CHAPTER 1: Drama at the Via Villa
At 10 pm on the evening of April 25 1997, Assistant US District Attorney, Larry A. Burns, tired after his inter-continental journey from San Diego, California, thankfully switched out the light in his R1800-a-night room at the small but exclusive Via Villa Hotel in Granger Bay, Cape Town. Tomorrow would be time enough to set about his business as law enforcer investigating yet another conspiracy to commit murder. He was just drifting off when there was a violent banging at his door. A little dazed, he staggered to open it … to be confronted by a burly South African sheriff pronouncing the improbable words: “Larry A Burns, I have a court order for your arrest”.
Burns paled as he read the official document the sheriff handed to him: “The defendant is to be taken to prison and detained there until security is established”. The American law man had heard a bit about conditions in Third World jails. This was Friday night, and a weekend in Pollsmoor prison, sharing a cell with the gangster elite of the Cape Flats loomed terrifyingly.
The man responsible for his predicament, he was stunned to discover was his erstwhile collaborator, Johannesburg lawyer Peter Soller.
Soller was invoking a quaint old law which allows a South African to have a visiting foreigner arrested in order to ensure that he stays in town long enough to face trial for debt – or until he deposits enough with the court to cover the alleged debt before leaving these shores. From the warrant Burns learned that Soller was claiming payment of R101 500 for services rendered.
Soller’s instructions to Sheriff Greg Bagley were clear: “Under no circumstances whatsoever are you to permit the defendant, whilst under arrest, to use any ruse to enter the premises of the American Embassy”. He also reminded the sheriff that the San Diego Assistant DA could not claim diplomatic immunity, nor could the SA police interfere.
CHAPTER II: Enter the FBI, Syd and Ron
The sequence of events that culminated in the dramatic "civil" arrest of the San Diego DA, began a year earlier when, on June 6th, 1996, Burns, accompanied by FBI Special Agent Kyle Lovern, arrived unobtrusively in the city on flight SAA 542, from the United States. They were met at the airport by Daniel Wutrich, regional security officer for the US embassy, who drove them to their Waterfront hotel.
Later that evening Wutrich drove the two US lawmen to the Cape Sun hotel in the city centre where, in room 2814, they were to meet for the first time South African attorney Peter Soller. Soller had flown in from Johannesburg especially to assist them. Thereafter, each morning for the next eight days, Soller would collect the Americans at their Waterfront hotel in his hired car and drive them to the Cape Sun, where his room served as their operations headquarters.
Each night he would drive them back to their hotel – except on those nights when the cigar-chomping DA asked to be taken to a casino in Sea Point for a couple of hours of gambling, his favourite relaxation. Most days they would not leave Soller’s room until well after nightfall, calling room service for meals.
The two Californian lawmen were in Africa’s most southerly city to investigate the alleged involvement of defrocked Cape Town attorney Ronnie Abel in a bungled Mafia-style ‘hit’ on the life of his law practice partner, equally talented South African attorney and now fugitive from justice, Sydney Kahn, in La Jolla, near San Diego. Once better known for his involvement in the video and currency import-export business in South Africa, Kahn now runs First La Jolla Lenders Inc.
The San Diego Union-Tribune set the scene for the alleged “hit” in a neat description of a meeting that took place between the two former partners on a California beach in late 1995:
Last year a week before Thanksgiving, La Jolla financier Sidney Kahn sat on the beach with his old friend Ronald Abel.
They chatted about South Africa and mutual friends. But mostly, according to Kahn, they talked about a 10-year-old debt that Abel demanded be repaid.
Within months, Kahn narrowly escaped death at a gunman’s hand, and three insurance policies surfaced showing Abel had stood to gain more than a quarter of a million dollars if Kahn, his former business partner, had died.
Now Abel stands accused of murder for hire.
The case that South African newspapers have dubbed “Kahn and Abel” is playing out in San Diego federal court, where prosecutors this week unsealed an indictment outlining their theory of the bizarre attempted murder of Kahn in his La Jolla office in February.
The indictment says Abel, a 56-year-old South African lawyer, hired Walter Nebiolo of San Remo, Italy, to kill Kahn, who owed Abel money from an old business deal gone bad.
