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan.
Bush's spokesman says the former president did not know Carnaby, Pavitt declined to comment and Ryan also says he did not know Carnaby.
After Carnaby died, Poteat says, the Houston chapter collapsed.
The last time Susan Carnaby saw her husband was two months before the shooting. Prior to that it was at Christmas 2007. At the time of his death, Susan believed her husband was in Washington, D.C., where he often traveled. It was not unusual for Carnaby to leave his home for weeks or months at a time, says Susan. And from the day they started dating through 11 years of marriage, she never asked questions.
"To me," she says, "it was logical not to. I just understood it to be that way."
As it turned out, Carnaby was lying to Susan and was not in D.C. He was in Houston, dining with friends and reportedly spending time with a local woman named Donna Baker, to whom he was allegedly engaged. Carnaby's friends say he told them that he was separating from his wife. Baker declined to comment to the Press.
Susan had no idea Carnaby was in Houston the day he was shot or that he was supposedly planning to leave her. She only found out when the media began reporting it hours after his death. She had, however, been suspicious he might have been having an affair. She says she confronted him once, but he denied it.
"I thought he was going through a midlife crisis," says Susan. "He was buying sports cars and wearing fancier jeans. I figured, 'Well, we'll be together until we're 85, so this is just a blip that we'll get over.' And then he was killed."
Others, such as Helfman, say Carnaby was acting strangely in the days leading up to his death and looked "distraught." It seemed apparent that he was off his game when he ran into the cops that April morning along the highway.
Despite the fact that Carnaby always told his wife Susan that if anything ever happened to him the intelligence agencies would deny any knowledge of him, Susan also began to doubt her husband and the life they'd built together.
"I didn't know what to believe," she says, tears rolling down her cheeks. "Maybe he was just lying about everything, about what he did, who he was, and no one was publicly vouching for him. People were just running from him. It took me a long time to figure out they were lying."
Following her husband's death, Susan Carnaby started going through his papers and began learning more about her husband. One of the first items she found was a copy of former CIA Director George Tenet's autobiography, At the Center of the Storm. On the title page was the inscription
Tenet did not respond to questions from the Press sent to his employer, Allen & Company, a merchant bank in New York.
Susan Carnaby says she learned that her husband's entrée into the intelligence community came through his Lebanese father. Around 1983, she claims, Carnaby's dad had the only contract to deliver weapons from the United States to Lebanon. "That's how he got tied into the [U.S.] government," she says. "It was the beginning of the relationship as far as I know."
That relationship allegedly continued into the 1990s. Susan says she learned that Carnaby's family company was shipping cars for an Iranian who was involved in a large-scale counterfeiting operation and implied that Carnaby began gathering and passing along information about it to the U.S. government. Houston attorney Randall Kallinen says that he thinks at least one of these operations is still considered classified and asked that the Press not report them.
Three days after Carnaby's death, Susan Carnaby filed a lawsuit in Houston federal court against officers Starks and Washington and the City of Houston. She claims that the police violated Carnaby's constitutional rights by using excessive force and that his death was caused by officers not following police department policy when they ran up to his Jeep after it had run out of gas.
Kallinen, who is handling Susan Carnaby's case, says that the officers violated HPD's high-risk vehicle-approach policy because they had been poorly trained. He also claims that the written policy is too vague and that there is a pattern of officers disregarding and violating the policy.
In late August, U.S. Judge Keith P. Ellison dismissed Washington and Starks from the lawsuit. Among his reasons, Ellison wrote in a court order that
That decision was consistent with the determination made by HPD's Internal Affairs Division shortly after the shooting.
That does not mean, however, that the cops did everything right.
Hurtt gave a written reprimand to Foster for not remaining behind cover and for going up to Carnaby's Jeep without trying to talk with him first. Hurtt also ruled that Washington did not supervise Foster properly, and suspended him for a day. Ellison sided with HPD, stating that the officers should have done a better job approaching the car and communicating with Carnaby.
City Attorney Annie Teehan declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit.
Although Ellison ruled that the individual officers are not liable, the City of Houston may still be held responsible.
Foster, Washington and Starks each admitted during separate depositions that when it came to HPD's high-risk vehicle approach and motor vehicle pursuit policies, their training basically sucked.
Foster said that his training consisted of a slide show and a classroom exercise in which his instructor put four chairs together, had four officers play the bad guys and then attempted to show how to conduct a felony stop. Foster said he did not think the training accurately represented real life and that it was not adequate for the situation he encountered with Carnaby.
