Why the Murder of Five American Nuns Will Go Unavenged

In October 1992, Liberian thugs killed five American Catholic missionaries. No one is likely to be prosecuted for the cold-blooded murders

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Corinne Dufka / Reuters

Charles Taylor's street forces in Liberia, May 8, 1996

The five women were from small-town America but chose to live in the midst of one of West Africa’s most brutal civil wars. Each belonged to the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, a St. Louis–based Catholic order; each had volunteered to live in Liberia, not only as missionaries but also as desperately needed relief workers.

In 1993, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch profiled the nuns. Sister Barbara Muttra, the eldest of the group at 69, ministered to refugees during the height of the Vietnam War before moving to Liberia in the early 1970s. Sister Mary Joel Kolmer, 58, was a cancer survivor who returned to Liberia after surgery to remove a tumor. Sister Agnes Mueller, 62, was both a trained nurse and a theologian who taught aspirant nuns at the sisters’ convent. Sister Shirley Kolmer, 61, who served as a high school principal in Monrovia, advocated forcefully — and successfully — for the nuns’ return to Liberia after fighting between Charles Taylor’s rebels and government troops forced the nuns to flee in 1990. And Sister Kathleen McGuire, 54, the only sister who was new to Liberia, once made a pilgrimage to the graves of five American nuns murdered in El Salvador in 1980. It would be a tragedy the five nuns in Liberia would share, slaughtered 20 years ago last week by men believed to be loyal to Taylor.

Their deaths have gone unpunished, but not for lack of evidence. Investigators in Liberia and the U.S. identified some of the individuals they believed responsible, but for reasons both political and legal, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be brought to justice.

The killings remain among the darkest episodes of the war for both Liberians and Americans. In October 1992, Taylor launched the most notorious offensive in his bid to take power, a fast-moving, multipronged attack called Operation Octopus.

On Oct. 20, 1992, Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer left their home in Gardnersville, Liberia, to drive a Liberian colleague to his nearby village. They never made it to their destination: the women and the Liberian man were shot to death in their vehicle, along with two African peacekeepers the women picked up along the way.

Three days later, according to testimony the sisters’ order provided to Congress, a rebel from Taylor’s faction identified as Mosquito — arrived at their convent with several fighters, announcing that “he was going to kill the white people.” McGuire was shot first, allegedly cut down by Mosquito as she opened the convent’s gate. Another fighter, known only as Black Devil, then executed Shirley Kolmer and Mueller. Their bodies were mutilated and the women’s vehicle looted from the compound.

The U.S. government responded forcefully upon learning of the women’s murders, according to a declassified State Department cable, warning Taylor directly that it would hold him and his commanders “personally responsible for mistreatment of any American citizens.” Immediately afterward, Taylor denied responsibility; it was a position he maintained throughout his rise and fall as a warlord and President in Liberia. “We had protected Americans throughout that period, and it was very — it was a sad situation even for me,” he said at his trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2010. Taylor was sentenced to 50 years for crimes against humanity earlier this year. But no one has specifically been held accountable for the death of the nuns.

The pursuit of justice in the killings has always been dependent on U.S. policy on Liberia. During the civil war, when U.S. interests focused on stabilizing the nation, the nuns’ murders went without criminal investigation. After Taylor took power and U.S. policy shifted toward pressuring him from office, Congress voiced renewed interest in identifying the perpetrators.

In 2002, the FBI launched an investigation. A team of agents with an extraterritorial investigation squad combed Liberia and neighboring countries for leads, building a body of evidence and, most important, zeroing in on a suspect. Meanwhile, Liberia launched its own national inquiry into civil-war atrocities. At a January 2008 hearing before Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a former Taylor fighter confessed to his involvement in the murder of three of the nuns. That witness, a low-level Taylor fighter named Morris Padmore, also identified Mosquito as Christopher Vambo, a former Taylor commander who had worked with a security company for a legislator in Liberia’s government.

Following that testimony, Sam Saryon, director of the Liberian national police’s criminal-investigations division at that time, approached Vambo for what he described as an “off the record” conversation. Vambo, who lives in Buchanan, the nation’s second largest city, denied any role in murder of the nuns, saying that “he was trying to rescue them.” “He was not credible,” Saryon tells TIME. “But I could not do anything further with that investigation.”

By then, the FBI team had also completed their investigation — though the lead agent in the case would not comment on whom they sought to indict in the crimes. “We put together what I personally thought was a prosecutable case,” former FBI special agent Christopher Locke, lead investigator on the case, tells TIME.

In April 2010, Locke met with Justice Department attorneys in Washington to learn whether the nuns’ case would be brought before an American court. The Justice Department prosecutors, however, had come across an arcane legal roadblock. The case law surrounding the statute of limitations on federal murder charges was ambiguous. The statute of limitations on federal murder charges had been five years until it was eliminated altogether in 1994. It was unclear whether this change applied retroactively, opening the door to a prosecution’s case becoming invalid if a judge decided the change could not be applied to the 1992 murders. Any indictment ran the risk of extraditing a suspect they believed to be a war criminal to the U.S., only to see him let go on a technicality.

It was a risk that the Justice Department was unwilling to take — even if it meant that all of the nuns’ murderers would remain free. The FBI closed the investigation earlier this year, according to Locke, making any future U.S. prosecution highly unlikely.

“While prosecutions are not always possible in cases such as this, the FBI always continues to diligently work and follow all investigative leads toward the service of justice,” Jacqueline Maguire, a spokesperson for FBI’s Washington, D.C., field office, tells TIME. Similarly, the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington, D.C., which handled the case, declined to comment.