Kahn, who was not struck by any of the four bullets fired from outside his window, suffered minor injuries from shattered glass.
Within no time at all trigger man Walter Nebiolo was in custody in the US and had confessed to the shooting. In South Africa, Abel was arrested pending an application for his extradition to America to face charges of conspiring to commit murder. He has since been released on bail.
To prepare their case for the American courts, the FBI needed more proof of Abel’s involvement. Some of the questions that needed answering related to the possible involvement of international organised crime. How, they wonderd, might the services of a hitman in Italy have come to be offered to a businessman in Cape Town for a “job” in California?
On hand in the San Diego police station on the night of Nebiolo’s arrest was a South African-born police reservist, Richard Tessel. After two failed business attempts in Johannesburg in the Eighties – selling high-fashion ladies shoes, and straightening motor car chassis – Tessel had decided life in the Californian sun might be better. As son and heir of the late Bennie Tessel, millionaire company director in the Anglo American stable, he could be expected still to have useful connections in South Africa. Indeed, said Tessel, he knew just the man to assist tthe US detectives in their inquiries in South Africa: his old chum in Johannesburg, attorney Peter Soller. After calling Soller by telephone, Tessel faxed him a letter confirming the FBI’s request for help in the case. Mysteriously, Tessel signed the fax with a codename – “Branch” – and ended with the request “once you answer this fax, please destroy it”.
Who could resist a TV drama come to life; who could say no to the Feds.? Certainly not our Peter Soller! He agreed to fly to Cape Town for a secret meeting. He also kept the fax.
CHAPTER III: The Plot Thickens
That first night in Soller’s hotel room, the four men plotted and schemed their next move till late, occasionally fortifying themselves from the mini-bar.
The Americans agreed it would be a good idea to put a ‘tail’ on Abel to see what he was up to. Soller said he knew a firm of private detectives who could help. He phoned O. Fourie and Associates, who immediately assigned two of their best men to the case – Agent “A” and Agent “B”.
Within days Soller had their report:
Thursday, 11 th July, 1996
16h20 Agents left base for surveillance at number 71 Bree Street, Cape Town.
16h25 Agents arrived at the above address and took up position to monitor parking area to establish if subject was in fact parked in the building.
16h50 Agent B exited the above parking lot after establishing that subject’s vehicle was not parked there.
16h55 Agent A proceeded to Nin’s Restaurant in an attempt to locate subject, whilst Agent B proceeded to 33 Church Street.
17h07 Agent A arrived at the above address but could not locate anyone fitting the subject’s description.
18h40 Agent A arrived at Avenue St Leon and monitored the location of subject’s residence.
22h35 Agent B proceeds to Ave St Leon.
22h50 Agent B arrived at above address and took up position with Agent A.
02h00 Agents did not observe subject’s vehicle enter or exit the area and discontinued surveillance.
02h25 Agents returned to base.
Friday 12th July
07h00 Agents left base for surveillance at 71 Bree St.
07h30 Agents arrived at above address.
By 08h30 they had established that subject was not parked there, and proceeded to 33 Church Street, where they found his vehicle parked in the basement. They also managed to establish that he did, in fact, work there, so for the next eight hours Agent A and Agent B took up position to maintain surveillance of his vehicle.
Midway through the morning they were distressed to learn that he had left his office without them having observed his departure. They note in their report: “The subject must have gone out by foot or in another vehicle as the subject’s vehicle had not moved.”
Finally, there was Action! –
17h15 The subject exited the above address in a white MG, registration number CA164597, registered to Mr Abel, 6 Ave St Leon, Bantry Bay, and proceeded along Wale Street. The subject turned right into Buitengracht Street, left into Strand Street which became High Level Road.
17h25 The subject turned right into Ave Fresnaye, left into Kloof Rd and right into Ave St Leon.
17h32 Agents observed the subject park his vehicle in front of his residence and enter the premises.
There was more excitement when, at 20h05, Agents observed the arrival of a metallic blue BMW driven by a “female with shoulder length dark hair”. But, sadly, at 20h55 she was observed to leave again – long before the agents observed the lights in the house being turned off at 22h30. An hour later they discontinued surveillance in time to return to base by 24h00. Of course! – Pumpkin time, when all good agents should be in bed.