Starks also said that the training he received was unrealistic and that pursuits are taught "mainly through word of mouth" and by showing videos, which is "not very effective." Starks said he had never been trained for a situation like the one he encountered with Carnaby, but thought the officers made the right decisions based on what was happening at the time. As for waiting longer to try to talk to Carnaby before bashing in the window, Starks said no one had ever taught him that he had to wait a certain amount of time to establish communications with a suspect.
Washington echoed the other two officers, saying he did not feel properly trained in high-risk vehicle approaches, but added that he did not think it would help if HPD included specific instructions to try to talk to a suspect for a set amount of time prior to forcing the suspect out of a car. He also said better training would not have resulted in a different outcome for Carnaby given the situation.
Kallinen argues that HPD officers have a pattern of violating police department policy, which has resulted in numerous unnecessary shootings.
In one case, according to HPD Internal Affairs records, officers were behind cover while a suspect who may have been armed was refusing to exit his car. One of the officers then walked up near the suspect's car, saw the man make an "overt movement" and shot the suspect. Internal Affairs investigators concluded that the officer "had no justification for leaving" his protected spot and that "the fact that the suspect did not immediately show their hands and made overt movements inside the vehicle does not justify the use of deadly force."
In another case, in which several officers fired a total of 31 shots at a suspect, Internal Affairs concluded that the officers violated the high-risk vehicle approach policy by walking up to the car of a possibly armed suspect while the suspect was still inside.
Kallinen says if Susan's case goes to trial, he plans to show roughly ten such examples that he believes demonstrate a pattern of officers disregarding HPD's policy, resulting in shootings.
Susan insists she is not suing for just the money.
"Maybe this will embarrass HPD into cleaning up their act," she says. "If any good can come of Roland's death, that would be it. Someone has to keep an eye on the police."
A Google search of "Roland Carnaby" yields more than 27,000 hits. That's a lot of interest, a lot of unanswered questions and little final resolution.
Susan says it was very uncharacteristic of him to run from the police.
Kallinen speculates it may have been to protect sensitive information on his laptop computer. "Maybe he didn't want it to fall into the wrong people's hands," he says.
Napolitano said in his deposition that Bechaud told him that Carnaby was working on a case for a federal intelligence agency the day he died.
"I don't know what it was," Napolitano said. "But whatever it was was on his computer, and he was trying to get it to see Dennis Franks at the FBI."
The FBI's Franks declined to comment.
Kallinen says that the Secret Service took the laptop from HPD after the shooting and copied the hard drive. Afterward, the City of Houston gave Kallinen an image of the hard drive.
"We talked to an expert," Kallinen says, "who told us there's no way to tell if they erased something. There was not much information on the hard drive, less than we thought there would be."
He says there was no information about a current investigation. However,
In the end, though, says Kallinen,
Other elements also remain a mystery, including the badge Carnaby showed Officer Starks. Kallinen says he has not tried to authenticate it. "What does it even mean if it was fake?" he says. "The judge said that issue is not that important."
Another theory is that Carnaby was drunk or high when the police pulled him over. The medical examiner's autopsy, however, found no alcohol or drugs in Carnaby's system.
Taken as a whole, the evidence seems to point to a man who was an informant at times, a brash braggadocio at others, who enjoyed the role of spy as much as he was one for real.
"He may have believed it as much as anybody else," says Helfman.
Perhaps in death, Carnaby will finally get a small dose of the validation he seemed so desperately to want in life.
"Roland Carnaby was a patriot beyond all else," says Kallinen, "and he put himself in grave danger for little or no money for his country. And to ruin his reputation with this demonization is just insane. The people need to know that he loved the police, and to drag his name through the mud after they shot him in the back, that's a shame upon the Houston Police Department."
Much of Carnaby's life remains classified, as evidenced by the fact that the Justice Department attorney who attended Bechaud and Napolitano's depositions interrupted the two men occasionally to remind them not to reveal certain information.
Internet conspiracy theorists can speculate all they want, but one thing seems fairly certain: Because Carnaby died in an unexpected, random incident and because the U.S. intelligence community is so tight-lipped, only a few guys wearing dark coats in Washington, D.C. may ever know the whole truth about Roland Carnaby.
"He was an interesting and outgoing person," says his wife Susan. "I think he was even more complex than I realized."