Sunday, April 06, 2008

The Mind of Susie Dow

The Story

On October 9, 2003, Kirk von Ackermann left a meeting at FOB Pacesetter near Balad. His vehicle was found later that day abandoned in the Jabal Hamrin mountains roughly 140 miles from FOB Pacesetter.

A little over two months later, on December 14, 2003, Ryan Manelick was killed just after leaving a meeting at Camp Anaconda also near Balad. Shortly before his murder, he alleged fraud within his company and that it involved US Army officers.

Both men worked for Ultra Services of Istanbul, Turkey.

That's the short version of the story.

Ultra Services of Istanbul, Turkey

The founder of Ultra Services of Istanbul, Turkey was an American with a flair for the dramatic named John Dawkins. Dawkins was a chameleon with an uncanny ability to land on his feet no matter the difficulty. In business, he liked to describe himself as an 'idea person.' He was charming, brilliant and creative, but equally difficult, exasperating and aloof. Great fun as a loyal friend, frustrating as an uncommunicative business partner who didn't like to get bogged down in small details. He had a tendency to promise too much and get in over his head. Grandiose ideas also meant he got interesting projects off the ground quickly. John Dawkins had absolutely no fear of stepping into the unknown.

Following the attacks on the World Trade Center, the US invaded Afghanistan in October of 2001. Sensing opportunity, John Dawkins partnered with an American by the name of Glen Lockwood whom he'd first met in Russia. They approached the US Army offering to set up an Internet cafe for American soldiers. The cafe would be built by local suppliers from Uzbekistan using pre-fabricated shipping containers. However, when the time came to complete the contract, the US Army no longer needed Internet services but they were in need of pre-fabricated buildings. The company was called Stratex Freedom Services.

By early 2003, anticipating an invasion of Iraq, John Dawkins sought to recreate the success of Stratex Freedom Services. With the assistance of Stratex' Chief Financial Officer, Geoff Nordloh, Dawkins created a new company, Ultra Services, this time pairing with a local Turkish partner, Mete Mutluoglu.

Mutluoglu was the owner of Microserve in Istanbul, Turkey. Microserve agreed to change its name to Ultra Services for a 50–50 split in ownership: 50% of the shares would be owned by Stratex Freedom Services LLC through a $50,000 investment; 50% of the shares would be owned by Mutluoglu.

For putting the company together, John Dawkins would be granted a 50% share through Stratex Freedom Services LLC in exchange for contributing his own “sweat equity” by being in Iraq. This arrangement would give Dawkins a 25% share in Ultra Services.

Two men from Turkey would also join the company as employee managers, Bora Tuncay and Egeman Çakmak. Geoff Nordloh remained back in Central Asia with Stratex Freedom Services.

Business quickly picked up in Iraq. One of the first Americans to join the company was Ryan Manelick, the son of a close personal friend of Dawkins, Greg Manelick, a retired US military officer whom Dawkins knew from Russia. Meanwhile, Geoff Nordloh had heard from former Stanford Business School classmate, Albert "Charles" Phillips who read about Nordloh in Stanford’s Alumni notes. After several phone calls, Phillips joined the company.

Initially Phillips was supposed to work out of the Baghdad office and Manelick was supposed to supervise the manufacturers and suppliers in Turkey. But as Manelick spoke some Arabic, he was instead sent to Baghdad. Charles Phillips would eventually become the main point of contact between the Stratex investors and Ultra Services.

Prior to arriving in Istanbul, Charles Phillips had worked for a software company in California where he had met former Air Force Captain Kirk von Ackermann. Von Ackermann had experience working in combat zones, having been assigned to NATO intelligence operations in Kosovo. Through contact with Phillips while he was in Istanbul, von Ackermann would eventually join Ultra Services, traveling between Turkey and Iraq.

As Ultra Services’ workload grew, Phillips was increasingly sending up alarms about Dawkins to Nordloh. He accused Dawkins of being disorganized and endangering people in Iraq. At one point Phillips reported Dawkins had driven up too quickly to a military gate, resulting in the car being fired upon. Phillips made it clear to Nordloh that he felt Dawkins was a risk. He also claimed to be nervous that Dawkins might withhold payments to Turkish suppliers.

