Assassinations  Panama  Movies

Hollywood Hitmen

Black helicopters, underground bases, laser weapons and the mysterious death of Schwazenegger's screenwriter...


As he drove through the small hours of the Californian night, Gary Devore insisted to his wife Wendy: “I’m pumping pure adrenaline.”

“This was not a normal phone call… I felt he was warning me,” Wendy later recalled. “I love you,” she had said, expectantly.

“See you later,” Gary mumbled. It was the last time Wendy Oates-Devore would ever speak to her husband, the 55-year-old Hollywood screenwriter who’d worked on major projects with stars such as Kurt Russell, Christopher Walken and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He had vanished. Swallowed, it seemed, by the desert highway.

Gary had been returning from actress friend Marsha Mason’s New Mexico residence where he had just finished a screenplay he’d told his wife would be the hardest-hitting piece of film Hollywood had ever seen. A year later, in the summer of 1998, his car was located by a police dive team in a shallow aqueduct following a tip-off from an ‘amateur sleuth’. Inside the vehicle, belted into the front seat and dressed in Gary’s cowboy clothing, sat a skeletal corpse.

The Californian Highway Patrol wrote a 158-page report declaring it an accid­ent: case closed. And that was that… except for the fact that many of those who knew Gary Devore remain convinced that the official investigation was a whitewash, that Gary was murdered, and that the US government itself has been trying to wipe clean its fingerprints from the case.

Gary’s script, a remake of the 1949 heist movie The Big Steal, was to be an action thriller set against the backdrop of the 1989 United States invasion of Panama and the overthrow of its dictator, former CIA asset Manuel Noriega. It was to be Gary’s direct­orial debut and expect­ations were high. Gary was being assisted in his research by his old friend Charles ‘Chase’ Brandon, veteran CIA case officer, first cousin to Tommy Lee Jones; also the Agency’s new public face in Hollywood and – according to Gary’s publicist Michael Sands – “the real Jack Bauer”, referring to the fictional super-agent of the television show 24.

However, the screenplay was acutely critical of US foreign policy, presenting a picture of a country ravaged by the US military and in which US Army intelli­gence organises the theft of Noriega’s drug money. An early draft obtained by the authors gives its main characters lines like: “Shit, we’re really kicking the crap outta this little bitty country to get one man [Noriega]. It’s embarrassing.”, “Starting a war you can’t lose is good for morale.”, and “a little scrimmage to make the varsity look good”.

The official ‘accident’ explanation of Gary’s death is certainly creative, if nothing else. By the police’s own calculations, in order to have ended up in the aqueduct, Gary would have had to have driven in excess of 110km/h without headlights – they had been deliberately turned off, the investigation found – the wrong way up a major highway for 3.2km, unnoticed, and through the only gap in the road rail – a mere 5m wide – all without causing any damage to either rail or car. “Evel Knievel on his best night couldn’t do that,” snorts Hollywood private investigator Don Crutchfield.

Officially, the wreckage was discovered following some savvy sleuthing by a laid-off accident specialist from aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. Gary’s ex-wife – and Babylon 5 star – Claudia Christian finds the circumstances suspicious, telling us via email: “My friends (one of whom is an ex-marine) took infrared equipment to the aqueduct where he was found days after he was missing and found nothing… so they were convinced that his car and that body was planted there.”

A number of things were missing from Gary’s car – the laptop computer containing The Big Steal, the gun and ammunition he always carried with him on long trips… and his hands.

Following protests from Wendy, police discovered hand bones on the back seat and in the silt at the bottom of the car, but none of them included Gary’s deformed pinky finger, which would have confirmed the body’s identity. Still unsatisfied, Wendy commiss­ioned a second autopsy by Dr David Posey (assisted by Dr Robert Byrd), but she claims their report never turned up and she has since been in a state of limbo, unsure even whether the body was that of her husband.

We secured a copy of Posey’s report, which states the body was indeed Gary Devore’s. It also confirmed startling rumours that the hand bones provided by the authorities had been over two hundred years old. What did these old hands imply? A cock-up at the original coroner’s office? A police tactic to ease a grieving widow’s mind? Or signs of a professional assassination? Posey agreed with the original verdict that exact cause of death was “undetermined” but with the chilling addendum: “homicide”.

The discovery of Gary’s vehicle was punctuated by another sinister moment – the presence of a mysterious, unmarked black helicopter. The incident was recalled by Mike Burridge, then public information officer for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department: “As we were wrapping up for the afternoon, I was standing next to the cameraman from a national network [CNN], and he tapped me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Hey, is that your helicopter?’”