On Saturday 13 July they concluded their surveillance and reported:
07h00 Agents arrived at above address and took up position. They observed that the subject’s curtains were closed, the lights were off and the residence was quiet and calm”.
Sollar paid them R9 899,76 for the report.
Meanwhile, according to Soller, the Americans went to “Telkom’s top secret office – in the same building as the American Consulate” – where they sat with technical experts bugging Abel’s telephone calls. What luck, if any, they had there, he doesn't say, but after eight days, the Americans apparently had what they wanted. Burns and Special Agent Lovern returned to the States; Wutrich retired to the confines of the US consulate – guarded around the clock by at least five US marines – and Soller returned to his legal practice in Johannesburg.
In due course, Soller submitted an account to the FBI for his fees and expenses. Besides the bill for intrepid agents A and B, he had, he said, paid R2 000 to a “source” in Ronnie Abel’s office and another R88 000 for hotels, care hire, meals and telephone calls. Then there was his own professional fee for eight days – charged by the hour.
In September last year the Feds responded in a letter written by Senior FBI attorney, J L Beinash. First with the good news:: “We have carefully reviewed the facts surrounding this matter …” then with the bad news: “we find no evidence of any agreement between yourself and the FBI that you would be compensated for any assistance with the FBI’s investigation of Ronnie Abel”.
And they didn’t enclose a cheque.
Soller was incensed. He pointed out to them what they apparently did not know: that, according to South African law, an oral agreement is as binding as a written contract. And he kept himself informed of the US investigation’s progress.
In April, he learned that Burns was returning to Cape Town to tie up loose ends for the Nebiolo trial in San Diego. This time he was accompanied by Nebiolo’s lawyer, Michael Burke. Soller was waiting at the airport when they arrived. He watched while Burns disembarked and followed the American to his hotel. Then he headed for the magistrate’s court. Half an hour later Soller had his court order and had delivered it to the Sheriff for execution.
CHAPTER IV: Arrest in the Via Villa
Accounts of what then happened in Burns’s hotel room over the next few hours may differ, but Soller tells us that Burns was so terrified at the ghastly prospect of going to Pollsmore prison that he simply wept. He begged, he pleaded, he cajoled, but nothing could move Soller to withdraw his claim.
Eventually, so pathetic was Burn’s pleading, that Soller weakened and allowed him to telephone the American consulate. Less than an hour later their old comrade in arms, security officer Dan Wutrich arrived, but this time he was accompanied by US Consul General, David Catlin Pierce, Ph.D.
Pierce Ph.D. took one look at the tearful Burns and yelled at the sheriff to “get the hell outta here”. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that sir”, replied the sheriff, “I have a court order for his arrest”.
Pierce Ph.D. then turned to Soller and said: “In the name of God, please let this man go. I give you my word you will be paid. Trust me." On the question of trust, Soller swears Pierce declared on at least three occasions that he was not only a good Christian; he had got his doctorate in divinity and was a lay preacher.
This heartfelt appeal in the name of God touched Soller – after all, who can you believe if not a doctor of divinity? He agreed to wait while Pierce Ph.D. telephoned San Diego and, claims Soller, got “the third most powerful justice department official in America” on the line. She gave Soller the assurances he sought. And so, at 1 a.m. or thereabouts, he revoked the warrant.
A week later Larry Burns was free to return home. But when Soller submitted his claim to the US Dept. of Justice for a second time ... he got the same answer.
The “third most powerful official” that Soller believed he had been introduced to on the phone was in fact, Virginia Towler, just another lawyer employed in the FBI’s civil litigation department.
CHAPTER V: I’m not a Preacher, I’m a Swimming Coach
It took noseWEEK a week to get the elusive Mr Pierce’s account of the events on the night of 25 April. His version:
“I was called by our security officer and told that the Deputy Sheriff was holding Mr Burns at his hotel. I immediately telephoned the Justice Department in Washington and informed them. I then went to the hotel and spoke to Mr Soller and the Sheriff”.