Phillips had also developed a network of relationships with the local Turkish suppliers and vendors. He spoke with Nordloh and proposed creating a new company -- without John Dawkins. On October 2, 2003, the domain name was registered. On October 7th, Charles Phillips sent an email to Geoff Nordloh with the subject: Corporate Structure,Phillips provided a detailed outline of the new company and its future. On October 22, 2003, Irex Ltd. was registered in Bermuda.

Irex Ltd. already had its first product in development: a demountable armoured guard shack designed by Kirk von Ackermann. Manufacturers and suppliers were rapidly lining up to get in on the ground floor of the new venture. New investors were showing interest. Every one could clearly see that the simplicity of the guard shack design had the potential to propel a new small unknown company on to the international stage, well beyond Iraq.

It was in this environment that Kirk von Ackermann prepared to visit Iraq for the third time.

"Fools go where angels fear to tread."

Kirk von Ackermann actually had a lot in common with John Dawkins. They were close in age. Both were married with children. Both could call California home: Dawkins had graduated from University of California in 1989; von Ackermann's wife and children lived in Moss Beach. Both men spoke Russian. Both men enjoyed sports: Dawkins loved to play soccer; back in the States, von Ackermann coached his son's soccer team. Both men were outgoing and friendly. And both now worked to secure contracts with the US military for Ultra Services.

But where Kirk von Ackermann was organized, John Dawkins was scattered. Dawkins was constantly reinventing himself. His international zig-zag of partnerships over the years was too indicative of a nomadic wanderer, someone who got bored too easily. Dawkins resume was filled with company shake ups that had shown him the door. The response was always the same, Dawkins seized sudden change as an opportunity to discover new horizons with new revenue streams.

Once again, by October of 2003, John Dawkins had made too many enemies, this time through Ultra Services. And once again, a sizable amount of money was at sake. The employees, suppliers, manufacturers, and subcontractors all saw the enormous potential for a business future without John Dawkins who was now seen as standing in the way of both progress and profit.

If only John Dawkins would just go away...

Some one may have decided to give fate a hand.

Kirk von Ackermann

Kirk von Ackermann told his wife, Megan, he had found his calling assisting the US military in rebuilding war torn areas. He loved the work and was ready to enter a new phase in life. They made the decision to move their entire family to Turkey. But Kirk von Ackermann had one last trip to make before he could return home to help pack up and move the household.

Traveling back and forth between Turkey and Iraq, von Ackermann needed a good reliable vehicle. He found and purchased a used Nissan Patrol SUV, a model known for its 40-year track record of hard work with the United Nations. At the time von Ackermann paid for the vehicle, the sellers told him one of the tires had a problem. Von Ackermann told the sellers the tire wasn't an issue. And it wasn't. He could easily handle a bad tire. Even though he had been a linguist while in the US Army, von Ackermann had often been assigned to vehicle maintenance. He liked working on vehicles. As a teenager, he'd souped up a vintage car, even installing a nitro boost. Von Ackermann could easily handle a small problem like a bad tire.

October 9, 2003

Kirk von Ackermann attended a meeting with an employee of one of Ultra Services Turkish suppliers at FOB Pacesetter, a small, isolated and primitive base located at an air strip just north of Balad, Iraq. After the meeting, the employee, Çuneyt Demirici, said good bye to Kirk von Ackermann, got in his car and headed south to return to his home in Baghdad. Demirici's good bye would prove to be the last publicly known sighting of Kirk von Ackermann before he disappeared.

This Could Have Happened

From this point forward in this story, almost everything is my conjecture.

Motor Pool

Because of his experience repairing vehicles in the US Army, Kirk von Ackermann knew the kind of language that would get him access into the repair shop on a military base. He could set up over to the side, keep out of every one's way, borrow a lift and some tools, most especially an impact wrench to get the lug nuts off, and get down to business. If he ran late, he could stay on base. The tire still looked ok, but better it was taken care of before it became a problem.

