Michael Hurley has retreated to the quiet woods above Mossyrock, but the heady days of Turkey, Afghanistan and Cyprus still call.
On Monday evening he sat at a the dining room table of his farmhouse as the phone rang — and rang. His son, adopted from Afghanistan, called from Missouri, where he is a neurosurgeon. Next it was George, his old Syrian friend and translator, who helped him run anti-drug operations in the Mediterranean.
Hurley, a robust man with a bushy, silver goatee, slipped on a headset and barked a few friendly syllables into the phone then set it back on the table. It wasn’t hard to picture him as a younger agent in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, striking deals with Middle East diplomats and informants in the 1980s.
It’s a past that Hurley, who retired from the agency in 1994, can’t leave behind. In the early 1990s, Hurley, who grew up in Castle Rock and Longview, was blamed for the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people.
An American drug operative named Lester Knox Coleman, who worked for Hurley, wrote a 1993 book called “The Trail of the Octopus” claiming Hurley’s team of DEA agents lost control of a heroin shipment they were tracking from Lebanon to the U.S. As a result, Coleman claimed, terrorists were able to switch out the bag of drugs and place a bomb on the Pan Am flight.
Hurley, 69, says it’s all lies financed by the Libyan government, which was widely blamed for the bombing.
Starting in 1994, he successfully sued the book’s publisher as well as a British television station that broadcast a documentary about the subject. The legal fees, he said, added up to more than $100,000.
Hurley also authored and self-published a 580-page book about the ordeal with retired White Pass English teacher Kenton Smith. “I Solemnly Swear: Conmen, DEA, the Media and Pan Am 103” was published in 2004.
In the book, he called Coleman “my arch nemesis” and said he had been fighting to save his reputation after a long, storied career overseas.
The Pan Am bombing roared into Hurley’s life again earlier this month, when Scottish officials released Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, the Libyan intelligence officer convicted of orchestrating the Pan Am bombing. Hurley had been subpoenaed in a Netherlands court to testify in al-Megrahi’s trial until the Libyan’s defense attorneys backed away from Coleman’s theories.
“They knew they would get slaughtered in court,” Hurley said.
Asked how he felt about the release of al-Megrahi, who is dying of prostate cancer, Hurley said the Libyan official hadn’t showed the Pan Am bombing victims the same compassion.
“Those people didn’t get a chance to go home and die in their beds,” he said.
Native of Cowlitz County
Hurley grew up in Castle Rock, hauling timber off the family’s property with a horse and living off a few cows and hogs and a small garden. Hurley’s parents were poor and relied on government assistance, he said.
By the time he reached sixth grade, the family home started falling down. “So we tore it down. We camped out for the summer,” he said.
The family found a house on what was then known as Goose Hollow Road in the Coal Creek area. So many families from the south lived there, he said, that he developed an Arkansas accent.
Hurley’s parents separated and he dropped out of R.A. Long High School. He started drifting around the Northwest, working timber and railroad jobs. In 1957, when he was 17, he joined the Navy and served four years.
In 1962, he joined the police force in Oxnard, Calif., working his way into the vice squad and regional anti-drug task force. By 1968, he joined the federal agency that later became the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
He went to Turkey in 1971 with an eight-agent force to break the French Connection, an infamous heroin ring. Later that decade, he battled with U.S. diplomats in Afghanistan, trying to cut off U.S. aid to areas where poppies — from which heroin is made — was cultivated.
Hurley admits he could be brash and a little hot-headed. He said he questioned the calls of supervisors during undercover operations.
After returning from Afghanistan, he helped bust New York mafiosi working with South American drug runners. He bounced between New York and the southern U.S. throughout the 1970s. During that time, he met his third wife, Carol, an Arkansas state trooper who became the first female police chief in state history. They’ve been married 30 years.
In 1984, Hurley was assigned as a DEA attache to the U.S. Embassy in Cypress. The job put him charge of anti-drug operations throughout the Middle East.