Burridge looked up to see a chopper approaching, “at a high rate of speed, almost as if it was following the path of the aqueduct, and very low”.

“That’s not ours,” said Burridge, “is it yours?”

“No,” replied the cameraman, “we don’t have a helicopter like that.”

Burridge was able to see “somebody in the back who was taking pictures”, and sugg­ested to the cameraman that he respond in kind. However, “as soon as he put the camera back on the tripod, and panned down that way, and began to record, the helicopter took off. He [the cameraman] told me when he looked at it, it didn’t have any markings, there was no tail number, no end number, everybody inside the helicopter was wearing dark clothing, it was completely black. I could see the majority of that with my naked eye, it was that close… That obviously raised suspicions, about… who was in that aircraft.”

Even stranger, the next day Burridge received an unsolicited phone call from a man named ‘Anderson’ identifying himself as an Air Force Public Information Officer. According to Burridge, “Anderson said that they [the Air Force] were receiving a lot of radio interference from that area out at [Edwards Air Force Base]… so they sent a crew over to check it out.” Thus was explained the presence of the mysterious chopper. Soon after, however, a media agency learned of the incident and decided to call the number ‘Anderson’ had given to Burridge, but the number didn’t check out. Puzzled, Burridge decided to enquire with the Air Force Public Information Office, which replied, “No, we’ve never heard that name [Anderson] and we don’t know what you’re talking about.”

This wasn’t the only blind alley Burridge trod during the Devore investigation. In further testimony – corroborated by Wendy and her friends – he explains how the CIA’s ‘Chase’ Brandon showed up at Wendy’s house just days after the disappearance and shut himself in Gary’s office. A friend of Wendy’s had gone into the room to find a sweater and saw Brandon bent over Gary’s computer. Shortly afterwards, they discovered that the computer had frozen indefinitely, and thus vanished the entirety of Gary’s research and earlier drafts of The Big Steal.

Concerned about Brandon’s actions, Burridge decided to ask some questions. However, the Sheriff’s Department “had a very difficult time communicating with that individual [Brandon] to the point that he actually refused to return our telephone calls and our letters”. In exasperation, Burridge enlisted the help of the FBI, who agreed to interview Brandon – astonishingly – at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, about the events that took place in Wendy’s home. The FBI reported back to Burridge that there was no need to follow up this avenue of enquiry.

What was Brandon doing in Gary’s office? Taking a quiet moment to remember an old friend, as he explained to Wendy? Conducting his own investigation into the disappearance, mindful, perhaps, that close family are often the most likely suspects? Or was he frying sensitive information he’d provided to Gary about CIA activity in Panama?

According to Wendy, Gary had become “very disturbed” by his research into Panama, especially over US weapons-testing and alleged money-laundering. He had once told her that the US had used illegal laser weapons to split a bus full of Panamanian civilians from front to back and then buried them in unmarked graves. To this day, Wendy can’t shake the memory of her husband in his dimly lit office one evening, uncharacteristically hunched at his desk, head in hands: “The deeper you look, the dirtier it gets,” he had said.

It is well established that the US piloted newly developed technologies such as the Stealth Fighter, the Apache Attack Helicopter and laser-guided missiles in Panama. But there also exists multiple witness testimony describing the Pentagon’s use of experimental particle beam weapons attached to military aircraft. Professor Cecilio Simon of the University of Panama describes combatants who “literally melted with their guns”, lasered automobiles, and “poison darts which produce massive bleeding”. Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark was outraged by the Pentagon’s “use of sophist­icated weaponry merely to test it”. “Above all, though,” said Clark, “there was a use beyond any conceivable necessity of just sheer fire power… just an excessive use of force beyond any possible justification.”

Curiously, during the year that Gary was missing, three men in civilian clothes with a ‘military look’ approached Wendy, out of the blue, as she was emerging from a driving test and said in no uncertain terms that the subject of Panama, as a “dangerous and dirty event”, was best avoided, before leaving abruptly.

Remembering her brother, Gary’s sister Judy says: “Since the time he was a small boy he wanted to be, and fantasised about being, a cowboy.” But Gary’s self-styled cowboy image went deeper than his front­ier-style getup: beneath the Stetson was a genuine tough guy, not to mention ladies’ man. But who really was Gary Devore, and what was the true nature of his relationship with the US intelligence community?

