Tenacity uncovers truth behind spy’s killing
Houston lawyer’s examination of Cold War murder yields book
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.”
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’
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.”