Just 25 miles from FOB Pacesetter was Camp Anaconda, later renamed LSA Anaconda.

LSA Anaconda is the primary logistics support base in Iraq. Located near the town of Balad, just north of Baghdad, it is spread over 15 square miles. The base is home to approximately 25,000 Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and civilians. The base has two runways and is the busiest airport in Iraq. LSA Anaconda directly supports all surrounding forward operating bases with personnel, equipment, and logistics support. (ref)
In 2008, LSA Anaconda was reported as 'the busiest air base in the world operated by the Pentagon' and 'the second busiest airport in the world.' (ref) Camp Anaconda was the distribution point for parts and service for all wheeled US military vehicles in Iraq including salvage. By 2006, maintenance dispatches were done on approximately 1,100 vehicles each week. (ref)

Von Ackermann popped his head in to the motor pool at FOB Pacesetter and spoke with the mechanic. He explained the situation and said he really wanted to head over to Anaconda in case he uncovered a bigger problem than expected. The Pacesetter mechanic made a call and told von Ackermann that his buddy over at the Anaconda motor pool knew to expect him and would get him hooked up.

Next time the Pacesetter mechanic spoke to his buddy at Anaconda, he asked how it went with the contractor. He was surprised to hear the contractor never showed up.

Camp Anaconda

Von Ackermann entered the air base through the North Gate. On his way to the motor pool, he made a last minute decision to stop and visit a project that Ultra Services had under way on base.

Several days before, word had come down that the founder of Ultra Services of Istanbul, Turkey needed to disappear. There were a number of reasons given, all of which convinced two men in fatigues* that the guy, an American civilian contractor, deserved what he had coming. Instructions were clear: make it look like nothing more than the collateral damage of working in a war zone. The men in fatigues were warned the task might prove a bit difficult because the American usually traveled with an Iraqi body guard. Some one would be back in touch with more details and hopefully a schedule of the contractor's movements. The men in fatigues had a few days to kick around some ideas, how to get rid of the body and what to do with the car. They waited for a 'thumbs up' to proceed when an opportunity suddenly appeared to present itself.

Just in from the company headquarters in Istanbul, Turkey, Kirk von Ackermann walked into the small office alone. His colleague, Ryan Manelick, was out, affording von Ackermann an opportunity for a friendly chat with two men dressed in fatigues. They chatted about Iraq, work, Istanbul, their kids, and one of those quirky discoveries of a shared passion for all things Russian. The two men in fatigues agreed to run von Ackermann across the base over to the project Manelick was supervising.

'It's not far,' they said, offering to take him in their vehicle, 'Jump in front.'

Within 30 minutes, Kirk von Ackermann was dead. He never saw what hit him.

Getting rid of the body was the surprisingly easy part. The two men in fatigues wrapped it up in a tarp and unceremoniously dropped it in to a container with some construction debris headed for the dump, then an open pit burn pile located in one corner of the base. Since Camp Anaconda hadn't quite worked out how to deal with solid waste, the US Army had little choice but to burn everything - including 'poop' - operating the 24-hour burn pile, 365 days a year. Between the eye-burning acrid smoke and the horrific stench that could permeate clothes, all anyone ever wanted to do was get in, dump their load of waste, and get out. Within an hour of dumping von Ackermann's body, more loads of solid waste covered his burning remains.

No one outside of a small elite defense task force really knew the full truth of Kirk von Ackermann's former work defending the United States of America from the asymmetric threats of modern terrorism. Kirk von Ackermann had -- in fact -- saved lives. Lying at the bottom of a burning rubbish heap was an ignoble end for an American Hero who should have been immortalized in history books.