Once there, he recalls, “I used my cellphone and called the number of the US official named in the offer of settlement Mr Soller had received. I was informed that he was out, but that his boss, Virginia Towler, would phone back. Thirty minutes or so later she phoned back and I immediately handed the phone to Mr Soller, who spoke to her for about 20 minutes. When he eventually hung up, without discussing the matter further with us, he took the court order and wrote on it that he was releasing the Sheriff from the obligation to arrest Mr Burns for the time being. He then asked various others to sign it.”
Now we at noseWEEK, alas, weren’t part of the exciting events which we have related above. But we have Soller’s sworn statement that they did take place, and we have had sight of the original warrant for the arrest of Mr Larry A. Burns. It is notated:
“Without prejudice the parties here have reached an interim settlement of this matter. The Sheriff is authorised not to proceed with this matter. Signed: P. Soller. L. Burns, D. Wutrich R.S.O., D C. Pierce, Consul General.”
To date the FBI have offered Soller a paltry $3700 (about R17000) to settle his claims. “Mr Soller believes he has a claim against the US government for services he says were requested on behalf of the government, but I have seen no formal request in writing,” Pierce told us. “I sympathise with his frustration.”
Pierce believes Soller either misread the offer of settlement or just finds it unacceptable. “I explained to him that the offer of settlement by the Justice Department did not mean that the US government was categorically denying any liability. They were obviously discussing the claim with him. They had simply made him a settlement offer which contains the standard legal disclaimer (denying all liability) which one would expect to find in any settlement agreement which is aimed at extinguishing the claim.”
But that, of course, isn’t quite what the letter from the FBI said.
Anyway, whether the Consul General was introduced to Soller as a divine or not, he certainly does a mean impersonation.
Does he have the divine qualifications that Soller claims he was persuaded to rely upon?
The consul's reply: “Normally diplomats do not discuss their own or anyone else’s religious affairs; it is regarded as a private matter.
“I have been a diplomat for the past 24 years. Before that I was a swimming coach. I have never been a preacher, lay or otherwise. I do recall that, during the night in question, after we had finished sorting out everything and Soller and various others present had already signed his document, we went on to chat about other things. It was then that Soller asked me whether I had my doctorate in Religion. It was not germane to anything, but I said, no, I had a doctorate in International Political Economy.
“I may have told him he was probably confusing me with the Ambassador who, indeed, before becoming a diplomat, was a student chaplain and religious advisor at a US college. He is a licenced preacher.”
While Pierce might not be a preacher, he must have sounded suspiciously like the Rev. Jim Bakker to Soller that night. Pierce does also recall that “at some point” Soller said to him “I can’t trust anybody”.
“I am pretty sure,” Pierce told us, “that I then said to him ‘I’m a diplomat. In negotiations with governments, all we have is trust.’.”
But Soller was right: Even Uncle Sam should not be trusted. Unexpected support for this view now comes from Consul Pierce himself: “Soller says, and I understand in South African common law this is legally possible, that he had an oral agreement on the basis of which he incurred substantial expenses. It surprises me that a lawyer would do so. I, myself, when I am dealing with government, always try to make sure I get it on paper.”
NoseWEEK contacted Larry A. Burns, the former district attorney now risen to the rank of Judge, in San Diego, to see how he felt about the dramatic events of the night of April 25. “I deny Soller’s claims,” the judge said. Which claims, exactly? “I really don’t wish to discuss this matter any further,” he said, and hung up.
Ronnie Abel remains on bail in Cape Town, awaiting possible extradition to the US to face charges relating to the murder attempt on old friend Sydney Kahn’s life.
Whether, in turn, Sydney Kahn's extradiction to South Africa to face charges related to his financial past will be sought, depends on what his cousin, Cape Attorney General Frank Kahn, thinks about the matter.
FBI Special Agent, Kyle Lovern, is now on special assignment in Texas.
Daniel Wutrich, too, has just been transferred to a new assignment.
But US Consul General David C. Pierce Ph.D., still spreads the word from his Consulate in Cape Town.
And Peter Soller nowadays doesn’t feel quite the same as he once did about the FBI, the US Justice Department – or Doctors of Divinity. n
Copyright © 2020 www.noseweek.co.za