Michael Vernon Townley (born December 5, 1942 in Waterloo, Iowa) is an American professional assassin currently living under terms of the US federal witness protection program. A Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent and operative of the Chilean secret police, known as the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), Townley confessed, was convicted, and served 62 months in prison in the United States for the 1976 Washington, D.C., assassination of Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States. As part of his plea bargain, Townley received immunity from further prosecution; he was not extradited to Argentina to stand trial for the 1974 assassination of Chilean general Carlos Prats and his wife.
In 1993 Townley was also convicted, in absentia, by an Italian court for carrying out the 1975 Rome murder attempt on Bernardo Leighton. Townley worked in producing chemical weapons for Chilean dictator General Pinochet's use against political opponents along with Colonel Gerardo Huber and the DINA biochemist Eugenio Berríos. His father, John Vernon Townley, was also a CIA agent in Chile and Venezuela.
1974 assassination of Carlos Prats
According to head of DINA Manuel Contreras, Townley returned to Chile at the end of 1973, working for the CIA, with the intent of receiving from the "Highest National Authority, in agreement with what had already been planned by the CIA ... the order to act in direct, personal and exclusive form, without intermediaries, against General Prats in Buenos Aires". Prats and his wife were killed with a car bomb in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1974. Contreras also said that Townley traveled with a false passport provided by the CIA under the name of Kenneth Enyart. Contreras stated Townley was aided by CIA agents, as well as Argentine and Chilean agents, and paramilitary groups such as the Triple A and the Grupo Milicias. Contreras said he thought the CIA planned the assassination because it feared Prats would try to overthrow Pinochet's dictatorship with the help of the Argentine Army, thus leading to a war between Chile and Argentina which would constitute "a difficult problem for the United States in the Cold War era".
1975 Bernardo Leighton assassination attempt
According to declassified CIA documents, in 1975 Townley met with Italian Gladio member Stefano Delle Chiaie, founder of Avanguardia Nazionale, and was also in contact with OAS member Albert Spaggiari. He was convicted and sentenced in absentia in Italy to 15 years of jail, due to his role as an intermediary between the Chilean DINA and Italian neo-fascists. According to Townley, both Stefano Delle Chiaie and Albert Spaggiari worked for DINA.
Michael Townley also stated that Enrique Arancibia had traveled to California in the fall of 1977 on banking business for ALFA, alias Stefano Delle Chiaie. Enrique Arancibia is a former DINA agent who resided in unofficial exile in Buenos Aires after the assassination of Chilean Army Chief of Staff René Schneider on October 25, 1970. Arancibia was arrested by Argentine intelligence officers shortly after the extradition of Townley to the US and charged with espionage.
Convicted for Orlando Letelier's murder
Townley was convicted in the United States for the 1976 murder of Orlando Letelier in Washington, D.C. During his trial, he said that Augusto Pinochet was responsible for planning the murder. Head of DINA Manuel Contreras also stated that Pinochet planned the assassination of both Prats and Letelier. Townley served 62 months in prison for the murder.
Michael Townley confessed that he had hired five anti-Castrist Cuban exiles to booby-trap Letelier's car. According to Jean-Guy Allard, after consultations with the leadership of the anti-Castro Cuban organization CORU, including Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, those elected to carry out the murder were Cuban-Americans José Dionisio Suárez, Virgilio Paz Romero, Alvin Ross Díaz, and brothers Guillermo and Ignacio Novo Sampoll. According to the Miami Herald, Luis Posada Carriles was also at this meeting, which decided on Letelier's death and also about the Cubana Flight 455 bombing.
In 1978, Chile agreed to extradite him to the USA, in order to reduce the tension resulting from Orlando Letelier's murder. He made an agreement with the US government on April 17, 1978, which required that he only provide information relevant to violations of US law or offenses committed in US jurisdiction. Based on that argument, he refused to provide any information concerning DINA during the trial of the three Cuban defendants in Washington DC in early 1979 concerning Letelier's assassination. Michael Townley was then freed under the federal Witness Protection Program. The United States is still waiting for Contreras and Pedro Espinoza Bravo to be extradited.
In an interview with authorities on October 20, 1981, Townley declared that Castro opponent Virgilio Paz Romero brought with him a Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, which was a special competition model, when he visited Chile in Spring 1976. According to Townley, Romero said that the weapon had recently been used in a "hit" by the Cuban Nationalist Movement and that his purpose in Chile was to use it again. Townley then said that Romero had broken the weapon in pieces and scattered the pieces throughout Santiago.
In 2005, DINA chief Manuel Contreras also told the Chilean judge responsible for trying the case that Townley had been supported for Letelier's assassination by CIA agents, as well as the Cuban Nationalist Movement and members of the DISIP (for which Luis Posada Carriles worked). CIA deputy director from 1972 to 1976, General Vernon Walters, informed Pinochet that Letelier represented a threat for the US and was preparing a Chilean government in exile, according to Contreras. Contreras wrote in the document that "the Chilean President disposed in personal, exclusive and direct manner of the action of CIA agent Michael Townley against Mr. Orlando Letelier".
Contreras also stated that the CNI handed out monthly payments between 1978 and 1990 to the persons who had worked with Townley in Chile, all members of Patria y Libertad: Mariana Callejas (Townley's wife), Francisco Oyarzún, Gustavo Etchepare and Eugenio Berríos. Assassinated in 1995, Berríos worked with drug traffickers and DEA agents.
In 2003, Argentine Federal Judge Maria Servini de Cubria asked Chile for the extradition of Mariana Callejas, who was accused of Carlos Prats' murder. But, in July 2005, Chilean Judge Nibaldo Segura of the Court of Appeals stated that the case cannot proceed, arguing that Callejas was already being tried in Chile.