Wendy says she once saw “strange symbols” on her husband’s computer. When she asked what they were, Gary said they were “encryption codes”, but, not being com­puter literate at the time, she asked nothing more. Claudia Christian makes a similar claim: “I recall when we were married I walked into his office unannounced and saw what appeared to be Cyrillic writing on his computer. He was furious at me for disturbing (catching?) him.”

A few months after Gary’s disappearance, Wendy received a visit from an alleged retired employee of the National Security Agency (NSA) – the highly secret­ive intelligence agency specialising in intercepting communications and deciphering encrypted information. He expressed to her his view that Gary’s disappearance was somehow connected with high-level public spy scandals dating from the mid-1990s, such as the selling of state secrets to Russia by the CIA’s Aldrich Ames and the FBI’s Robert Hanssen. He told Wendy: “We never kill our own,” but expressed his concerns that Gary might have fallen into the hands of Russian mobsters linked to US intelligence. He advised Wendy to look more deeply into Gary’s background and, upon checking her missing husband’s finances, she discovered a million dollar pension fund in government bonds. “We all get that,” said the NSA man, cryptically.

The NSA informs us that Gary did not work for them, but refuses to release any intelligence information relating to him either, citing a series of statutes relating to espionage, security and encryption.

In the early 1990s, Gary went to a military base in the Nevada desert while he was working on an abandoned film called Stealth for the producer Walter Mirisch. Wendy only found out about her husband’s trip when she stumbled across a photo in their attic of Gary sitting in a Stealth plane in a quonset hut structure. In his autobiography, Mirisch claims he himself took a trip to Tonopah Test Range in the desert in connection with the same film. The base, also known as Area 52, was known for housing Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk, which was used to great effect in the 1991 Gulf War. It seems likely that Gary’s trip to Nevada was also to the Tonopah base, raising more question marks about his level of security clearance.

Taking us even further into the Twilight Zone is Wendy’s friend Karen Prisant Ellis, a psychic who had worked with the police on various cases. It was through Ellis, shortly after Gary’s disappearance, that Wendy was contacted by a Columbian man; here we will refer to him only as ‘Carlos’. After months without any leads, intrigued and desperate, Wendy agreed to meet with Carlos in the presence of Ellis at a retreat in Escondido. There, Wendy listened as Carlos told her how he had met Gary while working at an underground facility operated by defence contractor Rocketdyne where locator chips had been implanted in each of their right pectoral muscles. Carlos claimed he had been recruited by the CIA based on his expertise in electromagnetics and that it had taken him 10 years to disengage from the Agency after having his chip illegally removed. Carlos told Wendy he had been watching the Devore case unfold on TV, that he was dying of cancer due to the nature of his work at Rocketdyne, and that he wanted her to know that he thought Gary was a good man. “Many weirdos came out of the woodwork at the time,” Wendy explains, “so I didn’t take much notice of Carlos. But the man was clearly close to death… Why would a dying man spend his final days telling me, a total stranger, a false life story?”

One of Rocketdyne’s biggest claims to fame – or rather notoriety – is the partial nuclear meltdown which occurred at the company’s main Santa Susana facility in 1959, along with numerous toxic spills before and since that time. A state-funded study estimated that the meltdown released up to 300 times more radiation than the infamous accident at Three-Mile Island and may have triggered in excess of 260 cancer cases among Rocketdyne employees. If the cancer-stricken Carlos really had worked for Rocketdyne in California, then he almost certainly would have spent considerable time at the Santa Susana facility. Might Carlos have been among those contaminated?

On the subject of underground bases, Gary’s car was discovered at the very heart of America’s military-industrial-complex – Southern California’s ‘Aerospace Valley,’ so dubbed by locals for its numerous sensitive military and corporate aerospace installations. Only a 10-minute car ride from the scene of Gary’s ‘accident’ sits the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works, birthplace of the U-2, SR-71 and F-117. To the north sprawls the sensitive Edwards Air Force Base, a stone’s throw from which is the Denny’s Diner where Gary ate during his last known movements. It was in the diner’s unmonitored car park that Wendy suspects her husband was accosted. At the extreme east of the valley, McDonnell Douglas maintains an electromagnetic research base, and to the west, allegedly plunging 42 levels deep into the foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains, sits Northrop’s mysterious ‘Anthill’ facility where – according to people who claim to have worked at the base – hovering orbs patrol the corridors keeping tabs on employees and force fields operate in place of doors.

If there is even a shred of truth in stories of Gary’s links to black projects and the NSA, then the motives for ‘disappearing’ him will surely never be known.

