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Edwin P. Wilson, the spy who lived it up, dies at 84

Edwin P. Wilson lived large. But his business dealings, constructed as cover for his espionage, eventually landed him in prison.
Former CIA agent Edwin P. Wilson is escorted from court in 1982 after his sentencing for selling arms to Libya.
Former CIA agent Edwin P. Wilson is escorted from court in 1982 after his sentencing for selling arms to Libya.AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

Part spy, part tycoon, Edwin P. Wilson lived large.

He claimed to own 100 corporations in the United States and Europe, many of them real and many of them shells. He had an apartment in Geneva; a hunting lodge in England; a seaside villa in Tripoli, Libya; a town house in Washington; and real estate in North Carolina, Lebanon and Mexico. He entertained congressmen, generals and Central Intelligence Agency bigwigs at his 2,338-acre estate in Northern Virginia.

He showered minks on his mistress, whom he called “Wonder Woman.” He owned three private planes and bragged that he knew flight attendants on the Concorde by name.

His preferred habitat was a hall of mirrors. His business empire existed as a cover for espionage, but it also made him a lot of money. He had the advantage of being able to call the Internal Revenue Service and use national security jargon to get the details on a potential customer. And if the I.R.S. questioned his own tax filings, he terminated the discussion by saying he was a C.I.A. operative on a covert mission.

“Being in the C.I.A. was like putting on a magic coat that forever made him invisible and invincible,” Peter Maas wrote in “Manhunt,” his 1986 book about Mr. Wilson.

For Mr. Wilson, who died on Sept. 10 in Seattle at 84, the adventure collapsed with his arrest in 1982 on charges of selling Libya 20 tons of powerful explosives.

Over the next two years, he was tried in four federal cases in four different courts, accused of, among other things, smuggling arms and plotting to murder his wife. He was sentenced to a total of 52 years in prison. He served 22 of them, mostly in solitary confinement. Then the dagger of fate took a strange twist.

After studying thousands of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Wilson and his lawyer went back to court and demolished the government’s case.

Mr. Wilson’s sole defense was that he had been working for the C.I.A., serving his country, when he sold the explosives to Libya. The prosecution’s case had rested on an affidavit by the C.I.A.’s third-ranking official denying that Mr. Wilson had been working for the agency at the time. An hour after being read the affidavit, a jury found Mr. Wilson guilty.

Conviction vacated
Two decades later, the evidence Mr. Wilson had collected convinced a federal judge in Houston, Lynn H. Hughes, that he had in fact been working for the agency and that the C.I.A. had lied.

“Because the government knowingly used false evidence against him and suppressed favorable evidence, his conviction will be vacated,” Judge Hughes wrote. He added, “America will not defeat Libyan terrorism by double-crossing a part-time informal government agent.”

In 2004, a year after the judge’s ruling, Mr. Wilson was released from Allenwood federal penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Since then he had lived in Seattle on a monthly Social Security check of $1,080. He died of complications from heart-valve replacement surgery, his nephew Scott Wilson said.

Up until his death, Mr. Wilson was still hoping to persuade two other federal courts to void his convictions on the other charges.

Edwin Paul Wilson was born into a poor farm family in Nampa, Idaho, on May 3, 1928. A member of Future Farmers of America, he had a newspaper route and sometimes supplemented his income by rolling a drunk, Mr. Maas wrote in “Manhunt.” He shipped out as a seaman before returning to earn a bachelor’s degree in industrial management from the University of Portland. He joined the Marines and served in Korea after the conflict there ended.

Flying home, he fell into a conversation with a passenger, who told him that he might like working for the C.I.A. The passenger did not identify himself, but Mr. Wilson wrote down a name and a phone number to call. The agency hired him in 1955. His first job was guarding U-2 spy planes.

In 1960, the C.I.A. sent him to Cornell for graduate studies in labor relations, which he put to use against Communism in unions around the world. In one assignment he paid Corsican mobsters to keep leftist dockworkers in line; in another, he released cockroaches in the hotel rooms of Soviet labor delegations.

In 1964, on behalf of the agency, Mr. Wilson started a maritime consulting firm so that the C.I.A. could better monitor international shipping. By nudging up costs and skimping on taxes, he multiplied his own income.

Mr. Wilson left the C.I.A. in 1971, at least publicly, to join the Office of Naval Intelligence. Again he formed companies in service of the government and took them with him when he left the government in 1976. He grew rich and lived lavishly.

Several years later, a top C.I.A. official asked Mr. Wilson to go to Libya to keep an eye on Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as the Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, who was living there. That led to several weapons deals. In one, a Libyan asked him to throw in a few pistols to send to Libyan embassies. One was used to kill a Libyan dissident in Bonn. “That I feel bad about,” Mr. Wilson told The Washington Post in a 2004 interview.

He also arranged for former Green Berets to train Libyan troops, and for airplane and helicopter pilots to work for Libya. There was speculation in news publications that he had contributed to the deaths of a dozen Libyan dissidents around the world. He later maintained that all of his activities had been done to gather information for the C.I.A.

Behind his back
Unknown to Mr. Wilson, investigators had been building a case against him since 1976, when Kevin Mulcahy, one of his partners, approached the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. with grave doubts about the legality and ethics of Mr. Wilson’s business dealings.

Lured by investigators to the Dominican Republic in 1982, Mr. Wilson was flown to New York and eventually indicted on various charges in federal courts in Washington, Virginia, New York and Houston. He was tried four times over the next two years.

In Washington, he was acquitted of charges that he had solicited assassins to kill a Libyan dissident. In Virginia, he was convicted of exporting weapons, including the one used in the Bonn killing, and sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined $200,000.

The New York case concerned a deal Mr. Wilson had tried to make with a fellow inmate, who was actually a federal informer, to murder two prosecutors, six witnesses and his own wife, the former Barbara Hagen, at $50,000 a head. Prosecutors said he had wanted to avoid paying a settlement in a divorce suit. They also said he had requested that the killer return her wedding ring to him, preferably attached to her finger.

Convicted in the murder plot, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison and fined $75,000.

In Houston, Judge Hughes appointed David Adler to handle Mr. Wilson’s petition. Mr. Adler had worked for the C.I.A. He said in an interview on Friday that the most convincing documents supporting Mr. Wilson’s contentions were records of communications among government lawyers clearly deciding to withhold evidence.

Asked why he thought they did it, Mr. Adler said, “There was such tremendous pressure to get a conviction.”

Mr. Wilson is survived by two sons, Erik and Karl, and a sister, Leora Pinkston. One of his last attempts at retribution was a civil suit he filed against seven federal prosecutors and a former C.I.A. official. In 2007, a federal judge dismissed the case on the ground that all eight had immunity covering their actions.

David Corn, the author of “Blond Ghost,” a biography of Theodore Shackley, the C.I.A. boss who had first sent Mr. Wilson to Libya, spoke of the essential paradox in Mr. Wilson’s story.

“They framed a guilty man,” he told The Washington Post. “I think he’s a terrible fellow who got what he deserved, but they did frame him.”

This article, "," first appeared in The New York Times.