Tenac­ity un­cov­ers truth be­hind spy’s killing

Hous­ton lawyer’s ex­am­i­na­tion of Cold War mur­der yields book

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - ZEST - By An­drew Dansby STAFF WRITER

Michael Pullara’s in­cred­i­ble in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the mur­der of a CIA agent be­gan with a sim­ple Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest, prompted by a feel­ing of un­rest caused by a news­pa­per story he’d read.

In 1993, a CIA agent named Fred­die Woodruff was shot in the head on a des­o­late road in Ge­or­gia, the for­mer So­viet repub­lic in the Cau­ca­sus re­gion of Eura­sia. Such a killing couldn’t oc­cur with­out reper­cus­sions, and the reper­cus­sions in this in­stance were swift. A sus­pect was ar­rested and an ad­mis­sion of guilt se­cured. An­zor Shar­maidze, a drunk coun­try youth, was im­pris­oned for ac­ci­den­tally dis­charg­ing a ri­fle that re­sulted in an ac­ci­den­tal killing.

That could have been the end of the story. For years, it was. But Pullara wasn’t sat­is­fied. In­trigue

trans­formed into a quixotic quest to find the truth be­hind Woodruff ’s death, which he de­scribes in his new book, “The Spy Who Was Left Be­hind.”

“I guess it was a tenac­ity that bor­ders on ob­ses­sion,” says Pullara, 62, who will ap­pear Tues­day even­ing at Blue Wil­low Book Shop. “Ev­ery­body’s got to be some­where. So I put my­self there.”

Worth not­ing: Pullara’s back­ground was not in es­pi­onage or mil­i­tary sub­terfuge. He was, and is, a Hous­ton-based trial lawyer. That said, he also de­scribes him­self as “an in­vet­er­ate trav­eler” and a man who feels out of step with cul­ture. He’d rather pour through thou­sands of pages of gov­ern­ment doc­u­ments than scroll through the blitz of in­for­ma­tion found on so­cial me­dia. “I feel that tweets and ‘likes’ on Face­book are acts of ex­is­ten­tial de­spair,” he says. “They’re con­fes­sions of pow­er­less­ness. Peo­ple think click­ing ‘like’ means they’ve done some­thing.”

So Pullara was both­ered by some­thing and took ac­tion. His cu­rios­ity was piqued be­cause he and Woodruff grew up in the same town in Arkansas, and their fam­i­lies were close. But Pullara didn’t know un­til he read a 1993 news re­port about the killing that Woodruff worked for the CIA.

From the out­set, Pullara felt some­thing was off in the cov­er­age of Woodruff ’s death. He de­scribes Ge­or­gia in 1993 as “a law­less repub­lic,” with an un­der­manned po­lice force and likely too many lin­ger­ing fig­ures from a Cold War that was de­clared over but hadn’t fully thawed.

An FOIA re­quest in 1994 and an­other in 1997 led Pullara to be­lieve the recorded and dis­sem­i­nated ver­sion of Woodruff ’s death was fab­ri­cated wholly. He delved deeper, vis­it­ing Ge­or­gia mul­ti­ple times start­ing in 2004. And he un­cov­ered other in­ter­est­ing strands, in­clud­ing moles whose cover got blown and drug­trade routes, both of which may have played a part in Woodruff ’s killing.

To of­fer too much about Pullara’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion would rob a reader of the taut ten­sion that runs through the book. “The Spy Who Was Left Be­hind” moves at the pace of a fic­tion thriller, though ab­sent an anti-hero pro­tag­o­nist who knocks down doors and breaks necks.

“I think I found out a lot be­cause I was un­threat­en­ing,” Pullara says with a chuckle. “That’s how you get peo­ple to talk to you. I went every­where mak­ing friends. So even peo­ple who had a strong in­ter­est in op­po­si­tion to mine didn’t dis­like me. That and al­ways telling the truth.”

Pullara at one point is of­fered defini­tively the in­for­ma­tion he seeks about Woodruff ’s killing. A for­mer chief of Ge­or­gia’s se­cu­rity ser­vice was con­vinced Pullara worked for the U.S. gov­ern­ment and was will­ing to talk in ex­change for se­cu­rity that Pullara — again, a trial lawyer — could not pro­vide. De­spite the time and money in­vested in his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Pullara couldn’t make a false promise even if it yielded his an­swers.

“He could have been killed, and I couldn’t live with that,” Pullara says.

