To his wife and friends, Roland Haas was a patriotic hero who secretly risked his life for the U.S. government during the Cold War, yet critics denounced him as a "James Bond wannabe" who fabricated a memoir claiming he had been a CIA assassin.
Regardless of which version is true, police and Haas' family insist the gunshot that killed the 58-year-old author in west Georgia last weekend was an accident, a fatal fluke without intrigue or any connection to his disputed past.
Haas was found dead Saturday night behind his car at a roadside in Newnan, a quarter-mile from his home. Investigators say he accidentally shot himself in the leg and bled to death after the bullet pierced his femoral artery. They found Haas' own gun on the ground by his head.
Three years earlier, Haas published "Enter the Past Tense: My Secret Life as a CIA Assassin." In the book, he claimed to have worked as a Cold War secret operative in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. He wrote that he had assassinated international drug dealers, helped Soviet officers escape East Germany and had been tortured in an Iranian prison.
The book was denounced as a hoax by several former CIA officers who said Haas' spy story was too outlandish to be true. The author's wife stands by his memoir and said her husband wasn't a man who told elaborate lies.
"There are a lot of things that happen all over the world that nobody knows about, and it's supposed to be that way," said Marilyn Haas, his wife of 30 years. "To me, he was a hero. He was a patriot."
Before his death, Haas spent more than 15 years as a civilian intelligence officer for the Army Reserve at Fort McPherson outside Atlanta. When his book was published, former CIA polygrapher John F. Sullivan was so outraged he wrote a letter to Haas' commanders, asking why they would employ a man trying to pass off fiction as fact.
Sullivan, who has written two books of his own, said Wednesday he was sorry to hear Haas had died. But Sullivan insisted Haas' memoir contradicts everything he knew about the CIA after 31 years with the agency.
"I'm convinced his entire book was a total fabrication," said Sullivan, 71, of Reston, Va. "He was a James Bond wannabe. And he profited from it."
The CIA denied Haas had ever worked for the agency. "This individual was not a CIA employee ever," said CIA spokeswoman Paula Weiss.
Lt. Col. Bernd Zoller, a spokesman for the Army Reserve, confirmed Haas was employed as a civilian intelligence officer, but said the job mostly dealt with maintaining computer networks and security.
"For the Army Reserve, there's not a whole lot of intelligence gathering," Zoller said.
Coweta County sheriff's deputies found Haas when two passing motorists heard a gunshot and called 911. One witness who pulled over told investigators Haas was bleeding but said he was OK. He died before an ambulance arrived.
Coweta County sheriff's Maj. James Yarbrough said Wednesday police are confident nobody else fired the shot. He said investigators suspect Haas may have stopped his car because he was having medical problems.
Haas' wife said he had open-heart surgery in November and afterward suffered a mini stroke. More recently, she said, Haas had surgery to remove a kidney that left him with nerve damage to his hands.
"Honestly it was a fluke accident," Marilyn Haas said. "Nobody else was involved."