Jabal Hamrin (Reddish Mountain)

The two men in fatigues returned to the office and picked up von Ackermann's car. They borrowed a patrol vehicle and driving one behind the other, headed out the South Gate for Highway 1, where the two vehicles turned north to Tikrit. From Tikrit, they turned east to pick up an isolated road to Kirkuk that ran through a low range of mountains known as the Jabal Hamrin. Their plan was to park the Nissan Patrol SUV near a neighborhood in Kirkuk where they were told the company maintained an office of sorts. They'd leave one door open and let the contents of the car slowly distribute themselves through out Kirkuk. No one would ever suspect the body was back in Balad. But half way through the mountainous area of the Jabal Hamrin, one of the tires on the Nissan Patrol blew out stranding the vehicle right in the middle of the most desolate section of road.

While the two vehicles were making their way to Kirkuk, Kirk von Ackermann's satellite phone rang several times. The phone now provided the perfect cover story. As satellite phones were well-known for spotty reception, the two men were certain they could get away with pretending to be the actual owner of the phone as long as they kept the conversation short. One of the men in fatigues dialed a number he recognized as a local cell phone. He was in luck. Safa Shukir, with caller id on his cell phone, picked up the call and answered with a thick Iraqi accent, 'Hi Kirk.' An Iraqi was least likely to discover the ruse.
'Can you hear me? I can barely hear you.'
'Yes, Kirk, I hear you.'
'I've got a flat tire.'
'My. Car. I. Have. A. Flat. Tire. I'm on the road between Tikrit and Kirkuk. In the Jabal Hamrin. I've got a flat tire. In the hills. Can you come get me?'
'Yes. I come get you. But I am here in Kirkuk.'
'Come as quick as you can. And bring a jack. Mine doesn't work.'
'Yes, Kirk. I come now.'
'Thanks. See you soon. Bye.'
The day was getting late. Sunset was coming and evening curfews were still in effect. In general, it was a good idea to be off the road by nightfall. As Safa Shukir raced towards the area where he believed Kirk von Ackermann was stranded, he repeatedly tried calling von Ackermann's satellite phone. But no one answered any of his calls.

Only a few miles down the road from where von Ackermann's Nissan Patrol sat stranded, the US military maintained a temporary check point. Minutes after an outgoing call was logged with von Ackermann's satellite service, two men dressed in fatigues drove up to the check point, leaned out the window and told the soldier on duty that they'd just passed an abandoned vehicle and that it was just a couple miles down the road. They offered the helpful suggestion that the soldier might want to send someone to check it out. The two men in fatigues were in a hurry to get to Kirkuk, otherwise they'd stick around.

A few days after October 9, word came down to the two men in fatigues that their assignment to make John Dawkins disappear was on hold. One of the Americans had mysteriously disappeared and the military was now poking around and asking questions. Most likely a kidnapping but no ransom note yet. Under the circumstances, it was probably a good idea just to wait until things settled down.

It didn't take long for the two men in fatigues to quickly figure out that they killed the wrong guy. Lucky for them, no one else knew. Or, at least, that's what they hoped.

Ryan Manelick

Ryan Manelick told his friend, Colin Freeman, about the strange disappearance of Kirk von Ackermann. 'It was as if he had been abducted by aliens,' Manelick told Freeman (ref). Freeman was a freelance journalist from the UK who sometimes stayed at the same hotel in Baghdad as Manelick. They'd become friends. On November 9, 2003 Colin Freeman published the first extensive article on the disappearance of Kirk von Ackermann in the UK Telegraph, appearing two days later in the San Francisco Chronicle under a slightly different title, 'Bay Area Civilian Vanishes in Iraq.' The article contained absolutely no indication of the internal company strife raging at Ultra Services.

Within a week, on November 16, Ryan Manelick wrote to his father that he and Charles Phillips had severed relations with John Dawkins. Phillips brought in Manelick to replace Kirk von Ackermann. Manelick was joining Irex Ltd. as their new point person in Iraq.

Emotions were running high after Kirk's disappearance. And unknown to some of the Ultra Services employees, internal company emails had long been monitored, read, and some times forwarded to unknown recipients. As accusations and speculation about Kirk von Ackermann's disappearance flew through the company email server, the rapid fire flow of information created a feed back loop that severely distorted facts. A hypothesis posed in one email was repeated as fact within the office gossip circle that was then emailed to someone else where it was once again repeated. The cycle grew into a giant ponzi scheme until no one knew the difference between fact, fiction or hearsay. It didn't take long for paranoia to settle in.