George Markabi, who was born in Syria and worked for Hurley as an operative and translator in Cyprus in the 1980s, said his boss worked nonstop on the Mediterranean island, driving constantly back and forth to meet with sources and government officials.
“He was the center of power for many operations involving drug enforcement for many different countries,” said Markabi, who now teaches physical education at Snohomish High School near Seattle. “He was a very energetic, healthy young fellow. He was really on top of everything.”
When high-level drug lords from around the Middle East and Europe gathered for a meeting in Cyprus, he bugged the entire hotel and oversaw a stable of secret police from Germany, Lebanon, the U.K., Markabi said.
When drug dealers sank a boat off Cyprus, Hurley, who liked to dive in the Mediterranean, strapped on a tank and went after the wreck himself.
Hurley understood political and cultural nuances of the Middle East and was good at working with people, Markabi said. “He has a big heart and he is very, very sensitive,” he said. “He absorbed all of the cultural background in that area. Other American diplomats, they couldn’t get it.”
Asked how a DEA agent in Cyprus became tangled up in theories over the Pan Am bombing, Hurley gave a sigh and stared at the checkered table cloth in front of him. After a long pause, he said he had simply irritated Lester Coleman, the former DEA operative, whom he described as a con man and hustler.
In 1992, American Journalism Review reported that Hurley filed a sworn declaration stating he fired Coleman, partly for stealing money he had been given to pass onto DEA sources. In an interview Monday, Hurley said Coleman vowed revenge.
In his book “The Trail of the Octopus: From Beirut to Lockerbie — Inside the DIA,” Coleman, who claimed he worked for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, said DEA-controlled heroin shipments from Lebanon to the U.S. had been compromised, allowing a bag of heroin to be switched out for the bomb on Pan Am 103.
Coleman, who could not be reached for comment, wrote that he warned Hurley about the breach, but Hurley ignored him.
A documentary film — called “The Maltese Double Cross” — was made about the allegation.
Hurley said he believes Coleman and the filmmakers were financed by the Libyan government to clear its name in the bombing.
Coleman’s story is impossible, Hurley said. All of Hurley’s drug couriers were accompanied by an agent, he said, and a drug package’s route was documented so it could be used as evidence.
“A controlled delivery is exactly what it says — controlled.”
The publisher caves
Throughout his career, Hurley said he could still smell the fresh sawdust of his youth in Castle Rock. He began investing in timberland above Mossyrock and dreamed of building a small sawmill there.
Hurley said he began selling off portions of his Mossyrock timberland in 1994 to finance his lawsuit against the U.K.-based publishers of the “The Trail of the Octopus” as well as the U.K. TV station Channel 4, which aired a portion of the “Maltese Double Cross.” Legal bills became overwhelming.
“I hawked everything I owned,” he said. “I hawked my future for my name.”
The publishers settled in 1996 and made an apology in open court. Channel 4 did, too, Hurley said. He said he didn’t make any money off the suit, but he recouped a good portion of his legal expenses, and the companies agreed to destroy their copies of the book. (Inexplicably, Amazon.com lists a 2009 edition of the book in paperback.)
Coleman offered testimony in civil cases brought by the families of Pan Am 103’s passengers implicating the DEA in the bombing. He pleaded guilty in September 1997 to five counts of perjury in the case, saying he lied for money and to get off easy on a federal charge that he applied for a false passport, according to the New York Times.
Hurley moved to Mossyrock in 1997. Today, he has his sawmill and still owns 128 acres of timberland. He milled some of the trees for a cozy, lodge-like studio, which he completed last month.
Asked why he pursued the libel case so aggressively, Hurley said: “Because my name is worth more than any of it. I built up a lifetime trying to get a reputation.”
“I have never been flat-out accused of being an accessory to murder before,” he wrote in his 2004 book. “Does a man have to earn his reputation twice?”