Then there’s the CIA. How close was Gary to the Agency? His relationship with Brandon goes back to 1986, when Gary was best man at Tommy Lee Jones’s wedding, and he spoke with Brandon frequently by phone in the weeks leading up to his disappearance. Brandon told entertainment website “I’ve been an Agency officer for 30 years, 25 years of that undercover… It’s not a job or a career. It’s a lifestyle, a life of deception. You have to go out and procure information and find people who are willing to work for you. You’re not an agent, but rather an officer who finds agents to provide information.” Was Gary one of Brandon’s recruits? If so, he certainly wouldn’t have been the first Agency man in Tinseltown (see “The CIA in Hollywood”).

But would the intelligence services really murder an established screenwriter over a movie? It would be highly irregular. And yet, to the Agency, with a newly bolstered presence in Hollywood, Gary Devore’s Big Steal might have represented a sudden and inconvenient shift in political stance from a cowboy with a reputation for sticking to his guns. What was to stop Gary from blabbing to the press during the promotion of The Big Steal? And if the film was a success for the new director, then what might he be tempted to make next?

On the other hand, maybe it was, as the authorities insist, just a terrible accident. Maybe Gary, after a gruelling 12-hour drive, had made a series of foolhardy decis­ions (turning off his headlights, driving the wrong way up the highway at speed). Maybe; but this official version of events will never satisfy many of those who knew Gary best.

“I think he was killed,” says Claudia Christian. “He never would have fallen asleep on the road, he was a long distance driver, that’s what he did to think out scripts… he would drive for days on end.”

The local and national print media stopped asking questions when Gary’s car was discovered. A few television programmes have since discussed the case, though nothing has been broadcast about the intelligence service link. In 2001, E! Entertainment made an episode on Gary as part of its Mysteries and Scandals series, which included frank discussion proposing the possibility of CIA involvement. The filmmakers say that the show was pulled from broadcast at the last minute. We contacted the then head of E! for an explanation, but, although initially open to discussion, she abruptly cut off contact when we mentioned the CIA.

As for Wendy Oates-Devore, she never used to believe in conspiracy theories, but the nature of Gary’s disappearance haunts her. She has asked countless questions but received no satisfactory answers. “You don’t want a Rashomon ending,” she says, referring to the multiple interpretations of what has actually transpired in Kurosawa’s famous film. Sadly, in the case of Gary Devore, a Rashomon ending is all we have; that, and one seemingly inescapable truth – as the man himself once said: “The deeper you look, the dirtier it gets.”

The CIA has had a long history in Holly­wood. During the 1950s, CIA asset Luigi G Luraschi used his position as head of censorship at Paramount Studios to bring film content in line with the Agency’s ideals. Scenes that portrayed the US in a bad light were cut; films such as High Noon (1952) were prevented from receiving certain industry awards; and well dressed ‘negroes’ were placed in lavish on-screen environ­ments to suggest that the US didn’t have a race problem. In order to tame or otherwise subvert their content, the CIA also covertly assisted on the film adaptations of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) and Animal Farm (1955), as well as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1958).

In the mid-1990s, the Agency established its entertainment liaison office, headed by Chase Brandon, supposedly as part of its more ‘open’ remit. In truth, the CIA’s role in Hollywood remains decidedly clandestine. In the case of CIA-assisted product­ions like Bad Company (2002), 24 (2001–), and Spy Game (2001), not even isolated comments exist from anyone involved to indicate what happ­ened on set (although we do know the CIA withdrew its endorsement from the latter). Others are less bashful, as with Alias (2001–6) star Jenni­fer Garner, who appeared unpaid in a recruitment ad for her friends at Langley.

The CIA may even have used entertainment for psychological warfare purposes and to develop real-world scenarios, as Texas State Professor Tricia Jenkins heard in a series of sensational interviews for her forthcoming book For Our Spies Only. Michael Frost Beckner, creator of the TV series The Agency (2001–03), recalls that Brandon phoned him to suggest a plotline involving biometric identification techno­logy. When Beckner questioned Brandon on the story’s realism, Brandon told him to “put it in there, whether we have it or not. Terrorists watch TV too. It’ll scare them.” For another episode, Brandon suggested using a Predator drone out­fitted with a Hellfire missile to kill a Pakistani general, asking Beckner to “see how it plays out, how you could make it work”. One month after the show aired, the CIA assassin­ated a Pakistani general using Hellfire missiles from a Predator drone. “I’m not a big conspiracy theor­ist,” says Beckner, “but there seems to have been a unique synergy there.”