Questioned in March 2005 by Judge Alejandro Madrid about ex-Chilean Christian Democrat President Eduardo Frei Montalva's death, Michael Townley acknowledged links between Colonia Dignidad, led by ex-Nazi Paul Schäfer and DINA on one side and the Laboratorio de Guerra Bacteriológica del Ejército (Bacteriological War Army Laboratory) on the other. It is suspected the toxin that killed Frei Montalva in a Santa Maria clinic in 1982 was created there. This new laboratory in Colonia Dignidad would have been, according to him, the continuation of the laboratory the DINA had in Via Naranja de lo Curro where he worked with DINA biochemist Eugenio Berríos. Townley would also have testified on biological experiments made upon prisoners in Colonia Dignidad with the help of the two above mentioned laboratories.
In 1992, Townley testified that the Spanish diplomat Carmelo Soria, assassinated in 1976, had been detained at his home on Via Naranja in the sector of Lo Curro. There he was tortured and, since he did not speak, subjected to sarin gas (which had been re-invented by Berríos). Soria was then detained and tortured again in the Villa Grimaldi and his case was included in Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon's indictment of Pinochet.
Townley, Razin and Palme
According to an interview with former CIA agents Ibrahim Razin and Richard Brenneke by RAI journalist Ennio Remondino, Michael Townley was in Stockholm in 1986 a week before the assassination of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, possibly in connection with the Iran-Contra affair. After the interview the Italian magazine Panorama revealed president Francesco Cossiga sent a letter to prime minister Giulio Andreotti stating:
If the government were to think that the information had any basis, I think that it should inform the judiciary authority and the Parliamentary Commission on Massacres and, at the level of the bilateral relations, the relevant authorities in the USA and in Sweden.
If, on the other hand, the government, after careful evaluation, were to conclude that the information broadcast by the RAI-TV is false or even recklessly provocatory, I think that the government should inform the judiciary authorities of possible penal law violations and undertake necessary measures to find out the managers and personnel of the national TV center responsible.
Razin claimed in the interview to know of several forces behind the assassination and to have intercepted a telegram with the words 'tell our friend the Swedish palm will be felled'. The reason for this action was supposedly Sweden's involvement in the Iran-Iraq war.
During a 1981 interview with FBI special agents, contents of which were revealed by 2000 CIA declassified documents, Michael Townley explained that CORU member Guillermo Novo Sampol had agreed to commit the Cuban Nationalist Movement in the Buenos Aires kidnapping of a president of a Dutch bank by the Argentine civilian intelligence agency SIDE to obtain a ransom. Townley said Novo Sampol provided $6,000 from the Cuban Nationalist Movement, forwarded to SIDE for expenses in preparing the kidnapping. After returning to the US, Novo Sampol sent Townley a stock of paper used to print pamphlets in the name of Grupo Rojo (Red Group), an imaginary Argentine Marxist terrorist organisation, which was to claim credit for the kidnapping. Townley claimed the pamphlets were distributed in Mendoza and Córdoba in relation with false flag bombings perpetrated by SIDE agents; these were intended to establish the existence of the fake Grupo Rojo. But, the SIDE agents procrastinated too much, and the kidnapping was finally canceled.
- "Diplomat's Assassin to be Freed". Washington Post. 1983-07-26.
- "Agent of Chilean Secret Service Convicted of Murder Attempt". UPI. 1993-03-11.
- Manuel Salazar Salvo, Roto el pacto de silencio en la inteligencia militar, Punto Final, n°611, 24 March – 6 April 2006 (Spanish)
- Michael Townley fue interrogado por muerte de Frei Montalva, Radio Cooperativa, 30 March 2005 (Spanish)
- Declassified documents, 2, 3 published by the National Security Archive
- Contreras dice que Pinochet dio orden "personal, exclusiva y directa" de asesinar a Prats y Letelier, La Tercera, May 13, 2005, mirrored on CC.TT. website (Spanish)
- Declassified documents 2, 4 and 2, 5 available on the National Security Archive website
- Arancibia, "clave" en la cooperación de las dictaduras, La Jornada, 22 May 2005 (Spanish)
- Declassified documents, 2, 6 published by the National Security Archive
- Declassified documents, 2, 7 and 2,8, published by the National Security Archive
- Freudenheim, Milt and Roberts, Katherine "Chilean Admits Role in '76 Murder", The New York Times, February 8, 1987. Retrieved 2011-09-20.
- Saul Landau, "Terrorism Then and Now", in CounterPunch, August 20–21, 2005 **Posada and his accomplices, active collaborators of Pinochet’s fascist police, Granma, 26 March 2003
- Interview of Michael Townley by special agents of the FBI in Washington DC on 10/20/81, National Security Archive
- Declassified documents, 2, 2 published by the National Security Archive
- El coronel que le pena al ejército, La Nación, September 24, 2005 (Spanish)
- Albert Vallejo, Chile indemniza a la familia de Soria 26 años después de su asesinato, El Mundo, 24 December 2002 (Spanish)
- Jorge Molina Sanhueza, El último secreto del crimen de Soria abre la puerta para condenar a brigadier (R) Lepe, La Nación, 21 August 2006 (Spanish)
- Senado aprobó indemnización para familia de Carmelo Soria, Radio Cooperativa, 18 July 2007 (Spanish)
- President Cossiga's letter
- Visit by Guillermo Novo Sampol to Chile in 1976, 1 and 2, on the National Security Archive website