In Liberia, the search for justice ran headlong into a peculiar politics of the postwar society. Despite the death of nearly a quarter-million people during the war, not a single person has been prosecuted domestically for a crime related to the conflict. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has overseen near double-digit growth in the tiny nation’s economy and enjoys international acclaim unparalleled for a Liberian leader. But after six years in power, she appears unwilling to press for prosecutions, and so the issue of impunity will not fade away.

Earlier this month, Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian peace activist who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Sirleaf, resigned from her position leading the National Peace and Reconciliation Initiative, a role appointed to her by the President. “We have a deficit when it comes to having a moral voice in the country,” she told an audience in Paris, according to the Telegraph.

There appears little interest among Liberian law enforcement to pursue the matter. “Nobody is talking about that nun story anymore in Monrovia,” a Liberian national police official said.

Yet for former special agent Locke, now an attorney in private practice, the case remains unfinished business. “It’s an important message to send to the world: if you kill our citizens, it doesn’t matter if it takes us 20 years, we’ll never give up,” says Locke. “There’s still got to be accountability for their actions, and we’ve missed that opportunity.”

15 comments
Karola_Bloach
Karola_Bloach

When there are thousands of murders, documented acts of cannibalism, rape and etc. Here we have U.S. thinking about justice/revenge for 5 nuns who seriously knew very well what they were getting into staying in Liberia. As much as i wish them their justice, I can't help but feel the ego of the United States. Placing it's citizens in such a high position it's just an insult to everyone who isn't an American. Good times to be an American i presume!

stowevt024
stowevt024

Why only 90%?  They should all be wiped out.  The Catholic Church harbors rapists, murderers, pedophiles and thieves.  Why are the lives of 5 nuns more important than the lives of thousands of people who have perished in Liberia?  It's simple. It's racism!  Here is a thought, close down the Catholic Church sell all their property/holdings/ assets and anything left over and start feeding the world with the trillions of dollars that comes in.   I'll tell you who would be happy as a clam....all present and future altar boys.  Even with the vast hundreds millions that the C.C. has paid out in lawsuits from pedophile priests (who the church still protect, some are even hiding out in the Vatican) they still are worth untold millions, billions and trillions.  And for those people whom I may have offended go bury your head in your alleged holy books which are filled with myths and fairy tales that are so fabricated that a child can see through them. 

LogicalPosition
LogicalPosition like.author.displayName 1 Like

Martyrs are  expendable.(they asked for it) The US Gubmit would only be outraged if these women were Muslim journalists.

owlafaye
owlafaye

They are not our citizens...they are citizens of the Vatican and as such, are simply paying the blood debt of the Vatican. 

When 90% of the Catholic clergy are dead, we will balance the scales and see how much more they owe humanity.

Dachman
Dachman

It is clear you must have been wronged in some way by the Catholic church but your disregard for human life is sad. These women were there to help and did put themselves in harms way but to post such uncaring comments is disturbing!

stowevt024
stowevt024

Here is a good one owlafaye....How do you get a nun pregnant??/ Simple, dress her up as an altar boy.!

Dachman
Dachman

Hate is an ugly thing.

stowevt024
stowevt024

Why only 90%?  They should all be wiped out.  The Catholic Churchharbors rapists, murderers, pedophiles and thieves.  Why are the lives of 5nuns more important than the lives of thousands of people who have perished inLiberia?  It's simple. It's racism!  Here is a thought, close down theCatholic Church sell all their property/holdings/ assets and anything left overand start feeding the world with the trillions of dollars that comesin.   I'll tell you who would be happy as a clam....all presentand future altar boys.  Even with the vast hundreds millions that the C.C.has paid out in lawsuits from pedophile priests (who the church still protect,some are even hiding out in the Vatican) they still are worth untold millions,billions and trillions.  And for those people whom I may have offended gobury your head in your alleged holy books which are filled with myths and fairytales that are so fabricated that a child can see through them.

acutejennifer
acutejennifer

@owlafaye They are American citizens you bigot!

eduhsim
eduhsim like.author.displayName 1 Like

@owlafaye I cannot believe that there are human beings that cannot find it in themselves to be appalled by the murder, and instead rant on about wanting more Catholics to die, or at worst, thinks that these nuns should have seen it coming since they worked in dangerous places. For God sake, have some compassion for your fellow humans! People who murder others should be brought to justice. Think beyond the boundaries of your own selfish scope.

Belarusa
Belarusa like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

@owlafaye THERE IT IS! I was wondering why Time would bother posting anything about members of the Christian faith being murdered. This article is apparently intended to show God hating animals like owlafaye that it's not only okay to hate Chrisitans and Christianity, but theres a growing acceptance to killing them as well. Hang in there owlafaye! In this modern, liberal age of tolerance and acceptance, it will only be a matter of time before people like you are herding people like me onto cattle cars for a nice Zyklon B shower........In the name of tolerance and diversity of course.

GaryMcCray
GaryMcCray like.author.displayName 1 Like

I also was disturbed about the "vengeance" reference, the last thing I can picture is the 5 nuns seeking vengeance.

In foreign countries and in foreign wars, where genocide is often a common goal, both vengeance and justice are in excruciatingly short supply.

Like our recent ambassador, these women clearly chose to be in a dire and dangerous position and they died doing what they believed in.

They should be loudly praised for their willing contribution and ultimate sacrifice but do not make too much of vengeance, wherever they are I am sure it is of absolutely no interest to them.

SanMann
SanMann

Yout title makes me ask - are you calling for vengeance or justice?