On December 8, Charles Phillips, Bora Tuncay and their driver traveled from Turkey to meet with Ryan Manelick and tour Iraq with an eye towards the future for Irex ltd. They visited several US military bases, finishing off the tour with a meeting at Camp Anaconda on December 14. (ref)

Ryan Manelick was convinced John Dawkins had had a hand in the disappearance of Kirk von Ackermann. He said he knew what happened to von Ackermann, that it involved Dawkins, fraud, and US Army officers and that he was going to talk to Army investigators. On the evening of December 13, Manelick told his friend Colin Freeman he was in fear for his life.

The two men in fatigues caught wind of Manelick's accusations. They both liked Manelick. They'd tried to play up the insurgent card but he wouldn't bite. Manelick had them backed into a corner. He just wouldn't shut up. Sooner or later, someone would look in their direction. It was just business. Nothing personal. He really wasn't leaving them much choice.

The two men in fatigues decided on a drive-by shooting. Such shootings were becoming more common and no one would think much of it. They could care less about the Iraqis traveling with him that day. They borrowed a white SUV and pre-positioned the vehicle to leave the base just ahead of Manelick. Once on the road, all they had to do was wait for Manelick to pass. They put on some head scarves and tunics to look like local Iraqis, and when the time came, pulled up along side the vehicle and opened fire.

At the first sound of gun fire, Ryan Manelick grabbed his satellite phone and dialed Charles Phillips. For a brief moment, he thought he recognized his assailants but it was too late. The minor delay in satellite service didn't allow Phillips to answer in time for Manelick to tell him what was happening. One of the Iraqis in the car grabbed the phone and started shouting frantically in Arabic but it was no use.

Ryan Manelick was dead and the nice white Land Cruiser that had pulled up along side them and opened fire was long gone.


Quite simply - prove me wrong.

Interview the dozens and dozens of mechanics who were working through out the Balad area on October 9, 2003. Talk to both the civilian and military mechanics. Talk to the helicopter and air transport mechanics. Talk to every single living being who was within ten feet of a lug wrench that day. Check the base entry and exit records. Talk to the men and women who worked in the hangars on FOB Pacesetter and make sure von Ackermann and his SUV didn't a hitch a ride by air from Pacesetter to Anaconda. (Don't tell me that never happens. I know all about 'test flights.') Trace every movement, no matter how small. Find out where Kirk von Ackermann went and who he contacted about his tire.

Talk to the 'passing patrol' and the soldiers at the check point. Again. Check their back grounds. Again. Check their assignments. Again. Where were they supposed to be that day? What vehicles were they supposed to be driving? Were they running late? Were they running too early? Confirm every detail no matter how small. Don't assume that just because they're US military personnel they are immune from a complete and thorough investigation, all the way back to their childhoods.

Talk to the good folks in Defense Logistics about solid waste disposal at Camp Anaconda. Yes, it's four years later but could anything have survived? Von Ackermann had shoulder surgery - did he have a titanium joint? Could it have survived? What about teeth?

Prove me wrong. Dammit. Prove me wrong.

*two men in fatigues - at least one is a man who spoke American, the second person could be a woman but for brevity is described above as a second man.

Additional Reading

Bay Area civilian vanishes in Iraq
by Colin Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle, November 11, 2003

Suspicion surrounds missing Bay Area man
by Colin Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle, February 13, 2005

One Missing, One Dead: An Iraq Contractor in the Fog of War
by Susie Dow with Steven Reich, ePluribus Media, May 15, 2006

Death of a Contractor: Greed and Murder in Iraq's Lawless Desert
By Dan Halpern, Rolling Stone, March 8, 2007, Issue 1021
pp 70-74, 76-69 (print version includes photos)

Missing in Iraq (see March - August 2006)
by Megan von Ackermann

The Missing Man
by Susie Dow

Previous related posts

Into A Dark Place
April 6, 2008

The Bridge Theory
March 25, 2008

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