A sur­face-level de­scrip­tion of the Woodruff mur­der and con­se­quences sounds like deep and re­solved his­tory, but through­out the book mo­ments res­onate with con­tem­po­rary fa­mil­iar­ity. The de­scrip­tions of Shar­maidze’s tor­ture are gru­el­ing: He was hand­cuffed, arms be­hind his back, and hung from his wrists, dis­lo­cat­ing both shoul­ders; the bot­toms of his feet were beaten.

“You read the word ‘tor­ture’ in a man­u­script, and it doesn’t con­vey much any­more,” Pullara says. “But when An­zor broke it down for me with such pathos and pity, it be­came much more real.”

Pullara be­lieves he met the tor­turer in the course of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

“But for him, it was so worka­day, he couldn’t re­mem­ber An­zor. He didn’t deny it. But he had this de­tach­ment and pride.”

That de­scrip­tor, “de­tach­ment and pride,” prompted thoughts of more re­cent sto­ries about the dis­mem­ber­ment of a Saudi jour­nal­ist in Turkey.

“It’s the same sort of thing: him telling the oth­ers to bring head­phones so you don’t have to lis­ten to the sounds,” Pullara says.

Shar­maidze’s wrong­ful im­pris­on­ment is the force Pullara uses to lead most of his in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and re­sulted in Shar­maidze’s re­lease in 2008. But through the nar­ra­tive he re­veals an­other pur­suit, which is proper ac­knowl­edg­ment of Woodruff ’s death: that he was killed for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, not the re­sult of a drunken ac­ci­dent. Pullara wanted the record straight: This agent died a hero, not a vic­tim of hap­pen­stance.

And though the event de­scribed is a quar­ter cen­tury old, Pullara sees the killing as a bell­wether for con­tem­po­rary ten­sions.

“When the So­viet Union col­lapsed, we will­ingly de­ceived our­selves about it be­ing the tri­umph of democ­racy and the vic­tory of cap­i­tal­ism over com­mu­nism,” he says. “We didn’t un­der­stand or ac­knowl­edge why the So­viet Union col­lapsed, and that the forces there con­tin­ued to ex­ist that filled a vac­uum. Fred­die’s mur­der in many ways was the first death in a new re­la­tion­ship. There was a new agree­ment be­tween the CIA and the KGB, and his death was the first vi­o­la­tion of that agree­ment. I think we’re just com­ing to grips with the fact that these forces ex­isted af­ter the col­lapse and still ex­ist. We didn’t need NATO and the CIA be­cause Rus­sia was a So­viet com­mu­nist state. We needed NATO and the CIA be­cause Rus­sia is Rus­sia. It was a re­birth, but not one of democ­racy. It was a re­birth of the Rus­sian em­pire.”

The United States doesn’t come out of the story cleanly ei­ther. Clearly, facts of Woodruff ’s death were known and buried.

“I can tell you how I’ve tried to re­solve that dis­so­nance in my own mind,” Pullara says. “I’ve learned these kinds of in­ter­na­tional prob­lems; what our gov­ern­ment does is lurch from one prob­lem to an­other prob­lem. And if you can put one prob­lem on the shelf and make it fin­ished, you don’t want to open that box again. Off the shelf, you don’t have con­trol of the prob­lem. On the shelf, you have con­trol. Even if res­o­lu­tion isn’t op­ti­mal, at least it’s done.”

So he forced a box off the shelf.

“I hope if peo­ple come away with any­thing it’s that this lit­tle story tells one or two peo­ple that you have enor­mous free­dom and op­por­tu­nity and re­sources, and with that you can change things,” he says. “What can a cu­ri­ous guy do? The sky’s the limit. You can change some­thing.”

Time Life Pic­tures | De­part­ment of State | The LIFE Pic­ture Col­lec­tion | Getty Im­ages

CIA agent Fred­die Woodruff was shot to death in 1993 in the for­mer So­viet repub­lic of Ge­or­gia, just as the Cold War was end­ing.

Michael When: 7 Pullara p.m. Tues­day dis­cusses and signs Where: Blue Wil­low Book Shop, 14532 Memo­rial De­tails: free, $28 for the book; 281497-8675, bluewil­low­book­shop.com ‘The Spy Who Was Left Be­hind’

Evin Thayer

Michael Pullara is a Hous­ton trial lawyer who in­ves­ti­gated the slay­ing of a CIA agent whom he knew in child­hood. Pullara wrote about the in­ves­ti­ga­tion in “The Spy Who Was Left Be­hind.”

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